Zal | Billy Rankin ex Nazareth guitarist
ZAL-Logo
“What’s yer Phobia?”
“I don’t have a Phobia.”
“THAT’S yer Phobia!”
(My first conversation with Alex Harvey, 1978)
Eddie-T
Eddie Tobin

Eddie showed up right on time, a little after 11pm, at my family home to take me on the overnight drive to London. But first, he spent a few minutes with my parents.

“I’m sure you’ve heard all the horror stories,” he began.
“No, we haven’t,” replied my mum, slightly bemused.
“Well, when you do, it’ll no be yer boy, right?”
“What horror stories Mr Tobin?” my dad enquired, just slightly more bemusedly.
“You know, smokin’, drinkin’, doin’ drugs, turning gay, marrying his smack dealer, dying alone in a manky bedsit after a botched sex change, that sort of thing.”
“Our son’s too sensible for any of that to happen, Eddie,” my mum nervously assured herself. “But we trust you’ll look after him for us, thank you.”
“Now don’t you worry, Mr & Mrs Rankin, I’ll take good care of him. Right, Billy, let’s go.”
As we drove away with my now totally and utterly bemused parents waving, Eddie turned to me and said:

“Think they bought it?”

I Know Him So Well” (Elaine Page & Barbara Dixon, 1984)

Except, I didn’t.

Until a few moments ago, Eddie Tobin had been the slightly dodgy, but likeable, grey-suited agent who’d steered our semi-pro rock band through the minefield of pub and club gigs in central Scotland. Now, within 10 minutes of our departure, I’d learned he’d been childhood friends of SAHB, been tour manager with both them and Nazareth and, most alarming, had a shitload of martial arts weaponry stashed under my passenger seat. Why did you have to say all that stuff to my folks?” I asked whilst relocating some piano wire on sticks from my arse. I mean,” I continued, I can’t even inhale a cigarette never mind smoke a joint or get ma boaby hacked off!” as I tried to ignore the suspiciously ‘boaby-hacker’ looking instrument between my legs. Oh, but you will, young man. Trust me, you will.”

Wait til you meet Chris.”

“You’re The Voice, try and understand it, make a noise and make it clear. Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh, Wo-Oh-Oh-Oh.” (John Farnham, 1986)

Before we continue, let’s rewind for a minute. When Eddie Tobin first called me into his office, several months previously, it was to inform me that, following Alex’s decision to leave SAHB, guitarist Zal Cleminson was forming his own band. I was the front runner to become its lead singer and (let’s be realistic here) 2nd guitar player. You may recall it was my vocal rendition of Led Zep’s Rock ‘n’ Roll which swung Eddie towards putting me forward for this job. He’d also informed Zal & Co I’d played the solo on Gang Bang, “Way better than you ever did, Clown Boy!” or so he told me. Being sworn to secrecy, I played along with the Thin Lizzy rumour, i.e. I was to replace fellow Scot Brian Robertson cos I wouldn’t be stupid enough to have my hand slashed in a fight the night before Lizzy’s 1st major US tour. (Frankie Miller was involved that night at the Speakeasy, so let’s cut Robbo some slack.) Then stories appeared in UK music mags announcing this so-called Zal Band had recruited a dancer and backing vocalist from The Tubes named Le Roi Jones as frontman, with one final member ‘To Be Confirmed.’

“Aye, that’s true,” confirmed Eddie to me on the drive to London.
“You’re the 2nd guitarist if Zal likes ye.”
“Wait!” I implored Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan/Eddie Tobin, “Can this Tube sing?”
Zal wants a frontman, an extrovert, a replacement for Alex I reckon, but Zal will be sharing the lead vocals with Le Roi.”
“Wait!” I repeated. “Zal’s learned to sing?”
“You’ve heard him do Big Boy, right? You’re supposed to have learned it for the audition.”
“Oh aye,” I nodded, “Nailed it, no worries.”
Silence ensued, then it had to be addressed.
“Wait!” I repeated. “Zal’s learned to sing?”
“Don’t Ever Say That To Zal!” he muttered.

And I never have.

Alex quits sahb
Mountain Records press release 1977
Alex quits sahb
Alex quits SAHB cutting 1977
“Silence Is Golden” (The Tremeloes, 1967) “The Sound Of Silence” (Paul Simon, 1964) “When You Say Nothing At All” (Ronan Keating, 1999)

On arrival in London, we drove directly to Zal’s house in East Finchley. Small talk ensued then we went to our first day’s rehearsal (and my audition) where I met Ted McKenna, Chris Glen and Le Roi Jones for the 1st time. All were most convivial though I still hadn’t spoken more than a few words to Zal himself. After running through some tunes, the most Zal communicated to me was, “Great sounding amp, Man,” and “Jesus! You’re loud.” Probably something to do with my ‘great sounding amp, Man’ but, by the time wed gone to a local café for a break, I was still none the wiser. Had I played okay? Did he like me? Is that David Coverdale in the booth next to us having a ‘Fat Bastard’ fry-up? (Yes it was, cos he was a Fat Bastard.) Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore and stopped looking at Coverdale’s rapidly diminishing platter.

Zal.”
“Huh?”
Am I in?”
“Sorry?”
“I’m just wondering, am I in?”
“In what?”
“The band. Am I in the band?”
“Oh, eh, Yeah, of course, you’re in.”
“The band?”
“Huh?”
Am I in the band Zal?”
“Yeah, I just said you were.”
“But did I play alright?”
“Play what?”
“Guitar, did I play guitar alright?”
“Yeah, of course, you did.”
“So, I’m in?”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re in.”

Kirkintilloch Herald 15th February 1978
New Musical Express 2nd February 1978
Record Mirror 2nd February 1978
Sunday Mail 5th February 1978
Sunday Mail 5th February 1978
Kirkintilloch Herald 15th February 1978
Kirkintilloch Herald 15.2.78

(The next part was told to me by Eddie to whom I’d confided my paranoia after this conversation, despite even Coverdale, between mouthfuls, rallying to my cause: “Yer In, Lad, yer In!”)

Hey, Zal. Are you okay with Billy?”
“Huh? Yeah, he’s great.”
“I’ll let him know.”
“Oh, he can sing too.”
“What?”
“Billy. He can sing too, don’t you think?”
“Aye Zal, but I think he knows.”
“Huh?”
Zal was a man of few words.

Still is.

“Excuse me Sir, can you tell me how I get to Carnegie Hall?”
Practice son, practice.” (Jack Benny, 1956)
New Faces Of Zal 78
The New Faces Of Zal press release 1978

Zal Band rehearsals were quite daunting for me at first. I had to fit into an outfit who’d played together for years as a professional unit, and an unpredictable Californian. After a few days, I got more comfortable with the weird chords and Zappa-esque time signatures favoured by Zal & Co, so it was time for another tutorial from Eddie.

“Sounding good William, but you’re just standing there.”
“So are Zal, Chris and Le Roi,” I rightly pointed out.
“But they won’t,” predicted Edward.
He then put me through some fundamental Rock moves, one of which I remember was based on Midge Ure, originally from Salvation then with Slick (which was Salvation with baseball uniforms) and long before he’d fed the world. It entailed running across the stage while spinning like a top, which I tried.
“Ma leg’s all caught up in ma guitar cable!”
“Aye, it is. Now run across the stage again and reverse your spin.”
Ye Gods, it worked! There then followed more lessons which attracted the band’s attention and suggestions. I was halfway through standing on one leg trying to get my dick out before realising Big Chris was ‘ripping the pish.’

Rehearsals complete, it was time to take my newly formed skills into battle, or at least to Sweden, where some warm-up gigs had been booked and where my real education began ‘In Earnest’ and in other blokes too.

“Fairies Wear Boots, you gotta believe me!” (Black Sabbath, 1970)

Or if Ozzy had been with us that day on the boat bound for Malmo, he would’ve probably advised me, “Ferries? Wear Boots.“

You may find this hard to believe, but my newest best chums in the Zal Band were extremely fashion conscious. Not on stage obviously, I mean our guitarist looked like Stephen King’s ‘It’s’ evil twin and our bass player wore a codpiece outside his trousers. But offstage they were the epitome of style: Designer jeans (straight cut, not bell bottoms), snazzy shoes and shirts, hell they’d even dab some makeup on if the situation required it. Le Roi was from LA. Le Roi always looked cool. Me? I was lost in the hippy years with a sprinkling of ’70s glam rock, without the makeup of course. Wall to wall flared jeans, platform boots and a big coat with an artificial fur collar.

passport 1974
‘Big coat’ passport photo 1974

This came to a head in the ferry bar en route to Sweden on 28th January 1978:
Are you wearing silver eyeliner?” I asked Zal & Chris.
Aye,” they replied.
Why?”
Makes our eyes pop a bit, dont you think,” Zal said, slightly too provocatively for my liking.
You look like a pair of poofs!” I laughed. I could be really quite cocky after 2 Swedish beers.
Really?” said Chris.
Well, you look like you play wi’ Nazareth!” (No, no, stay with me here. This is not the time or place for irony.)
Okay, okay,” I conceded. “I can lose the flares.” (I’d bought a pair of Fiorucci skinny’s with Zal during a shopping trip in London.) This defused the situation enough to prevent my new nickname of ‘Manny McCafferty’ from sticking.

Let’s go up on deck Billy,” Eddie suggested to stop me hearing the uncontrollable laughter anymore, or so I thought. Once there in gale force winds, Eddie said he sympathised with me and even asked to try on my coat.
Mmm. Cosy!” he nodded in approval.
Can I try your platforms?” Happy to have a kindred spirit, I obliged. First, he took my boots without even trying them on and dropped them over the side into the icy waters.
Oops!” he shrugged.
What are you doing, Maaan?” I screamed. Before he could answer, he’d swiftly removed my coat and threw it overboard with much gusto.
Are you mental? It’s freezing and all I’ve got is a pair of gutties (tennis shoes) and a paper-thin bomber jacket!”
Don’t sweat it, young man,” he said, leading me back to the bar where he announced to a suddenly attentive band and crew, “It’s done.”
After much jubilation, Chris put his arm around me and offered me an unexpected but in hindsight, pretty accurate summary of the situation.

“It’s only cos we love you, wee man. Look at it this way. For the first time in your life, you’ll be really, really cool… literally.”

“We were groovin’, we were movin’, pussyfootin’ and puttin’ it round.” (The Bay City Rollers: Shang-A-Lang, 1974)
Zal Sweden 78
Malmen, Stockholm, Sweden 6th February 1978

Before our gig at the small, but trendy rock club of Malmen in Stockholm on 6th February, we were all surprised by the arrival backstage of fellow Scots, The Bay City Rollers. They’d just played a sell-out concert at a massive local arena and had come down to say hello. Guitarist Eric Faulkner’s quip to Chris about how, “Some people say we look alike,” and our Chris’ response of, “Aye, son, they would. How IS yer Maw?” was met with hilarity all round, but the mood changed when Big Chris offered our guests the partaking of some cocaine. Nervous looks were exchanged and the offer politely declined, particularly by their manager and later convicted paedophilic predator Tam Paton. All good, we thought. It was nice of the guys to show up, even although they had to leave before we played cos in their manager’s words:

Swedish magazine February 1978
Swedish magazine 11th February 1978
Swedish magazine February 1978
Swedish magazine February 1978
Swedish magazine February 1978
Swedish magazine February 1978
Phonogram Worldwide press release 1978
Swedish Mag 78

“My boys need to rest.”
That’s when it was discovered frontman Les McKeown was missing.
“Where’s My Les?” shrieked Paedo Paton.
I went to the toilet and, after spotting a pair of tartan trousers under a locked cubicle, I suddenly became Sherlock Holmes. “Les? Is that you?”
“Aye. Who’s that?”
“It’s Billy. Tam’s lookin’ for ye.”
“Haud oan Billy!” so I did then he opened the door. In one hand Les held a toothbrush. In the other, a tube of Bostik.
“Try this, Billy Boy!” he proffered. “It’ll blow yer heid off!”

After relating to the band how a Pop Star had refused the offer of a Class A drug in preference to sniffing glue, it was once again down to Chris to sum up the situation. In reference to one of BCR’s million-selling singles, he soon had the dressing room singing along to:

All of Me loves All of Uhu!

“Shot By Both Sides. They must have come to a secret understanding.” (Magazine, 1978)

It couldn’t have been easy for Le Roi Jones,  a West Coaster from California joining 4 guys from the West Coast of Scotland. I mean, the language barrier alone had him believe everything we said was an act of aggression, because it usually was.

For example, “Ah’ll burst you!” (In the ensuing  fight I’ve just challenged you to, my superiority in battle will result in your total annihilation) or “Haw! Your Tea’s Oot!” (much the same meaning as the first example) or the infamous “Away an’ lie in yer pish!” (Remove yourself from this place and go roll around in your own urine). A new one Le Roi quickly became aware of occurred during our first ever gig at Dad’s Dancehall in Malmo. Ignoring it the first time from the 6-foot bass player to his right resulted in Le Roi lying spread-eagle on the floor with a Fender Precision up his arse. The second, from 2 armour-plated ferrets to his left had the same general outcome but with several Gibsons added to his rectum. “Get Oot Ma Road!” vaguely means: Kindly remove yourself from the immediate vicinity, you are in my way.

Being a quick learner, it didn’t take many clashes before Le Roi avoided injury but, as is common among Glaswegians, when there are no foreigners to bludgeon, we turn on ourselves. No sooner had I begun the ‘Midge Ure’ move Eddie had taught me, I realised there were two more ‘Midges’ flying around the stage and all of us would unwittingly end up in a pile of shit. It was carnage out there!

Zal Sweden 78
Sweden February 1978

This would be addressed in due course as would the other problem: I played a Gibson 335, an absolute powerhouse of a thing. Zal used a Gibson SG, might have been made from balsa wood for all we knew, but it was no competition for a 335 in either volume, tone or frequencies it covered. In Zal’s hands the SG had served him well with SAHB (little known fact: He played a Strat with Tear Gas) but he’d never had to compete with another guitar (Note: I said guitar, NOT guitarist. There was no competition there.) It started subtly enough and, as usual, Zal didn’t communicate with me directly:
Eddie: “Zal wants you to turn down a bit.”
Me: “Okay”
Eddie: “Zal says thanks, but a bit more?”
Me: “Okay”
Eddie: “Zal says thanks, but can you…”
Then Chris interjects:
Chris: “Ah’ve got this Eddie. My room, Now!”

As I still couldn’t inhale a joint, Chris set up a glass with a lump of hash on a pin and he and Eddie watched me breathe in the resulting fumes before resuming the conversation:
Chris: “Zal thinks you’re too thick.”
Me: “But I’ve got 6 O levels and 2 Highers.”
Chris: “No. Your guitar sound is too thick.”
Me: “It’s a Gibson 335, Duh!” (The drugs were starting to work.)

Chris: “You need to be thinner.”
Me: “But I’m only 9 stone with a 28″ waist which will change when I join that Nazareth outfit you earlier insulted,” is what I should’ve said but, not being clairvoyant, I’d gotten the point. I needed a less ‘Zal beating’ guitar and this would be sorted before our upcoming UK tour.

“Oh, one other thing,” said Eddie, who’d started to make me laugh uncontrollably just by drinking from his glass of milk, “Le Roi says you’ve to stop running him over, it’s getting tiresome.”

“Ah, look what they’ve done to the rock and roll clown. Ah, rock and roll clown he’s down on the ground.” (David Essex: Stardust, 1974)
Reading Uni 22.2.78
Reading University 22nd February 1978

After returning from Sweden on February 12th, ‘Zal’ had a week before starting our UK tour and, aside from a few tweaks to the set, I was the one having to make a few changes.

The first was finding a less ‘arse bursting’ guitar than my Gibson 335. Despite obvious Strat/Telecaster suggestions, I settled for an Ovation Breadwinner which was the first-ever axe to feature an active pre-amp with single coil pickups. I’m boring myself now so, suffice to say, it worked well sonically except for one gig at Sheffield University when Zal had technical problems and I had to play his solos. The second was taming onstage collisions and, as I was the ‘new boy’, had to stop the Midge Ure impressions.

“I’ll just stand still,” was my initial offer, but Zal rejected this.
“Why don’t we put you on a barstool?” suggested somebody. (I don’t recall who, but probably Eddie.)
“We’ll build a drinks trolley round ye and everything.”
“Forget the drinks trolley,” I begged.
“Why?”
“Cos Zal’ll just spill my drink while he’s knocking me off ma bar stool,” I concluded.

So, everything was sorted and the UK tour went ahead, but doubts were forming.

Mountain pic 78
Mountain Records promo 1978

The pressure was on Zal. The only songs he hadn’t written were a cover of Zappa’s Tell Me You Love Me and Le Roi’s most excellent Soiled Dove. In hindsight, Zal’s song topics were, well let me give you an example: Touchy Subject. The chorus went, “Ni**ers, w*gs and c**ns.” Despite the tune itself being an observation of racial hatred, it wasn’t about to be an audience sing-along at Wembley Stadium. On a less serious note, my gob was truly smacked when Alex Harvey and wife Trudi attended our gig in Harrow where the old master took me aside in the dressing room and offered me the guitarist’s job in his new band. (Yes he was pished, and yes it was in front of Zal, but I remember thinking, “What Balls!”)

The Marquee, London 22.3.78
The Marquee, London 22nd March 1978

Prior to the last gig of the tour at the famous Marquee club in London, we spent a few days in rehearsal adding 3 new songs to the set. Zal’s Simple Solution and Showdown At The Border, plus my 1st contribution as a songwriter (and bizarrely as a lead vocalist, like we didn’t have enough of those) on Jump Out The Window, which would come in handy later in this story. Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, (as old pals of Zal, Chris and Ted) came backstage to say “Hello” (get it?) and Rick, after discovering my tender age, referred to me as “Young ‘Un” for the rest of the night, probably cos he couldnt remember my name. It was only when I said I had him to thank for introducing me to Montrose (they supported Quo at the Glasgow Apollo, May 1974), I realised he wasn’t familiar with their warm-up acts. “Who?” he replied. Fast forward 17 years (September 21st 1991), when Nazareth supported Quo at Glasgow SECC, and, as we were about to take to the stage, Rick appeared, gave me a huge hug and yelled in my ear, “It’s a long way from the Marquee, Young ‘Un, innit?”

More gigs were booked, including a homecoming in Glasgow at the Pavilion, but Zal’s greasepaint was peeling.

“They seek him here, they seek him there. In Regent Street and Leicester Square.” (The Kinks: Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, 1965)
Ray Davies
Ray Davies

I met Ray Davies just after Mary and I moved to London in early 1978. We were staying in a bedsit next to Konk Studios in Crouch End and I was using the nearby phone box to call my parents. When I realised he was waiting to use the phone, I immediately phoned ex-Phase colleague John Burnett who was a huge Kinks fan. Ray kindly spoke to John and made his day but seemed more interested in yours truly. It was only later it occurred to me my ‘outfit’ may have contributed to his interest.

Lest ye’ve forgotten, my Hippy days were brought to an abrupt end on a ferry bound for Sweden and I now dressed, well, differently. The wardrobe changed a bit but, for the purpose of this, imagine a typical example: Long permed hair, mirrored sunglasses, gold bomber jacket, skin-tight salmon coloured trousers, huge multicoloured scarf and white cowboy boots.

This is what I wore to buy a pint of milk.

My first ‘adverse reaction’ came when I returned to Kirkintilloch and arranged to meet up with ex-Phase members, Allan and John for a pint. “We’re no goin’ to the Redbrae wi’ you dressed like that!” they insisted. “But it’s ma new image,” I protested. “Put yer jeans on, or you’ll get stabbed!” I put my jeans on.

Next, following a meeting at Mountain Records HQ in London, I arrived at Mary’s workplace and overheard the receptionist inform her, “Mary. There’s ‘something’ in reception to see you.”

Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan

Undeterred, a few days later, Chris Glen and I were enjoying a beer outside a café in Bond Street when I spotted comedian Spike Milligan at a nearby table. “Spike!” I exclaimed in full Christmas tree attire. “You’re my favourite comedian.” After looking me up and down, Spike replied, pointing at my pants, “And those are my favourite trousers!” then proceeded to ignore me til I shuffled back to our table.

Finally, after another record company meeting, I entered a trendy bar and couldn’t help notice none other than legendary actor David Niven sitting on the barstool next to me. (He was in town to purchase a new Rolls Royce at the nearby dealership in Berkeley Square.) After we’d nodded politely to each other, he leaned over and said, “Excuse me, but should I know you?”

Now, all of the above stories have been retold many times by Mary, usually in company when I’ve become too big for my boots (or just drunk) but here’s the twist.

“So darling,” she’d enquire.
“Who told you?”
“Huh? Told me what?”
“That you looked good?”
Zal,” I’d mutter.
“Who?”
Zal.”
“Oh, ZAL?” She’d then produce a photo of a guitar-toting clown, usually in full flow with his tongue hanging out before exclaiming

“Have you seen Zal?”

“I knew we had to say goodbye, when I felt that warmth against my thigh. Hey! Is that you pissing on my leg?” (Chris Glen aka Big Bad Benson, SAHB: The Impossible Dream, 1974)
Glasgow Evening Times 4.78
Glasgow Evening Times April 1978

Zal! Haw Zal! Ah can see your curly heid behind the couch, ya bastard! Zal! Answer the door!” (Chris Glen through Zal’s letterbox, 1978)

After our Marquee gig and the end of the UK tour, music mag reviews came through. They were less than favourable. “Back to the drawing board” was commonplace and it hit hard.

At the time, Le Roi and I were on £50 a week from Mountain Management. Zal, Chris and Ted were, I believe, on £100 but the bigger picture might’ve explained Alex Harvey’s decision to quit a few months earlier.  According to Eddie Tobin, each member was in debt to Mountain to the tune of £60,000. This was in part due to SAHB’s failed attempt at breaking America but, Holy Shit! That was a lot of dosh to pay back when your main man had walked out. Zal went AWOL, didn’t answer his phone, didn’t even have the strength to hide behind the couch apparently. After a few days, the poor guy was faced with a dilemma. I look on it as similar to when Mick Ronson went solo after Bowie. He was an important component of Bowie’s success, but not strong enough to be a frontman. Mick Ronson however, wasn’t £60,000 in the red. The only way to get out as Zal knew only too well was to quit the music business. Or, as Mountain suggested, join fellow stablemates Nazareth who were offering just that. “Fuck that!” said Zal. “I’d rather drive a taxi.”

And so he did.

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