Fleetwood Mac's wild ride: the story of the Blues Years

Fleetwood Mac
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

It was the fag-end of summer 1967, and the tectonic plates of London’s blues landscape were shifting. On September 9, under cover of darkness, the door of Decca Studios in London opened and house producer Mike Vernon furtively waved in a fledgling band for an after-hours session. There was Mick Fleetwood, the drummer recently ousted from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers for being habitually “loose as a goose”. 

With him were bassist Bob Brunning and an impish, mischief-making slide-guitar wizard named Jeremy Spencer. More auspiciously, there was Peter Green, the spellbinding guitar hero who had replaced Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers, and arguably outshone him in his tenure with Mayall, and was now widely tipped to explode. 

“People were almost forcing Peter to form a band,” remembers Fleetwood, a full half-century later, in an interview to promote Love That Burns, a mouth-watering book that chronicles the band’s early years. “So I think eventually he basically went: ‘Okay, fuck it.’” 

To fair-weather fans of the stadium-filling Rumours line-up of Fleetwood Mac, that original line-up is either a mystery or a mere preamble to the main event. 

“The main story is always going to be the Fleetwood Mac that you know now,” Fleetwood concedes. “No doubt, what’s going to be remembered is the incarnation that’s not in this book; y’know, Stevie [Nicks], Lindsey [Buckingham], Chris [McVie], John [McVie, who had soon replaced Brunning] and myself. But I wanted this book to be about the band that Peter Green started in 1967, and I was lucky and happy enough to be at his side, right from the beginning. 

“I want people to know what started Fleetwood Mac. Well, first of all it was Peter. And a bunch of kids that were channelling our heroes. We were listening to blues artists that were freaking us out. The irony is that these funny little English dudes reconstituted an art form that was all but dead – and nobody gave a shit about it in America – and served it back to them. We helped to save something that was all but thrown in the dustbin.” 

Across the decades, all parties have credited Green as the catalyst behind the original band’s formation. Spencer remembers being press-ganged by him at a Birmingham show in June 1967 (“He asked if I wanted a drink, and as we stood by the bar he talked as though I was already in it”). In Love That Burns, meanwhile, McVie recalls the badgering that made him turn his back on a steady Bluesbreakers pay cheque (“Peter was bugging me, you know: ‘Come on, join, join, you gotta join!’”). 

While interviewing Green for the book, Fleetwood was surprised to learn that his own invitation to join was largely down to the sympathy vote: “I thought he was going to say: ‘Well, I thought you were a pretty good drummer.’ But he said: ‘You’d just broken up with Jenny [Boyd, later Fleetwood’s first wife] and you were devastated, and I just thought you needed to do something. That’s why I asked you to join the band, because I just wanted you to get back on your feet.’ How amazing was that? It really had nothing to do with whether I was a halfway decent drummer or not, it was just because he loved me and he didn’t want to see me in pain.”

“I hope that part of our story is about acceptance of people who have come through the ranks, which has allowed this crazy story.”

Mick Fleetwood

In his own testimony for Love That Burns, meanwhile, Green writes: “Fleetwood Mac was a bit of an experiment to begin with. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had flopped. The way the line-up came together had a lot to do with fate.” 

Maybe so, but it was chemistry that drove it. A proto-Fleetwood Mac – at that point with Brunning on bass – had already played their debut gig, at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in August 1967. Later that year, as the McVie-bolstered line-up hit the London club scene, a fascinating dynamic was in evidence. Both on stage and when hassling promoters off it, the East End-raised Green was patently in charge. 

“I would parody Peter when he would slip into that tough barrow-boy thing when he couldn’t take us any more,” notes Fleetwood. “We would mimic him and it became a running joke: ‘Get your fucking shit together. You both played like shit! Fleetwood, I’ve got more swing in my left bollock than you had tonight!’” 

On the flip side, bandleader Green’s economical guitar playing style and musical generosity gave space for his bandmates to shine, his priority always the interplay, not the individual showboating. 

“It was incredible in those days,” notes McVie. “Mick and I behind Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, it was like a fucking freight train. It’s nothing that includes massive amounts of technical skill, it’s just chemistry that works.” 

“It was all about friendship,” picks up Fleetwood. “Peter gave me confidence. I play from the heart. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. And he told me: ‘Mick, you’re okay, just play.’ Peter was the consummate team player. Later, in an interview, someone asked him why did he call the band Fleetwood Mac? And he said: ‘Well, in truth, I thought at some time I’d probably move on, and I wanted John and Mick to have something after I left.’ 

“Peter gave and he gave,” Fleetwood continues. “I was looking at the set-list for the Windsor Jazz Festival. And remember that Peter had become a sort of Eric Clapton hero-worshipped player on the scene. He basically turned around and gave it all away to Jeremy. [That show] is a lot of Jeremy. That’s really a very generous person.” 

The magnanimous Green was not only happy to feature Spencer’s noteperfect Elmore James homages in the set, he also even indulged Spencer’s on stage antics, which included cavorting in a gold lamé jumpsuit with a red dildo lolling from the gusset (a routine that saw them briefly banned from The Marquee). Spencer recalled: “Peter said that I was the first player to make him smile since Hendrix.”

The logical next step was a debut album. In November 1967, a three-day stint at CBS studios resulted in the self-titled LP known informally as Dog And Dustbin, a Brit-blues master class that pinballed from soul-drenched Green originals like Looking For Somebody and I Loved Another Woman to Spencer’s trademark olde-blues salutes. “That was a blues album,” Fleetwood says. “Y’know, this is what we do. The irony was, we were on Top Of The Pops and they probably felt we invented that music. A lot of people who were not our audience were suddenly listening to Elmore James. It really holds up, when you listen to some of that early stuff. I mean, Peter was such an extraordinary player, so sensitive and so mature. 

“The thing about London and a lot of bands in that particular period,” the drummer continues, “is that, in our own way, we were real blues bands. London was a cauldron of creativity which, I might add, is still being felt musically, sociologically, in fashion and style. It caused all these ripples that became waves and storms and hurricanes of creativity. I don’t think it’s pushing the envelope for someone such as me, sitting back and saying [mock-nostalgic]: ‘Oh, in the old days, do you know what we did?’ There are just things that happen in certain places. It’s like when people talk about Paris in the twenties.”

But even as that debut album hit No.4 in the UK shortly after its release in February 1968 there was a taste of trouble to come, when Green baulked at the band’s billing on the sleeve as ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’. 

“He was furious about that,” Fleetwood recalls. “They snuck it in there, because [Peter] was the only person that was beginning to be quite famous on the blues circuit. And I don’t blame them. But that was the last time you ever saw Peter Green’s name in front of Fleetwood Mac.”

Follow-up Mr Wonderful could only repeat the debut album’s trick with diminishing returns, but the line-up was revitalised that summer when a precocious and chronically shy guitarist named Danny Kirwan joined the band. Fleetwood recalls a teenager who “one might have mistaken for an innocent church choirboy… but he would play the hell out of his guitar, deep in the trenches of the darkest grooves”. 

Indeed it was Kirwan’s diverse influences and off-kilter style that helped Fleetwood Mac to their first hit singles – and the broad-minded and more textural tracks on 1969’s Then Play On album. 

“It was thrilling to see them go from nothing more than a twelve-bar blues band to making records as creative as Albatross and Black Magic Woman,” recalls Vernon. “The catalyst for the change was Danny. There were no bands anywhere that had three guitar players, and it diversified the whole sound of the group.” 

On first inspection, as a dreamy guitar instrumental with the vibe set to ‘mellow’, their 1968 single Albatross was a hard sell, Fleetwood acknowledging that it was “a little light in the loafers” for the band’s blues hard-core followers. “Everyone at CBS, our distributor, said: ‘We’ll never be able to sell this, no radio station’s ever gonna play it,’” notes Vernon. “But Peter just kept telling us it was going to be a hit. Eventually, after hearing it enough times, we all agreed.” 

Green’s instincts were on the money. After the band performed Albatross on prime-time BBC, the single began shifting 60,000 units daily on its march to No.1 in the UK. Green’s chiming Man Of The World and ambitious Oh Well weren’t far behind, both singles hitting No.2 in 1969. That year’s Then Play On album, which saw Green expand his palette with songs inspired by hearing classical composer Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending at the Proms, reached No.6.

"The world was unfolding for him,” notes Fleetwood. “One can only imagine what he’d have created if he had continued on that track.” 

Rather less high-minded was Green’s Rattlesnake Shake, written about Mick Fleetwood masturbating. 

Capping off a breakthrough year, there was also the release of Blues Jam At Chess, showcasing the lineup as they cut heads with the genre’s big beasts in Chicago, including Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon and Shakey Horton. Inspect the photos in Love That Burns and the Mac members are certainly wide-eyed, although the respect reportedly ran both ways, with JT Brown, formerly of the Elmore James band, noting of Spencer: “Hell, it’s like Elmore has been dug up from the grave. I’m closing my eyes and hearing my boss singing.” 

Such triumphs couldn’t mask a sour taste and the sense of an ending, however. After the band had set out on producer Mike Vernon’s then-new blues label Blue Horizon, manager Clifford Davis had swooped to move his charges to the Immediate label (thence to Warner Brothers/Reprise). 

“When Fleetwood Mac left us,” noted Vernon, “the thing that upset me more than anything was the idea that our family unit was being destroyed. And it was being destroyed for reasons of commerciality.”

For his part, Spencer had felt adrift since Kirwan’s arrival, and he released his first solo album in 1970. Most troubling of all was the decline of Green. Plainly, this was a man fast unravelling. He gave befuddled interviews in which he spoke of plans to give away the band’s money, took to wearing messianic robes and sprinkled cries for help across lyrics for songs such as Man Of The World (‘I just wish that I’d never been born’) and Love That Burns (‘Please leave me now in my room to cry’). 

Green’s ominous final contribution, The Green Manalishi (With The TwoProng Crown), felt more troubled still, its lyric addressing a nightmarish character that surely represented the guitarist’s struggle to reconcile his tough upbringing and his rock-star status, not to mention the pressure to maintain the band’s commercial ascent. 

“The burden of our success haunted him,” notes Fleetwood. “Peter thought it was all bullshit and was convinced that people never really liked him. This took him to the brink and it ultimately made him unable to handle normal life.” 

As the band hit the road in early 1970, Fleetwood watched his friend across the aisle of the tour bus, waited and hoped.  

“There are some pictures in the book that of course are very personal,” he recalls. “I remember the exact moment. There’s some pictures of Peter on that last tour, and I remember how it felt. I was sitting on that bus and I was looking at him and thinking: ‘Maybe he’ll change his mind. Maybe he won’t leave.’”

The cautionary tale of Green’s ignominious burnout is well-known now, the tipping point generally acknowledged to be the day at a Munich hippie commune when his already fragile mind-set was shredded by LSD. Interviewed for Fleetwood’s book, he can only express bewilderment at his actions: “I don’t really know why I left the group in the end. I think it was just because I wanted to do things for free. I knew that people looked at me like I was in a dream. I could tell that, even at the time.” 

“We were devastated,” Fleetwood says today. “Losing Peter Green was devastating. It was like, it’s probably over. My instinct was to keep going. Because what else are we going to do? The band’s called Fleetwood Mac, and really, we were experiencing the very thing that Peter thought would happen. So at least we had something.

“And I have to say, the lesson learnt there was that once we had survived that most devastating thing, every time someone left, because we’d survived Peter we thought we could probably get through.” 

Desertion was in the air. Spencer was “gloomy” and despondent. McVie talked vaguely of ditching the bass and managing the band instead. For Fleetwood, the only way forward was to start afresh, the drummer leading the reeling lineup to shared quarters in Kiln House, “a frugal, artsy farmhouse” in Hampshire, where days were spent rehearsing new material and nights smoking hash. 

“We closed ranks,” he reflects. “We went to Kiln House and did the band-in-the-country-cottage thing that Traffic and Led Zeppelin had done. Y’know, go to the country and lick your wounds. We were very shaky.” 

Slowly, the music began again. But when the Kiln House album emerged in September 1970, it was a curious beast, mostly driven by Kirwan’s rockier leanings and Spencer’s 1950s pastiches, and it was perhaps lucky even to reach No.39 in the UK. 

“We made that very unusual, charming little album,” reflects Fleetwood, “where Jeremy was in a world with Danny. But they weren’t prepared without our big leader. Jeremy just retreated to making his Buddy Holly-esque songs. It’s sort of a cool little album, but we were floundering.”

New faces helped heal the wounds. Christine Perfect had moved in the band’s orbit since the start, catching McVie’s eye as she played keys with Chicken Shack at that Windsor festival in 1967. The pair dated, then married in 1968. She played piano on the Mr Wonderful, Then Play On and Kiln House albums, before officially becoming a member of Fleetwood Mac at a New Orleans gig in August 1970. 

Even then, the revolving door continued to turn. In February 1971 the band’s US tour was derailed when Spencer walked off down Hollywood Boulevard – ostensibly to visit a ‘head’, or drug paraphernalia, shop – and never returned. The mystery was only solved, Fleetwood notes, when he was found sworn in to a religious group known as the Children Of God. “Jeremy was vulnerable, ripe for the picking, because he always had a Bible sewn into his duffle coat and he was already flipping out from the drugs.”

Having already cancelled a gig at LA’s Whisky A Go Go, the only recourse was to recall Peter Green, although his refusal to play the hits and insistence on free-form jamming meant this could never be a permanent solution. Relative consistency arrived only in the form of guitarist Bob Welch, the Californian-born musician whose jazz-inflected contribution to the next five albums – including major US hits such as Hypnotized – deserves higher billing. “Bob was a major part of this band after Peter left,” Fleetwood says. “[But] in Europe, people don’t actually know a lot about him.”

The band’s new digs also contributed to the sense of stability. Costing just £23,000, Benifolds was a sprawling Victorian pile in rural Hampshire, which for the next three years became the band members’ communal home and the backdrop to the albums that followed. On standout tracks such as Morning Rain, 1971’s Future Games album gave the first hints of the band’s melodic pop direction and the growing influence of Christine McVie to come. The following year, Bare Trees was also an artistic success, with Kirwan delivering gems like the funked-up title track, and Welch again vindicating his hiring with the stunning autumnal ballad Sentimental Lady. 

The upward trajectory couldn’t last. Kirwan’s paranoia and alcohol dependency were spiralling, and his distaste for the band’s direction and, in particular, Welch’s style were coming to a head. In August 1972 Kirwan effectively signed his own death warrant by refusing to take the stage and watching from the back as the band struggled to cover his parts. For Fleetwood, Kirwan’s firing was a no-brainer: “It was something we simply could not forgive. Danny had broken the code, the one that said you don’t hang your bandmates out to dry on stage.” 

With the band again flailing, Fleetwood went fishing for new blood. “Peter really set the precedent,” he says of his skills as a talent-spotter. “I’ve been in the band since 1967, and I’m not a singer or a songwriter, but my song became Fleetwood Mac, and I can quietly say that I had a lot to do with this strange journey of putting [and] keeping people in the band. I learnt that from Peter. 

“In the same way, people have come into Fleetwood Mac and they’ve been acknowledged for who they are and haven’t been asked to emulate something that went before. Peter taught me those lessons and I remembered them. I hope that part of our story is about acceptance of people who have come through the ranks, which has allowed this crazy story, where everybody has been unbelievably different, musically.”

Fleetwood didn’t always make the right call. In August 1972, Dave Walker arrived from Savoy Brown full of promise, but was exposed in the studio. “He was very good at engaging the audience, and the crowd would go nuts for him,” Fleetwood notes. “It wasn’t until we were making Penguin that we realised it wasn’t going to work out.” 

Bob Weston lasted longer – contributing guitar to 1973’s Penguin and Mystery To Me albums – but wreaked havoc by having an affair with Fleetwood’s wife Jenny, sending the drummer into a tailspin, causing the cancellation of a US tour –and the so-called ‘fake’ Fleetwood Mac, a line-up of jobbing musos absurdly billed as the real thing. 

“I couldn’t get through the tour, and had a breakdown,” notes Fleetwood. “I sent Jenny back to London and Bob got fired from Fleetwood Mac.” 

Plainly, a clean break was needed. The answer once again came from Welch, who suggested that relocating to the States would give the band more clout in that lucrative market. 

“Bob was the beginning of us living in America, us really separating from being in Europe,” says Fleetwood. “We lost a huge chunk of our audience in Europe when Peter left, so the band changed and we migrated to America [in 1974].” 

The move drew a line under a seven-year ride and a mind-boggling early catalogue. “If anyone cares to pick up the albums from the beginning,” says Fleetwood, “right through some of the changes we went through with Kiln House, Future Games, Mystery To Me, all these albums… it’s like a very strange and unusual musical. If you put on Blues Jam At Chess, or the original Peter Green incarnation, then you put on Bob Welch or Kiln House, you’re entitled to ask: is this the same band? There’s some similarity, but it’s hard to find sometimes. That in itself is a wild story. 

“This book is about paying tribute to the members of Fleetwood Mac,” he concludes. “It’s told by me, but I’m really hoping it feels like everyone has been paid kudos to, who started this band, and the changes in the band that are not often very well known. That’s why it’s really important to separate it. I wanted this [story] to survive on its own. The book ends where I introduce Stevie and Lindsey to Christine. And that’s a whole other story…”

Love That Burns–A Chronicle of Fleetwood Mac, Volume One: 1967–1974 by Mick Fleetwood is published by Genesis Publications.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.