Few bands, if any, can lay claim to as colourful a history as Fleetwood Mac. Their founding guitarist went off the deep end, another quit to join a cult. Marriages splintered and relationships crumbled. And, just at the band looked to bottoming out, they literally stumbled on two performers who’d send them to their biggest successes.
Really, you’d think there’d be a Fleetwood Mac movie by now.
There’s about 50 years of Fleetwood Mac history to cover and in his new large-format book, Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History, writer and music critic Richie Unterberger (Allmusic, Mojo, Uncut) tackles their long, twisting career.
There’s a lot to cover, both stylistically and historically. For example, you could argue Fleetwood Mac is something closer to three bands. They started as a straight up blues band, playing Chicago-style electric blues in mid-60s England. Later, as the band’s personnel became a revolving door, they turned into a fairly standard classic rock band. And finally, with the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1975, they became a commercial juggernaut whose infighting could fill another book. Each period has it’s own merits and drawbacks; each is really only tied to the other by the band’s rhythm section.
Indeed, the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie is the core of Unterberger’s book. While McVie was a constant (if quiet) cog in the band, in many ways Fleetwood was their leader. Not only was he their manager for several years, but he’s also been something of a public face, having appeared on a handful of album covers. He’s also a main source for most of this book (more on that in a moment).
In a shade under 200 pages, Unterberger takes readers through the turbulent history of the Mac. Their started as an offshoot from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, formed when ace guitarist Peter Green and Fleetwood started their own band. Although they’d always planned on bringing in McVie – the Mac in Fleetwood Mac, natch – the band’s original bassist was actually Bob Brunning (McVie joined in time for their first album). This lineup of the band had some success in England, with Green being seen as their main talent. But even as this lineup found success, it fell apart. Drugs played havoc on Green’s mental health and he was sacked.
But, as Unterberger writes, Fleetwood Mac is predictably unpredictable. After losing their main songwriter they added another: Christine McVie. Over the next few years, they’d plow through guitarists – Danny Karwin, Jeremy Spencer, Bob Welch and more – and release a series of good, if unremarkable albums: Heroes Are Hard to Find, Bare Trees, Mystery to Me, and more.
However, a chance meeting in 1975 kick-started Fleetwood Mac’s fortunes. While scouting recording studios, Fleetwood heard a song by a duo called Buckingham Nicks. When Welch quit the band, Fleetwood invited them to join the group. Writes Unterberger:
“On paper it was a combination no one would have expected to work. Acts mixing both British and American musicians and men and women was rare enough to be unprecedented in rock’s upper echelon. Two couples in the same band was unprecedented in a rock group of significant stature, at least in such a public fashion… Yet somehow, they instantly clicked, both musically and personally.” (pg 88)
From there, Unterberger’s book covers all the familiar ground: the rising success of Fleetwood Mac, the interpersonal battles of Rumours and the wide-ranging experimentation of Tusk. There’s divorces, drug habits and an album selling in the tens of millions. Eventually there are solo records, less successful band albums and further breakups, not to mention reunions. It’s likely not all new to most people, although he occasionally drops in small details that add interesting wrinkles. One, for example, is how the master tapes for Rumours were remixed and re-recorded onto so often they’d started to deteriorate even before the album was released!
The big drawback for a book like this isn’t the history Unterberger is covering so much as the way it’s been covered. Every Fleetwood Mac fan likely knows most of this history (even if they’re only dimly aware of the pre-Buckingham/Nicks years), so they’re not buying it to learn anything. Perhaps that’s why Unterberger never spoke directly to anyone from the band for this book. All the members are liberally quoted, but it’s entirely from newspapers, magazines and both of Fleetwood’s autobiographies. There aren’t any new revelations here, but at the same time, I don’t think anyone’s expecting this to be a groundbreaking look at the band.
On the other hand, this approach gave Unterberger to open the history and explore it in detail. Each of the albums gets it’s own dedicated review, even the often overlooked early 70s records. He goes into side routes and detours, looking at each member’s solo records and where they fit into the band’s canon. And there are tons and tons of photos. In some respects, it’s almost like a photo album of Fleetwood aging from a bare-chested, long-haired 60s drummer to a dapper-looking Englishman who drums in a vest and carries a pocketwatch.
And ultimately, it’s what’s most charming about this book. Their history is interesting enough it could almost write itself, but Unterberger steps back, putting not just each of the band’s records, but just about everything associated with the band, into context. He writes with a nicely understated wit and with enough knowledge on their music he’s able to give it some colour. Fans of the band will find a lot to enjoy here. They might even go back and explore some of the band’s deeper cuts.