Fleetwood Mac: The Authorized History, by Samuel Graham
November, 1978 Warner Books
Every few years I go through a Fleetwood Mac phase, in particular the “forgotten” early ‘70s albums. Everyone knows the Buckingham-Nicks era of Rumours and whatnot, but while I appreciate that era I often find it takes on the level of background music when I’m playing it. What I’m saying is, it doesn’t draw me in like the earlier stuff does. But then the Buckingham-Nicks era is “Fleetwood Mac” to most people, and Samuel Graham’s authorized biography of the band devotes half its contents to this most famous lineup.
First of all, Fleetwood Mac isn’t a quickie cash-in, despite its brevity and the fact that it was published as a paperback original. It’s also not written for a juvenile audience, with plenty of adult language throughout, usually courtesy the interview subjects. It was however clearly published so as to capitalize on the sudden fame of the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation of the group, though Graham mentions that he’d seen Fleetwood Mac on tour in the US prior to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup. Otherwise Graham’s writing is good, and he seems to have had a rock journalism background. He relays the story succinctly, usually sticking to quotes from band members past and present and occasionally serving up his own opinions on things.
The book is chock full of black and white photos, and more importantly the majority of Fleetwood Mac members from inception through 1977 all take part – save for notable exceptions Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. But even group founder Peter Green graces the book with his own thoughts and reflections, though to be sure the “authorized” bit means that Fleetwood Mac isn’t going to get into all the lurid details. There’s no mention, for example, of the Satanic German commune that supposedly brainwashed an LSD-dosed Green in 1969, forcing him to quit the band (a story that’s more legend than truth). Nor is there much dwelling on the famous break-ups and shack-ups of the Rumours era. Also no mention that gifted young guitarist Danny Kirwan was homeless at the time of this book’s publication; the last line of the book vaguely has it that he is “keeping a low profile.”
The first page humorously informs us that Fleetwood Mac “took ten years to find their sound,” but really there was no searching involved. Each lineup was basically its own separate group, with only the rhythm section of John McVie (bass) and Mick Fleetwood (drums) staying consistent. Graham begins at the beginning, with gifted guitarist Peter Green splitting off from John Mayall’s group and, along with Jeremy Spencer and McVie and Fleetwood, starting up a new group. I’ll admit I’m even less interested in Fleetwood Mac’s early “blues” years than I am the later Buckingham-Nicks years, but honestly Graham doesn’t really spend much time here – he is aware that the majority of his audience wants to read about more recent Mac output.
At any rate “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” was the version of the band for many years; even when the group carried on with various lineups in the ‘70s there seemed to be little interest in Britain. Whereas it was the opposite here in America; Fleetwood Mac started getting more radio airplay on FM stations as the ‘70s went on, to the point that Fleetwood Mac almost became an “American,” or at least “Los Angeles” band…which of course had the ultimate outcome of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining, and taking the group firmly into a sort of LA soft rock direction. Regardless Green’s original incarnation drew in a string of hits in the UK and Europe, with no less than the Beatles paying tribue to them in “Sun King,” which takes its guitar sound from the Mac single “Albatross.” (Something Graham doesn’t mention in the book.)
I get more interested in Green’s original incarnation of the group when they begin to shuck the blues and go more for a rock vibe, particularly a heavy rock vibe – “Oh Well” and “The Green Manalishi” are two of the greatest tracks in all of late ‘60s rock. The latter, certainly the heaviest Fleetwood Mac ever got, is nearly proto-metal in its execution, and it’s my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all. Graham notes that it was inspired by a dream Green had (in later interviews Geen detailed that it was a green dog barking at him, and also that Green himself was “dead” in the dream), and these days its seen as his subconscious driving him to quit the band, given his “hang-ups” over money. Graham does dwell on this – the book is pretty disarming at times for an officially authorized venture – with McVie and Fleetwood nauseated by Green’s fixation on how “wrong” it was that the band was making money while others starved.
“Manalishi was primeval in its force, driven by Fleetwood’s relentless drumming and Green’s power-chording and laced with eerie guitar solos,” Graham notes, in what will be his typical style of describing a song in a few lines. Given its brevity (173 pages, much of which is taken up by photos), Fleetwood Mac is not an in-depth study of the group’s musical output. For the most part Graham will deliver a few pithy lines, often letting his opinion be known. However when he does detail a song, even if briefly, he shows a definite skill for capturing the essence of the track…even if I don’t always agree with his opinions. I also appreciate that he isn’t so hung up on the lyrics, as most other vintage rock critics are.
As mentioned, one person not present for the recollections is guitarist Jeremy Spencer; Graham states that Spencer was usually only present in the studio when it was one of his own tracks being recorded. Spencer was able to take over the group when Green quit in early 1970, resulting in the somewhat jumbled Kiln House, which veers from Elvis and Buddy Holly parody to very cool late ‘60s blues rock…the latter courtesy new member Danny Kirwan. A guitar prodigy (and protegee of Green’s), Kirwan is one of the more myterious elements of early Mac. By all accounts he was difficult to work with and difficult to know. Like Green it would turn out he had some mental issues which got in the way of his music career. Kirwan joined in ’69 at age 19, played most of the guitar on that year’s Then Play On, and per Graham “the genuinely creative moments” on Kiln House belonged to him, with the young guitarist “coming into his own.”
Spencer’s absence from the book means that his own parting from the group is relayed by the other members – basically, while on tour in America, Spencer was accosted by a group of Christian cultists in Los Angeles and just decided to go join them in their commune, leaving Fleetwood Mac in the cold. This would be the Children of God cult, and if I’m not mistaken this was the same cult that River Phoenix’s family joined at the same time. It was probably also in the same area, so perhaps young River was one of the kids running around the commune when Spencer joined…though from Phoenix’s comments it wasn’t a nice place at all; his stories of children being forced into sexual relations in the commune was pretty chilling. In fact I believe he was making the connotation that there was no difference between how the commune treated children and how Hollywood did.
Anyway none of this is actually in the book. And again, Spencer isn’t present to yield his own story. Graham does comment, in the “where are they now” finale of the book, that Spencer is “suprisingly” still with the cult, also noting that he released an album with them. Something else Graham doesn’t note is that, around this time, Fleetwood Mac released one of the greatest B-sides in rock. Another Kirwan number, this was “The Purple Dancer,” which was the B-side of the moody instrumental “Dragonfly.” Both songs were recorded during the Kiln House sessions but were not on the actual album; “The Purple Dancer” is notable for featuring the entire lineup, including both Kirwan and Spencer on vocals. A definite rockin’ track and, like “The Green Manalishi,” another indication of a direction the group could’ve gone. However “The Purple Dancer” was basically forgotten, and if I’m not mistaken it still hasn’t been released on CD…and the only long-play record it was released on was a 1972 Germany/Holland-only compilation titled The Best Of Fleetwood Mac.
With Spencer gone, now 21 year-old Danny Kirwan took up the reigns of the group. Along with another new member, Christine McVie (nee Perfect), who had recently married John. She’d contributed some keys to Kiln House, and also handled the incredible cover art (definitely the best Fleetwood Mac album cover of all), but now she was an official member of the group. Also joining at this time was American guitarist Bob Welch, my favorite-ever member of Fleetwood Mac, though curiously I’m not so much into his solo work. (I do however love the first Paris album he did immediately after leaving Mac.) Together this lineup released what I consider not only the best Fleetwood Mac album, but one of the most unsung progressive rock albums of the early ‘70s: Future Games.
While this album is often dismissed (or more often just ignored), Graham thankfully is appreciative of it, but doesn’t get into too much detail. He relates the interesting story of how Welch joined the group – basically he just hung out with them one night, hit it off with them, and “didn’t play a note,” per his own recollection. Welch as ever comes off as the most well-spoken of the group, and his comments throughout the book are always insightful. I love the spaced-out vibe the guy brought Fleetwood Mac, as well as the murky progressive direction he took it in. This was very apparent in his first song for Mac, “Future Games,” which Graham calls “a treat.” Graham also calls Kirwan’s “Sands of Time” a “brilliant” number, however Graham never rolls out the “progressive” description. Likely because by the time this book was published, progressive was “prog rock” and would give the wrong impression to readers. But Future Games is certainly “progressive rock,” and if you’re bored you can check out my review of it here.
Somehow this lineup managed to record another album, the following year’s Bare Trees (1972). I agree with Graham again, who considers this one “not nearly as rewarding as its three predecessors.” Bare Trees is I think stronger than Kiln House, but it comes off as directionless after the single-minded mellow cosmic effort Future Games. This album is of course notable for having the original and superior version of Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady.” If you’re still bored you can check out my review of Bare Trees here.
As mentioned the book doesn’t gloss over everything, so we’re told in flat terms that Kirwan got increasingly “weird” (Welch’s description) as time went on, culminating in various freakouts and hissy-fits while on tour. But one thing is glossed over: I’ve read that the incident that got Kirwan fired was the night he refused to go on stage, freaked out and tried to attack Welch, smashing his guitar in the process. This incident is not related in Fleetwood Mac. Instead we’re told, again by Welch, of one night where Kirwan refused to go on, “stood by the mixing board” throughout the show, and then complimented everyone on their performance when they came off the stage! At any rate Kirwan is “politely fired” and Graham informs us of his two solo albums, neither of which were released in the US – and neither of which, Graham states, reach the heights of his Fleetwood Mac material.
We come now to the most forgotten Fleetwood Mac lineup of all: the strange conglomerate that released Penguin in 1973. “A really weird, out in the ozone kind of album,” Christine McVie describes it; Welch just calls it “obscure,” and presumably his comment was given in 1978. If Penguin was obscure then it’s even more so now. This was the lineup that included new lead guitarist Bob Weston and new “lead singer” Dave Walker…who only sang on two songs on the album! Walker was from Mac touring mates Savoy Brown, and, as related in the book, he was brought onboard to give the group some much-needed stage presence, something we’re informed they’d been missing since Green left. But it was clear from the get-go that Walker, with his bluesy wailing, was a poor fit, and his two contributions to Penguin, one a bluesy number and the other a country-rock thing, aren’t very memorable.
Speaking of Green, Graham relates that he returned to the fold for one number, providing uncredited guitar to Welch’s spooky progressive number “Night Watch,” the definite highlight of the album. Actually Welch’s numbers are the saving grace of Penguin, all of them going into a sort of progressive rock territory. McVie meanwhile continued to develop the sort of soft rock vibe she’d perfect in the Buckingham-Nicks era. As for new lead guitarist Bob Weston, pretty much the only thing he’s remembered for is having an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife, something which occurred during the tour for their following album, also released in 1973: Mystery To Me.
As if quickly released to make people forget about Penguin, this one dropped Walker and featured what I consider one of the greatest Fleetwood Mac songs of all: Bob Welch’s “Hypnotized.” “The song’s ambience so embodied its title that it nearly had an aura to it, soothing the listener into a groove that one wanted to last forever,” Graham writes, further stating that in his opinion it is “the most brilliant music, period, that Welch has ever made.” He also claims that, judging from the poetic quality and topics of his lyrics, “Welch had the most far-reaching intellectual curiosity of any Fleetwood writer before or since.” But the Mystery To Me material is run through in two pages, climaxing with the American tour in which Fleetwood discovered he was being “cuckholded.” This led to Weston’s immediate firing and the cancellation of the tour, the group returning to England with the future in doubt.
Graham also briefly details the legal squabblings that resulted in “The New Fleetwood Mac” which toured the US in ’74; this was a group put together by Mac’s manager, supposedly “to keep the band’s name alive.” This led to lots of lawsuits, some of which were still being worked out when this book was published. We get the band’s point of view on this, all of them still upset about the issue. Graham doesn’t tell us much about the “Fake Fleetwood Mac,” like the fact that they later released a couple albums under the name Stretch, starting with 1975’s Elastique. This isn’t even included in the otherwise comprehensive discography at the back of the book.
The real Fleetwood Mac went on to release another album with yet another lineup: 1974’s Heroes Are Hard To Find, which saw the group whittled down to Welch, the McVies, and Fleetwood. “Not a bad record by any means,” Graham states, but I personally like it a lot, and rank it just after Future Games. There’s a sort of psychedelic vibe to the whole album, again courtesy Bob Welch; “Coming Home” could almost be Pink Floyd. It’s a shame this lineup didn’t stick together longer, but Welch decided to leave, exhausted from the past three years: “Faced with the prospect of making another Fleetwood record, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” he states. One thing not recorded here is that Welch wanted to take Fleetwood Mac into heavier territory – something he did himself with the power trio Paris. For some confounding reason Graham states that the Paris material was “commercialism…too often mired in pretension.” That first Paris album is a proto-metal psychedelic heavy rock masterpiece, there’s nothing commercial about it at all!
So all of the above, from the origins of the group in ‘67 to Welch leaving in late 1974 – several albums and several lineups – takes up the first 115 pages of the book. The rest is devoted to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup and the two albums they’d released in that time. So clearly Graham was aware of what his audience at the time would be most interested in. But here is where my own interest began to wane. While I appreciate the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie lineup, I just don’t actively listen to it…I mean I even tried to play Rumours recently, and it quickly became just background music. And also it amuses me that Graham can call Welch’s Paris material “commercialism,” but rave about Rumours!
The story is recounted here, same as it would be in the later Goodnight, L.A.: Mick Fleetwood, looking for a new Los Angeles recording studio after Welch left the group, heard “Frozen Love” from the then-obscure Buckingham-Nicks album, which had been recorded at this studio, and he immediately declared that he wanted Buckhingham and Nicks to join the group. Graham does not relate that Nicks was supposedly Buckingham’s “plus one;” he does relate that, at the time of the book’s publication, Stevie Nicks was so popular that she was seen as the face of Fleetwood Mac to most people…an image which she tries to shed in her interviews here, claiming she’s just a “member of the band.” Graham also enthuses over Nicks’s productivity in the writing department.
One thing you won’t find mentioned is the oft-told tales of cocaine excess; drugs aren’t much mentioned (other than Green’s forays into LSD in the ‘60s), thus we aren’t told about the communal bowl of coke that sat on the mixing console during the recording of Rumours. Instead the focus is more on how Buckingham and Nicks so quickly became part of the group, and indeed their version is “Fleetwood Mac” in the minds of most. What makes this interesting is that Graham closes the book wondering how long this lineup will last! Given of course the incredible amount of lineup changes the band went through between 1970 and 1974, it’s no surprise he would wonder if this latest lineup would also be short-lived.
Welch, astute as ever, comments on why he feels the Buckingham-Nicks lineup found so much success, when compared to the earlier lineups: “When I was with Fleetwood I felt above the audience, as if I knew something they didn’t know. If they feel that vibe coming from you, they get hesitant. What people want to see in a big commercial success is a reflection of what they themselves could be, a nicer, prettier version of themselves. When I was in the band we were distant, and people weren’t comfortable. Now they are.” Actually this all is a bit of a left-hand compliment now that I think of it – but I do agree that the Welch incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was a little too advanced for the mainstream, whereas the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation pretty much defined the sound of mainstream late ‘70s rock.
Speaking of Welch, I appreciated how Graham would detail what happened to members after they left. Peter Green shows up periodically, with Graham documenting how he was even institutionalized at one point – again, it is at times a “warts and all” sort of book, with not much really hidden. And of course Welch had his biggest solo hit with a remake of “Sentimental Lady,” with his former bandmates backing him up. Curiously though Welch must’ve had a falling out with the group, as he was the sole member to not be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – hell, even Kirwan was! But this book was published long before the relationship between Welch and Fleetwood Mac grew strained. It’s made clear in the book, in fact, that Welch basically kept the group running for a long time, something Christine McVie herself states.
For those into the Buckingham-Nicks era, you won’t really find much trivia here. The tale of them joining is recounted, and rundowns of their solo album as well as 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and the just-released Rumours. Buckingham doesn’t have much to say, but Nicks is quoted several times, even admitting that she didn’t know much at all about Fleetwood Mac prior to joining, though she says she did see Christine McVie on TV once and was inspired by her. Otherwise, I was much less interested in this closing section than the earlier stuff.
Fleetwood Mac goes for a pretty penny these days, so it’s definitely a collector’s item. I was lucky to get a copy via Interlibrary Loan. It’s pretty good for what it is – a brief but insightful look into the group and the various permutations it went through on the path to superstardom. But anyone expecting probing analysis of the music or sordid tales of excess will be disappointed.