Fleetwood Mac: Future Games (Part Two, 1970-1975)

Fleetwood Mac in 1970…the best of times and the worst of times.  On  one hand, they had broken free of the blues/rock ghetto that had spawned them, they were beginning to gain a following in America to rival their huge popularity in Europe and they were making sublime and fascinating music based on the brilliant songwriting of Peter Green. 

On the other hand, Green, their leader and inspiration, was sliding into mental illness,  collectively, they were taking too many drugs and they had a member who hardly participated in recording sessions and when he did, only seemed interested in musical styles that they were trying to leave behind.

Jeremy Spencer

Jeremy Spencer

This was Jeremy Spencer, whose onstage demeanour was that of a ‘wild man of rock’, whilst offstage he was quiet and withdrawn and when the band toured would often retreat to his room to read the Bible.  Looking back from a distance of 40 years, it’s hard to see how Spencer stayed in the band for so long  when he was apparently so disinterested in the band’s newer material or in any kind of collective songwriting with the other writers in the band.  The only plausible answer must be that his Elvis/Buddy Holly/Elmore James parodies were popular with crowds at gigs and that ontsage, if not offstage, he took some of the pressure off Green as bandleader.

When Green finally walked away from Fleetwood Mac in mid-1970, there was widespread consternation among industry insiders and fans alike.  In 1969 & 1970, Fleetwood Mac were at the zenith of their popularity.  Their singles since ‘Albatross’ had all been huge hits, the critics loved them, their most recent album, ‘Then Play On’ was selling well across the world and their touring schedule in the USA was beginning to bear fruit.  It was a bad  couple of years for guitar worshippers as Cream, too, had  recently split up.  The music press was full of stories about what Eric or Greeny or Jimi were planning next.   Within another year, Hendrix was dead, Green was lost to mental illness and Clapton seemed content to be just one of the guys in the band.  The person with the biggest smile on his face must have been Jimmy Page, whose Led Zeppelin were poised to capitalise on the ground already broken by others. 

Howls of dismay were heard from Fleetwood Mac fans when Green left and the band may well have contemplated splitting at this stage.  Instead, they retreated, Traffic-like, to the country and emerged with a new album in the late summer.  Spencer played a full role in the album, contributing the inevitable parodies and John McVie’s wife, Christine, having left Chicken Shack, contributed  uncredited backing vocals throughout and provided an attractive if slightly whimsical illustration for the cover.  The new album was called ‘Kiln House’ and was greeted with little enthusiasm by the band’s European fan base, who were still mourning Peter Green’s departure.  In the USA however, it fared somewhat better and that relative success may have been enough to persuade the band to focus their energies on the North American market.

Another American tour was set up and with Christine McVie as a full member, the band set off  in early 1971 to promote the new album.  In San Francisco, the band got news of a major earthquake in Los Angeles, their next port of call.  Jeremy Spencer, already struggling to cope with his intake of psychedelics,  pleaded with the rest of the band to abandon the Los Angeles dates – the earthquake had given Spencer ‘bad vibes’ (ho ho).  Ignoring his pleas, the band continued the tour.  Once in Los Angeles, Spencer left the band’s hotel and disappeared, which led to the LA gigs being cancelled.  When the others  tracked him down a few days later, Spencer had shaved off all his hair and joined the ‘Children of God’, a quintessentially happy-clappy cult, with whom he still maintains strong ties.  Spencer refused to honour his commitments to the rest of the band for the tour, so Peter Green agreed to ‘come out of retirement’, just for the duration.

In the wake of the tour something important had happened to Fleetwood Mac, inasmuch as in losing first Green, then Spencer, they had lost not only their leader and guiding light, but also the umbilicus that connected them to the Blues had been well and truly cut.  At this point, they could have quit completely or recruited a Green sound-alike to continue that connection, but bravely, they decided to pursue (excuse the ‘Spinal Tap’-ism) their new direction.  ‘Kiln House’ had sold poorly, but undeterred, the band recruited American guitarist and singer Bob Welch and with Welch, Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie now all writing songs, they pressed ahead with another album.

‘Future Games’-era Fleetwood Mac; from the left, Kirwan, Welch, Fleetwood, Christine & John McVie

What came out of this uncertainty was one of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most under-rated albums; ‘Future Games’.   This album was released in November of 1971 and confirmed the band’s stylistic shift towards what was sometimes rather sniffily referred to as ‘soft rock’.  This was, after all, an era in which artists like Simon & Garfunkel, The Eagles, America and the whole Crosby, Stills & Nash collective were selling records in huge quantities.  Even the doyen of British bluesmen, John Mayall, had released a semi-acoustic, drummer-less album in 1970 (‘The Turning Point’), so electric blues was taking a back seat for a while.  A whole new generation of singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell were coming to the fore, especially in the States, so FM’s instincts were sound enough.  What’s more, ‘Future Games’ revealed Bob Welch as a guitarist, singer and songwriter whose style meshed well with the new-style Fleetwood Mac.  Free of Peter Green’s brooding presence and Jeremy Spencer’s infatuation with 50’s rock’n’roll, Danny Kirwan stepped forward to embrace the new approach and Christine McVie’s keyboards and vocals offered new possibilities.  There were some strong songs as well, fitting in well with the prevailing mood of pastoral mysticism.  Welch’s title track, ‘Sands of Time’, ‘Woman of a Thousand Years’ and ‘Morning Rain‘ all stretched out beyond the five-minute mark and revealed a cohesive and unified approach.  As re-inventions go, it was pretty impressive after the disappointing ‘Kiln House’ and in many ways established a template for the Buckingham Nicks era to come.

The European markets were still too infatuated with the Peter Green era to truly embrace the new band, but airplay in America was encouraging.  The band returned to a dogged schedule of tours and recording, striving to recapture the moment when America seemed likely to fall at their feet like a ripe peach. 1972 brought the release of ‘Bare Trees’, which whilst less memorable than its predecessor continued to build the new band’s reputation.  However, the ongoing drama that seemed to dog Fleetwood Mac’s footsteps returned when Kirwan and Welch got into a major bust up prior to a gig and Kirwan was ushered out of the band.  He was replaced by two new faces; singer Dave Walker from Savoy Brown via The Idle Race and guitarist Bob Weston from Long John Baldry’s band via Black Cat Bones.  Mac’s manager Clifford Davis was the driving force behind these new additions, particularly Walker.  Davis was not blind to the success that Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant) and Deep Purple (Ian Gillan) were having with a dominant lead vocalist.  Walker was supposed to fulfil that role in Fleetwood Mac as Davis pushed the band to abandon their softer aspirations and return to the harder rock sound of the ‘Green Manalishi’ era.  Another disappointing album (‘Penguin‘)  ensued in 1973, but Walker was contributing little in terms of songs and was soon eased out.  Weston contributed more to the band but his extra-curricular activities with Mick Fleetwood’s wife meant that he, too, was shown the door during the 1973 ‘Mystery to Me’ tour.  The remainder of the tour was cancelled, but Clifford Davis assembled a Fleetwood Mac ‘doppelganger’ and sent them out on the road  in the USA to fulfil the band’s touring commitments.  This led to a protracted legal battle to determine who exactly owned the Fleetwood Mac ‘trademark’ and though the courts ultimately decided in favour of Fleetwood & McVie, the battle was lengthy, expensive and attritional.  This period also saw the collapse of the McVie marriage, due in no small part to John’s alcoholism, so it was business as usual for a band for whom drama and chaos had become almost second nature.  And, just for good measure, it was about now that the band relocated permanently to the USA.

Fleetwood Mac as a sextet in 1973

1974 saw a new Fleetwood Mac album – ‘Heroes are hard to find’, which added to the slow but steady progress that the new Mac were making in the States.  In Europe, there was barely a flutter of interest and I would imagine that many fans assumed that the band had split up.  In truth, after the promise of ‘Future Games’, Fleetwood Mac had produced three patchy albums with the odd memorable song, like ‘Hypnotised‘ or ‘Station Man’, but the material was largely anodyne and there was no indication that the band were about to regain their former position of prominence.   Conceivably, these thoughts had crossed Bob Welch’s mind as well.  He left at the end of 1974 and the band were faced with a familiar problem.  They had made some progress in America, whilst being ignored or forgotten in Europe.  They had now produced six albums for Reprise, of which only the first, ‘Then Play On’, had made any real impact on the charts.  After 5 years of relentless touring in the States, they had made some inroads but with Welch’s departure were effectively back to square one.  Whatever happened next was probably going to be their final shot at regaining their status as a major act.  So, late in 1974, Mick Fleetwood ran into an old acquaintance in Los Angeles and mentioned that he was on the lookout for a new studio.  Said friend took him out to Sound City studios in ‘The Valley’ and introduced him to owner Keith Olsen.  Olsen wanted to demonstrate the quality of his studio and played Fleetwood a track recently recorded there by a young folk/rock duo  called Buckingham Nicks.  The rest, as they say, is marketing….

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