Rockford Rocked Interviews: An interview with Billy Rankin of Nazareth

By Todd Houston

At the Clock Tower in Rockford in November 1981, the day after Nazareth played the MetroCentre with Molly Hatchet and Joe Perry.
At the Clock Tower in Rockford in November 1981, the day after Nazareth played the MetroCentre with Molly Hatchet and Joe Perry.

Following is an interview with Nazareth’s Billy Rankin, who has played Rockford a number of times.

Rockford Rocked Interviews (RRI): You were born in Lennoxtown, Scotland, and were a member of the platinum album-selling band Nazareth. Tell us a bit about your childhood and how you got involved in music.

Billy Rankin (BR): As was the rule in Scotland during my growing up, you either became a musician or a soccer player … or worked down the mines! I was lucky enough to have a family who supported my early musical journeys, though my cello playing expertise was always hushed up. (Seriously, scratching between your legs doesn’t get you girls!) After joining Nazareth stablemates “The Sensational Alex Harvey Band” aged 18, I was Naz’s first choice as replacement for Zal Cleminson, ’cause he played with SAHB, too.

RRI: As a guitarist myself, I’m curious to know which guitar players you looked up to when you first started out playing. In other words, who were (are) your guitar heroes?

BR: Oh, there’s so many, and I’ve been lucky enough to have met ’em all! Alvin Lee, Mick Ronson, Ritchie Blackmore, Ted Nugent, Rory Gallagher, even Jimmy Page, who bought me a scotch at a wedding. Then, after visiting the restroom, forgot he’d done so and tried to have me thrown out! Harrumph! (laughs)

RRI: Hilarious! You guys (Nazareth) have been in Rockford a few times. The Speedway with Ted Nugent in 1979, and then headlining shows at the MetroCentre in 1981 and 1982. What are your memories of those events, if any?

BR: Rockford was always a great rock ’n’ roll town. In fact, I remember losing a couple of guitars to the audience on one occasion, then watching as they got torn apart. The only other place that happened to me was in Detroit. (Thank goodness for guitar sponsorship, huh?)

RRI: Around 1983, you left Nazareth and released your first solo album, Growin’ Up Too Fast, scoring a U.S. hit with the song “Baby Come Back.” Just how many teen movie soundtracks did this song appear on?

BR: Ha! A lot! More to the point, this was just when MTV came out, and I remember being mobbed by some kids in an ice cream parlor who recognized me from TV! I bought them all an ice cream … you’d get arrested for that nowadays! (laughs)

RRI: Nazareth covered the song “Love Hurts” on the platinum-selling album Hair of the Dog. The song ended up reaching No. 8 on the U.S. Top 10 Billboard charts. Do you ever wish that you had written it? Royalties must have been pretty good for ol’ Boudleaux Bryant. Thoughts?

BR: Are you s—tin’ me, Todd? Of course I wish I’d written it. I’ve played it like 5 million times! We also had a hit with Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight,” which she played at a gig in Germany we attended. She introduced it as “A Nazareth song.” That was a special moment for us.

RRI: You have been involved with the other side of radio now for quite some time. As of this interview, you have your own show called Billy Rankin’s School of Rock on TeamRock Radio Streamed from London but available on DAB in the U.K. and digitally throughout the world.

BR: Yeah, I’ve been doing radio now for about 10 years. TeamRock are a new “multi-media” company with big plans worldwide. I’m extremely glad, though slightly bemused to be part of it all. I think my question to Kid Rock a few years ago “Why are you so crap?” may have swung it my way!

RRI: All right, Billy, I’m going to say a word or phrase, and you reply with the first thing that pops into your head. Ready? Here we go. Cheap Trick …

BR: Meeting Rick and Robin in a London music store 1978. Then, a year later, hearing the guitar riff I’d been playing that day appear on their Dream Police album. A few years ago, I confronted them about it, and they claimed it was “subconscious plagiarism.” “Don’t take offense, Bill,” Robin [Zander] said reassuringly. “We’ve subconsciously plagiarized much better than you!” (laughs)

RRI: Gordon Ramsay …

BR: Oh, he’s a fellow Scot (or claims to be), so I’d best be careful here.

RRI: Rory Gallagher …

RRI: A true hero of mine, and a genuinely nice guy, too. I first met him in a Glasgow pub in 1973 asking for his autograph. He obliged, and bought me a beer, too. I was 14!

RRI: Haggis …

BR: A splendid Scottish dish best served with mashed potato and a dram of malt whiskey. (Don’t ask what it’s made of … oh, all right. It contains Gordon Ramsey’s bollocks.)

RRI: Houses with straw and grass for roofs …

BR: We lived happily in them till the Romans arrived in 400 A.D. They laughed at us, so we ate them. (Romans also go well with Haggis, just sayin’.)

RRI: Yes or no … was Mel Gibson’s Scottish accent in Braveheart a joke? Be honest, sir.

BR: Mel’s cry of “Freedom!” made him as welcome in Scotland as a fart in a spacesuit. Nuff said!

RRI: What’s next for Billy Rankin?

BR: Oh, I dunno. Keep flying the flag for rock ’n’ roll? A wee dram and some Haggis this weekend? (It’s Burns Night, Jan. 25.) Maybe visit Rockford again someday? That would be cool!

Before I go, I’d just like to say I’m well impressed with what Todd and others are doing for your wee town. Make’s me think there’s a bit of Scottish in y’all, ’cause that’s what we do!

Keep punching above and beyond your weight, Rockford, and above all, keep rockin’!

From the Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2015, issue

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