When Fleetwood Mac was released in 1975, its success was not immediate. Its path to becoming a colossal record fixed within the pop-music canon took the better part of a year, when, propelled by hits like “Rhiannon,” it would reach number one on the Billboard charts. The album spent 37 weeks floating around the top ten, was the second biggest album of 1976 (behind Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!), and the tenth biggest album of 1977. Among its many listeners, it was a common belief that Fleetwood Mac was the band’s first record. It was their tenth.
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks — romantic and musical partners — joined the band in 1974. Mick Fleetwood was shopping around for a guitar player when his producer Keith Olsen played him Buckingham Nicks, an acoustic, singer-songwriter album that had just flopped. Prior to this, Fleetwood Mac had made the U.K. charts during the prolific period between the their first record in 1968 and their 1975 megahit, but received little to modest attention from American audiences, and just somewhat more today.
Why might fans of Fleetwood Mac have so little interest in the albums that predate Nicks and Buckingham? Perhaps it would be like listening to the two Doors albums recorded after Jim Morrison’s death. The band’s compilation records endorse the idea that the pre-Nicks/Buckingham years don’t bleed into what fans know and love, with records like Vintage Years and The Original Fleetwood Mac sectioned off from the best-of albums that begin with music recorded after 1974. It’s not hard to see why some would think that Fleetwood Mac is Nicks’s and Buckingham’s band if Fleetwood Mac didn’t get much attention without them, and that what precedes their tenure was only a primitive, “figuring things out” phase.
The distinction is between the early records’ style of album-oriented rock and the later records’ focus on singles (of which there were many, many hugely successful ones like “Rhiannon,” “Don’t Stop,” “The Chain,” and “Landslide,” to name a few). Also, after Nicks and Buckingham joined the band and rabid affairs between members ensued, the albums became autobiographical and personal as the love triangles were aired out in some of their biggest hits like “Got Your Own Way” and “Dreams.” The earlier records are concerned with a different kind of craft. Writing a hit song seemed to be an afterthought, with many tracks skewing experimental and long. This is in stark contrast to the strictness with which the band operated when they made Rumors, when “Silver Springs” (eventually one of the most well-loved Stevie Nicks songs) was cut because other members were adamant that it went off-course.
But there’s still plenty to love about all the Fleetwood Mac albums that came before they were Fleetwood Mac, the band whose drug-fueled soap opera drove them to pen a enormous number of hallmark hits of the 1970s.
Fleetwood Mac, 1968
Also known as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, this first record is a mix of blues covers and originals. The band emerged from an insular world, where prolific, highly skilled British musicians rotated heavily among different bands whose craft, while sophisticated, failed to make them mainstream. Peter Green had replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and recruited drummer Mick Fleetwood, with whom he’d played in a band called Shotgun Express with Rod Stewart. After a while, Green wanted to start his own band with Fleetwood and wanted bass player John McVie to join so badly he named half of the new band after him. Slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer was Fleetwood Mac’s fourth member.
At times, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac sounds like a live record. It’s delightfully loose. Peter Green’s voice is imbued with the perfect amount of squeak and rasp, most notably in the Robert Johnson cover “Hellbound” and the original “Cold Black Night.” Jeremy Spencer’s intrepid slide guitar on “Heart Beat Like a Hammer” and the Elmore James cover “Shake Your Money Maker” talks back to the hypnotic, unwavering thump of the rhythm section. What this record lacks in compression and flawlessness is more than made up for by sounding totally in-the-room-with-them.
Mr. Wonderful, 1968
Perhaps the band should have waited a bit longer before making another record so soon after Fleetwood Mac. Mr. Wonderful feels like a step backward. Though they add an additional six players on saxophone, harmonica, and keyboards, the album doesn’t evade monotony. The songs, which are strictly Chicago blues–style, become indistinguishable after a short time. In fact, 4 of the 12 tracks begin with the same Elmore James riff made famous in his 1951 cover of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.”
There are, however, moments when the rhythm section is so catchy that it’s hard to not move around with it. The best tracks are their version of “Dust My Broom” and “Mr. Brown,” (a blues classic by J.T. Brown and Buster Brown), on which Jeremy’s Spencer’s still razor-sharp slide guitar is all the more electrifying on top of the swing of the horn section. Also attention-worthy is the slower and sultry “Love That Burns,” an original written by Peter Green and the band’s manager C.G. Davis.
Mr. Wonderful’s real significance is the context it provides for the record that follows, when the band transforms from a strictly blues-rock band to something of its own invention.
Then Play On, 1969
Fleetwood Mac’s third record is an absolute stunner. The first signifier of a certain kind of growing up for the band is the album artwork, a painting of a Greek-god-looking man on a white horse, as well as the title, which comes from the opening line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Jeremy Spencer is there in name only and it’s fair to credit 19-year-old vocalist and guitarist Danny Kirwan for a record that’s melodic, refined, diverse, and, in certain spots, epic.
This is an album that utilizes the recording studio in a way the previous two do not. Nearly every song features harmonized guitars, which, especially in the instrumental “My Dream,” are beguilingly emotive. The riffs change from strictly blues to what could be called hard rock (or some version of it anyway), there are maracas, bongos, and strings. There’s also “Oh Well,” an eight-and-a-half minute jam that’s almost as heavy and big-sounding as Zeppelin (until it closes with an over-five-minute-long baroque, classical-guitar ballad replete with flute). Of the two songs without a rhythm section, the must-listen is “Show Biz Blues,” where (again) phenomenal slide guitar is paired with hand claps and tambourine, and Peter Green’s vocals are crystal clear. Don’t skip Danny Kirwan’s “Like Crying,” a short, stripped-down track with perfect melodies, or the pair of “Madge” jams.
Note: There are five different track listings between the record’s initial U.S. and U.K. release. None feature “Albatross,” a single from 1969 that was a huge hit and is one of the band’s best tracks. It was inspired by the 1959 instrumental hit “Sleep Walk,” and George Harrison credits it as the inspiration for the Beatles’ “Sun King” on Abbey Road.
Kiln House, 1970
Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in 1970 as his mental health fell apart. An acid trip at a commune in Munich is rumored to have set in motion schizophrenia, and Green would be in and out of psych wards most of the 1970s.
Green’s absence gave Jeremy Spencer room for some retro tracks like “This Is the Rock” and “Buddy’s Song.” They’re not terribly hokey, but they are pretty boring. Luckily the rest of the album delivers material that’s a bit more memorable. Kiln House is more restrained than its predecessors, but when it hits, it hits hard. “Jewel-Eyed Judy” and “Station Man,” the two best tracks, are impressive exercises in balance and timing, moving to and from crescendo. Mick Fleetwood’s drumming gets compressed, heavy on high hats and cymbals, and the guitar sounds grow to include a mix of pedals on “Tell Me All the Things You Do” and pedal steel on the country western “Blood on the Floor.” Jeremy Spencer, who would soon depart to join a cult (more on that below), pens one of his trademark songs of longing and ennui, “One Together,” which shouldn’t be missed.
Future Games, 1971
Jeremy Spencer left Fleetwood Mac for the Children of God cult (former home of Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix, known today as The Family International) after an earthquake hit L.A. He saw this as an omen and left the band high and dry right before a show at the Whiskey a Go Go. (Spencer, like many a cult member, was accused of systematic child abuse but never charged.) Christine McVie, wife of bassist John McVie, joined the band, as did the first American member, Bob Welch.
Future Games is an enormous departure from all their previous records, and the first to sound like the Fleetwood Mac we think about when we think about Fleetwood Mac. There are elements of California bands like the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It’s all more or less one tempo (right in the middle) and the instrumentation skews toward the trademark soft rock sound they’d later develop. Though the songs on this record are just shy of catchy, their lack of pressure and leisureliness is so consistent and deliberate that you can really feel immersed in them. Christine McVie’s voice is so subtle, muted, and wonderfully androgynous that it’s one of the most striking elements on the record.
Bare Trees, 1972
Bare Trees is Danny Kirwan’s last record with Fleetwood Mac and he penned five of the ten songs on the album. This is another album that features much less ornamentation than in the band’s earlier years. They’re not juggling more than one thread per song. The melodies are streamlined and there’s less conversation between instruments. It seems like the goal is for the sound to be as sealed up as possible.
Bare Trees picks up the pace from Future Games. The opener, “Child of Mine,” has a soft rhythm section but Kirwan’s lead guitar flexes. Bob Welch’s influence is loud and clear on the second track “The Ghost,” which is jazzy, has a flute, and should probably have been on the Boogie Nights soundtrack. His “Sentimental Lady” is like nothing you’ve heard before on a Fleetwood Mac record. Sadly Welch’s voice can’t hold its own with McVie or Kirwan, but its sincerity paired with his truly sappy lyrics give it some charm. The wah-wah pedal on “Danny’s Chant” is glorious. Kirwan’s gorgeous instrumental, “Sunny Side of Heaven,” is reminiscent of “Albatross,” though it has that soft ’70s bounce that’s not going anywhere from here on out. Do what you will with the album’s final track, a poem read aloud by a woman living near the band’s communal living quarters in southern England.
Mick Fleetwood fired Danny Kirwan in the fall of 1972 when a physical altercation broke out and Kirwan refused to go onstage. Kirwan’s mental health was deteriorating from alcoholism and prolonged bouts of not eating, and after a solo career that brought him nowhere, he was homeless for most of the ’80s and ’90s. Kirwan never recovered from a yearlong battle with pneumonia and died at 68 in June of this year. Dave Walker was recruited to replace Kirwan and vocalist Bob Weston would join the band for this album only.
Penguin is Christine McVie’s record, though she pens just three of the nine tracks, which are all catchy, uncomplicated, and masterfully efficient pop-rock songs. “No Surprises,” “Dissatisfied,” and especially “Did You Ever Love Me,” with its steel drums and harmonized chorus with Bob Welch, will stay with you.
Like the previous two albums, this is a record of few surprises, but one that sustains attention with its steady cascade of airy and smooth-around-the-edges jams. Bob Welch’s “Bright Fire” is slowed-down soft rock with a keyboard sound that’s new to what they’ve done so far, and his six-minute-plus “Night Watch” is the best evidence of how this band masters mid-tempo rock. Poor Bob Weston. His “Caught in the Rain,” with its harmonica and banjo, is stylistically tone-deaf.
Mystery to Me, 1973
Dave Walker was fired for not fitting in with the rest of the band, so this record comprises songs written exclusively by Welch and McVie, (with Bob West co-writing one track). This album is bit all over the place, with disco strings in Welch’s “Keep on Going,” John McVie’s dancy and at times sexy bass line in the opener “Emerald Eyes,” the very groovy “Hypnotized,” and a wah-wah pedal in “The City.” “Miles Away” departs from what’s now a signature level of infectious pleasantness with heavier, harmonized guitars, one of which solos continuously in the background.
Two of the best pre-1975 songs are on this record, both belonging to Christine McVie. “The Way I Feel,” which is just McVie, piano, and acoustic guitar, and the album’s closer, “Why.” The latter is a slow-building sleeper, with perfect, catchy strings and more harmonized guitars led by McVie’s stoic and magnetic vocals.
Heroes Are Hard to Find, 1974
Heroes is Bob Welch’s last album with Fleetwood Mac. Though he anchored the band over four records, he was snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 when Fleetwood Mac was inducted. (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, and Jeremy Spencer were all admitted, though.) Welch, who was replaced by Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, never found success after his departure, and committed suicide in 2012.
Bob Weston was fired prior to recording Heroes because he was having an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife, the first of many torrid hookups between members. Fleetwood Mac was the pinnacle of Weston’s career. He died of intestinal hemorrhaging and cirrhosis at the age of 62.
Heroes opens with a dancy, high-hat-friendly song by Christine McVie that’s heavy on horns and what sounds like a crew of backup singers, but is really just multiple tracks of McVie’s voice. It’s infectious and one of the album’s best songs. This, once again, is a record of powerhouse McVie songs. “Prove Your Love” is one of pre-1975’s best. It’s more of her supernatural ability to make extremely relaxed, gorgeous pop-rock songs. “Come a Little Bit Closer” is a bit bigger-sounding than her others, with soft, arena drums, strings, slide guitar, and more McVie backing vocals. It’s a song that could have only been written in the ’70s. McVie’s gift is that she captures nostalgia and sentimentality subtly enough that it remains effectively under the radar, unlike Bob Welch who has little finesse or subtlety.
I’ve been kind to Welch until now, but he must be called out for what are some of the most hackneyed lyrics in the band’s entire catalog. Welch often gets caught up in telling a story (see “Bermuda Triangle), and each time his hokey narrative is rolled out in corny, “Margaritaville”-style lyrics. Here’s an example from “Silver Heels” that shows how Welch’s urge to craft a narrative backfires: “If I could sing like Paul McCartney, or get funky like Etta James, I’d never change, I’d never change, I’d never change my silver heeled ways.” His lyrics lack the kind of ambiguity that is allowed to songwriters, and his lack of artistry never results in any kind of straightforward hook either. He seems incredibly comfortable in the trite, stock landscapes he creates.
The record ends with “Safe Harbor,” a three-minute song with 15 seconds of vocals, gentle psychedelic guitars plus another noodling quietly. It would be one of the last moments of unchecked zoning out before the big hits began to roll in.