Nazareth bassist Pete Agnew is reminiscing about a long-ago but important event in his life: “I remember the exact date that we turned full-time,” he says. “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,” vocalist Dan McCafferty says 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 twelve 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, and they continue to tour to the present day. Like the Pitfirrane Hotel, the group have patently seen better days, and were never too glamorous in the first place. But there’s something reassuring about the continued existence of this old warhorse.
Daniel McCafferty and Peter Agnew actually met on their very first day at school, aged five. Asked to share a double desk, they’ve been best friends ever since. For the overwhelming majority of that time they’ve also enjoyed the same music and been in bands together. But from the beginning, the pair’s 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, Agnew joined his first group of note, The Shadettes – which is where they found future Nazareth drummer Darrell Sweet. “He was only 16, and played drums in a pipe band, and he used to turn up at our gigs in a kilt – sometimes slightly the worse for wear,” Agnew recalls. “We’d sometimes get Darrell up on stage with us, and he ended up joining.”
Until McCafferty arrived a year later, Agnew had been one of the band’s two vocalists. McCafferty became a Shadette under fairly similar circumstances to the way that Bon Scott would later join AC/DC: “I was the band’s roadie. 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.”
McCafferty’s vocal trademark has always been his gruffness. And although he’s smoked all his life, he 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 [AC/DC] had both worked hard all week. Maybe, like me, they took that aggression out on to the stage with them.”
The final piece of the jigsaw was Manuel ‘Manny’ Charlton, a guitarist the band had known for many years but whose appointment in 1968 spurred them to discard the strait-jacketed Top 40 mentality of the ballrooms.
“When Manny joined, he was the first guy to suggest writing songs of our own,” Agnew says. “We’d never even thought of it ’til 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 decided to call themselves Nazareth, taking their name from The Band 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 even brought some hate-mail at first – but it was a memorable enough name. 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.
Nazareth’s first official gig outside of Scotland was at the Marquee in London, and the band had their first publicity photographs taken at the Nell Gwynne topless bar in Wardour Street. “We still had straw sticking out of our ears,” Agnew says. “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, for whom they eventually recorded their debut, Nazareth. Featuring a cover of Tim Rose’s Morning Dew, the album caught on in Germany but wasn’t as successful at home. For the following year’s Exercise 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 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 making the first album, Alex Harvey [of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band] visited the studio,” Agnew recalls. “He realised that we were unhappy and gave us 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.”
McCafferty and Agnew were dispatched to the Melody Maker offices in London’s Fleet Street, then the hub of music journalism, to drum up some much-needed publicity. While waiting in a pub for the journalist who was to interview them, they struck up a conversation with two other long-haired herberts.
Agnew: “They asked us if we were in a band, and when we said that we were they had actually heard of Nazareth. We asked them the same question, and were embarrassed to find that they were in Led Zeppelin. We were eating sausage and beans with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. But we’d never seen a picture of them.”
McCafferty: “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, the band were handed £100 by their management and told to go to London’s Kensington Market and buy some glamorous stage clothes. But 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,” Agnew chuckles. “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, where the headliners had 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,” Agnew guffaws. “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 at us from some scaffolding. 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 Nazareth were invited to accompany England’s newest superstars on tours in Europe and America. The two bands struck up a mutual appreciation, and in some cases close friendships. Indeed 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,” McCafferty says. “We’d be stuck in cum-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 increasingly tense. Besides paying regular wages, cash had been spent on gear, living and touring expenses, a Mercedes van and the recording of two albums. Drummer Darrell Sweet would later admit: “The well had run dry; [the management] was 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.
Agnew: “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. 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. They’d given it the full hard rock treatment; Fehilly gave the green light for an album.
Released in late 1973, Razamanaz was everything that its predecessors were not: it was focused, fiery and full of catchy, powerful tunes. Apart from Broken Down Angel, which gave the band their first UK Top 10 hit, its finest moments were the raucous title track and the slide-guitar boogie of Bad Bad Boy.
“We actually stole the riff to the song Razamanaz from [Deep Purple’s] Speed King,” Agnew now 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 on to 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.
But McCafferty and Agnew 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,” McCafferty says, 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 to give you just half the fee because you hadn’t played all night.”
Glover remained in charge for the aptly titled follow-up album Loud’N’Proud, in early 1974. The sessions saw them bolstering their own songs with covers of Little Feat’s Teenage Nervous Breakdown and folkie Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight. Although the latter was omitted from the album’s UK edition, Nazareth’s new arrangement of the song 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. Like Razamanaz, Loud ’N’ Proud was recorded in two weeks flat, with the same amount of time for mixing.
There were numerous connections to Deep Purple in May 1974’s Rampant album. Like Purple’s Machine Head, Rampant was laid down in Montreux, Switzerland on The Rolling Stones’ mobile and mixed at Purple singer Ian Gillan’s Kingsway Recorders. As well as being overseen by Glover, it included a guest appearance from Purple keyboard player 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 astonishingly fast pace; McCafferty even managed 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,” Agnew says with a shrug. “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 lapped up eagerly by most on the US touring circuit – were off the menu.
“I’m not trying to sound noble, but I had a wife and kids,” McCafferty says. “People’d ask: ‘D’ya wanna try this?’. But I’d turn everything down, because I was so naïve I thought I’d instantly become a drug addict.”
Agnew: “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 a joint]. For many of them it was all talk; they knew that if they were caught taking a puff they’d lose their visa like that [snaps fingers].”
“The American bands tended to be different,” McCafferty points out 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.”
“Those guys were a pointer towards what not to do,” Agnew adds sagely. 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 really dizzy and fuck up my playing. The only time this band made fools of ourselves was with the help of a bottle of whiskey. It’s true, we had a reputation for that. But it was just because everyone else was stoned.”
Rampant may have been the last Nazareth album to make the British Top 20, but 1975’s Hair Of The Dog (with an in-house production from Manny Charlton, and completed in just nine days in an oast house in a remote part of Kent) tightened the group’s grasp on the American market, and their coffers swelled significantly following its release. The power-ballad treatment of another cover song, Boudleaux Bryant’s Love Hurts (left off the European edition until becoming an ‘extra track’ in Eagle Records’ 2001 catalogue revamp) propelled the album’s worldwide sales to two million.
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 on its infamously belligerent refrain of, ‘Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch’, but couldn’t get it past the censors. But they refer to the song as Son Of A Bitch to this day.
Even the band are unsure what Dave Roe was trying to achieve with the sleeve art of a bat-like creature with vicious teeth. “He was recommended to us by Storm Thorgerson [of Hipgnosis] but he wouldn’t let us see it ’til it was finished,” Agnew says. “In the end he supplied the drawing at the wrong size for a twelve-inch sleeve, and we had to fill the gap with the song titles and credits on a black panel.”
Having struck up a friendship with Mike Appleton, the producer of The Old Grey Whistle Test, Nazareth had become regulars on the BBC’s music show, 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 (which one scurrilous music journo retitled My Wife’s Bisexual), returned Nazareth to the UK 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 Olympia.
While Agnew became a father, McCafferty 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 the punk 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 against the windows of a limousine, it was far more subtle and varied than its predecessor. And although it included another hit single in Telegram, the critics found themselves with plenty of ammunition to fire at it.
“It was intended to be the story of a tour, but the humour was missed by just about everyone,” Agnew maintains. “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 your stinking underpants off.”
“It wasn’t meant to be as grand as a rock opera,” McCafferty says of Close Enough…, “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 close. Play’N The Game was overlooked in the UK but sold very 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 Nazareth’s part.
McCafferty: “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’. 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,” Agnew insists. “It just didn’t get played in America ’til much later, which was actually a shame because it was a great racket. I wasn’t too crazy about the material, but what a row.”
The year 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,” Agnew explains. “They’d invited us along and then on to the next gig with them. But we’d seen their plane – which looked like Gaffa Tape Airlines…”
“…Plus the pilot was at the party!” an incredulous McCafferty adds. 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 Skynyrd’s self-destructive tendencies and general misbehaviour often reflected badly upon Nazareth.
“They’d break each other’s legs, just for a bit of fun,” Agnew says, with a look of disbelief. “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 that occasion, though, Nazareth’s instincts paid off. But in fact Skynyrd’s road crew, who believed Nazareth had gone to the barbecue, informed the world that Nazareth too were dead. “At the next gig, when I phoned the wife she burst into tears with relief,” McCafferty sighs 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. But the censor struck once again, ruling 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, from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 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, and then disappointed his bandmates by quitting when, in Britain at least, the album went “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 Charlton had by then handed his producer’s cap to Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (guitarist with The Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan) for Malice… for the first of two albums, later admitting that he wished they’d hired someone else they’d had in mind instead. Baxter certainly employed unusual motivation techniques: “The song Talkin’ ’Bout Love had a disco-y beat, and I told Jeff: ‘I’m not playing on this shite’,” Agnew frowns. “His reply was that 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 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,” McCafferty agrees, “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 that, but the double-live Snaz album confirmed that the band still had a fire in their collective belly.
The new line-up officially debuted on 1982’s 2XS, which turned out to be 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.
Now a quintet, Nazareth continued to work steadily throughout the early 1980s. Touring in 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 the Aussie, McCafferty casually responded: “‘What about, son?’. I didn’t know his name was Angry Anderson. But they were a great band”.
Nazareth also 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 Son Of A Bitch,” Agnew explains. “We were on the front page of all the newspapers – ‘Nazareth go home’. They said we were corrupting the nation’s youth with swear words. 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. But although it didn’t even receive a UK release, some Nazareth aficionados still believe that album could have been the band’s equivalent of what Eliminator did for ZZ Top. But the constant touring and business problems were too much for Rankin, who quit.
With the band again back to a quartet, 1984’s The Catch continued the slide in popularity, although 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, on learning he was being sold a new album from Nazareth Banker was told bluntly: “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,” Agnew admits now.
McCafferty nods in agreement: “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 they 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 with Nazareth his departure was a wrench. But the entire band were frustrated.
“Snakes ’N’ Ladders was the unhappiest album that Nazareth ever made, and I’ve still never bothered to play it,” Agnew says. “We ended up doing covers because we didn’t have enough material.”
Against the odds, Bill Rankin was persuaded to return. No Jive was Nazareth’s 18th album, but their first in seven years to have a UK release; they even played a handful of British gigs. It helped that the band had gained considerable kudos and publicity from the patronage of Guns N’ Roses, whose singer W Axl Rose actually asked McCafferty to sing Love Hurts at his wedding to Erin Everly. Before that Guns had begged Manny Charlton to produce an album for them. The guitarist actually attempted to do so, but threw 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,” Agnew recalls fondly. “Later on, in Winnipeg, we were playing a 5000-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!’ and throwing Devil signs at Nazareth.”
McCafferty: “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 me to sing Love Hurts at his wedding, because the song seemed to last for longer than the marriage! Around 18 people – 18 people! – from their management kept phoning me to ask. 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, and left 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 our conversation, Agnew becomes a little coy: “I’ll not go into our dirty laundry,” he insists. “We realised it wouldn’t work any more if he stayed, because we weren’t thinking along the same lines.”
So it was mutual agreement, then?
“If we’re splitting hairs, then it was more on the sacked side,” Agnew says. “But like all the others that have been in the band we’re still friends with Billy.”
The previous occasion on which 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-deprecation gags about their age and unfashionability, the band were bullish. “Only death will stop us,” pledged McCafferty, who also had the common sense to add: “But that may come this year”.
Unfortunately the singer was correct, and on April 30, at the beginning of the second leg of the Boogaloo tour, Darrell Sweet felt ill just as Nazareth’s tour bus approached Indiana. The drummer’s family had a history of heart attacks, but nobody expected Sweet to succumb to one at the age of just 51.
Emotionally shattered, the band postponed the tour for six weeks (“We couldn’t have cared less about the album any more,” McCafferty says), then rearranged the dates with Lee Agnew, Pete’s eldest son, on drums. By then, however, SPV had stopped working on Boogaloo, leaving Nazareth high and dry again. Lee Agnew was later offered the job on a full-time basis.
“Darrell was a bull,” McCafferty states says. “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 after Pete’s death. One opportunist in America even wrote claiming he’d had a dream in which Darrell handed him his golden drumsticks. “Prat,” McCafferty huffs in irritation.
In 2001, Nazareth accepted the offer of some British shows – their first outside Scotland in almost a decade – with Uriah Heep. But the gigs were plagued by illness. And at the Astoria in London, which doubles as a night club when rock shows have finished, somebody mistakenly turned on a pink neon ‘Gay’ sign 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,” Agnew promises. “By that I mean a real string of gigs. ’Til 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 new faith in that belief from the astonishing success achieved recently by The Darkness. Indeed that band have cited Nazareth as an influence.
“The Darkness are a lovely band, because I think they’re taking the piss,” McCafferty says, 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 of the number of Nazareth ones there, apparently). “You’ve got to realise how big Nazareth are over there,” Agnew points out 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 ten. That’s just the way it is.”
With more than 20 million official albums sold around the world, Nazareth are currently without a record label (although the bulk of their catalogue remains with Eagle Records). And they’re not holding their breath awaiting respect for their three decades-plus in the music business. But in 2004 they are 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 (who was to leave the band himself in 2013, due to ill health). “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 suddenly we became dinosaurs,” Agnew concludes 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.”
This was first published in Classic Rock issue 67.