By Ken Sharp
Long beforeFleetwood Mac literally owned the Billboard record charts for years in the mid- to-late-‘70s with a string of mega-selling albums/singles culled from the albums “Fleetwood Mac,” “Rumours” and “Tusk,” their formative sound was rooted in something altogether different. Fleetwood Mac drew from a heavy blues rock sound that stood in diametric opposition to their rep as traditional pop alchemists in a later configuration that numbered Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Fronted by one of Britain’s most respected and revered lead guitar players, Peter Green, they were a raw, blues band that won over audiences with their dynamic, blues-drenched sound with such signature classics as “Albatross,” “Oh Well,” “Rattlesnake Shake” and “Black Magic Woman.”
And while the classic pop lineup of Fleetwood Mac is back with keyboardist/singer Christine returning to in the fold after many years, founding member Mick Fleetwood is embracing his blues roots. The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is headed out on a tour that reunites him with latter-day Fleetwood Mac member, guitarist Rick Vito, and the set list is stuffed with songs that first put Fleetwood Mac on the international musical map. Fans attending the shows can witness a rare opportunity to see Fleetwood in his element, rendering vibrant renditions of blues-tinged Mac favorites, along with well chosen covers like “Shake Your Money Maker” and “When The Levee Breaks.”
GOLDMINE: First off, what was the experience like playing Dodger Stadium recently for a benefit for longtime announcer Vin Scully?
Mick Fleetwood: It was like a Fellini flick. The reality is he’s a legend. But what’s interesting is there weren’t that many people there, as it was a private event. It was totally bizarre, but in a healthy way, to be playing center field at Dodger Stadium to not even 2,500 people. Very bizarre. There were memories for us when we recorded live overdubs to “Tusk” there many years ago with the USC Marching Band. We had 300 band members and the faculty of USC. So it was quite pregnant with memories of that day. Never would you see Fleetwood Mac not play that song, so there were a lot of good memories. The whole crazy event we did with all those guys and girls in Dodger Stadium. That’s all sort of our history, so it was very cool going back there.
GM: In the ‘60s, the blues scene in London was fierce. What are your memories of playing the club scene back then?
MF: Well, it’s where I grew up. It’s where the Stones grew up, it’s where The Yardbirds grew up. The founding fathers of that whole thing started out there. Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry, John Mayall, Cyril Davies, the early days of Long John with Rod Stewart. There was a whole culture very much steeped in the blues and rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. Then the founding fathers of blues came out of the United States and we were hugely vested in them. They were our heroes — Lowell Fulson, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Jimmy Reed, on and on and on. That was all transferred into a few clubs, and you can call them clubs, but really they were ballrooms or rooms on the side of pubs. So it was more of a pub scene than a club scene, technically speaking. There was a subculture. For a while it was unknown to the outside world but inside that world it was a fever of activity and that’s what it was like in London at the beginning where everyone was exchanging information. It was like being at a swap meet. Bands used to rush back after gigs and go down to the clubs together and talk music. And there was slight sense of friendly competition and it was a real scene. It happened to occur at a very exciting time in London where in another world The Beatles were breaking loose, as were acts like the Dave Clark 5 and Herman’s Hermits and then you had us bunch that in the final analysis headed up a little later by The Rolling Stones, who were very much a R&B blues band and, hey, still are. So that’s the scene and it was amazing and highly charged. Looking back on it, you were very aware of the musical ethic. A lot of unbelievably cool players came out of that highly charged musically challenging scene, some sadly gone and some happily still here ... Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor. It was very exciting, and in truth, the repercussions of the movement are still actually alive and still resonant in terms of various forms of influence on some of the younger players around today.
GM: Why do you think Britain embraced blues more so than the U.S., which hatched that genre?
MF: I often get asked that question and, in truth, it had to do with similar stories like The Beatles talking about their influences with early rock ‘n’ roll. They sort of put it down to where they lived and the fact that after the second World War, the infusion of American G.I.s, many of whom were from the black community, and many brought that music with them or there were guys from the South in the white community who were getting into the early Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and all of that stuff. That came about with catering to the American forces who were all over Europe. So I think that had something to do with it, but I think more importantly, after the second World War, England had the hell beaten out of them and bombed out of them. We never had the invasion thing going on. It was the opposite end of the egg timer, where young people for some reason seemingly didn’t want to be connected with what was happening at the time, “I’m not buying into this stuff anymore.” There’s something about blues music where people knew from whence it came, which was people expressing themselves and saying, “We’ve been beaten up here,” and that really referenced the black community in the United States, where they rocked and rolled themselves out of a pretty depressing type of life that they no longer wanted to be part of. Our version by no means had as heavy a sociological thing attached to it, but it was a version of that where we wanted something else and we wanted to be renegades and we wanted to be different. Being different is an instant invite to attach yourself to something people don’t know about. So I think that’s what made blues music really attractive. They also felt that they owned it. It was sort of a privatized subculture for a while. It was very, very strong and bled into the whole music scene in a very big way. Ironically, it came back to the United States and, in truth, turned a lot of heads and let the American music scene realize they had all but destroyed an art form and given their lack of attention to blues music. They nearly lost the lot and it took these funny-looking white English guys to remind people here. You’ve all but destroyed an art form by your disinterest in black music. So that was the type of energy that was spawned out of London. For a while there, we had our own problems. When Fleetwood Mac became well known, they felt that you had sold out because they were now having to share their special world. That dissipated and it wasn’t like it was a major problem but you could feel it. You’d be talking to people who followed you all over Europe and suddenly they’d see you on Top of The Pops with a kaftan on and they go, “What happed to my band?”The reality is for a long while we were playing the same music that we played, it just became famous.
GM: Having worked with the great Peter Green, can you explain what made him such a special and expressive player?
MF: He was a special item. Peter was the perfect candidate for playing blues music primarily. He came from a Jewish community in the East End of London and I had no understanding of that. I came from an upper-middle-class background, went to boarding school. We were like chalk and cheese but joined at the hip. We were brought up as two culturally different guys but brought up being into the same blues music. Mine was a pleasure ride and I’d had my own little private problems with education and not knowing how to express myself, but his was a lot more serious. He had a sh*tty childhood. He was being beaten up in a Jewish community and he had nothing good to say about his childhood. Whether that was self-induced in the end, we’ll never really know, but it was real to him. He felt downtrodden. Anything and everything about blues is identifying with being downtrodden but saying, “I’m here and I’m gonna shout it loud and clear that I exist.” In good humor they found ways to trick the listener and come up with ways to express themselves without being hit over the head for saying the wrong thing. I think that appealed to Peter, and he’s often spoken about it. As my father used to say if a pretty young lady would walk by, he’d say in good humor, “She’s keen for the fly.” That means, put the hook in, (laughs) she might bite. I think Peter was keen for the fly, as was this audience we’d been playing for; they were ready to bite a certain type of bait. The certain type of bait was to be emotionally and meaningfully connected with something private that resonated within themselves as people. They were keen to be emotionally involved. They felt it was their own expression through identifying vicariously through people who were boiling over expressing themselves with blues and he was one of them. He was a prime candidate that had so much pain of his own and this music was a perfect vehicle. And that’s what made him so powerful. Peter Green had something that was and is still looked on as extraordinary.
GM: What Fleetwood Mac track best epitomizes classic blues for you?
MF: I think a heartbreakingly moving song is “Love That Burns” from Peter Green. That’s Peter. Later on in terms of how we transitioned to something that wasn’t strictly blues and that would be “Man of the World,” where you empathize and listen to what he is saying. It’s still evident that Peter was in a lot of pain and I would pick those two songs from whence he came. “Love That Burns” is so mournful and so ultra-minimalist in terms of his guitar playing; as the track goes out where you go, “How cool is that?” You’re heartbroken by the end of it and we still do that in our set. Rick (Vito) does that in our set as a band. Every time we play it you know where my mind is going. It’s just the song is heartbreakingly beautiful and that would be a great example for a listener to dig that out. If you’re looking at where did they come from and who did they fraternize with and who were they influenced by, they should pick up “Blues Jam at Chess” recorded at the Chess sessions with Marshall Chess. There we were playing with Elmore James’ sax player. Buddy Guy is on those sessions. Here we are a little English blues band playing with these guys. Willie Dixon befriended us and arranged all the sessions, and Willie took us out to a place in Chicago where white guys would not go. (laughs)
GM: In the late ‘60s, when working on tracks for “Abbey Road,” The Beatles said they aped Fleetwood Mac on “Sun King.” What was your reaction when you heard that track?
MF: Not many people know that and that’s an interesting question. It’s a lovely story. We were coming back from a show very early in the morning and we decided we’d sleep in the back of the van as we set out for London from somewhere like Manchester. We had played a gig the night before and as we were coming into London, on the radio, they were interviewing a couple of the boys in The Beatles. They were doing a track by track for the “Abbey Road” album and it was John Lennon who said about the song “Sun King,” “Oh yeah, this is where we do our Fleetwood Mac thing.” They cited our song “Albatross” I believe and (laughs), this was The Beatles, the hottest thing around mentioning us! It was a lot of fun to hear him say that about our band. I knew George (Harrison) at that point; I was his brother-in-law from my relationship with Jenny (Boyd), and he was married to her sister, Pattie. So it was all in the family there for a second. But it was a lot of fun to hear someone to be honest. For us, we were just a working band and we were doing well, but having that happen was quietly mind blowing. I have to say Peter Green affected so many people and still does. He was that extraordinary; his talent within the ranks of Fleetwood Mac bled out as an individual that affected people musically and that would be a perfect story. Everyone had a lot of reverence for him.
GM: Lastly, what’s the best part of having Christine McVie back in the band?
MF: Well, outside of the obvious, that she contributed so much to Fleetwood Mac on a very large level from the beginning. But some of our most famous songs were written by her, so playing those again and having the license to do that has been great. But selfishly, for me and John (McVie), she’s part of the rhythm section. We missed her as a musician and we missed the touch that she has, which is very minimalist but she’s one helluva player who plays just the right stuff. For me and John, all three of us, that’s the rhythm section. John and I are fine banging away on our own but we were mighty glad to hear Christine come back into what we do. The three of us lay down this carpet which is sort of simplicity but maybe not. It’s a chemistry that remains unannounced and hard to explain. It remains in the ether of what we do. Truly, all of what Peter Green did at the beginning remains in the ether and unexplained really. But at the end of the day, it’s about chemistry.