In the United States, at least, it’s probably forgivable to be completely unaware of Fleetwood Mac’s history before the ’70s heyday of albums like Fleetwood Mac and Rumours (the United Kingdom, on the other hand, seems reasonably well-informed about the past). After all, it’s not like classic rock radio is any help, with stations playing “Oh Well” once in a blue moon, but not much else.
But there was indeed a Fleetwood Mac before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the fold, and the group ruled the pop airwaves. In fact, Fleetwood Mac — under the guidance of guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green — grew out of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, taking British blues into psychedelic and even prog-rockish directions by the time Spencer and Green left for personal reasons (Syd Barrett’s evaporation from Pink Floyd is one of the few cautionary tales in rock that can top the mental illness sagas of Spencer and Green).
It’s an intriguing history, but not one that’s told terribly well by Men of the World. For those new to the early Mac lineup, this set divides each disc into sensible categories (“Some Blues and Roots, Revisited”, “Stretching Out, In the Studio”, and “Live”), but there’s nothing in the liner notes to help rookie listeners along. All that’s provided is a biographical overview of the band, with no information on the source of the music found here. Even the reasonably well-informed listener could do with a little more information, such as the fact that Disc 2 draws heavily from the Then Play On sessions.
Despite the quickie presentation, there’s good stuff to be heard here. Some of the blues material is inspired, while amongst the more experimental material, “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)” is still spooky as hell (and well worthy of Judas Priest covering it later on). The live material is drawn from early Boston Tea Party dates, which are considered some of the band’s best, but it’s material that’s available in more complete and satisfying form elsewhere.
And in the end, there are better records to go to for pretty much all of this. Men of the World doesn’t work as a greatest hits package, since some of the band’s best songs are missing (“Albatross” and covers of Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad” and Elmore James’s “Shake Your Moneymaker”), while others (“Rattlesnake Shake”, “Black Magic Woman”, and “Oh Well”) are presented as live versions from the Boston dates. Men of the World doesn’t work as an archival snapshot, either, since sources aren’t mentioned anywhere.
The early years of Fleetwood Mac are definitely worth checking out, not only because they capture a young group of guys grabbing life by the horns, but also because they showcase one of rock’s most underrated guitarists in Peter Green. Despite offering pieces of the puzzle, though, Men of the World probably isn’t the place to start. Better introductions to the band occupy the shelves, and if you’re a diehard fan of early Mac, there’s probably nothing new on this set. In the end Men of the World feels like a wasted opportunity, with the breadth of its three CDs falling far short of their potential.