After ex-Fleetwood Mac singer-guitarist Bob Welch died on June 7th, by his own hand at his home in Nashville, his boss in the early Seventies, drummer and Mac co-founder Mick Fleetwood, paid tribute to Welch and his time in the group. “He was a huge part of our history which sometimes gets forgotten,” Fleetwood said in a statement. “If you look into our musical history, you’ll see a huge period that was completely ensconced in Bob’s work.”
Ironically, in the digital-music era, it isn’t easy to hear that work. The five studio albums Welch made with Fleetwood Mac – Future Games (1971), Bare Trees (1972), Penguin and Mystery to Me (both 1973) and Heroes Are Hard to Find (1974) – are still in print on CD but not available on Spotify or iTunes. Welch had a Top Ten solo hit in 1977 with a remake of Bare Trees‘ “Sentimental Lady,” and he returned to his Mac book in the last decade, cutting new versions of his songs from that period on records such as 2006’s Greatest Hits and More. But the “history,” as Fleetwood put it, is elusive without reason.
Out of Blues, Into Pop
Born in Los Angeles, the son of a film producer and screenwriter, Welch was playing with a band in Paris when he was recommended by a mutual friend to what was left of Fleetwood Mac in 1971 – Fleetwood, guitarist Danny Kirwan, bassist John McVie and his wife, singer-pianist Christine McVie. Welch joined a group shedding its electric-blues origins after the departures of original guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. Future Games and Bare Trees were dominated by Kirwan’s haunted ballads and instrumental facility, with Christine sweetening the suspense with the R&B-flavored romanticism of her straightforward love songs. Welch, in turn, brought an L.A. polish and smart-pop delicacy that bloomed in his quietly epic title song for Future Games and his misty-treble guitar interplay with Kirwan, especially on that album’s opener “Woman of a Thousand Years.”
I prefer the original “Sentimental Lady” on Bare Trees – it is warmer and more intimate, in its arrangement and Welch’s high fragile vocal, than his later AOR interpretation. He didn’t write anything as strong for Penguin, a transitional mess of pop, electric R&B and further personnel changes. Kirwan – suffering from alcoholism, becoming distant and combative – was fired and replaced with two new Britons, lead guitarist Bob Weston and ex-Savoy Brown vocalist Dave Walker. Slimmed back to five after Walker got canned, Fleetwood Mac quickly made Mystery to Me, well-produced but bland, with an astonishingly bad cover (a garish painting of a crying gorilla eating a cake) and a striking exception to the general mood in Welch’s “Hypnotized.”
The best song Welch ever gave the Mac, “Hypnotized” was urgent noir propelled by a shuffling mix of guitars and McVie’s electric-piano understatement, with Welch singing in a sleepwalking cadence like a Raymond Chandler detective musing to himself in a late-night rain. There was one other diamond on Mystery, at the very end: Christine’s aching ballad “Why,” with its oddly affecting blend of bottleneck guitar and cocktail-piano reverie. It was a hint of the pop-with-twists that would soon tranform Fleetwood Mac, and its fortunes, with the arrival of Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham.
A Heroic Legacy
Back down to a quartet after Weston’s departure, Fleetwood Mac was, briefly, Welch’s vehicle on Heroes Are Hard to Find – he wrote all but three songs on the record, the band’s first Top 40 album and a durable, appealing bridge to the next era. “She’s Changing Me” was sparkling, upbeat folk-rock, while Welch paid tribute to Peter Green’s progressive-blues vision in the first-period Mac with the final track “Safe Harbor.” Ironically, Welch’s exit after Heroes opened the way for Buckingham and Nicks and the long eclipse of his own contributions to the band and its survival in its most dire years. (There was more fallout later; Welch sued Fleetwood and the McVies in 1994 over royalties from these five albums. The suit was settled in 1996.)
But Welch, who was not included in Fleetwood Mac’s 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was a vital member of the band when that was one of the toughest gigs in rock. His music and history with the Mac are an imperfect legacy. But it is one that should be available everywhere – and heard.