Up until quite recently putting together a Complete Fleetwood Mac playlist wasn’t even possible. If you had explored the band’s catalog across all streaming services, you would’ve encountered the same problem: While every record from the Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham era was available (including expanded editions of Rumours, Tusk, and the crazy underrated Tango in the Night), and the Peter Green-era titles, while hobbled by a few nit-picky omissions, were largely intact, the stretch of albums linking these two periods was totally MIA.
Of course, the fact that Kiln House (1970), Future Games (1971), Bare Trees (1972), Penguin (1973), Mystery to Me (1973), and Heroes Are Hard to Find (1974) have been added to the group’s streaming catalog shouldn’t register the same level of excitement as, say, AC/DC or Bob Seger opening up their discographies to Spotify and Apple Music for the very first time. Nevertheless, they are vital titles that deserve love from serious classic-rock fans. Not only are they key to understanding Fleetwood Mac’s gradual (and frequently bumpy) journey from British blues and hard rock to sun-drenched California pop, they boast some of the best tunes of the band’s long and winding career. Bare Trees is particularly sublime. A favorite for more than a few longtime Mac obsessives, it’s a hazy, zoned-out, comedown album showcasing a trio of gifted songwriters in Christine McVie, Danny Kirwan, and Bob Welch.
When encountering these albums, the uninitiated will immediately notice they’re all over the stylistic map. After all, they document a band searching for an identity after the hasty departure of founding member Green, whose moody vision and six-string genius dominated the group (despite him splitting lead vocal duties with ’50s-rock fetishist Jeremy Spencer). Where McVie’s “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” is a moving slice of singer/songwriter fare infused with gospel’s ecstatic longing, Kirwan’s “Sometimes” is rambling, countrified folk-rock that sounds as if it could’ve been recorded in a remote English cottage. The American-born Welch—who, along with McVie, was the outfit’s most dependable songwriter during this time—complicates things further, penning both hyper-lush pop ballads (“Sentimental Lady”) and post-psychedelic jams drawing in touches of fusion and The Grateful Dead (“Coming Home”).
But despite their deliciously messy nature, these records also show how Mac began moving towards tightly crafted pop-rock before Buckingham and Nicks’ entrance at the tail end of 1974. The most obvious instances are the McVie cuts “Prove Your Love” and “Remember Me,” which find her deep, enigmatic voice and genius for melancholic balladry already locked in place. But there’s also odd stuff like “Forever,” from Mystery to Me: Benefitting from Mick Fleetwood’s interest in African music and percussion, the rhythmic ditty totally hints at the quirky shuffles that Buckingham had the drummer work into both Tusk and Tango in the Night.
At this point, fans adamant that Fleetwood Mac peaked during the Buckingham and Nicks years (something I won’t argue against) might be wondering why I haven’t delved into those records as much. Well, they’ve been picked apart and examined so intensely I decided to devote more words to the group’s lesser-known recordings in hopes of exposing folks to music they possibly haven’t heard. That said, I do want to touch on the otherworldly and exotic Tango in the Night—which everybody reading this needs to add to their library ASAP—because it’s a goddamn great record: kind of like Tusk in how it packs a lot of eccentric sounds and ideas into songs that are insanely catchy, only this time around Buckingham decides to be a ruthless editor. A perfect example is the title track, which pushes his fascination with rhythm as a compositional element to new extremes, sounding like some kind of classic-rock interpretation of 4AD-style dream pop. Just brilliant—so much so, in fact, that my playlist has more tracks from it than Buckingham and Nicks’ 1975 debut with the band. Risky, but I think you won’t be disappointed