Off the Charts

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac just launched a six-month North American tour, tickets for which went on sale to the public in the spring. That a band formed 51 years ago still warrants that much lead time for ticket sales tells you a lot about the group and its fans: solid and steady in the long run, even if things get bumpy along with way.

It’s easy to forget that they started out as a pure British blues-rock band. In 1967 Peter Green, a guitarist with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, embarked on a side project, inviting along Bluesbreakers bass guitarist John McVie and then adding Mick Fleetwood on drums. Jeremy Spencer played slide guitar and piano. The band Fleetwood Mac was born, and their first album, self-titled, came out in 1968.

Here’s the sparsely arranged “World Keep on Turning,” a track from Fleetwood Mac, displaying Green’s gritty yet easygoing blues chops:

 

After recording at an astonishing rate of four albums in less than two years, Green abandoned his musical baby in 1969, thus establishing a revolving-door standard for Fleetwood Mac personnel. The most important subsequent arrivals were Christine Perfect – who changed her last name to McVie after marrying John – in 1970 and Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham in 1974. All three of those songwriter/musicians either stormed or slunk out at one point or another, but today C. McVie and Nicks are on that current tour along with J. McVie and Fleetwood. The band, as they say, is back together – at least to a significant degree.

The fifth album, Future Games (1971) shows a profound stylistic change in the band’s sound, largely brought about by the addition of American guitarist Bob Welch, who would play on the next four albums as well. Welch had an R&B background, contributing a jazzy atmosphere that pushed Fleetwood Mac closer to where they needed to be to hit the big time.

“Lay It All Down” by Welch, is propelled forward by constant motion in the bass and a slightly off-kilter guitar riff between verses. At 1:03 you start hearing a funky backbeat wah-wah on harmonica, right out of R&B, that distinguishes this version of Fleetwood Mac from the original Green creation.

 

Besides having an unheard-of number of songwriters in their ranks at all times, another of Fleetwood Mac’s defining traits is to include multiple guitarists; this has been true from the start. One who stepped in for a few seminal albums was British player Bob Weston. He and C. McVie wrote most of the songs on the 1973 record Mystery to Me, which turned out to be Weston’s final Fleetwood Mac project. The Weston/McVie style leaned heavily toward pop; combined with Welch’s R&B sensibilities, you end up with the sound that casual fans think of when you say “Fleetwood Mac.”

On C. McVie’s “Just Crazy Love,” the appealing vocal harmonies  — McVie multi-tracked against herself — predict the band’s megahits that would soon follow. But this group has never been one to blend in with the mainstream, no matter how popular they became. There are always distinguishing factors that set them apart and show they were still growing. Note the use of piano here, almost a stride style, that pulls the focus away from the guitars for a change.

 

The next few years brought increasing success, peaking with the album Rumours in 1977. The following release, the double-disk Tusk (1979), managed less than half of Rumours’ sales. Maybe that was because it didn’t sound anything like what the pop audience had decided a Fleetwood Mac album “should” sound like.

A major influence on Tusk’s experimental nature was Lindsay Buckingham, an American singer, songwriter, and guitarist (yay, another guitarist!). A Talking Heads devotee, he was determined to bring Fleetwood Mac into the post-punk era. It’s also been suggested that the fan-puzzling, experimental phase of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson after their smash hit Pet Sounds might have been inspiring to Buckingham.

In any case, while it doesn’t seem so exotic from today’s vantage point, critics declared the album weird. Buckingham’s “That’s All for Everyone,” for example, is repetitive and unmelodic, letting its lyric phrases arc into each other and die out in a most un-Fleetwood Mac manner:

 

The last time the classic line-up of Buckingham, Nicks, C. McVie, J. McVie, and Fleetwood hit the studio together was for the 1987 Tango in the Night, which came close to recapturing the success of Rumours. And then Buckingham left the band.

But never fear: they found two more guitarist/singer/songwriters. The first album without Buckingham, Behind the Mask, from 1990, brought in Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. The latter wrote “Stand on the Rock,” a pop-leaning rock song that hints at influence from MTV royalty like Robert Palmer. Not the most original material, but it shows another developmental phase:

 

And they weren’t done seeking new paths: the next album was a little bit country. For Time (1995), the band included Nashville chanteuse Bekka Bramlett. The songs she contributed are sticky-sweet, but the country sound gets a more grounded rock outing in Billy Burnette and Deborah Allen’s “I Got It In for You.”

 

An eight-year studio drought follows Time, until the 2003 album Say You Will. Anyone who thought Fleetwood Mac were has-beens had to bow to its No. 3 chart spot in the US – even if it was now categorized as “Adult Contemporary.” Christine McVie had left the band in 1998, so Say You Will was the first album since 1970 to contain no songs by her (although her voice appears on a couple of previously recorded tracks intended for another album).

Stevie Nicks penned the synthy “Silver Girl,” updating for the new century her penchant for analyzing the struggles of misunderstood, strong women in her lyrics.

 

The current North American tour is not in support of a particular album. In fact, Fleetwood Mac has not released an album of new material in 15 years. But with the songs from their 17 studio recordings just as a starting point, I don’t think they’ll run out of music to play.