Sunday, 8 March 2020

Fleetwood Mac – Before The Beginning 1968-1970: Live & Demo Sessions

(Sony Music 19075923252)
reviewed by
Stuart Penney

During their brief 33-month lifetime, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac released four full albums, one of them a double set.  The total rises to five if you count The Original Fleetwood Mac, a studio outtakes collection which appeared in May 1971, almost exactly a year after Green quit the band.  Five studio albums, a couple of compilations, plus a clutch of non-LP singles in less than three years may seem prolific by today’s standards.  But in the mid/late 60s most bands worth their salt easily managed to turn out two albums a year alongside a punishing touring schedule.
Since then we’ve seen more than triple that number of retrospective releases by the Green era group, and what a haphazard collection they turned out to be.  Some were uniformly excellent (Live At The BBC, for example) while others (eg Show-Biz Blues and The Vaudeville Years) were patchy but with some truly essential moments.  Still others were exploitative live releases of poor quality and are best avoided.
*Peter Green onstage with Fender Bass VI

And now here comes Before The Beginning, yet another compilation of unreleased live recordings, with a few outtakes and demos tacked on the end.  Unlike some of the previous Mac collections which were issued by small, independent labels, this three CD set is an official Sony release, presumably issued with the blessing of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.  So, on the face of it, top quality is assured.  
Nicely presented in an oversized hardcover book sleeve with scholarly sleeve notes by Christopher Hjort and an abundance of full-page onstage photos (many of which I’d never seen before), this set certainly looks the part.  Recording information is tantalisingly thin on the ground, however. The tapes were apparently discovered, unlabelled, in the US, so not much is known about them other than they date from 1968 and 1970, neatly bookending Peter Green’s time with the band.
However, a little detective work reveals that the track listing for disc one and some of disc two matches an identical setlist Fleetwood Mac played during a series of concerts on 7, 8 and 9 June, 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco (and widely available on bootleg), so that gives us a pretty good idea of time and place for the first two discs.  Third guitarist Danny Kirwan arrives midway through disc two and the five-piece Mac takes us into 1970 with disc three. The set closes with three recordings taken from live TV and four unreleased studio demo cuts, all from 1968.  
Let’s not beat around the bush, much of the appeal of Fleetwood Mac, for me, at least, was the guitar, vocals and songwriting brilliance of Peter Green (and, later, the twin guitar interplay of Green and Danny Kirwan).  In any other band second guitarist Jeremy Spencer’s slide contributions may have been a drawcard, but alongside Green’s towering genius he often seemed surplus to requirements. Admittedly, Spencer’s extrovert personality injected a sense of fun into Mac’s live set and together with Mick Fleetwood the pair became a formidable onstage comedy team.  But I always felt Green was way too charitable in turning over half the band’s repertoire and a huge chunk of their first two albums to Spencer and his workmanlike but repetitive and somewhat limited bottleneck performances.  
That said, let’s take a track-by-track look at this new release. 
CD 1 (1968)
1. Madison Blues (Version 1) (Live) 
The set starts as it obviously intends to continue, with a textbook Elmore James mid-tempo shuffle from Jeremy Spencer.  Fleetwood Mac recorded a studio version of “Madison Blues” on the 1969 double set Blues Jam At Chess* and it also appeared on the Live In Boston album, recorded in February 1970.  Peter Green later tackled the song on his 1999 solo album Destiny Road, but perhaps the most famous cover was by George Thorogood and the Destroyers on their 1977 self-titled debut.  
First recorded on April 14, 1960 at Chess Studios in Chicago, the Elmore James’ original version eventually appeared on the 1968 Blue Horizon LP Tough and a year later on the Chess album Whose Muddy Shoes.
*UK and US versions of this album appeared in different guises and were titled, variously, Blues Jam At Chess, Blues Jam In Chicago and Fleetwood Mac In Chicago, all with slightly different track listings.

2. Something Inside Of Me (Live) 
Another slide guitar excursion by Jeremy Spencer, but much slower this time.  Originally recorded (as “Something Inside Me”) by Elmore James in 1960 but not released until 1966, it should not be confused with the slow blues of the same name credited to Danny Kirwan on the 1969 English Rose compilation album.  That is a different song entirely.

3. The Woman That I Love (Live) 
With a sparse arrangement pared to the bone, this relaxed loping shuffle is an early highlight, providing the first taste of Peter Green’s delicious guitar tone.  More than half a century on, Green’s playing can still raise goosebumps and this cover of B.B. King’s 1958 recording of “The Woman I Love” (there was no “That” in B.B’s original title) shows Peter at his best.  
Some Mac bootlegs title this song “My Baby’s Skinny”.  In 1968 Mike Vernon leased the B.B. King version for re-release on his Blue Horizon label.
4. Worried Dream (Live) 
“He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats” runs the famous quote from B.B. King, referring to Peter Green.  Those words could have been written for this performance, a cover of a song from B.B’s then-current 1968 Bluesway album Blues On Top Of Blues.  This slow minor key blues is another delight with Green in electrifying form.  
5. Dust My Blues (Live) 
Originally recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936 as “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, it was the 1955 Elmore James version which turned this song into an immutable blues standard.  It became James’ most famous recording and the distinctive opening slide guitar motif formed the cornerstone of Jeremy Spencer’s entire style and sound. Fleetwood Mac first recorded it as “Dust My Broom” (the titles became interchangeable) for their 1968 second album Mr. Wonderful.

6. Got To Move (Live)
Move along, nothing to see here.  This is a somewhat limp live version of a Jeremy Spencer slide guitar track from the February 1968 Fleetwood Mac debut LP (dubbed the “Dog and Dustbin Album”, due to the cover photo).  “Got To Move” was originally recorded by Homesick James and then covered in 1960 by Elmore James (but not released until 1966). Homesick played guitar in Elmore’s band and claimed to be his older cousin, although it was never confirmed. 
7. Trying So Hard To Forget (Live)
A moving solo performance from Peter.  This was originally the poignant closing track on Mr. Wonderful, where joint composer credits appeared as Peter Green and “C.G. Adams”.  The latter was the real name of Fleetwood Mac’s then-manager Clifford Davis, who received co-credits on six Mr. Wonderful tracks.  
In 1974 Davis launched a bogus version of Fleetwood Mac while the real band was temporarily in hiatus.  Legal proceedings swiftly followed. Peter Green receives sole composer credits here. 
8. Instrumental (Live) 
Another highlight for fans of Peter Green’s guitar work, the ambiguously titled “Instrumental” starts off with what sounds like the riff from Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” before slipping into a fearsome nine-minute jam, not a million miles removed from the two “Madge” tracks on Then Play On.  Mick Fleetwood also supplies a powerful drum solo.

9. Have You Ever Loved A Woman (Live)
This superb take on Freddy King’s song may be worth the price of admission alone.  In later years “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” would become synonymous with Eric Clapton and his sublime Layla version, but Green’s delicate touch and powerhouse vocals are a masterclass on how the song should be presented.  John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers performed it in 1965/66 when Clapton was in the line-up, so it’s quite possible Peter Green also played the song during his time with Mayall.  Freddy King recorded the original version as his debut single for the Federal label on August 26, 1960. 
10. Lazy Poker Blues (Live) 
One of the strongest tracks on Mr Wonderful, “Lazy Poker Blues” sounds equally robust when played live.  The band is right in the pocket as Green delivers a powerful performance, both vocally and on guitar.  Originally a “Green/Adams” song (see disc 1, track 7), this set credits only Peter Green as composer.
11. Stop Messing Around (Live)
The first disappointment so far.  I’m guessing the tape ran out just as the band started to play, as only a 70 second fragment of the song remains.  Even so, it deserves its place here if only to hear Green substitute “Messing” with a well-known expletive. The short but sweet guitar solo is pretty good too and that is almost certainly Paul Butterfield guesting on harmonica.  
The title of this song has long been a punctuation minefield for rock writers.  It appears as “Stop Messing Around” here, but on the original 1968 Blue Horizon LP it is shown as “Stop Messin’ Round”.  Other punctuation combinations are available. Pull out your copy of Mr. Wonderful if you need to hear the whole glorious 2:34 original version.
12. I Loved Another Woman (Live)
This gently flowing minor key blues originally appeared on the first Mac album and it sounds even better here.  Paul Butterfield guests once again and he takes a fine harp solo at 2:20. 
13. I Believe My Time Ain’t Long (Version 1) (Live)
It’s Elmore James time again as Jeremy Spencer steps up to perform what is basically “Dust My Blues” under another name.  “I Believe My Time Ain’t Long” was the A-side of Fleetwood Mac’s debut single, released on November 3, 1967. Paul Butterfield is again featured.

14. Sun Is Shining (Live)
Originally recorded by Elmore James on the Chess label in May 1960, Mac’s version first appeared as the B-side of their second UK single “Black Magic Woman” in March 1968.  It was later included on their first compilation LP The Pious Bird Of Good Omen in August 1969.  This mournful (some might say dreary) live version again features Paul Butterfield.

CD 2 (1968 & 1970)
1. Long Tall Sally (Live)
I never particularly enjoyed hearing blues/rock bands playing generic 50s rock & roll covers.  It was seemingly de rigueur in the late 60s and early 70s, but always seemed like the lazy option. Fleetwood Mac did it better than most, however, and Peter rips into the 1956 Little Richard standard with gusto.  You probably had to be there to get the full effect, however. This seems to be Paul Butterfield’s final guest appearance.
2. Willie and the Hand Jive (Live)
The same applies to this cover of Johnny Otis’ 1958 classic “Willie and the Hand Jive”, although Peter adds some nice guitar licks behind Jeremy’s vocal.  
3. I Need Your Love So Bad (Live)
Sadly, Mac’s greatest Green era song appears here as a 90 second fragment and seems to have suffered the same fate as “Stop Messing Around” (see disc 1, track 11).  The sound is not that great in places, either. Originally recorded by Little Willie John in 1955 on the King label, it was Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 third UK single and, some say, their finest moment.  Strangely, the song has been given a redundant “I” in the title here.

4. I Believe My Time Ain’t Long (Version 2) (Live)
Another day, another version of “I Believe My Time Ain’t Long”.  Indistinguishable from the earlier version, except Paul Butterfield is absent this time. 
5. Shake Your Money Maker (Live) 
You have to hand it to Jeremy Spencer; he always performed a great version of this Elmore James slide guitar classic.  It’s one of the stand-out tracks on the “Dog & Dustbin Album” and this almost nine-minute extended live version sounds equally good.  As was his habit back then, Jeremy serves up some casual onstage profanity and Peter's rhythm guitar is rock solid. The Elmore James 1961 original is included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and in 2019, the Blues Foundation inducted it into the Blues Hall of Fame as a "Classic of Blues Recording".
6. Before the Beginning (Live)
We now move to 1970 and Fleetwood Mac are a quintet, Danny Kirwan having joined in August 1968.  This radically changed the sound of the band as they began to move away from the blues into the rock mainstream with more complex twin guitar material featuring studio overdubbing and editing.  The Green-penned “Before The Beginning” was the closing track on Then Play On, Peter’s final album with Mac and this live version is quite superb.  Danny’s presence allows Peter to stretch out and their delicate intertwining guitars are a joy.  Peter’s lyrics were starting to get worryingly introspective by this point, however. 
7. Only You (Live) 
Despite being a concert favourite, the first Danny Kirwan composition included in this set never featured on any Fleetwood Mac album during the band’s lifetime, turning up years later on the many variations of Live In Boston.  Danny was a perfect fit for Mac, his ferocious, pitch-perfect string-bending and delicate vibrato were a revelation, especially live.
8. Madison Blues (Version 2) (Live)
Not much to choose between them, but this version perhaps has the edge over the opening track on disc one.
9. Can’t Stop Lovin’ (Live) 
Yet another Elmore James number, this time delivered rhumba style.  It stayed in the Mac repertoire after Peter Green left and has since turned up on a few live albums recorded in the short window before Jeremy Spencer also quit the band in 1971.  The Elmore James original appeared in 1953 on the Flair label.

10. The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown) (Live) 
In 1969 Fleetwood Mac scored hits with five different songs and spent more weeks in the UK singles charts than the Beatles, the first time anyone had achieved that feat since 1963.  Peter wrote some of his best songs towards the end of his time in the band and “The Green Manalishi” could be the greatest of them all.  
This live version runs for 12 minutes and during the instrumental break Green plays an extended solo on a Fender Bass VI (a six string bass tuned one octave above a normal bass and an octave below a regular guitar), something he had started to do in 1969 and 1970.  Listen out for the guitar changeover around five minutes into the performance. There is some applause of recognition at the very start of the track, indicating the US crowd were already familiar with the song. But since Peter left Fleetwood Mac on May 20, 1970, only five days after the record was released, it suggests the song (recorded in April) had been performed live for some time before that date.  
The original single of “The Green Manalishi” was issued on May 15, 1970 and it’s thought to be the last track Peter recorded with Fleetwood Mac.  The song spent 12 weeks in the UK charts, peaking at #10, bringing an extraordinary run of hits to an end. It would be five years before Mac, by then fronted by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, entered the singles chart again.  “The Green Manalishi” has been covered many times, notably by Judas Priest (who also performed it at Live Aid in 1985), Corrosion of Conformity, Arthur Brown and The Melvins.  
11. Albatross (Live)  
Fleetwood Mac’s biggest hit reached #1 in January 1969, spending 20 weeks in the UK singles chart and going on to sell almost a million copies.  This live version is a commendable effort with some fine harmony guitar work from Peter and Danny. Jeremy Spencer is not featured here, just as he didn’t play on the original single (despite miming along with the rest of the band on Top of the Pops).  
Although a non-album track, “Albatross” features on virtually all Mac’s greatest hits compilations to this day, first appearing on The Pious Bird Of Good Omen in August 1969.  The album title is taken from a phrase found in a marginal note to the 1817 revised version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, referring to the albatross killed in the poem: "The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen".  
Inspired by Santo & Johnny’s 1959 steel guitar hit “Sleep Walk”, “Albatross” in turn motivated the Beatles, no less, to record “Sun King” from the Abbey Road album.  “We said, ‘Let’s be Fleetwood Mac doing “Albatross,” just to get going,’ ” George Harrison recalled. “It never really sounded like Fleetwood Mac, but that was the point of origin.”

12. World In Harmony (Version 1) (Live) 
Perhaps the stand-out track on disc two, “World In Harmony” showcases the delicate twin guitars of Green and Kirwan in perfect, ahem, harmony.  A non-album track written jointly by Peter and Danny (the only Fleetwood Mac song to receive this credit), it originally appeared as the B-side of the single “The Green Manalishi”.  
In later years versions turned up on the albums Live in Boston, Show-Biz Blues and The Vaudeville Years.  Some might say the newly signed Wishbone Ash built their entire career around this style of twin lead guitar harmony.

13. Sandy Mary (Live)
This Peter Green-penned generic rocker has always worked much better in concert than on record, which probably explains why there is no studio version.  It has also featured on the Live At The BBC and Live In Boston albums
14. Only You (Version 2) (Live)
Another version of the Danny Kirwan song (see disc 2, track 7).  Not much to choose between them, but the guitar solo here is possibly even better than the earlier version. 
15. World In Harmony (Version 2) (Live)
Instead of being relegated to a B-side, “World In Harmony” could easily have found a place on the original version of Then Play On.  It eventually made the grade on the 2013 Rhino Records Deluxe CD edition of the album.  This second live version is just as good as the first (see disc 2, track 12). Alternate versions appear on The Vaudeville Years and Showbiz Blues.
CD 3 (1970 & 1968)
1. I Can’t Hold Out (Live) 
This Elmore James song is also known as “Talk To Me Baby” and Fleetwood Mac have recorded it under both titles on albums such as Blues Jam At Chess and The Vaudeville Years.  Elmore’s original was recorded in 1960 and he re-cut it in 1963 during his final recording session.  
The song was originally credited to the great Willie Dixon, but later versions list Elmore James as composer.  Many artists have covered the song, including Eric Clapton (on 461 Ocean Boulevard), Canned Heat and Buddy Guy. 
2. Oh Well (Part 1) (Live) 
Originally a non-album double-sided single released in September 1969, “Oh Well” was later added to updated versions of Then Play On.  The single charted well around the world (except North America, where it flopped), eventually peaking at #2 in the UK.  The track included here is a rather perfunctory version of “Part 1” (minus the classical section) coming in at under three minutes.

3. Rattlesnake Shake (Live) 
This ode to onanism was selected as the US follow-up single to “Oh Well” which had failed to sell in America.  It did only marginally better there, reaching #30 in the Billboard charts. In concert, however, “Rattlesnake Shake” soon developed into a crowd-pleasing extended jam, running to 15 minutes or more.  
This 13-minute version contains sections of “Fighting/Searching For Madge” at eight minutes in.  The song became a heavy rock favourite, covered by Aerosmith, who regularly played it in concert. Even erstwhile Mac members Bob Welch, Rick Vito and, yes, Mick Fleetwood himself have recorded versions on their own albums.  
Other than a little piano, Jeremy Spencer did not appear on any Then Play On tracks.  The original plan was to include a bonus five song EP of his rock & roll pastiches with the album, but this didn’t eventuate.  Those tracks later turned up in 1998 on the retrospective set The Vaudeville Years.  A full solo LP titled, simply, Jeremy Spencer, containing a mix of blues, rock & roll, doo wop and comedy, featuring every Fleetwood Mac member in some capacity, was released in January 1970. 

4. Underway (Live)  
As “Rattlesnake Shake” winds down, it segues seamlessly into “Underway”.  Another Then Play On instrumental track, with a similar feel to “Albatross”, it rolls along on a wave of twin guitars from Peter and Danny.  As Green told Rolling Stone in 2001 “It was spontaneously composed by the whole lot of us all just playing in the studio and recording whatever we came up with – free-form.  It’s what I used to play before I had my problems.” There is a quite superb 16-minute unedited version of “Underway” on The Vaudeville Years album and the 7+ minute live version here is also excellent.
5. Coming Your Way (Live) 
The opening track from Then Play On, the Danny Kirwan-penned “Coming Your Way” kicks off with the same distinctive staccato power chords before Mick picks up the beat and the song slips into a fair old gallop.  This 11+ minute version features a drum solo with added percussion from Peter and Jeremy. Danny contributes a fierce guitar interlude as the track develops into a Santana-tinged Latin groove.  
6. Homework (Live) 
We’re in Europe for the final three live tracks.  Probably recorded December 1968 in Paris during a TV appearance, “Homework” is vintage Mac with Peter playing some ferocious guitar.  Jeremy contributes piano. Fleetwood Mac first released this song on the Blues Jam At Chess double set in late 1969, so the performance featured here pre-dates that version.  
The song was first recorded in 1962 by Otis Rush as a US single on the Duke label.  It gained a UK release on Vocalion in 1966.
7. My Baby’s Sweet (Live)
Another mid-tempo Homesick James cover from Jeremy Spencer, this was also recorded in Paris, 1968.  A version appeared on the Show-Biz Blues album wrongly credited as “My Baby’s Sweeter”.  The original Homesick James version was issued in 1963 on the USA label as the B-side of “Crossroads” (yes, that one, although not credited to Robert Johnson).  The single was picked up for UK release by the Sue label in August 1964. 
8. My Baby’s Gone (Live)
We come to the end of the live tracks and they go out exactly as they began way back on disc one, with Jeremy Spencer channelling Elmore James.  This is the third Paris TV recording from December 1968. Elmore's original dates from 1952 (or 1954) when it was known as “Please Find My Baby”.  Mac recorded a song titled “My Baby’s Gone” on Blues Jam At Chess, but it did not feature Jeremy Spencer and was credited to David “Honey Boy” Edwards who sang lead vocals, with Buddy Guy on guitar.
9. You Need Love (Demo)
The final four tracks are studio demos from 1968 and these are perhaps the highlights of the entire set.  Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” has a long and chequered history. It was originally recorded by Muddy Waters (over an instrumental backing track by the Earl Hooker band) and released as a 1962 US single on the Chess label.  Although Peter probably learned it from a 1963 UK EP on Pye International, the label which handled Chess recordings in Britain during the 60s.

In 1969 the song formed the basis of Led Zeppelin’s multi million-selling worldwide hit “Whole Lotta Love.”  At first Zeppelin claimed sole writing credits but the similarities were too obvious to ignore, and eventually Willie Dixon was given joint credit and a sizable out of court settlement.  I’m guessing Jimmy Page also owned a copy of Muddy’s Pye International EP as it contained the track “You Shook Me”, another blues boom standard with unassailable versions by Zeppelin and Jeff Beck. 
Three years before Page & co got their hands on “You Need Love” the Small Faces recorded it (as “You Need Loving”) on their 1966 self-titled debut album.  Credited to Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane, their version was even closer to the Muddy Waters’ original than Zeppelin’s, but perhaps because it was tucked away on a comparatively obscure album, it passed virtually unnoticed at the time.  Marriott later claimed that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant came to several Small Faces gigs and expressed much interest in the song.

Fleetwood Mac’s version was recorded around the time of Mr. Wonderful, almost a year before LZ’s “Whole Lotta Love” and sticks closer to Muddy's original arrangement than either Zeppelin or the Small Faces.  There are no flashy solos here, but Peter holds down the main riff throughout and delivers a great vocal, while Danny’s guitar mirrors the vocal line.  We can only imagine what might have happened if Fleetwood Mac had released this song before Led Zeppelin. If nothing else, they would have credited Willie Dixon, that’s for sure.
10. Talk With You (Demo)
This Danny Kirwan-penned mid-tempo shuffle later turned up on Blues Jam At Chess in 1969, where Otis Spann contributed some fine barrelhouse piano.  The version here is not nearly as well recorded as the Blues Jam album and the piano (courtesy of Jeremy Spencer) is barely audible, but the twin harmony guitars save the day. 
11. If It Ain’t Me (Who You Thinking Of) (GK Edit) (Demo)
This is the four-man Fleetwood Mac with Jeremy on piano and Peter delivering a robust vocal and harmonica performance.  “If It Ain’t Me” was originally written and recorded in 1956 by Jimmy Rogers on a Chess single. The B-side of that single “Walking By Myself” was later covered by Johnny Winter, Gary Moore and many others.  During the late 40s and into the 50s Rogers played guitar with the Muddy Waters band and also recorded under his own name.  
12. Mean Old World (Demo)
The set closes with a great version of T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World”.  Featuring just Peter, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, this is the kind of bare bones track Mac did better than almost anyone else.  It has a similar, sparse feel to “Merry Go Round” from their first album but with an added shuffle beat. 
This song dates to 1942 when T-Bone Walker first recorded it, although he had been performing it live for a couple of years before that.  The first released recording was probably T-Bone’s 1945 single on Capitol. Little Walter turned it into a Chicago blues standard with his early 50s hit version for Chess records.  Countless cover versions followed, including one by Chicken Shack on their 1969 second album OK Ken.  In a wonderful piece of synchronicity, the vocal on that recording was by Christine Perfect, then playing keyboards with the Shack, but soon to marry John McVie, transform herself into Christine McVie and join Fleetwood Mac.  

Overall, the sound quality of these 41 tracks is excellent, comparable to a very good bootleg.  There are a few pops, buzzes and drop-outs, but they don’t really detract from the fidelity, let alone the historical value of the recordings.  We could have lived without multiple versions of some tracks, perhaps, but that may have unbalanced the running time. The pair of partially lost tracks (“Need Your Love So Bad” and “Stop Messing Around”) are the only major disappointments but I’m happy to have the fragments rather than nothing at all.  Still, it had to be those two tracks where the tape ran out and not a couple of the Elmore James covers, didn’t it? 

1 comment:

  1. As comprehensive an appraisal of this great band's work as you could find. It will undoubtedly lead to me revisiting Fleetwood Mac's early recordings. I'll get on it right away.


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