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Yesterday's Gone: Fleetwood Mac At 50

Does anybody know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

Old songs tend to drift in and out of our sub-conscious at the most random of times. For some reason the old Chicago song came to mind as I was thinking about the turn of the calendar. Many a Fleetwood Mac fan know that the band was formed in August and that when you do the math this year marks its fiftieth year.

It was on August 13, 1967  that guitarist Peter Green stepped onstage at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival with a quartet that included guitarist Jeremy Spencer, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist Bob Brunning. He would soon be replaced by John McVie, then serving time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Pardon me if I feel some melancholy. You'd think in 2017 there would be pomp and circumstance and planned celebrations. But the lack of commemoration makes the anniversary feel more like a footnote of history than a reaffirmation of the group’s legacy.

Perhaps the lack of an event is our conditioning to expect a formal extravaganza. The Rolling Stones marked theirs as Fifty Years and Counting, bringing back Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman for portions of the tour. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band staged a show in Nashville with original members and guests and recorded it for posterity. Even Chicago produced their own documentary.

The group of five today bears little resemblance to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (as was emblazoned on the cover of the band’s self-titled 1968 album.) Fleetwood and McVie have been the constants through time with keyboardist Christine McVie and later guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks. They occasionally get together and reunite for a tour every few years but have little recorded output in this century.

The closest thing we have is the current Buckingham McVie tour fronted by guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and keyboardist Christine McVie. Although drummer Fleetwood and bassist John McVie appear on some of the tracks, they're absent from the stage. It's the first new music the band members have released in almost fifteen years, save for a digital EP built around Buckingham’s songs.

 

When asked at a SiriusXM Town Hall about Fleetwood Mac's plans McVie said, “Well, we have these two concerts.” She was referring to the bi-coastal Classic West and Classic East extravaganzas in July. The summer shows were two nights of back to back sets by late Seventies hitmakers including the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey and co-headliners the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.

Journey guitarist Neal Schon once played in Santana, the band that made Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman” a classic. But that seemed like ancient history and Greg Rollie, who sang the song, has long since left both bands.. The shows were more like a time warp harkening back to the days when the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac competed to see who could outspend each other in the studio and outsell the other in the record stores. Maybe it all left you like you were hearing “1977” and the sounds of Joe Strummer snarling from his grave.

But McVie couldn't put it in any context and didn't refer to the anniversary in her talking points. If fifty years is an arbitrary number, then what's in a number? In this case it was the obscenely high ticket prices that approached several thousand dollars. The festival was a windfall for organizer Irving Azoff but felt like a greater metaphor for a Trumpian world. This was less of something for the members of Fleetwood Mac to espouse than a giant payday.

The sole band member who has a sense of time and place is the one who bears its name. A few days after they closed the Classic East show at Citi Field, Mick Fleetwood headed for Manhattan to talk about his new book being released by Genesis Publications. It's named after the song “Love That Burns” and chronicles the years 1967-1974 before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined.  The book features moving tributes written by band members and an extensive collection of photos including the original band’s recording sessions at Chess Studios in Chicago.

Fleetwood spoke lovingly of the band and the two year process to put this collection together. Initially, he mentioned the anniversary late in conversation, almost like an afterthought. But he was the only band member who publicly seemed to have context of the historical significance. But as the anniversary approached, he told CBS This Morning “I always look at it - and look at that date, and that it's been worth a damn.”

“Chain….Keep Us Together”

Christine McVie has trouble remembering certain years. She was joking with to journalist Kurt Loder when she and Buckingham stopped for a visit on his radio show.

McVie came in from the cold after a decade of retirement to rejoin the band in 2012. An official member since Future Games, McVie once sang of road weariness in the rollicking  “Homeward Bound” on the Bare Trees album. But patience for solitude ran its course and McVie found herself reconnecting with Fleetwood on a visit he made to London. The two ended up traveling together back to Fleetwood’s home in Hawaii and along the way she once again became part of the band.

But if McVie can't remember details of past tours others can. For me there was one March night in Hartford, Connecticut in 1977 a few weeks after the release of Rumours. I found myself sitting in the dressing room after the show next to McVie as Buckingham, Nicks and Fleetwood wandered in and out of the conversation.

The daughter of a music professor at a teacher's training college, McVie illustrated the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s quirky retro roots album Kiln House and officially joined them for their next album called Future Games. She too was a veteran of the blues boom and played in the band Chicken Shack before joining Fleetwood Mac with guitarist Bob Welch after original guitarists Green and Jeremy Spencer departed.

"There was excitement on the stage tonight," she told me, over a tall glass of wine backstage in after the show.  "I kind of feel like tonight and last night we are getting back into our old form. Since we've gotten back on the road, the problem we've had is trying to figure out a good set of songs.”

“The Chain" was the third song in Fleetwood Mac's nearly two-hour set and the band was playing with an even more aggressive stance than was hinted at on Rumours which shipped  platinum and was number one on the charts. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks gave the song it's intense melodic vigor. But drummer Mick Fleetwood was playing with such a forceful punch that one would think his life depended on it. Maybe it did.

The new success forced the group to consider who they were playing to. "The thing is," she said, "we have to adjust to our new fans. Most of the audience that comes to see us are new fans that only know the white album or Rumours. So when they hear something like 'Why' or 'Station Man' or even 'Hypnotized,' I would say that a good sixty per cent of them don't even know who the hell Danny Kirwan or Bob Welch is." In fact they were considering dropping Kirwan’s "Station Man" but got a telegram requesting it for that night's show.

Chris, then 33 at the time, said, "I'm old enough to be half of the audience's mother." But playing to the younger people had made her feel "teenage" again; and it's like Stevie added: "It keeps us young at heart."

The songs of the album, including the single "Go Your Own Way," each dealt with the romantic break-ups and emotional turmoil surrounding band,  When John McVie walked into the studio and exclaimed to Fleetwood that it was like a soap opera and with so many rumors flying, he coined the name of what would soon become one of the most successful albums in history.

"When you go through it with everybody else, you're very aware of it so there's nothing to hide," revealed the candidly open Stevie Nicks, who joined the conversation with white wine in hand. "We all talked too many hours, each one with each other about everything that was happening. It wasn't embarrassing ... it just happened."

"It's the most positive it has been since the band started," Mick Fleetwood added as he dropped in, providing the perspective of someone who had seen everything go down in the band's extensive if not strange history. "When the band first started in '67, there was a lot of energy. In one way or another, looking back it somehow depleted as things do. Now it's very much the same as it was in the beginning as far as the momentum. When Stevie and Lindsey came into the band, it was, for sure, a new spirit, that everyone involved picked up on."

Chris was saying something about Fleetwood Mac being the start of a book. Stevie almost whispered when she called Rumours a second chapter, as if she might be scolded for stealing it from ex-Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, who called his latest album by the same.

"Nobody ever really leaves Fleetwood Mac," she declared, suddenly assuming the role of major spokesperson for the night. "They're all here in spirit." The subject switched to "The Chain" and suddenly a seriousness came over Nicks.

"I think we should talk about 'The Chain,'" she says.

She went on to explain that the song was the first to be written for Rumours, back in its planning stages. It was McVie's tune but she didn't like the verses, so Lindsey wrote them. They kept the chorus and the guitar part which they loved. But as the months went on, they had trouble trying to figure out a lyric idea for it. They asked Stevie to come up with some words for it and she did. It marks the first time the three have written together but all five members received credit.

Might the words be a bit symbolic? Nicks' face lights up and her smile sparkles."'The Chain keep us together' was my addition. It was what I wanted to say. All of the problems, all of the break-ups and everything else couldn't break the very heavy duty silver chain that's keeping everybody together."

In an early demo of “The Chain,” It took a string of  verses of before the chorus drifts in.

 "And if  You don't love me now  ​You will never love me again  I can still hear you saying  You would never break the chain" 

Thanks to the extensive expanded editions of Rumours and Fleetwood Mac's albums from 1976-1987, you can now hear early versions of songs as they were being made.

When the band was making Tusk, Peter Green sat in on “Brown Eyes” but did not receive formal credit for his guitar part at the song’s end. On the expanded edition, we hear a demo version has Green laying his subtle but dazzling guitar parts over Buckingham’s playing like the two were kindred spirits.

When Buckingham and Nicks were invited to join the band, they went to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles to buy Fleetwood Mac's catalogue. Nicks has said that she wanted to know if she felt the two could add something to the band.

On their debut tour in 1975, both past and present merged together and hinted at a bright future. Buckingham played like there were two guitars in the band and ably captured the essence of his previous forebears, replicating the tormented frenzy of Green’s “Green Manalishi” and Welch’s trippy and mysterious signature song “Hypnotized.” The harmonies of Buckingham, McVie and Nicks gave older songs like McVie’s  “Why,” Kirwan’s “Station Man” and Welch’s “Hypnotized” a greater resonance than they had ever had before.

Nicks seemed to fold right into the mystical realm of the band’s prior incarnations. On a  song about a Welsh witch called “Rhiannon,” she channeled her idol Janis Joplin, bringing the song to a theatrical climax. Buckingham’s blazing guitar prowess came spewing forth during “Rhiannon” and on “Don’t Let Me Down Again.” Later, during “World Turning,” a song that he co-wrote with Christine McVie, he dazzled and stalked the stage with his killer riffs ricocheting throughout the theater.

By the time Warner Brothers released Fleetwood Mac's box set some twenty-five years ago, the four cds largely were less of a historical retrospective. They largely focused on the most commercially successful period with Buckingham and Nicks, largely ignoring the substantive contributions of Bob Welch and Danny Kirwan. The two guitarists represented the transitional years that followed Green and Spencer’s departures. Arguably were it not for Kirwan and Welch’s melodies, it would be hard to imagine Buckingham and Nicks being asked to front the band.

Kirwan was just eighteen when he joined Fleetwood Mac. He provided a melodic counterpoint to Green’s traditional hard core blues roots and Spencer’s idiosyncratic genre bending. His atmospheric guitar playing made many of his songs like “Woman of a Thousand Years, “Sands of Time” and “Bare Trees” feel timeless to this day. Kirwan and Welch's fluid interplay had a compass to explore and meander in a way that   Their playing on the instrumental “Sunny Side of Heaven, (not much unlike Kirwan with Green on “Albatross”) was like the soundtrack of a beautiful rainbow appearing in the sky.  

Welch’s r & b roots showed up in songs like “Lay It On Down” and “Heroes Are Hard To Find.” He delved into the mystical with “Hypnotized,”  the paranormal with “Bermuda Triangle” and the post-psychedelic swirl of “Coming Home.” After Heroes Are Hard To Find, Welch left but had his greatest commercial success as a solo artist when Lindsey Buckingham re-worked and produced the song “Sentimental Lady.” It first appeared on Bare Trees but got its due recognition when Welch was a solo artist.  

“Peter or Lindsey?”

Sammy Hagar was playing word games with Mick Fleetwood during a visit to Fleetwoods restaurant in Hawaii for an episode of Hagar’s television show. When he said the words “Peter or Lindsey?” Hagar might have thought he’d catch Fleetwood off guard.

“Both,” Fleetwood deftly responded.

Green is the soul of the band and the man to whom Fleetwood dedicated his book. But Buckingham’s production and architecture defined the band’s most successful and arguably creative period.

Green walked away from both the band and perceived evils of the music business. But his presence over the years was always felt. During the making of Rumours one of the things going around that said that Fleetwood Mac was going to drop Lindsey and Stevie and recruit Peter Green back into the band.

By the time Buckingham Nicks joined, famed illustrator Pete Frame had already created one of his signature rock family trees of Fleetwood Mac, a long algorithmic chart detailing the many incarnations of the Mac’s ascendancy, tracing it all back to John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Buckingham and Nicks entrance seemed in keeping with the history of the band that changed members seemingly every few years.

Ron Wood once commented that despite decades of being in The Rolling Stones, he was still considered “the new guy.” When we think of Buckingham and Nicks, there is a touch of that but the onetime duo’s tenure has been so long and so dominant sometimes it almost makes you forget anyone came before them.

Peter Green was once a kid who loved the blues. He fanboyed the likes of Elmore James and Robert Johnson in covers of like “Dust My Broom” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.” In Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail,” Green opines about keeping moving slowly picking out the son’s piano chords. “I don’t know the words to that though,” he’s heard saying at the end in the first take preserved on the master version of Fleetwood Mac.

Green may have been snarling through covers and . But the follow-up Mr Wonderful swung with accompanying horns. Green’s youthful exuberance gave way to the the plaintive solitude of Then Play On best realized on “Closing My Eyes” and “Before The Beginning," But perhaps the sadness and tortured tribulations Green evidenced throughout his career is embodied in an early song "Trying So Hard To Forget."

 "Sometime your luck it gets so bad  Maybe you'd be better off if you should die  Yes I've tried so hard not to remember  And people I've tried so hard to forget  I've tried so hard not to remember  And people I've tried so hard to forget  But I can't stop my mind wandering  Back to the days I was just a down trodden kid  Some folks have such a good life  You know they just get on that big train, and you ride  You know some folks have such a good life  They just get on that big train, and you ride  

 

With Fleetwood Mac's digital catalogue seemingly everywhere, the Mac’s history is at your fingertips to jump from era to era. Time Is linear but the events within it are choppy and make you forget that Fleetwood Mac was not constant even in the Buckingham Nicks era. By the time Fleetwood Mac reunited for Bill Clinton's inauguration, Buckingham had been away for five years. From that time there were myriad incarnations of bands that were called Fleetwood Mac. When Buckingham was absent Billy Burnette filled in with guitarist Rick Vito. Burnette was a kindred spirit of sorts. His uncle Johnny Burnette made “Honey Hush,” the song that Kirwan loved so much and that helped fuel Kiln House.

The oddest line-up was with the great singer Bekka Bramlett and guitarist Dave Mason who seemed to sleepwalk through shows with his eyes closed. But even during those years the foundation was always constant. Fleetwood and McVie, the anchors of the rhythm section, the inseparable two who inspired of Green to name both a song and a band after them.

Today we have a group of five who are in their sixties and seventies and somewhat ambivalent of their legacy if not their future. McVie talks of a 2018 tour in one breath and calls it a farewell tour in another. There is little discussion of a new record. Nicks has questioned the worth of investment in recording in a streaming age. Fleetwood admits at some point Fleetwood Mac will cease to function. Buckingham is still out there defending the legacy of Tusk, a reaction to the commercial success of Rumours. It seems to come up in every conversation no matter how close we get to approaching forty years. And while we're talking about it, it remains a mystery why the album Buckingham Nicks bypassed both the CD and digital era.

Sometimes it seems like legislating the past. Sometimes it seems like ancient history. It was before the beginning when they were once kids. Kids who loved the blues and created a lineage of sounds that have us still fascinated today.

Going through the Fleetwood Mac catalgoue is like an archaeological expedition. There's new treasure that's always found. It’s a journey that never gets old.