While heavy metal lacks popularity in their home town of Dunfermline, Nazareth are able to fill stadiums in other parts of the world.
A packed sports arena in British Columbia and Scots veteran rockers Nazareth were revving up, ready to pump out their driving rock and roll to a packed audience of thousands of long-haired, sweat lashed fans.
Gravel-voiced singer Dan McCafferty had just launched into his first vocals of the night, another high energy gig on a seemingly never ending global tour that had already taken the band on a relentless journey from Austria through Russia, Eastern Europe, on to Brazil, America – through the burning hell of an Arizona heatwave – and now Canada.
Lights down and ready to rock, McCafferty grabbed the mic and struck a pose on centre stage. Then promptly collapsed.
The dramatic incident just minutes into the band’s mid-July gig at the Cranbrook Curling Club ice arena in a town overshadowed by the Rockies sent shockwaves through the band’s worldwide fan base, from the bleak Russian Steppes to the carnival capital of Brazil.
While Dan was sped to hospital for emergency treatment, the rest of the band announced the immediate cancellation of the remainder of their Canadian tour – sparking fears that perhaps now, after 45 years of almost constant gigging and recording, they’d reached the end of the road.
Rumours of Nazareth’s demise, however, have turned out to be very much premature. Today bass player Pete Agnew is laughing off the health drama, while Dan, recovered and back in fine voice, is holed up in a Rosyth recording studio, belting out vocals for the band’s next album.
By Friday the non-stop rockers – Dan and Pete are both 66 – will be back on the road at a rock festival in Switzerland headlined by Joe Cocker, followed by shows in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.
“Dan’s fine,” laughs Pete, shrugging off the on-stage drama. “A lot of singers don’t really like performing in mountain areas because the air’s thinner and it affects their breathing. Dan got on stage but he couldn’t draw a breath.
“I thought he was going to puff out and I shouted across to him ‘Are you okay?’ but he just looked at me and said something like ‘Hell! No!’
“It affected him badly. We decided it was daft to try to continue and better to hit the remainder of the tour on the head and give it a break.”
Giving it a break Nazareth style, however, involves a few days of rest and respite before rolling up the sleeves and getting on with it again. Within weeks of the Canadian drama, the band had regrouped at recording studio The Sub Station in Hilton Road, Rosyth – just a couple of miles away from their Dunfermline roots – to lay down tracks for what will be their 23rd, or perhaps even their 24th album.
“I honestly can’t remember what number it will be,” chuckles Pete, who along with Dan is one of the original Nazareth members.
“I can’t even remember the names of the albums we did five years ago, never mind how many there have been. I do know this is the first album we’ll have made in Scotland for 35 years. Normally we’d be locked in a studio miles away, so it’s nice this time to do some work and get home for dinner.”
Which is odd, because getting home at night isn’t typically part of the Nazareth style. Hardened rockers – indeed, make that “rock gods” to devoted fans scattered across the world who follow their every move and gig via the band’s website and fans’ forums – they may be virtually ignored on their home territory in the UK, but elsewhere they are superstars.
In fact, Pete’s knowledge of far flung towns in the likes of Ukraine and Belarus far outstrips that of even well known spots closer to home, where bands like Nazareth, with their hard rock roots, struggle to compete with modern popsters like One Direction or even fellow Seventies’ singer Rod Stewart.
“It’s hard to make a living in this country,” says Pete, whose son Lee is the band’s drummer. “Rod Stewart is up in the premier league and we’re more first division. He can go and sell out Edinburgh Castle and we do the Alhambra in Dunfermline.
“So most of the time we’re abroad. It’s funny that we’ve played places like Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Chile and Alaska, but we’ve never even played Blackpool.”
“Actually,” he laughs, “we’ve been talking about what to call the next album, and one suggestion was to just call it ‘Never Been to Blackpool’.”
Clearly Blackpool’s loss is Russia’s gain. And Pete, for one, isn’t too worried about missing out on the Illuminations – not when he can count former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev among the band’s VIP supporters. “We’re like the Beatles in Russia,” he grins. “We play places like ice hockey stadiums and these big concert halls that are usually called things like the People’s Palace of Culture, great big concrete commie things and we are massive there.
“As far as we know we’ve not had Putin at our shows – maybe we’re doing something wrong there as we’ve not been arrested in Russia either. But we met Gorbachev in the VIP lounge at an airport.
“There was this wee baldy guy with his missus and all these guys in suits with him. He came over, we had a beer and he had a coffee. He was a nice guy.”
In a career spanning nearly five decades, Pete’s amassed a wealth of hard living – and sometimes downright ridiculous – rock ’n’ roll tales that make cult music movie Spinal Tap look like an episode of the Partridge Family. Such as the summer gig in Arizona in June just before Dan took ill, when the band found themselves trapped in a hotel room, unable to leave because going outside would have meant they nearly fried in the 120 degree heat.
“We went from December in Russia to being stuck in Arizona for five days because of hassles over flights. You looked out of the hotel window and never saw a person on the street, it was too hot to go out.
“In fact, the only people outside were two guys from our road crew who’d gone out and got lost. I phoned them up and said ‘get back inside you clowns, you’ll die out there!’”
Which could hardly be further removed from the icy blast of Austria at the peak of the skiing season when the country’s World Champion ski squad hit the slopes to the pounding beat of a specially composed Nazareth anthem, God of the Mountain. Bizarrely, the Austrian Ski Federation had contacted the Scots rockers last year with a plea for them to write a power rock anthem to inspire their downhill squad to victory throughout the season.
“They’d been on at us for months to write a song for the World Cup team, something they could play every time they went out to race,” recalls Pete. “I said to my son Lee that we’d better get it done and he came in the next day with God of the Mountain. I said ‘very good son, that’ll do’.”
He revels in the oddness of Nazareth’s lingering success in the strangest of places, but all joking aside, keeping the band going for four decades has involved a fair share of brutal hard work and a schedule he admits is “knackering”. Just preparing for a tour that covers so many diverse countries meant rehearsing a massive range of songs from their vast catalogue to ensure they perform songs that are best known in each country.
“We’ve had different hits in different countries, what we play in Brazil will be different from Russia,” explains Pete. “It doesn’t all happen by chance, you know.
“We’re not like the Rolling Stones. They turn up and play a couple of gigs and go away again. We never stop.
“We’ve put a few days between each gig this year, but we play 35 gigs in 42 days – now that’s a tour. By the end of it all, it’s no bother for us to order off a menu for each other.”
Of course the question is how much longer Pete and Dan – both heading for their 67th birthdays next month – can keep it going.
“There’s all this speculation about when we’ll stop,” shrugs Pete. “To be honest, we’re too busy to even think about it.”
DUNFERMLINE TO LONDON: START OF A LONG ROAD
NAZARETH formed from the remains of Pete Agnew’s original band The Shadettes, which started in Dunfermline in the early Sixties. His lifelong friend Dan McCafferty took the role of lead singer with the band and, by 1968, the original Nazareth line up – with Manny Charlton and Darrell Sweet – was in place, although the name did not change until 1970, when the group arrived in London.
By the mid-Seventies, they had achieved chart success with songs like Broken Down Angel, This Flight Tonight and My White Bicycle.
Among the band’s fans is Guns ‘n’ Roses singer Axl Rose, who asked them to play at his wedding.
The current line-up includes Agnew’s son, Lee, on drums and guitarist Jimmy Murrison.