Fleetwood Mac 1969-1972 (vinyl box set) (Reprise) review
When most people think of Fleetwood Mac, they think of the multi-platinum band led by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Yet, that duo didn’t join the band until their tenth album. The previous nine releases all have impressive moments, yet have been overshadowed by the group’s later success. Now, Reprise Records is finally giving this under-appreciated era of the band a second look with Fleetwood Mac 1969-1972, a four LP box set featuring the first four albums the band cut for the label – Then Play On, Kiln House, Future Games and Bare Trees. Then Play On has also been remastered with bonus tracks and is the only album of the set to be available on CD at this point.
Then Play On – Although much has been said about the heavy emotions surrounding the mega-smash Rumours, this album contains an equal amount of passion, yet is also full of deep spirituality. It marks the first and last time that the triple threat of guitarists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, and newcomer Danny Kirwan would share the same album.
Yet, it’s also a record full of contradictions. On one hand, you have several extended jam pieces (“Searching For Madge” and “Fighting For Madge”), which are staggeringly good – the rhythm section of bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood lay down a foundation that allows Green and Kirwan to soar while dueling it out. This is some of the finest, high-intensity British blues ever laid to tape. Yet, only three albums in, and Green was growing weary of the genre. Instead, he began experimenting with quieter, more introspective pieces, that revealed his fracturing psyche. Take, for example,“Closing My Eyes” with it’s haunting, understated beauty, or “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown),” one of the CD’s bonus tracks – where Green sounds downright possessed by demons.
Equally impressive, Kirwan turns in some fine moments – the Latin-infused “Coming Your Way” seems to predict Santana, while “One Sunny Day” is straight-ahead rock.
Right in the middle of the record is the tongue-in-cheek blues rocker “Rattlesnake Shake.” Sadly, these happy moments were becoming less frequent. That’s especially true of the stark “Showbiz Blues,” featuring just Green on slide guitar and vocals. With lyrics like “tell me anybody / do you really give a damn for me,” it revealed his displeasure with stardom – something that would culminate with him quitting the band soon after this album’s release.
As a bonus, the album comes with a 7-inch single of “Oh Well,” which was added to the US version of the LP. The song features one of the greatest guitar licks in all of rock.
Kiln House – After the departure of leader Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac continued on – but as a decidedly different band. Danny Kirwan was improving as a songwriter, as the rocker “Tell Me All the Things You Do” indicates. The album also features the riff-driven jam “Station Man,” co-written by Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer & bassist John McVie; it would be a live staple well into the Buckingham/Nicks era. Yet, missing is the spirituality that imparted much of Then Play On. Instead, much of the record is dominated by the roots-rock musings of Spencer. Unfortunately, these now come off as merely quaint. “Buddy’s Song” is a fine tribute, featuring Holly titles sprinkled cleverly throughout the track, while “Hi Ho Silver” shows off some fine slide guitar work. Yet, these tracks never really catch fire. Kiln House ends up as one of the weakest albums in the entire Fleetwood Mac catalog.
Future Games – Another album, another lineup change – but this time, it’s a vast improvement. Gone was Spencer, who shockingly joined the Children of God sect mid-tour. In replacement was California native Bob Welch, who added a softer, more melodic element to the band, and Christine McVie, who actually designed the Kiln House cover, on keyboards and vocals. Of course, McVie would end up being a staple throughout the band’s halcyon days.
Despite the shake up in the lineup, this is still Kirwan’s band, as the stunning acoustic “Woman of a Thousand Years” proves. The echoey production and harmonies give it a celestial quality. Even better is the epic “Sands of Time,” which shows some great interplay between both guitarists. Welch contributes two songs, with the ethereal “Future Games” being the best. Christine McVie also supplies two tracks – while “Morning Rain” sounds tentative, “Show Me a Smile” is the kind of ballad that she would soon perfect in the band.
Bare Trees – The first Mac album with a stable lineup in several attempts, and it shows. Every members’ songwriting has improved. Kirwan still leads off the record with the searing “Child of Mine,” but Welch counters with the eerie, flute-laden “The Ghost.” The biggest improvement comes from Christine McVie, whose vocals are more assured, especially on the gospel-tinged “Spare Me a Little of Your Love.” Bare Trees also sees the debut of the fantastic Welch composition, “Sentimental Lady,” which he would redo and have big success with, after leaving the band.
It was Kirwan who would exit the band this time, being asked to leave because of his erratic behavior. Signs of his disillusionment can certainly be felt in his cryptic “Dust.” Welch would guide the band through three more albums, before quitting himself in 1974, giving way to the unprecedented success that would follow the Buckingham & Nicks lineup.
The LPs in Fleetwood Mac 1969-1972 come housed in a black slipcase, which features faithful reproductions of each album – Then Play On and Kiln House have gatefold covers and Kiln House also contains a four-panel booklet tucked inside. The LP’s themselves are of a high-grade quality and sound quiet when played. Overall, this set provides an excellent entry into some fantastic, criminally overlooked music. –Tony Peters