It’s an honor to be writing the first review in our series of First Listens, and a huge relief that I get to listen to a “hidden gem” as opposed to one of the many “best-sellers” we will be doing in the future. If you’re ready to dive in with me into a little bit of a history lesson I’ve learned in the past week, well, Then Play On.
Going for my first listen, I knew this was an early Fleetwood Mac record because Stevie Nicks is nowhere to be seen here. This was an early incantation of the band before they started spreading Rumors and going their own way. I knew that Fleetwood Mac was somewhat of a splinter group off of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.
The Bluesbreakers are somewhat of a Yardbirds parallel in that they swapped members monthly, but everyone who played with them went on to some other greatness. Former Bluesbreakers include Eric Clapton of Cream and The Yardbirds (I wasn’t kidding), Mick Taylor, who later joined the Rolling Stones, future members of Canned Heat (including Larry Taylor, who still plays with Tom Waits), drum superstar Aynsley Dunbar (of Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Journey), and many more ad infinium. Among the countless musicians playing alongside John Mayall were three who went on to form Fleetwood Mac: Peter Green on guitar/vocals, John McVie on bass, and some guy named Mick Fleetwood who played drums and was kicked out of the Bluesbreakers for frequent drunkenness during performances.
But I didn’t know all of that. I just knew I loved John Mayall and that somehow he played with some of the guys on this record Andrew let me borrow. So, I was expecting something similar to the albums I’d heard by the Bluesbreakers. That’s not exactly what Fleetwood Mac had in mind. What follows are excerpts and adaptations of the notes I took during my first, second, and third listens.
Track one: Coming Your Way 3:47
That percussion. Wow. You just don’t hear that kind of rumble on recordings, even back then. A relentless hand-drum rhythm that drives the two guitars that play back and forth to one another. Dueling is not the word for the guitar work. It’s more like dancing, there is a lot of give and take in it. Slow dancing. By a waterfall. The first half lends itself to what you could expect off an early Santana album, Abraxas even. Once again, the guitar work is surprisingly delicate. The bass comes in at the end of the first half, when the band comes in and replaces the hand drums for a taste of what’s to come later on the album.
Track two: Closing My Eyes 4:50
“Though it’s the same as before, I’m alone again.”
They recorded a listenable ballad. Ballads are often reserved for filler in albums, but after the aggressive introduction of the first track, this sparse lament really caught me off guard. It has much more finesse than anything I’d heard on a Bluesbreakers album, this track made me really sit back and realize I had no idea what direction this record would take from here. The track is carried by guitar and vocals, often a capella, but movements in musical phrases are accented with percussion, bass, and another guitar. They come as bursts of colorful emotion against an otherwise delicate backdrop. Isolation. Honesty. That flamenco styled guitar. That slide guitar. Those crashes. It is a polarized track, but balanced well. In the end, it’s quite a beautiful love song about the futility of life without love. It reminds me strongly of a great quote by the poet E.E. Cummings, “Unless you love someone, nothing else makes sense.”
Track three: Show-Biz Blues 3:50
Now we move. The blues are all over this track. That slide guitar. That’s the kind of playing that was all but forgotten as Rock n’ Roll pushed its way into being. That slide is one of the orphans of the Blues. The playing is very genuine. Peter Green’s slide style is serious without being aggressive. It’s much less sporadic than Jimmy Page’s slide style on tracks like Hats Off to Roy (Harper). Not that there’s a damn thing wrong with Jimmy’s slide. The track is sustained by a simple, droning, tambourine. Fleetwood Mac has done a great job so far of knowing when not to play, a habit often forgotten in popular music in the decades to come.
Track four: Under Way 2:51
Probably the least impressive track on the record. And I mean that in the sense that it gets over shadowed. I have no notes from my first play-through because I was still scrawling on about Show-Biz Blues. It’s a nice track that would benefit from a little structure. It just kind of lies there idly, biding its time. This track behaves like a lion at the zoo. You walk up to the lions and there they are. They’re just sitting there. They aren’t even asleep, they’re just waiting, but you know there’s something more inside. I would love to hear this track live, with some guitar work over it, but as it is in the studio, this track is like the lazy river flowing between two canyon walls. Show-Biz Blues and Oh Well cast a dominating shadow over it, but you really want the river to flood.
Track five: Oh Well 8:56
I can’t help about the shape I’m in,
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty, and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me about what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to
Oh my God. I don’t think I’m giving this album back to Andrew. I mean, things are in full swing, Peter Green is showing some attitude now. The whole band is moving, pedal to the floor, but still able to stop on a dime, giving Green’s lyrics some space to sink in to you. This is good. This track hints oddly enough towards the first album of Kansas. The vocal style and percussion are similar, but especially the tightness of the band and those unison runs they all do together (By the way, I love Kansas). I think what really sets the first part of this track from the rest of the album (aside from the absolutely vicious jam that tears loose in between the verses) is the acoustic guitar riff that starts off every build from the a capella lyrics.
The first half of the track dies down, and in strides more of that beautiful acoustic guitar. But it stays here. It wanders. Oh Well transfigures into an entirely instrumental track. The recorder comes in from across the dunes, and suddenly, I’m out west. I’m back on my vacation to Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. I was eleven. Alone. Running away for seconds at a time to hide behind rocks and contemplate the impossibility of escape and the infinity of freedom. Peter Green plays cello on this piece, and it works. This is the soundtrack to every kid’s dream of the Wild West. Not the one riddled with conflict and unmentionable atrocity towards natives, but the serene and desolate West where one can lose oneself forever and be perfectly okay with it. This song struck a chord with me. I could listen to an hour of this track every day and never tire of it.
By the end of side one, I’m at a loss for words. That was beautiful, and I have no idea what to expect onside two. I am glad I cleaned this before listening to it.
Track six: Although the Sun is Shining 2:31
Although the sun is shining, up above
There’s one thing on my mind, that’s you my love
This is the closest to a psychedelic-pop song you’re going to get out of this album. If there’s a track you want to compare to Donovan or the Beatles, this is your track.
Track seven: Rattlesnake Shake 3:32
This track is shocking. It sounds like something far more modern than what I thought possible, especially the vocal style. You may think I’m crazy, but that guitar sounds like something right off an album by Jet -in the best way possible. So I guess that really means Jet sounds like them. The track is solid. It moves. It shakes. It rattles, but not violently. It slithers and warns without striking. It just keeps on.
Track eight: Searching for Madge 6:56
After eight tracks of surprise after surprise, comes one that feels the way I expected the whole album to. This is the kind of jamming I expected throughout the album. Lots and lots of notes, and then, suddenly- it cuts out. “YE-ES? YE-ES?!?” and then right back to business as quickly as it stopped. The free-form cohesion, driving drums, taking turns, the band understands and tests one another. No production is present in the music itself, only pure, simple blues-rock pouring out of my speakers. I see them on a stage.
This is the only part of the album, so far, which gives a blatant nod to their Bluesbreakers jam-band roots. Fleetwood Mac does not disappoint. The orchestral break is classic. It makes me miss that kind of production. The music stands on its own so well that the engineers get bored and throw in something fun from out of nowhere. The jam just stops. Insert excerpt of nondescript modern classical piece for thirty seconds or so, but the jam always comes roaring back again.
Track nine: Fighting for Madge 2:45
From here on out, it’s Rock City. The band is in full force. No words needed, that’s why these tracks are instrumental. Just sit back and absorb the history.
Track ten: Like Crying 2:21
This track reminds me of some early Jethro Tull blues tracks off their first album, This Was. (If you like this album at all, you have to check that one out too. It’s a little cozier, a little busier, a little more jazz and coffee shop with a hint of harmonica. They are definitely kindred albums. They were released less than a year apart.)
Track eleven: Before the Beginning 3:28
If that isn’t the most wiry guitar you’ve heard in months, then you have no reason to be reading this. That hypnotic bass just cruises through the track, while hinting towards a little Moody Blues and even some Cream (John McVie and Jack Bruce both played bass for the Bluesbreakers. At one point, they even did so on the same album). This track provides a solid, sentimental ending to a classic album.
But it doesn’t end there.
First Listens are about more than a single listen. They’re about the second and third listen too. They’re about learning an album, not just hearing it once. And sometimes, that means learning from it too. This album kept me on my toes.
After my second listen I instantly became un-infatuated with it. I don’t know if I forgot to take my medication that morning, or if my horoscope was trying to warn me about something, but I was dis-interested in it entirely. It seemed shallow and one dimensional to me. Which was tragic, because I fell in love with it after just one listen.
To develop such a strong distaste for it so soon really made me question the way I form opinions about music. How much of my ideas about new kinds of music is influenced by my current mood, or what I had for breakfast that morning? I was unable to enjoy something that had been so natural to me, just days before. I couldn’t sit through the whole thing. After side one, I took it off and didn’t look at it for the rest of the day. It was kind of shocking to me that I was able to be swayed so easily in such a short period of time.
Then I did something that changed it all over again: I put a banjo string on my electric guitar.
My guitar had been missing a high E string for over a year. I’m not much of a guitar player, so I wasn’t missing out on too much by not having a fully functional electric guitar. But, I am a bassist. I plugged that guitar into my bass amp and turned the gain all the way up. I discovered for the first time in my life how to overdrive an amp and create distortion on my guitar. It wasn’t much of a crunch, more like a cute little fuzz, but that was an important moment in my life.
After I fiddled around with a Bill Callahan tune I started working on that day, (More on him in future articles. He’s a badass.), I decided I should probably work on that First Listen I started a week earlier. I put down my guitar and dropped the needle into the lead-in groove one more time. Then it happened. The record opened up with that luscious fuzz distortion, reminiscent of Link Wray’s Rumble. I fell in love all over again. It was so simple. That tone was a developed, mature version of the peach fuzz I had managed to struggle out of my amp. That was all it took, I sat there motionless, listening to the whole first side and letting it sink back into me all over again.
I would recommend this album to anyone interested in sixties British Blues-Rock. If you like anything by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Traffic, Jethro Tull, The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, or The Rolling Stones, then this album will fill an essential place in your collection.
This album has made me realize just how fickle I can be when passing judgment on a recording. These things take time; my opinion of an album really does change with every listen. It’s been a good First Listen, and I look forward to discovering more about my own perceptions of music while gaining ground on the never ending road towards listening to it all.
God bless Peter Green.