Steelhouse Saturday

HRH Mag’s Simon Bonney goes in-depth on one of his favourite bands – the legendary Nazareth.

When I was a kid – probably around 7 or 8 – I was first introduced to my dad’s vinyl collection. I didn’t understand why music came on these massive black plates when it could just as easily be stored on a pocket-sized cassette or even one of those fancy new compact discs. My old man told me that it was to do with the sound, the experience and the artwork – a fair point when you look at the likes of Jethro Tull’s Broadsword, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, and the majestic simplicity of Sabbath or the ‘WTF’ery of Hawkwind.

In amongst the collection, I had my favourites, but one album particularly caught my eye – Hair of the Dog, by Nazareth.

It just looked evil. I loved it.  The style, the colours, the band name – I was captured by it all. Then we cracked out the record player and my journey through the world of music reached an amazing waypoint; Hair of The Dog was for me a gateway drug into the world of Nazareth and hard rock; not their first album, but my first exposure to their hard-rocking sound, and a superb introduction to their essence.

Formed as “Nazareth” in 1970 by Dan McCafferty, Pete Agnew, Manny Charlton & Darrell Sweet, four musical dudes and family men looking to create a new sound and make their mark on the emerging world of hard rock, Nazareth released their debut, self-titled record in 1971.

It was an awesome record. With no concrete sound to the album, you can really hear them still feeling their way around the hard rock sound – especially with the excellent opening track “Witchdoctor Woman”. You get elements of almost a prog sound with “Morning Dew”, and a lighter tonality appearing throughout much of the album. A superb debut, and from there the only way was up.

The success continued with their second album, “Exercises”, being a major catalyst in landing them a slot supporting the hard-rocking behemoths that are Deep Purple in 1972. Again an album feeling out its sound, it opens with the avant-garde sound of “I Will Not Be Led”, a lyrically powerful track demonstrating appeal and songwriting prowess, with a unique and inspiring sound. The album goes on to radiate a ballad tonality, with the band seemingly opting to choose a newer sound as opposed to augmenting their blues/ hard rocking roots. Fair enough if you ask me, it took balls and it served them well.

After landing the tour with Deep Purple, Nazareth recorded their third studio album “Razamanaz” with none other than Deep Purple’s own Roger Glover producing the album. And it shows. The album is a real glimmer of what would become their hallmark sound. Heavy enough, refined, and catchy, their third studio album marked their debut in the UK charts with “Broken Down Angel” and “Bad Bad Boy” both hitting the top ten.

“Razamanaz” signified Nazareth getting deadly serious about not just hard rock, but their place in the British music scene. That being said, they always had high and focused aspirations. It’s interesting you know, that at a time when music, fame and culture were becoming less and less disciplined these family guys were making such waves and keeping their heads cool. This is probably responsible in no small part for their continued trajectory of success.

Following the successes of the Roger Glover produced Razamanaz, Loud’N’Proud and Rampant, the band found increasing success and critical acclaim; they credit Glover with helping them develop and refine as a band, a conclusion easy to arrive at given his influence and the albums they all produced with him on board.

My childhood sweetheart Hair of The Dog followed, and brought the band into the coveted category of “essential radio listening” throughout much of the late ‘70s and beyond. It went on to become the band’s first well-earned platinum-selling album.

Steelhouse Saturday

The first stage of Nazareth, say the first 10 years, were a parable of musical exploration, development and commitment. They were a band focused on delivering their message, playing shows and having a damn good time. They were amongst the first stadium rockers, inspirations to the avalanche of rock, metal and alternative music that would come in the ’80s and beyond, and highly revered amongst their peers.

Famously, one such peer was a certain Axl Rose, who even asked the band to play at his wedding! They respectfully declined, and Guns ‘n’ Roses offered a tribute to them covering “Hair of The Dog” on their album “The Spaghetti Incident?”.  Quite the compliment in the musical world, especially coming from the likes of G’n’R!

 From ‘78 onwards, starting with the addition of second guitarist Zal Cleminson, Nazareth had a succession of lineup switcheroos and changes. With Cleminson on board, they recorded “No Mean City” and the fantastically titled eleventh album“Malice in Wonderland”. Both albums had a softer sound to them, whilst maintaining their hard-rockin’ roots and NMC, in particular, had that rugged downstroke heavy rock sound – the addition of an extra guitar and the transformation of the band into a twin guitar quintet resonated with British and American audiences yearning for the development of “heavy” as a sound.

They had hugely varying degrees of reception around the world. Whilst British and American audiences offered a tepid reception to much of the discography to this point, aside from notably “Hair of The Dog” and “Razamanaz”, the band were enjoying huge success in continental Europe, Brazil and Canada.

It’s perhaps because of this varying reception that the sound of Nazareth still hadn’t crystallised. Their 12th studio album, “The Fools Circle” released early in 1981, was an album featuring a clear blues and reggae sound mixed in with their ever-present rock tonality, and they were even talking politics in some of the tracks on the album such as “Let Me Be Your Leader” and “We Are the People”. A marked change indeed, and a demonstration that even more than a decade into Nazareth, the guys were still very much driven to develop, experiment and change.

The ‘80s were characterised for Nazareth by changeability. Changes to the lineup, with the introduction of John Locke on keyboards and the intermittent involvement of Cleminson and Billy Rankin on guitar, and changes to the label and the management, switching between the Mountain, NEMS and Virtigo labels, you would have thought the seas would have been stormy. They were actually surprisingly calm!

Most of the changes in production and management were to do with pragmatism – the changes in line up similarly so. To try a new sound, it makes sense to make some changes, right? And make change they did!

1986 saw the release of probably my second favourite Nazareth album, “Cinema”, a hard-rockin’ throwback to the heavy stylings of the “Hair of the Dog” era with a definite and consistent sound throughout the album. It wasn’t until 1989, after the release of the controversial “Snakes and Ladders” where the original lineup called time, and Manny Charlton left the band after 20 years playing with Nazareth.

The departure of Charlton was a shame. It marked a watershed for Nazareth, a kind of mould-breaking, with them as a band having to regroup and reassess their direction. Losing a member after more than 20 years is always a big deal. And for me, whenever a band loses an original member, I always think it is regrettable… maybe I’m just an old romantic. In any case, it happened.

Billy Rankin, being the only logical choice for the band, and probably the only serious option, was to replace Charlton and take the band back on the road. They started with a few smaller gigs in their native Scotland before taking off on international tour once again. Busy, still energetic, and not plagued by the sorts of issues seemingly plaguing most bands of this era (the usual suspects like drugs, bitter feuds, alcohol etc), they were quick to regroup.

Two years later, “No Jive” hit the world. A strong return to form, the 1991 album received critical and commercial success in spite of receiving little radio airplay – remember, at this time Nazareth were far from new, and music in the ’90s was diverse, broad and ruthless.  The David of grunge was battling it out with the long-established Goliath of hard rock, fatally wounding many in the process.

Alive, thriving and well, Nazareth continued their return to form until Rankin, after some disagreement with the rest of the band, departed, this time for the last time. He was replaced by the still serving Jimmy Murrison, a friend of still serving bassist (and only remaining original member) Pete Agnew’s son.

With a penchant for songwriting, as well as an obvious and glaring talent on the guitar, Murrison quickly integrated organically with the rest of the band, becoming amongst other things a songwriting cornerstone. Coupled with the re-addition of a keyboard player into the band, this time the melodic funkilicious stylings of Ronnie Leahy, Nazareth began their new chapter.

Reformed, still focused, riding the success and the highs of the late ’90s with the “No Jive”, “Move Me” and “Boogaloo” momentum gaining daily, the band was sadly hit by tragedy when the entirely unexpected and sudden death of the founding member and original drummer Darrell Sweet on tour in 1999 at the age of 51.

The band, understandably, were devastated by the untimely death of the legend that was Darrell Sweet. For a while they were at a crossroads – do they stop playing as a sign of respect and an inevitable obligation of their mourning, or do they play on, honouring the memory of Sweet and everything he brought to the band and the world? The latter argument, of course, thankfully eventually won, and they decided to play on.

But the question then becomes: who could possibly do Darrell and Nazareth justice? Well, to them only one name came to mind: remember Pete Agnew’s son from earlier, recommending Murrison for the role of guitarist? Turns out, he is an extremely talented drummer who even did sound tech for the band when they were out touring on occasion. The part was filled and the band, whilst still unsettled, were back on track.

With the new line up now featuring Dan McCafferty, Jimmy Murrison, Ronnie Leahy, and both Pete and Lee Agnew, they were ready to hit the road.

As it turned out, these five guys offered an incredibly strong live performance and were playing to sold-out shows across the world. Nazareth were enjoying the touring life, and were playing stronger and stronger every day – no doubt in the process making Sweet proud! The years between 1999 and 2008 were characterised, as such, by almost constant touring and the release of live albums. In 2008, “The Newz” was their first studio album released since “Boogaloo” and it took full advantage of the new faces and collective experience and talent the band had now amassed.

Coinciding with the bands 40th anniversary tour, “The Newz” was again critically acclaimed and, combined with other releases around that period, marked a renaissance in the sound of Nazareth. In 2011, we saw “Big Dogz” released to much the same reception; it was a success story, and it was amongst other things awesome to see the band still going so strong after over four decades. Maybe a break is sometimes a welcome change, allowing you to take stock and re-evaluate your style and sound. Whatever it was, it worked.

Nazareth were cemented with the excellence of their “Z” era offerings, after the decade of turbulence preceding them and a history of innovation, exploration and deviance, into rock ‘n’ roll hall of infamy. Truly veterans of their craft, Nazareth stood high on a pedestal of accomplishment. In 2013, the band was hit with the sad reality that Dan McCafferty was suffering; he had been diagnosed with a degenerative respiratory disease and, whilst staying true to form and soldiering on as long as he could, had to call time on his service as the beloved frontman of Nazareth in the August of 2013, though in the process of doing so like the gentleman he was, he gave the nod to the band to continue without him. A true veteran!

Nazareth are still thriving. They have that same passion now that they wielded to battle their way into the scene – over 50 years and 24 studio albums into a career that has seen them support the likes of Deep Purple, tour with the likes of Uriah Heep and sell-out stadium venues. A varied sound and a thriving pool of talent has been the defining factor of the disciplined and focused career that has elevated Nazareth to the heights of heavy rocking elites. Their last two albums, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Telephone” (2014) and “Tattooed On My Brain” (2018) show us that they have no intention of slowing down, and that they can most certainly still walk the walk. The current line-up of Pete Agnew, Jimmy Murrison, Lee Agnew and Carl Sentence, with their solid live performance credentials, super focused attitude and songwriting potential are nothing but an exciting window into a rich past, and a promising future. Here’s to the next 10 years of messin’ with a son of a bitch!