Fleetwood Mac

     Fleetwood Mac (Blue Horizon/Epic, 1968)
     English Rose (Epic/Columbia, 1969)
      The Pious Bird of Good Omen (Blue Horizon/CBS, 1969)
    Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (Blue Horizon, 1969)
      Then Play On (Reprise,1969)
     Kiln House (Reprise, 1970)
    Future Games (Reprise, 1971)
     Bare Trees (Reprise, 1972)
    Penguin (Reprise, 1973)
    Mystery to Me (Reprise, 1973)
   Heroes Are Hard to Find (Reprise, 1974)
      Fleetwood Mac (Reprise, 1975)
      Rumours (Warner Bros., 1977)
     Tusk (Warner Bros., 1979)
    Fleetwood Mac Live (Warner Bros., 1980)
    Mirage (Warner Bros., 1982)
    Tango in the Night (Warner Bros., 1987)
      Greatest Hits (Reprise, 1988)
   Behind the Mask (Warner Bros., 1990)
    25 Years—The Chain (Reprise, 1992)
  Time (Warner Bros., 1995)
    The Dance (Reprise, 1997)
    Say You Will (Reprise, 2003)
    Live in Boston (Reprise, 2004)

There are three Fleetwood Macs: the first, a British blues-rock band in the vein of the Yardbirds; the second, a dreamy, laid-back California-style pop outfit; and the third—well, that's the hit-making, dysfunctional, made-for-TV, hippie family from the Seventies that we've all come to know and love from reruns of "Behind the Music."

Fleetwood Mac's earliest studio albums comprise such an essential part of the band's catalogue that you can't just pretend they never existed—even if you prefer the more famous mid-Seventies albums. Inspired by fellow British blues revivalist John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac began life as a straight-ahead blues band, named after its rhythm section: drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. The group's calling card, however, was the twin-guitar attack of Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, who wielded a sure, sensitive hand with their oft-abused source material. Fleetwood Mac and English Rose revolve around Green's economical lead lines and Spencer's Elmore James–style slide work; Carlos Santana plucked the guitar solo nearly intact for his own enduring version of Mac's "Black Magic Woman," from English Rose. Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (which wasn't released domestically until the mid-Seventies) finds the group recording in the Windy City with its American blues heroes, including Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy.

Then Play On is Fleetwood Mac's transition from blues purists to a band that blends elements of psychedelia and British folk rock into a blues-based stew. Adding a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan, and emphasizing Mick Fleetwood's adventurous rhythmic sense alongside Green's virtuosity, the group conjures a sparse, propulsive sound that's more reminiscent of the American West than Chicago or the Mississippi Delta. On the epic "Oh Well," an itchy electric-acoustic shuffle turns into a stately semiclassical fade with echoes of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-western soundtrack music. The gentle harmonies of Kirwan's "Although the Sun Is Shining" showcase British progressive folk rock at its most spare and beautiful, as well as hints of Fleetwood Mac's future, more pop-oriented sound.

After Then Play On, Green split for a religious cult and a brief solo career. With Kirwan and Spencer in control, Kiln House is a low-key charmer, radically different from what folks expected from the blues-based Mac. Balancing spare folk and country songs with earnest nods to early rock & roll, the album is at once eclectic and cohesive Spencer left shortly after the album came out, and Fleetwood Mac was down to one guitarist. The addition of Christine McVie (née Perfect) on keyboards and vocals turned out to be an important choice. Spencer's replacement, Bob Welch, was another matter; he never quite gelled with the rest of the group, despite his years of trying.

Flashes of Fleetwood Mac's latter-day pop can be found throughout the band's next set of transitional albums: the smooth talk of Kirwan's title track to Bare Trees; Christine's disarming "Show Me a Smile" (Future Games); her breezily melodic "Remember Me" (Penguin) and "Just Crazy Love" (Mystery to Me); and her stately ballad "Come a Little Bit Closer" (Heroes Are Hard to Find). Taken individually, however, these fair-to-middling albums are too scattershot to hold much interest. When Kirwan left the group after Bare Trees came out, Fleetwood Mac floundered for several years—split between the heavy-handed pseudomysticism of Welch and the gentle, mainstream pop-rock balladry of Christine McVie. The group nearly splintered for good at one point; when Welch left in 1975, the McVies and Fleetwood were back at square one.

Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were a young, Southern California folk-rock duo with one unremarkable album (Buckingham Nicks) under their belts when they joined Fleetwood Mac. Nicks' sultry voice and Buckingham's songwriting knack focused the group's fledgling pop ambitions. On Fleetwood Mac's self-titled album of 1975, Nicks and Buckingham not only fit in, but they stimulated the core trio, turning the group into a hit-making machine at the point when Fleetwood Mac was about to become a hasbeen. Christine McVie responded to the Buckingham-Nicks material with a brace of catchy songs, while John McVie and Mick Fleetwood lent their blues-rock punch to the smoothed-out mix. The result is easy-listening pop with a kick, and it was just what mainstream music fans were looking for in the mid-Seventies. By the following year Fleetwood Mac was at Number One, easily outdistancing all the band's previous efforts.

The album kicks off with Buckingham's infectious "Monday Morning" and then builds to new levels of pop-music pleasure with each subsequent track. "Rhiannon" establishes Nicks' seductive, siren-like presence, while "Say You Love Me" unfurls Christine McVie's wry melodic edge. Unlike many blockbusters, the surrounding songs nearly equal the hits. In addition to the bouncy opener, Buckingham struts his tuneful stuff on the heavy centerpiece "World Turning" and soulful closer "I'm So Afraid." What's more, the slow tracks never impinge on the album's overall pace.

Rumours is even better. Using the same formula that propelled Fleetwood Mac, the band upped the quality of the songs. Not only did the album go to Number One, it stayed there for 31 weeks. Fleetwood Mac's cast of voices cuts even deeper when you consider that the two couples in the group were breaking up as the album went down. Buckingham's "Go Your Own Way" and Nicks' "Dreams" spell out two clear takes on a romantic dilemma. Rumours can be heard as a conversation among a loose circle of estranged lovers, culminating with "The Chain" (written by the entire group).

After striking such a perfect balance between self-expression and commercial appeal, Fleetwood Mac succumbed to studio artiness. The double-disc Tusk reveals Buckingham's secret fixation: to become Brian Wilson with a touch of Brian Eno thrown in. "Sara" maintains the band's pop profile, but the bulk of Tusk sounds cold and fussy next to the emotional heat of Rumours. On Mirage, Fleetwood Mac returns to simple pleasures, but the band seems to have lost its spirit. Reconvening five years later on Tango in the Night, the group carries on as if it were still 1982—or 1977. The hits "Big Love" and (especially) Christine McVie's "Little Lies" surge with all the relaxed soft-rock grace of yore but none of the quiet fire, hinting at a premature nostalgia. Buckingham quit the band prior to the 1987 tour; in retrospect, that last straw seems to have broken this venerable band's back.

Buckingham's L.A. cowboy replacements (Rick Vito and Billy Burnette) add little to the washed-out Behind the Mask. When Nicks left shortly after that album's release, Fleetwood Mac entered yet another phase, though short-lived. In spite of the capable vocals of new female singer Bekka Bramlett (Delaney & Bonnie's daughter) and guitar work of Traffic alum Dave Mason, Time was a full-on bore. Fleetwood Mac's Seventies-era lineup reunited for The Dance, but it seemed more of a business decision than an aesthetic one. In an "MTV Unplugged"-style setting, the band unavoidably devotes most of the album to repeats of its peak-era hits ("Dreams," "Rhiannon," "Go Your Own Way"), but they bring absolutely nothing fresh to the proceedings. The best cuts are new ones by Buckingham ("Bleed to Love Her" and "My Little Demon"), but they get buried in the nostalgia fest. For a band that practically became a brand-name franchise in the late Seventies, Fleetwood Mac set a standard of quality that's proven tough to maintain—or equal.

McVie retired from Fleetwood Mac in 1998, and her pop smarts were missing on Say You Will, the first Fleetwood Mac album with both Buckingham and Nicks in 16 years. 75 minutes of new music was probably about an hour more than Fleetwood Mac fans needed at this late date, but there were keepers: Nicks' buoyant title track, Buckingham's weirdly poppy "Miranda" and the stately "Silver Girl," a fine showcase for Nicks' wizened vocals. The Say You Will tour was chronicled on the CD/DVD Live in Boston. Buckingham and Nicks could still send shivers down the spine when they harmonized on "Dreams," and it was good fun to hear Fleetwood Mac take a crack at Nicks' solo synth-pop smash "Stand Back."

Not surprisingly for an outfit as schizophrenic as Fleetwood Mac, none of its collections adequately captures the band. The Pious Bird is an excellent overview of the group's early Peter Green period, and the 1988 Greatest Hits package is a decent collection of the Buckingham-Nicks era. 25 Years: The Chain is frustrating; if ever there was a band for which a chronological overview is appropriate, it's Fleetwood Mac, whose evolution from blues to pop came slowly but dramatically. For whatever reasons, the compilers chose to mix and mingle the eras on this four-disc set, and it suffers as a result.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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