Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac’s First LP Shows a Hungry, Irreverent Approach to Chicago Blues

Surprisingly, Fleetwood Mac began life as a blues-rock band before morphing into the pop/rock juggernaut that ruled the charts in the late 1970s.

Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac
Blue Horizon
24 February 1968

About 17 minutes into episode three of the video-game-turned-HBO series The Last of Us’ first season, the action shifts from the present day to the early fall of 2003, when the mass fungal infection that rapidly collapses global societies was in its earliest stages. In an underground bunker of a suburban home, Nick Offerman, as a financially independent anti-government misanthrope named Bill, watches TV feeds connected to home surveillance cameras as his neighbors get rounded up by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) and moved from their homes. He waits, safe in his vault, before making his way outside, rifle in hand. Certain the coast is clear, he lowers the gun and grins. A lecherous “Dust My Broom” guitar lick kicks in at that moment.

The following song has all the raw, overly-amped grind that was a sonic trademark of Chicago-based slide guitarist Elmore James‘ mid-1950s recordings. This ramshackle grind underpins Bill as he hops in his truck and raids a now-empty gas station for barrels of fuel, smashes into a boarded-up Home Depot for electrical supplies, cuts through chained fences to snag natural gas for cooking, visits the liquor store for wine, cranks up a generator, chain-saws a tree and chops the wood, partially buries weaponry to guard his perimeter, pulls carrots from his garden, feeds chickens, cures and cooks meat, and builds a trap for any infected zombie that might stumble past. The entire scenario takes place in two and half minutes, just enough time for viewers to hear what surely must be peak Elmore James, as he punctuates every moaned vocal line with slashes of whipsaw guitar.

Except, a close listen reveals the vocalist isn’t Elmore. As it turns out, it’s a studio leftover titled “I’m Coming Home to Stay” from the sessions that produced the first Fleetwood Mac album at the beginning of 1968. The voice, guitar, and even the ragtag, strip joint piano belong to Jeremy Spencer, one of the original band’s two leaders and perhaps one of the weirdest musicians ever connected to an eventual multi-million dollar rock band. As it turns out, Fleetwood Mac’s effortless take on prime electric blues soundtracks the end of the world Bill has not only prepared for but counted on.

The fact that the UK experienced several American blues booms in the 1960s is well known. The stories of the Yardbirds, the Animals, and, of course, the Rolling Stones have become a cliché. Yet, underneath band histories and often derivative musicianship is the fact these players hipped Europe to Black American music at the same time that they helped sell it to white American youth as the sound of rebellion. For a few years in the 1960s, an imported Muddy Waters album had an even more seismic impact than Peruvian Chicha had on Brooklyn hipsters in the first decade of the 21st century or Brazilian Tropicália had on 1990s indie rockers from Beck to Stereolab.

Somewhere between the initial explosion brought on by the Stones and their contemporaries and the later decade’s British blues resurgence that gave us Mac was John Mayall, a singer, harmonica player, keyboardist, and bandleader who had an ear for great guitarists. He gave ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton, the man who should be the dictionary definition of “overrated”, pre-Cream fan worship. When Clapton went AWOL, Mayall replaced him with the disturbingly deep Peter Green and then found a teenaged, pre-Stones Mick Taylor when Green split.

The one Mayall LP to feature Green, 1967’s A Hard Road, includes two of the future Mac leader’s earliest compositions. One of them, the instrumental “The Supernatural”, already shows him to be a player of more cavernous depth than Clapton or any of his contemporaries would ever be. In the tune, he holds sustained notes, letting them hum to their breaking point, only to puncture them with a tone bordering on violence as he bends and stabs strings perfectly, suggesting a player in control of an omnipresent current of torment. He was 20 years old.

But it’s a bit of studio time that Mayall gifted the London-born Green and Mayall’s then rhythm section of bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood that sowed the seeds for what became one of the most tragedy-plagued, unstable, yet eventually successful bands in the world. One track from that initial 1967 trio session, in particular, suggests what was coming. Titled “Fleetwood Mac” after the rhythm section, it rampages along on a proto-rock 12-bar riff that owes at most a passing resemblance to Johnny Young’s “Slamhammer” from the previous year. Green takes several guitar solos of astounding depth and taste, channeling B.B. King and Otis Rush without the type of posturing or overplaying that has all but ruined whatever the blues became. Here and there, he overdubs harmonica as McVie and Fleetwood kick up dust behind him, demonstrating why they have been such a successful anchor for every lineup the band endured. The recording, which eventually saw the light of day in 1971 as part of The Original Fleetwood Mac collection, convinced the three to split Mayall, though McVie was reluctant; the earliest Mac gigs, and one track from the first LP, featured Bob Brunning on bass.

But Green wanted another voice, instrumentally and otherwise. Enter Elmore James slide-guitar specialist and occasional pianist, Jeremy Spencer. Spencer, who Green plucked from a band called The Levi Set, was a mimic and appeared limited to Elmore-style slide shuffles. However, various live and studio recordings revealed imitations of Buddy Holly or 1950s-style crooners. Eventually released tracks planned for a 1969 EP show him sending up everything from garage rock to doo-wop to a British TV show host, as well as a note-perfect imitation of Green’s former boss John Mayall. Confusingly, Spencer typically refused to play on the tracks featuring Green, making the band a trio unless the spotlight was on him. As a live performer, his antics, including sporting dildos or dressing in gold lamé, blanketed his limitations. Ultimately, these shortcomings led to the hiring of a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan.

But at the end of 1967, when Mac recorded their debut, they were a tight, straight-ahead blues quartet with the most authoritative rhythm section England had heard and a frontline of Green and Spencer, who collectively got as close to blues legitimacy as a white appropriator dared. The results may in and of themselves not be particularly influential today. Still, the record, now 55 years old, kicked off what would become a story of fame and tragedy in equal measure, as well as the mountains of cocaine and rampant, nearly incestuous infidelity that came with it. More immediately, it brought attention to Green, who fellow guitarists still talk about with the reverence jazz players reserve for John Coltrane. That he achieved that kind of peer adulation in a roughly two and half year period says much for his playing.

The debut also shows Spencer burning at his brightest. The album’s first track, “My Heart Beat Like a Hammer”, is a knife to the chest. Spencer’s clotted, filthy slide spits those Elmore licks with near-punk abandon as Green offers a Buster Brown riff in compliment. It and other Spencer-led tracks here sum him up as well as anything else he would do with the band before his stubbornness grew tiresome and Green quickly grew beyond 12-bar blues over the next two years. But hear Green’s “Merry Go Round” and understand why B.B. King famously said of him, “he was the only [white blues guitarist] who gave me cold sweats”.

Green punctuates stinging single-note runs with off-mic “yeahs”, as McVie stalks his bass like a thief casing a soon-to-be-robbed shop, and Fleetwood smacks his kit like it owes him money. Green’s “I Loved Another Woman”, a track with a clear debt to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking?” revels in reverb-drenched moans, weeping six-string authority, and a general atmosphere of regret and dread. It’s an early window into the music he would continue to make until schizophrenia sidelined him at the beginning of the 1970s. Arguably, the disturbing melancholy heard here predicts future singles such as “Man of the World”, “Oh Well”, and the proto-metal “Green Manalishi”, all of which owe their existential transparency to his deteriorating state.

But because Green plays as much harmonica as he does guitar on the band’s debut, blowing throughout a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “No Place to Go”, the Wolf-inspired “Long Grey Mare”, and putting the guitar down altogether for his own “Looking for Somebody”, what made him such a crucial guitarist is sometimes cloaked on this album. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Spencer seems to shine. His lascivious, Memphis-Slim inspired solo piano take on Robert Johnson‘s “Hellhound on My Trail” and his ferocious slide work on Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” more or less put paid to the need for any more British blues beyond this album. Spencer’s complete lack of piousness makes his performances here all the more brutal, his every grunt or moan an irreverent piss-take on his source material. How the rest of the band kept straight faces behind him is miraculous.

Bafflingly, the band’s debut, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, an album that took half a week to record and featured a cover with a forlorn dog skulking past metal trashcans, liquor bottles, and windblown garbage, hit number four on the UK charts and stayed in those charts for 37 weeks. This early success allowed the quartet to record a sloppy, lo-fi follow-up, Mr. Wonderful, which featured a gatefold cover of a nude Mick Fleetwood, his crotch blocked by vegetation and a stuffed dog. That album also showed the growing gulf between Green’s natural push forward and Spencer’s all-things-Elmore drag. Soon, with Kirwan, Fleetwood Mac became a hydra-headed beast, with twin guitar jams, Green and Kirwan originals that pushed away from the blues framework, and rock and roll parody and slide guitar-driven assaults from Spencer.

Spencer-less Then Play On (1969) is split evenly between Green and Kirwan tunes. That album’s pre-Sabbath “Rattlesnake Shake” sounds like a blueprint for Endless Boogie’s entire career (EB even covers the tune’s central riff in one of their countless hours of 20-minute jams.) The band’s growth in such a short time was uncanny. Yet, when Green called it quits in the spring of 1970, the original band’s trajectory felt unfinished, as if they were on the cusp of whatever Fleetwood Mac might have become. But before his departure forced the band to recalibrate, before he wrote “Black Magic Woman”, a cover of which gave Santana early success; before he penned the instrumental “Albatross”, which inspired the Beatles’ “Sun King”; and before Spencer disappeared mid-tour into a religious cult in early 1971, there was Mac’s debut, the most authentic, honest blues album to ever come out of the UK. It has held up in ways that most white blues of the time hasn’t.

One would have to be a blues completist to bother with Chicken Shack, John Mayall, or Savoy Brown’s output, but the first Fleetwood Mac LP combines the darkness of an abandoned phosphate mine with leather-tough rebellion that belies the fact that the music itself was far from original. It’s an LP worth investigating as much for what it offers as it is for being the initial missive from such an ever-present musical institution.

Peter Green resurfaced a few times in the late 1970s and then seemed to stabilize in the 1990s with a band called the Splinter Group, who toured and released a number of albums before his July 2020 death. None of this music did anything more than hint at what might have been, but it was good to have him back. Jeremy Spencer disappeared into a Christian cult known as “the children of God”, which also claimed young River and Joaquin Phoenix and their parents as members in the early 1970s.

While Spencer has never renounced his association with this cult, he has been on a musical roll of late, cranking out no fewer than 12 albums in the last decade. Musically, this stuff belongs in elevators and doctors’ offices, but as a slide guitarist, he’s grown by leaps and bounds. It’s almost difficult to believe how primitive and pugnacious a rocker he once was. As for McVie and Fleetwood, we know all too well what happened to them. Yet, it was Green’s generosity, his lack of desire for the constant spotlight, and the fact that he thought the name “Fleetwood Mac” sounded like something big, like a train, that gave us this band as well as the direction for that initial LP, from which everything else followed.