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You couldn’t invent the story of Nazareth if you tried. At their peak, the Dunfermline rock group were huge, selling vast quantities of albums and pulling in enormous crowds to their shows. By rights, when the group’s profile receded a little and they morphed into the highly respected club-level regulars that they are today, their reputation should have become tarnished – but nothing of the sort has occurred. Nazareth are routinely hailed as that rare thing: pioneers who became legends in their own lifetimes.
Like all the best bands, Nazareth came from humble roots. Playing Scottish clubs in their original incarnation as The Shadettes in the late 1960s, the group – singer Dan McCafferty, guitarist Manny Charlton, bassist Pete Agnew and drummer Darrell Sweet – were obliged to perform tongue-in-cheek cover versions of pop hits if they wanted to get paid after the gig. This state of affairs didn’t suit Nazareth and, with a drive that has always typified their career, the band quit their day jobs in 1971 and moved to a grotty communal flat in London. Changing their name and acquiring a manager, bingo millionaire Bill Fehilly, Nazareth signed to the Pegasus label and their fortunes began to change.
Reviewing an early Nazareth album, Melody Maker’s Chris Charlesworth wrote: “Perhaps more groups should realise that someone else’s song well played is often a more uplifting experience than an original that’s mediocre.” In doing so Charlesworth identified one of the group’s key skills: the ability to take a song and put an exciting spin on it that attracted public attention. This tendency was evident right from Nazareth (1971), which featured a big-selling European hit in a cover of Bonnie Dobson’s ‘Morning Dew’, made famous in 1968 by The Grateful Dead. European tours followed and Nazareth’s fame began to spread. The second album, Exercises (1972), was less rapturously received than its predecessor, but McCafferty and crew returned with a vengeance in ‘73 with Razamanaz, a huge international hit produced by Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, and their profile skyrocketed.
What is typical of the music business about the Nazareth story is how much pressure was put on them once hits from Razamanaz such as ‘Broken Down Angel’ and ‘Bad Bad Boy’ charted at Number 9 and 10 respectively in 1973. Their new record company, Mooncrest, wanted the hits to keep coming, and placed ridiculous demands on the band to deliver. Loud’N’Proud (also 1973) and Rampant (1974) followed in short order, and fortunately, Nazareth had the songwriting and performance skills to keep everyone happy.
1973 was definitely the year of Nazareth, when Melody Maker readers voted them Brightest Hope in the magazine’s annual poll. As is so often the case in the rock industry, though, the group’s fortunes waxed and waned. For example, at the end of ‘74, Mooncrest were eager for more singles sales. A cover of the 1966 Yardbirds hit ‘Shapes Of Things’ (from Rampant) might have made a good single, but in spring 1974 the self-penned ‘Shanghai’d In Shanghai’ was issued as a follow-up to September 1973’s huge-selling Joni Mitchell cover, ‘This Flight Tonight’. It failed. Mooncrest still wanted another hit, so Naz recorded the Everly Brothers’ hit ‘Love Hurts’, written by Boudleaux Bryant. This went nowhere in England but gained the Top 10 in America, while in Norway it reached Number 1 – and stayed there for almost 40 weeks.
1975 saw the release of Hair Of The Dog, whose title track lays down the blueprint for Nazareth’s stadium-sized heavy rock and metal anthems of the future: its ‘son-of-a-bitch’ chorus was custom-built for crowd response. The future members of hair-metal titans Guns N’ Roses were big fans of Nazareth, it emerged, as Pete Agnew explained to Metal Hammer. “Just before Guns N’Roses broke,” recalled the bassist, “we played seven gigs in California and they came to every one. Nazareth and Aerosmith were to them what the Beatles and Stones were to us. In fact their singer Axl Rose wanted us to play ‘Love Hurts’ at his wedding!”
Nazareth’s cover of Tomorrow’s 1967 hit ‘My White Bicycle’ – which got them to Number 14 in the singles chart in spring 1975 – was their penultimate taste of the Top 20. ‘Holy Roller’ crept up to 36 in late 1975, while three singles in ‘76 – ‘Carry Out Feelings’, ‘You’re The Violin’, and ‘I Don’t Want To Go On Without You’ – all flopped. Just as the ‘White Bicycle’ single began to chart, Naz’s label B&C Records went into liquidation, and it was only swift action by Bill Fehilly’s management company Mountain that saved the day. Mountain formed its own label and cut a licensing deal with EMI, who pressed Nazareth’s records until Phonogram took over distribution.
Close Enough For Rock’n’Roll, Naz’s seventh album, came out in early 1976 and was their first for the Mountain label, as well as the first to be recorded in Canada. The opener ‘Telegram’ is a musical diary entry by a successful hard rock band who are growing a tad weary of forever slogging it out on the road. The album fared poorly in Britain – no big surprise there – but helped to consolidate Nazareth’s hold on Canada, where they became one of the biggest British acts ever, notching up no fewer than 50 gold and platinum albums there during the 1970s.
Play ‘N’ The Game was released in November 1976. It continued the pattern of doing next to nothing sales-wise in England, a country eclipsed by punk rock, but sold shedloads abroad, breaking Nazareth in South America. In November 1977 Naz released the Hot Tracks EP, their last Top 20 single. Sadly, it was around this time that the band lost their manager Fehilly, who was killed in a plane crash. To this day, the members of Nazareth are the first to acknowledge that without Fehilly, they would never have crossed the border to England, never mind the world.
The 1977 album Expect No Mercy revealed a definite shift by Nazareth to the AOR market, with a funky 12-bar version of Ray Charles’ classic ‘Busted’, and an equally strong cover of Randy Newman’s ‘Gone Dead Train’. Sensational Alex Harvey Band guitarist Zal Cleminson was asked to join at this point, and – as Manny Charlton told Razamanewz – he brought a lot of energy and ideas with him. “I felt at that point that I was getting kind of stretched as a guitarist, and wanted someone else I admired and inspired me,” said Charlton. “I learnt a lot from Zal, he’s a great player.” Cleminson debuted on Nazareth’s tenth album, No Mean City, released in January 1979. A single, ‘May The Sun Shine’, reached Number 22, and ‘Star’ made it to Number 54 – Nazareth’s final singles chart entry.
The times were changing, all right, and for Malice In Wonderland, released in February 1980, the producer was Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, pedal-steel guitarist with the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. Sadly, Mountain was heavily in debt and about to go bust the same year. For weeks on end, instead of rehearsing, McCafferty and Agnew were on the telephone talking to money men and trying to pick Nazareth off the floor. Cleminson couldn’t deal with all the financial hassles getting in the way of rehearsals, and left to form his own band, Tandoori Cassette.
Switching to the NEMS label, Naz released The Fool Circle in February 1981 with ex-Spirit keyboardist John Locke filling out the sound on a few tracks. The music veered away from the commercial, American-sounding rock of Malice In Wonderland, delivering a mixed bag of rock, reggae and blues, with socially aware political lyrics thrown in as well. After The Fool Circle, a young guitar-slinger and songwriter from Glasgow who had played in Cleminson’s previous band, Zal, was recruited. His name was Billy Rankin. Around the same time John Locke was keen to join up, and so the next album release, the live double album Snaz, featured what McCafferty and Agnew now call ‘the Nazareth six-piece orchestra’. As before, it was Naz’s take on rock classics such as JJ Cale’s ‘Cocaine’ and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ that helped to make the album a massive international seller.
In 1982 the band released 2XS, featuring ‘Dream On’, which sold very well in the States and Europe, extending the band’s already extensive touring schedule even further. Locke then departed and the remaining five members produced Sound Elixir, another eclectic set taking in soul and funk sounds. After the tour to promote the album, Rankin decided to leave the band to pursue a solo career, returning Nazareth to their original four-piece line-up.
The remaining years of the 1980s were tough for Nazareth. While they released some excellent albums – The Catch (1984), Cinema (1986) and Snakes And Ladders (1989) among them – musical fashions were in flux and the classic rock audience which arose in the 1990s was still some years away. Charlton quit in 1990 after 22 years in the band, and for the first time in Nazareth’s career, the band’s four original members were no longer together. Rankin returned for the No Jive album in 1991, but was replaced three years later by the excellent Scottish guitarist Jimmy Murrison. An expert soloist and riff writer from a new generation of pyrotechnic guitarists, Murrison injected a priceless dose of enthusiasm into Nazareth. Keyboard player Ronnie Leahy also signed up, making Naz a five-piece for their new album, Move Me (1994).
Nazareth’s years of perseverance paid off in the 1990s, a profitable decade for the band. Signing to SPV and releasing their most acclaimed album in years in 1998, Boogaloo, Naz toured relentlessly, rediscovering loyal audiences worldwide. The success of Boogaloo in Europe and the impact of Naz’s Double Trouble tour with Uriah Heep led to a deal with the US label CMC International.
Just the Naz machine was climbing to the top again, tragedy struck. On April 30, 1999, drummer Darrell Sweet died suddenly from a heart attack. The group’s future was in limbo for a few months as families, band, and crew tried to digest what had happened, but after several band meetings, it was decided that Darrell would have wanted Nazareth to continue. In tribute to Darrell, the band selected Lee Agnew, Pete’s eldest son, to fulfil the drumming duties for Nazareth.
Nothing, it seemed, could stop Nazareth now. In a flurry of productivity, the group released a live album and DVD titled Homecoming in 2001, toured the States and Europe in 2002, filmed the Live In Brazil DVD in ’07 after world tours throughout the middle of the decade and released a much-lauded album, The Newz, in 2008, coinciding with the band’s 40th anniversary. Nazareth embarked on a lengthy world tour in celebration of this event, playing many fan favourites and showcasing material from the new record.
Encouraged by the positive reaction to the new material, Nazareth set about working on a new album in 2010. Recorded in the Czech Republic, the album, Big Dogz, was released in 2011 and as with The Newz, was very well received. Soon the band were back on the road again, promoting Big Dogz throughout 2011 and 2012. However, 2013 was a bittersweet year for the band. During a Greatest Hits tour, it started to become apparent that McCafferty was suffering from health problems. He had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which was making it increasingly difficult for him to perform. Ever the road warrior, he soldiered on for as long as he could, but by the autumn of ’13 he was forced to bow out from live work with the band.
Fortunately, 2013 also saw Naz complete a brand new album, Rock‘N’Roll Telephone. Featuring McCafferty on lead vocals and recorded in Rosyth, Scotland, it may be his last album with the band – but if that’s the case, he’s retired on a great one.
Dan fronted Nazareth brilliantly for 45 years. His legacy as one of the all time great rock vocalists is assured.
With Dan’s support, the band began auditioning singers in early 2014.
The result was to discover a very talented vocalist in 41 year old ‘local lad’ Linton Osborne.
Nazareth are now looking to move forward with the music and should begin touring again in the spring of 2014.
The story continues….