Nazareth made their name with thumping hard rock but were too creative and versatile to stick to a heavy formula for any length of time. The ballsy attack and monster-mascot covers of 1977’s Expect No Mercy and 1979’s No Mean City primed them for the early 80s heavy metal boom. But while Motorhead, Saxon and the like were hammering out their leathery biker anthems, Dunfermline’s finest went soft. They teamed up with producer (and famed Steely Dan/session muso) Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter for the sun-kissed adult rock of 1980’s Malice In Wonderland. Flirting with reggae on Big Boy? Getting disco fever on Talkin’ Bout Love? You might question the band’s decision-making, but the end result was one of Nazareth’s most enjoyable albums.
Holiday and Showdown At The Border are tasty Lizzy/UFO-ish rockers with sublime hooks. Heart’s Grown Cold is a beautiful, affecting gospel-tinged ballad and Ship Of Dreams has a West Coast hippy vibe right out of Love’s Forever Changes. Baxter’s production tones down the band’s guitar heft and reduces Fast Cars to a boring plinky-plonk but the album sounds lush and the focus on song allows vocalist Dan McCafferty to shine. And guitar-lovers will enjoy the strong contribution from Zal Cleminson whose playing and writing give the album a witty, eclectic edge that is reminiscent of his work with Alex Harvey. So… no monster mascots here, but this is still killer stuff. An overlooked gem for rock fans that like it classic and classy.
Humble Pie was one of those 70s bands that struggled to capture their magic in the studio before scoring big with a live album. But following the success of the essential Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore they were then faced with the challenge of coming up with a satisfactory studio follow up. An even more daunting prospect given that the supergroup was now rendered considerably less “super” following the departure of founding member Peter Frampton.
Frampton felt that the audience had decided the heavy blues rock direction that The Pie had to go in and that meant the pastoral acoustic diversity that he contributed to previous albums was no longer required. The accepted narrative is that the band’s first post-Frampton outing, 1972’s Smokin’, is a harder rocking affair but that’s only partly true. The whole album is more consistently rooted in soulful, bluesy rock but there’s still plenty of mellow diversity. So for every hard-riffing track like Fixer you get an Exile On Main Street-style rootsy outing like Old Time Feelin’.
But the standout moments of Smokin’ are undoubtedly the louder tracks. The smouldering boogie of Hot N’ Nasty, a fat riffing cover of C’Mon Everybody and the superbly greasy rocker 30 Days In The Hole are all brilliant showcases for the peerless vocal power of Steve Marriott and the guitar chemistry he forged with new recruit Clem Clempson. The mellow tracks aren’t as exciting or memorable but tracks like the Zep-blues of I Wonder impress and add crucial depth and variety.
Smokin’ lives up to its name. It’s a rockin’, feel-good time with a loose and natural production and delivery that successfully captures the band’s live prowess. A gradual, coke-fuelled decline in quality on subsequent albums makes this Humble Pie’s studio peak and ensured that the band would remain overlooked and under-rated, especially in their native UK. But fans of rootsy rockers like The Stones, The Faces and Cream (as well as more modern acolytes like The Black Crowes) should definitely check out The Pie and Smokin’ is the perfect place to start: a great band and legendary frontman at the top of their game, proving that they could rock in the studio just as well as they could in the Fillmore.