Highlands & Islands

Rocker Zal Cleminson is feeling 'sensational' at 70

Zal Cleminson and sin'dogs Image copyright Mike Drew
Image caption Zal Cleminson now plays guitar and performs lead vocals with heavy mental band sin'dogs

Zal Cleminson was a member of two of Scotland's most famous rock bands of the '70s but he fell out of love with the music scene.

As he celebrates his 70th birthday, the former Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Nazareth guitarist is back on stage and louder than ever.

Zal has been playing music since he was a schoolboy in Glasgow in the early '60s, playing in a band called Bo-Weevil.

"I started with the band when I was 15," he says.

"We'd jump in a van and do gigs all over the country, going up to places like Aberdeen and Inverness.

"We'd get back home on a Sunday and I'd go back to school the next day."

Top of the Pops

His school careers advisor suggested that he should take up a clerical officer's job at a new savings bank.

But Zal, then 17, failed his school exams.

He says: "The next day Bo-Weevil did a gig in Aberdeen and my music career started there."

Cleminson would go on to play guitar with Tear Gas, a Glasgow-based prog rock band.

The group quickly earned the nickname Fear Gas because they performed their music so loud the audience would "step back 20ft from the stage" when they started playing.

Image copyright Michael Putland/Getty Images
Image caption Zal in mime artist make-up in The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

Zal and fellow Tear Gas members, Chris Glen and cousins Hugh and Ted McKenna, would go on to team up with Scottish rock and blues musician Alex Harvey to create the glam rock outfit The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, known as SAHB for short.

Alex was already an established musician and his younger brother Les was a guitarist in a significant blues-rock band called Stone the Crows.

During a sound check before a gig in Swansea, Les was electrocuted when he touched a microphone which had not been electrically grounded. He died from his injuries.

'Rebellious attitude'

For SABH, there was UK top 10 and top 40 chart success with hits that included Faith Healer, The Boston Tea Party and a cover version of Tom Jones' Delilah.

They also secured coveted slots on popular TV music shows The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops.

For Zal, he would also find personal fame for wearing mime artist make-up during SAHB performances. His look was inspired by Marcel Marceau, a famous French actor and mime artist.

"Alex Harvey had a talent for bringing out our personalities on stage," says Zal.

Image caption The Sensational Alex Harvey Band enjoyed chart success in the 1970s

"With me he saw something theatrical and wanted to find a way of making the faces that I would pull during performances more obvious to audiences.

"First we tried putting luminous green sticker dots on my face. But Alex had great connections with theatre, including Richard O'Brien of the Rocky Horror Show, and it was through that the final look came from.

"It also gave me some anonymity. Off stage, I was shy," he says.

"On stage, the look was part of Alex, who approached everything with a kind of angst, and also the band's intimidating, rebellious attitude. The audiences loved that."

Image copyright Mick Burgess
Image caption Zal battled depression and anxiety before reigniting his music career with sin'dogs

Zal says he enjoyed the fame and adulation that came with being part of SABH, but when the band split up he was faced with some harsh realities.

"There's that whole perception that if you are in a band that is very, very successful people think you should be a millionaire," he says.

"But when the band split after Alex chose to leave, the management went into liquidation and there was the realisation that the band had been running at a loss and it owed money to the record company."

'Depression and anxiety'

Zal spent a period of time driving a mini cab in London, but his skills as a guitar player and lyricist were not forgotten by others in the music industry.

He was invited to join the line-up of Scottish hard rockers Nazareth.

Formed in Dunfermline in the late '60s, the band enjoyed chart successes and are credited with having had a huge influence on the Scottish music scene.

Image caption Zal worked as a session guitarist with Bonnie Tyler in the 1980s

After playing with Nazareth in the late 1970s and early '80s, Zal worked as a session guitarist with singer-songwriter and former Marillion lead singer Fish, also Elkie Brooks, Bonnie Tyler and Midge Ure.

In the 1990s, SABH was reassembled, without Alex who had died in 1982. But Zal later decided to retire from music after becoming unhappy performing old hits, and not trying new material.

Describing himself as being "disillusioned" with the music industry, he stepped away from the scene for 10 years.

Image copyright Mick Burgess
Image caption The musician, who is poised to celebrate his 70th birthday, says age is all in the mind

Those years saw him working for a time doing other jobs, including working as a computer programmer.

"My partner took a job that moved us out to Cyprus for four years," he says. "During that time out there I suffered badly from depression and anxiety."

He adds: "I didn't tend to play guitar at home and only really playing it for work, but I had taken a little guitar with me to Cyprus.

"So, I picked it up and started playing and early ideas started to come to me for songs."

'I just deny age'

In 2017, Zal formed his heavy metal band sin'dogs with David Cowan on keyboards, guitarist William McGonagle, bass player Nelson McFarlane and Carlos Marin on drums.

First they made an album, and then gigs and small tours followed.

This month will see the band play venues in Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness, before an appearance at the Sweden Rock Festival in June.

Their support acts include young, upcoming Inverness-based band Monsters in the Ballroom.

Image copyright Mick Burgess
Image caption Zal in full sin'dogs mode

Zal says: "I think today's young bands are doing exactly what we did in the 1960s and 70s - jumping in a van and playing as many gigs as you can, exposing as many people as possible to your music.

"My own music has gone full circle.

"I've gone back to where I started off, playing heavy metal, and sin'dogs has taken up where Tear Gas left off, playing loud music, but with melodies in there too."

If Zal has a secret to his age-defying youthful exuberance on-stage, he's not giving it up.

But he does say: "I jog and do some weights to help me prance around the stage, but it's mostly psychological - I just deny age. It's all in the mind.

"And the music is in my blood," he adds. "That is what gets me going."

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