In 1974, Fleetwood Mac was playing venues like the Charles Wolf Gymnasium in York, Pennsylvania, and the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Then, at year’s end, the British band hired a new American guitarist named Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. When they realized what they had, Mick Fleetwood and John “Mac” McVie rebranded their ensemble and went all in with their next record, the eponymous Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac went No. 1. The followup, Rumours, sold ten million copies in a month, dominating the charts and public consciousness like few albums before or since. Rumours established Fleetwood Mac as the definitive American pop band of the late 1970s.
Five decades later, Rumours defines Fleetwood Mac. The band has released seventeen studio albums, but most casual fans know only one. The curious might also seek out Fleetwood Mac, which nearly rivals Rumours for songcraft and sounds like its studio twin. Record collectors hunt for vintage copies of Tusk, the weird-but-rewarding double album Fleetwood Mac released in 1979, two years after Rumours. Most listeners stop there.
And that’s a shame, because Fleetwood Mac once reigned as the best blues band in Britain. They started out as a showcase for Peter Green, a British guitar hero on par with Clapton or Beck or Page, though he’s not nearly so well-known. Ignoring Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac is a lapse akin to eschewing the original lineup of Pink Floyd, the one fronted by Syd Barrett.
I set out to interview Peter Green a few years ago, when I was writing my biography of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King. I knew Peter as one of B.B.’s greatest acolytes. I knew he had struggled with mental illness, but I also knew he had continued to tour and record sporadically. My quest ended when someone close to him told me that, by 2019, Peter no longer gave interviews or performed in public. He died the next year.
Back in the ’60s, Peter Green wrote and recorded “Black Magic Woman,” the song later made famous by Carlos Santana. He wielded a rich, subtle, emotive solo guitar. He was perhaps the best among the many guitarists of that era who tried (and mostly failed) to emulate B.B. King. His ragged singing voice wasn’t great, but he knew how to sing the blues in a way that sounded authentic and unaffected, sort of like Alan Wilson of Canned Heat. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac stands as one of just a few white bands that could do justice to B.B. and Elmore James while also writing psych-blues songs of their own.
As a tribute to Green, and to the years of scuffling the Mac endured before they hit worldwide fame, here is a survey of a few terrific Fleetwood Mac albums from the early years, and one from later on.
English Rose, 1969.
British readers might disagree with this choice, given that English Rose was a compilation album initially released only in the States. But it’s my favorite among several collections of early Fleetwood Mac sides. I think it shows the band attempting to put its best material forward in the all-important American market. Several songs come from Mr. Wonderful, the second proper Fleetwood Mac album. The rousing opener “Stop Messin’ Round” sounds like a classic twelve-bar blues but turns out to be a Peter Green original. “Doctor Brown” shows how comfortably Peter could slip into an Elmore James vocal growl, and how adeptly bandmate Jeremy Spencer could grind out an Elmore James-style slide riff. “Something Inside of Me” is another majestic original, written not by Green but by Danny Kirwan, the third guitarist in a band with talent to burn. “Love That Burns” sets Peter’s sublime guitar figures against mournful horns, paying lovely homage to B.B. and the American R&B tradition. Kirwan’s “One Sunny Day” features a devastating two-guitar riff, answered by Spencer with his slide: guitar heaven. The two best tracks, though, are probably the non-album singles “Black Magic Woman” and “Albatross.” The latter single is a dreamy instrumental, warm and lazy like a day at the beach, supposedly an inspiration for the Beatles’ “Sun King.”
Then Play On, 1969.
The last proper Fleetwood Mac album to feature Peter Green might be the best, in terms of depth and listenability, featuring all original material from two capable songwriters who were learning to stretch the blues form. It opens with “Coming My Way,” an earnest Danny Kirwan vocal set atop sinewy intertwined guitars and T. Rex-style conga drums. It chugs along for three minutes before exploding into a dramatic coda, setting up one of the most dramatic guitar solos ever set to disc, the sort of performance that will leave you briefly unable to breathe. “Fighting for Madge” (and its side-two reprise, “Searching for Madge”) is a break-neck guitar workout anchored by Mick Fleetwood’s muscular drums, an instrumental display that few bands on either side of the Atlantic could match. Kirwan contributes a trio of dreamy ballads, “When You Say,” “Although the Sun is Shining” and the instrumental “My Dream,” that complement the neoclassical nude-man-on-horseback artwork that adorns the album. “Rattlesnake Shake,” a song about masturbation set to a mambo beat, is a signature Peter Green composition. Concurrent with the album’s release, the band scored a surprise transcontinental hit with Green’s “Oh Well,” a sort of blues-metal suite, which moves from a hard-blues workout to an adagio acoustic passage that sounds lifted from a spaghetti western. Later pressings of Then Play On add “Oh Well” but subtract two good Danny Kirwan songs. Still later pressings add a power chord gem called “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” evidently the last thing Green recorded with Fleetwood Mac.
Bare Trees, 1972.
Fleetwood Mac released several studio albums between Then Play On and Fleetwood Mac, their Buckingham-Nicks debut. This era featured solid musicianship and a pleasant stoner-rock vibe but uneven songwriting and indifferent production, especially for listeners accustomed to Lindsey Buckingham’s studio genius. To my ears, the best by far is Bare Trees. By 1972, Fleetwood Mac once again boasted three capable songwriters: Kirwan, a holdover from the Peter Green band; Bob Welch, a guitarist and singer from Hollywood who brought a California sensibility into the fold; and Christine Perfect, a top-drawer English singer who joined after marrying bassist McVie. Kirwan delivers a spirited opener with the up-tempo boogie “Child of Mine.” Welch answers with “The Ghost,” revealing an uncanny pop-hook sensibility on the chorus. Kirwan shows further melodic chops with “Bare Trees,” the impressively catchy title song: Welch’s arrival seemed to inspire both Kirwan and Perfect to develop their own pop craft. Welch follows with “Sentimental Lady,” surely his greatest achievement, a song so lovely and ageless that Lindsey Buckingham polished it into a Top-10 hit five years later. Christine Perfect nearly equals it, two songs later, with “Spare Me a Little of Your Love,” a beautiful (and beautifully catchy) song that announces her arrival as a first-rank songwriter.
I may be alone in my tastes, but Mirage is the only Fleetwood Mac album of the post-Rumours era that I regularly spin on my turntable. I never really took to Tusk, the sprawling double set the Mac released in 1979 to mixed notices, only to see it canonized by latter-day critics as a work of misunderstood genius. Mirage endures, by contrast, as a relatively unadorned collection of pop songs, slickly produced and – for the early 1980s – surprisingly listenable. Little on the record approaches the grandeur of Rumours, and the first truly great song doesn’t arrive until the fourth cut. But fans of Rumours-era Mac will be hard-pressed to find a better trio of songs than Lindsey Buckingham’s raging “Book of Love,” Stevie Nicks’ hypnotic “Gypsy” and Christine McVie’s lovely “Only Over You,” the side-one closer. The other real standout on Mirage is “Hold Me,” from side two, one of the most intricate and rewarding collaborations between singer-songwriter McVie and producer Buckingham. The songwriting falls off toward the end. Yet, even such seemingly slight numbers as Stevie Nicks’ “That’s Alright” and Buckingham’s “Love in Store” will grow on you, given time.
Bonus track: “Hypnotized,” a lovely Bob Welch song from the Mystery to Me album in 1973.
Daniel de Visé is the author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King and three other books.