THE ROCK GOD is in the house and no one seems to know it. Fuxake, good lyric that, innit? Translation: Billy Rankin is playing to about 50 people in the Crowwood Hotel outside Muirhead, and most people aren’t listening because they think he’s just another pub guitarist. And okay, he is a pub guitarist, but he’s a pub guitarist who used to play to 15,000 people a night, every night.
Yes, we’re talking about the long-lost days when it meant something to be in a Scottish rock band. Nazareth and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band ruled the fukkin’ world, man, and the noisy bastard currently rocking out in a corner of the hotel lounge was up there, part of it all, touring the universe, earning gold disc after gold disc, wearing silly outfits and generally having a brilliant time.
Talking to Billy (that is, being talked at by Billy) is entertainment in itself. He’s no big-headed asshole – he’s a wee-headed asshole, ready to take the mince out of himself, then you, then anyone else who enters the conversation. He’ll happily tell you about his time in Nazareth, his two solo albums, the good times and the bad times. Trying to keep track of it, however, is very seriously difficult. So we won’t attempt to break the interview into nice little manageable sections. You can deal with it the way we had to – talk overkill…
BN: People say the last Nazareth album, Move Me, was their best in years. Did that make you proud? BR: Yeah, cos I did all the writing and the production and the drum programming… it was like a Billy Rankin solo album with Dan McCafferty singing. Not taking anything away from Pete Agnew, but I had to spend ages with him, basically just to get him drunk enough to play his bits!
We were going to put down the guitar and bass tracks then Darryl Sweet was meant to play the drums live over that. But he listened to the drum machine and said ‘well, that’s what I would have done, so why bother?’ So he spent all his time in the Irish pub down the road…
The band lost their spark years ago, when Manny Charlton was still with them. At that time Manny was doing all the work, and when he stuck up for himself they popped him. It was the same with me. It was like, ‘yous are all away to the pub all the time, and I’m taking over from Manny!’ Apparently this new boy they’ve got is just the same – he’s got these brilliant songs they’re going to do. But the last album was with a major record company and it did nothing, so even if they get a major album deal the new one will still do nothing. It’s past – it’s gone.
BN: It sounds as if a vast majority of it all was a pain in the arse.
BR: No, no, it wasn’t. It’s just that the amount of times I’ve been ripped off has made me a bit cynical. But I’ve managed to make a living out of what I enjoy doing… I sound a bit hard but it’s not really that bad. I mean, tonight, I’m playing here and I’m looking forward to it, because that’s what I do, it’s what I do best… I mean, I canny rewire a plug or anything…
BN: Obviously Nazareth was the high point in your career so far. What had you been doing before then?
BR: I started when I was 14, in about 75-76, and my first write-up was in the Kirkintilloch Herald. I was in a band called Phase, and you could be working five or six nights a week in Glasgow. There was the Maggie, the Houff, the Doune Castle, the Amphora, the Charing Cross Hotel… we used to have to paint moustaches on to get into the gigs to play! We’d go up to the bar and get fresh orange and lemonade, and we had a joiner in the band who was a year older than us and he’d get a lager shandy, then we’d be asked for ID… sometimes we’d lose gigs coz we were too young to play them!
BN: Then you joined Zal Cleminson’s band when you were 17.
BR: I came from the pub gigs in Glasgow to joining Zal’s band and playing in Sweden and that, playing to two or three thousand. The first five minutes were like ‘woa!’ then it would be okay.
It was the same with Nazareth – when I joined them I did a week’s rehearsal then the first gig on the tour, which was a stadium. I was like, ‘we’ll never fill that – you canny see the end of it!’ April Wine were supporting, then we went on, and you should have heard the racket when we appeared on the stage! That threw me, but after a couple of minutes I was like, ‘yeah! More of that!’
But you get the same buzz in a pub. Thing is, at a stadium you can only see the first three rows anyway… mind you, you can hear everyone!
BN: You became good mates with Alex Harvey, didn’t you?
BR: When I was with Zal’s band, Alex came to see us one night – the same night he choked my wife-to-be, but that’s another story. Anyway, I’d had a terrible gig, amps blowing up and all that, and he came over and said ‘you’re really good!’ He became a friend after that.
He was often like a father to me. ‘Drugs? Don’t take them, son, they’re no good for you,’ he’d say. He’d take them, right enough… ‘That’s a double vodka, you don’t want that, I’ll drink that…’ ‘You don’t want to go away with that woman, I’ll have her!’
But he once said to me: ‘Gigs never change – it doesn’t matter if you’re playing to hundreds or hundreds of thousands, you’ll still get the same highs and lows and the same technical problems.’ He was right – he was always right…
BN: A lot of acts have covered your songs. How do you feel about that?
BR: You find a lot of my Nazareth stuff turning up on metal bands’ debut albums – not loads, but quite a few. There aren’t really any I particularly like – the original way you did it sticks in your head as the way it should be done. With the covers I’ve heard, no one’s really changed the song – what’s the point in that? If you’re going to do a cover you should rip it apart and do something new. Nobody’s ever done that so far.
BN: What about covers by famous people? Meatloaf did one of yours.
BR: Aye, he did Burning Down from my solo album, Growing Up Too Fast. My then manager signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell without telling me, and sent them all my stuff including my first album, which was published through A&M. So Warners thought they had those songs, but they didn’t. I found out because I got this letter saying I had to agree to cover any publishing debts if my manager went bankrupt, and I said: ‘I’m not signing anything like that!’ And they said: ‘but you must – we’ve already got Meatloaf doing one of your songs.’ So that was different, of course… But then I found the song was Burning Down. I said: ‘You haven’t got Burning Down – that’s A&M!’ so the next week they were suing the manager as well!
But Meatloaf was already recording it. Rotten cover version – he really murdered it… he did it with African backing singers and all that, and he had all these lassies singing the chorus, and no live drums and all the synthesiser stuff, and this song’s about the Jacobite rising – you know, a really Scottish song! Still, I got the money for it…
Barry Manilow held one of my tunes for two years – no one else could do it because he was holding it. The businessmen were saying ‘don’t give that out to anyone else until you hear otherwise – Barry might be doing it.’ So the big-nosed bastard sat on that for two years. He didn’t use it, but he did an Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople) song, Two Ships, which made Ian rich again – that was murder too – you want to have heard it! oooh…
BN: What has been your most memorable moment?
BR: Playing the Mick Ronson memorial gig at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. I modelled my whole style of playing on Mick – as far as I’m concerned he’ll always be the guvnor. Trevor Boulder (Spiders from Mars basstard) used to say: ‘you remind me that much of Ronson, the way you play, the way you stand, even when you give the guitar to the audience and let them play it’ – I got that from Ronson – ‘You just look like Mick with dark hair, you know?’
So when Mick’s sister Maggie went to do the tribute concert, she told Trevor and Woody (Woodmansey, Spiders drummer) to pick a guitarist to replace Mick. There were plenty of other people up for the job but Trevor told me: ‘there’s nobody else I want to do it – playing with you is as near to playing with Ronson as you get’.
Bill Nelson, one of my heroes, played too, but he didn’t have Ronson’s style. I do coz I learned to play off Mick. And there were some great rock moments that night. I kept meeting Rolf Harris and just saying: ‘you’re Rolf Harris!’ and he was trying to be polite about it. But when you’re right in the middle of the stage, during the encore, and some long-haired big-nosed wee Scotsman comes up and says: ‘You’re Rolf Harris’ for the third time, you start to lose patience! I was sharing a mic with him and Tony Visconti. We were doing All the Young Dudes and Rolf didn’t know it, so he’s up covering for himself: ‘Aw-eee-ung-ooooo’ and I’m going: ‘You’re Rolf Harris’…
I don’t want to talk about personalities… but a couple of my mates were at the gig, big Queen fans, and they were trying to talk to Roger Taylor, and he was pretending he couldn’t understand them… Then he’s playing drums on All the Young Dudes, and I’m up with Roger Daltrey and Rolf Harris and all that, and Woody’s up hitting drums and cymbals beside Roger. So at the end of the song Woody turns to shake his hand and Roger snubs him and just disappears.
After the show, Woody was grumbling about it, and I said: ‘what are you waiting for? Doon ti’ his dressing room – I’ll come with you!’ Because I’ve spent the week teaching all the stars the Scottish way to deal with things, the way Alex Harvey taught me: ‘Awa’n’ lie in yer pish!’ So we spent a while rehearsing it and then…
Woody: Hey, Roger!
Roger: Yeah, man, wassup man?
Woody: You snubbed me back there.
Roger: Sorry, man? Wot yoo on about, man?
Woody: You snubbed me.
Roger: Wot, man?
Woody: On the stage. You snubbed me.
Roger: Nah man, sorry man, yeah man…
Woody: No, I don’t want to shake your hand…
Me: Go for it, Woods!
Woody: Away un’ lie in yur pish!
Roger: …away and wot? Sorry man? Wot yoo on abaht, man…?
But it was a great concert, and I’ve got it all on video except the bits with me in it – there’s one bit with me walking off the stage and that’s it…
BN: What was the biggest gig you ever played?
BR: 280,000 in Budapest. We were headlining to get 280,000 bottles flung at us! A film crew were making Grizzly II that night. It was like this 45-foot Rupert the Bear with a wee toy tree like you’d have in your khazi, and a guy at the top of it shouting ‘No No Get Away You Nasty Bear.’
So they were setting it at a Woodstock kind of thing, and they had a stage with actors pretending to be the headline band. It was like a Kiss set – they had elevators and bombs going off and everything. Nazareth were the real headliners but they had to go on after us.
So the bear’s at this rock festival and it gets out and goes rampaging and killing people…This concert was set up for that, so they’d set the scene with Wishbone Ash and the usual crew, and we headlined and we got pelted – it should have been the highlight of our career but we got pelted!’
So then the actors go on, Predator they were called, miming to taped music. We’re talking to the ‘singer’ before he goes on, saying: ‘have you ever played to anyone before?’ and he’s saying: ‘no – you guys are amazing playing in front of all that – I just have to mime.’
He came up on an elevator and he was meant to jump up and grab the mic, but there’s 280,000 people looking at him so he just froze! They had to do it three times – they had to give him something to calm down, and the audience were all like, ‘hold on a minute, we’ve heard this bit, why does that guy keep coming up and standing still and going back down again?’
BN: What was the best gig house to play?
BR: The Cobo Hall in Detroit was brilliant. I lost three guitars in one night to the audience out on the catwalk, when I had a deal with Washburn. Every time I went out on the catwalk I never had the big Gibson on, I always had a Washburn, and they’d grab a hold of it and unclip it. They were biting it and ripping it apart, and I loved it! The Glasgow Apollo was brilliant. I’d seen all my heroes there and I’d used to hope I could play there one day, and I did it. I played it in 1982 just before it was knocked down…
BN: Who was the best act to support, and who was the best act to support you?
BR: One of the best tour packages we were ever part of was Rose Tattoo, Nazareth and Aerosmith. Both brilliant bands. I remember playing Toronto one night, the same night I pulled a needle out of Steven Tyler’s arm – he didn’t recognise me, he was just saying ‘hey man, help me get this out’. Angry Anderson from Rose Tattoo came into the dressing room after they’d been on, and he went up to Dan McCafferty and said, ‘Hello Dan, I’m Angry,’ and Dan said, ‘What about, son?’ They were lunatics – the bass player used to catch bottles that got flung at him, and fling them back into the audience – he didn’t care who they hit. But the audience got the message, they realised they’d better stop it!
BN: So what are you planning next?
BR: Hunners of things. I’m working with a new singer, Tony – he’s a black Mick Jagger. He wouldn’t mind me saying that, coz he is, he sings and acts like Jagger. The only thing is, Mick’s learned from experience that you can’t record a track in the studio while you’re slinging the mic about the place.
Tony and I wrote the album here in the Crowwood House – I got him good rates! Then we went to Berlin to record – it was me, Tony, Andy Wells (the drummer with Then Jericho) and Chris Childs (who’s now joined Thunder for their tour).
We were watching Tony singing a track, and suddenly he stops, takes the headphones off and disappears, and the studio tech’s like: ‘Vot’s happenink here?’ and I’m like: ‘it’s okay, he’s aff his heed, I’ll get it sorted…’ So I run after him and I start, ‘Tony, what’s wrong…’ but I don’t need to finish because I’ve guessed: ‘Have you shat your trousers?’
And he says: ‘Yeah, man, don’t tell anyone!’ which is a stupid thing to say to me. Then he runs off to the toilets. We’re six storeys up and he wheechs his underpants out the window onto Berlin high street! So eventually he goes back to the booth, and Andy says to him: ‘Hey Tony, either you’ve put your dick on back to front, or you’ve shat your trousers!’ So that joke went on all week… Hey Tony, is that a canoe in your back pocket?
Tony’s got four deals he’s chasing – I’m his co-writer. He can’t play a note so he sings a note and I batter about – we’ve got a chemistry. It’s honest rock’n’roll. A lot of people don’t like his singing, but he’s got a thing about him. It’ll be hit or miss… it’s more Stones-like, geared for Tony’s voice.
By this time we’re all anecdoted out, a danger when in Billy’s company. Fortunately he has to go away and play an acoustic set, with his stunning voice, genius guitar and silly stamping-board. The Rankin set is memorable for Ziggy Stardust, Get It On, various SAHB and self-penned numbers, and a serious educational moment when the teenyboppers discover a certain well-known Boyzone song is in fact a Cat Stevens song! Billy follows this with a full-electric set featuring himself on lead/rhythm guitar and vox accompanied by DAT recordings of himself.
He was always the wean in a crowd of older musicians, which leaves him around 35 and with plenty of time to do it all over again. And if that doesn’t work, he could easily get away with a Rollins-style gig/lecture tour, such is the enterainment value of the man.
SEEMINGLY the only person who can keep the Rankster under control is his wife, a source of constant support etc etc and plenty of putting down…
BR: We’ve known each other since we were weans. I used to put her windows in because she lived in the Catholic street and I lived in the Protestant bit. Then her eight brothers grew up so I gave her some respect after that. She used to buy petrol for the van in the old days. She’d say “Are you sure you want me to come on the road with you?” I’d say “Aye, hen, I love you. I don’t want to be without you. Can you gies a fiver for petrol?” She worked in a bank so she had a credit card and a cheque book, so the band could say “The cheque’s in the post.”
She’s never been over-impressed with the music business. A&M phoned me when my solo single, Baby Come Back, charted in the Billboard top40. I shouted to her: “I’m in the top 40,” and she said “That’s a lot of record sales…who’s buying it?” Then she goes: “That’s the one you wrote in the lavvy, isn’t it?” I used to keep my gold and platinum discs in the lavvy til she said they lowered the tone of the room…