You invent the future

How ignoring their past left Fleetwood Mac a band out of time

Reputation and fame--how many people will show up for your show, or buy a souvenir--are two sides of the same coin in the world of rock and roll, and proper attention to one can make up for deficiencies in the other. With the possible exception of Some Girls, The Rolling Stones haven't made a significant album in 25 years, yet they make up for their lackluster output and sporadic touring with an ability for public relations that's nothing short of sublime. The Grateful Dead were critical laughingstocks for much of their career, but they toured relentlessly, hitting nearly every major market every year. The members of Aerosmith managed to behave as stupidly as you can and live; now they've recovered an amazing portion of their old reputation and fame through careful attention to both media profile and live presence.

If, through their longevity, the careers of these dinosaurs argue for the importance of both presence and PR, there is another band, equally important, that proves the argument in the negative: Fleetwood Mac, a band with all the boxes necessary for godhood checked but that has somehow managed to end up saddled with a reputation as overrated, somewhat silly, and inconsequential. Acts far less deserving have reunited without a fraction of the eye-rolling and sighs that greeted Fleetwood Mac's autumnal return to stadium and amphitheater.

How does a band do that, exactly? When other bands like the Stones--even Aerosmith for God's sake--emerge smelling like a rose? A band whose history stretches to 1967, Fleetwood Mac has had more members than some groups have had roadies. They have enjoyed a long and mostly honorable run that has taken them from prescient blues enthusiasts to cooly obscure FM album-radio faves and all the way to stadium supremacy. Unfortunately, there persists an impression that founding members John McVie and Mick Fleetwood are indifferent to a legacy that most groups can only dream about.

That's a shame, because at its heart Fleetwood Mac possesses a rock pedigree that existed for years without any ironic subtext. The group started as a quartet with its roots in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers: Bassist John McVie had been a founding member of that band in 1963; blues acolyte and master guitarist Peter Green (the man who wrote Carlos Santana's signature tune "Black Magic Woman") replaced Eric Clapton in 1966. Mick Fleetwood had briefly drummed for Mayall before he, McVie, and Green--inspired by bands like Cream and joined by slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer--formed Fleetwood Mac in 1967. They specialized in not only authentic blues revivalism, but also songs imbued with that mystical vibe that the British seem able to graft onto even the most onerous sludge-metal. (Check out "Green Manalishi," a 1970 single.) Their debut album, 1968's Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, spent over a year in the U.K. Top 10. They added Danny Kirwan that same year and released five albums in 1969.

That year found the band developing an impressively varied palette: Green's love of the blues and the band's sharp ensemble work were all over two Blues Jam at Chess Records volumes, later re-released as Fleetwood Mac in Chicago. Working with legendary bluesmen and personal heroes such as Otis Spann and Willie Dixon, the band holds its own--no mean feat for a bunch of skinny English lads. That same year, Then Play On gave the world "Oh Well," a two-part combination of raging blues-rock and mournfully sweeping, cinematic bong-a-thon soundtrack that became a late-night FM staple. During this time Fleetwood Mac got a taste of fame potent enough to place in its crown one of the ultimate jewels of rock credibility: the inability of band members to cope.

Not exactly helped along by a massive diet of psychedelics, Peter Green quit the group in the spring of 1970 after announcing he would give away all his worldly wealth. Although he made two more solo albums, for the most part he's played the part of rock recluse ever since. 1970's Kiln House was the first album Fleetwood Mac made without Green; on it, Danny Kirwan's songwriting was developing, tending toward both driving rock ("Station Man," another odd blend of English rusticity and rock stomp, and the more searing "Tell Me All the Things You Do") and retro homage (the old chestnut "Mission Bell" and "This is the Rock," which surely must be the release of Kirwan's inner Buddy Holly). Jeremy Spencer, who had likewise discovered that a heavy chemical regimen didn't exactly enhance personal stability, was less than present for Kiln House; in 1971 he vanished while the band was on tour in America. Later, it was revealed that he had joined the cultish Christian sect Children of God.

The loss of two creative forces left the band rather underpowered. Pianist and vocalist Christine Perfect--formerly of the Spencer Davis Group and Chicken Shack, who had helped out uncredited on Then Play On--joined the band not long after marrying John McVie. She was soon followed by guitarist Bob Welch, an R&B fan from California whom the band encountered playing in Paris; and two more temporary supporting musicians, guitarist Bob Weston and vocalist Dave Walker.

It was with Welch on board that Fleetwood Mac found its most sublime and interesting identity. As a guitarist, he had the chops to hold the band together, but more importantly he lent the band much-needed personality after the defection of Green and Spencer. Wry and funny, with a sense of humor that consistently recalled the adenoidal smartass sitting in the back of class, well-read and cracking wise, Welch was the perfect foil for Christine McVie. McVie began to leave her earlier blues-mama affectations at home, developing into a pop songwriter. Together they began to steer the band through some of the finest AOR pop-rock of the '70s: the shimmering, illusory "Future Games," off the 1971 album of the same name, and the next year's Bare Trees, in which Welch, Kirwan, and Christine McVie seem to be battling for artistic control of the album.

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