ONE of my better musical investments of the last twenty years was a CD box set – Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions 1967-1969. This comprises six discs and includes many outtakes plus studio banter along with a booklet written by the band’s long-suffering producer Mike Vernon.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the forty-odd quid it cost was worth it purely for the several different takes of Need Your Love So Bad. Having heard only the short single version, with syrupy strings, I was blown away by Peter Green’s lead guitar on the more extended performances. It never fails to bring a tear to the eye and a shiver to the spine.
For those who got to know Fleetwood Mac courtesy of 1977’s US radio-friendly soft-rock LP Rumours, one of the best-sellers of all time at more than 40million copies, it might be a surprise that the band began a decade earlier as a fairly hard-core blues outfit.
They were formed in July 1967, following Green’s departure at the age of 21 from John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Drummer Mick Fleetwood had already been sacked by Mayall and eventually the pair persuaded bassist John McVie to jump ship too. Slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer completed the line-up.
Their first album Fleetwood Mac was recorded in a little over three days and came out on the Blue Horizon label in February 1968. Famous for its ‘dog and dustbin’ cover photo, it shot to number four in the UK album charts and remained in the higher reaches for 37 weeks despite containing no hit singles. A mixture of originals and cover versions, all the songs are blues.
Track one, Spencer’s My Heart Beat Like A Hammer, begins with a cacophony.
In Mike Vernon’s words, ‘the barrage of assorted guitar intros serves to illustrate the dubious gamesmanship employed by some musicians to upset the producer in times of stress’. Next comes Green’s composition Merry Go Round, during which he confirms the talent which led Mayall to hire him in place of Eric Clapton, followed by Robert Johnson’s Hellhound On My Trail.
There is much more to assuage the appetite of a British public who at the time could not get enough of the blues, but Vernon was not satisfied with the album. He said: ‘As a clear and concise representation of what the early Fleetwood Mac was all about, it was more like a book of short stories than a novel. Of course one could say that the variety made for good listening. It could have been better, though, given more time.’
By April the band were back in the studio for their second album, Mr Wonderful. Vernon wrote that ‘the plan was to aim for a dirtier, gutsier sound closer to a club performance. We hit on the idea of hauling the PA system into the studio’.
Again the fare is blues only; indeed four songs, Dust My Broom, Doctor Brown, Need Your Love Tonight and Coming Home all begin with the same riff filched from Elmore James. The album features a horn section plus contributions by Duster Bennett on harmonica and Christine Perfect from Chicken Shack on keyboards. Vernon felt there was a ‘full density of sound’ but the record garnered disappointing reviews and was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor.
After Mr Wonderful the band were joined by a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan. For their last all-blues recordings, Fleetwood Mac headed in early January 1969 to the studio of America’s Chess Records, then in its dying stages. In just one day they laid down Blues Jam in Chicago volumes 1 and 2 with guests including Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy, although for contractual reasons Guy had to be billed as Guitar Buddy. Vernon says that the intention had been to include many more blues legends such as Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James and Bo Diddley but they proved unavailable, either being on the road or yet to return to Chicago following the Christmas holiday. Here is a flavour of what’s on offer – Someday Soon Baby.
Spann, who features on vocals and piano, was deeply impressed with Green’s guitar playing. ‘Man, he plays like BB [King],’ he said at the time. ‘Sure sounds like he knows the blues.’ Despite this the double LP was a sales disaster. In Vernon’s words, ‘there can be little doubt that of all the albums recorded and/or released on Blue Horizon, this was the least successful commercially and the most ignored by Mac fans’.
At this point it was decided that, such had the band’s capabilities been expanded by Kirwan’s arrival, they should no longer be confined to a blues-only label. They had a brief flirtation with the financially troubled Immediate Records, releasing the single Man of the World, before signing with Warner/Reprise despite interest from the Beatles’ Apple label. As Reprise prepared to release Mac’s next studio album, Then Play On, Blue Horizon issued a defiant spoiler, The Pious Bird of Good Omen. This was a compilation of the band’s singles Albatross, Black Magic Woman and Need Your Love So Bad, plus sundry oddments.
The dreamy instrumental Albatross (the pious bird of good omen in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner) was a Number One hit, selling a million UK copies and almost as many again when re-released in 1973, reaching Number Two.
Black Magic Woman passed me by at the time but I became aware of it on Santana’s 1970 album Abraxas, which was played at every teenage soiree I attended that year. In the Santana version it segues into another song, Gypsy Queen, and listening to it takes me instantly back to the days of raiding the spirits cabinet (left injudiciously unlocked) in the party-giver’s home to catastrophic vomitorious effect.
And so to Need Your Love So Bad, the centrepiece of this box set. It was originally performed in 1955 by Little Willie John, whose elder brother Mertis wrote it. No fewer than five Fleetwood Mac versions are featured here, each fascinating in its own way. Sadly, only two have made their way to YouTube so far as I can find. The first, here, is a six-minute clip with dubbed string section. The second features false starts, language which some listeners will find offensive, and guitar Greenery which, as I suggested at the beginning, is transcendental. In particular the amazing bit from 1.42 to 3.06. What a player he was.
The Blue Horizon set is completed by The Original Fleetwood Mac, a further compilation of odds and sods released in 1971. This gets off to a good start with the Green compositions Drifting and Leaving Town Blues.
There are eight takes of Green’s A Fool No More (of which this is a performance not from the album), and three complete versions of Danny Kirwan’s Something Inside of Me. In Vernon’s words, ‘the album comprised previously unissued material that for one reason or another had been thought of as not worthy of release’. He added: ‘Strange how one’s opinions can change over a period of time for there’s little here that would have you rushing back to your local store for a refund.’ I’ll second that.
Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in 1970. He was in a precarious mental state after a bad experience with LSD taken on a German tour. Here are various accounts of what happened in Munich.
Band manager Clifford Davis said that the incident left both Green and Kirwan ‘seriously mentally ill’.
Almost 20 years later Green was quoted as saying: ‘I’m at present recuperating from treatment for taking drugs. I took LSD eight or nine times. The effect of that stuff lasts so long. I thought I could do it, I thought I was all right on drugs. My failing!’
You don’t need me to tell you that, after multiple personnel changes, Fleetwood Mac went on to rule the world. Despite his personal problems Green, still with us at the age of 72, is acknowledged as one of the guitar greats. Last word goes to blues hero BB King (1925-2015): ‘He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.’
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