Early 70’s Mac Attack

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Do you want to listen to something good?  Put on Fleetwood Mac’s Kiln House from 1970.  It sounds great on an I-pod but I would advise cranking it on a car stereo for maximum righteousness if you can.  It’s a great sounding album and a wonderful piece of Mac history.  Fleetwood Mac was at a pivotal point in their career when they made Kiln House.  Their leader and founder Peter Green had just quit the band.   Green formed Fleetwood Mac in 1967 as an electric blues band.  A couple of years later he was gone. Between Peter Green’s original blues band and their eventual multi-mega-hit, arena rock explosion with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac soldiered on through years of albums, tours and line-up changes.  Kiln House marks the beginning of that journey.

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The original Fleetwood Mac in 1967, Left to Right: Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green, John McVie and Jeremy Spencer

It turns out Peter Green was somewhat of a visionary.  In 1966, he had been playing lead guitar in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, backed by drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (Fleetwood was only in Mayall’s band for about six weeks).  Green decided to break off from Mayall and form his own band.  He admired his rhythm section so much that he named his new band Fleetwood Mac, from their names.  At first, he couldn’t even get both namesakes to join his new outfit.  McVie wasn’t up for leaving his steady gig with Mayall.  But Peter Green still went ahead and named his band Fleetwood Mac anyway.  Eventually, McVie did join the group and he never left.  In fact, decades after Peter Green was long gone, the rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie remain the only consistent part of the Fleetwood Mac line-up on every single record.  The group’s sound evolved and evolved through many different songwriters and singers, but that groovy old rhythm section just kept on trucking, anchoring the band through it all.

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When Kiln House was made, Fleetwood Mac was a four-piece band.  With Peter Green’s blues revivalism and brooding narratives suddenly gone from the act, guitarists Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer were responsible for singing and writing all the songs.  John McVie had just married the former Christine Perfect, singer and keyboardist from a band called Chicken Shack.  Christine wasn’t officially in Fleetwood Mac yet, but she drew the album’s artwork and played some keyboards uncredited.  You can hear her guest harmonies clearly on the song “Station Man”.  She had yet to step into her duties as the band’s principle songwriter and singer.  The songwriting of Spencer and Kirwan isn’t much to write home aboutSpencer goofs around with a fair amount of bogus English Americana on Kiln House.  There’s some 50’s rock nostalgia and faux-country mixed in to his folk-rock. Kirwan’s songs are more straight-ahead hippy blues-rock, sung with his sweet little angelic voice.  The jamming and riffing of the Peter Green Mac is still integral to several songs on Kiln House, most notably Station Man, Jewel-Eyed Judy and Tell Me.  But there’s a light heartedness to the heavy jams of the album.  Somehow, the whole informal mix of stuff just works.  At least it worked for the duration of the Kiln House album.  A few months after the record came out, Jeremy Spencer would step off of a Fleetwood Mac tour in Los Angeles and join a cult, never to return.  Danny Kirwan lasted for two more years in Fleetwood Mac before getting the boot.

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One thing I really love about Kiln House is that its whole conception follows a model that no longer exists in the music industry and only really existed briefly:  You’ve got a band with no flashy front person and no hit singles on them.  They’ve got a following because they tour their butts off and they’re super-tight from playing a million shows.  So the record company pays for a bunch of hippies to hole up in a house in the country for a month or two and get an album together.  One of the guy’s girlfriends draws some loving, hopeful, hand-drawn hippy art for the cover.  The record comes out and the band goes back on tour.  The album doesn’t go gold, but the label doesn’t drop them.  You pick up the album somewhere, put in on, float away and listen to those hippies rock out.  Maybe you catch the band the next time they come through town and when the next record comes out you check it out and see if you like that one too.  It seems like that was a pretty good way to develop some really big talent for a while.

The Mac made five more albums for Warner/Reprise without a hit and moved to Los Angeles before busting out big with their 1975 self-titled album featuring “Rhiannon”, “Landslide” and “You Say You Love Me.”  All five of those early 70’s records are uneven, but they all have their moments and the groovy bass and drumming are the yellow brick road that runs right through it all.  Once Christine McVie’s singing and songwriting is added to the mix, you’re assured at least one or two gems per record and I enjoy listening to the evolution evident in the other stuff too.  Of those albums I recommend Penguin and Mystery to Me most of all, though I like songs on all of them.  I think Kiln House stands out as a little more special than those other transition records.  It’s feels fresh and free of the big league slickness that would follow.  Not that I don’t love mega-hit Mac.  Their famous records feature some of the greatest pop songwriting and recording craft I know of and the singing and playing on all of them is exquisite.  Rumours was my introduction to the Mac and I still listen to it all the time and marvel at its perfection.  Kiln House isn’t that kind of pop perfection experience.  It’s just a damn good sounding record by a damn good band, pretty early in their career.

In fact, Kiln House was just one in a slew of wonderful sounding records by damn good acts that Warner/Reprise released around the turn of the 70’s.  I’ve been meaning to ask a producer or an engineer what they think accounts for the amazingly clear and warm sound of so many of those albums.  They weren’t all made in the same studios or with the same musicians or engineers but they’re all great and they came out over the course of just a few years.  I’ll give you a few examples:

Joni Mitchell Blue

Van Morrison Moondance

The Kinks Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One

The Faces Long Player

The Grateful Dead American Beauty

Bonnie Raitt Takin’ My Time

James Taylor Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town

Neil Young Harvest

Randy Newman Sail Away

Ry Cooder Boomer’s Story

…They all sound really wonderful…and there are so many more…

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7 Responses to Early 70’s Mac Attack

  1. Jim Morrow says:

    Just like you, I’ve never been able to pinpoint why this album sounds so good to me. I still play it often, along with Then Play On and Bare Trees. So many groups, mainly English, followed the country house template including Fairport Convention, The Band, and even Led Zeppelin, but it was sadly short-lived. I know what you mean about those 70’s WB/Reprise albums. I always wondered why early albums by Dylan, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and (yes) Paul Revere & the Raiders sounded so much better than others at the time. It wasn’t just the producers, but there was something about those records that made them stand out. Listen to the Byrds first album from 1964, and it sounds like albums made years later. All of Dylan’s early full band albums sound stunning.

    • Milty Rose says:

      I don’t think we should mystify away some very simple facts. A lot of what sounds great on those records is the sound of bands that played live all of the time together. They knew very well how to blend sounds with each other and play with dynamics. They knew how to get good sounds out of their instruments and amplifiers. Another big part of what sounded great were great songs and compelling voices. On the technical end, people used to play in very well-treated acoustical rooms. Engineers knew very well how to set up microphones to capture performances. A live mix was very important because vinyl mastering was far more sensitive than today’s super loud mastering. The constraints helped people hone their skills. As for holing up in a house and making a record, their was a brief period where the bottom line was less of a religion. Development of talent was considered a worthwhile investment (and it was) and the economy supported it.

  2. Stuart says:

    Nice blog. Thought I’d chime in a bit and echo your appreciation of Kiln House. The Spencer tracks strike me as goofy but still work fairly well as a counter-weight to the Kirwan tunes, not that they are particularly heavy, just more rocking. I also want to say Danny Kirwan’s post-Peter Green era recordings are my favorite thing about Fleetwood Mac. I’m aware I’m likely to be in the minority on this issue. But his tracks on Kiln House, Future Games and Bare Trees display so much beauty, talent and uncontrived emotion that I am drawn back to them again and again. They rock, they float, they shimmer. A one-of-a-kind voice, one-of-a-kind guitar sound, one-of-a-kind songwriter. Peter Green saw it early on. So sad that Danny wasn’t able to Play On after all.

    • Milty Rose says:

      Thanks Stuart. I very much agree about some of Jeremy Spencer’s tracks sounding a bit goofy on Kiln House and yet still working. I too hear something special in Danny Kirwan’s natural abilities as a singer, guitarist and songwriter. I can’t say he was great with a lyric, but his musicality was rare. He really had something. Unfortunately, that something wasn’t able to make it past a certain point in his professional career. When you look at Fleetwood Mac and their long, storied history, you can get a really good glimpse of just how hard it is to make it to the top in the field of popular music. Natural talent is only one piece of the puzzle. Often there are many casualties along the way. Danny Kirwan’s story is one of many such sad stories. I’m not sure it could have gone otherwise. …Now I’ve got to pull out my copies of Future Games and Bare Trees and revisit!

      • Stuart says:

        Very well said. Again, I enjoy your thoughtful musings on music here. Looking forward to morein the future. Cheers.

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