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Before the Landslide: Inside the Early Years of Fleetwood Mac

The early Mac expanded the possibilities of British blues and set the scene for their huge success to come — battling tragedy all the way

Fleetwood Mac (from left): Peter Green, John McVie, and Jeremy Spencer; Mick Fleetwood, front.

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

This story was originally published in a Fleetwood Mac special collector’s edition in May 2017.

One night in the summer of 1967, a new band with no name and an unsettled lineup entered Decca Records’ London studios to make a demo tape. This was not an official booking. Producer Mike Vernon, a Decca staffer, arranged the after-hours session to save money and avoid prying eyes. He was a close friend of the group’s leader, 20-year-old singer-guitarist Peter Green. Vernon also ran an independent label, Blue Horizon, specializing in blues – vintage American reissues and promising young British acts. That included Green’s new band. Green was a recent alumnus of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, a notorious finishing school for English blues musicians.

In July 1966, Green replaced Mayall’s breakout prodigy Eric Clapton but quickly achieved his own notoriety with a stabbing-treble tone and precision — slalom attack. As Vernon – who produced Mayall’s records with both guitarists – bluntly put it years later, Green “was just the very best blues guitarist this country has ever produced.”

The band that showed up at Decca had only two firm members: Green and drummer Mick Fleetwood, a long, lean powerhouse on the London club scene. The bassist — John McVie, another Bluesbreaker — was just helping out. The three swiftly cut a handful of tracks including Green’s original slow blues “First Train Home” and a cocky instrumental shuffle. At the end of the session, Green wrote a title for the latter on the tape-reel can: “Fleetwood Mac.”

Green explained the homage to a Swedish journalist in 1968. After quitting Mayall’s group, “I wanted to do an EP of my own material,” the guitarist said. “I called one of our numbers ‘Fleetwood Mac’ in a tribute to Mick and John’s participation.”

It was a fateful gift. “There was this incredible focus,” Fleetwood told me in a 2013 interview, as if Green was “making sure that it was not his name on there: ‘No, I want this to be your band.’ I’m not so sure that Peter didn’t have a vision that one day, when he left, he didn’t want this thing to collapse.”

Fifty years later, Fleetwood Mac are still a working group with that namesake rhythm section; McVie formally joined in September 1967. But they are a very changed institution from the one Green started in the British-blues boom. When Fleetwood Mac were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, Green — who left his own band in 1970, shattered by LSD use and spiritual guilt over fame and money — was relegated to a sideman slot with another band of inductees, Santana, as they played their hit cover of the early Mac’s 1968 voodoo crawl “Black Magic Woman.”

“I really feel we would have had a similar story, in a different way, as Led Zeppelin,” Fleetwood said of the late-Sixties quintet with its triple-guitar-lightning front line of Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. “That’s where we were headed,” the drummer insisted.

Instead, between 1967 and 1974, Fleetwood Mac were a legendary whirlwind of overnight stardom in Britain, frustrating chart struggles in America, drug and religious crises, destructive personnel turnover and surreal legal combat – the last in 1974 when their manager mounted a tour with an entirely fake version of the band. There was a determined studio battle too, across a dozen LPs of thrilling R&B, metallic psychedelia, roots-rock revival and sparkling California pop – including a run of gems featuring American singer-guitarist Bob Welch that stayed largely ignored after the commercial rebirth with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.

But Fleetwood, in 2013, recalled seeing a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show where they broke into the stunning guitar-whiplash half of his band’s 1969 U.K. hit “Oh Well”: “The whole place went up as one, as if it was one of Tom’s biggest hits. But they weren’t standing up because they knew the song. It was what it did to them.”

Born Peter Greenbaum in London’s East End in October 1946, Green was a former butcher’s apprentice and studious Chicago-blues purist who started his own band as a last resort. He left John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers “partly because I felt John was getting too jazzy,” he claimed in a 1999 interview. “At first, I was intending to go to Chicago and play with blues musicians [there]. Then, an American girl told me that I wouldn’t be able to play anywhere without a work permit.” So Green and Vernon set up the mid-’67 demo session. (In a 2017 interview, Fleetwood claimed that Mayall, holding no grudge against Green, gave his own studio time at Decca to the guitarist as a present.) Vernon then recommended Spencer, a sizzling slide guitarist from Birmingham who had a fanatical love of the Mississippi bluesman Elmore James.

In one of his first interviews as a leader, with the British music paper Record Mirror, Green articulated his vision of blues guitar. “It doesn’t mean a thing, playing fast,” he declared. “I like to play slowly, and feel every note — it comes from every part of my body and my heart and into my fingers. I have to really feel it. I make the guitar sing the blues.”

By late 1968, Green had taken that gospel and his band into the British Top 10 on Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Wonderful, two albums of taut Chicago-rooted modernism zigzagging between Spencer’s straight-up-Elmore James fun and Green’s introspective concentration in the Fleetwood Mac original “Looking for Somebody” and, on the second LP, the terse, sculpted agony of his lead-guitar flourishes in “Love That Burns.” “Peter was straightforward, intuitive and a deep thinker,” Spencer said many years later. “I brought to the band a kind of happy-go-lucky bawdiness.”

A surprise breakthrough came that October when Fleetwood Mac recorded a new, gently compelling Green instrumental with Kirwan, a teenage guitar marvel befriended by Green that summer, then invited to join as his melodic foil. “Albatross” went to Number One in Britain, selling a million copies and landing the band on BBC-TV’s Top of the Pops. “You’re going, ‘How on Earth did this happen?’ ” Fleetwood recalled in 2013. “We were having hits playing Elmore James. People are drinking their tea in the suburbs of Manchester, watching us on these pop TV shows, and they didn’t know we were just playing the same music we played in the pubs.”

As Green became uneasy about success and the weight of leadership, Fleetwood “played an important part in holding the unit together,” Vernon said. “He had a keen sense of how things should be done.” The extroverted son of a Royal Air Force officer, Fleetwood characterized Green as “an East End lad with a chip on his shoulder — a Jewish boy who got beaten up [in school]. He got away from it” as a musician, the drummer suggested, “but it caught him up in the end when it all went wrong.”

Green achieved his Chicago-pilgrim dream on January, 4th, 1969, when Fleetwood Mac, on a day off from touring America, knocked out two volumes of material at the Chess Records studio — issued as Blues Jam in Chicago — with an all-star pack of legends and inspirations, including guitarist Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters pianist Otis Spann and the bassist-composer Willie Dixon. But the English band’s U.S. shows that winter and the previous summer left the deeper imprint as the Mac shared bills, friendship and lessons in American-music roots and improvisation with the Byrds, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead. “That lifestyle and spirit,” Fleetwood said, “crept into what we were doing.”

The result was Green’s best studio album with Fleetwood Mac — and his last. Mostly recorded in the spring of 1969, Then Play On was a dynamic, textural expansion of Green’s purism through full-tilt jamming (the ravers “Fighting for Madge” and “Searching for Madge”), the dark Latin-fire undertow of “Coming Your Way” and the snarling-guitar tangle of “Rattlesnake Shake” (Green’s punning stomp about masturbation). The quiet, cutting quality of the ballads — Kirwan’s “Although the Sun Is Shining,” Green’s outright prayer “Closing My Eyes” — highlighted the guitarists’ baroque-blues interplay and respective inner turmoil. Kirwan, only 19, “was a confused young man,” according to Fleetwood, and on his way to a long struggle with alcoholism.

Green was fighting a different war within. “Peter did not want to be a superstar guitar player,” Fleetwood claimed. “He was a team player, which is why he was so conflicted.” Green was also mixing a large intake of LSD with escalating religious and material guilt, a combination that fully reared its demon head in Green’s final single with Fleetwood Mac, recorded in April 1970: the howling-guitar turbulence of “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown).” “All my tryin’ is up/All you’re bringin’ is down,” Green sang in the chorus, before being swallowed by a long crush of hellish riffing and silver, spearing treble.

In a peculiar July 1969 news story, Rolling Stone reported that Green and Spencer planned to record a concept album — “an orchestral-choral LP” — about the life of Jesus. Fleetwood remembered a hotel-room conversation with Green, in which the latter insisted that the band had to give away all of its money. “He wasn’t joking,” Fleetwood said. “And we didn’t have any money to give.” In June 1970, “The Green Manalishi” crashed the British Top 10; Green had already left the group. “I want to lead a freer and more selfless life along Christian principles,” Green told Rolling Stone at the time. “I’m not worried if it means I’ll fade from public view.”

That proved to be dark prophecy, as Green withdrew into a wilderness of confused musical direction, psychiatric trouble and severe poverty that lasted nearly two decades. At one point, he was reported to be working as a gravedigger. Green re-emerged in the late Nineties with the Splinter Group and several well-regarded albums. But the prowess and fire that once marked Green as British blues’ most exciting and innovative guitarist were long behind him. “If you listen to the words in ‘The Green Manalishi,’ Peter was in a lot more trouble than we knew,” Fleetwood confessed. “We were not able to see it. And we were not able to help.”

The looming irony: For the next four years, the band that remained would also be in constant, dire need of saving.

On February 11th, 1971, a streamlined, rejuvenated version of Fleetwood Mac opened a four-night stand at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The group – fronted by Spencer and Kirwan and including the former Christine Perfect, a deep-blues singer and pianist with the English band Chicken Shack, who had married John McVie in August 1968 — was promoting Kiln House, a charming rock & roll roots outing that “would make [Buddy] Holly and [Gene] Vincent unabashedly proud as godparents,” according to Rolling Stone’s late-1970 review.

But on February 15th, after the Mac arrived in Los Angeles for a run at the Whisky a Go Go, Spencer walked out of their Hollywood hotel — and did not return. Three days later, he was found at a Christian street mission run by a group called the Children of God. “He doesn’t want to play anymore, just serve Jesus and God,” John McVie told Rolling Stone after Spencer’s shocking defection. “That’s fair enough, but there should be a balance.”

Fleetwood Mac recovered quickly, starting work on their next album, the hopefully titled Future Games, in the summer of 1971 with a new second guitarist, Los Angeles-born Bob Welch. The son of a film producer and screenwriter, Welch was recommended to Fleetwood Mac by a secretary for their management, who dated him in high school. Welch made a rapid impact, falling naturally into a rapturous-jangle blend with Kirwan and writing the band’s first post-Green classics: Future Games’ title track, a Fillmore-daydream epic of gauzy jamming and sunlit vocal harmonies, and the warm, yearning ballad “Sentimental Lady,” on 1972’s Bare Trees. “Bob brought a huge amount to Fleetwood Mac,” Fleetwood affirmed in a 2015 interview with the British magazine Shindig!. “As a guitarist, he was more jazz-based and funky.” Welch also had “a great sense of time.”

With his own delicate guitar work and pensive songwriting, Kirwan “sowed the seeds” — Fleetwood’s words — for the band’s later worldwide conquest on 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and 1977’s Rumours. “When Stevie and Lindsey later brought a quality bundle of harmony intervals,” the drummer said, “we took to that way more easily and comfortably than people might imagine, because of Danny.” But Kirwan’s drinking triggered belligerent outbursts, alienating him from the group. Fleetwood fired him in late 1972. Kirwan’s after-Mac life would eerily parallel Green’s: a handful of solo albums amid decades in shadow, coping with mental illness and homelessness. “What Danny accomplished musically was huge,” Fleetwood admitted. It wasn’t enough to let him stay.

Somehow Fleetwood Mac survived the next 18 months, a period of extraordinary chaos even by their standards. Two new British members, guitarist Bob Weston and former Savoy Brown singer Dave Walker, appeared on Penguin, a March 1973 letdown titled after the band mascot. Walker was let go during mid-1973 sessions for Mystery to Me; Weston was canned during a U.S. tour that spring after Fleetwood discovered the guitarist having an affair with his wife.

As the group took a break to recover, longtime manager Clifford Davis formed a Fleetwood Mac with no current or ex-members, sending them on tour in January 1974. Audiences booed and demanded refunds. The actual Mac filed legal action and spent most of 1974 in litigation, eventually winning a restraining order. They also decided to dispense with management entirely. “We’ll look after ourselves,” Fleetwood told Rolling Stone that April. “I’ll never sign anything that’s binding for more than three months.”

Two songs on Mystery to Me — otherwise distinguished by a ghastly cover illustration of a crying gorilla eating a cake — pointed the way forward. The catchy rainy-L.A. noir of Welch’s “Hypnotized” and Christine’s closing “Why,” a bottleneck-guitar and saloon-piano romance, forecast the sensual California pop invention that would soon transform Fleetwood Mac and their fortunes — without Welch. His writing and singing dominated 1974’s Heroes Are Hard to Find, the Mac’s first Top 40 album in America. But the gleaming-Seventies folk rock of “She’s Changing Me” and Welch’s fond connection in “Safe Harbour” back to Green’s progressive blues belied his exhaustion and frustration.

Welch quit Fleetwood Mac at the end of 1974 and enjoyed late-Seventies solo success, covering himself in a Top 10 remake of “Sentimental Lady,” with production and vocals by Buckingham and Christine McVie. But in 1994, Welch sued Fleetwood and the McVies over royalties; there was a settlement, but bitterness lingered. Welch was not included in Fleetwood Mac’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fleetwood rued the oversight after Welch died by suicide in 2012. “He was a huge part of our history,” the drummer said in a statement, “which sometimes gets forgotten.”

That still remains true of Green, who was more interested in celebrating his friends and their future at that late-night recording session in 1967, when he titled the instrumental demo “Fleetwood Mac.” “He always had that deference,” Fleetwood said in 2013. Green “could have been the Eric Clapton entity, in charge of everything. He didn’t want that.

“This was a man,” the drummer declared with undiminished awe, “who saw things that we could not imagine.”

This story was originally published in a special collector’s edition in May 2017.