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‘Before The Beginning’

November 15, 2019

‘Before The Beginning’, a collection of recently unearthed live recordings from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, out now. Here we present the accompanying essay by Christopher Hjort…

The importance of a band’s concert repertoire is often neglected in preference to its studio output. Music to be heard only once from a stage – intended so by the performer and perceived so by its audience – is created in the heat of the moment when a band interacts with the listeners. Luckily, concert experiences occasionally do not just drift off into the ether but is captured on tape or cassette for posterity. Sometimes recorded by design and sometimes taped by default, this collection lets us re-live the power of the original Fleetwood Mac on stage with material personally selected by Peter Green.

California sunshine

In June 1968 Fleetwood Mac made their first trip to the United States, ostensibly to promote their debut album but it was more like a working holiday – during their five weeks out there, the group played a little more than a dozen concerts; including a brief detour to Detroit between long days of lazy California sunshine and busy New York nightlife.

Worried before departure (“Life’s not worth a light over there. It really frightens me,” Peter confided to Mike Clifford in Beat Instrumental), it turned out to be an eye-opening experience as the band saw the hippie culture in full bloom. “They couldn’t care less what guitars we were playing, what strings I used and all that load of crap … In America, when they go out, they go out to have a good time,” an enthusiastic Peter told New Musical Express afterwards. The San Francisco music scene made a particular strong impression, with its communal living, open-minded thinking and readily available hallucinogens. West Coast bands like Grateful Dead and Big Brother & The Holding Company played loose and free with jazzy drums, booming bass and spiky guitar solos by guys who had recently exchanged their folk guitars for electric guitars but retained thumb picks and banjo techniques. Looking back recently, Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew explains: “The British were much more studied. Better players, actually.” Asked if the British guitarists perhaps played with a stiff upper lip, Andrew laughs: “Yeah, that’s good!”

While in the States, Fleetwood Mac got to hear blues pioneers Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Freddie King and Albert King. They also hung out with Paul Butterfield. Born and raised in Chicago, Butterfield played in the amplified style of Little Walter, perhaps the blues genre’s most influential instrumentalist. Butterfield could claim an edge on authenticity as he grew up learning directly from Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Little Walter. (Paul and Peter crossed paths back in November 1966 when the Butterfield Blues Band toured England and recorded an EP with John Mayall.)

Which brings us to the first CD, with a live recording taped in the summer of 1968. First, Jeremy comes out to perform two Elmore James numbers: ‘Madison Blues’ and ‘Something Inside of Me’. They are laid back and unpretentious with Peter taking a conscious role as the back-up guitarist, not for a moment tempted to step up to interrupt Jeremy’s spots with solos. Peter plays what the songs require, a discipline that many never learn. Still, Spencer’s two songs function as a warm up for Peter’s first vocal number, a swinging shuffle driven along by the steadfast McVie and Fleetwood. Spinning a new tale based on old and new blues metaphors, Peter declares “Yes, the woman I love, she’s not much more than skin and bones”, while his guitar sings, soars and stings. It is his take on B.B. King’s ‘The Woman I Love’ (sometimes bracketed as Doctor Clayton’s ‘Moonshine Woman Blues’), confusingly one of two songs with that title B.B. recorded. Originally released in 1959, the song has a second wind when re-issued by Kent Records in the summer of 1968 – even making the US Billboard R&B charts. (Mike Vernon leased ‘The Woman I Love’ and released it on Blue Horizon later in 1968.) Peter’s performance is masterful, his solos have purpose and punch, with an aching elegance that few if any 1960s electric guitarists could match. There is more, as close listening reveals how the bass is essential to keep a steady rhythmic pulse. Vibrating like a stand-up bass, John McVie’s playing is at once light and heavy. ‘Worried Dream’ is another B.B. King song, this from 1968’s Blues On Top of Blues, and a favourite with Peter who added the song to his repertoire right away. Keeping the volume down, Peter creates tension by leaving big spaces in the music. Even with the ringing reverb of a large hall, the intimacy is so close you could think that Peter, John, and Mick performed in your own front room. It confirms how Mick Fleetwood recalled this tour in his autobiography Play On: “I worried we’d be lost in the shuffle, but that wasn’t the case (…) I had even suggested that we change our set and do only the loudest material we knew. ‘No, Mick,’ Peter said. ‘We’re gonna do what we do.’ He was right. We did a lot of slow, poignant blues and the crowd was right there with us. They weren’t bored, they weren’t distracted, they were in the palm of Peter’s hand. His control of his instrument was sublime.”

Then it is back to Jeremy, who sweeps into ‘Dust My Broom’. He sticks faithfully to an Elmore James arrangement, even projecting some of the menace in Elmore’s frayed cable wire-voice. Elmore recorded several versions and variations on the tune, but for many it is the fiery 1955 rendition that has become the defining classic. Jeremy likely learned this off the UK-only Elmore James Memorial Album from 1965. On stage, Jeremy’s single-mindedness meant he was a slide player and slide player only. It was his greatest strength but also his weakness, as Homesick James’s ‘I Got to Move’ shows: It just shuffles along pleasantly but with little other merit.

The scene shifts for Peter’s solo performance of the self-penned ‘Trying So Hard to Forget’, which is just him and the guitar. Using the low strings to steadily push the song forward, Peter is free to stretch the meter as he wants as he stands alone on the stage. Still, it is the voice that grabs you. Cutting clutter, the words may only amount to bleak blues poetry on paper – “You know life can be so sad / Sometimes you just sit right down and you’ll cry”, before the pitiful punch line “Sometime your luck, it gets so bad / Maybe you’d be better off if you should die” – but because the experience is so obviously about Peter himself, it touches the heart in a way that is almost unbearable. Perhaps it is to shake off the numbness that he immediately jumps into a one-chord jam loosely based on the riff of Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘I Wish You Would’. It is the closest Fleetwood Mac come to their British contemporaries Cream, as Peter, John, and Mick turn up the volume for a moment and just wing it. Having cleared the system, Green calls out a helpful “C” for John McVie to know the key, and starts ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman’. Made famous by Freddy King, it is one of the songs Peter routinely played with John Mayall. Belonging to a different performance tradition, Freddy would sermonise the song; involve his audience, speak to the congregation and share the song’s message of infidelity. Fleetwood Mac’s performance, on the other hand, is more introvert and plainly British – the guitar speaking for itself, Peter lost in the music.

Nearing the end of the set, Peter kicks off ‘Lazy Poker Blues’ as Jeremy is brought back on stage to supply a horn-like rhythm riff guitar. Recently recorded by the band, it is a fine example of what author Neil Slaven terms Mick Fleetwood’s “trademark slack-jaw shuffle”. Unswerving yet swinging, it is a key component in the Fleetwood Mac rhythm department and lays a solid bed for Peter and Jeremy to rest upon. The tune shows the playful side of Peter, as he sings thinly disguised lyrics about what his girl and he do all day and night long. Likely buoyed by a break and coming back for another set, the mood is even dirtier on the next selection, ‘Stop Messing ‘Round’ (much the same song as ‘Lazy Poker Blues’ but in a different key), where a hoarse-voiced and naughty Peter at one point replaces “messing” with the obvious expletive. Adding excitement is a horn-like harmonica player, who is also featured on ‘I Loved Another Woman’. Introduced as “off our current LP which is in your shops now, ladies and gentlemen”, its rumba-like beat and minor-key mood reflects the strong influence of Otis Rush on Peter’s writing. The well-crafted and melodious guitar intro and solo are so crucial to the song that the band wisely replicate these accurately from the record.

When Jeremy straps on the guitar, it is Elmore James time again. ‘I Believe’ is the little sister to ‘Dust My Broom’, and here strengthened by harmonica in unison with Spencer on the instrumental bridge. Jeremy was never one to do things in half measures musically. When he was Elmore he was Elmore. ‘The Sun is Shining’ is a doleful march, fittingly ending the first CD in this collection.

The second CD picks up where the first CD ends, as Peter rips into Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’. By now restraint is thrown to the wind, as the band turns up the volume to urge people to get up and party. The rock ‘n’ roll sideshow concludes with the infectious Bo Diddley rhythm of Johnny Otis’s ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’. Jeremy sings the sly yarn about a dance craze backed by Peter and John on rough-and-tumble backing vocals. The mood changes for a passionate ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’, making for a refreshing change from the many straightforward twelve-bar shuffles. Harmonically a more challenging number, Jeremy opts to stay out and leaves the room to Peter, John, and Mick. (Although once a big hit by Little Willie John, it is Peter’s guitar hero who is the inspiration behind Fleetwood Mac’s interpretation. John Mayall had managed to capture a B.B. King concert tape in early 1968, and it was here Peter found the version that the band turned into a kitchen sink blues symphony for Fleetwood Mac’s third single. Released in the UK in the group’s absence in July 1968, it was only a minor hit.)

After pumping out ‘I Believe’ on cruise control (the song makes its second appearance here), this segment ends with a rollicking ‘Shake Your Money Maker’. It is as close as Jeremy will get to be Elmore Presley, the perfect mythical combination of a blues legend and a rockabilly cat. ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ is all about rattling your rear and bouncing your butt. Spencer makes the most of the song’s message, admittedly taking it one step further, but one can sense what Fleetwood Mac was about in those days: A dance band out to entertain, and Jeremy guides the proceedings from full head-on throttle to idling on low volume, as the band not only play for the crowd but with the crowd.

Then there were five

Back home in England in August 1968, Fleetwood Mac expanded from four to five when Peter offered guitarist, singer and song-writer Danny Kirwan a place in the band. The band had followed the boyish Kirwan (he turned 18 on May 13, 1968) from a distance, using his trio Boilerhouse as support act occasionally. In Kirwan the band gained a sometimes brilliant songwriter and a very talented guitarist with a raw and highly melodic style all his own. He was a compelling vocalist who, despite his thin voice, came across as one who believed every word he sang. Kirwan was also a perfectionist whose attention to detail could cause friction. Trevor Stevens, bass player with Boilerhouse and a well-schooled musician in his own right, now recalls Kirwan’s issues with tuning: “I got used to the idea that his pitch was so perfect. When he bends notes they’re always so neatly in tune and he bends them a full tone up, and get them so accurately in tune every time. It always used to stress him unless it was exactly in tune. So I was always passing him the bass to check the tuning before I played to make him happier. Of course, he was still like that with Fleetwood Mac and he used to annoy John McVie no end.”

When the reinvigorated band met the British press for the first time (also to plug new album Mr. Wonderful), Kirwan explained to journalist Ian Middleton the possibilities that now opened up. “We don’t all play lead at once. If Peter is featured, Jeremy and I accompany him. If Jeremy or I am featured, then the others back. When the others are soloing I might get a riff going and this all adds to the performance. Peter Green writes and I compose too. As I’ve joined the group, Peter is going to play harmonica more, but will obviously still play guitar.”

In the same interview, Peter Green broached a new and fascinating definition of the blues. It had to be sad and it had to be slow. “To my mind a blues doesn’t have to be a 12-bar progression. It can cover any musical chord sequence. To me the blues is an emotional thing. If someone is singing a blues and doesn’t feel it, then it isn’t a blues. Blues have to be slow. If the tempo is medium or fast then I look on the music as rock. I would call Tim Hardin’s ‘Hang On To A Dream’ a blues. Also I would call ‘Eleanor Rigby’ a contemporary blues. You see it doesn’t matter if the number is a pop song. If a song has the right emotion and feel, I accept it as a blues.” Writing in Beat Instrumental around the same time, Green added, “all the songs I have written are true stories and not just ideas of mine. I don’t sing blues to keep up any old tradition, or because I’m crusading for the blues, but because it’s the way I feel.” It is more to it than this, as Peter’s whole musical outlook opened up as he stressed to Melody Maker a couple of months later: “Robert Johnson, Elmore James and B.B. King were influences, but not now. The Beatles are the only influence on me now.” (The Beatles were about to release their self-titled double album at the end November 1968, and it is not unlikely that Fleetwood Mac were allowed an early eavesdrop. The group’s manager Clifford Davis explained at that time that “actually it was Mick [Fleetwood] … He’s a friend of Jenny Boyd’s and Jenny played him the Beatles album … before anyone had heard it.”)

Soon enough the general public heard the first sound of what this new direction meant for Fleetwood Mac. Released in October 1968, ‘Albatross’ was a delicate guitar instrumental unlike anything the band had recorded before. A descendant of Santo & Johnny’s ‘Sleep Walk’ and Chuck Berry’s hula blues ‘Deep Feeling’, it was a timeless and majestic anthem.

Mike Vernon provides the background. “I went to rehearsals for that song,” he remembers. “That’s the only time that I can ever recall going to Mick Fleetwood’s flat [in Kensington Church Street, London], to actually rehearse with Mick, John and Peter, and maybe Danny … I can remember Mick talking about going to use soft mallets on the cymbals to create the effect of the sound of the sea and the wind and the swoosh. Peter played the basic tune and I loved it. I loved it. It didn’t take him an awful lot of time to do it. It was just the four of them [in the studio] because Jeremy was nowhere around. Jeremy was not a part of that at all. All the high floating slide things, all done by Peter.” Engineer Mike Ross-Trevor recalls the day in the studio: “Mike Vernon and the band had just returned from the States and all they would talk about was how perfect the American records were and they were keen to make a perfect record and the only way you can do that is to record everything separately so that was the plan. The session started with Mick laying down the classic tom-tom sound in stereo and then overdubbing cymbals then the bass was put on and then Danny and Peter spent a lot of time overdubbing guitar parts. We did a lot of pre-mixing to a second four-track to enable us to have more tracks, this was a big production job and very different to their past sessions which were mainly live.”

Unlikely pop stars

Many were perplexed by the change in the group’s sound. Super-fan John Peel had to digest the song first and explained on his BBC radio show that he had to play the B-side (‘Jigsaw Puzzle Blues’) as he could not get into ‘Albatross’ at all. New Musical Express liked it but voted it “hardly chart material,” and British blues singer Long John Baldry bemoaned to Melody Maker in November 1968 after he heard it for the first time: “It’s a bit Roy Rogers and Trigger riding into the sunset. I don’t see the point of this by any standards – pop, blues or jazz. I don’t see what it’s got to do with anything. It’s certainly not demonstrative of Green’s capabilities. It will disappoint his ardent fans, but it won’t get into the pop market. … Very sad.”

Despite these doubters, the British public liked the single well enough. ‘Albatross’ was given unexpected airplay when BBC chose the song to be featured on TV personality Simon Dee’s popular Saturday talk show Dee Time, providing promotional muscle that Blue Horizon could never afford. Out of the blue, Fleetwood Mac scored a Number One hit in the British Charts. Doubly fascinating, it was a mellow instrumental number that did the trick. In principle, everything was against this becoming a hit but for the fact that ‘Albatross’ spoke to so many; young and old, straights and hippies, fans and non-fans.

While ‘Albatross’ ascended the top of the charts in England, Fleetwood Mac were away on tour in the States and on one of the first days of 1969 they were in Chicago to record with several of the city’s blues musicians including Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Big Walter Horton, and Honeyboy Edwards. Under the circumstances, the foreigners played well but one cannot help feeling they on this occasion were tourists in the land of the blues, unable to penetrate the universe of their mentors. In hindsight, the Chicago session marked a fork in the road. Blues would still be the group’s lifeblood, but now there was a willingness to explore new influences and open musical and spiritual doors that hitherto had been closed. “I believe in God now,” Peter told Nick Logan matter-of-factly when he came home from the States.

In April 1969 Fleetwood Mac recorded ‘Man Of The World’, their most complex and melodious composition to date. It sounded like an extension of ‘Albatross’, but now with carefully plucked electric and acoustic guitars and words that read like a renaissance poem: “Shall I tell you about my life / They say I’m a man of the world / I’ve flown across every tide / And I’ve seen lots of pretty girls,” before the following verse ends with the unsettling line “I just wish that I’d never been born”. ‘Man Of The World’ would quickly be designated Fleetwood Mac’s next single, but the song’s personal message would likely pass over the heads of the fans who pushed the song into the UK Top Three. The song was also sad for another reason: Due to a contractual oversight that manager Clifford Davis took advantage of, this marked the break with Mike Vernon and Blue Horizon who so passionately had believed in the band from day one.

In June, July and August 1969, Fleetwood Mac took life at a leisurely pace and recorded the bulk of their next album. It was an eventful summer: Clapton’s new band Blind Faith debuted in Hyde Park in June, while the Rolling Stones played the same park a few weeks later – the group’s live comeback which coincided with the shock of Brian Jones’s death. Originally, Fleetwood Mac were set to tour the States in that summer but opted to cancel as they had no new material finished for release. While hundreds of thousands flocked to the Woodstock Festival in mid-August and – closer to home – fans besieged Isle of Wight to see Bob Dylan a fortnight later, Fleetwood Mac were in London, tinkering with tapes, overdubs and mixes to finish Then Play On, an eclectic collection of songs that displayed the full magnitude of Kirwan’s and Green’s song-writing abilities. (Jeremy Spencer, who was absent from the album, instead got the chance to record a solo album with lovingly performed 50s rock ‘n’ roll pastiches and parodies.)

Released in slightly different versions in Europe and America, songs like ‘Coming Your Way’, ‘Closing My Eyes’, ‘Showbiz Blues’, ‘Rattlesnake Shake’, ‘Although the Sun Is Shining’ and ‘Before the Beginning’ were common to both variants of the album. One song on the US album not in the UK, was the two-sided ‘Oh Well’ single (which made Number Two in the British singles charts) – one side a razor-sharp riff rocker, the other a meditative melody performed as a small baroque ensemble with classical guitar, cello, recorders and piano. Peter had come under the spell of the pastoral romanticism of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, which he heard performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in July. “You know at the gallery at the top, you can go there,” explains Sandra Elsdon, “you can just take picnic with you and a pillow, just lie down and listen to music. It’s amazing. It’s the cheapest ticket, right. I think Peter was very fond of Vaughn Williams’s The Lark Ascending, a very powerful piece of music he loved.”

Back in the USA

In December 1969, Fleetwood Mac embarked on a third North American tour, in many ways repeating towns and places they had visited on the previous tour. Despite being stars in England and Europe, the band’s record sales in the US were modest and touring North America was considered the best way to gain exposure. It was a schedule that saw the band away for almost three months, playing small clubs and large sports halls, appearing on Hugh Hefner’s syndicated TV show Playboy After Dark, and sharing stages with other Brits roaming the blossoming rock circuit (e.g. King Crimson, Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull) or performing with a swathe of American groups and artists (Buddy Miles, Grand Funk Railroad, Tim Hardin, Johnny Winter, The Byrds, Grateful Dead, James Gang, Sly & The Family Stone). It was a time of upheaval. Jenny Boyd, who went along on that tour, now remembers how utterly profound she found music as a power of communication: “I do remember at that time, thinking, it was my first sort of insight into the importance of musicians, that they speak for the masses.”

It is here we pick up the thread on the second CD, as the group slips into the beautiful, Biblical ‘Before The Beginning’. Almost 18 months separates this song and the preceding ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’ on the same CD, and the contrast is striking. ‘Before The Beginning’ was one of the peaks on Then Play On, but with its slow tempo, unsettling minor/major shifts and pounding drums it is a mildly perverse way to open a live concert. Rock groups usually come out pumping adrenalin to get going, but Fleetwood Mac choose gloom, introspection and a vocalist who pleads “I’ve got to find a place to sing my words/Is there nobody listening to my song?”.

Danny Kirwan’s ‘Only You’ was a concert favourite around this time but was surprisingly never given a proper release by Fleetwood Mac. Sporting a hook-laden riff, Kirwan plays the solo in his jagged nervous fashion. (How close the band sticks to arrangements is proven by the two versions of this song here taken from different nights.) Next, Danny and Peter step aside to bring Jeremy Spencer on stage for two Elmore James numbers in quick succession: ‘Madison Blues’ and ‘Cant Stop Lovin’’. Spencer is still accorded plenty of space on stage even if he was absent from Then Play On. The first Elmore number rambles nicely along, while the second number benefits from its brisk rhumba-rhythm. Jeremy knows these songs in his sleep, but manages to inject equal doses of fun and passion in his interpretations. The calm ‘Albratross’ sails in next, and this is the one song in their live performances they copied faithfully from the recorded version, as the original was faultless and could not be improved upon. What follows is a complete change in intensity as the guitars invoke ‘The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)’; a brand-new composition that is already a centrepiece of this winter’s live performances. With its intriguing title (‘Manalishi’ apparently a word that Green made up), bleak imagery, and sinister guitars, it is as heavy and metallic Fleetwood Mac will ever be. The song is also a good excuse for the band to trail off into an explorative jam, ending with Peter on 6-string bass accompanied only by Mick’s drums.

Like ‘Only You’, Danny Kirwan’s sunny instrumental ‘World in Harmony’ makes two appearances here. It is another recent addition to the group’s expanding repertoire, and is highlighted by Kirwan’s melodic sense. With chiming, clean arpeggios that recall passages on The Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road, the Green/Kirwan interplay flows seamlessly as the two guitarists alternate between two-part harmonies and carefully hand-picked sections.

Fleetwood Mac’s fabulous success meant they scored highly in New Musical Express’s ‘Pop Poll 1969’, where they beat the Rolling Stones in the ‘British Blues Group’ ranking, outclassing Jagger and company by a margin of more than 2,000 votes. “If Fleetwood Mac can just touch on what the Stones used to do then I’d be happy,” Peter enthused to music journalist Nick Logan when asked what he thought of his band being tagged as ‘The New Stones’. “The name Stones just glows for me; it is electric. I have the greatest admiration for the Stones.” Perhaps the air guitar-friendly boogie-rocker ‘Sandy Mary’ is Peter’s way to play up to that badge of honour. Despite the song’s obvious swaggering potential, it unfortunately belongs to the batch of songs the group never found time to finish in a studio and release. Lastly, to round off the second CD, we get two alternative versions of ‘Only You’ and ‘World In Harmony’; each with enough enjoyable subtly differing details to merit their inclusions here.

The third CD in this collection continues where CD 2 ends, with Jeremy singing a relaxed version of Elmore James’s ‘I Can’t Hold Out’. Also known as ‘Talk To Me Baby’, it was a favourite of Spencer’s and featured already when Fleetwood Mac made their debut in 1967. If Spencer’s contribution here is unhurried, ‘Oh Well (Part 1)’ is anything but. It is sharply focused and a close replica of the single hit, clocking in at less than 3 minutes but missing the meditative ‘Oh Well (Part 2)’ – understandably as the delicate nylon-string guitar, cello and recorder segments would be impossible to recreate live. ‘Oh Well’ is the perfect rock song: A stinging guitar riff, inventive stop-time verses, thundering drums, a tough vocal and a clever lyric. There’s even a darned cowbell. After this short blast, the group settles into ‘Rattlesnake Shake’ which ebbs and flows into an exciting instrumental coda which is stretched to more than twenty minutes, boasting Green and Kirwan on telepathic guitars pushed relentlessly along by McVie and Fleetwood. The group’s strength is that sections are orchestrated and planned, incorporating motifs from ‘Underway’ and ‘Fighting/Searching for Madge’ on Then Play On, yet keeping the nightly journeys of discovery loose-limbed and flowing. Usually, Jeremy leaves the stage when Kirwan and Green take turns at the microphone but here he gets stuck shaking a pair of maracas for the whole song.

Big, fat chords introduce Danny’s ‘Coming Your Way’, where the guitars weave in harmony before the song breaks for a drum solo. Rather it is a percussion solo, as congas and shakers – played by Peter and Jeremy – join Fleetwood’s rumbling tom-toms. Maybe this was influenced by Carlos Santana’s Latin-flavoured rock, whose eponymous debut album was released in 1969, peaking in the US charts at Number 4 in November ’69 just as Fleetwood Mac arrived in America. (The admiration also went the other way as the Santana band worked up ‘Black Magic Woman’ for their live repertoire in the spring of 1970, later turning it into a world-wide major hit.)