Fleetwood Mac are one of the biggest-selling acts of all time. Like Pink Floyd, they started out in the 60s and overcame losing their chief songwriters to become hugely successful in the 70s with a very different sound, selling millions of records.
Also like Pink Floyd, they’ve only ever had one UK number 1 single. Peter Green’s classic balmy instrumental Albatross, which conjures up images of waves lapping against a sun-kissed beach, must have come as welcome relief during the winter of 1968/69.
Green had been Eric Clapton’s replacement as guitarist in John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Early in 1967, drummer Aynsley Dunbar announced he was leaving the group, and Green suggested to Mayall a former bandmate of his called Mick Fleetwood. The new version of the band consisted of Mayall on vocals, Green, Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. During their next recording session they named an instrumental after their new rhythm section, Fleetwood Mac.
Soon afterwards saw the debut of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, consisting of Green, Fleetwood, slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and temporary bassist Bob Brunning, who was only there until McVie could be tempted away from The Bluesbreakers. It didn’t take long. No matter what has happened within the band since, Fleetwood and McVie have always remained.
Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous debut LP, a no-frills, bluesy affair, was released in February 1968. Not long after they entered the singles chart for the first time with Black Magic Woman, which became more famous via Santana’s version in 1970. Second album Mr Wonderful swiftly followed, featuring Christine Perfect on keyboards.
Around this time, Green had become impressed with a young guitarist called Danny Kirwan, and when his band Boilerhouse split, he invited him to join Fleetwood Mac. Green was unhappy with Spencer’s lack of willingness to help contribute to original material, but Kirwan was keen.
Among the material Green asked Kirwan for help with was Albatross. The song was said to have been inspired by Santo & Johnny’s Sleep Walk in 1959, though there is a more close resemblance rhythmically to Chuck Berry’s 1957 track Deep Feeling.
I love the lush sound of Albatross. This simple composition is for me one of the most atmospheric chart-toppers so far. From Fleetwood’s deep, muted drumming, played on timpani mallets to sound like rolling waves, to the languid guitar work of Green and Kirwan (Spencer is absent), there’s no wonder this gorgeous, tranquil tune has been used on TV and films so much over the years whenever a gorgeous scene of paradise is needing an appropriate piece of music. Apparently, the reason this single topped the charts is because it was used by the BBC on a nature documentary, and captured the public’s imagination.
The success of Albatross marked the first change in Fleetwood Mac’s sound, as they began to move away from pure blues during 1969. They signed with Immediate Records and Man of the World was a hit. Oh Well was a heavy rock classic, particuarly the first part, featuring a riff Led Zeppelin would be proud of.
Unfortunately, by the time of the dark psychedelia of The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown) in 1970, Green’s mental health was rapidly dimishing. He had taken LSD at a hippy commune in Munich and had become erratic. Following an argument in which Green announced he wanted to give all the band’s money to charity, he left Fleetwood Mac in May. After an uncredited appearance on their 1973 album Penguin, he disappeared into obscurity. When he did resurface in the 90s, he was a shadow of his former self. I wonder what he made of his old band’s enormous success?
Fleetwood Mac struggled once their principle songwriter had gone. Perfect, now married to McVie, became a full-time member that August. In February 1971 Spencer went out to buy a magazine. He never returned. After several days searching they discovered he had joined a cult known as the Children of God. Kirwan was the next to leave, in 1972, having become a full-blown alcoholic. After his last solo album in 1979 he left the music industry for good. Their was to be no comeback for Green’s protégé. He spent much of the 80s and 90s homeless, and divorced, and had an estranged son. He died in June 2018, aged 68.
After numerous line-up changes, success finally beckoned when guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and his partner Stevie Nicks joined up in 1975. They released their second eponymous LP, which sold millions. Despite their new-found commercial success, the new line-up was mired in personal problems. The McVies and Buckingham and Nicks all split up, and the relationship turmoil resulted in one of their most famous albums. Rumours is one of the most famous pop-rock albums of the 70s. They ended the decade with the more experimental Tusk.
For much of the 80s, Fleetwood Mac were on sabbatical, with solo careers taking up most of the time. This most famous line-up regrouped in 1987 for another huge-selling album. Tango in the Night was their biggest since Rumours, and featured the hit singles Little Lies and Everywhere.
I have to confess to not really getting the massive fame of the soft-rock 70s and 80s incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. I like Rumours, and Little Lies transports me back to my childhood, but they’re a bit too safe for me. Albatross is in my opinion their best single. Even the Beatles loved it, and would pinch the sound on their similarly gorgeous Sun King from Abbey Road (1969). Its soothing tones would also drift in and out of The KLF’s influential ambient Chill Out album from 1990.
Buckingham and Nicks left after a fight in 1987, and the next Fleetwood Mac album, 1990’s Behind the Mask, recieved mixed reviews. The 70s/80s era line-up reformed to perform at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as US President in 1993 to perform his campaign’s theme song, Don’t Stop. In 1997 they reformed again, and a year later Fleetwood Mac were entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As well as the current line-up, Green, Spencer and Kirwan were also inducted.
Fleetwood Mac’s last studio album to date was Say You Will in 2003. Buckingham left for (to date) the last time in 2018, and was replaced by Neil Finn from Crowded House and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The current line-up still perform Albatross, and their sole number 1 always appears on any greatest hits compilations.
Green passed away in his sleep in 2020, aged 73.
Written by: Peter Green
Producer: Mike Vernon
Weeks at number 1: 1 (29 January-4 February)
Actor Boris Karloff – 2 February