By Dave Thompson
There are probably a few of you who will disagree with this, but it does seem that everybody with an ear for post-1960s rock has a favorite era of Fleetwood Mac. For some, of course, it’s the classic blues-breaking albums that introduced the band to the world in the first place. For others, it’s the unicorns and weirdness of the late 1970s; for others still, it’s the slew of sleek beasties that stirred in the aftermath of “Tusk.”
But for anyone who lived within reach of a decent-sized venue through the first half of the ’70s, and who sallied forth as often as possible to catch the likes of Foghat and Humble Pie, it’s the post-Green, pre-Buckingham; post-hits, pre-superstardom; here we go round the circuit again and here’s a new album that no one will buy version of the band that appeals; and learned scholars still come to blows as they debate which of those albums is truly the greatest. “Kiln House” or “Future Games?” “Bare Trees” or “Mystery To Me?” “Penguin” or “Heroes Are Hard To Find?”
Well, prepare for at least half that argument to be resolved, as Rhino unleash a slick black limousine’s worth of classic 1970s Mac, the first four albums that they cut for the Reprise label between Green’s 1969 swan song, “Then Play On,” and Danny Kirwan’s 1972 farewell, “Bare Trees.” Whether the next three will follow in a matching package has yet to be revealed. But there’s enough here to at least remind us just what a solid, hardworking and generally excellent band Mac remained, regardless how many lineup changes the band went through.
There’s little new to be said in praise of the first album in the sequence. Baroque, ballsy and occasionally plain barmy, “Then Play On” is a devastating statement of musical adventure, rarely sitting in the same place for long, and prone to some quite breathtaking diversions as it wanders along. A taste of this, of course, was given by the single “Oh Well,” a two-part slice of self-deprecation that was not originally intended for the album, but which Reprise added on once it became a hit.
The pressing here retains the original track lineup, before “When You Say” and “My Dream” were sacrificed for the single; “Oh Well” is then appended as a bonus 45, tucked inside the gatefold sleeve. If we wanted to be greedy, we could wish they’d done the same for “The Green Manalishi,” Green’s other great single statement of the age. Instead, you’ll need to seek out the CD version for that (it and its B-side join “Oh Well” among the bonus tracks). But be warned: If you’re listening on headphones, be prepared to freak out.
If “Then Play On” was Green’s album, “Kiln House” is the outgoing Jeremy Spencer’s, dominating the record with his fascination for ’50s-style pastiche, and hitting a climax of sorts with “Buddy’s Song,” which manages to squeeze several albums’ worth of old Buddy Holly song titles into a tribute to “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable album, even if it does lean a little too far toward novelty territory. At the same time, however, remember that the very early ’70s saw a lot of people looking back at the music of their own childhoods, from Dave Edmunds to Sha Na Na. “Kiln House” not only slides effortlessly into that company, it also slightly predates it. Its finest cut, Danny Kirwan’s “Station Man,” was still lingering in Mac’s live set through the early months of the Buckingham-Nicks lineup.
“Future Games” introduced Bob Welch, and, after years on the fringes, Christine McVie to the brew. For the first time, the vaguest suggestions of where Mac would wind up later in the decade come to light. At the same time, it’s probably the least memorable of all the band’s albums to date, with only the title track stepping into the realms of “classic” — and that probably has more to do with Welch’s subsequent rerecording of it.
Indeed, if any single incident damns this album, it’s the fact that the band delivered it up to the label at just seven songs long. It was still almost 40 minutes in length, which was fairly par for the course at that time, but Reprise’s marketing department wasn’t impressed. Seven songs was not good value. So Mac recorded an eighth, a two-minute jam that may (or may not) have been facetiously titled “What A Shame.” “Future Games” slunk out in fall 1971, and it was promptly forgotten.
“Bare Trees” completes the box, and it does so in style. Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady” was a priceless jewel; “Spare Me A Little Of Your Love” was another song that remained in the band’s live set years later (and also won a great Johnny Rivers cover); and the title track is simply magical. Plus, “Bare Trees” wraps with one of the most unexpected tracks in the band’s entire catalog, a recording of an old English lady, Mrs. Scarrott, reciting one of her own poems, “Thoughts on a Grey Day.”
OK, so that’s the contents. How’s the presentation? Well, it’s original artwork for everything, and that includes the initial pale yellow cover for “Future Games,” as opposed to the greenish one that is perhaps more familiar. The gatefolds are sturdy, the printing is pristine, and the box itself is stylish enough that you probably won’t be tempted to simply file the albums without it.
The sound quality, too, is excellent. Several people have said they were disappointed by Mac’s last vinyl outing, the re-pressed “Rumours” that was delivered in that album’s box. The remastering — digital, of course — had stripped a lot of the warmth from the music. Here, it is less pronounced ... a lot less. If you know and love the original pressings, you already realize that you will never be satisfied with anything else. But in terms of just putting on a record and enjoying it, nothing here leaps out as an egregious deviation. In fact, for me, the greatest shock was hearing “Kiln House” without that ancient scratch that defiles Side Two of my own copy.
So buy with confidence, listen with glee and if you happen to be one of those people whose love of Mac stems from one of the band’s other eras, give it a go regardless. GM
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” and “Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition." Both are available online at www.krausebooks.com, or by calling toll-free to 800-258-0929. He also writes Goldmine's Spin Cycle blog.