Whenever visiting other people’s houses, one of the things I often find myself doing, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, is take a quick glance over their CD shelf (LPs if you’re lucky), in the same way a collector of antique furniture might instinctively take an interest in their guests’ surrounding decor. And while it may sound pretentious, one thing’s for sure, looking through someone’s music collection is an almost instantaneous way of understanding your hosts, allowing one to obtain a small but vital insight in to their personalities.
One album I often come across is Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits. Not a bad sign to be sure. However if one happens to mention Peter Green, nine times out ten, the response will be “who?” Because the reality is that the majority of Fleetwood fans are familiar only with the line-up which gave the world one of the most dysfunctional musical outfits the music industry has ever seen. One which makes Peyton Place seem like kindergarten in comparison. Because once upon a time, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were conquering 1970’s radio with bitter lyrical diatribes, following their breakup, little do many realise (except in England perhaps), that there once was another incarnation of the group, one which dates back to the 1960’s, when a bunch of scruffy English lads decided to dedicate themselves to the music they loved the most, and who would, for a few years at least, remain one of Britain’s most popular and celebrated blues bands.
The original Fleetwood Mac formed in London in 1967, at a time when the “British blues boom”, as it was then known, was at its height. Just as the folk scene had its fair share of fanatical followers, so did the blues, many of whom were almost obsessive in their devotion toward the great American art form. Its founding member was none other than the aforementioned Peter Green, who was one of the finest blues guitarists England has ever produced (and when I say was, I don’t mean that the man is dead. He’s not. It’s just that sadly since the early ‘70’s he hasn’t exactly been able to recapture his former glory. Mental illness has a way of doing that unfortunately). Not as flashy, or fiery as Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, Green was always more emotional in his delivery, like a B.B. King, extracting more poignancy in one note than most guitarists could throughout an entire solo. But let’s talk about the album.
The LP opens with “My Heart Beat like a Hammer”, a recording which these days any record company would have sued over, mainly due to Spencer’s more than obvious adoption of Elmore James’ classic “Dust My Broom”, which is basically what this song is, only with different lyrics. “Merry Go Round” offers merely a hint of Peter Green’s true greatness as a guitarist and songwriter. “Long Grey Mare” is another Green original, where the main riff is heavily borrowed from Willie Dixon’s “Shake for Me”. It has a very nice Chess Records feel to it, along with some expressive harmonica by Green himself. No self-respecting white blues musician would be worth his weight in Mississippi water if he didn’t know his Robert Johnson, but it must be said that Fleetwood’s version of “Hellhound on my Trail” is nothing like the original, owing to the fact that there isn’t a guitar in sight, just Jeremy Spencer on vocals and piano.
The band’s interpretation of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” is the album’s first and only party track, where the boys heat up the amps and let rip, no doubt managing to make the ashtray on the engineer’s consul shake in the process. Green’s “Looking for Someone” is the sort of blues you’ve heard probably a thousand times before, just like the next track, “No Place to Go”, where the band are doing their utmost to sound just like the masters they were obviously trying to emulate.
On “My Baby’s Good to Me” Spencer reinforces his obsession with Elmore James, although in an enjoyable way of course. And now we have perhaps what is the most important song on the album, and that is Peter Green’s “I Loved Another Woman”. Not only is it the most accomplished, composition wise, but also provides the listener with an early glimpse into Green’s development as a composer. Basically what we’re hearing is a prototype of “Black Magic Woman”, the tune that would ultimately change the life of another guitarist, Carlos Santana, whose own version just a couple of years later would catapult it into musical immortality (one hopes that Green received a few healthy royalty payments at the time). This is Green at his best, and most expressive.
The album ends with three more blues numbers; Spencer’s “Cold Black Night”, another Elmore James inspired slide-fest, followed by “The World Keep On Turning”, a solo acoustic number sung and played by Green, and rather convincingly I might add. The misogynist “Got to Move” (yet another James song) winds things up, though in swinging fashion, with fine vocals and guitar from Spencer, who might have been repetitive in terms of style, yet was always consistent in his playing.
Fleetwood Mac’s debut (otherwise known as the “dog and dustbin” album) is by no means an essential purchase for your average blues fan. However from a historical viewpoint, it is an indispensable document of the time in which it was made. Admittedly, the LP is not without its flaws. But look at this way: imagine yourself as some teenage boy, living in London in the late 1960’s, bored shitless in school, and bursting with hormones, whose major joy in life was to tune into the BBC and listen to records in his bedroom (at a civilized level of course). If I had have been just such a young person then, I have no doubt that this might have been the sort of album to make me want to pick up a guitar and wish to be in a band of my own. And while it’s doubtful that most teenagers today could listen to this record and feel the same way, what with the Xbox having taken precedence over the stereo, it’s reassuring to know that there are enough people out there, both young and old, who will ensure that such music will never be forgotten. Give me music that is raw and honest, than much of the plastic and synthetic rubbish that pretends itself to be real expression nowadays.