The’ve have had their ups, and recently their downs. But now, in this year of their 50th anniversary, they have a new album, a changed line-up and a whole new lease of life.
In recent years Scottish rockers Nazareth have been hit with illness and dwindling live opportunities. Now, in the year of their 50th anniversary, they have a new boxset, a brand new album, a changed line-up and a whole new lease of life.
It’s August 24, 2013, and Nazareth have been forced to curtail a gig at the Summerdays Festival in Switzerland after just three songs. Six weeks earlier a similar thing happened at a show in Canada. Previously among the most reliable singers in rock music, Dan McCafferty was suffering from a worsening case of obstructive pulmonary disease, a chronic condition that restricts the ability to breathe. Four days later, McCafferty announced his retirement from the seemingly indestructible, Guns N’ Roses-approved Scottish band, thus ending his 45-year tenure.
“To try to carry on wouldn’t have been fair to Nazareth or the people who buy tickets to see us, so all I could do was cut and run,” McCafferty says. “But I insisted to the band that somebody had to take over from me. The music is just too good to lose.”
“There were tears in the dressing room, that’s for sure,” remembers guitarist Jimmy Murrison. “All of us felt so bad for Dan, and of course the uncertainty of the situation hadn’t been pleasant. But if Dan was going to leave, it had to come from him. Even now I miss the guy so much.”
Shortly afterwards, bassist and co-founder Pete Agnew fell ill and lapsed into a coma for almost a month. “They were making a wooden overcoat for me, it was touch and go whether
I’d make it,” he says now. “I suffered an entire collapse of my systems – kidneys, liver, you name it. The excess of all those decades was to blame. I hadn’t been taking care of myself, something I’ve since rectified. Luckily I made a miraculous recovery, and I figured that if I could live through that then I’m just going to keep rocking.”
The sad truth was that in the run-up to 2018, their 50th-anniversary year, Nazareth, like McCafferty and Agnew, had not been in the greatest of shape. Their most recent albums continued to sell to a small group of diehards, but outside of Russia, the quartet’s traditional stronghold, opportunities to play live were becoming harder to obtain. Replacing McCafferty with singer Linton Osborne didn’t work out, so they cut their losses and let him go.
“It was a mistake, pure and simple,” rues guitarist Jimmy Murrison. “That was an awful time for the band. I came very close to walking away from it all.”
During this period of uncertainty, Agnew, the group’s only remaining original member, became aware that he was juggling a sense of obligation on behalf of his long-serving bandmates – Murrison has been their guitarist since 1994, while Agnew’s son Lee took over on drums following the death of Darrell Sweet in ’99 – with gnawing half-heartedness.
“I was thinking about survival; keeping the band going could still be a nice job for a while longer,” confesses the 71-year-old. “But I had turned into that guy who sits quietly at his desk because he knows retirement isn’t too far away.”
And then out of the blue came a phone call from Ted McKenna, the former Sensational Alex Harvey Band drummer, who alerted Nazareth to Carl Sentance (previously of Krokus and Persian Risk, the solo band of Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler), who had been fronting Don Airey’s non-Deep
Purple exploits. After a YouTube brush-up, Agnew realised Sentance might just fit with Nazareth.
“Carl was so unlike the assortment of Dan soundalikes who had been in touch,” he says.
“Taking on one of those would have been suicide.”
Sentence was offered an audition, and singing just one song, Silver Dollar Forger, was all it took for Nazareth to realise they’d found their man. Midway through a second song, the musicians downed tools and offered him the job.
With a passion for far heavier music, Sentance doesn’t claim to be the biggest Nazareth fan in the world. “When the guys first approached me, my reaction was: ‘Wow, are they still going?’” he says with a chuckle, sounding slightly embarrassed. “I don’t mean that in a nasty way. They do so much work abroad, you don’t hear much about Nazareth in England, do you? But what a catalogue of songs. They’re an absolute pleasure to sing.”
As his vocal delivery gradually developed the necessary gruffness, Sentance really grew into the role. “I’ve become a lot more natural in the way I interpret the material and that allows my voice to project better,” he explains. “With each tour I’ve become more and more comfortable.”
Four years on from that night of dismay and soul searching in Switzerland, Nazareth are in a better, healthier condition. With a new singer, a revised home on the Frontiers Records label and an album of new songs, their first since Rock ’N’ Roll Telephone in 2014, the rise in fortunes couldn’t be much more contrasting.
“No disrespect to Dan, because he’s still my oldest pal, but Carl has brought us a whole new lease of life,” Pete Agnew says. “We’d been struggling for gigs and now suddenly people are keen to book us again. We’ve just got back from four huge gigs in Europe, including the Wacken Festival. There’s a whole new bunch of far younger people getting into us, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Tattooed On My Brain, Nazareth’s 24th studio album, is a spirited, spunky and sometimes belligerent set. From the AC/DC-ish swagger of lead-off single Pole To Pole, which name-checks their 1973 Top 10 hit Bad Bad Boy, to the hard-riffing boogie of its title track and the understated finale You Call Me Master, it’s enough of a Nazareth record to satisfy those still prepared to listen, and also offers some ideas to take the group into uncharted waters. In their 50th-anniversary year, the album provides the band with a clean slate.
“Without Dan we know we’re very much under the microscope, but that’s okay because we’ve got thick skins,” Lee Agnew acknowledges. “A lot of effort was put into making it sound like the ‘old’ band. Nobody went out of their way to break fresh ground, but of course we hope it will be wellreceived. I wouldn’t say we’re nervous, but however the fans react will determine our ability to carry on from this point.”
Given McCafferty’s contribution to the band, unsurprisingly there have been some naysayers. The ‘No Dan, no Nazareth’ brigade were always going to make their voices felt, but with the new line-up starting to find their feet, many of those naysayers are gradually coming back on board.
“I get that some feel negatively, of course I do,” Murrison says. “What I don’t understand is when it borders on annoyance, or even hatred. Nobody forces anyone to come and see us live or buy our albums. What gives anybody the right to tell Pete to stop playing music? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Pete Agnew believes that to a certain type of younger fan, the question of who is and isn’t in the band is almost an irrelevance.
“A lot of the punters who care about that stuff are now dead,” he half jokes. “I don’t know how much you can read into these facts, but when the first single was posted on YouTube there were eighty-three comments – two of them negative.
“To those who say this isn’t Nazareth [without McCafferty], it is – it says so on the poster,” he quips. “When we played Wacken a few days ago, most of the people who saw us hadn’t known anything different. They never saw the original line-up of this band and many probably didn’t even know that Dan was missing. All that mattered was the songs.
“When England went to the World Cup, your entire nation waved flags and cheered them – it didn’t matter that Bobby Moore wasn’t there,” he adds. “You can still support Manchester United without Georgie Best.
We’re not the Man United that won the European Cup, but we’re still [a version of] Man U.”
Perhaps so, but to persevere with the bassist’s football analogy, don’t the current Nazareth have more in common with a team recently back in the Championship after a spell in the lower divisions?
“Nazareth was never in the Scottish Premiership,” Agnew replies. “We could never compete with the Stones, Led Zeppelin or The Who, so we’ll never be in that top division – it’s too late for us. But, truthfully, I don’t mind.”
Some might say you’re in danger of cheapening Nazareth’s legacy, though, or that you’ve been reduced to being just a covers band.
“Those that say such things should try standing on the stage with us at Wacken and watching twenty thousand people having a fantastic time,” he responds. “Look, we’re not playing to the older fans any more – they’ve stopped going to
“Carl Sentance has brought us a whole new lease of life. Suddenly people are keen
to book us again.”
concerts. The average is in their twenties or even their teens, so we’re not cheapening anything. And to the people who believe that’s what we’re doing, I’d say fuck ’em.”
Whatever the record-buying public’s response to their new album might be, Nazareth won’t be going away – quietly or otherwise.
“I don’t want this to stop. As long as the Stones are still doing it, I’d still like us to make twenty-five albums,” Pete Agnew says, before adding with a laugh: “And besides, it would be embarrassing to pack it all in before Keith Richards does.”
A revitalised Nazareth: (l-r) Pete Agnew, Jimmy Murrison,Carl Sentance, Lee Agnew.“I insisted to the band that somebody had to take over from me. The music is just too good to lose.”Dan McCaffertyThe original line-up, circa 1975: (l-r) Darrell Sweet, Dan McCafferty,Manny Charlton, Pete Agnew.
Loud and proud: Carl Sentance(left) and Pete Agnew.