© Dave Ling - June 2004 - previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
“I remember the exact date that we turned full-time,” reminisces Nazareth bassist Pete Agnew. “It was the first of July 1971 and our manager told us, ‘Turn pro, and I’ll pay you the same salary as you’re earning now’. We were all married at the time, so although it wasn’t much money it made things a lot easier for us to get really started.”
“But we took some persuading,” confides vocalist Dan McCafferty with a grin. “We had already a few regular gigs and were making some nice spondoolah on top of the day-jobs. We decided we’d give it a year; if it didn’t work out then we could all just go back to work. And it’s something we do to this very day – every first of July, either Pete or I rings the other and says, ‘D’ya fancy giving it another 12 months?’”
Classic Rock is at the Pitfirrane Hotel in Fife to hear the story of an extraordinary band. Nazareth have triumphed against all the odds, experiencing glory and tragedy along the way, continuing to tour to the present day. Like the Pitfirrane Hotel itself – which even extends an offer of loyalty cards to its regulars – the group have patently seen better days and were never really too glamorous in the first place. But there’s something reassuring about the continued existence of these old warhorses. We’ve always known where we stand with good ol’ Nazareth, who in pure entertainment terms have rarely let us down. Daniel McCafferty and Peter Agnew actually met on their very first day at school, aged five. Asked to share a double-desk together they’ve been best friends ever since. For the overwhelming majority of that time they’ve also liked the same music and been in bands together.
“We were just like Deep Purple, only with choruses.”
“I can’t even remember not knowing Dan,” Agnew smiles. “I’m 57 now, so that first meeting was more than 50 years ago. It’s a bit like being a married couple; if one of us is late to the restaurant, each can order exactly what the other would like to eat.”
“When we first started getting into music, we both thought most of what was going on was absolute pants,” agrees McCafferty. “So instead we picked up on black music, people like Sam & Dave and Otis Redding.” From the beginning, the pair’s own ambitions were thwarted by the geography of their birth. The music industry couldn’t have cared any less for bands from north of the border. In 1967, when Agnew joined his first group of note, the Shadettes, the promoters and ballroom managers insisted that they learn three new chart hits each week in the vein of the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s ‘Simple Simon Says’.
The Shadettes also featured Darrell Sweet: “He was only 16 and played drums in a pipe band, but he used to turn up at our gigs in a kilt – sometimes slightly the worse for wear,” recollects Pete. “We’d sometimes get Darrell up on stage with us and he ended up joining.”
Till McCafferty arrived a year later, Agnew had been one of the band’s two vocalists. Dan became a Shadette under fairly similar circumstances to the way that Bon Scott would later join AC/DC. “I was the band’s roadie,” he confirms. “When one of their singers decided he was leaving on the day of a gig the boys decided to give me a try. They’d heard me singing in the van, but it was a case of straight in and with no rehearsal. The yellow suit of Des, the guy who’d left, almost fitted me.”
“When everybody came in after the opening chords of ‘High Heel Sneakers’ [originally by Tommy Tucker], Dan froze for what seemed like an hour but was probably only ten seconds because he’d never heard a band in full flight before,” smiles Pete. “But after that he took to it like a duck to water.”
McCafferty’s vocal trademark has always been his gruffness. He’s smoked for all his life, and Nazareth have cancelled a mere four shows in more than three decades of touring, but Dan has no real explanation for the abrasiveness or fortitude of his larynx. “The only thing I can think of is that I’m a blue-collar guy,” he offers. “If you think about it, Bon Scott and Brian Johnson [of AC/DC] had both worked hard all week; maybe like me they took all that aggression out onto the stage with them.”
The final piece of the jigsaw turned out to be Manuel Charlton, a guitarist that the band had known for many years, but whose appointment in 1968 spurred them to discard the straightjacketed Top 40 mentality of the ballrooms.
“When Manny joined, he was the first guy to suggest writing songs of our own,” explains Pete. “We’d never even thought of it till then, because they employed you as human jukebox. Then suddenly Zeppelin, Purple and Spooky Tooth started to appear, and a whole range of possibilities opened up.”
In 1968, the four-piece opted to call themselves Nazareth, taking their name from The Band’s song ‘The Weight’ (‘I pulled into Nazareth feeling ’bout half past dead’). On occasion it has caused them to be mistaken for a religious band, and it certainly brought some hate mail at first but it was a memorable enough moniker. That they had a sound financial backer in the shape of bingo hall entrepreneur Bill Fehilly, the manager mentioned at the start of this feature, also helped.
Fehilly also represented the group that would become the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, paying for Nazareth to break the ice in London. Their first official gig outside of Scotland was at the Marquee in London, and Nazareth had their first publicity photographs taken at the Nell Gwynne topless bar in Wardour Street. “We still had straw sticking out of our ears,” remembers Pete, “but when the wives saw the shots with the strippers… man, the explanations we had to make.”
The band’s extensive gig schedule brought them to the attention of Pegasus Records, home of Atomic Rooster, who released a respectable debut album in late 1971. Featuring a cover of Tim Rose’s ‘Morning Dew’, ‘Nazareth’ caught on in Germany but wasn’t as successful at home. For the following year’s ‘Exercises’ album, Roy Thomas Baker (who would later work with Queen, Alice Cooper and Foreigner among many others) was promoted from engineer to producer. An early version of ‘Woke Up This Morning’ – a song that Nazareth revived for their next album – and the highland fling of ‘1692 (Glencoe Massacre)’ were the highlights of ‘Exercises’, but more than three decades later, the pair agree that it sounds lightweight and directionless.
“While we were recording the first album, Alex Harvey visited us in the studio,” comments Pete. “He realised that we were a bit unhappy and gave us some good advice – the engineers work for us, so we should be telling them what to do. But even with ‘Exercises’ we still had no idea what type of a band we wanted to be. Sales-wise, it was a disaster. Only my mother bought it.”
“We’d seen Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane which looked like Gaffer Tape Airlines…”
McCafferty and Agnew were despatched to a pub in London’s Fleet Street, then the hub of music journalism, to drum up some much-needed publicity. Whilst awaiting the journalist that would interview them they struck up a conversation with two other longhaired herberts.
“They asked us if we were in a band and when we said that we were had actually heard of Nazareth,” says Pete. “We asked them the same question, and were embarrassed to find that they were in Led Zeppelin. We were eating sausage and beans with none other than Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, but we’d never seen a picture of them.”
Interrupts Dan: “We’d actually met Robert Plant before. We lent him £15 for petrol when he was in the Band Of Joy and they played the YMCA in Kirkcaldy. We’d been the house band and they turned up from nowhere and asked if they could play for half an hour. We said, ‘Aye, we’re about to have a break’. You know what, we never got that £15 back.”
Nazareth’s own lack of image complicated things further. A mess of loon-pants, corkscrew curls, moustaches and beards, they had been furnished with £100 by their management and told to buy some glamorous stage clothes at London’s Kensington Market. Yet still they felt unable to fully embrace the glam explosion that was going on around them.
“Dan and I would spend about £90 on lager, and go home with a couple of T-shirts each,” chuckles Agnew. “It was hard walking about in seven-inch platform heels – we liked a game of football in those days. As soon as we could get rid of them, that’s what we did.”
The four-piece toured with Rory Gallagher and then Atomic Rooster, both experiences proving memorable. At one Atomic Rooster show when the headliners failed to turn up, few refunds were demanded when Nazareth closed the show. However, an early show opening for Gallagher in Nuremberg – ironically now one of the band’s strongholds – was less well received.
“Compared to Rory, we were dressed up like bloody Christmas trees,” guffaws Agnew. “The crowd were booing us even before we started. They absolutely hated us. A year later when we went back, they remembered us and were even throwing knuckle joints from some scaffolding at us. We still finished the show, in fact we did an extra couple of numbers just to piss them off!”
Years earlier Nazareth had alerted Scottish promoters to a new young band called Deep Purple, and there was payback when they were invited to accompany England’s newest superstars on jaunts to Europe and America. The two bands struck up a mutual appreciation, and in some cases close friendships. Indeed, the headliners’ guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was so impressed by McCafferty that he invited him to join Purple – making the offer in front of the rest of Nazareth. “The guys taught us so many important lessons,” enthuses Dan. “We’d be stuck in scum class on the planes and they’d come and sit with us, giving us the benefit of their experience. We were a band from nowhere and there was no need for them to be so generous, so it’s something we try to do with young bands now.”
Although Nazareth’s live following was growing, their management was becoming ever more tense. Besides regular wages, cash had been expended upon gear, living and touring expenses, a Mercedes van and the recording of two albums. Darrell Sweet would later admit: “The well had run dry; [the management] were pulling the plug and getting out of the music business. We needed a miracle.”
Nazareth were already playing most of the songs that appeared on their breakthrough album ‘Razamanaz’, and had considered approaching Pete Townshend of The Who or Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to produce it. Their dilemma was solved when Roger Glover offered his services. The bassist was just about to leave Deep Purple, but his fame was enough to quell Bill Fehilly’s worries.
“Roger said, ‘I’d really love to do this – this material could make a really great album’, and it made complete sense because we were a poppier version of Deep Purple at the time,” theorizes Pete. “We were just like them, only with choruses. It was obviously the right move, because Roger stayed with us for two more albums. He’s a workhorse, which was just what we needed. You’d finish recording, but before he let you go he’d make you rehearse the song you’d work on the next day. We sometimes objected, but it was a lesson well worth learning.”
To test the water, Nazareth and Glover worked on ‘Broken Down Angel’, a song initially written in a country and western-style format.
Given the full hard rock treatment, Fehilly gave the green light for an album. Issued in late 1973, ‘Razamanaz’ was everything that its predecessors were not. It was focussed, fiery and full of catchy, powerful tunes. Aside from ‘Broken Down Angel’, which gave the band their first Top 10 hit, its two finest moments were the raucous title track and the slide guitar boogie of ‘Bad Bad Boy’.
“We stole the riff to the song ‘Razamanaz’ from [Deep Purple’s] ‘Speed King’,” Agnew freely admits. “When ‘Broken Down Angel’ took off, it happened really quickly. At the start of our first headlining tour, with Robin Trower supporting, we played to about 300 folk. We pulled the car onto the hard shoulder when we heard it on the wireless – and I can’t believe I just called it the wireless, either! – for the first time. We did Top Of The Pops, and a week later a gig at Leas Cliff Hill in Folkestone was so rammed the fans were hanging from the ceiling.”
With its lyric of ‘I’ve got tastes for fast cars, I don’t wanna settle down/The good life sure comes easily, with all the mugs around/The women they just come to me, I don’t have to look around/I move into their homes with them, then I move on’, ‘Bad, Bad Boy’ saw Nazareth playing up to the stereotype of the Scots as hard-drinking, womanising brawlers. Dan and Pete are keen to draw one major distinction. They saw a lot of fights – notably among their audiences – and certainly wouldn’t back down if fisticuffs came along, but didn’t participate in too many rumbles.
“We used get paid £15 to play the Town Hall in Govern,” remembers Dan, referring to the notoriously tough Glasgow suburb, also home to TV’s Rab C Nesbitt. “The promoter would warn you, ‘When the fight breaks out – not if, but when – don’t stop playing because that’ll only make things worse’. In places like the Burnt Island Palais you sometimes had to halt the gig, then they’d try want to half the fee because you hadn’t played all night.”
“I laughed when W Axl Rose asked my to sing ‘Love Hurts’ at his wedding,
because the song seemed to last for longer than the marriage!”
Glover remained in charge for the aptly titled follow-up album, ‘Loud ‘N’ Proud’, in early 1974. The sessions saw them bolstering their own compositions with covers of Little Feat’s ‘Teenage Nervous Breakdown’ and ‘This Flight Tonight’ by folk music’s Joni Mitchell. Although the latter was omitted from the album’s UK edition, their dramatic new arrangement of ‘This Flight…’ became a huge international hit. Mitchell later paid the band what they felt was the ultimate compliment by referring to it as a Nazareth composition.
“Aye, that’s right,” affirms Pete proudly, “at a gig at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. We’d actually played it to her and [producer] Ted Templeman when we met at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Joni had been kinda apprehensive, she’d said: ‘This Flight Tonight’… with a rock band?’, but was tickled pink by what we’d done with it. We were so relieved.”
Like ‘Razamanaz’, ‘Loud ‘N’ Proud’ was recorded in two weeks flat, with the same amount of time for mixing down. There were numerous connections to Deep Purple in May 1974’s ‘Rampant’ album. Like the latter’s ‘Machine Head’ it was conceived in Montreux on the Rolling Stones mobile, and mixed at Ian Gillan’s Kingsway Recorders. As well as being overseen by Roger Glover, it included a guest appearance from Purple keyboard maestro Jon Lord on ‘Glad When You’re Gone’ and ‘Shanghai’d In Shanghai’. As was the norm for rock bands back then, Nazareth were working at an astonishing pace, McCafferty even managing to lay down seven vocal tracks on one particular day. ‘Rampant’ was Nazareth’s third album in a whirlwind 15-month period.
“Back then, we’d be utterly gobsmacked to read that Emerson Lake & Palmer had been in the studio for six months at a time,” shrugs Pete. “In 1973, as well as recording, we also managed to play around 250 shows. That year and the next one are still a blur to me.”
The bassist’s amnesia wasn’t caused by what you might expect. Although their token road song ‘Jet Lag’ name-checked New York City, Macon, El Paso, Detroit and Colorado, the band insist that for them, groupies and drugs – commodities eagerly lapped up by most of the US touring circuit – were off the menu.
“I’m not trying to sound noble, but I had a wife and kids,” swears Dan. “People’d ask, ‘D’ya wanna try this?’ but I’d turn everything down because I was so nïave I thought I’d instantly become a drug addict.” Concurs Pete: “We toured out there with most of the British bands and although they came back talking about drugs, I rarely saw any take so much as a toke [of marijuana]. For many of them it was all talk; they knew if they were caught taking a puff then they’d lose their visa like that [snaps fingers].”
“The American bands tended to be different,” points out McCafferty wryly. “Tommy Bolin [Deep Purple guitarist, whose heroin addiction killed him in 1976] was such a talented guy, but he used to get so minced. He’d tell you, ‘Man, I fell off the stage tonight – I split the shit out of my pants’. He’d literally tumble 30 feet and wouldn’t hurt himself because he was so floppy. Of course, we also played with Aerosmith.”
Pete sagely adds: “Those guys were a pointer towards what not to do. Likewise, Keith Moon. We played with The Who and how they put up with his antics is something I’ll never know. If he was the drummer of this band it’d be a case of, ‘Auditions now, please!’ I did once try a hit of cannabis – all it did was make me was really dizzy and fuck up my playing,” he continues. “The only time this band made fool of ourselves was with the help of a bottle of whiskey. It’s true, we had a reputtion for that, but it was just because everyone else was stoned.”
When asked whether Nazareth at least eased their boredom by demolishing hotel rooms or TV sets, Agnew responds wearily: “Never. We knew all along that there are ‘off’ buttons. If the programme on there’s piss, that’s what you do. I’ve laughed at stories about other bands gluing the furniture to the ceiling, but if one of our guys filled in a hotel room… he’d have been filled in by the rest of us when the bill arrived.”
This anti-drug mentality was shared with Ted Nugent, somebody the band played with on many occasions, and that they retain a strong affection for. “The thing that you’ve got to understand about The Nuge,” offers Dan, “is that he just blathers piss [when he talks]. He’s still a great mate of ours. We’ve got a set of equipment that he still keeps for us at his farm in Michigan.”
‘Rampant’ may have been the last Nazareth album to make the British Top 20, but 1975’s ‘Hair Of The Dog’ tightened the group’s grasp on the American market. Their coffers were severely swelled by the next release, which had an in-house production from Manny Charlton and was completed in just nine days in an oast house in a remote part of Kent. The power-ballad treatment of Everly Brothers song, ‘Love Hurts’, propelled it to worldwide sales of two million (though, confusingly, it was left off the European edition till becoming an ‘extra track’ in Eagle Records’ 2001 catalogue revamp).
‘Hair Of The Dog’ is the sound of a stadium rock band in full flight. The prodigious use of Darrell Sweet’s cowbell wasn’t all that rendered its title track so memorable. The band had intended it to have a far fruitier moniker, based around its infamously belligerent refrain of ‘Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch’, but couldn’t get it past the censors. That doesn’t stop them from referring to the song as ‘Son Of A Bitch’ to this very day.
“When we were told that Sears [powerful American chain store] wouldn’t touch an album titled that we thought we’d call it ‘Heir Of The Dog’, which means the same thing,” explains Agnew with a schoolboy smirk. “From there it just went downhill.”
Even the band are unsure what Dave Roe was trying to achieve with the sleeve of a bat-like creature with vicious teeth. “He was recommended to us by Storm Thorgerson [of Hipnosis], but he wouldn’t let us see it till it was finished,” says Pete. “In the end, he supplied the drawing at the wrong size for a 12-inch sleeve, and we had to fill the gap with the song titles and credits on a black panel to fill the gap.”
Having struck up a friendship with the show’s producer, Mike Appleton, Nazareth had become regulars on the BBC’s music show The Old Grey Whistle Test and would willingly act as last minute standbys for acts that cancelled. Agnew says that on one occasion he rounded up the guys, piled into somebody’s vehicle and steamed down the M1 in five and a half hours flat. “That was breaking a lot of laws,” he acknowledges shamefully. “But we were always available, and they knew that we could handle the pressure.”
Another non-original single, Tomorrow’s ‘My White Bicycle’, returned the band to the UK’s Top 20 in 1975, a year in which their record company went into liquidation and they accepted an invitation to open for Bad Company at London’s Olympia. While Agnew became a father, McCaffery used the break in Nazareth’s schedule to record a self-titled solo album. A collection of songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Little Feat and the Rolling Stones, it was perhaps most significant in the Nazareth tale for featuring the Sensational Alex Harvey Band guitarist Zal Cleminson (more of whom later) among its contributors.
“We were skint, so I went in and did all the old favourites,” shrugs the singer of ‘Dan McCafferty’, released in 1975. “It was done with Alex’s band and Roger [Glover] on bass. When Zal played the solo to ‘You Got Me Hummin’’ [originally by Sam & Dave], everybody’s jaws were on the floor.”
In 1976, with a spiky-topped revolution on the horizon, Nazareth were brave enough to release a rock opera called ‘Close Enough For Rock ‘N’ Roll’ as their debut for new label Mountain Records. With its artwork of fans’ faces pressed up the windows against a limousine, it was far more subtle and varied than its predecessor. And although it included another hit 45 in ‘Telegram’, the critics found themselves with plenty of ammunition.
“It was intended to be the story of a tour, but the humour was missed by just about everyone,” maintains Agnew. “When you arrive in a new town and go straight to a TV studio, it’s not glamorous. Sometimes all you want to do is get off your stinking underpants.”
McCafferty elaborates: “It wasn’t meant to be as grand as a rock opera, it was a themed collection of songs to tell the kids what life on the road is like. Myself, I don’t give a shit what reviewers say because we’ve been everything from brilliant to piss. All that matters is what the fans think.”
Nazareth somehow recorded and released another album before 1976 drew to a spittle-flecked, bondage trousered conclusion. ‘Play’N The Game’ was almost totally overlooked in the UK, but sold phenomenally well in Canada and certain European territories. Being out of Britain while presenter Bill Grundy was baiting the Sex Pistols to use four-letter words on live TV was highly fortuitous on the group’s part.
“We came off the plane one day after six months away in the States, I bought a Melody Maker and the cover said: ‘Devoto leaves Buzzcocks to go solo’,” reminisces McCafferty. “I turned to Pete and said: ‘Who leaves what to go where?’ We’d no fuckin’ idea what they were talking about.”
“I’m not taking the piss when I say that we completely missed out on punk rock,” promises Pete. “It just didn’t get played in America till much later which was actually a shame, because it was a great racket. I wasnae too crazy about the material, but what a row.”
“It was hard walking about in seven-inch platform heels – we liked a game of football in those days”
The year of 1977 would present further hurdles still. The band were distraught when manager Bill Fehilly perished in plane crash, and were actually touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd when the latter’s 21-ton Corvair turbo-prop plane plummeted into swampy woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his backing vocalist sister Cassie, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and both pilots. In fact, had fate been a little different, Nazareth themselves may also have become casualties.
“Artimus Pyle [Skynyrd drummer] had lived in Greensboro, where the plane took off from, and was having a barbecue,” explains Pete. “They’d invited us along and then onto the next gig with them, but we’d seen their plane which looked like Gaffa Tape Airlines…”
“… Plus the pilot was at the party!” adds an incredulous McCafferty. Agnew now admits that the false excuse of “doing some promo” was used to get out of attending. They remain full of respect for Skynyrd’s music (and Steve Gaines in particular), but their self-destructive tendencies and general misbehaviour often reflected badly upon Nazareth.
“They’d break each other’s legs, just for a bit of fun,” relates an incredulous Pete. “We’d get banned from the bar, too. We’d have to say that although we looked like Skynyrd we weren’t like them – we could handle our beer. In the end we stayed in different hotels, and I still think that we had a lot more fun than they did.”On this occasion, though, Nazareth’s instincts paid off. That didn’t prevent Skynyrd’s road crew, who believed the band had gone to the barbeque, from telling the world that Nazareth too were dead. “At the next gig, when I phoned the wife she burst into tears with relief,” sighs Dan at the memory.
The band’s ninth album, ‘Expect No Mercy’, largely retained its traditional elements, although songs like ‘Shot Me Down’ gave Nazareth a chance to tap into the AOR market dominated by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
However, the censor once again ruled that Frank Frazetta’s drawing of two sword-fighting demons should be cropped to prevent the showing of too much male anatomy.
At the suggestion of Manny Charlton, the group’s old friend Zal Cleminson was invited to join for arguably the heaviest Nazareth record of all, 1979’s ‘No Mean City’. The twin-guitar sound worked well on ‘May The Sunshine’ and ‘Star’, which both became hit singles, even in the UK. Cleminson also played a highly significant role in the next album, 1980’s ‘Malice In Wonderland’, but was to disappoint his band-mates by quitting when in Britain at least the album went (to use the group’s own vernacular) “nowhere, with a bullet”. With Mountain Records unexpectedly going bust, Zal was further exasperated by the group’s need to secure another new record deal.
Manny had by then handed his producer’s cap to Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter of the Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan for ‘Malice…’ for the first of two albums, later admitting that he wished they’d hired future Aerosmith collaborator instead. Baxter certainly employed unusual motivation techniques. “The song ‘Talkin’ ’Bout Love’ had a discoey beat and I told Jeff, I’m not playing on this shite’,” frowns Pete. “His reply was what I couldn’t play it anyway, and that maybe he’d get David Hungate [of Toto] in to do it. It was brutal, but it made us re-examine the way we worked.”
Agnew has no hesitation in proclaiming: “Zal Cleminson is the best guitarist to ever stride the earth. He was driving a taxi when we asked him to join us, which was ridiculous. Sometimes I almost stopped playing to applaud what him. On a good night he was unbelievable, and if he wasn’t on form he’d just go into the background and do nothing.”
“Zal was so great,” ponders Dan, “but he wasn’t committed enough. He’s one of those guys that’s always looking for something new.”
Returning to a four-piece, 1981’s ‘The Fool Circle’ was muddled in the extreme, so it was no surprise when Nazareth tried to steady what was beginning to resemble a sinking ship. Swelling to a six-piece with the addition of young Glaswegian guitarist Billy Rankin and ex-Spirit keyboard player John Locke (who’d been a guest on ‘The Fool Circle’) perhaps wasn’t the easiest of ways to achieve it, but the double live ‘Snaz’ album confirmed that they still had a fire in their collective belly.
The new line-up officially debuted on ‘2XS’ in 1982, a more lightweight album than expected. It sold well in the States, but poorly at home. Sensing hard times ahead, Locke returned to the West Coast to join Randy California in a Spirit reunion.
However, the quintet continued to work steadily throughout the early 1980s. Flying to Australia, they were supported by the fledgling Rose Tattoo. In the dressing room, a fierce-looking skinhead enthusiastically wrung McCafferty’s hand and proclaimed: ‘Hi Dan, I’m Angry’. Not recognising whom he was addressing, Dan casually responded: ‘What about, son?’ I didnae know his name was Angry Anderson, but they were a great band.” Nazareth also literally hit the headlines following a televised show in Chile.
“The first night John Denver of all people headlined, and we finished our set by getting the audience to sing along with ‘Sonofabitch’,” beams Agnew. “We were on the front page of all the newspapers – ‘Nazareth go home’. They said we were corrupting the nation’s youth with swearwords. The next night, which we headlined, the lady mayoress came into the dressing room, got right in our faces and told us, ‘You will not finish with that song’. Darrell nodded, ‘Aye, okay’. And we opened with it instead.”
The group switched to MCA for 1983’s ‘Sound Elixir’, which didn’t even receive a UK release, though some Naz aficionados still believe it could have been the band’s equivalent of ‘Eliminator’ by ZZ Top. The constant touring and business problems were too much for Rankin, who quit. Once again back to a quartet, 1984’s ‘The Catch’ continued the slide in popularity, though it at least came out in the UK, unlike the underrated ‘Cinema’ two years later. Ted Nugent’s manager Doug Banker hawked ‘Cinema’ around the US labels on the band’s behalf, neglecting to inform A&R men who they were listening to. One liked what he heard and began putting together a business plan. However, learning he was being sold a new album from Nazareth, Banker was bluntly told: “Forget it, they’re dinosaurs.”
“For the first time ever, it felt like a job because we were trying to make the songs fit the band,” admits Pete now. Dan nods in agreement, stating: “We were also starting to realise that there was a problem with Manny.”
Nazareth had been spending nine months of the year in USA, Canada, South America, Scandinavia and Europe, and in 1984 became the first Western band to take a full stage production behind the Iron Curtain, playing to 150,000 people during a tour of Polish ice hockey stadiums. On their second visit to Russia, they played 12 sold-out shows at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium to 264,000 fans. The UK, however, was studiously ignored. Indeed, when McCafferty’s second solo album, ‘Into The Ring’, emerged in 1986 its list of mainly German players confirmed the band’s market switch. In 1989, following a lengthy tour to promote the ‘Snakes ‘N’ Ladders’ album, Manny Charlton decided he’d endured one fire-fight too many. Coming after more than 20 years his departure was a wrench, but the entire band were frustrated.
“‘Snakes & Ladders’ was the unhappiest album that Nazareth ever made, and I’ve still never bothered to play it,” shudders Pete. “We ended up doing covers because we didn’t have enough material.”
“The Darkness are a lovely band because I think they’re taking the piss.
And if they’re serious, well… that’s very sad indeed”
Against the odds, Billy Rankin was persuaded to return. ‘No Jive’ was Nazareth’s 18th album, but their first to reach the UK market in seven years – they even played a handful of British gigs. It helped that the band had gained considerable kudos and publicity from patronage of Guns N’ Roses, whose singer W Axl Rose actually asked McCafferty to sing ‘Love Hurts’ at his wedding to Erin Everley. Before that, the band had begged Manny Charlton to produce an album for them. He actually attempted to do so, throwing in the towel when a maximum of two band members at any given time turned up to play. In 1993, GN’R would show the extent of their appreciation by recording a by-numbers version of ‘Hair Of The Dog’ for their covers album, ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’.
“Just before they became really famous we played six gigs in California, and they came to every one,” relates Pete. “Later on, in Winnepeg, we were playing a 5,000-seater and they were at the enormodome down the road, but they came and stood right in front of the stage for our set. Our audience was going, ‘Jesus, that’s Guns N’ Roses throwing devil signs at Nazareth’.”
Dan: “We were like, ‘Could you not go to the side of the stage? These people are supposed to be watching us’. I laughed when Axl asked my to sing ‘Love Hurts’ at his wedding, because the song seemed to last for longer than the marriage! Around 18 people from their management kept phoning me to ask – 18 people! – but I eventually told them I was busy, which I probably was.”
Things were looking up until Billy Rankin once again opted for a solo career, leaving after the release of 1994’s ‘Move Me’ album. Rankin had brought them a poppier edge than they were used to. Some reference books state that he resigned, others that he was fired. For the first time in the conversation, Agnew becomes a little coy.
“I’ll not go into our dirty laundry,” he insists. “We realised it wouldn’t work anymore if he stayed because we weren’t thinking along the same lines.”
“If we’re splitting hairs then it was more on the sacked side,” he responds. “But like all the others that have been in the band we’re still friends with Billy.”
The last time that Classic Rock spoke to Nazareth was in early 1999 as they geared up for the release of their most recent studio album, ‘Boogaloo’. Buoyed by the arrival of new guitarist Jimmy Murrison and keyboard player Ronnie Leahy and signed to a record label (SPV) that seemed to care, they were set to make up for lost time. Amid self-cracked gags about their age and unfashionability, the band were bullish. “Only death will stop us,” pledged McCafferty, also having the common sense to add: “But that may come this year.”
Unfortunately, the singer was correct. On April 30, as the second leg of the ‘Boogaloo’ tour was commencing, Darrell Sweet felt ill just as Nazareth’s tour bus approached the New Albany Amphitheater in Indiana. The drummer’s family had a history of heart attacks, but nobody expected Sweet to succumb to one at the age of 51.
Emotionally shattered, the band postponed the tour for six weeks (“We couldn’t have cared less about the album anymore” – McCafferty), though they re-arranged the dates with Lee Agnew, Pete’s eldest son, on the drum stool. By then, however, SPV had stopped working on ‘Boogaloo’, leaving them high and dry again. Lee Agnew was later offered the job on a full-time basis.
“Darrell was a bull,” states Dan simply. “He’d have wanted Nazareth to continue and Lee was family so he was the natural choice.” The band were less philosophical about the flood of job applications that came from name drummers, some as soon as four days afterwards. One opportunist in America even wrote claiming he’d had a dream in which Darrell handed him his golden drumsticks. “Prat,” huffs McCafferty in irritation.
In 2001, Nazareth accepted the offer of some British shows with Uriah Heep, their first in almost a decade outside Scotland. The gigs were plagued by illness and at the Astoria in London, which doubles as a nightclub when rock shows have finished, somebody mistakenly turned on a pink neon sign of the word ‘Gay’ above the band’s heads, but the experience whetted everybody’s appetite.
“In September we’re going to do our first proper tour in more than 20 years,” promises Agnew. “By that I mean a real string of gigs. Till now it’s not really been financially viable, but it’s got to the point where we’re saying, ‘Stuff the finances’. We just wanna play. We make money everywhere else; we’ll use that to offset the costs. There must be people out there that still like our kind of music.”
Like many of their peers, Nazareth draw their faith in this from the astonishing success achieved by The Darkness. Indeed, Justin Hawkins and company have cited them as an influence.
“They’re a lovely band because I think they’re taking the piss,” proclaims McCafferty, draining another large brandy. “And if they’re serious, well… that’s very sad indeed.”
Maybe one day The Darkness too will have eight million counterfeit albums in circulation in Russia (a conservative estimate, apparently). “You’ve got to realise how large Nazareth are over there,” points out Agnew proudly. “In terms of rock bands around the world we’d be lucky to make the Top 20, but in Russia we’d top the list and Led Zeppelin would be somewhere in the Top 10. That’s just the way it is.”
With more than 20 million official albums sold around the world, Nazareth are currently label-less (though the bulk of their catalogue remains with Eagle Records). Neither are they holding their breath awaiting respect for their three decades-plus in the music business. However, 2004 finds them a quartet again – Ronnie Leahy recently retired from the road – comfortable with their legacy and optimistic of releasing a new album in the not too distant future.
“That’ll happen next year when the touring stops. Lee and Jimmy being in the band works really well for us,” points out McCafferty. “They’re excellent musicians and they remind us if we’ve not played a certain song for decades, dragging things like ‘Not Fakin’ It’ [covered in 1989 by Hanoi Rocks vocalist Michael Monroe] out from the past if necessary.”
“It’s funny, we’ve been a rock band, we’ve been pop stars and then suddenly we became dinosaurs,” concludes Agnew with a smirk. “But if you can live through the dinosaur period, you become a legend. It’s too late to become a plumber now. And as long as Dan and I are around, there will always be a Nazareth.”
The official Nazareth website
Had to put this story up for two reasons: 1) It’s one of my all-time favourites, and 2) I’m looking forward to seeing them tonight at the Underworld in London. Pete Agnew had warned me in advance of Nazareth’s aversion to spilling their grimiest secrets for the benefits of the media, but the yarns that he and Dan McCafferty came out with during the afternoon and evening that we spent together were far from boring. The pair were extremely easy to talk to and laugh along with, so much so that my missus must have wondered why I hadn’t returned to my room when she called the hotel in the evening. Her slightly worried tone ensured that she was connected to the bar, where the English journalist was confirmed safe and sound. He was on his 78th glass of dry white wine of the interview/booze session, with a couple of paramedics apparently on their way to sew up his aching sides. (9th October, 2004)
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