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Great Weston Express
on 26 February 2003
Fleetwood Mac 1970-1975. This period is called "the wilderness years" or something similar, if it is called anything at all. It is frequently overlooked completely, which is a shame as it accounts for a sizeable chunk of Fleetwood Mac's output, no less than six albums, among which listeners can find much to admire. "Mystery to Me" is one of the most consistent and satisfying albums of that era. It is an important part of Fleetwood Mac's catalogue overall and deserves a major reappraisal, not least as we contemplate the imminent return of the band in their Buckingham/Nicks configuration, although apparently without Christine McVie, who has retired to the country. Some of you will know the complicated history of the band already so please forgive me if I bore you with it for a short while, or if you prefer, skip the next two paragraphs.
With their exhilerating brand of blues-rock, Fleetwood Mac's earlier incarnations under the legendary Peter Green had been a veritable hit machine in the UK, although they remained relatively unknown in the US. But FM had an unfortunate habit of losing guitarists, and in the same people, songwriters. After Green and Jeremy Spencer had decided to "go their own way" (awful pun, sorry), the band took the brave step in 1971 of recruiting the Californian guitarist Bob Welch to save them from oblivion, thus embarking on their gradual transition from the blues-rock of old to the mainstream rock of "Rumours" and beyond. They would lose some more guitarists before Lindsey Buckingham picked up the baton in 1975, however.
These changes had already been on the cards in 1970 with the arrival of Christine McVie, whose instinctive way with seductive pop-rock compositions and smoky-smooth piano and vocals would become a major part of FM's attraction for years to come. But in late 1972, following the sad but probably unavoidable firing of emotionally troubled guitarist Danny Kirwan, it looked as if even such bold moves might not save FM. The answer? Recruit another guitarist fast! And so arrived Bob Weston.
The 1973 release "Mystery to Me" ("MTM") was the second album to feature Weston on guitar (he'd made his debut on "Penguin" earlier that year). MTM stands as a "lost classic" in the FM canon. Bob Welch is also a very capable singer, songwriter and guitarist. He and Christine McVie between them handled most of the songwriting duties. This line-up certainly gelled, becoming a tight unit anchored by the solid foundations of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, a rhythm section that remains the envy of many a band. MTM sounds like the work of a band which has slipped into gear and knows exactly where it wants to drive. It oozes confidence.
"Emerald Eyes" is a magisterial opener with marvellous interweaving of Welch's and Christine McVie's vocals. Welch demonstrates his versatility, for example with the dreamy "Hypnotised" and the rocking "Miles Away". McVie adds a decent quota of breezy cruisers like "Believe Me" and "Just Crazy Love", which are in no way poor relations to her better known material on later albums.
Bob Welch and Christine McVie were in inspired form on MTM, but the album belongs especially to Bob Weston. Whilst British audiences were still mourning the departure of Peter Green and the band couldn't get arrested in the UK, this new FM line-up was enjoying the band's highest chart placings yet in America. Weston demonstrated to anyone who cared to listen that he was no slouch. He displayed a keen understanding of FM's blues-rock legacy as well as a deft hand with the more mainstream rock sound the band had developed. He plays up a storm on tracks like "Miles Away" and contrasts that with enormous sensitivity, for instance on "Hypnotised" and the haunting ballad "Why" for which he is also the (uncredited) arranger.
This rejuvenated version of FM might have gone on to conquer the world, but their progress was about to be hindered yet again by the loss of another guitarist. This time it was Bob Weston's turn. Whilst FM's history has been littered with "rumours" (sorry!) of infidelity, intrigue, break-ups and make-ups, Weston's "crime" was to get on a little too well with Mick Fleetwood's wife. The fact that other FM members then, and subsequently, were playing "musical beds" (as Bob Welch has put it) couldn't deflect the apparent wrath of Mick Fleetwood. Only a few years later such "liaisons dangereuses" would be virtually compulsory if you wanted to be in Fleetwood Mac but in 1973 the new boys were expected to behave. So Weston was fired and the promise of MTM was suddenly dissipated. In the following year Bob Welch would quit and it would be down to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks this time to save FM from oblivion. As anyone who has turned on a radio or walked into a record shop since 1975 knows, they did save FM, rather spectacularly. We can still also celebrate that era of FM which many neglect, and which in the shape of "Mystery to Me" should be revered.