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You invent the future

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.

That tension gave Bare Trees an attractive energy, both in its examples of pure pop (Christine's strangely propulsive title track, Welch's aptly named classic "Sentimental Lady") and its weirder, more indulgent aspects, like Kirwan's example of what can only be called Druid rock, the mighty "Danny's Chant." It carried that uniquely British union of mysticism and heavy guitar-rock to its natural extreme, full of pounding drums, massed vocals, and amp-rattling, wah-pedaled power chords.

"Danny's Chant" provided one of my more startling lessons in the universality of music. Four or five years after Bare Trees was released, I was working in a Texas City refinery doing chimp carpentry and cement finishing for a construction project. Most of my compatriots were young Hispanic males and much prone to the recreational use of pot and PCP. One day, discussing our favorite music, we were mutually astonished to find that we all loved Bare Trees; my co-workers liked the softer, more pop moments for make-out purposes and absolutely adored "Danny's Chant" for its imagination-firing sense of the supernatural and crushing momentum.

Unfortunately, Kirwan lost the battle that the songs on Bare Trees seemed to hint at: After refusing to go on stage at a show in Munich, he was canned and ended up in a psychiatric facility after the album was released.

By this time, however, Welch was coming into his own. He had an extremely skewed sense of song--particularly lyrically--and his offbeat sensibilities found some memorable expressions: the lilting, falling-leaf guitar line that opens the title song to Mystery to Me and Welch's so-bad-it's-good stutter step around his rhyming pattern: "Getting back to the way I feel/Her honest world is my only real...thing"; "Hypnotized," a song that's a combination of dreamy ode to the trance-like qualities of romantic love and a catalog of unexplained phenomena; and the mysteries of "Bermuda Triangle" ("Wingtips seem to brush your face...the Air Force won't let on"). Christine McVie also shone during this period, turning in some of her best songwriting: the resigned but no less lovely "Why" (from Mystery); the practical, realistic advice in the title track to 1974's Heroes are Hard to Find; and--from the same album--what is perhaps her best song, the sad, sweet, achingly nostalgic "Come a Little Bit Closer."

During this time, Fleetwood Mac was an obscure, imported flavor known primarily to those hipsters who, perhaps lured by "Oh Well"'s stoner symphony, went a bit further than their radio dials. That's right, say it; let the taste of it linger on your tongue as you contemplate what is for an entire, later, generation the sheer impossibility of it all: Fleetwood Mac. Little known, seldom played. A British band, familiar only to cool music fans.

It hardly seems possible. In fact, the group's identity was so hazy in the United States that their manager, Clifford Davis, invented a stand-in band with which he then toured America. Although the band eventually sued and got the bogus Mac off the road and theater marquees, the legal hassles took up much of 1974. At the end of the year, the band--tired of not cracking America and perhaps mindful of the need to establish a more distinct identity here--moved to California.

Bob Welch left not long afterward. In many ways he was one of Fleetwood Mac's more important members, for he bridged the gap between the band's blues beginnings and the monster that they were very shortly to become. A Caucasian impostor to rhythm and blues, he was also a Californian, like the next draftees the band would deploy their well-honed rhythm section behind: the folksy duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who had come to the band's attention through their now-out-of-print album Buckingham Nicks.  

With Buckingham and Nicks, Fleetwood Mac found a style that clicked with pop audiences in a way that Welch didn't. Buckingham's quirky songwriting and guitar work revitalized the band; the pair were younger and raised on music that was more immediately relevant to radio. Nicks in particular--with her husky voice and personal style (scarf-intensive rock-gypsy-witch-waif)--updated Fleetwood Mac's native mix of magic and music for the '70s. Not many bands have a true White Album, wildly popular yet still marking a point at which everything changed, but the pair's first album with the band, 1975's Fleetwood Mac, is one such album.

Smart and sharp, the songs soon dominated the radio: Christine McVie continued to develop the promise she had shown the previous half of the decade with songs like "Over My Head" and "Say You Love Me." Nicks issued "Rhiannon," her personal manifesto based on a legendary Welsh witch, and Buckingham showed that he could write catchy rock-pop ("Second Hand News," "Monday Morning") outside the folksy confines of a duo. Fleetwood Mac's white album would eventually sell more than five million copies.

Their personal problems began to get attention too: The McVies broke up in 1976 after a relationship that was increasingly painful and tumultuous, and Buckingham and Nicks split not long after that. Those traumas and their emotional fallout formed the basis of Rumours, the wildly anticipated follow-up released in 1977. (People waited in line the day it was released, something that seems quaint today, like steam-powered travel.) It was an interesting turn, away from the usual rock-star stories about trashed hotel rooms, drug busts, and doing unpleasant things to groupies with fish. It was something that most fans could appreciate and relate to, and it fed the band's juggernaut, a steamroller that continued through more than a solid year of touring.

But the mood was changing out there in the towns and suburbs that the Mac's audience came from. Punk rock emerged, threatening the very mountain from which the arena gods ruled; "bloated" was a pejorative that seemed to be used more every week. Technology had not yet filtered down to most stadium-scale shows; with the exception of a few lasers, fog machines, and a giant inflatable pig or two, most big shows were simply the band standing there, playing the hits. Although people on the front rows might derive enjoyment from interpreting the pseudo-meaningful looks the Mac's damaged band members might direct at each other, from anywhere behind about the 20th row a Fleetwood Mac show was mostly just big.

And often simply not all that good. Constrained by the expectations of fans and estranged from 75 percent of their catalog, Fleetwood Mac more often than not played the songs you heard on the radio the way you heard them on the radio. Studio wizard Buckingham could seem rather at sea on stage without his multiple tracks and effects, and Nicks began to slide deeper into what appeared to be a regimen of full-time boozing and snorting. Her voice was often ragged and off-pitch, failings that she would compensate for by bellowing at the crowd like a steer with its leg caught in a fence. 1979's double-disc Tusk was brilliant in places--it's not hard to imagine Beck coming up with something that sounds like the title track--and the rest of the album was thoroughly good. Unfortunately the convoluted, deeply layered sound of the thing, the result of producer (and primary visionary) Buckingham's painstaking, almost obsessive approach to working in the studio, was not what most people expected post-Rumours. Challenged and confused, most fans regarded Tusk--like the live show--as mostly just big. Singles like Nicks' drippy "Sara" didn't help dispel the idea of a band increasingly out of touch, with both itself and its audience.

Band members wandered off to make solo albums, then reconvened twice for calculated, forgettable albums (1982's Mirage and 1987's Tango in the Night, recorded in 1985) before going their own way once more. Pop fodder like Christine McVie's well-executed but mediocre "Hold Me" predominated. Like the Stones, the Who, and most other stadium staples, Fleetwood Mac had slipped into that warm, fuzzy place where merely to exist was enough. There was no more need for growth or experimentation; the public would bring their expectations to the door, demanding a nice fill-up.

At the end of the '80s, Buckingham packed it in, no longer able to live with the limitations inherent in the band. (After Tusk the group seemed unlikely to ever put up with his time-consuming vision again, and although he did return to produce most of 1987's Tango, there is a definite sense of restraint and reserve throughout the album.) He was replaced by Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, two friendly--if faceless--guitarists. This aggregation made the utterly average Behind the Mask in 1990; it was the first Fleetwood Mac album since 1975 that failed to go gold. Soon afterward, Nicks (probably tired of showing the world how unattractive the aging process can be in elves) and Christine McVie (probably just tired) announced that while they would continue to record with the increasingly irrelevant band, they would not tour. Vito split in 1991; Nicks and McVie severed ties completely two years later. They were replaced by a surprisingly effective Bekka Bramlett (daughter of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Eric Clapton's mid-'70s mentors in American roots-rock) and grizzled veteran Dave Mason, who had apparently wandered out to get the morning paper and been sucked into the band's insatiable maw.  

By this point, it hardly seemed to matter. Further revelations about members' private lives, including Christine McVie's dalliance with doomed, drug-addled Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and the statistically inevitable adulterous pairing of Nicks and Fleetwood (with resultant unpleasant mental image)--took quite a bit of the resonance from the band's tortured emotional history; after a while, members merely seemed horny, sweaty, and bereft of judgment.

Musically, Fleetwood Mac was a rhythm section eternally in search of a band, like some radio-friendly Flying Dutchman. Maintenance of stadium-class rock bands' reputations is an inexact science--no manuals, OSHA standards, or help line--so you don't wish to judge too harshly. Nevertheless, it's probably safe to say that whatever steps Fleetwood and McVie took to ensure the continued viability of their band didn't work.

Nowhere was this more clear than on The Chain, the band's 1992 four-disc boxed set. Usually the capstone in the brickwork of a band's memorial, the Mac's boxed set seemed more than a little dashed off. With nearly 30 years of history and half a dozen significant creative contributors, the band could manage little more than a selected discography, some old snapshots that don't even put names with faces, and some scrawlings from band members that would seem inane on the inside back cover of a high school yearbook.

The set's song selection fares a little better, but not much. Many of Fleetwood Mac's songs are great, and most of them are good--Billy Corgan's witless, hammy cover of "Landslide" a few years back proved that much, at least--but the songs on The Chain are unevenly chosen and geared more toward oft-heard hits and cheap-seat appeal than any sort of overview. Welch's idiosyncratic period is almost completely ignored, and the fourth disc is almost disposable: "Crystal" and "Over My Head" are important (if over-exposed) signposts, to be sure, but the material off The Mask and Tango in the Night--as well as the then-new (ahem) "bonus" tracks--are utter fluff. The best disc is the first, which concentrates on the late '60s and the band's blues roots.

And now they're back together, flogging The Dance, yet another well-presented-but-to-what-end collection of hits like "Rhiannon" and new numbers like Buckingham's "My Little Demon," which is actually pretty good. It's not quite good enough, however, to dispel the image of Fleetwood Mac homing in on the smell of aging boomers' cash like a pig on a truffle bender, no doubt impelled by impending boat payments, the beamer's need for a major overhaul, or that last unsettling meeting with the accountant about retirement. Babysitters across the metroplex will rake in the cash, and the members of Fleetwood Mac will hope that if we don't have fond memories of their music, we will at least have fond memories of the people we were while their music played.

They had better hope that we don't remember the last time they reunited, in order to preside over the crowning moment in the co-opting of rock and roll. There they were, one-time monsters of rock reduced to seeing one of their more mediocre (and annoying) songs turned into the theme song for the boomer's geek prom, with student-council wonks ascendant: the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton, the unnatural dawn of an epoch in which the president will, by God, rock if he wants to. The iconography, poses, and secret codes of what was once a great moment in our social history--the very embodiment of rebellion--became just another way of selling soap.

Perhaps that's the real reason to go see Fleetwood Mac--to capture in your mind's eye a picture of a true dinosaur: big and slow-moving, standing at the end of its allotted span. Loaded down with old knowledge and quaintly erroneous maps, it contemplates the changing winds of a coming time it knows it won't live to see. Still, it didn't have to be quite this way: If the Mac had taken better care of itself, it could've been more fit, stronger; more like the Rolling Stones, able to squeeze in a few more months of uncomfortable, compromised life before the ice closes in on them too. As it is, Fleetwood Mac will stand in memory as a once-respected, once-important band that piddled away a hard-earned and once-considerable reputation, its birthright, and ultimately its very life.  

Oh, well.

Fleetwood Mac plays the Starplex Amphitheater Thursday, November 4.


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