This Quietus article is worth reading as it provides a sort of alternative map of the career of one of the biggest bands of all time, Fleetwood Mac, via their lesser-known songs. Includes four contributions from yours truly.
Fleetwood Mac ushered in 2013 with the reissue of their super-mega hit 1977 album Rumours last month, and the announcement that they’ll be bringing their world tour to the UK and Ireland later in the year. With the promise of a new album on the way, we delve into the band’s back catalogue to unearth the finest tracks that never bothered the charts…
‘Trinity’ from The Chain box set (1992)
Danny Kirwan’s lead guitar propels ‘Trinity’, perhaps the greatest Fleetwood Mac track consigned to an outtake, with a reckless intensity, playing like a wayward troubadour testing the limits of a new found toy. Recorded for 1972’s Bare Trees album but not surfacing until The Chain boxset some twenty years later, ‘Trinity’ prefigures Fleetwood Mac’s towering destiny as soft rock personifiers par excellence with its multi-tracked guitars and down-home vocal delivery but if anything, the execution here is far more devastating. John McVie follows most every note of Kirwan’s growling, groaning and gyrating lead before the latter takes off into rapturous solo heaven during the gorgeous coda. A magnificent display of controlled virtuosity, only made poignant by Kirwan’s subsequent torpid decline.
‘Murrow Turning Over In His Grave’ from Say You Will (2003)
When Black Betty’s progeny sprung forth, the child reportedly displayed a propensity for madness before eventually going blind. When Lindsey Buckingham got his hands on Betty, he unceremoniously mutilated the folk scenario into a scathing muscular brute, depicting brains draining out from “pneumatic drills and sharpened knives” and barely-concealed seething paranoia at the state of US broadcast journalism. However, Buckingham’s elegant paranoia takes second place to the towering infinity of guitars which scythe their way through his barely-there-falsetto on the verses and multi-tracked call-and-response vocals on the chorus. By the close, Buckingham’s lead is spitting, spewing out bile at snippets of radio broadcasts, Fleetwood’s massive drums try and fail to compete and you wish the whole sordid affair could descend into glorious perpetuity.
‘Songbird’ from Rumours (1977)
It’s not her best song, but it does more than most to drag the spotlight onto the often-overlooked Christine McVie. Despite Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks hogging most of the press and public attention (possibly by virtue of being young/pretty), McVie still managed to provide a number of successful singles (‘Don’t Stop’ and ‘You Make Loving Fun’ in particular. Hell, I even like ‘Little Lies’!), but this piano-based ballad, taken from the smash-hit Rumours, sets out her main asset from the start: her voice. Coming on like Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’, minus the self-flagellation and awkward sex references, ‘Songbird’ is elegant and understated, and McVie dazzles with her vocal dexterity, stretching notes and switching from aching croon to hushed whisper without ever breaking her perfect pitch. It may not have that wow factor that Nicks would bring to hits like ‘Sara’ and ‘Dreams’, but “Songbird” is a sad, heartfelt song that reminds the listener just how talented Christine McVie was, especially as a vocalist.
‘Warm Ways’ from Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Despite the planet-dwarfing keeping-the-snow-flowing sales of ‘Don’t Stop’ from the tediously over-rated Rumours, Christine McVie is too often critically over-shadowed by Buckingham but ‘Warm Ways’, the first single from their eponymous 1975 album, is an extraordinary silk-drenched midnight-blue galaxy of contradictory subtle anti-seduction that reveals her at her finest. The first person narrative has McVie lying awake lonely and stranded as her other rests peacefully after making love (hey this is AOR – these people don’t fuck). The cooing of “together love” and “forever love” reaches a point of collapse as a lovers’ cocoon turns to paranoid imminent cataclysm. Waiting for the sun to come up, McVie’s Rhodes is all fireflies whilst her vocal is bathed in the most impossibly exquisite multi-tracking with Buckingham’s liquid guitar quietly poignantly reaching through the night and Fleetwood’s drumming feather light. ‘Warm Ways’ is devastatingly intimate cosmic country of the highest kind.
‘Rattlesnake Shake’ from Live At The BBC (1995)
You have to get the Live At The BBC double-CD to hear this song in all its magnificence. The moment when Peter Green yells “baby if you got to rock!”, cueing the band to kick in with their wonderfully messy blues-rock romp, is proper hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff, and the track only gets better from there. Whenever the ‘British Blues Boom’ is mentioned to me, this is the track – and band – I think of. Not Cream. Not Ten Years After. Peter Green was a real bluesman, with an angry, moody voice to match his incomparable fretwork. His Fleetwood Mac was the most muscular and musically-proficient of the band’s many incarnations: its sensitive side, displayed on singles like ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Albatross’, easily eclipsed when he hit those 12 bars, joined forces with fellow guitarists Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer (a thought – were Fleetwood Mac the first incarnation of the triple-axe rock band later made popular by Lynyrd Skynyrd?) and, propelled by Mick Fleetwood and John McVie’s hard-hitting rhythms, electrified the blues in ways Clapton could only dream of.
‘Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave’ from Live At The BBC (1995)
Well, it’s a Little Richard classic, innit? Early Fleetwood Mac were more than just a bunch of blues wannabes, and, driven by Jeremy Spencer, proved that the British wave of late sixties bands were not just hell-bent on aping B.B. King, Elmore James and Robert Johnson. Indeed, this devotion to their elders – on the part of many post-67 UK bands – had the positive effect of throwing aside the cheesy post-Beatles Merseybeat pop trends in favour of the soulful, edgy or moody atmospheres of early R&B. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino – all were revived to great effect (in a way that would influence punk), having been discarded by psychedelia, and this lovelorn cover is a nice example of old time rock and roll done well.
‘Jumping At Shadows’ from The Original Fleetwood Mac (2000 reissue)
This track is a lovely, slow-paced blues number in the mould of ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ that, lyrically, seems to hint at the fragile state of mind of Fleetwood Mac’s leader, Peter Green, even though it was written by British bluesman Duster Bennett. The lyrics abound with grim imagery, on a par with the Grateful Dead-immortalised ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy In This Land’: “I’m going downhill/ And I blame myself/ I’ve been jumpin’ at shadows/ Thinking ’bout my life.” Given that Peter Green would become plagued by schizophrenia and disenchantment, precipitating his departure from the band he formed in 1970, ‘Jumping At Shadows’ today sounds like a sad premonition.
‘Future Games’ from Future Games (1971)
The tracklist for the 2012 Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me contains few surprises, cleaving closely to well-known tracks from the band’s Buckingham/Nicks glory years with the odd smattering of Peter Green–era classics (‘Albatross’, ‘Before the Beginning’, ‘Oh Well’). Just one track from the band’s turbulent transitional period made it to that disc: an MGMT cover of ‘Future Games,’ from Fleetwood Mac’s 1971 album of the same name. While it’s certainly not representative of this period — the band were still shedding their blues-rock baggage while churning through guitarists and fighting ‘Fake Mac’ in court — it is perhaps their best song from the interregnum between Green and Buckingham Nicks. The band’s decision to avoid blues clichés and pursue a softer sound lends the song a watercolour psychedelic tinge, which nicely matches Welch’s reedy, disembodied vocals. Intriguingly for a band named after its rhythm section, the song remains unanchored by it — McVie’s bassline is a study in doodled lassitude, and Fleetwood’s drum pattern consists of half-notes on a splash cymbal punctuated by foreboding snare drum hits. The song is a complete oddity in its own album (only Danny Kirwan’s ‘Woman of 1000 Years’ sounds cut from the same cloth), let alone in the broader context of Fleetwood Mac’s discography, but if nothing else it reveals that the transitional years were not entirely fallow—and that we still might be talking about Fleetwood Mac had Welch decided not to quit and clear the way for their mainstream success.
‘Dust’ from Bare Trees (1972)
For a British band, Fleetwood Mac have never sounded particularly tied to their geography — trading first in second-hand American blues and later, after relocating to the States, profoundly shaping the west coast Americana sound. ‘Dust’ stands out for this reason alone: its verses are steeped in a very British folk music tradition that found its expression in Fleetwood Mac’s contemporaries, Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Danny Kirwan’s guitar work, on the other hand, revels in a self-conscious appropriation of American folk-rock tropes, which lends this song an interesting dynamic tension: prim and wintry versus free-flowing and sunny. It’s also a song about death, but it says nothing about death. “When the white flame in us is gone,” Kirwan sings in the verses, “And we who lost the world’s delight/ Stiffen in darkness, left alone/ To crumble in our separate night” — what then? The chorus doesn’t answer the question, only enigmatically repeating the line “when we are dust”. The dissonance of the chorus never resolves to consonance; the conclusion of the song simply hovers there, as unknowable and discomforting as its subject.
‘Crystal’ from Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Most of the worst things that happened, culturally speaking, in the American seventies have one thing in common: they’re a direct result of letting hippies take cocaine. The Buckingham/Nicks line-up of Fleetwood Mac, of course, is the one major counterweight to this, making three albums of clean, powerful, sometimes challenging music in a riot of powder and old lace. If the music of most wealthy West Coast bands distended grotesquely as the decade wore on (and their septa wore away), Fleetwood Mac grew leaner and weirder. The first recording of ‘Crystal’, on Lindsey and Stevie’s duo album of 1973, is pleasantly-toasted Californian folk-rock, but the Mac’s version – emerging from the cokey blizzard of 1975 – is a masterpiece of glazed euphoria. Christine McVie plays a smoggy LA sunset on the Multimoog, Buckingham’s voice has gained that breathy, hysterical edge and rock’s most reassuring rhythm section smooth the whole thing down. Like most Mac music of the time, it’s lush but never quite laid back: if anyone had been listening closely then the bug-eyed contortions of Tusk, arriving half a decade later, would have been less of a surprise.
‘Beautiful Child’ from Tusk (1979)
It wasn’t just the madcap methodology that split open Fleetwood Mac on their 1979 double, Tusk. The ‘career suicide’ follow-up to Rumours featured Stevie Nicks’ most soul-searching compositions to date (see ‘Storms’ for further evidence). As with The Beatles’ George Harrison, she was amassing a vast backlog of songs and Tusk was her White Album outlet (she got five songs rather than the usual quota of three). The fourth side’s ‘Beautiful Child’ is her ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, a song of innocence and experience, of childhood remembrances tinged with grown up regret. Rumours’ super-clean AOR sheen is slowed down to an anaesthetized quiver. The drum track watches the slow hand, guitars and piano sob with sympathy. Buckingham and McVie’s vocals waft in and out like old friends, now ghosts. It’s a lullaby wrapped in disquieting atmospherics, as enveloping as west coast fog. Or the cocaine blizzard Nicks would not be free of until 1986. The hard-won optimism of Joni Mitchell’s mid-period prime & Neil Young’s On The Beach come to mind here; a very seventies Golden State disillusionment. Nicks’ repertoire is overflowing with impossibly sad songs. ‘Beautiful Child’ may well be the saddest of them all.
‘Brown Eyes’ from Tusk (1979)
Christine McVie’s ‘Brown Eyes’ features an uncredited Peter Green on guitar, though by the time Green gets to business, the song fades out. Despite that, the song is one of McVie’s most textured, yet appears on an album that didn’t resonate with American fans too well after the massive success of Rumours, while in the UK, the album went to number one. One theory regarding its unpopularity – despite being one of the most costly rock & roll albums ever made – is that before release, radio network RKO played the album in its entirety causing fans to go ape shit, pirating their own copies on their home tape machines. Looking back at Tusk, Mick Fleetwood swears it is some of the group’s finest work. I can only find a few songs on this album that I like but this is one of them.
‘Black Magic Woman’ from The Pious Bird Of Good Omen (1969)
If I hear Santana’s Black Magic Woman’ on the radio, the dial is usually turned within the first three notes. It’s overkill, just like all the other classic rock gems that have been lodged into our brains so far that in the still of the night we wake up hearing them for good or ill. This is one of those songs that, although I have high respect for its brilliance, I would just rather hear a different version from time to time. That’s not the radio’s style, however. They want to nail the same song to your brain over and over again until every album on your shelf reads Greatest Hits. Peter Green’s version is the real deal and as many might not know, was written by him and made popular by Santana. In contrast, Peter Green’s original version is more psychedelic, much more raw and relaxed than Santana’s and haunted by Green’s blues-driven guitar and spirit. There’s just nothing like the original and it makes you wonder why such a great track has been closeted.
‘Drifting’ from The Original Fleetwood Mac (1971)
I’ve always found it quite strange how it took a bunch of British musicians and songwriters to reinstate the importance of American music to Americans – The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Cream, John Mayall and The Blues Breakers, etc. Peter Green of the original Fleetwood Mac was no slouch when it came to getting the blues. Still, until this day, when I bring up Fleetwood Mac in conversation, someone always identifies with the reincarnation of the band; a persuasion of vaginas, drugs, alcohol, jealousy, witchcraft and brilliant songwriting to keep the tension high and mighty. However, prior to all that, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac had its finger on the true essence of the blues. ‘Drifting’ is testament to that.
‘Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight’ from ‘Man Of The World’ (1969)
Fleetwood Mac, punk? Jeremy Spencer, their first guitar player was known for his comedic abilities and impersonations such as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley which he would occasionally break into on stage. In this track, a b-side to the band’s early single, Spencer does just that. The song echoes early American rock & roll legends like Carl Perkins, Presley and, without a doubt, the Beach Boys. This tune, in fact, is not short of being a blueprint for punk rock, being covered by the likes of Youth Brigade and The Rezillos.