As many of you already know, Fleetwood Mac went through many incarnations. The first of the band's many lineups was comprised of Peter Green (vocals, guitar, harmonica), the band's primary talent whose marvelously soulful guitar tone was widely admired, Jeremy Spencer (vocals, guitar), who played a solid slide guitar heavily indebted to Elmore James, and Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), the solid if not especially imaginative (at least not at this early stage of their career) rhythm section who inspired the band's name and who would be their only constant members. Aside from Spencer, the band members had previously served apprenticeships in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and unsurprisingly Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac is an amped up blues record, with variations on simple 12-bar blues and several covers of heroes such as James ("Shake Your Moneymaker," "Got To Move"), Robert Johnson ("Hellhound on My Trail"), and Howlin' Wolf ("No Place to Go"). Green and Spencer contribute material as well, but James probably deserves a co-credit on Spencer's "My Heart Beat Like a Hammer," whose riffs rip off "Dust My Broom." Really, among the songs Spencer either writes or sings, the only standout is the swinging, energetic cover of "Shake Your Moneymaker," but Green fares better, especially on the slow, soulful "Merry Go Round" and the moody, Latin tinged ballad "I Loved Another Woman," which presaged his later hit "Black Magic Woman." Unfortunately, those songs are the obvious highlights, as the rest of the originals largely lack distinctiveness and the other covers aren't especially inspired. The album was supposedly recorded in two days, and quite frankly it sounds like it; the dry sound could be a lot better, and some of the songs sound unfinished. Also, a couple of tracks focus on Green's harmonica skills over his guitar playing, a dubious strategy to be sure. This isn't a bad album by any means, as Green's stellar playing elevates several songs above the ordinary; it's just that the album doesn't live up to its somewhat belated recognition as a "lost classic." Lost in the U.S., anyway, where it's still not that easy to find, unlike in the U.K. where it was actually a top 10 hit for quite some time. Anyway, Green shows glimpses of his tremendous talent and the rest of the band flashes plenty of potential, but if you want a traditional '60s blues album by a rock band you'd be better served by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton or The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Mr. Wonderful (Blue Horizon ’68) Rating: C+
If anything this album is even more of an "authentic" blues recording, meaning that you blues "purists" out there will likely enjoy it while the rest of us will be bored by the band's unimaginative, uniform take on simple 12-bar blues. The band covers two Elmore James tunes, "Dust My Broom" and "Coming Home," but damn if they don't completely rip him off on several other tracks as well, as Spencer in particular seems limited to lame rehashings of James' signature slide guitar style (his exaggerated vocal mannerisms don't help). Once again Green fares far better, penning some solid tunes such as "Stop Messin' Round," an up-tempo shuffle that nods to Ray Charles, "Rollin' Man," an energetic number on which his guitar catches fire, and "Love That Burns," the album's longest song and standout track due to its slowly building, soulful intensity. Elsewhere, we get far too many "more of the same" mid-tempo James-inspired tunes along with a couple of other pretty good slower songs ("If You Be My Baby" and "Trying So Hard To Forget") and some generic boogies that you'll be hard pressed to remember a single thing about afterwards. On the plus side, the band does try to expand their sound by adding Christine Perfect (soon Christine McVie and eventually an essential full-time band member) on piano/keyboards/vocals plus a saxophone section. Alas, the saxes are often off key, when you can hear them, that is, as the albums murky sound also does them few favors. Again, like the debut album this one is quite listenable, but it's also disappointingly undistinguished and the album cover is truly awful.
The Pious Bird Of Good Omen (Blue Horizon ’69) Rating: B
After Mr. Wonderful, Fleetwood Mac expanded their lineup by adding talented singer/songwriter/guitarist Danny Kirwan. It was a valuable pickup as the band, and Green in particular, sought to go beyond the generic blues exercises of their first two albums. Keeping up their prolific pace, the band released English Rose in the U.S. only, but given that that album overlaps considerably with both Mr. Wonderful and the more useful The Pious Bird Of Good Omen, and that it's currently out-of-print, we're going to ignore that album and head straight to this album. Anyway, this somewhat haphazard compilation album collects four U.K. singles and their accompanying b-sides, three previously released tracks from Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Wonderful ("Looking For Somebody," "Coming Home," "Stop Messin' Round"), and two tracks on which they merely backed bluesman Eddie Boyd, a fine singer and pianist. As such, I quite like the laid-back Boyd tunes, particularly "Just The Blues," a slow, jazzy blues ballad that exudes class and sophistication. Also elegant is Green's performance of Little Willie John's "Need Your Love So Bad," on which strings are prominently added to the equation. Yeah, I wish that Green would've sweated a bit more on the guitar parts, but his impeccably tasteful playing fits the song and playing with restraint was one of Green's greatest strengths. Green's "Rambling Pony" is certainly a strange one, what with its various moans and emphasis on harmonica, but it certainly isn't much of a tune. We also get two more Spencer songs, only one of which ("I Believe My Time Ain't Long") rips off James (even going so far as to brazenly quote a lyric from "Dust My Broom!"); the other one, "The Sun Is Shining," is only a bit better, however, largely due to Spencer's annoyingly overblown vocal. At least it's different for a change, and Kirwan joins in on the fun with "Jigsaw Puzzle Blues," a pretty good if altogether too brief and unassuming instrumental. The main reasons to own this album, aside from "Need Your Love So Bad" and the two Boyd tunes, are the two classic Green singles that had yet to appear on any of the band's proper albums (great non-album singles being a curious U.K. phenomenon, particularly in the '60s). "Albatross" is a wonderfully atmospheric, almost-ambient instrumental that became an improbable #1 U.K. hit, thereby greatly expanding the band's fan base. And most of you are undoubtedly already familiar with "Black Magic Woman;" though this shorter (2:50) version lacks the propulsive Latin push and slam bang finale of the far more classic Santana version, the original is still an excellent song in its own right. Fact is, these two tracks go far beyond what the band had accomplished on their first two albums, proving that they had the potential to achieve considerably more than they had so far.
Then Play On (Reprise ’69) Rating: A
With Kirwan stepping to the forefront along with an inspired Green, one-trick pony Jeremy Spencer was basically relegated to the sidelines on this album, which was by far the band’s best to date. It would be a bittersweet triumph, however, as Then Play On would be Green’s last studio recording with the band, as a bad LSD trip and an almost unnatural distaste for material things and the trappings of stardom saw him all but disappear from the music scene for many years; he would later reappear as a solo artist but never be the same force again. This album would be sad anyway given its largely mournful (if often quite beautiful) overall mood, but the circumstances surrounding it makes it especially dispiriting if one considers what soon happened to the group. Yet it isn’t all doom and gloom, as Then Play On is actually an extremely eclectic collection of songs as the band moved far away from straightforward blues renderings into a more experimental direction. Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way” starts things off with strong rocker notable for its impressive dual guitars and propulsive tribal beats that sound like it could’ve come from Santana. Green’s “Closing My Eyes” continues with a stunningly sparse, sad, lovely, and lonely ballad, and his “Before The Beginning” is also a magnificently moody, slow burning ballad that ends the album on a high (or is that a low?). In between, we get “Show-Biz Blues,” a slide guitar showcase that sounds the most like the band’s previous blues offerings, “My Dream” and “Underway,” a pair of pretty mood enhancing instrumentals (Kirwan’s utterly lovely “My Dream” in particular is excellent), and Green’s “Oh Well,” a two-part, 9-minute masterpiece whose shorter first part was a #2 U.K. hit (and the band’s first U.S. chart appearance at #55). Basically a solo Green showcase (he plays almost all the instruments himself), the song starts by alternating a capella verses with blistering guitar sections, but it soon evolves into the much longer, mellower instrumental section, with Spanish guitar, flute (played by girlfriend Sandra Elsdon), and cello mingling together to form an exotic, funereal mood that lingers long after the final note is played. Among the other tracks, Kirwan’s “When You Say” and “Like Crying” are comparatively weak late album mediocrities, but his “Although The Sun Is Shining” is better, being a very ‘60s-sounding pop ballad that perks up a bit on the chorus. The rest of the album is comprised of hard rock, including Green’s “Rattlesnake Shake,” an enjoyably sleazy stomper that became the centerpiece of the band’s legendary live shows (see the next review), and “Searching For Madge” and “Fighting For Madge,” a pair of related songs (approximately 10 minutes in total) that are credited to McVie (“Searching”) and Fleetwood (“Fighting”) but which are basically guitar-led jams. Impressive guitar-led jams, it should be noted; though these instrumentals don’t really fit in with the mood of the rest of the album, they do serve to showcase the band’s more playful side and impressive improvisational skills. All in all, Then Play On is an at times-challenging but extremely rewarding listen, as even though it has some lesser tracks and is a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge, it nevertheless contains a fascinating, utterly unique mix of songs. There’s no other album quite like it, either by Fleetwood Mac or anyone else, and as such it’s a singularly satisfying showcase for a tremendously talented band (the rhythm section really shines throughout this album as well) that was together all too briefly. In fact, you could argue that this incarnation of the band was the most talented of the many Fleetwood Mac lineups.
Live At The Boston Tea Party (Recorded in 1970, originally released in 1985, re-released by Snapper in 1999) Rating: A-
The background on this album (or albums) is as follows, courtesy of Hal Horowitz of the All Music Guide: "Recorded during a legendary extended weekend stand in 1970, these live recordings from the three guitar lineup of Fleetwood Mac have existed in various shoddy, uneven and sometimes sloppy configurations, but were finally sorted out and released as a triple disc box, (also available individually) in 1999. First generation source tapes were utilized, approximately an hour's worth of previously unreleased tracks as well as between song patter is interspersed among the discs, and the running order is restored to match that of the original performance." And if you thought you knew Fleetwood Mac before, well, you're going to be in for quite the pleasant surprise, as these live albums (now depressingly hard to find but well worth the search) show off a completely different side of the band than their studio albums. Simply put, Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac were a GREAT live band who went far beyond the constraints of the blues. They still played the blues, but this box set also adds LSD-fueled material that's much harder-edged and more melodic than most other bands of their era. Given that you may have trouble obtaining this album, especially as a box set, I'd recommend starting with disc one, my favorite among the three since it rocks the hardest and is the one on which Green is most often up front and center. The disc starts with a strong, rocking version of "Black Magic Woman" that's of course expanded from its studio version. A cover of Duster Bennett's "Jumping At Shadows" is another highlight, this one a tasty, tasteful ballad with oddly fitting lyrics, as if Green had written it himself. A pair of strong Kirwan songs come next, "Like It This Way" featuring fiery traded off guitar licks, and "Only You" being fast-paced and poppier but still containing some hot guitar. Later on we get a pair of James covers from Spencer, "I Can't Hold Out" being a typical effort from him (i.e. not my cup of tea) but "Got To Move" being surprisingly retrained and all the better for its subtlety. However, the main reasons to own this disc are a pair of Green epics. "The Green Manalishi," Green's last single with the band, is here expanded from four to 13 minutes, and though it meanders towards the end, I can certainly see why Judas Priest was later inspired to cover this mighty, metallic monster, which features pounding beats and terrific all around lead guitar work. Even better is "Rattlesnake Shake," here stretched out to almost twenty five minutes as obviously the studio version was just a skeleton of what this song could be. This largely improvisational, supremely intense heavy rocker showed how powerful the McVie/Fleetwood rhythm section could be when they were locked in, and above all else it shows what a masterful guitar player Green was when inspired. Sure, there are some lulls along the way, but when they were on, this version of Fleetwood Mac were improvisational masters on the level of the Allman Brothers Band or the Grateful Dead. Disc two is less impressive, in large part because much of the middle of the album is dominated by Spencer, who covers more Elmore James songs ("Stranger Blues," "Red Hot Mama") and adds an annoying Elvis parody ("Teenage Darling"). The Little Richard tracks ("Keep A-Knocking," "Jenny Jenny") also give me a "you had to have been there" vibe, though the energy certainly isn't lacking on these songs or "Encore Jam," on which Joe Walsh jams with the gang (the James Gang were the opening act) in a sloppy, muddled, but nevertheless quite enjoyable manner. The best tracks on this disc are at the beginning, specifically "World in Harmony," the lone Kirwan/Green composition which is notable for its pretty intertwining guitars, and a short, raging version of "Oh Well" that focuses only on the first part of the song. Best of all is a 25+ minute version of "Rattlesnake Shake" that's even better than the rendition on disc one and for my money is the definitive version of the song, thereby making disc 2 another must-hear. As for disc 3, well, unfortunately I seem to have misplaced it for the time being, so I'm going to have to cut this review short. However, suffice it say that if you like discs 1 and 2 then you'll definitely want to hear disc 3 as well, though from my recollection it’s the weakest of the three discs. Note: This album is also known as Live In Boston (or simply Boston, but be aware that Fleetwood Mac's 2004 live album recorded during their Say You Will tour bears the same title (Live In Boston, that is).
Live At The BBC (Recorded between 1967 and 1971, released by Castle Communications in 1995) Rating: B+
This 2-cd set containing 36 tracks recorded live at various BBC radio sessions between 1967 and 1971 makes for a nice companion piece to the Live At The Boston Tea Party albums. Whereas those 3 live albums contained long songs showing off Fleetwood Mac the hugely influential, largely improvisational blues rockers, these 36 extremely concise tracks show off the band’s versatility. Unlike most of these types of BBC packages, this one is not chronologically sequenced and there’s no song duplication, and there are only a couple of glaring omissions (“Black Magic Woman” and “The Green Manalishi”), though once again there are a few too many James homages and ‘50s parodies from Spencer. Then again, some of the Elvis (“You Never Know What You’re Missing,” “Heavenly”) and Buddy Holly (“Buddy’s Song,” “Linda”) tributes are actually quite good (my favorite is “You Never Know What You’re Missing,” which is similar to "Don't Be Cruel"), and he also leads a rocking cover of “Tallahassee Lassie” and a standout rendition of Tim Hardin's “Hang On To A Dream.” Kirwan adds some typically strong numbers as well (“Although The Sun Is Shining,” “Only You,” “When I See My Baby,” “Early Morning Come”), but as usual it is Green who shines brightest. When the band is introduced and they instantly launch into “Rattlesnake Shake” it’s one of those great rock n’ roll moments, and this version is the only extended track on the set at 7:38, though it actually seems too short if you're familiar with the Tea Party versions. Unsurprisingly, Green standards such as “Oh Well,” “Albatross,” and “Man Of The World” (more about this one in the next review) are among the highlights, as is the rocking “Sandy Mary” and a suitably delicate and soulful rendition of “Jumping At Shadows.” Covers of Robert Johnson (“Sweet Home Chicago,” a swinging, groovy piano blues) and Little Willie John (a slow burning, string-less “Need Your Love So Bad”) are other standouts, as is Green’s own composition “A Fool No More” and several others I’m sure. Truth is, these discs contain so many songs it’s hard to keep track, though I do remember that disc one contains more r&b/doo-wop flavored ‘50s styled rock n’ roll (there’s a slew of ‘em grouped together between the novelty-ish “Jenny Lee” and the boogie woogie “Honey Hush”) and disc two contains more traditional blues numbers. On the whole, the sound quality varies, which isn’t surprising given the various source material, but the performances are generally strong and sometimes downright inspired. There is a fair amount of filler, or at least a fair amount of tracks that fail to stand out, but this is less of a problem today with the proliferation of iPods and easily creatable playlists. By and large, my favorite songs are from my favorite era of the band when they had their revolutionary 3-guitar attack (though I think Moby Grape beat them to it by about a year) of Green-Kirwan-Spencer, and only one of these songs is sans Green; that would be Spencer’s slide guitar showcase “Preachin’,” which sounds more interesting than most such efforts of his, or at least it seems like it coming after all the ‘50s stuff. Perhaps these versions are a bit more straightforward and shorter than I’d like, but the live radio format also serves to minimize any self-indulgence, and the band sounds like they’re having fun bashing out these tunes, many of which are new to the Mac canon. I'd definitely rate it behind both Then Play On and the Tea Party releases, but Live At The BBC is another very worthwhile archive release that, despite its overly generous track listing, only serves to enhance the ever-growing reputation of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.
Greatest Hits (CBS ’71) Rating: A
In my opinion, take Then Play On, The Tea Party live albums, and this currently out of print compilation, and you have most of the prime Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, though again I also enjoy much of the BBC sessions and there are some good songs that aren’t on this concise 12-track collection, such as “Merry Go Round,” “I Loved Another Woman,” and “Rollin’ Man.” Actually, you can get the latter three tunes, all 12 of these tracks, and some additional lesser entries on the 2002 compilation The Best Of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, which is a better value offering but I’ve always preferred this one, feeling that in this case less is more because this has all of the essentials with no excess fat. Also keep in mind that there is another similarly named Greatest Hits album focusing on the Buckingham-Nicks version of the band, so buyer beware; I’m talking about the one that starts with “The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown)” and ends with “Love That Burns.” As just mentioned, the heavy, ominous, haunting “The Green Manalishi,” Green’s last single with the band (what a way to bow out) which was never included on an album proper, starts the proceedings, and then comes all 9+ minutes of “Oh Well” (both parts), the classic hard rocker turned lovely, moody instrumental. Later on comes Green’s stomping ode to masturbation “Rattlesnake Shake,” but on the more traditional blues front, “Shake Your Moneymaker” and “Stop Messin’ Around,” a pair of up-tempo highlights culled from their first two albums, are included, as are the classy slow burners “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Love That Burns.” “Black Magic Woman” is as soulfully seductive as ever, and “Albatross” is still as pretty as can be, and their inclusion here along with “Need Your Love So Bad” makes The Pious Bird Of Good Omen superfluous, at least for me it is though again I also like the Eddie Boyd tunes. Rounding out the set list, which I’ve described out of order, are a pair of essential non-album singles, Kirwan’s hauntingly atmospheric, utterly lovely “Dragonfly,” and Green’s heartbreakingly sad (heavy lyric: “I just wish that I had never been born”) yet beautiful “Man Of The World,” an improbable smash hit in the U.K., though it’s largely unknown in the U.S. where radio stations are too busy playing “Dreams” for the millionth time. Anyway, back off my soap box, this album shows why the Peter Green led version of Fleetwood Mac was special, as it contains their best blues songs while also showing their ability to branch out.
Future Games (Reprise ’71) Rating: B+
After Peter Green left the band, Spencer (now indulging his '50s parodies over his Elmore James fixation) and Kirwan spearheaded the pretty good but far from essential Kiln House before Spencer suddenly left to join a religious cult! To further complicate matters, after some begging from group manager Clifford Davis (more on him later), Green then salvaged what was left of their U.S. tour by briefly rejoining the band, only he refused to be called by his real name and stood back in the shadows while onstage as people probably wondered who he was. Strange, right? Anyway, Christine McVie (now a fully-fledged band member), Kirwan, and new recruit Bob Welch led the next incarnation of the band, which began with Future Games, a solid new beginning that saw the band moving away from ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and the blues in order to embrace a softer folk rock and West Coast pop sound with progressive leanings. The band has always been at their best when comprised of three singer-songwriters plus the Fleetwood-McVie rhythm section, but the problem with these eight long-ish songs (the average song length is around 6 minutes) is that few of them really stand out from the pack. Also, the album has a reverb heavy, echoed sound that adds atmosphere but also tends to keep the songs slightly out of focus. Most of these songs could use more energy, hooks, and a bit of trimming, which isn’t to say that I don’t like this album, because I do, but it is clearly a transitional release between the two major eras of the band. The album contains three songs apiece from Welch and Kirwan and two from McVie, and the band increasingly features McVie’s keyboards as well as harmony vocals, which are curiously muted at times. The album begins with Kirwan’s mellow, spacey “Woman of 1000 Years,” a nicely moody if not especially substantial effort with minimal instrumental backing. McVie’s “Morning Rain” is livelier and features some good guitar playing plus a singable chorus, while Welch’s “What A Shame” is merely a short and inconsequential funky instrumental. Welch’s over-long but still strong 8 minute title track is interesting due to its hazy ambiance and melodic intertwining guitars, but it also sometimes lacks focus, much like the album as a whole. Continuing, Kirwan’s almost as long but also strong “Sands Of Time” is a moody, mystical groover with some good laid-back guitar, and I also like his “Sometimes,” a melodic, soulful, at times country tinged pop ballad, while Welch’s “Lay It All Down” is decidedly heavier (and again funkier) than the rest of the material here, though not in an especially inspired way (merely “solid” is more like it). Finally, McVie ends the proceedings with “Show Me A Smile,” a pretty ballad that was just scratching the surface of what she would prove capable of. On the whole, this mostly mellow album drifts pleasantly (if rather anonymously) by, and it lacks truly memorable individual songs, being more of a “mood album.” Also, the extended instrumental passages (remember prog-rock was hot at the time) makes me think that the band was still searching for the sound that best suited them. They didn’t quite find it on Future Games, but their sonic explorations are still well worth listening to, as the band had three talented singer-songwriters and the album’s ethereal sound is often lovely.
Bare Trees (Reprise ’72) Rating: A-
Both Danny Kirwan’s last hurrah with the band and his career peak, Bare Trees continued in a similar style as Future Games, but with shorter, more energetic songs, though perhaps its increased accessibility sacrifices some of its predecessors ghostly, haunting ambiance. Don’t get me wrong, these are still pretty adventurous songs, rarely opting for standard verse-chorus-verse structures, but the songwriting and performances are more focused, and as a result I tend to slightly prefer this album to Future Games. Kirwan writes five songs this time out, McVie and Welch two apiece, while the last song is merely a silly spoken word piece read by an elderly lady, one Mrs. Scarrot. The album starts with Kirwan’s “Child Of Mine,” a strong riff-driven rocker with a good drum performance, as Mick’s drums (and McVie’s bass for that matter) on the whole are more dominant than on prior recent efforts. I really like Welch’s flute enhanced “The Ghost,” which has slightly funky rhythms as Mick again drives it along, and a tuneful, harmonized chorus. Really, this one could’ve been a hit with a bit of luck, and McVie’s “Homeward Bound” is an energetic and enjoyable if not all that memorable rocker, with a well-worn theme written about by many a musician and some good guitar. Speaking of, Kirwan’s melodic instrumental “Sunny Side Of Heaven” is a short, lovely highlight, and his title track is simply a stellar guitar showcase which showed that this long overlooked player was a damn good guitar hotshot himself. The album’s best known song is actually written by Welch; in fact, his re-recorded solo version of “Sentimental Lady” became a big hit in 1977 (both are excellent and different enough to warrant two versions). Sure, some criticize it as being overly “trite” or “saccharine,” but I tend to think it’s simply sweet and sincere, so there. Continuing, Kirwan’s “Danny’s Chant” is aptly titled, because it’s vocals are basically just chants, but fortunately the heavy, sort of funky music manages to carry the day, even if I still wouldn’t call the song a highlight, unlike McVie’s “Spare Me A Little Of Your Love,” probably her best song yet, and another song (one of several here) with a nice guitar solo. Another personal favorite is Kirwan’s haunting, atmospheric “Dust,” on which the lyrics are taken from a poem by Rupert Brooke. It’s a pity about the aforementioned final track filler, but on the whole this was a consistently strong album, even if the album’s contents don’t quite live up to the striking cover photo captured by John McVie.
Mystery To Me (Reprise ’73) Rating: B+
Unfortunately, the short-lived but in my opinion quite underrated Kirwan-Welch-McVie version of the band came to an end after Kirwan was fired from the band for increasingly bizarre behavior; like Green he was no stranger to LSD, and the final straw came when he refused to go on stage for a show and then critiqued his bandmates’ performance afterwards! Ex-Savoy Brown singer-guitarist Dave Walker contributed minimally to the band’s forgettable 1972 album Penguin (apparently the band mascot favored by John McVie) before being booted for not really fitting in with the rest of the band, and Bob Weston (often mistaken for Bob Welch) was also recruited at around the same time but he lasted two whole albums with the band, including Penguin and Mystery To Me, the latter of which was Bob Welch’s peak with the band. Welch wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s 12 songs, including the wonderfully haunting, jazzy, and ethereal “Hypnotized,” perhaps the best song the band produced post-Green and pre-Buckingham-Nicks. Although not a hit per se, this song became a popular radio track over the years (you’ll probably recognize it when you hear it), and in truth it’s by far the best song on the album, though the rest of it is consistently enjoyable as well. Welsh also contributes the strong, melodic opener “Emerald Eyes,” on which Weston contributes some soulful guitar soloing, and “Keep On Going,” a heavily orchestral, surprisingly danceable entry actually sung by McVie. Welch also writes several surprisingly heavy efforts later on, including the angry anti-New York City rant “The City,” on which Weston unleashes his inner Joe Walsh/Peter Frampton, “Miles Away,” a brisk boogie on which Weston and Fleetwood/McVie shine brightest, and the funky, hard-hitting “Somebody.” Weston, McVie, and Welch co-wrote the fun faux reggae of “Forever,” which if nothing else exemplifies the variety the band attempted throughout the album. Not everything works, as their cover of The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” isn’t bad but I don’t really see the point, either, while Mrs. McVie’s material tends to be inoffensive as per usual but not especially substantial aside from “Why,” an ambitious (some might say “overblown”), epic finale. On the whole, this is a consistently solid album that attempted shorter, more commercially oriented material, with generally fine if rarely truly inspired results. Note: After this album, Bob Weston was fired for having an affair with drummer Mick Fleetwood’s wife! To further complicate matters, Christine McVie was having an affair with engineer Martin Birch (famous for his work with hard rock bands like Deep Purple and Iron Maiden); the McVie’s would divorce several years later. Back to 1974, Mick Fleetwood pulled the plug on the band at this point, so distraught was he by his wife’s affair. Here’s where things get even stranger (if that's even possible given the band’s strange history). Some people say the band were on a “break,” others insist that they were supposedly “finished,” but in the meantime they had 30 or so tour dates to complete, so manager Clifford Davis put together a bogus Fleetwood Mac who went on tour in their absence! Supposedly Mick knew about this and was even supposed to join them, but he denies this and either way he never did, and once word got out about the “fake” Fleetwood Mac it was a disaster, causing the rest of the tour to be cancelled and lawsuits to fly all over the place.
Fleetwood Mac (Reprise ’75) Rating: A
After 1974’s lackluster Heroes Are Hard To Find completed what is rather harshly often referred to as their “wilderness years” (1970-74), Bob Welch left the band for a solo career. With little fanfare, a largely unknown duo known as Buckingham-Nicks were then asked to join the band after Mick heard their commercially unsuccessful self-titled debut album while looking for a studio where the band would record their next album, which would turn out to be Fleetwood Mac. The addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks gave Fleetwood Mac some needed stability. This new lineup, which is now regarded by most as the band’s “classic” lineup, also introduced two stellar new singers and songwriters into the fold. Plus, sexy Stevie Nicks’ exotic gypsy persona became the visual focus of the band, and Buckingham was also an excellent guitarist with a knack for arranging songs and manipulating a studio. Gone was the Peter Green-led blues band of years past and the less successful incarnations of recent years. In its place was a well-oiled pop machine that met with instant critical acclaim and significant commercial success (it was a #1 album in the U.S. that spawned several major hit singles). More than anything, what made this version of the band so special was their chemistry. Each songwriter had their own distinct strengths, while an abundance of singing talent made for excellent three-part harmonies. Anchoring it all was the experienced rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie, who laid down the strong foundation that let the others shine. And shine they did! For example, Christine McVie, the band’s consummate pop craftswoman, delivered the lovely, lilting ballad “Warm Ways” and the weaker but still propulsively upbeat "Sugar Daddy," while “Over My Head” and “Say You Love Me,” a pair of deserved hits, are exactly the kind of catchy, sweetly melodic jingles that she does best. For her part, Nicks wrote the album’s two best songs, including the smash hit “Rhiannon,” whose haunting, mystical pop was highlighted by McVie's bouncy bass, Buckingham’s lyrical lead guitar work, some evocative harmonies, and of course Nicks' own sexy, husky lead vocals, and “Landslide,” a gorgeous, deeply affecting, bittersweet acoustic ballad. Not to be outdone, Buckingham came through with the albums most memorable rockers in the catchy, propulsive “Monday Morning” and the dark, moody “I’m So Afraid,” which sounds much better live but which is impressive here as well. Elsewhere, Buckingham and McVie co-wrote and co-sing "World Turning," which could be a bit hookier but which has a good guitar groove going for it. The bouncy Buckingham sung rocker "Blue Letter," actually written by Rick and Mike Curtis, is also enjoyable (those harmonies sure hit the spot), as is “Crystal,” a Buckingham-Nicks holdover written by Nicks but sung by Lindsey, though again the harmonies also stand out on this dreamy ballad. Perhaps the album on the whole is sometimes too slickly professional for its own good, but that's nitpicking as the vast majority of the filler-free Fleetwood Mac ranks as a first-rate achievement, and the reconfigured band were only just getting started.
Rumours (Reprise ’77) Rating: A+
This classic album is the one for which Fleetwood Mac will be long remembered. Of course, by now most people are aware of the story behind the making of this album, as two couples (Buckingham-Nicks and the McVie’s) personal relationships disintegrated around the time that this album was being recorded. Mick Fleetwood had ongoing marital woes as well (he and his wife actually divorced and remarried twice before separating for good in 1979!), and as such the circumstances surrounding this album couldn’t help but color the band’s music. However, Fleetwood Mac are nothing if not resilient, and though many of these songs document the ongoing soap operas within the band, rarely has turmoil gone down so easy or been so much fun to listen to. The lyrics are smart and to the point, sometimes poignant and loving (mostly McVie, whose four songs are generally positive), other times downright scathing (Buckingham, who by and large writes the best songs this time). Musically, with help from co-producers Richard Dashut and Ken Caillat (Keith Olsen had produced Fleetwood Mac), Rumors puts a more rocking emphasis on the band’s rhythm section, while an increasingly confident Buckingham amped up the aggression on the guitars. The resulting album defined the West Coast “soft rock” sound of the mid-70s while simultaneously rocking hard enough to appeal to rockers as well as more sentimental types. Really, Rumours appealed to everybody, hitting #1 on the U.S. charts and staying there for a staggering 31 straight weeks. Even today, this is an album your mom will like, as will your kids who can’t even comprehend the angst behind these songs but who can easily sing along to its hummable tunes. And what tunes! “Second Hand News” begins the album in a similar manner to “Monday Morning” in that it gets the album off and running, but this song is an improvement in every way, much like the album itself. “Dreams” was a dreamy, evocative Nicks number that became the band’s first #1 hit, and Buckingham’s “Never Going Back Again” continued with a short but stellar acoustic guitar showcase. McVie’s catchy sing along “Don’t Stop” came to the fore again years later when Bill Clinton selected it as his campaign song, and I can see why he selected it even if it isn’t a personal favorite, unlike “Go Your Own Way,” a classic Buckingham rocker that peaks with a guitar solo that bleeds into a forceful Fleetwood drum volley. McVie’s “Songbird” is basically a solo performance, just her voice and piano, and it’s probably her prettiest ballad, while “The Chain” wins my vote as the album’s best song. Written by the whole band, this obviously heartfelt rocker is sung by Buckingham on the verses but they all join in to provide haunting harmonies on the chorus. The song boasts a simmering intensity that builds throughout before finally surging to a fantastic finish, with the rhythm section and Lindsey (on guitar and vocals) leading the way. After that emotionally draining track, McVie’s “You Make Loving Fun,” a supremely melodic, joyously funky sing along, comes as a welcome respite, and Nicks’ “I Don’t Want To Know,” sung in unison with Buckingham, is another lighter tune (musically, not lyrically) that provides a hand clapping, toe tapping good time. After that, the album starts winding down with “Oh Daddy,” the albums least essential song in that, though it's more fully fleshed out musically, it ultimately sounds like a less impressive reworking of “Songbird.” Finally, “Gold Dust Woman” sees Nicks in full on mystical gypsy mode, as this intense, haunting (again gotta love those harmonies), deceptively rocking track (a comparative epic at over 5 minutes long as most of these songs are concise and to the point) brings the album to an extremely satisfying conclusion. Anyway, it really wasn’t my intention to talk about every song here, but this album is so consistently strong that they all warrant a mention, though like any great album Rumours adds up to more than the sum of its impressive parts. The band’s inarguable peak (with apologies to you Peter Green fans), Rumours contains an almost perfect blend of beautiful ballads, catchy mid-tempo numbers, and exciting rockers, and after its completion Fleetwood Mac toured extensively, during which time they became the biggest band in the world.
Tusk (Reprise’ 79, '04) Rating: B+
With Tusk Fleetwood Mac revealed themselves to be true artists who refused to play it safe and stay in one place, and for that alone respect is due. That said, Tusk is an album that's easy to admire but difficult to love, in part because this is one of those "double albums that should've been a single album." Actually, most of these 20 songs are good, but few are great and there's too damn many of them, which dilutes their overall impact. Lindsey Buckingham dominates this album, writing almost half the songs and producing most of them. It was he who was determined not to reprise Rumours, for his songs are by far the most experimental and "out there" among the three songwriters. Actually, McVie sticks to her usual middle-of-the-road style, but her songs rarely rise above being merely pleasant this time, unlike Nicks who pens some of the albums best material, particularly "Sara," one of the band's very best songs. Maybe it's a bit long (it was originally edited down on the original CD release of the album so make sure you get the 2004 reissue), but it's still wonderfully atmospheric and features a great vocal climax from the best of the band's three lead singers. As for Lindsey, I quite like most of his songs, despite the throwaway feel of some of them. Also, they have a clattery, hyper edge about them that makes his angular offerings seem a bit more offbeat and harder to grasp than what was probably really necessary. Don't get me wrong, his songs aren't Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart weird, and his expertly layered, quirky compositions, which generally feature overly loud drums and reveal influences ranging from the Beach Boys to new wave, are interesting in their off centeredness. Still, the album lacks cohesion due to the Buckingham tracks, as McVie and Nicks mostly stay with their tried and true styles, and I also can't name too many tracks here that I would classify as classic Mac. Perhaps the title track qualifies, or maybe not, but one thing for sure is that this song, with its stomping African beats, murky vocals, and 112 piece brass band (courtesy of the USC Marching Band) was an audacious choice for the album's first single. That it charted at all is pretty remarkable (#8 while the edited "Sara" hit #7), and it is a fascinating piece of work; I'm also partial to McVie's upbeat "Think About Me," Lindsey's pained, resonant ballad "Save Me A Place," and Nicks' moody, intense "Sisters Of The Moon," among many others. You see, this is a very good album, it's just a bit much, that's all; Mick Fleetwood certainly thought so, supposedly telling Buckingham "thanks for ruining our career" after hearing Tusk in its final stages (keeping in mind that Lindsey's isolated way of working alone in the studio wore on his bandmates, who nevertheless trusted him enough to basically make the album he wanted). There's also the amusing anecdote about how at the record company playback all the executives saw their Christmas bonuses flying out the window, but most bands would love to have a "failure" that "only" sells five million albums (keeping in mind that this was a four-sided record, now a single cd, back in the day). But the album also cost over a million dollars to make, a huge sum back in those more productive times when taking two years to record a double album of all new material was actually considered a long time. For the most part it was money well spent, as despite its obvious flaws Tusk is generally an intriguing effort from a band who had the courage to follow their own unqiue vision, at considerable cost (to themselves and their accountants).
Live (Reprise’ 80) Rating: B+
Along with Rumours this is the Fleetwood Mac album that I listened to the most when I was a kid, and as such I still have a special fondness for it. This album showed that this incarnation of the band could seriously rock when it came to live performance; remember, before they hit it big with the controlled, commercially oriented Fleetwood Mac and Rumours albums, Fleetwood Mac were a cult band whose reputation was mostly based on being a really good live band. This souvenir from their Tusk tour provides a good taster of what their live performances were like, though it’s not entirely live in front of an audience as “Dreams” and “Don’t Stop” were recorded during sound checks and three of the four new songs were “recorded live for crew and friends.” The four new songs, including a resurrected Buckingham-Nicks track ("Don't Let Me Down Again"), are merely decent for the most part, my favorite being Nicks’ “Fireflies” (which I really like), and the overall track listing has some strange omissions, chief ones being “The Chain” (an inexcusable omission) and “Tusk.” Nicks’ voice isn’t always up for the task and Buckingham can be annoyingly over the top at times (see “Not That Funny”), but despite the album’s imperfections there’s still much to like here. For one thing, though I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily better, McVie songs such as “Say You Love Me,” “Over and Over,” and “Over My Head” have more energy and pack more of a punch than the pristine studio versions, and it’s nice to see Lindsey doing justice to the old Peter Green nugget “Oh Well.” Lindsey also excels on "Never Going Back Again," a significantly slower, extremely impressive exercise in note bending, and a pumped up version of “Go Your Own Way” on which Lindsey’s tremendous passion and energy are infectious even though his performance is a bit on the hyper side. The albums undeniable highlights, the reason this album is a must-buy if you’re a big fan of the band, are the epic versions of “Rhiannon” and “I’m So Afraid.” Simply put, this definitive version of “Rhiannon” really transforms an already great song, as its explosive “dreams and wine…” vocal section takes it to another level entirely. As for “I’m So Afraid,” damn this version is dark and spooky, revealing the studio incarnation to be tentative and inadequate by comparison. Culminating with a fantastic Buckingham guitar solo, this song should’ve concluded the album, as their cover of The Beach Boys' "The Farmer's Daughter" is anticlimactic by comparison, though it’s pleasant enough and it’s nice to see that the band was paying tribute to Brian Wilson and co. years before they regained the critical stature that they enjoy today (people forget that for many years the Beach Boys were quite “unhip”). Anyway, this warts and all live album isn’t exactly essential, but it is quite enjoyable and it has several outstanding highlights.
Mirage (Reprise’ 82) Rating: B
After Tusk came the solo ventures, some spectacular failures (Mick), others spectacular successes as Nicks became the bands breakout solo star with 1981's Bella Donna, which spawned no less than three smash hit singles (the Tom Petty penned duet "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" and her own "Edge Of Seventeen" and "Leather and Lace," the latter a duet with then-boyfriend Don Henley). Fortunately, though many in her shoes would've left the fold, Nicks was a team player who loved her band so she stayed in Fleetwood Mac while simultaneously continuing her solo career. For his part, Buckingham has also had a sporadic solo career (four albums over 25 years as of 2007, beginning with 1981's Law and Order) that's been artistically rewarding if not nearly as successful. But back to Fleetwood Mac and Mirage. You know, it's a fine line; if Tusk was too ambitious and experimental then Mirage was a too safe over correction as the band attempted to recreate Rumours an album too late. Alas, this album lacks that albums intensity and magic, as perhaps the band, now getting along well, missed the turmoil of that period; maybe there's some truth to the old saying about suffering for one's art. Anyway, whereas Live showed how rocking Fleetwood Mac could be, Mirage fully deserves the "soft rock" label that some have foisted upon the band. It's not a bad album by any means, as this lineup of Fleetwood Mac is too talented to ever deliver a total dud, but it reeks of product, as if the band were contractually obligated to make this album rather than that they themselves felt compelled to make it. I could be wrong about this, but that's what it sounds like, though as per usual there are some good songs such as "Only Over You" and "Wish You Were Here," a pair of airy McVie ballads. She also checks in with "Hold Me," a catchy duet with Buckingham that became a top 5 U.S. hit but which ranks towards the bottom of the band's big hits. Buckingham's songs are odd in that "Book Of Love" and "Diane" (the rather weak latter effort a top 10 U.K. hit) are inspired by '50s doo-wop whereas other tracks like "Can't Go Back" and "Empire State" are marked by dated '80s keyboards. Still, though none of his songs are first-rate, I like the catchy synth lines on "Can't Go Back" and the harmonies on "Book Of Love," while "Eyes Of The World" is a rare energetic effort that's capped off by a briefly inspired guitar solo. Lindsey adds tasty solos to several other tracks as well, including "Gypsy," by far the best entry among Nicks' meager three songs (perhaps she was preoccupied with her solo career?). Anyway, this song, the album's other major U.S. hit (#12), is wonderfully atmospheric a la "Sara" if not quite as excellent. On the whole, Mirage is consistently solid but rarely truly inspired, instead feeling like a competent, professional outing by a supremely talented band capable of better.
Tango In The Night (Reprise’ 87) Rating: B+
In the five long years after Mirage the band busied themselves with various projects, including their ongoing solo careers, before reconvening for Tango In the Night, the band's first #1 album in both the U.S. and U.K. (the band has generally fared far worse in their country of origin). The most memorable songs here are the hits, including two more catchy mid-tempo melodies from McVie in “Everywhere” and “Little Lies.” The latter (co-written with husband Eddy Quintela) in particular is a standout, as is Nicks’ unerringly pleasant and evocative “Seven Wonders” (actually written by Sandy Stewart with some lyrics from Nicks), and Buckingham’s standout rocker “Big Love,” which has a great guitar groove but was an improbable hit given its overtly erotic edge. Unfortunately, though most of the other songs here are also above average, the glossy, overly synthetic production gives the album a dated quality. In particular, Mick's processed drum sound and Christine's light tinkly keyboards reek of the '80s, and Nicks' voice sounds weathered as well. Perhaps her years of hard living finally caught up with her; "Welcome To The Room, Sara" is about her stay in the Betty Ford Clinic for alcoholism, after all, but all I know is that I far prefer Lindsey's part on "When I See You Again" than hers. Interestingly, Buckingham and McVie collaborate on three songs this time, and all are solid efforts, including the pleasant but slight "Mystified," “Isn’t It Midnight” (co-written with Quintela), a rare rocker with McVie on lead vocals, and the breezy album closer "You And I, Part II" (for those who are curious Part I is on the b-side of the "Little Lies" single). Elsewhere, there’s no composition here that would qualify as a "long lost gem," but the album does contain some notable performances that prop up songs that are at times underdeveloped. In particular, I’m referring to Fleetwood’s inventive stick work on “Caroline” and several standout Buckingham guitar parts; he rips a hellacious solo on the title track, plucks some exotic Spanish guitar on “Family Man,” and really lets loose again on “Isn’t It Midnight” (the best of that bunch). The end result is an enjoyable album by a band who were simply too talented to produce anything less, and it marked the end of an era when Buckingham left upon its completion to return to his third solo album, which he had put on hold since he wanted to deliver a better Fleetwood Mac album than Mirage. Mission accomplished, as Tango In The Night is altogether more ambitious and accomplished than Mirage, even if it's still a far cry from Rumours. Note: Predictably, Buckingham's departure caused some hurt feelings within the band, particularly from Nicks, but Fleetwood Mac improbably continued without Buckingham for two lightly regarded albums (1990's Behind The Mask and 1995's Time, the latter also sans Nicks) with varying personnel.
The Dance (Reprise ‘97) Rating: A-
Proving that this band has more lives than Morris the Cat, Fleetwood Mac came back with this improbably successful reunion album (and tour), not coincidentally marking the 20th Anniversary of their masterful Rumours album. The band members themselves were refreshingly candid about how pleasantly surprised they were to be so fondly remembered by so many, and the group rewarded their faithful following with a shockingly strong live performance. In particular, the band’s rhythm section remains first rate, and Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing is exceptional as per usual; his extended solo on “I’m So Afraid” is every bit the highlight here that it was on Live, which this album beats in terms of overall performance and song selection. Granted, Stevie Nicks can’t sing like she used to (“Rhiannon” especially falls flat), and resident egomaniac Buckingham at times tries too hard to steal the show (while we're at it, he has to noticeably strain to hit the high notes as well). But Christine McVie sounds great like always, plus her songs sound livelier in concert, and the chemistry of the band’s classic lineup is still very much intact. In addition, rather than simply going through the motions and cashing a paycheck, the band tries to rework some of their older material. For example, “Big Love” is a solo Buckingham showcase (for the record, I prefer the cheesy but propulsive original, though many seem to prefer this version which is very good), “Say You Love Me” has a jug band feel along with lightly catchy “la la la” backing vocals, and the USC Marching Band enlivens not only a terrific version of “Tusk” but also “Don’t Stop,” a triumphant concert closer that all but begs you to get up and dance. True, several of the songs here don’t improve upon the original versions, and others are noticeably inferior (such as "The Chain" and “Rhiannon” as previously mentioned), but the track listing is awfully impressive, and the band puts enough effort and imagination into this to make it a highly enjoyable romp down memory lane. Indeed, the feel-good vibes are infectious, and Nicks' “Silver Springs” finally makes it onto a Fleetwood Mac album, promptly becoming an album highlight and hit single, which must've been particularly rewarding for Stevie who was furious when it was omitted from Rumours (because it was too long, not because it wasn't good enough). Finally, the four new songs here, in particular Buckingham's "Bleed To Love Her," a light and lively acoustic number with a singable chorus, show enough promise to suggest that this could be merely the beginning of yet another musical rebirth from a band long ago assumed dead in the water. Nothing that happens from here on in will greatly surprise me either way. Note: I saw the band on tour and they put on a great show. They rocked surprisingly hard, too, and the killer looks that Stevie Nicks sent old flame Lindsey Buckingham’s way during “The Chain” alone was worth the price of admission.
Say You Will (Reprise ‘03) Rating: B+
What happened here was that Lindsey was working on a solo album and he invited the Fleetwood/McVie rhythm section to play on it. Things went so well that Lindsey suggested they turn it into a Fleetwood Mac album, and as usual Stevie was all for that, though Christine was not, quietly slipping into the shadows after years of service a la Bill Wyman. The talented singer/songwriter/pianist is missed, but her absence also gave Buckingham and Nicks more room to stretch out, plus less piano and more guitar (especially more Lindsey Buckingham guitar) is something I'll always be in favor of. Fortunately, Buckingham and Nicks are on their game for the most part, as this is a consistently strong album, albeit one that would've been even stronger had maybe four or so songs been cut and the album been trimmed from 76 minutes to 60. The band also curiously sticks to the overly slick, synthesized sound that had marred much of their '80s work, but like say Tango In The Night this album is still strong enough to largely overcome my nitpicks about the production (which was overseen by Buckingham with help from Rob Cavallo and John Shanks). Reviews were mixed, and the album lacked any major hits, but it did hit #3 on the U.S. Billboard chart and it's probably the best Fleetwood Mac studio album since Tusk. After all, I'd say that about 1/3 of the album ranges from decent to good, and that a good 2/3 of it is very good or better. Among the highlights are the album opener "What's The World Turning To," a catchy Lindsey rocker with the band's trademark airy harmonies, which are still stellar even without Christine. Lindsey's "Murrow Turning Over His Grave" is a strange one but it's excitingly experimental, with good bottleneck guitar, multi-tracked vocals, harsh synth guitars, loud drums, and some serious guitar heroics adding to a track that had me scratching my head at first but which is now a firm favorite. Both of these songs, which share a similar theme (the world's going to hell as we've lost our moral compass), are surprisingly political given that Fleetwood Mac has rarely veered into those waters, and Nicks' first song continues in that vein. Fortunately her haunting, evocative "Illume (9/11)" is an elegant, eminently worthwhile 9/11 track, and the hooky, non-political "Throw Down" is even better, being a melodic, breezy number in her best "Dreams"/"Gypsy" style. This song is mellow but grooves, and the same could be said about much of the album, as the McVie/Fleetwood rhythm section remain as reliable as ever; their meaty rhythms highlight Lindsey's "Miranda," another quirky pop song (but it is pop) on which his guitar heroics again seal the deal. Also notable are Stevie's "Say You Will," a melodic mid-tempo soft rocker with the band's customary laid-back West Coast vibe, and Lindsey's "Peacekeeper" (these were the album's two singles), a moody, groovy rocker on which Stevie sings in the background and both of them deliver another hooky harmonized chorus. Without getting into too many more track-by-track descriptions, I'll note that I'm also partial to Stevie's comparatively rocking "Running Through The Garden," Lindsey's "Steal Your Heart Away" and "Bleed to Love Her," a pair of catchy mid-tempo pop ballads (the latter a remake from The Dance), and Stevie's "Goodbye Baby," a lovely, almost whispered ballad that provides a classy exit to a classy pop rock album. But really, there is precious little filler on the album, as even a lesser track like the at times gratingly obnoxious "Come" is salvaged by Lindsey's guitar solo towards the end. On the whole, this album is better than I expected it to be, as its flaws (slick production, overly generous length, Stevie's voice not being what it was) are easily to overlook given the strong overall quality of the songs and the equally strong performances from a band whose winning chemistry remains intact despite the absence of Christine McVie. All in all, Say You Will was another feather in the cap of a band that continues to add important chapters to a book that has been closed and reopened many times over. Hopefully they’re not done yet...
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