Bob Welch – An Underappreciated Talent

R.I.P. Bob Welch (1945-2012) I am saddened by the passing of guitarist Bob Welch, best known for a pair of late-Seventies’ rock hits “Sentimental Lady,” and “Ebony Eyes.”  But Welch was so much more.  As guitarist and primary songwriter for Fleetwood Mac, he led the band through five stellar albums, helping them transition from the blues-based early years with Peter Green, to rock superstardom with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.  Yet, stuck right in the middle, the Bob Welch years have never gotten respect, which is downright baffling.

Despite selling millions of albums, Fleetwood Mac’s back catalog is an absolute mess.  Sure, the “hit” years are well documented.  But, keep in mind, Buckingham and Nicks didn’t enter the band until their ELEVENTH album.  On name alone, don’t those other albums deserve some love?   The quintet of records that Welch recorded with Fleetwood Mac (Future Games, Bare Trees, Penguin, Mystery to Me, and Heroes Are Hard to Find) have never been given the remaster treatment, and the original CD’s are marred with poor mastering and sub-par fidelity.  All this, despite the fact that two of the albums went Gold, and Bare Trees went Platinum.  Even more ridiculous is the fact that there’s never been a “best of the Bob Welch years” compilation.  The only time his tenure in the band has ever been compiled is the atrocious “25 Years: The Chain,” a four-CD box set which was haphazardly assembled and is mercifully out of print.  

Sure, at the time of their enormous success, it made sense for Fleetwood Mac to distance themselves from their earlier incarnations (for awhile, they went through musicians like Spinal Tap went through drummers).  But, now that we have time to look back, it’s time to give the Bob Welch years a fair shake.

For starters, try “Hypnotized,” from 1973’s Mystery to Me album.  The track is propelled by one of the most unique drum beats ever laid to tape by Mick Fleetwood.  Then comes Welch’s guitar, drenched in echo, as if being beamed from another planet.  When he starts singing, it’s in a mellow tone – “they say there’s a place down in Mexico / where a man can fly over mountains and hills / he don’t need an airplane / or some kind of engine / and he never will.”  Between the pulsing percussion, slinky guitar fills, acoustic strumming and a touch of Christine McVie organ, the song creates an other-worldly atmosphere, a trait common among the majority of his songs.  

Another standout is the original version of “Sentimental Lady,” found on 1972’s Bare Trees, featuring a more earthy arrangement of acoustic guitars & piano, and Christine McVie’s voice far more prominent.  Five years later, with the help of his replacement in Fleetwood Mac, Lindsey Buckingham, he’d score a Top Ten hit with a revamped version of the song.

Dig a little deeper, and there are at least a full CD’s worth of remarkable Welch tracks – “Future Games,” the title cut off his first outing with the band, begins with guitars that seem to wash over you like water, before settling into a slow groove, with Welch’s voice in one channel, adding to the eerie effect.  His falsetto on the chorus is haunting, before giving way to an extended guitar workout that ends the song.  

His final album with the band, Heroes Are Hard to Find (which, incidentally cracked the Top 40 Albums Chart in 1974), showed that Welch was growing as a songwriter.  “Born Enchanter” had a soulful, Marvin Gaye feel to it, while “Bermuda Triangle” continued his fascination with the supernatural.  “Silver Heels” featured the lyrics “if I could sing like Paul McCartney / get funky like Etta James / I’d never change.”  Most promising of all was “She’s Changing Me,” which had a gentle, melodic chorus, and could’ve been a hit.

Although all of these albums had sold well, the band had failed to place a hit single on the radio, despite their constant touring.  By 1974, Welch was exhausted from helping keep the band afloat during this transitional period.  He eventually quit the band, but before he did, suggested that they move to California to try and concentrate on the US market.  It was in America that Mick Fleetwood would bump into Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and a new era of the band was formed.  

Welch’s first post-Mac outing was a power trio, fashioned after the music of Led Zeppelin, called Paris.  Unfortunately, the band met with the same lukewarm success that had plagued his years in his previous band.  Adding insult to injury, now his former bandmates were enjoying astronomical fame and fortune with the release of both Fleetwood Mac (1975) and Rumours (1977).  With help from Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Lindsey Buckingham, Welch would record French Kiss, which would go on to be certified Platinum and yield two hit singles, “Sentimental Lady,” and “Ebony Eyes.”  After “Precious Love” from 1979, the hits dried up.  Future projects would be met with lessened popularity, and Welch would eventually step away from the music business in the 1980’s.  He would resurface from time to time – with his most recent releases being a pair of albums in the 2000’s, “His Fleetwood Mac Years and Beyond volumes one and two.”

The truth is, as big as Fleetwood Mac became, it all wouldn’t have been possible had Bob Welch not helped keep the band alive during his four-year tenure.  He also helped steer the band away from their blues roots, to a more accessible, pop sound, and he suggested they move to California, which set the band on the path to superstardom.

In a final act of cruelty, Fleetwood Mac is enshrined in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame – Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are all listed.  So are Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, and Jeremy Spencer from the early years.  Yet, Bob Welch’s name is inexplicably absent.  Rumor has it that the band was angry at a Welch lawsuit which tried to recoup unpaid royalties. Petty fighting aside, the bottom line is, his name should be in there.  Without him, we wouldn’t even be talking about Fleetwood Mac as an entry into the Hall.

Do yourself a favor and seek out some of his music – you won’t be disappointed.  –Tony Peters