By Bruce Sylvester
Reprise (8-CD Box Set)
For all early Fleetwood Mac's popularity at home in England, over in America only one disc cracked Billboard's top 40 album or singles charts – 1974's Heroes Are Hard to Find LP for two weeks, peaking at No. 34 – before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham signed on. In 2018, three-CD 50-track golden-anniversary package 50 Years: Don't Stop devoted the first disc to their early sessions (including five preceding their signing with Reprise Records). Here Reprise (via Rhino) ups the ante with Fleetwood Mac: 1969 to 1974 – Big Mac's first seven Reprise albums (whose 20 bonus tracks here are mostly 45 rpm singles and alternate takes) plus, for the eighth CD, previously unreleased Live from the Record Plant December 15,1974 done a few months before Stevie and Lindsey arrived to help push the band to superstardom.
After time in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, percussionist Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, and guitar genius Peter Green (plus guitarist Jeremy Spencer) formed the band in 1967 as a British blues revivalist act leaning toward free-form experimentation and indulgence. Danny Kirwan, Dave Walker, Bob Welch, and Bob Weston came and went. Keyboardist Christine McVie (formerly Christine Perfect) would become an anchor of their sound with her singing and writing. Green – who died July 25, 2020 -- soon dropped out for emotional reasons. Spencer took a walk before a gig,encountered a religious cult, and never returned. Kirwan was fired after a destructive backstage meltdown. Weston left suddenly because Mick couldn't deal with Weston's affair with his wife Jenny (the inspiration of Donovan's “Jennifer Juniper”).
As for their albums, Shakespeare's opening line in Twelfth Night (“If music is the food of love, play on.”) inspired their Reprise debut's title, Then Play On. Green's slashing knife guitar on opener “Coming Your Way” foreshadows his “Show-Biz Blues” and feral single “Oh Well – Part 1” (a bonus track here). “Rattlesnake Shake” has real rattler sounds.
Named for the band's communal home, Kiln House has more focus, drawing on Kirwan's interest in '50s rock. Catch his brief Gene Vincent imitation on near-anthemic opener “This Is the Rock.” Big Joe Turner's “Honey Hush” – here retitled “Hi Ho Silver” – sounds like it's from a backwoods juke joint. (Imagine Legendary Shack Shakers covering the song.) As for country melodrama, might “Blood on the Floor” be a spoof? For a touch of class, the bonus tracks include U.K. 45 single “Dragonfly” based on Welsh hobo poet W.H. Davies' writing.
Future Games takes a safer, more pop approach. It's Big Mac's first LP to ease to a close with one of by-then full-fledged member Christine's pop-leaning songs.
Bare Trees opens with Kirwan's “Child of Mine” dealing with the father who'd played little part in his life. Despite the album's wintry title and cover shot, 'Sentimental Lady” remains summertime radio-friendly. Taped in her home near the band's, elderly Mrs. Scarrot recites the finale,“Thoughts on a Grey Day,” a poem referring to bare trees.
Wide-ranging Penguin covers Motown's “(I'm a) Roadrunner” and puts a marimba beat on Christine and Welch's “Did You Ever Love Me.”
With similar broad reach, Mystery to Me's finale “Why” (another of Christine's compositions) opens with a dark guitar and midstream brings in a string section.
The box's final original album, Heroes Are Hard to Find, turns to the mysterious with Welch's “Bermuda Triangle,” whose apt backup is nearly eerie (The live CD gives the song a totally different arrangement and stretches out so Welch can talk about his own connection to the triangle's disappearances.)
The reasonably good 12-song concert disc spotlights the band's crowd pleasers at the time like“Spare Me a Little of Your Love” and “Sentimental Lady.” Showing long-gone Green's ongoing influence, they revisit his “Black Magic Woman” (a 1971 hit for Santana), “Oh Well,” “Rattlesnake Shake,” and bizarro “The Green Manalishi (with the Two Prong Crown),” whose 1970 single is a Then Play On bonus track.
So why the band's penguin emblem? John McVie likes the tuxedo birds. Seen all together, we realize that their covers' art's intelligence and eclecticism match their music's. Autumn's naked horse rider on Then Play On comes from a 1917 mural by Maxwell Armfield. Christine painted Kiln House's innocent children's-book-like cover – Kiln House being the band's home at the time. John shot winter's barren trees on Bare Trees. Then there's the angry bird on Penguin's cover. You wouldn't want to encounter it in real life. Much as I like it, the post-Dali beach-scene surrealism of Mystery to Me is best left a mystery to me. Heroes Are Hard to Find's gaunt photo has vestiges of neoclassical sculpture. Of course, covers like these come across better on LPs than when reduced to CD size.
Unlike the deluxe repackaging of subsequent Big Mac megasellers, this box attempts no flash. The booklet simply identifies producers, cuts' authors, and bonus tracks' origins. Except for cover art, all we get is the music. Then play on.