|Seminal, influential, usually (although not strictly accurately) referred to as Todd Rundgren's first band, the Nazz were always a lot more than just another American mod band copying their British counterparts. They released three albums and a handful of singles in the period 1968 to '71, the second LP of which ('Nazz Nazz') is arguably the best although a strong case can also be made for their debut album, 'Nazz' (album names were not the band's strong suit. Their third, a posthumous collection of demos and outtakes, was inspirationally entitled 'Nazz III') which contained the nearest thing they had to a hit single in the shape of the Who-influenced 'Open My Eyes' as well as a Hendrixy piece called 'She's Going Down'.|
Few people have bothered interviewing vocalist and pianist 'Stewkey' of the Nazz down the years, so we thought it was time to set the record straight. Ken Sharp asks the questions; hold on to your seats because this comes close to becoming a very rocky ride.
Firstly, how did you come to join The Nazz?
Well, I met Todd (Rundgren) and Carson (Van Osten) in Philadelphia in 1967 while I was playing in a band called Elizabeth [who later went on to release an uninspiring LP of the same name on Vanguard]. Todd, Carson and Thom (Mooney) walked up to me and asked if I wanted to join a band. They explained what type of music they wanted to join — basically Who orientated, that type of thing. I've always been a rock & roller. Elizabeth was a very light, folky band so I said yes, and joined the band.
Was it Todd's band originally then?
Yeah, he had known Carson for years, he was an art student, and he'd got Thom from another band. Basically the concept was that we were all going to be mates, like an English band: being mates and striving for perfection and acceptance. We all lived in a room the size of this one... what, twenty by thirteen? It was Carson's basement apartment on thirteenth street, between Pine and Spruce, and we all slept on cots.
Were you known as Stewkey then? Where exactly did that name come from?
I'll tell ya. I was playing in a band in Newport, Rhode Island when I was thirteen called Mods. Mods & Rockers were happening in England right then. The first album I bought was 'My Generation' by The Who. I was the only one in my neighbourhood who liked it and I was abused because of what I was and what I wanted to be, but that's beside the point. You always have to go through that crap. Newport was a very rich area and I was just a navy kid. So, we used to play in a club called the M.K. Cafe where we were the house band, and we had this idea that we all wanted stage names — we were just kids — we were goofy! One guy picked 'Tatum' and one guy picked 'SeeSaw' and I didn't know what to do. My real name is Robert Edward Joseph Antoni. I had no clue about what to do. Anyway, I used to listen to Beatles 45s on this little record player in my bedroom, it had about a three inch speaker and I'd listen to them over and over again. So I took Ringo Starr's real surname, which is Starkey, and changed two letters in the middle to make it Stewkey — and it stuck! The only people who don't call me Stewkey are maybe Kathleen and my father, they're about the only relatives I have alive who know me as Robert.
Back to The Nazz, how long after you joined the band did the group go out and start performing live?
Once we'd got together we'd go out and start playing these small coffee houses that were in Philadelphia. There wasn't that many places to play and there were a lot of covers bands, so we'd walk in and play and we'd be on for maybe half an hour and the owner would throw us out. We were too loud, we didn't play what they wanted us to play... we were playing some Who stuff, some Yardbirds stuff and some of our own stuff. Then there was this club called Trauma. The Trauma was a psychedelic place, they had the mirror balls and all the lights and liquid tie-dye stuff on the walls, and that was the only place a band like us were able to play. Eventually it evolved into 'The Electric Factory'. There was that and the 'Be-Ins' that used to be held in Fairmont Park. Before the band hooked up with John Curland we were being promoted by two guys who ran a record store in Chestnut Street, they were actually helping us and letting us rehearse in their warehouse space which was large; must've been half a block long. That's where we got the opportunity to open for the Doors.
What was it like opening for the Doors? Did you get to meet them?
I can't remember if I met Jim Morrison or not... the only thing I remember about it was that it seemed he was on a mission, he wanted everybody to know that he was estranged from reality! We had a good time, we dressed in dark maroon wool suits with pinstripes! The people who were running the record store said that we should be more polished. The suits looked like what the Kinks were wearing at the time, with those fluffy shirts with frilled cuffs at the end and the great big ties at the front. In the middle of summertime! We just played our stuff though. We were a very good live band.
The liner notes on the back of 'The Best Of The Nazz' album refer to that, saying "no matter how good The Nazz were on record, they were ten times better live..."
Yeah, we were a very, very good live band. But see, 20/20 hindsight is great. When John Curland moved us to New York we were all very eager to go, we figured that was the next step. But Curland became a little too intense. He was a very nice man, but his wife was the person who in my opinion kept him in tow and she died not long after we hooked up with him. He started trying to make us something that we weren't. He was trying to project that we were entitled to the kind of treatment that you would give to the Beatles, he didn't want to take anything but the best for us and in the end it killed the band. There was a period of eight months where we never played live. In the entire time the band was in New York with that organisation, I bet you we never played live ten times! I think he was an egomaniac, and once his wife died he totally lost control.
How about when you first found out you'd been signed by a record label — was that a dream come true?
Oh yeah. We wanted a recording contract more than anything. And we weren't disenchanted by not playing live yet because we were caught up in the swing of being in New York and being able to put our music on vinyl. That first album was basically recorded live. We recorded it in a couple of places; we went to Los Angeles and then we had a producer, I really don't remember his name [Michael Friedman], but we came back to New York and re-mixed it.
Why? What was it missing?
We weren't Bobby Rydell! We weren't that type of artist, but that's the type of producer that Screen Gems/Columbia assigned to us. He really had no idea. No clue as to where we were coming from.
Did you think of yourselves as more of an underground group?
We thought we were what everybody wanted, but for some reason they didn't get it yet. No-one got it as yet.
The cover was very similar to 'Meet The Beatles', was that the band's intention or was it Curland's idea?
That was a promotional idea — I didn't mind. That colour fade thing, the half black and white and half colour deal, I didn't mind that at all.
Where was the inner sleeve photo taken?
Great Neck, New York. Carson designed the logo.
Todd Rundgren has turned into a pretty decent keyboard player, but the player on the first Nazz LP was yourself. What was your keyboards background and do you still play?
My keyboard experience is from my mother. 'If That's The Way You Feel' was probably one of the hardest things to get right. Todd wrote it and I wanted to play it and I played it straight with no overdubs. I was actually a better organ player than I was a piano player.
You played organ on 'Open My Eyes'?
I was playing a Hammond B-3. I love that! I still play, but not that much and all I have is a piano.
All the sounds on 'Open My Eyes' are like the ultimate Nazz sounds, that searing guitar, the phasing, the psychedelic solo and the great vocal; what do you recall about recording that?
Todd wrote that — it's very Who-ish, especially the opening. It's always compared to 'I Can't Explain'. I know it was done live because we were so used to playing it. The video was shot in Laurel Canyon, California, outside of Los Angeles. Yeah, I've seen the tape, around last summer I guess. My kids would like to see it.
Was it a big audience favourite, at least on the rare times you played live?
To be honest with you, nothing was ever a live favourite. If the band got together again now and went out and played all those songs that people over the last twenty five years have fallen in love with we'd get great responses, but back then no-one knew who the hell we were. We didn't play live!
Why didn't Curland let you tour to promote the album?
Because he wanted to ride in limousines and have people back us up rather than have us back anybody else up.
What do you remember about 'Hello, It's Me', and what do you think of Todd's re-recorded version?
Well, that was the first or second original song that Todd wrote, and I guess in the beginning before we actually got into the feeling of the song we all thought it was kind of out of character. But, once it was completed we all fell in love with it. I never thought it was a compromise by Todd for us to become more accepted, but maybe it was. I don't know what Todd's psyche was. My honest opinion of Todd's version? I didn't like it. It was done well recording-wise and everything, but there's one thing about all of Todd's music that I have a problem with, and that is that Todd never really could sing. Nobody thought I sang any of that stuff.
When people heard the Nazz, they thought it was Todd singing?
Yeah! On recordings they did. People who knew Todd knew he couldn't sing.
I always thought Todd was the singer, because he was the most famous member, but the voice is very similar in style...
Well, it's my style that he uses today.
Although Todd wrote a lot of the stuff on the album, one of my favourite songs on the LP was 'Crowded' which you co-wrote...
Yeah, that was pretty close to the sinking of the ship. It's really hard to determine how we were feeling at that point, only because we had been in a position of not playing live for so long that I was getting nuts and I'm sure everybody else was too. We weren't doing what we did best, we were just sitting around getting on each other's nerves. I guess we were too young and intimidated to make a stand and walk off. All four of us at that point, if we'd had any balls we could've walked out and found somebody else that would've helped us to do what we wanted to do, but it got to the point where when we left New York we were totally estranged from each other.
So the rot set in before you guys recorded the first album?
We had a focus, we knew how to play the music, we knew what the goal was (to put an album out) — we did our job. It wasn't a happy band to be in at that point. It wasn't the goal we had set ourselves when we were sitting in our basement apartment on 13th Street. All of us admired the camaraderie of an English band, that's what we listened to and that's what we aspired to be, and when we got to New York we were all separated. Todd didn't care. I don't think Todd cared after a while about playing live.
Do you feel that during the Nazz he already wanted to move on?
Oh yeah, I think so. I think Todd knew what he wanted to do a long time before.
Who came up with most of the creative ideas in the band, was it Todd or was it a collective thing?
Todd was very good at that. It was his music, he had an idea of what he wanted to do and he was very involved in the recording aspect.
When the first album came out, you guys were already over in London and about ready to work on the second album which was to be called 'Fungobat'?
'Fungobat' was a song that Carson invented. You know what a fungobat is? It's a long thin bat that a coach would use to hit fly balls to pro baseball players. We would just get goofy to fill time up and have fun...
In the end the second album was called 'Nazz Nazz', a pretty inventive title! The band seemed to be experimenting a lot; things like 'Letters Don't Count' with that "glass harmonica" thing.
It's not really a glass harmonica, it was like glasses filled with water... I guess it was a glass harmonica! We all played that part. We were actually in the studios in London for about two hours. We walked in and were told to leave — we were blackballed. At that time, American musicians weren't allowed to go over there, because they had just thrown George Harrison out of a studio in Los Angeles.
Because he was an English musician, and the American musicians union didn't want him taking up union time from American union musicians. Todd wanted to record over there, I guess we all did really, and of course going over to England would've given us some credibility as well. We were supposed to go over there as singers and not musicians, and one of the brilliant moves that John Curland did was to have us all carry guitars as we got off the 'plane. Just like that Beatles shot when they came off the airplane, walking down the ramp carrying their guitars. Well, that's what we did, it was in the papers and the union saw it and told any English musician that played on our album would never play on another English album. So we actually got thrown out of England, and we went back and recorded it in Los Angeles.
The record was supposed to be a double album.
Right, Thom Mooney and I fought that because we didn't think we were popular enough to be able to command a double album release. It was just too pretentious to think that someone would buy a double album of our stuff — and some of it was stuff we didn't like, because Todd at that point was getting into a 'Laura Nyro' style. He stopped playing guitar and started playing piano. He was in love with her. It made me sick! I didn't like the material at all. Laura Nyro was NOT The Nazz.
Is it correct that you actually re-recorded Todd's vocals for the third album, by which time he was out of the band?
Ummm no, I think Todd was still involved. I don't think the management liked the way Todd sang, but Todd wanted it to be that way so they wanted me to re-record the songs. And I hated them.
Which of the Nazz albums do you feel closest to, the first, the second or the third?
I'm attached to a lot of the material, but I would say that the first album was what the band was really about — the concept of it — it was a live album, and that was our forte. The second album was just a little bit polished, although some of the material I just can't get away from. Some of the material I just love. 'Forget All About It', 'Under The Ice', 'Gonna Cry Today' we played live — those songs were written right after the first album where there was a continuation, the other ones we never played live at all.
Some of the ballads you sang were beautiful — 'Gonna Cry Today', 'Letters Don't Count' — your soft voice was as good as your real rocking voice.
It's just something that was in my background. I loved to kiss ass, but I also loved to lay back and sing pretty. It just made me feel good, and I've always loved to listen to those songs.
Are there any songs that went unrecorded?
Not really. I have a some things, some funny things on reel-to-reel.
How long did the band stay together after Todd left to pursue a solo career?
I can remember having a meeting in Carson's apartment on 17th Street, all four of us got together and Todd and Carson said they were leaving. Thom and I got together with two other people, Greg Simpler (guitar) and Craig Bowlan (bass) for about eight months to a year. We played for the majority of the time in Texas.
You sing on a couple of demos on a bootleg of Sick Man of Europe, how did that come about?
Well, I was living in Houston at the time. Somehow Rick Neilson and Tom Peterson found Thom Mooney and asked him if he wanted to play in a band. They were looking for a singer and called me up in Houston and asked if I wanted to come to Chicago. I said sure, I wasn't doing anything. They were called Fuse at the time and had already put out an album (for Epic Records). We hooked up and were playing out in Illinois, and I convinced them to come back to Philadelphia. We were in Philly for a year or so. We all worked at Artemus, a night-club. Tom was a waiter, I was a cook, Thom waitered and Bun ate!
So Thom left the band and Bun E. was the drummer, meaning the band was basically Cheap Trick with you as a singer?
Yeah! We tried to play as much as we possibly could live. I was fired from Cheap Trick because I wasn't pretty enough. The name 'Sick Man Of Europe' wasn't very popular, but that was our reason for keeping it. At that time, in 1972/3, it was still the same as when The Nazz was in Philadelphia. There was no place to play, people didn't understand you — nothing really changed until later on. I enjoyed some of Cheap Trick's stuff — Robin Zander had a good voice. In my opinion though the band lost its focus overall. I don't know what they're doing now, but they're probably still trying to put themselves back together. They were fun guys to play for. Rick was always a wacky person — always real intense and highly strung. I don't think Rick ever had any hair. He could grow hair from his earlobes down, and that's about it. That's why he wore a hat.
Did you play any Nazz songs in that period?
I dunno, I really can't remember. We did covers and we did as many originals as we possibly could. I just sang.
Finally, you wanted to say something about Todd...
Yeah. It was uncalled of for him to demean my character in print in Rolling Stone. I can't quote the statement, all I can say is that he had something derogatory to say about my character which was unjustified, in my opinion, and it would be nice if he would make a retraction. Because I believe that it hurt my character and maybe it hurt my career back when it happened, which was a long time ago. I mean, you don't call someone a junkie in print without knowing any of the facts.
Stewkey was interviewed by Ken Sharp. A Ptolemaic Terrascope Production, brought to you by McMuff in association with Dave Brown and the Pescott Acme Tape Transcription Service, Ink.
© Ptolemaic Terrascope, March 1995