Friday, November 13, 2009

Strange Sagas in Rock: Fleetwood Mac, 1967-74 (aka pre-Buckingham/Nicks)

Everyone is no doubt aware of the 70s platinum level fame of Fleetwood Mac who, while derided by rock purists as commercial, sterile and California West Coast rock phonies, gained a huge following from baby boomers that continues to this day. They were one of just a few supergroups in rock during the late 70s that appealed to maturing boomers and even the teenagers, at least the ones more receptive to top 40 radio. Guitar virtuoso Lindsay Buckingham became the leader and producer when the dust cleared from their late 70 success, a whirlwind trip that was hampered by personal struggles. First, there was the divorce agony of bassist John McVie and his wife, keyboardist Christine, while drummer Mick Fleetwood was freshly divorced from his wife and Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks were splitting as well. Years later, Fleetwood and Nicks admitted to having an affair around the time of 1977's Rumours, Fleetwood Mac's coronation as one of rock's mega-sellers. After 1979, Fleetwood Mac took a back seat to the solo ventures of several members with Nicks becoming a star in her own right, though dealing with cocaine addiction until the late 80s, a problem Fleetwood faced himself for a several years himself. Subsequent efforts were pristine quality pop for their times but when Buckingham abandoned ship in 1988 after the slam dunk hit Tango in the Night, the band as a creative entity was for all intents and purposes dead (their next two albums both sold meagre amounts as first McVie left in 1993 and Nicks left a year later before their 1995 album Time. Sensing the cash grab, the "classic" lineup- really the only one that ever stayed intact for more than 2 years- reunited two years later for a concert film and album entitled The Dance). But as dysfunctional as the Rumours period was, it paled next to what had come before it- in terms of what I'll call the wow factor (as in even Hollywood couldn't make this stuff up).

That Fleetwood Mac endured despite the fact that all of the members should've hated each other is no shock to those who track the group's history from its 1967 inception as a seminal white blues band. Mick Fleetwood endured anything and everything to make sure the band survived, through its post-Peter Green years trying to catch on with California rock styles before bringing along Buckingham Nicks, the name of the duo for their (self-titled) only professionally recorded album- hearing the 1972 LP, Mick Fleetwood contacted Buckingham to become the new guitarist after Bob Welch quit on the eve of a tour in late 1974. Buckingham's considerable talents were in demand but he insisted his wife Stevie Nicks be brought along too. Fleetwood gave in to this hardline move but it turned out for the best since Nicks's husky, impassioned vocals- a style some have jokingly compared to the bleat of a goat- and songwriting gave the Mac several classics. She became the band's most popular member despite being a last minute afterthought to filling in the guitarist's position. But this also ushered in a stability that Fleetwood Mac had almost never known. You see, as of mid-1967, blues guitar wizard Peter Green (real name Greenbaum) had quit his post as lead guitarist in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the very deserving replacement of Eric Clapton when he departed to form Cream in May of 1966. Green, 21 at the time, had rounded up a young roster with Mick Fleetwood, 21, and second guitarist Jeremy Spencer, just 19. He left the Bluesbreakers with an invitation offered forth to John McVie, the bassist in the Bluesbreakers, to come with him. McVie declined, fearing that leaving his cushy position for another band could backfire if that band wasn't fortuitous or at least built to last beyond a year or two. Still, as a symbolic gesture, Green named his new band Fleetwood Mac, cleverly doing it based on his (desired) rhythm section. Imagine if the Stones called themselves Wymann Watts or the Beatles were called McCartney Starr... hey, those aren't bad names actually. 

With McVie, 22, refusing, Bob Brunning was named the bassist. Brunning quit after four months of gigging to pursue his post-secondary education once McVie agreed to leave Mayall. Turning to the only man he knew well enough to be his bandmate, Green finally persuaded McVie to hook up with the Mac, who were months away from cutting their first album. Interestingly, though they were a hot band to see live, their records were often brought down by the tedium of white English boys playing the blues over and over and contributing few of their own penned efforts. Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Wonderful (both 1968) aren't nearly up to even the standard of Cream but showed they had excellent chops and knew the insides and outs of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson among others. You can still hear the tempting potential. Green and Spencer were decent frontmen but no band can spin their wheels in that strictly blues discipline forever. After adding 18-year old guitar whiz Danny Kirwan early in 1969, the guitar aspect took off even further and the Mac expanded further into classical, R&B, Latin and psychedelic rock influences for 1969's breakthrough (artistically and commercially) Then Play on. A non-LP single before that LP's release, "Albatross," was a gorgeous instrumental that became a surprise #1 UK hit and showed how Green, Kirwan and Spencer (who actually doesn't play on the cut) could translate their skills into stellar writing too. But this is where it all started to get crazy. The dream began to splinter and become jagged as the usual rock career travails took their toll one by one, seemingly in a span of just a few years. Essentially, their stupendous guitar trio went nuts, each in his own way. 

After bathing in recognition from Then Play on, Peter Green began to get overcome by the money being raked in. All the attention and cash flow was spooking Green, who was actually in the onset of schizophrenia. Their early 1970 single "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)" was a metaphor for his rejection and distaste with the music business money-go-round. It foretold the near future as Green quit the band to free himself from this perceived slavery, loose from what he saw were the shackles of growing fame. Green can legitimately be chalked up as another LSD casualty, going off the deep end via copious usage of the drug a la Syd Barrett. Deprived of their founder, Fleetwood Mac regrouped as a quartet with Spencer and Kirwan tackling their stronger roles admirably. Their album from this lineup, 1970's Kiln House, is perhaps their best pre-1975 LP. Spencer mostly contributed interesting stylistic poses (or parodies if you prefer) with the rockabilly of "This is the Rock" and "Buddy's Song" (credited to Buddy Holly's mother as a token of respect I guess) and the country moaner of woe and murder, "Blood on the Floor" where Spencer definitely imitates Elvis with extreme hyperbole. Kirwan's "Jewel Eyed Judy," the instrumental "Earl Gray" and "Tell Me All the Things You Do" were indications of the promise he carried. Fleetwood Mac seemed perfectly able to carry on, maybe even thrive under the new circumstances. But then at the start of their American tour dates in early 1971, Spencer pulled an unorthodox move. Having spent months where his own mental state seemed precarious, possibly brought on by bad acid trips as well, Spencer's deep interest in religion took full flight. Magnanimous on stage, at times suggestive and controversially clownish, Spencer was indeed a different soul off stage and had a strained working relationship with Green. While staying in San Francisco, Spencer, who had constantly been avidly reading religious text and a wearer of crosses and various emblems, was attracted by the lecturing of a member of the cult the Children of God when he met them in a bookstore. 

Hours passed and Fleetwood Mac's entourage went looking for the missing guitarist, being forced to cancel their show that night. When finally located a day later, Spencer had been brainwashed, sporting a buzz cut and already seemingly committed to the teachings of the Children of God, declaring he was done with Fleetwood Mac in favour of dedicating his life to his newfound religious cause. Years later, he expressed regret with the fact he didn't tell the others before he made the change. The others, discouraged by another unexpected loss, would soldier on by bringing in Peter Green to help them finish the tour, fueling speculation Green would return fully, though that was quickly shot down. Fleetwood Mac recovered by adding their first American member in Bob Welch. Meanwhile, helping take up the songwriting load was Christine Perfect, formerly of the British R&B group Chicken Shack. Perfect was soon to become Christine McVie and with her keyboards, impressive writing and deep voice (for a female singer), she would become a pivotal if underrated member of the band for the next couple decades. When she was still just McVie's girlfriend, she had contributed briefly to Kiln House and also was the artist of the cover. The shy, insecure Kirwan had been a third string contributor when he was brought along in 1969 but now was thrust into a spotlight he was just as uncomfortable with as Green or Spencer had been. Still, he was improving by leaps and bounds as a writer, contributing some nice material to the mellow Future Games in 1971, a half-cocked attempt at completely breaking off from their blues roots, Welch's spacey soft rock at the forefront on the title track in particular. Kirwan then raised his game for the overlooked delight Bare Trees a year after, bringing guitar heroics and melodicism to his contributions (top ones being "Child o' Mine," is poem-set-to-music "Dust" and the lovely, graceful instrumental "Sunny Side of Heaven" while the title track was a rip-roaring guitar extravaganza and "Danny's Chant" an indigenous-fashioned, tribal rocker). 

Next to Kirwan's contributions, Welch's countryish pop-rock ("The Ghost," "Sentimental Lady") seemed tame, though the future pop craft was echoed most closely in McVie's "Homeward Bound" and gospely "Spare Me a Little of Your Love." But Kirwan was never truly glad in his role, often retreating from the rest of the band and becoming moody with them. Kirwan rarely did anything but perform and drink heavily to calm his easily frayed nerves. When touring to support the album, Kirwan reached his breaking point, refusing to go out for a concert. After the show, he had enough gall to criticize the band he watched from the wings during the shaky performance. That would spell the end. Kirwan would later struggle with poor mental health, homelessness, alcoholism and depression until landing on his feet sometime in the 90s. To this day he has spurned offers to join a reunion of the early lineup. Green is well off enough to participate while Spencer still performs as well, though his links to the controversial Children of God (now called The Family International, there has been proof that the cult has promoted sexual activities between children and adults) make his participation a touchy issue. Kirwan was replaced by Bob Weston. As for the remainder of Fleetwood Mac, they tried heading in a hard rock vein by enlisting Weston and Dave Walker, vocalist formerly of Savoy Brown. This sextet lineup only survived one album, 1973's Penguin, before a money dispute led to the ousting of Walker. The superior Mystery to Me came out at year's end. The lineup was altered to a quarter when Weston departed early in 1974. With Welch and McVie pitching in heavily, they cut their highest charting album in the US to date with Heroes Are Hard to Find, their first LP after settling in Los Angeles.

Still, Heroes was their first widely panned album in years and Bob Welch left to form his own band, Paris, and embark on a mildly successful career of his own. That necessitated the hiring of Buckingham and Nicks and Fleetwood Mac finally striking a winning formula. There were more mountains to climb and when Fleetwood Mac hit the pinnacle of commercial fortune in the latter part of the decade, it was a long journey that proved well worth it for the McVies and Mick Fleetwood. But man, no one ever had a weirder path getting there. Amazingly, there have been 17 official members in the history of Fleetwood Mac but from 1975-88 the lineup stayed the exact same. But come on, that's what platinum sales will do: Keep everyone together no matter what. There are few bands you can find who's history is dotted by such casualties of the breakneck-paced late 60s world of rock, a system that with its lethal chemistry of drugs, sex, egos and business could cause certain individuals to crack. In the case of the Mac, it occurred with three of its biggest members from the vaunted 1969 that several believe was the best. Even the one who found redemption and peace, Jeremy Spencer, did so by turning himself over to the radical Children of God cult. It's understandable that Fleetwood Mac could never find the boon they were in search of in the wake of Peter Green's exit, considering the inner turmoil. The rhythm section Green named his band after, became the guys in charge and have remained the only two members who've never abandoned ranks (Fleetwood is the only original member thanks to the short-lived Bob Brunning days). But before Lindsay Buckingham, the talented writers and guitarists they brought in were extreme cases of rock star insecurities gone loco. Buckingham was not miles better than Kirwan nor did he make Spencer and Green seem amateur, but he was level-headed enough and a natural leader that is ultimately the one responsible for keeping the band on the right track for so long, though ultimate credit goes to Fleetwood for hiring him. 1969-74 Fleetwood Mac was the genesis of the million-selling act that hatched out of the heavy turnover. But as the saying goes: Sometimes you have to break a few eggs before you get an omelet. 

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