Fleet­wood Mac

From 1967 to 1974, the nascent Fleet­wood Mac teetered on the line be­tween tri­umph and obliv­ion. Co-founder Mick Fleet­wood re­calls the “wild story” of the band’s early years…

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Henry Yates

One band, a myr­iad of eras and a whole lotta mov­ing and shak­ing go­ing on. Clas­sic Rock cel­e­brates half a cen­tury of Fleet­wood Mac, be­gin­ning with Mick Fleet­wood tak­ing us through his band’s early blues years. Then we move on to the crazy drama of the multi-plat­inum, drug-ad­dicted world­wide hit ma­chine years, and be­yond…

It was the fag-end of sum­mer 1967, and the tec­tonic plates of Lon­don’s blues land­scape were shift­ing. On Septem­ber 9, un­der cover of dark­ness, the door of Decca Stu­dios in Lon­don opened and house pro­ducer Mike Ver­non furtively waved in a fledg­ling band for an af­ter-hours ses­sion. There was Mick Fleet­wood, the drum­mer re­cently ousted from John May­all’s Blues­break­ers for be­ing ha­bit­u­ally “loose as a goose”. With him were bassist Bob Brun­ning and an imp­ish, mis­chief-mak­ing slide-guitar wizard named Jeremy Spencer. More aus­pi­ciously, there was Peter Green, the spell­bind­ing guitar hero who had re­placed Eric Clap­ton in the Blues­break­ers, and ar­guably out­shone him in his ten­ure with May­all, and was now widely tipped to ex­plode.

“Peo­ple were al­most forc­ing Peter to form a band,” re­mem­bers Fleet­wood, a full half-cen­tury later, in an in­ter­view to pro­mote Love That Burns, a mouth-wa­ter­ing new book that chron­i­cles the band’s early years. “So I think even­tu­ally he ba­si­cally went: ‘Okay, fuck it.’”

To fair-weather fans of the sta­dium-fill­ing Ru­mours line-up of Fleet­wood Mac, that orig­i­nal line-up is ei­ther a mys­tery or a mere pre­am­ble to the main event.

“The main story is al­ways go­ing to be the Fleet­wood Mac that you know now,” Fleet­wood con­cedes. “No doubt, what’s go­ing to be re­mem­bered is the in­car­na­tion that’s not in this book; y’know, Ste­vie [Nicks], Lind­sey [Buck­ing­ham], Chris [McVie], John [McVie, who had soon re­placed Brun­ning] and my­self. But I wanted this book to be about the band that Peter Green started in 1967, and I was lucky and happy enough to be at his side, right from the be­gin­ning.

“I want peo­ple to know what started Fleet­wood Mac. Well, first of all it was Peter. And a bunch of kids that were chan­nelling our heroes. We were lis­ten­ing to blues artists that were freak­ing us out. The irony is that these funny lit­tle English dudes re­con­sti­tuted an art form that was all but dead – and no­body gave a shit about it in Amer­ica – and served it back to them. We helped to save some­thing that was all but thrown in the dust­bin.”

Across the decades, all par­ties have cred­ited Green as the cat­a­lyst be­hind the orig­i­nal band’s for­ma­tion. Spencer re­mem­bers be­ing press-ganged by him at a Birm­ing­ham show in June 1967 (“He asked if I wanted a drink, and as we stood by the bar he talked as though I was al­ready in it”). In Love That Burns, mean­while, McVie re­calls the bad­ger­ing that made him turn his back on a steady Blues­break­ers pay cheque (“Peter was bug­ging me, you know: ‘Come on, join, join, you gotta join!’”).

While in­ter­view­ing Green for the book, Fleet­wood was sur­prised to learn that his own in­vi­ta­tion to join was largely down to the sym­pa­thy vote: “I thought he was go­ing to say: ‘Well, I thought you were a pretty good drum­mer.’ But he said: ‘You’d just bro­ken up with Jenny [Boyd, later Fleet­wood’s first wife] and you were dev­as­tated, and I just thought you needed to do some­thing. That’s why I asked you to join the band, be­cause I just wanted you to get back on your feet.’ How amaz­ing was that? It re­ally had noth­ing to do with whether I was a half­way de­cent drum­mer or not, it was just be­cause he loved me and he didn’t want to see me in pain.”

In his own tes­ti­mony for Love That Burns, mean­while, Green writes: “Fleet­wood Mac was a bit of an ex­per­i­ment to be­gin with. I wouldn’t have been sur­prised if it had flopped. The way the line-up came to­gether had a lot to do with fate.”

Maybe so, but it was chem­istry that drove it. A proto-Fleet­wood Mac – at that point with Brun­ning on bass – had al­ready played their de­but gig, at the Wind­sor Jazz & Blues Fes­ti­val in Au­gust 1967. Later that year, as the McVie-bol­stered line-up hit the Lon­don club scene, a fas­ci­nat­ing dy­namic was in ev­i­dence. Both on stage and when has­sling pro­mot­ers off it, the

East End-raised Green was patently in charge.

“I would par­ody Peter when he would slip into that tough bar­row-boy thing when he couldn’t take us any more,” notes Fleet­wood. “We would mimic him and it be­came a run­ning joke: ‘Get your fuck­ing shit to­gether. You both played like shit! Fleet­wood, I’ve got more swing in my left bol­lock than you had tonight!’”

On the flip side, band­leader Green’s eco­nom­i­cal guitar play­ing style and mu­si­cal gen­eros­ity gave space for his band­mates to shine, his pri­or­ity al­ways the in­ter­play, not the in­di­vid­ual show­boat­ing.

“It was in­cred­i­ble in those days,” notes McVie. “Mick and I be­hind Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, it was like a fuck­ing freight train. It’s noth­ing that in­cludes mas­sive amounts of tech­ni­cal skill, it’s just chem­istry that works.”

“It was all about friend­ship,” picks up Fleet­wood. “Peter gave me con­fi­dence. I play from the heart. I don’t know what I’m do­ing half the time. And he told me: ‘Mick, you’re okay, just play.’ Peter was the con­sum­mate team player. Later, in an in­ter­view, some­one asked him why did he call the band Fleet­wood Mac? And he said: ‘Well, in truth, I thought at some time I’d prob­a­bly move on, and I wanted John and Mick to have some­thing af­ter I left.’

“Peter gave and he gave,” Fleet­wood con­tin­ues. “I was look­ing at the set-list for the Wind­sor Jazz Fes­ti­val. And re­mem­ber that Peter had be­come a sort of Eric Clap­ton hero-wor­shipped player on the scene. He ba­si­cally turned around and gave it all away to Jeremy. [That show] is a lot of Jeremy. That’s re­ally a very gen­er­ous per­son.”

The mag­nan­i­mous Green was not only happy to fea­ture Spencer’s note­per­fect El­more James homages in the set, he also even in­dulged Spencer’s on stage an­tics, which in­cluded ca­vort­ing in a gold lamé jump­suit with a red dildo lolling from the gus­set (a rou­tine that saw them briefly banned from The Mar­quee). Spencer re­called: “Peter said that I was the first player to make him smile since Hen­drix.”

The log­i­cal next step was a de­but al­bum. In Novem­ber 1967, a three­day stint at CBS stu­dios re­sulted in the self-ti­tled LP known in­for­mally as Dog And Dust­bin, a Brit-blues mas­ter class that pin­balled from soul-drenched Green orig­i­nals like Look­ing For Some­body and I Loved Another Woman to Spencer’s trade­mark olde-blues salutes.

“That was a blues al­bum,” Fleet­wood says. “Y’know, this is what we do. The irony was, we were on Top Of The Pops and they prob­a­bly felt we

“I hope that part of our story is about ac­cep­tance of peo­ple

who have come through the ranks, which has al­lowed this crazy story.”

Mick Fleet­wood

in­vented that mu­sic. A lot of peo­ple who were not our au­di­ence were sud­denly lis­ten­ing to El­more James. It re­ally holds up, when you lis­ten to some of that early stuff. I mean, Peter was such an ex­traor­di­nary player, so sen­si­tive and so ma­ture.

“The thing about Lon­don and a lot of bands in that par­tic­u­lar pe­riod,” the drum­mer con­tin­ues, “is that, in our own way, we were real blues bands. Lon­don was a caul­dron of cre­ativ­ity which, I might add, is still be­ing felt mu­si­cally, so­ci­o­log­i­cally, in fash­ion and style. It caused all these rip­ples that be­came waves and storms and hur­ri­canes of cre­ativ­ity. I don’t think it’s push­ing the en­ve­lope for some­one such as me, sit­ting back and say­ing [mock-nos­tal­gic]: ‘Oh, in the old days, do you know what we did?’ There are just things that hap­pen in cer­tain places. It’s like when peo­ple talk about Paris in the twen­ties.”

But even as that de­but al­bum hit No.4 in the UK shortly af­ter its re­lease in Fe­bru­ary 1968 there was a taste of trou­ble to come, when Green baulked at the band’s billing on the sleeve as ‘Peter Green’s Fleet­wood Mac’.

“He was fu­ri­ous about that,” Fleet­wood re­calls. “They snuck it in there, be­cause [Peter] was the only per­son that was be­gin­ning to be quite fa­mous on the blues cir­cuit. And I don’t blame them. But that was the last time you ever saw Peter Green’s name in front of Fleet­wood Mac.”

Fol­low-up Mr Won­der­ful could only re­peat the de­but al­bum’s trick with di­min­ish­ing re­turns, but the line-up was re­vi­talised that sum­mer when a pre­co­cious and chron­i­cally shy gui­tarist named Danny Kir­wan joined the band. Fleet­wood re­calls a teenager who “one might have mis­taken for an in­no­cent church choir­boy… but he would play the hell out of his guitar, deep in the trenches of the dark­est grooves”.

In­deed it was Kir­wan’s di­verse in­flu­ences and off-kil­ter style that helped Fleet­wood Mac to their first hit sin­gles – and the broad-minded and more tex­tu­ral tracks on 1969’s Then Play On al­bum.

“It was thrilling to see them go from noth­ing more than a twelve-bar blues band to mak­ing records as cre­ative as Al­ba­tross and Black Magic Woman,” re­calls Ver­non. “The cat­a­lyst for the change was Danny. There were no bands any­where that had three guitar play­ers, and it di­ver­si­fied the whole sound of the group.”

On first in­spec­tion, as a dreamy guitar in­stru­men­tal with the vibe set to ‘mel­low’, their 1968 sin­gle Al­ba­tross was a hard sell, Fleet­wood ac­knowl­edg­ing that it was “a lit­tle light in the loafers” for the band’s blues hard-core fol­low­ers. “Ev­ery­one at CBS, our dis­trib­u­tor, said: ‘We’ll never be able to sell this, no ra­dio sta­tion’s ever gonna play it,’” notes Ver­non. “But Peter just kept telling us it was go­ing to be a hit. Even­tu­ally, af­ter hear­ing it enough times, we all agreed.”

Green’s in­stincts were on the money. Af­ter the band per­formed Al­ba­tross on prime-time BBC, the sin­gle be­gan shift­ing 60,000 units daily on its march to No.1 in the UK. Green’s chim­ing Man Of The World and am­bi­tious Oh Well weren’t far be­hind, both sin­gles hit­ting No.2 in 1969. That year’s Then Play On al­bum, which saw Green ex­pand his palette with songs in­spired by hear­ing clas­si­cal com­poser Vaughan Wil­liams’s The Lark As­cend­ing at the Proms, reached No.6.

“Jeremy was vul­ner­a­ble, ripe for the pick­ing, be­cause he al­ways had a Bi­ble sewn into his duf­fle

coat and he was al­ready flip­ping out

from the drugs.”

Mick Fleet­wood

“The world was un­fold­ing for him,” notes Fleet­wood. “One can only imag­ine what he’d have cre­ated if he had con­tin­ued on that track.”

Rather less high-minded was Green’s Rat­tlesnake Shake, writ­ten about Mick Fleet­wood mas­tur­bat­ing.

Cap­ping off a break­through year, there was also the re­lease of Blues Jam At Chess, show­cas­ing the lineup as they cut heads with the genre’s big beasts in Chicago, in­clud­ing Buddy Guy, Wil­lie Dixon and Shakey Hor­ton. In­spect the pho­tos in Love That Burns and the Mac mem­bers are cer­tainly wide-eyed, although the re­spect re­port­edly ran both ways, with JT Brown, for­merly of the El­more James band, not­ing of Spencer: “Hell, it’s like El­more has been dug up from the grave. I’m clos­ing my eyes and hear­ing my boss singing.”

Such tri­umphs couldn’t mask a sour taste and the sense of an end­ing, how­ever. Af­ter the band had set out on pro­ducer Mike Ver­non’s then-new blues la­bel Blue Hori­zon, man­ager Clif­ford Davis had swooped to move his charges to the Im­me­di­ate la­bel (thence to Warner Brothers/Reprise).

“When Fleet­wood Mac left us,” noted Ver­non, “the thing that up­set me more than any­thing was the idea that our fam­ily unit was be­ing de­stroyed. And it was be­ing de­stroyed for rea­sons of com­mer­cial­ity.”

For his part, Spencer had felt adrift since Kir­wan’s ar­rival, and he re­leased his first solo al­bum in 1970. Most trou­bling of all was the de­cline of Green. Plainly, this was a man fast un­rav­el­ling. He gave be­fud­dled in­ter­views in which he spoke of plans to give away the band’s money, took to wear­ing mes­sianic robes and sprin­kled cries for help across lyrics for songs such as Man Of The World (‘I just wish that I’d never been born’) and Love That Burns (‘Please leave me now in my room to cry’).

Green’s omi­nous fi­nal con­tri­bu­tion, The Green Manal­ishi (With The TwoProng Crown), felt more trou­bled still, its lyric ad­dress­ing a night­mar­ish char­ac­ter that surely rep­re­sented the gui­tarist’s strug­gle to rec­on­cile his tough up­bring­ing and his rock-star sta­tus, not to men­tion the pres­sure to main­tain the band’s com­mer­cial as­cent.

“The bur­den of our suc­cess haunted him,” notes Fleet­wood. “Peter thought it was all bull­shit and was con­vinced that peo­ple never re­ally liked him. This took him to the brink and it ul­ti­mately made him un­able to han­dle nor­mal life.”

As the band hit the road in early 1970, Fleet­wood watched his friend across the aisle of the tour bus, waited and hoped.

“There are some pic­tures in the book that of course are very per­sonal,” he re­calls. “I re­mem­ber the ex­act mo­ment. There’s some pic­tures of Peter on that last tour, and I re­mem­ber how it felt. I was sit­ting on that bus and I was look­ing at him and think­ing: ‘Maybe he’ll change his mind. Maybe he won’t leave.’”

The cau­tion­ary tale of Green’s ig­no­min­ious burnout is well-known now, the tip­ping point gen­er­ally ac­knowl­edged to be the day at a Mu­nich hip­pie com­mune when his al­ready frag­ile mind-set was shred­ded by LSD. In­ter­viewed for Fleet­wood’s book, he can only ex­press be­wil­der­ment at his ac­tions: “I don’t re­ally know why I left the group in the end. I think it was just be­cause I wanted to do things for free. I knew that peo­ple looked at me like I was in a dream. I could tell that, even at the time.”

“We were dev­as­tated,” Fleet­wood says to­day. “Los­ing Peter Green was dev­as­tat­ing. It was like, it’s prob­a­bly over. My in­stinct was to keep go­ing. Be­cause what else are we go­ing to do? The band’s called Fleet­wood Mac, and re­ally, we were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the very thing that Peter thought would hap­pen. So at least we had some­thing.

“I don’t re­ally know why I left the group in the end. I think it was just be­cause I wanted to do things for free.”

Peter Green

“And I have to say, the les­son learnt there was that once we had sur­vived that most dev­as­tat­ing thing, ev­ery time some­one left, be­cause we’d sur­vived Peter we thought we could prob­a­bly get through.”

De­ser­tion was in the air. Spencer was “gloomy” and de­spon­dent. McVie talked vaguely of ditch­ing the bass and man­ag­ing the band in­stead. For Fleet­wood, the only way for­ward was to start afresh, the drum­mer lead­ing the reel­ing lineup to shared quar­ters in Kiln House, “a fru­gal, artsy farm­house” in Hamp­shire, where days were spent re­hears­ing new ma­te­rial and nights smok­ing hash.

“We closed ranks,” he re­flects. “We went to Kiln House and did the band-in-the-coun­try-cot­tage thing that Traf­fic and Led Zep­pelin had done. Y’know, go to the coun­try and lick your wounds. We were very shaky.”

Slowly, the mu­sic be­gan again. But when the Kiln House al­bum emerged in Septem­ber 1970, it was a cu­ri­ous beast, mostly driven by Kir­wan’s rock­ier lean­ings and Spencer’s 1950s pas­tiches, and it was per­haps lucky even to reach No.39 in the UK.

“We made that very un­usual, charm­ing lit­tle al­bum,” re­flects Fleet­wood, “where Jeremy was in a world with Danny. But they weren’t pre­pared with­out our big leader. Jeremy just re­treated to mak­ing his Buddy Holly-es­que songs. It’s sort of a cool lit­tle al­bum, but we were floun­der­ing.”

New faces helped heal the wounds. Chris­tine Per­fect had moved in the band’s or­bit since the start, catch­ing McVie’s eye as she played keys with Chicken Shack at that Wind­sor fes­ti­val in 1967. The pair dated, then mar­ried in 1968. She played pi­ano on the Mr Won­der­ful, Then Play On and Kiln House al­bums, be­fore of­fi­cially be­com­ing a mem­ber of Fleet­wood Mac at a New Or­leans gig in Au­gust 1970.

Even then, the re­volv­ing door con­tin­ued to turn. In Fe­bru­ary 1971 the band’s US tour was de­railed when Spencer walked off down Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard – os­ten­si­bly to visit a ‘head’, or drug para­pher­na­lia, shop – and never re­turned. The mys­tery was only solved, Fleet­wood notes, when he was found sworn in to a reli­gious group known as the Chil­dren Of God. “Jeremy was vul­ner­a­ble, ripe for the pick­ing, be­cause he al­ways had a Bi­ble sewn into his duf­fle coat and he was al­ready flip­ping out from the drugs.”

Hav­ing al­ready can­celled a gig at LA’s Whisky A Go Go, the only re­course was to re­call Peter Green, although his re­fusal to play the hits and in­sis­tence on free-form jam­ming meant this could never be a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion. Rel­a­tive con­sis­tency ar­rived only in the form of gui­tarist Bob Welch, the Cal­i­for­nian-born mu­si­cian whose jazz-in­flected con­tri­bu­tion to the next five al­bums – in­clud­ing ma­jor US hits such as Hyp­no­tized – de­serves higher billing. “Bob was a ma­jor part of this band af­ter Peter left,” Fleet­wood says. “[But] in Europe, peo­ple don’t ac­tu­ally know a lot about him.”

The band’s new digs also con­trib­uted to the sense of sta­bil­ity. Cost­ing just £23,000, Beni­folds was a sprawl­ing Vic­to­rian pile in ru­ral Hamp­shire, which for the next three years be­came the band mem­bers’ com­mu­nal home and the back­drop to the al­bums that fol­lowed. On stand­out tracks such as Morn­ing Rain, 1971’s Fu­ture Games al­bum gave the first hints of the band’s melodic pop di­rec­tion and the grow­ing in­flu­ence of Chris­tine McVie to come. The fol­low­ing year, Bare Trees was also an artis­tic suc­cess, with Kir­wan de­liv­er­ing gems like the funked-up ti­tle track, and Welch again vin­di­cat­ing his hir­ing with the stun­ning au­tum­nal bal­lad Sen­ti­men­tal Lady.

The up­ward tra­jec­tory couldn’t last. Kir­wan’s para­noia and al­co­hol de­pen­dency were spi­ralling, and his dis­taste for the band’s di­rec­tion and, in par­tic­u­lar, Welch’s style were com­ing to a head. In Au­gust 1972 Kir­wan ef­fec­tively signed his own death war­rant by re­fus­ing to take the stage and watch­ing from the back as the band strug­gled to cover his parts. For Fleet­wood, Kir­wan’s fir­ing was a no-brainer: “It was some­thing we sim­ply could not for­give.

Danny had bro­ken the code, the one that said you don’t hang your band­mates out to dry on stage.”

With the band again flail­ing, Fleet­wood went fish­ing for new blood. “Peter re­ally set the prece­dent,” he says of his skills as a ta­lent-spot­ter. “I’ve been in the band since 1967, and I’m not a singer or a song­writer, but my song be­came Fleet­wood Mac, and I can qui­etly say that I had a lot to do with this strange jour­ney of putting [and] keep­ing peo­ple in the band. I learnt that from Peter.

“In the same way, peo­ple have come into Fleet­wood Mac and they’ve been ac­knowl­edged for who they are and haven’t been asked to em­u­late some­thing that went be­fore. Peter taught me those lessons and I re­mem­bered them. I hope that part of our story is about ac­cep­tance of peo­ple who have come through the ranks, which has al­lowed this crazy story, where ev­ery­body has been un­be­liev­ably dif­fer­ent, mu­si­cally.”

Fleet­wood didn’t al­ways make the right call. In Au­gust 1972, Dave Walker ar­rived from Savoy Brown full of prom­ise, but was ex­posed in the stu­dio. “He was very good at en­gag­ing the au­di­ence, and the crowd would go nuts for him,” Fleet­wood notes. “It wasn’t un­til we were mak­ing Pen­guin that we re­alised it wasn’t go­ing to work out.”

Bob We­ston lasted longer – con­tribut­ing guitar to 1973’s Pen­guin and Mys­tery To Me al­bums – but wreaked havoc by hav­ing an af­fair with Fleet­wood’s wife Jenny, send­ing the drum­mer into a tail­spin, caus­ing the can­cel­la­tion of a US tour –and the so-called ‘fake’ Fleet­wood Mac, a line-up of job­bing mu­sos ab­surdly billed as the real thing.

“I couldn’t get through the tour, and had a break­down,” notes Fleet­wood. “I sent Jenny back to Lon­don and Bob got fired from Fleet­wood Mac.”

Plainly, a clean break was needed. The an­swer once again came from Welch, who sug­gested that re­lo­cat­ing to the States would give the band more clout in that lu­cra­tive mar­ket.

“Bob was the be­gin­ning of us liv­ing in Amer­ica, us re­ally sep­a­rat­ing from be­ing in Europe,” says Fleet­wood. “We lost a huge chunk of our au­di­ence in Europe when Peter left, so the band changed and we mi­grated to Amer­ica [in 1974].”

The move drew a line un­der a seven-year ride and a mind-bog­gling early cat­a­logue. “If any­one cares to pick up the al­bums from the be­gin­ning,” says Fleet­wood, “right through some of the changes we went through with Kiln House, Fu­ture Games, Mys­tery To Me, all these al­bums… it’s like a very strange and un­usual mu­si­cal. If you put on Blues Jam At Chess, or the orig­i­nal Peter Green in­car­na­tion, then you put on Bob Welch or Kiln House, you’re en­ti­tled to ask: is this the same band? There’s some sim­i­lar­ity, but it’s hard to find some­times. That in it­self is a wild story.

“This book is about pay­ing trib­ute to the mem­bers of Fleet­wood Mac,” he con­cludes. “It’s told by me, but I’m re­ally hop­ing it feels like ev­ery­one has been paid ku­dos to, who started this band, and the changes in the band that are not of­ten very well known. That’s why it’s re­ally im­por­tant to sep­a­rate it. I wanted this [story] to sur­vive on its own. The book ends where I in­tro­duce Ste­vie and Lind­sey to Chris­tine. And that’s a whole other story…”

“It was all about friend­ship. Peter gave me con­fi­dence. I play from the heart. I don’t know what I’m do­ing

half the time.”

Mick Fleet­wood

Love That Burns–A Chron­i­cle of Fleet­wood Mac, Vol­ume One: 1967–1974 by Mick Fleet­wood is pub­lished by Gen­e­sis Pub­li­ca­tions. For more info visit www.gen­e­sis-pub­li­ca­tions.com or call +44 (0)1483 540 970

Clock­wise from top left: Dave Walker and the equally short-lived Bob We­ston, “ma­jor player” Bob Welch, John and Chris­tine McVie.

Fleet­wood, Green and Spencer with JT Brown, record­ing the Blues Jam At Chess al­bum in 1969.

Singing the blues: Danny Kir­wan, Peter Green and John McVie in the stu­dio in 1969/70.

Amer­ica here we come: the McVie/ Fleet­wood/Welch/McVie line-up re­lo­cate to the US, and the next phase of the Fleet­wood Mac saga be­gins…

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