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.Powered by Sidelines