I’ve had a long-standing fascination with bands that go through dramatic style shifts, bands whose evolutionary stages must be discovered by digging through their back catalog like some fossil-rich strata of sedimentary rock, revealing forms very different from what is more currently known.
In fact, nobody 'may have missed' Fleetwood Mac. They sold millions of albums in the ‘70s, with a string of multi-platinum selling releases, including the second biggest selling album of all time (at the time, it is still in the top 10), Rumours. But the distinctive guitarist/songwriter Lindsey Buckingham, and that wistful gypsy-hippie-witch with the incomparable voice, Stevie Nicks, did not join the group until 1975. By then the band had already been around for some eight years, with a very different sound and line-up. It is the earliest stage of Fleetwood Mac that reveals, in my opinion, the most perfectly preserved evolutionary atavism known as the British Blues Boom of the late ‘60s. It is this stage of the group that perhaps you, dear reader, may have missed.
Fleetwood Mac was formed in 1967 by Peter Green, a British blues guitarist who had cut his teeth in John Mayall’s seminal band, the Bluesbreakers. When Eric Clapton left the Bluebreakers to form Cream, Green took his spot. Mayall famously told an engineer worried about Clapton's departure, “don’t worry, we got somebody better.” B.B. King would later say of Green, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”
Green soon left the Bluesbreakers to form his own group. He named his new band after his favorite rhythm section, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, both spirited away from the Bluesbreakers line-up as well. Green also recruited two other guitarists, Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer, to play slide guitar. Spencer had studied recordings of the old slide master, the Mississippi Delta’s own Elmore James. He could ape James' style with a legitimacy that could only be perceived as a heartfelt hommage. These old blues masters in fact got a kick out of this new-found attention and respect for their playing; an homage, they felt, was long overdue. They were often invited to session jams, or to open on tour to audiences bigger than they’d ever had. Fleetwood Mac themselves would record a few sessions with Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, and Buddy Guy at Chess Studios in Chicago.
Fleetwood Mac were young and successful, and enjoyed great popularity for a couple of years; they would play for hippie festivals and pyschedelic house parties until things began to fall apart. Both Green and Spencer would soon go down the now all-too-familiar “I took too many drugs to deal with this sh%$” path of so many rock stars, populated by such greats as Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, and Skip Spence, among others. Spencer left the band to join a religious cult, the Children of God; and even put out a record or two backed by Children of God members in a project called Jeremy Spencer and the Children. Peter Green was diagnosed with schizophrenia, likely self-induced through massive doses of LSD. He quit the band, cranked out a couple of incredible meandering blues-based solo projects, then vanished into all-but-total obscurity for over a decade. Over the next few years Fleetwood Mac would persevere through new personnel changes, other members going nuts, and experimenting with new directions. Though their early ‘70s era was not at all unsuccessful, it was when husband and wife team Buckingham and Nicks joined the group that they really became the inescapable, ever-present staple of classic rock radio they still are today.
But the Peter Green years, the blues years, are for me the best Fleetwood Mac has to offer. Their regurgitation of American Delta Blues could not sound more legit! Green’s phrasing on the guitar are noticeably more soulful and melodic than most if not all other guitarists; and his singing style and swagger, much like the voice of Jimi Hendrix, often goes without mention merely due to his phenomenal guitar-playing ability (and with all that going on, who even has the time to talk about his just as great harmonica playing?) Add to that Jeremy Spencer’s sloppy-dextrous slide guitar, above the ever-present rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie, and you have some of the best blues music ever recorded outside of the Mississippi Delta, that earlier form preserved in the strata, from which it evolved. Green’s compositions have been covered by bands from Santana's version of "Black Magic Woman" (you heard it right, this is a Fleetwood Mac/Peter Green song!) to Judas Priest's version of "Green Manalishi." So check out some of NYPL's early Fleetwood Mac CDs. They're surprisingly different and as solid and straight ahead as any blues you'll hear from the other side of the pond.
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Preview some great early Fleetwood Mac songs:
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