It’s an exciting time to be a Fleetwood Mac fan. The band recently released Extended Play, their first new studio output in a decade, and launched a fairly ambitious tour that is currently scheduled to run through the end of October. But as I could have predicted, the band’s current set list pretty much ignores the long history of Fleetwood Mac prior to Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joining in 1975. It’s a shame too, because there’s a lot of great music from those early albums that begs to be played live once again.
I guess we’ll all just have to make do with this list of the ten best pre-Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac songs then, won’t we?
#10. ”Black Magic Woman” (single, 1968)
In one of the great examples of a cover song eclipsing the original, most people now think of “Black Magic Woman” as one of Santana’s greatest songs. In fact, it’s a dark, seductive gem from the pen of band founder Peter Green. His blues background is evident here, especially on the brief boogie outro. If I must compare the two versions, I’d say that the Mac’s original has more of an edge to it, and is rougher around the edges than Santana’s admittedly seductive Latin take. It’s also more stripped down, and Mick Fleetwood’s drumming is simpler but punchier.
#9. “Oh Well (Part 1 & 2)” (single, 1969)
Originally released as a double-sided single in September 1969, “Oh Well” was merged into one long, rather progressive track for the Then Play On LP (Green’s last with Fleetwood Mac). The first part is a smoking hot combination of blues and thunderous hard rock, and features some outstanding guitar playing from Green and new member Danny Kirwan.
The last six-plus minutes showcase a much more contemplative, even pastoral sound. With a different arrangement, this could easily have been something off an album by Yes or The Moody Blues.
#8. “The Green Manalishi (with the Two Prong Crown)” (single, 1970)
Dark and sinister is not a phrase often associated with Fleetwood Mac, but there’s really no other way to describe this song. Well, maybe “trippin’ balls” could work, because it was supposedly a drug-induced dream that inspired Peter Green to write it in the first place. Green was in the midst of an LSD-fueled mental decline that would cause him to leave Fleetwood Mac just weeks after recording this, effectively making it his farewell number.
“The Green Manalishi” is a slightly disturbing but strangely exhilarating glimpse at Green’s fragile psyche, and deserves to be heard for that reason alone. It’s also sufficiently heavy that Judas Priest of all groups recorded a faithful cover of it on their 1979 release Hell Bent for Leather.
#7. “Show Me a Smile” (from Future Games, 1971)
As solo songwriting debuts go, Christine McVie’s “Show Me a Smile” is a damn fine way to kick things off. When McVie is at her best — as she is on this number — she effectively straddles the line between sensitive, ’70s balladeering and AM Gold cheese. Guitarists Kirwan and Bob Welch — making his Fleetwood Mac debut — weave in and out of this dreamy piece of pop bliss, and the effect is outstanding. McVie would go on to write more concise, popular songs but rarely topped this one for a pure evocation of mood.
#6. “Sentimental Lady” (from Bare Trees, 1972)
Bob Welch scored a Top 10 single in 1977 with a re-working of “Sentimental Lady,” but the Bare Trees version has always been my preference. Welch piles one irresistible hook on top of another, and Christine McVie’s subtle background vocals help seal the deal. The whole thing flows perfectly and, while it resembles some of the more generic soft rock of the time, is cut from a far superior cloth.
#5. “Bright Fire” (from Penguin, 1973)
Penguin found Fleetwood Mac in the midst of more personnel upheaval – guitarist Danny Kirwan had been fired during the Bare Trees tour — and stumbled a bit in the process. But Bob Welch kept on churning out top-rate songs, especially the melodically complex “Bright Fire.” How the rest of the group saw fit to exclude him when they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I’ll never know, but that’s another topic for another post.
Kudos to Christine McVie for some unobtrusive but quite effective keyboards on this one.
#4. “Hypnotized” (from Mystery to Me, 1973)
This is yet another one of Bob Welch’s many great compositions for Fleetwood Mac, and would easily fit into a setlist of their biggest hits. Mick Fleetwood’s insistent, pulsing drumming lay a great foundation for Welch to display his jazz-tinged guitar chops, while the band comes more into their own on vocal harmonies.
#3. “Miles Away” (from Mystery to Me, 1973)
While Fleetwood Mac largely traded their early blues-rock sound for a more nuanced brand of pop, they could still cook when they wanted to. Welch and Bob Weston, backed by the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, drive this song like a runaway train about to hop the tracks, but then those gorgeous vocal harmonies swoop in and you know you’re gonna be alright.
#2. “Coming Home” (from Heroes Are Hard to Find, 1974)
I’m starting to think I should’ve done a Top 10 Bob Welch songs list, because it’s becoming harder for me to exclude his great contributions to the group’s legacy. “Coming Home” is a decidedly more musically intense number for Welch, and it’s a sound that suits him well. Left as the lone axeman for this album, his guitars swell and shimmer on an intro that recalls the group’s more adventurous songs with Peter Green. Before long, though, the song settles into a dynamic groove that’s too aggressive to be soft rock, yet too pretty to be hard rock.
#1. “Come a Little Bit Closer” (from Heroes Are Hard to Find, 1974)
I think there’s a perception out there for many that Fleetwood Mac only became the group we now know when Nicks/Buckingham joined, but this song proves conclusively that a major element of the group’s commercial peak was already firmly in place. Christine McVie’s singing and songwriting is in full bloom here, and only the relatively more spacious and punchy production of this song prevents it from sounding like an outtake from Fleetwood Mac or Rumours.