By Steve Newton
Thirty years ago tonight–on November 23, 1984–Nazareth played Vancouver’s historic Commodore Ballroom, touring behind its new album The Catch.
In advance of the show I interviewed frontman Dan McCafferty and–among other things–got the scoop on the story behind the group’s curious single, “Vancouver Shakedown”.
Here’s a slightly condensed version of the piece that appeared in the Nov. 23-30 issue of the Georgia Straight newspaper.
Back about ten years ago, one of the coolest things for a Chilliwack high school student to do was cruise up and down the town’s main drag–preferably in a Dodge Dart–and play eight-track tapes as close to the distortion level as possible. And as I recall, one of the tapes most often shoved into heavily boosted Power Play decks was Nazareth’s Razamanazz.Between gritty versions of Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz” and Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”–and such snazzy Naz tunes as “Bad Bad Boy”, “Too Bad, Too Sad”, and “Woke Up This Morning”–there was more than enough searing guitar and gravelly vocals to keep us on the road until suppertime.
These thoughts came flooding back as I spoke with singer Dan McCafferty last week, when he called the Straight from his home in Scotland. His band plays the Commodore Ballroom tonight (Friday) and tomorrow.”A lot of people buy records when they’re in their teens,” notes the veteran rocker, “and the moment they hit 20 they’re into cars and homes and whatever. They go out of the music scene altogether. But a lot of people stay in. There’s been guys coming to see us for 15 years and they still show up every time. And they usually know more about our albums than we do!””Nazareth’s new album on A&M Records, The Catch, is the first one in eight years that they’ve recorded in their Scottish homeland.
Last year’s Sound Elixir was recorded in Vancouver, at Little Mountain Sound, and much of their double-live LP Snaz was recorded at the Pacific Coliseum. The band members have also become good friends with such local rockers as Matt Frenette and Paul Dean of Loverboy, who were members of Streetheart when Naz guitarist Manny Charlton produced that band’s very first album.But Nazareth’s affinity to Vancouver hasn’t been withiut its debilitating moments. On their seventh album, Close Enough for Rock ‘N’ Roll, they recorded a song called “Vancouver Shakedown” that expressed their feelings about a local promoter they were less than happy with.”We got ripped off twice in Vancouver by the same guy,” claims McCafferty. Unfortunately, “Vancouver Shakedown” drew a lot of complaints from local listeners when it hit the airwaves. It seems the real message of the song was overlooked, and viewed as an attack on the city itself. The tune was blacklisted in Vancouver.
“Everybody over here took it as though we were actually slagging Vancouver to death,” says McCafferty. “And we go, ‘No no, we’re not slagging Vancouver, we’re slagging this guy who lives here.’ But there you go–life’s a spit and then you die, isn’t it? That’s all in the past.”
Listening to the new album, it’s pretty obvious that the hard-edged sound prevalent on albums like Razamanazz, Loud and Proud, and Rampant has been toned down a lot. According to McCafferty, the development of Nazareth’s sound is the result of both technical advances and the band’s freedom to “go with the flow”.
“A lot of our earlier albums were made in studios that had an on/off switch, and we didn’t know any better either. Plus we were younger,” he says with a laugh, “and we only knew four-and-a-half chords.
“I don’t think we’ve ever consciously thought, ‘Right, let’s change, let’s do this.’ The reason we’ve been together so long is because we’ve always done what we like to do at the time. We just went along with how we felt. It was the only way to go.”
For the making of The Catch, Nazareth went back to the original foursome of McCafferty, Charlton, drummer Darrell Sweet, and bassist Pete Agnew. The band had started adding other members after their 1977 LP Expect No Mercy, the last of whom was Billy Rankin. He played on Sound Elixir and 2XS, and toured with the band before recording his own Growin’ Up Too Fast and embarking on a successful solo career. Before Rankin, the second guitarist in Nazareth was Zal Cleminson, who some will remember as the mime-faced madman in The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
So how does it feel to be back to the original lineup?
“We like to try other things,” replies McCafferty, “and we have tried other things. But we like the original four-piece. I think the energy level of the band comes up when it’s just the four of us, because everybody’s busy, you know. We’re back to the real deal.”
Nazareth’s rise to popularity became with Razamanazz, but it wasn’t until their next album, 1974’s Loud and Proud–and the recording of Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight”–that the ball really started to roll.
“You know how you’re on the road and everybody’s got tapes? Well that song just kept showing up all the time on somebody’s fave-raves tape, off the Blue album. So eventually we decided to give it a go. Obviously we wanted to make it as far away from Joni as we possibly could, ’cause you could imagine how it would sound with me trying to sound like Joni Mitchell!
“It’s a good song,” stresses McCafferty, “and if you start with a good song it should be able to be played any way you want it.”
McCafferty’s talent as an interpretive singer was shown to its best advantage on his rendition of the old Everly Brothers song “Love Hurts”. Nazareth’s version was the 42nd cover of the song but the only big hit. To date the single has sold over four-million copies. In Europe, it has even out-sold the classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.
In closing, I asked McCafferty about the current music scene in his country, and got an interesting response.
“Well, Big Country‘s big now. They’re actually from the same town as us. And what I like about them–more than the fact that they’re local and I’m quite proud of them–is that they’re also guitar-oriented, which to me–in the last couple of years–is quite innovative. Because everybody else is using synths. Everybody. And a lot of bands are beginning to sound the same. It kinda worries me a bit because it’s getting like robot music, you know. It lacks a bit of soul for me.”
There’s no doubt that a lot of bands are beginning to look the same as well, what with the current video craze and emphasis on image. But Nazareth can truthfully say that they’ve always put their music first. Before costumes and makeup, before props and special effects, and definitely before video. And if McCafferty has his way, that’s the way it’ll stay.
“I hate doing videos,” he says. “I like doing live, concert-type videos, but I’ve hated the ones where I’m trying to be an actor. I’m not an actor, you know, I’m a rock and roll singer.
“I suppose we’ll eventually have to do another one, but I’m trying to avoid it. I’m hoping that I can make it on the music alone. Remember when music used to sell records?”