Nazareth Still Rocks 50+ Years Later
Pete Agnew discusses the Scottish rockers' upcoming 25th album, "Surviving the Law."
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. This newsletter has given me the opportunity to speak with a wide variety of artists, from up-and-coming, relatively unknown musicians to outright legends. For this issue, I was able to speak with someone very much in the latter category in Pete Agnew — bassist and one of the founding members of Nazareth.
Anyone listening to classic rock radio today or who spent any time listening to FM radio back in the mid-to-late 1970s knows Nazareth well. Whether it’s the emotional power ballad “Love Hurts,” or the rebellious singalong hit “Hair of the Dog,” Nazareth struck a chord. Given the current state of radio and how rock music is treated compared to other genres, it’s forgivable if readers of this newsletter didn’t even realize Nazareth existed still today. It does, and the band is still turning out excellent rock music.
The band has a new album coming out soon. And that’s the subject of today’s MRC.
Scottish rockers Nazareth have been churning out infectious heavy rock songs since their formation in 1968. The band’s self-titled debut album was released more than 50 years ago but didn’t leave much of a mark in the United States. Although the band found its footing in Europe in the early 1970s, releasing five albums between 1971’s Nazareth and 1974’s Rampant, it wasn’t until 1975 that the band made an impact on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean with the release of Hair of the Dog, driven largely by the last-minute decision to use intended B-side “Love Hurts,” on the U.S. release of the album. The Everly Brothers cover became a smash hit in the United States, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1976 and propelling Hair of the Dog to No. 17 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Nearly half a century since Hair of the Dog took Nazareth to the next level, founding member and bassist Pete Agnew is the only original member still with the band, which is about to release its 25th(!) album on April 15. Surviving the Law is the second album by the current Nazareth lineup, which includes Agnew, his son Lee (drums), Jimmy Murrison (guitar), and Carl Sentance (vocals). But this isn’t exactly a ‘new’ lineup for Nazareth.
Lee took over drumming duties when original member Darrell Sweet passed away in 1999. Murrison has been the band’s guitarist since 1994, when he replaced Billy Rankin. So three-fourths of Nazareth have been together for more than two decades. Sentance is the band’s newest member, but he’s been around for a while, having joined Nazareth in 2015 — just a couple of years after original singer Dan McCafferty retired from touring for health reasons, and following a short stint by Linton Osborne as the band’s front man.
At the time the band hired Sentance, the members of Nazareth weren’t interested in finding a sound-alike who could mimic McCafferty. They simply wanted a good rock singer who fit in with the band’s style. The English-born former vocalist for Persian Risk and the Geezer Butler Band fit the bill.
“I heard of (Sentance) through a friend of mine,” Agnew said. “Dan’s a very hard man to replace. I mean, he had such an iconic voice. And it’s always a hard thing to replace a lead singer anyway. We thought, if we want to continue, it’s kind of like starting all over. I was getting a lot of audition files sent to me. A lot of them were doing a Dan sound-alike, and a lot of them were very good at it, but I thought, ‘This is definitely what we don’t need.’ We need a good singer who can do Nazareth stuff but make it sound as if everything’s fresh. It’s all got to sound as if it’s fired up again.”
Agnew saw videos of Sentance on YouTube and consulted Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey, who had worked with Carl, and decided to meet with him.
“He sounds nothing like Dan at all. He doesn't he doesn't have the same approach but he's a very good singer,” Agnew said. “We brought him up to Scotland to have a listen to him. The first track we were playing, we just knew it. Everybody was nodding to each other, ‘Yeah, this is the guy.’ Halfway through the first song, we knew the gig was his.”
The Englishman brought his vocal sound to Tattooed on My Brain and did a fine job. Agnew said that the tour was well received and Sentance got favorable reviews, even from the fans on Facebook — a platform where people are not always nice or forgiving in the comments section.
Surviving the Law will drop April 15 across multiple formats: digital and CD — which will be available in all the usual outlets — as well as colored vinyl LP and even cassette(!). The vinyl and cassette versions are available only from the Frontiers online shop. Frontiers’ decision to do the cassette version came as a surprise to Agnew, who found it a bit amusing.
“When you do the sleeves from years ago, you would do all the lyrics and all this stuff and get the layouts for the CD,” He said. “And then they started doing vinyls again. And it was, ‘Oh yeah. Okay.’ So, now you’ve got to do the layouts for the CD and then the different ones for the LP, as we called them, but then this time, they said, ‘And the cassette booklet.’ And I said, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ So I was just waiting for him to ask me to get a book together for an 8-track. You know, it seems we're headed back to that.”
The follow-up to 2018’s Tattooed on My Brain, the new album features 14 of the band’s favorite tracks from a huge stockpile of songs the four members of Nazareth wrote during the pandemic. The band was supporting Tattooed when the pandemic hit and lockdown forced all four into writing just to avoid the monotony and boredom of being cooped up.
“When the lockdown thing happened, everybody became very serious about (songwriting), because there was absolutely nothing else to do and nothing else to take up your time, so (we were) fulltime songwriters,” Agnew said. “I know that happened to every other band I was talking to. During the lockdown I talked to other musicians, especially Mick Box from Uriah Heep — we’re close — and they were doing the same thing. He was just trying to write songs every day. I don’t think there'll be an album comes out within the next year or two for anybody that doesn't have some kind of reference to the time that they were locked down.”
The band had a wealth of material to choose from and ended up narrowing it down to 14 songs. Some of the titles seem to be about the lockdown, while others are merely coincidental. “Strange Days,” the first single off the album, isn’t specifically about that time period, but it is a catchy, up-tempo rocker that serves as the perfect opening track for the album. But there is at least one song about the pandemic.
“‘Waiting for the World to End’ definitely is (about the pandemic),” Agnew said, laughing. “Jimmy wrote that one. He still thinks that’s gonna happen, so you’d better watch this space.”
The band seems more cohesive on Surviving the Law than on the first album with the current lineup. The songs hang together more consistently — or at least the first 13 of them do. The final track on the album was the Agnew-penned “You Made Me,” which is less the hard rock one expects from Nazareth and more of a slow-paced, bluesy groove of a song. It’s the only track Agnew wrote that made the final cut and it’s a special one, not only because he sings the lead vocal, but because he also recorded the vocal for it on his 75th birthday.
“We liked it. That didn’t really fit with the album, so what we do is you stick it on the end,” Agnew said. “It was the 25th album. I sung the vocal on my 75th birthday. It’s got a lot of meaning for me. It was never meant to fit with the rest. The rest of the material does sort of tie together.”
Although he said he didn’t really have a favorite song on the record, he did mention “Strange Days” by name, and to me, the album opener is one of the stronger tracks. Other highlights include “Falling in Love,” which is a highlight for Murrison’s guitar work, and the second single, “Runaway.”
The band is in fine form throughout the record and some of the group harmony vocals on the tracks help to flesh out the choruses nicely. It’s a rock record worthy of the Nazareth name and although the hard rock style may be a callback to an earlier era, the production and approach give the album a modern sound.
The band is planning to tour in support of the record. Agnew acknowledged that the hard part of being around as long as Nazareth is that the audience expects the band to play the songs that made them famous to begin with, but there’s also a need to perform the new material. The band wants to play new stuff but they know they can’t just go out and fill the setlist with all new songs. The plan is to work a few of the Surviving the Law and Tattooed on My Brain songs in among the set of well-known Nazareth standards.
Agnew still loves to take Nazareth out and play live to the band’s fans. He said he hasn’t done anything special to be able to continue playing bass at a high level at age 75. Whether it’s good genetics or luck, his hands are still nimble and he hasn’t suffered any of the degenerative, repetitive-motion issues that often can plague older musicians. And, although he has nothing to prove musically, he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.
“Obviously I enjoy it. I feel very lucky to be able to be at a job, or a calling, or vocation or whatever, that you can keep doing,” he said. “There's no retirement age with this game. So, I'm thankful to be able to keep doing this ‘til I die. So, I’m hoping I can do that.”
“Strange Days” and “Runaway” are available on streaming platforms for those interested in checking them out. You can learn more about Nazareth at the band's official website and you can order Surviving the Law on colored vinyl or cassette from the Frontiers Music webstore.
Here’s the track listing:
You Gotta Pass It Around
Better Leave It Out
Falling in Love
Waiting for The World to End
Let the Whisky Flow
Ciggies and Booze
You Made Me
There’s no video this week (per Pete’s wishes), but for my full interview with Pete Agnew, as well as brief clips from both the new album and a couple of classics, you can check out this week’s episode of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. He’s got a fantastic Scottish accent and it was a pleasure talking with him about his introduction to music, his favorite early records, the success of Hair of the Dog (which broke the band in the U.S.), and much more.
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