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A Brief History of Fleetwood Mac

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Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, supported by a shaggy bass player, a singing female keyboardist, and a very tall drummer. That seems to be how most younger folks think of Fleetwood Mac. But there’s much more to the story than smooth, glossy, highly-produced, massively successful California pop.

In 1966 a bloke by the name of Peter Green replaced Eric Clapton as lead guitarist for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Hailed as a genius, with inspired and inspiring technique, and driven by the heavily blues-laced rock success of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, among others, Green left the Bluesbreakers in 1967, taking drummer Mick Fleetwood with him. Within weeks, bassist John McVie also left Mayall’s outfit to join Green. Slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer joined the group, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was born.

Their eponymous first album was a massive hit in the UK, spending nearly a year on the charts, but failed to capture attention in the States. Their second album Mr. Wonderful failed to generate excitement on either side of the pond, but their third, English Rose, featured two Peter Green-penned tunes that made the blues-rock faithful stand up and take notice. The first of these, Black Magic Woman, was a latin-tinged blues number that would be covered with massive success by Carlos Santana and his band. Albatross was an intensely lyrical, melodic, instrumental combination of blues-rock and Calypso, with complex and eccentric definition.

Their fourth album Then Play On moved away from the blues a bit, with the hard rocker Oh Well being the most recognizable cut on the recording. Then Play On is perhaps the finest recording of the Peter Green era – it features marvelously intricate compositions filled with fiery, interweaving triple-guitar attacks by Green, Spencer, and new bandmate Danny Kirwan. Christine Perfect (later McVie) of Spencer Davis Group and Chicken Shack makes her first appearance with the band on this album, although her presence is uncredited.

Peter Green began a rapid descent into madness during the tour to promote Then Play On, fueled by his huge consumption of hallucinogens. He left the band mid-tour, giving away all his money and disappearing from the music scene almost entirely.

Christine Perfect had married John McVie and joined the band full time by the time of their first post-Green album, 1970’s Kiln House, a mixed foray further away from their blues roots. Kirwan and Spencer perform admirably, but without the complex stylings and songwriting of their erstwhile leader, the band flounders on the recording. Following in Green’s footsteps, Jeremy Spencer began to suffer serious mental problems as a result of extreme drug use – he disappeared in the middle of the tour and joined a religious cult.

1971’s Future Games marked the band’s first complete departure from their blues roots. Featuring folk-pop songs penned by Christine McVie and new guitarist Bob Welch, the album sold fairly well in the US, but failed to chart in Britain, where the original lineup had been immensely popular. 1972’s Bare Trees featured more tunes written by Welch and Christine McVie – the former beginning to experiment with the psychedelic sound that would predominate on their next two albums, and the latter writing uptempo love songs, as she would for the rest of her career. The band fired Kirwan after Bare Trees, and went back to a three-guitar lineup featuring Welch, Bob Weston and Dave Walker for 1973’s Penguin. Despite the recording being the band’s best-seller in the US to date, Walker departed the band almost as soon as it was released.

Mystery To Me was released later the same year. With Welch and Christine McVie now completely dominating the songwriting and the sound of the band, there was no trace of the blues roots on this recording. Welch’s somewhat weird lyrics and eclectic songwriting style take the forefront, with McVie’s cheery love songs interspersed throughout the album. Emerald Eyes and Hypnotized proved to be big hits in the US, but once again the album failed to chart in Britain.

Weston left the band before 1974’s Heroes are Hard To Find was completed. The album was the masterpiece of the Welch era, with the title cut, the spacy Bermuda Triangle, and McVie’s fabulous Come a Little Bit Closer (featuring the pedal steel of Sneaky Pete from the Flying Burrito Brothers), as the standouts. Though Welch finally appears to be hitting his stride as a top-notch songwriter on this album, it would prove to be his last with the band.

In 1975 the band began interviewing and trying out various musicians to fill the hole left by Welch’s departure. Christine McVie heard the album Buckingham-Nicks by the now-famous Stevie and Lindsey, introduced it to the other bandmembers, who offered them the job, and the rest, as they say, is history. Buckingham brought something the band had been missing all along – the ability to produce polished, highly commercial material, while Stevie Nicks’ black-cloaked gypsy persona and exotic looks gave the band a captivating image and charismatic front for the first time since Green’s catastrophic descent into madness.

1975’s Fleetwood Mac started slowly, but on the strength of the hits Over My Head and Say You Love Me, it reached the top of the charts on both sides of the pond early in 1976, eventually selling over six million copies. With massive commercial success finally in their hands, the band began to disintegrate from within, with the McVies divorcing and the romance between Stevie and Lindsey ending as they went into the studio to record their second album with the new lineup. The pain of internal conflict would form the basis for the songs on 1977’s Rumours, which would become the second-biggest selling album of all time, with over 17 million copies sold in the US alone.

Fleetwood Mac continued to perform songs penned by Green and Welch in concert, leading to several lawsuits by Welch, who claimed the songs belonged to him and not the band. The courts found otherwise, and when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, everyone who had ever played for them was inducted – except Welch.

The band stayed together for three more albums, Tusk, Live, and Mirage, before Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie took hiatus to record solo projects. Nicks’ solo work was a spectacular commercial success, on the strength of hits like Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and Leather & Lace. The bandmembers got back together for 1987’s uneven Tango in the Night, Buckingham’s last album with the group before the late-90’s reunion of the big-money lineup.

Rick Vito replaced Buckingham for 1990’s Behind The Mask, a lackluster effort filled with marginal songwriting and the declining vocal stylings of Nicks.

Bekka Bramlett (daughter of 60’s bandleaders Delaney and Bonnie) and Dave Mason of Traffic joined the McVies and Fleetwood for 1995’s Time, a forgettable effort that failed to make the charts. The music was fair-to-middlin’, but bore no resemblance to any of the previous incarnations of the band.

The Rumours lineup got together for one last hurrah, 1997’s live The Dance, before Christine McVie announced her retirement in 2000. The band continues to limp on with this year’s Say You Will, a too-long and messy recording without the fire and passion of days gone by.

Few bands have gone through as many incarnations over as long a period as Fleetwood Mac. From blues to blues-rock to psychedelia to power pop, they’ve recorded just about every genre of popular music. Each incarnation of the band brought a complete turnaround in musical direction and form, and varying amounts of critical acclaim and public acceptance. Not bad for a band named for the rhythm section that has had the least to say about the musical direction the band would take over the course of three and a half decades.

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About Taloran

  • JR

    “Then Play On” is a masterpiece. The songs may not adhere to the blues form, but they’ve sure got the intensity. “Oh Well, Part 2″ sounds like Ennio Morricone.

    I’m not sure Jeremy Spencer plays on that album though. He didn’t contribute any songs, and if you notice, he generally didn’t play on Peter Green’s songs throughout the early albums. Spencer seems to have been a bit of a one-trick-pony with his Elmore James style.

  • Taloran

    Spencer was still a member of the band at the time of Then Play On. While he didn’t contribute any songs to the album, his fuzzy guitar work is readily apparent and distinguishable from that of Green and Kirwan on several tracks, notably the triple guitar of Rattlesnake Shake. You can also hear his quavering voice on backing vocals in places.

    It’s definitely my favorite studio album by any incarnation of the band, with Bare Trees a distant second.

  • Lee van Rees

    The group are touring NZ at the moment.
    am I correct that none of thoes present performing are original members of the band?

  • rob

    i like fleetwood mac because they are a great band fleet would mac just there frist cd in 1970 it was a great hit pople love it my had made lots of meony off it but that did not spot them, there they made more and more but then be for they made say you will one of the menber let be when they tour they had to move on with out her they had made say you will cd in 2003 that was a big hit but most of all they are fleet wood mac why stop here go on

  • Tristan

    i always wanted to have babies with Stevie Nicks~~~

    did you know one of her own Production Companies is called “Welsh Witch Productions” ???

    Witchy—Witchy —!!!!!

    Heh …heh ……..

  • Bennett Dawson

    Great job on laying down the history of this band! Thanks for a ride down memory lane.

  • Tristan

    Taloran!

    I agree with Dawson: this was an excellent article and told me many things I’d never known about Fleetwood Mac, who’ve always been one of my favorite bands.
    THANKS!!!!

  • Taloran

    To answer Lee van Rees’s comment 3, I assume Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are still with the band, and they are original members. All the other original members have long since departed the lineup, as have the members of incarnations two and three.

    To Bennett Dawson and Tristan, you’re most welcome.

    To Rob in comment 4 – Huh? I’m afraid I don’t understand whatever language you’re writing in. It appears to be some odd dialect of English, but I’m afraid I can’t translate it.

  • Maurice

    Taloran =>

    thanks for a great history/summary.

    I think Rob is speaking Methish. I don’t speak it but I think I can translate. He really liked Fleetwood Mac and wishes they would continue dispite any obstacles.

  • Eric Olsen

    yes, this was great! Where’ve you been Tal?

    I always loved testing my memory on the revolving door of (mostly) great guitarists-singer-songwriters who played with the band.

  • Taloran

    I’ve been around, Eric, mostly reading, not commenting much. Haven’t had the inclination to compose any posts. This post is kind of funny – I wrote it in 11/03, and nobody noticed it, now all of a sudden several people have commented.

    With Christine McVie now retired and not touring with the band (she still does studio work) and Stevie’s voice shot to hell, it will be interesting to see if they come up with another incarnation in the future. Tough to call it Fleetwood Mac if Fleetwood or Mac calls it quits, though.

  • Scott Etienne

    Great BLOG–interesting history. I have re-discovered Fleetwood Mac, starting when I saw The Dance on PBS several years ago. Years before that, when Rumors came out, I first heard the music played over and over at my cousins’, and I thought it was okay, but I was more into intense, hard-rock–IMHO, less-sophiticated stuff. The music just wasn’t me at the time.

    Now, after seeing The Dance, I was really moved. Some of the lyrics of ‘You make lovin fun’ seemed to be very appropriate for the reunion–especially the part about believing in miracles and ways of magic. Since seeing the performance, that song has a whole new meaning to me.

    Enough to say that recently I have become somewhat enamoured with FM, purchasing a few CD’s, and spending quality time enjoying their work.

    I wish Christine the best–you can tell her heart by the writings of some really sweet tunes.

    Thank you Christine and Fleetwood Mac.

  • let1963

    I was researching this; one of my favorite bands, and after reading so many of your inputs (thanks taloran!) even in methish, I’m wondering if anyone out there could direct me to a more personality-based biography of Fleetwood Mac. Something that covers the band’s relationships with eachother in the years when Christine McVie was breaking up and Lindsay Buckingham, and even Fleetwood…???

  • jengalet

    To SCOTT ET.:
    I am so jealous you saw that tour!
    Augh! Thanks for telling what it was like for you

  • http://www.zombiegirlsonline.net Zombie

    To let1963,

    I suggest Mick Fleetwood’s book, Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac to get some of that. He talks about the Peter Green days and before, also, but you’ll get some of what you’re looking for.

    There’s also Carol Ann Harris’ book, “Storms: My Life with Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac” – Harris was Lindsey’s girlfriend and began seeing him right before Rumours hit the big time – so she wasn’t privy to the crazy that apparently went down during recording, but she was there during the tour and similar. HOWEVER, I am not sure that we can trust everything she says in this book, so take it with about 500 grains of salt, please. ;-)

    Bob Brunning has written 3 Fleetwood Mac books, “Behind the Mask,” “Fleetwood Mac: The First 30 Years,” and “Fleetwood Mac: Rumours and Lies.” Brunning was the “original” bassist for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. When Green left John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers to start the band, John McVie didn’t come along right away, and Brunning was to be the bassist – but it didn’t last long, because McVie left the Bluesbreakers to join Green shortly afterward, and Brunning bowed out.

    Unfortunately, other than Mick (who apparently got flack for it), the other band members haven’t written their own books to tell any stories, so the best way to hear about what had been going on from the main players themselves (i.e. NOT people like Lindsey’s girlfriend who goes on Geraldo to talk about how he beat the snot out of her) is to listen to & read interviews from the band.

    There’s a lot of stuff wandering around, including documentaries like the one they did for Tusk, so you can fit some of the pieces together that way. If you check out YouTube, you’ll find skads of clips. And The Ledge is also helpful, as it is an enormous forum packed with raging Fleetwood Mac fans (like myself), who are all just fountains of information with exceedingly excellent taste in music. ;-)

    Hope that helps!

    Cheers,
    Zombie

  • Rick – Chicago

    Much has been written about FM – Peter Green era – Buckingham/Nix era. Certainly these lineups are very good, but the ‘BEST’ Fleetwood Mac albums are:

    1- Future Games (woman of 1000 years,sometimes)
    2- Kiln House(station man, jewel eyed judy)
    3- Bare Trees(dust, bare trees)
    4- Then Play On (oh well, my dream)

    These works contain some of the ‘BEST’ rock songs ever recorded.
    Additional incredible FM songs: LOVING KIND, PURPLE DANCER, OPEN THE DOOR
    The common thread – the great ‘Danny Kirwan’

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