The Boston Blues News (11-12/2003), Rediscovering the Blues of Fleetwood Mac
The Boston Blues News, Nov/Dec 2003
Rediscovering the Blues of Fleetwood Mac
by GL Charpied
As I watched the seven-part Martin Scorsese-produced film series The Blues, the episode I wanted most to see was the one directed by Mike Figgis. Titled Red, White & Blues, Figgis's documentary took a closer look at the blues scene in England during the 1950's and 1960's. I was particularly interested to know what place Figgis and his producers gave to guitarist Peter Green. The tortured soul of the British blues revivalists, Green was unfortunately given scant attention. Paying little attention to Peter Green may have to do with Green's virtual incoherence when answering questions. Or, it may have to do with the fact that his brief, though meteoric, rise to blues stardom has always been easy to overlook.
Fleetwood Mac formed in 1967, at the height of the British blues revival, with the exodus of three alumni of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Peter Green, an unassuming guitar virtuoso and the antithesis of the god-like status given to instrumentalists of his caliber, had been brought into the Bluesbreakers after Eric Clapton's departure. But far from being a footnote in the annals of popular music, Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac play a seminal role in it's evolution.
In 1966, Green began touring with the Bluesbreakers, whose ranks then included John McVie, a solid bass player who had played with Mayall since 1963, and Mick Fleetwood, a talented jump blues drummer who had joined in 1965. Green was the motivational force behind the formation of Fleetwood Mac. Given recording session time by Mayall for his birthday after a successful year on the road (and a knockout performance on the 1966 Bluesbreakers album Hard Road), Green made the most of the opportunity. Backed by Fleetwood and McVie, Greeny cut Elmore James's It Hurts Me Too, Otis Rush's Double Trouble, and an untitled instrumental he wrote for the session. Green was eager to start his own group and tapped Fleetwood and McVie as its nucleus. McVie demurred, notwithstanding Green naming the future group Fleetwood Mac. Initially, only Green and Fleetwood left the Bluesbreakers, and, with Bob Brunning on bass, played local clubs honing their style and professionalism. McVie ultimately made the jump in 1967, with the group now including Green, Fleetwood, McVie, and Jeremy Spencer, an Elmore James disciple with whom Green had found a kindred spirit. Green also expected Spencer to share the load of solos and singing.
For Green, Fleetwood Mac would tackle the traditional blues that British fans had first heard on import 78s and were not getting to experience live, thanks to a handful of European tours featuring Chicago bluesmen. Blues 78s were brought home by British military men stationed in Canada. In 1950's Britain, the blues was chiefly heard on Radio Luxembourg and the Armed Forces Radio Network broadcasting from the British Isles and the European continent. Green and Spencer were deeply influenced by the music off Chicago that poured out of urban clubs in the postwar years.
With Spencer providing boogie guitar rhythms and slide work on his seemingly outsized hollow-body guitar, Green's more delicate single-string guitar lines, and the steady rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie, Fleetwood Mac was ready for its debut. For their first gig outside of the local club circuit, Fleetwood Mac performed at the British Jazz and Blues Festival in August of 1967. Not surprisingly, they were an instant hit. Their performance also brought them to the attention of several record labels. The band's first LP, Fleetwood Mac, was released in 1968 and stayed on the pop charts for 13 months. With a repertoire of blues standards and Green's originals, Fleetwood Mac's popularity in England spread eastward to the continent. Black Magic Woman and Albatross (which became hits in 1968 and 1974, respectively), placed them on a touring bill with Jethro Tull and Joe Cocker. Oddly, in England, neither band was as popular as Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac was also known for their quirky send-ups of rock 'n' roll standards. Dressed in retro '50s clothes and hair styles, they would take the stage after an intermission as Earl Vance & the Valiants, launching into covers of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the like. Though banned from clubs because of their perceived deviation for the gospel of traditional blues, their staged goofiness became a constant part of their live shows.
Before setting out for a U.S. tour, Danny Kirwan was added to the group. Green had grown restive, as Spencer's limitations seemed to stall Fleetwood Mac's growth. Wanting to take the band in a newer, bigger sounding direction, Green was looking for songwriting help and more accomplished musicianship. Adding Kirwan, Green believed, was the solution.
While touring in the United States in 1969, Green, Spencer, and Fleetwood made the obligatory pilgrimage to Chess Studios, where they recorded Fleetwood Mac in Chicago with Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, David Honeyboy Edwards, Big Walter Horton, J.T. Brown, Buddy Guy, and S.P. Leary. Marshall Chess and Dixon produced the session. Around this time, Green's Fleetwood Mac also did a series of excellent live performances in Cambridge (November 26-29 at the Boston Tea Party Club) from which numerous official and unofficial recordings have been produced. Here they were at their bluesy, improvisational best.
By this time, however, Fleetwood Mac was beginning to move away from its blues influences and explore the evolving rock idiom that was transforming Chicago blues. With the help of Fleetwood Mac, the electric blues scene shifted towards power blues and its major permutations of hard rock, arena boogie rock, heavy metal, and progressive/fusion/art rock. To that end Green's first important contribution was Black Magic Woman, the Latin/Blues fusion masterpiece found on the second Fleetwood Mac album, English Rose. The tune became a nominal hit for Carlos Santana in 1970.
In May of 1970, Peter Green left the group to lead a life as a religious ascetic. It has been speculated that the combination of drugs and an increasing swing toward marginal religion lead Green to believe that owning property, even taking money for performances, was wrong. It was reported as early as 1971 that Green worked as a grave digger outside London. However, later reports have shown that Green may have only been pushed over the edge into overt mental disorder by the pressures and excesses of the rock 'n' roll life style. Kirwan and Spencer attempted to lead the band into its new phase as a blues-based pop band, and in 1970 the first Green-less incarnation of Fleetwood Mac released Kiln House. Besides Fleetwood, McVie, Spencer and Kirwan, the new lineup also included Christine Perfect, McVie's wife, on keyboards and vocals.
Spencer, however, was not cut out to be a bandleader. In 1971, in Los Angeles for the beginning of a West Coast tour, he left his hotel room for a walk and disappeared, only to be found a few days later living, shaved-headed and locked in a compound, with a religious cult called the Children of God. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the only original members left in the group, subsequently forged a new format for the band with Kirwan. Of course, the importance of a good rhythm section in any band cannot be overstated. But Fleetwood Mac's demise as a blues band was fixed. In the 1970's, and again in the early 1980's, Peter Green resurfaced for solo work. Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan released solo recordings in the early 1980's, with marginal success. There is now a resurgence of interest in Peter Green and pre-1970 Fleetwood Mac.
Witness the number of Web sites dedicated to the Green-era Fleetwood Mac (2 are listed below), as well as Gary Moore's '96 tribute album for Greeny.
Peter Green and early Fleetwood Mac may have been a mayfly in comparison to the dinosaurs we now have touring the blues circuit. It is, therefore, understandable that any historical discussion would give Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac little attention. But they are like the proverbial missing link when it comes to understanding the roots of rock 'n' roll. They are essential to know (and their music is essential to understand), if one is to grasp the nature of popular music today.
For the uninitiated, an excellent collection of early Fleetwood Mac would include the following, if one wants an historical account that reveals Fleetwood Mac's brief but incandescent career. The following recommendations are made: Black Magic Woman, a two-record set produced by Epic that includes the band's first two albums, Fleetwood Mac (1968) and English Rose (1969) (the latter garnered a U.S. release in the early 1970's). Black Magic Woman contains material not otherwise released in the United States. The traditional blues Hellhound on My Trail, arranged by Green, and the originals Coming Home, Cold Black Night, Jigsaw Puzzle, and Merry Go Round, are outstanding examples of Peter Green's sophistication as a musician and interpreter of what was called city blues, a Robert Johnson invention. City blues make up the transition style between the purely country blues of Charley Patton and the prewar urban blues exemplified by Tampa Red. Next, two selections from the 1968 bootleg, Merely a Portmanteau, serve as a Rosetta Stone for the transformation of Fleetwood Mac from blues band to middle-of-the-road pop icon. From the bootleg, the first indications of Fleetwood Mac as a rock band can be heard in Tiger and Green Manalishi - both Green compositions that reflected the bigger sound he desired. However, on the flip sid of Portmanteau is the Christine McVie-era sound. It is amazing how unoriginal Fleetwood Mac's later incarnation became. that is, when compared with both the earlier British releases and even the selections from the Portmanteau album, the pop band comes off as merely an appealing mass market commodity. Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, a blend of the old and the new, is a revelation. You can almost sense the distance between the old guard Chicago bluesmen and their young, sincere English adherents. However, while listening to tracks such as Back Jack Blues, I Got the Blues, and Rocking' Boogie, there are moments when they coalesce around music to transcend their differences
Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac (Blue Horizon, 1968)
English Rose (Epic, 1969)
Pious Bird of Good Omen (Blue Horizon, 1969)
Then Play On (Reprise, 1969)
Kiln House (Reprise, 1970)
Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (Warner Bros., 1975)
Original Fleetwood Mac (Sire, 1977)
Jumping at Shadows (Barrack, 1985)
Cerulean (Shanghai: includes Boston performances, 1985)
Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac Live at the BBC (Castle, 1995)
The All Music Guide to the Blues, edited by M. Erlewine, 143-144. San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1995.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, edited by J. Pareles and P. Romanowski, 192-193. NY: Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Goddard, P., Black Magic Woman liner notes, Blue Horizon/Epic, 1975.
Thanks to Reen for sending this to the Penguin.
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