The Rolling Stone Album Guide – basically the Bible of received knowledge for the classic-rock canon – says “there are essentially three Fleetwood Macs.” And, being Rolling Stone, this bit of received knowledge has basically become the baseline for assessment about the band’s 45-year history.
And, being Rolling Stone, this bit of received knowledge is superficial and totally wrong.
Really, there have been, like, nine discrete Fleetwood Macs, both in terms of the lineup but also (and more importantly) in terms of the band’s sonic approach.
- Mk 1 – Peter Green’s blues-rock band (all those records on the Blue Horizon label)
- Mk 1.5 – Peter Green’s mature and sonically inventive blues-rock band (Then Play On)
- Mk 2 – Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan expanding on Green’s later ideas to varying degrees of creative success (Kiln House, Future Games)
- Mk 2.5 – Danny Kirwan’s unheralded masterpiece (Bare Trees)
- Mk 3 – The years in the wilderness when Bob Welch tried to remake the band in his image, but ended up running it into the ground instead (Penguin, Mystery to Me, Heroes are Hard to Find)
- Mk 4 – The Buckingham/Nicks years (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours)
- Mk 4.25 – The Buckingham year (Tusk)
- Mk 4.5 – The Cocaine Hangover (Mirage, Tango in the Night)
- Mk 4.75 – Perpetual Reunion (Say You Will, endless touring)
This may seem like splitting hairs, and perhaps it is, but it’s important to note just how different the sound of each of these eras is. It’s a difference that’s not only attributable to the band’s shifting lineup, but also to their willingness to regularly throw out a formula that was (or wasn’t) working for them in pursuit of something else entirely. There are gems within each of these periods, and a couple legitimately excellent albums that are routinely overlooked (Say You Will being a prime example). However, with all the (justified) excitement over the past week about the greatly expanded super-mega-deluxe reissue of Rumours (still waiting on the standalone DVD release of the documentary, Rhino!), it was again amplified just how circular and unproductive our obsession with the classic rock canon has become.
Rumours is a great album. Front to back, it’s a masterpiece crafted with a ridiculous amount of attention to detail and a churning undercurrent of artistic insanity that, to me at least, is far more interesting than the interpersonal drama that has come to define it. (Seriously: Lindsey Buckingham is the best kind of maniac.) But – and this is a huge but – it’s perpetually disappointing to see this era of Fleetwood Mac held up as the only one worth paying attention to. Between Then Play On (canonical sub-masterpiece) and the Buckingham/Nicks era of constantly lauded “masterpieces” there are six albums that are well worth exploring. Maybe one day I’ll cover them all in a “Rock Bottom” type post, but for now, I’d like to introduce a new type of post on Notable Noise: The Parallel Canon, where we can talk about albums that should be on various Best XXX Albums of All Time lists.
For me, for right now, that album is Bare Trees. Compared to Rumours, it’s short and loose and not nearly as maniacally perfectionist … but it’s one of the most thoughtful, resonant, and enjoyable records Fleetwood Mac ever made.
Bare Trees is Danny Kirwan’s Fleetwood Mac album. The guitarist joined the band in 1969, and his impact was immediate: his fluid, ethereal, and melodic playing debuted on the unlikely instrumental hit “Albatross.” That song’s approach – a gentle fusion of blues-rock structures and otherworldly pop sensibilities – would define Kirwan’s tenure in the band. Of course, fellow lead guitarist Jeremy Spencer played a substantial role as well, with his passion for classic rock ‘n’ roll (which, at the time, meant the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50s) and slide guitar, but by the time of Bare Trees, Spencer was out of Fleetwood Mac (he split in the middle of a tour and joined the Children of God cult), Peter Green had been gone for two years, and guitarist Bob Welch (who had appeared on Trees’ predecessor, Future Games) had only been in the band for about nine months. This left Kirwan as the de facto musical leader of the band, a role that, ironically enough, neither Mick Fleetwood nor John McVie seemed to ever have any interest in, and one that Christine McVie had yet to fully ease into. And though it’s Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady” that’s often the most-remembered song on this album (Welch would score a solo hit with a re-recording later in the ’70s), the sound here is all Kirwan.
Picking up the threads of Future Games‘ best moments (“Sands of Time,” “Woman of 1000 Years”), Kirwan deftly alters the blues-rock formula to create a singular, mutant strain of what could reasonably be called “soft rock,” but with none of the anodyne trappings of what that moniker would later imply. In fact, the album kicks off with a fairly rollicking stomper in the form of “Child of Mine,” a groove-heavy number that, though it only lasts for five minutes, you can almost picture going on for days. Kirwan’s flawless guitar work is a thing of wonder here, but it’s really the strong melodic sensibility and casual beauty that he brings that makes the song shine so brightly. Conversely, a brooding, dark number like the album’s penultimate track “Dust” is kept from being overly morose thanks to the rich harmonic interplay between the guitars and the hopeful-if-resigned vocals.
“Danny’s Chant” revs the engine a little bit in the middle of side two, with a little bit of muscle amid a swamp of psychedelic guitar, but it’s the soaring instrumental beauty of “Sunny Side of Heaven” – which almost directly references “Albatross” – and the heavenly groove of the title track that seal up any arguments that this album is not just Kirwan’s finest moment, but definitely one that ranks among Fleetwood Mac’s best. Yeah, you get a peek at Christine McVie’s greatness, both old-school (“Homeward Bound”) and forward-looking (“Spare Me A Little of Your Love” would have slotted in perfectly on 1975’s Fleetwood Mac), and yeah, Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady” is a catchy and sweet little number, but, again, this is Danny Kirwan’s Fleetwood Mac album.
And, well, he was fired from the band a few months after it came out, heralding the beginning of the Bob Welch era of formless (and gormless) MOR. Maybe those albums will get tackled in a future “Rock Bottom” post. For now, do yourself a favor and, when you’re getting that new, wonderful expanded edition of Rumours, tack on the $7 that it costs to get Bare Trees on CD (it’s not available digitally for some bizarre reason) so you can get free Super Saver Shipping. Trust me: You’ll get way more pleasure out of these 35 minutes of music than you will from finally getting to hear take 10 of “Songbird.”