Fleetwood Mac: Showbiz Blues (Part One, 1967-70)

I’ve seen Fleetwood Mac twice; once in London, early in 1970 (possibly at The Roundhouse) and once ten years later in the cattle-market surroundings of Stafford’s Bingley Hall.  What happened during the intervening period is a story so outlandish that you couldn’t make it up, as they say.  Or at least,  if the story formed the basis of a  Hollywood movie, it would seem too far-fetched to be remotely credible.

I wish I could remember the 1970 gig a little better; after all, living in a humdrum East Midlands backwater like Northampton where hardly anyone came to play, it might reasonably be expected that any exposure to a decent rock and roll event would be etched on my memory.  And, after all, I was a fan.  I already owned several of the band’s earlier singles, including relative obscurities like ‘Stop messin’ around’ as well as the more obvious hits like ‘Man of the World’.  Not long afterwards I would also swap  a copy of  an early Jefferson Airplane album with a classmate for his unwanted copy of ‘Then play on’.  However, crucially, that lay in the future and what I do recall of the London gig was that the band played a lot of songs I didn’t know.  The ones I did recognise were Jeremy Spencer covers of ancient rock & roll songs (initially amusing, swiftly becoming tedious).  Also, I’m pretty sure they played ‘Albatross’ and possibly ‘Oh Well’.  They definitely played ‘Oh Well’ a decade later in Stafford, with Lindsey Buckingham singing and playing the fierce electric guitar riff that dominates Part One of the song.  It was OK, but it was also weird, like some bizarre act of musical necrophilia.  I suppose that Fleetwood and McVie would argue that with Peter Green seemingly lost to mental illness at this juncture, they had more of a right to play the song than anyone else.

From L-R; Fleetwood, McVie, Spencer, Kirwan & Green, mid- 1969 at a guess

The original Fleetwood Mac came out of the so-called British Blues Boom of the late 1960’s.  Despite the grandiosity of the title, the aforementioned ‘Boom’ actually only really ever comprised a modest handful of artists.  John Mayall had been the midwife to all of this, his Bluesbreakers churning out a seemingly endless stream of new talent until he took himself off to the USA at the end of the decade.  By that time, graduates from his ‘academy’ included Messrs Bruce and Clapton from Cream, McVie, Fleetwood and Green from Fleetwood Mac, Keef Hartley, Henry Lowther, Chris Mercer  and maybe more from the Hartley Band (see separate post from 7/5/10  for more on them), Hiseman & Heckstall-Smith from Colosseum, Andy Fraser from Free and Mick Taylor from the Rolling Stones.  There were a few other bands – The Groundhogs, Savoy Brown & Ten Years After to name but three – who had no immediate connection with Mayall, but who were fellow travellers in this short-lived movement.  I think it would be hard to argue that any of these bands were pure blues revivalists.  Even Mayall, a Keeper of the Flame if there ever was one, was producing self-penned songs from an early stage.  They may have been ‘in the spirit’ of the Blues, but their lyrical concerns were much more contemporary.  Some of the bands, notably Cream, used old blues tunes like Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’ as a launchpad for lengthy and (as time went by) increasingly self-indulgent improvised instrumental passages, usually built around the electric guitar.

In this era, the guitarist was King.  Eric Clapton, in particular, was feted as the acme of blues players, often by young fans who had heard of the likes of B B King, but had probably never heard any of his records.  Jimi Hendrix, who came to the UK in 1966 and quickly established himself as a pop phenomenon, had a string of Top 10 singles but soon revealed himself to be a blues guitarist of ferocious technique and invention.  Live, Hendrix played some blues covers as well – Howlin Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ for example – but  his albums  were taken up by his own compositions.  Most people saw Hendrix & Clapton as the top dogs in the hierarchy of new young blues guitar gods, but there was soon to be a new kid on the block who, for one reason or another, eventually eclipsed both of them

Clapton’s replacement in Mayall’s band was Peter Green and though his style and tone was more ethereal than Clapton’s he was also quite obviously a great player.  In reality, he played only briefly with Mayall, but left his mark with instrumentals like ‘Greeny‘ and, in particular, ‘The Supernatural’; the latter in some ways a progenitor of his later work with Fleetwood Mac.  Green left Mayall’s Bluebreakers in 1967 and took the rhythm section of Fleetwood & McVie with him.  The trio, at this stage called ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’ signed to Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label, added slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and got to work building up a reputation on the club circuit.  So far, so predictable.  Vernon, who had produced many of Mayall’s Decca albums before striking out on his own, began to assemble a roster on Blue Horizon that mixed old school Chicago bluesmen like Eddie Boyd  and Otis Spann with new tyros like Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and one-man band Duster Bennett.  The early Fleetwood Mac seemed to be inspired almost entirely by the electric blues that had originated in Chicago after World War 2.  They even went over to Chicago in January of 1969 and made a couple of albums-worth of tracks with some of the remaining bluesmen from that era. 

Despite all this dutiful forelock-tugging, there were signs early on that Green was bringing something new to the table.  The first two Fleetwood Mac albums were straightahead blues from start to finish but the band adopted a different approach to singles, cutting tracks specifically designed to impact on the singles charts.  ‘Black Magic Woman’, released as a single in 1968 was an electrifying swamp rhumba with the guitar mixed so far forward that you almost felt like you were wearing it.  But Green was never that predictable.  Next up was a brilliant and almost slavish cover of Little Willie John’s ‘Need your love so bad’ , a slow blues with a Ray Charles-style string section and (I’m assuming) Christine Perfect on organ.  By mid-1968, Green had become disillusioned with Jeremy Spencer’s lack of interest in sharing the songwriting duties for the band and to widespread amazement added a third guitarist in Danny Kirwan, whose lyrical style was far closer to Green’s own style than Spencer’s relentless channelling of Elmore James.  Almost immediately, the 3-guitar line-up hit Top 40 paydirt with a single that once again seemed to be a complete volte-face on anything they had done before.  ‘Albatross’ , a gentle instrumental that showcased Green & Kirwan at their best, was a monster hit all over Europe in 1969 and was pretty much the last throw for Fleetwood Mac’s tenure with Blue Horizon.  They moved to Immediate, one of the hippest of the new British indie labels, but recorded only one single, the glorious, heartbreaking ‘Man of the World’ before Immediate went to the wall.  ‘Man of the World’ was in many ways more of a genuine blues than any of the Blues songs Fleetwood Mac had produced previously.  Its lyrical content swam into much greater focus after Peter Green’s subsequent retreat into isolation and illness the following year.  With a glorious multi-layered melody (without Spencer’s participation), soaring electric guitar figures and an agonised lyric that reflected sadness, frustration, isolation and a longing for true companionship, ‘Man of the World’ was a high-point for the band and was, again, radically different to anything that had gone before.

Peter Green in full flow before it all became too much….

Once Immediate had folded, Fleetwood Mac got a new deal with Reprise, a label that had started out as Frank Sinatra’s personal outlet (via Warner Brothers) but which was now trying to make a name for itself in the rock market with the likes of Joni Mitchell, the Mothers of Invention and Family.  The band  busied itself recording its next album, ‘Then Play On’, recorded with virtually no participation from Spencer and released in September of 1969.   The original intention had been to compensate for Spencer’s lack of involvement by issuing an accompanying EP that featured a number of his ‘parodies’ of old rockers and bluesmen.  Thankfully, we were spared this at the time, though these tracks have subsequently been released.  What we did get with ‘Then Play On’ was an album that saw Green at the height of his powers, meshing brilliantly with Kirwan and backed up by a rhythm section on top form. 

The corporate monolith of Warner Brothers has not been kind to ‘Then Play On’ over the years.  The track listing has been amended to include hit singles and the quality of the master recordings compromised.  I recently blogged about the expanded & remastered version of  John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’, also a Reprise release from a few years later.  For a band who have made as much money for Warners as Fleetwood Mac have over the years, you would have thought that ‘Then Play On’ was a prime candidate for a proper makeover, but much of the surplus material from the sessions (including the ‘Spencer EP’ tracks) eventually saw the light of day on 1998’s ‘The Vaudeville Years’ a well-packaged but hard-to-find double CD set on Receiver Records.  All in all, ‘Then Play On’ has to be seen as a flawed masterpiece.  There are some brilliant songs (‘Rattlesnake Shake’, ‘Coming your way’, ‘Like crying’) and superb playing  interspersed with fascinating but slightly random instrumental passages (‘Under Way’, ‘Searching for Madge’ ) and the overall effect was something of a mess.  The meddling with track listings over the years hasn’t helped much, either.

The band also pursued its policy of releasing non-album tracks as singles.  Next up was ‘Oh Well’ (Pts 1 & 2), another bipolar Mac single to follow on from ‘Man of the World’ and its tiresome Jeremy Spencer rockabilly B-side.  The first part of ‘Oh Well’ was a Hendrix-influenced blues-rocker that saw Peter Green seemingly wrestling with other people’s views of him and his of them.  There is then an abrupt segue into what sounds like an outtake from an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtrack, which continues for the duration of Part Two.  Like ‘Man of the World’ , ‘Oh Well, Part One’ interspersed almost a capella sections with thunderous rocking passages.  Even in the experimental melting pot of 1969, this was a daring approach to making hit singles – you couldn’t dance to any of these songs – but Fleetwood Mac reaped the reward for being prepared to try something different.  The public absolutely lapped it up and the record company made much of the fact that with 3 different record labels inside a year, they were nevertheless outselling The Beatles.

After the album came the tour and the endless attempt to ‘crack’ the lucrative American market.  A circulating bootleg of a BBC ‘In Concert’ broadcast from this era reveals the three-guitar Fleetwood Mac to be an awesome powerhouse of a band  on stage with talent and style to burn.  However, unbeknownst to anyone outside the band’s inner circle, Peter Green had planned to quit the band after ‘Oh Well’, but had been persuaded to stay on for a US tour by manager Clifford Davis.  Green’s mental state was becoming worse by the day and he became obsessed by the obvious inequity between the band’s new-found wealth and the poverty of so many others in less-developed parts of the world.  There is strong prima facie evidence to suggest that Green’s fragile condition was being further undermined by heavy LSD usage.  Under the circumstances, playing some dates with The Grateful Dead in New Orleans at the end of January 1970 probably wasn’t the best idea for Green, particularly with The Dead’s reputation for spiking everything with acid.  What we can be thankful for is the fact that the Dead’s soundcrew recorded everything, not just the Dead themselves and it seems likely that the two bootlegs that circulate of these New Orleans gigs are courtesy of their soundboard.  Amongst a fairly ‘normal’ set, Peter Green plays a new addition; a cover of a song called ‘Got a mind to give up living’, written by Cannonball Adderley’s brother, Nat and performed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on their ‘East/West’ album.  It’s a slow blues and Green gives it everything; an impassioned vocal and one of the finest electric guitar solos I have ever heard.  Hairs standing up on the back of your neck time…..

Coincidentally and tangentially, the notorious Grateful Dead Drug Bust happened during these New Orleans gigs, providing the impetus for their song ‘Truckin’‘. 

A stellar jam at the Fillmore East on the 1970 tour; front row from the left: Fleetwood, Green, Pigpen, Bob Weir, Duane Allman, Greg Allman. Rear: Jerry Garcia, Berry Oakley, Bill Kreutzmann, Butch Trucks, Phil Lesh.  Don’t touch the Kool-Aid.

The Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac recorded their valedictory single, ‘The Green Manalishi (with the two-pronged crown)’, a thunderous rocker, in Los Angeles during this tour. It was either about money as the root of all evil or a demonic hound from one of Green’s dreams.  take your pick.  Backed with the beautiful Kirwan/Green instrumental, ‘World in Harmony’, it was released in the UK in May of 1970 and was again a major hit.  Ironically, the public were largely unaware of Green’s psychological malfunction and were probably equally unaware that the 24th May gig at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm (not the one I attended; that was earlier) was to be Peter Green’s swansong with the band he had founded just three years previously.  In that time, they had risen to the heights of fame in Europe and were building a solid fanbase in North America and worldwide.  It seemed unlikely that,  deprived of their main man, Fleetwood Mac could continue and prosper, but they did, eventually – and then some.

Next time, the proverbial ‘Wilderness Years’…..

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