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Fleetwood Mac at 50: Mick Fleetwood Shares Tales of Blues and Friendship from the Iconic Band’s Early Days

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Daniel Sullivan

For many, the story of Fleetwood Mac begins with the 1974 arrival of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, the talented yet combustible American duo who ignited an explosive string of hits that continue to define the band. But Mick Fleetwood wants to move past those rumors. Fans of the group’s pop jewels would hardly recognize their original incarnation as one of the most respected British blues bands of the ’60s. Now the founding drummer is telling the tale of those formative years in Love That Burns: A Chronicle of Fleetwood Mac, Volume One 1967–1974a lavish new book by Genesis Publications due out Sept. 19. Featuring never-before-scene photos, insightful interviews from band members and intimates, and even a vinyl 7-inch of rare early recordings, it brings this often forgotten chapter of Fleetwood Mac’s history to life.

The band initially coalesced around Peter Green, a 20-year-old guitarist whose formidable chops had earned him Eric Clapton‘s former slot in the seminal London blues outfit John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. It was while playing with Mayall that he forged a musical alliance with Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. They ultimately splintered off to form a new project—which Green named in honor of his rhythm section. After experimenting in the studio, the group made their live debut on Aug. 13, 1967 at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival with the lineup of Green, Fleetwood, guitarist Jeremy Spencer, and bassist Bob Brunning. McVie, who was literally watching in the wings, would join for good soon after, as would a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan. From there, they began notching chart entries in the U.K. that include the original version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” and the sublimely soulful instrumental “Albatross.”

Courtesy of Sony Music Archives

In what would become something of a recurring theme in their career, serious interpersonal problems soon threatened to tear the group apart from within. By the dawn of the ’70s, Green and Kirwan departed due to struggles with mental illness exacerbated by drug use, while Spencer parted ways with the group following a religious conversion. With the abdication of their primary creative forces, Fleetwood and McVie soldiered on with guitarists Bob Welch and Bob Weston, as well as the multi-talented Christine McVie, who happened to be married to the bassist. Fittingly, Love That Burns closes with an image of the El Carmen, a Mexican eatery in Los Angeles where Fleetwood and the McVies held an “audition” over dinner with Buckingham and Nicks.

But that’s a different book.

Fleetwood spoke to PEOPLE about those early days in the Swinging Sixties, reconnecting with his past, and the friendship that formed the heart and soul of one of the biggest bands in rock history.

Michael Putland

Over the years you’ve become the unofficial archivist of the band. Was there a point when you made a conscious decision to hold onto things for the sake of history? 

I held onto a chunk of stuff, though part of the story is that in truth it wasn’t as much as I thought. But the book company, Genesis, is hugely conversant with researching and finding stuff that maybe I had elements of, but not the negatives and all that. So we ended up with, in a way, upping the whole approach. These presentations are really a rarity when you get into the workings of how they come together; it’s a real piece of art in itself. All the care and attention and research became an education in how to take it a step further. “Well, we could do this, what if we do that? What if we find these people…”

If ever there’s a Volume Two, I’m very well prepared for that. I used to get ribbed even back in the day with the other band members. “What are you taking the pictures for, Fleetwood?” I’d go, “Hang on a sec!” They would just be snapshots of stuff, so I’ve done that. My father loved taking pictures so to that extent, I had something that was relevant. But we’ve ended up trying to tell a story about this strange band from whence we have come. And that starts with 1967, 50 years since we’ve done our first show at the Windsor Jazz Festival.

The book is a perfect way to mark the anniversary. Was that the intent all along?

The fact that we ended up doing it with Genesis is really a story in itself that goes back many, many years when I saw a book they did with George Harrison [1980’s I Me Mine] which was gorgeous and stunning and meaningful. It was a fantasy that one day….[laughs] Then it sort of went off the radar. But it came back a couple of years ago when I was in a shop in LA and I saw a book they had done with Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin [Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page]. We opened it up and said, “There it is! It’s them guys again!” We called the book company up and said, “Would you be interested?” And we’ve ended up here two years later.

It’s a document that is driven by pictorial images for the most part, with some editorial. I’ve done an autobiography and in many ways this gets to the point quicker. There are so many things that came out as images, you had to very selective in the end result. It has to then tell the story. And that’s what we’ve tried to do, and I’m really happy and proud. It’s a trip. It’s appropriate that it’s 50 years of Fleetwood Mac, but that wasn’t part of the plan. It just inadvertently … “Oh my God!” We just took our time doing it and realized, “Wow, it’s coming out when we’re 50 years old as a band.” So it became even more poignant and more relevant as a document.

This book is mostly focused on how we started, as it should be. But in terms of an incredible collage of different moments, and an unbelievable amount of different styles, with Bob Welch and Christine [McVie] joining and Jeremy [Spencer] and Danny [Kirwan] taking over when Peter [Green] left. It’s all featured in this book right up to the moment that Lindsay [Buckingham] and Stevie [Nicks] joined. Me and John were always banging away there, which I think helped bring some kind of continuity to it, but it is an unusual story. I hope that someone picking this [book] up will go, “Wow, what was that? Kiln House? Never heard of it!” That’s an important part of this document, and I do consider it a document that is part of something before it might go off the radar. There’s no doubt, rightly so, that the present day incarnation of Fleetwood Mac is doubtless going to be remembered as, “That was Fleetwood Mac.” This is understandably never going to be that, but it’s nice to know that bits and pieces that might find this period interesting. I’m glad that I’m connecting to this document.

Courtesy of Mick Fleetwood Archive

The start of the book reads almost like a Dickens story: you come to London at age 15 and immediately meet David Hockney and the Beatles, and have your hair cut by Vidal Sassoon. Was it as incredible at the time as it seems now?

Well, in a different way. Anyone who was in London then witnessed, and in some ways was involved in, a whole movement in fashion, music, and art that pushed away what the Second World War had done. It was real, and it’s still here. The tentacles of what happened were that powerful, especially in music. The game has not played out. Those guys like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are still relevant.

I blundered into being around the Beatles because I was going out with Jenny [Boyd], and of course she was Pattie’s sister who was going out with George. All of that extra stuff became more relevant looking back. Now I go, “Wow!” At the time I thought, “Oh, this is cool …. Whatever.” I was just a struggling player.

But what was relevant then was this band of players that I was around, ostensibly the original four—and then five—members of Fleetwood Mac, with Danny [Kirwan] joining quite soon after we started. We were just ensconced and focused on what we were doing. We had no idea it was going to be attached to what was going on in London. It wasn’t very fashionable. It wasn’t pop music. We were living out our dream following our blues train down the rails, and then it became part of something very relevant. We were very authentic about what we were doing. You had trailblazers; the Rolling Stones came from that world, and very quickly morphed into skilled songwriters. The Yardbirds were before us bunch, too. We came and really emulated Elmore James and early Delta Blues stuff that reflected in those early recordings. And then we took our journey that was led by Peter Green with “Oh Well” and “Rattlesnake Shake,” and “Albatross,” and all the weird songs that came out of the period were all represented in our story.

It’s funny when you think of everything to come, but I understand you weren’t a big fan when you first heard Peter play.

That’s one of my confessions, considering he’s my favorite guitar player and in many ways mentored me and gave me my self-worth as a player. I always say that I was a guy who happened to play drums versus “a drummer that found himself.” I just lucked out. When I first heard Peter, he auditioned for a band called the Peter B’s Looners with Peter Bardens, who was the guy who knocked on my door and started my journey as a drummer. He said, “I heard you playing in the garage!” It was like one of those fairy tales. The whole thing has been a bit like that.

It was me and Dave Ambrose, a great bass player who went on to play with Brian Auger. Me and Dave said, “He’s good, but he doesn’t play very much.” But Peter Bardens, to his great credit, said, “You’re both wrong. This guy has something unusual.” And very quickly we learned that we nearly made a terrible mistake. Anyone who listens to and enjoys Peter Green’s approach—not only the tone but also the approach and the power of condensing passion without just pissing it down the drain and over extending those moments—knows he was a master of the adage “less is more.”

In an interview in the book, John McVie talks of you cementing your friendship on a bumpy flight to London from Dublin during an early gig with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. What are your memories of that trip?

You are well-informed! Freesias! That’s a longstanding joke. Occasionally John will get a collage of freesias, the sweet-smelling flowers. On that flight, for some reason I turned up at that airport [with them]. I was thanking him for something and I said, “I have something for you.” And John’s very upright. Very different from me, I’m an old drama queen. He’s like, “I don’t understand how you can wear pink socks!” or whatever. I got into that a little bit, but he was very straightforward. So I turn up with the flowers and he’s like, “What’s all this about?” And it became this longstanding joke. So now from time to time he’ll get some freesias. And he gets it, hence him saying that. It was me reaching out.

He became very much a supportive [force]. When I first joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, I took over from a very, very, very talented drummer called Aynsley Dunbar. He was a genius drummer, like John Bonham. And I’m going, “I don’t understand why he’s moving on.” The reality was that he was so clever, it got to a point where he was too complicated to be playing [the blues] and John Mayall made the decision that he wanted to change. And Peter phoned me up and said, “I got you the gig in John Mayall’s.” I was painting walls at the time, and I’m going, “Why would you be getting rid of this genius drummer?” Aynsley had a huge following. In those days people would come and cheer, “Aynsley Dunbar!” “Mick Taylor!” “Eric Clapton!” “Peter Green!” It was hero-worshipping at these pubs and clubs where we used to play. It was a whole thing in London. We used to follow people and cheer for them.

So I’m suddenly there and not Aynsley. He did this incredible drum solo, and I couldn’t cut that sort of mustard at all. At one of my first gigs there were some hecklers in the back of this little theater saying, “Where’s Aynsley.” And I’ll always remember, John McVie came up to the mic, holding his Fender Jazz bass as if to say, “Any more of that s— and you’re going to get this wrapped around your neck!” I was always very grateful. John’s very not forward onstage, it was probably one of the few times he would come up to a microphone to say “Hello” or “Goodnight,” or anything. John is … John. But he went straight up to the mic and said, “If you don’t give this guy a f—ing chance…” and told them all to shut up. And they did! That was my first or second show I ever did with him. I remain grateful—hence he gets the flowers.

You mention Delta Blues and Elmore James forming the bedrock of the music you played with John Mayall and later with Peter Green in early Fleetwood Mac. What was it like having the opportunity to play in the actual Chess studios with people like Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy?

It was extreme. That’s a very powerful moment. Fleetwood Mac was playing with our heroes. It was much to the credit of Mike Vernon, of our little record label, Blue Horizon. He went to see all of these blues shows in England and, I suspect, knew Willie Dixon—or at least how to get to him—and he arranged that whole thing. “You mean we’re going to Chicago and making an album with all of these guys that Willie Dixon put together? What do you mean?! Oh wow, Chess Records!” We’d be like little kids listening to that stuff back in the day, even before Fleetwood Mac, so it was very important.

We paid some real attention to that moment in the book; I’m glad you brought that up. It amplifies the very nuts and bolts of what this was all about. We were a blues band, a bunch of kids that played the blues and aspired to as good as we could, and we were blessed as a band with Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. In the beginning, if you listen to Elmore James and put Jeremy on, he was Elmore James. He became not just a copyist, but he actually lived somehow that style of slide playing.

We didn’t get to play with Elmore, because he passed away, but on [sessions for] Blues Jam at Chess, there’s pictures in the book of little Jeremy, who’s five foot nothing with a huge guitar, with J.T. Brown, who was Elmore’s sax player. That is powerful stuff to see that. It was huge for the band, and that just amplifies what was going on. We were playing with our heroes. For Jeremy it was: “Elmore’s not here but I’m playing with J.T. Brown, doing an Elmore James song!” I remember J.T going, “God damn, this weird little guy! I’m closing my eyes and it’s like I’m back in my band!”

Jeremy Spencer Collection

I remember Peter went down to a place where, quite frankly, white folks didn’t go. Willie Dixon took him down to one of the blues clubs and Peter apparently got up and played, and everyone’s looking him down. There were no white folks in there, and I was told by one of our road managers who had gone down there that Peter cut the mustard. He was a magical, powerful player who resonated with people who were our heroes. So the whole trip to Chicago was extreme and certainly has a place in this book.

Jeff Lowenthal

What kept you going when Peter left? Was there ever a point when you wondered if you should pack it in?

The first lesson was abject, extreme sadness. I just thought, “God, what are we going to do?” We rented a house from a friend of mine, which was Kiln House. It was a form of closing the ranks. We were very frightened. What was the formula for survival? I think, “We better close ranks or this is over.” Then that whole method of survival was probably repeated many times, which is why we’re still here. Part of the reason was always wanting to continue having a partnership with John and two or three other band members. So it was, “Let’s not throw this away. Let’s give this a go and see if we can keep going.” When you’re in a rhythm section and you don’t have someone to play with, what do you do? Play in your living room? And I’m not making light of it, but I’m giving a reason that I think was probably more important: “Let’s see if there’s a way to keep your job.” And that became a model that we never gave up.

We were very blessed along the journey with people who were part of the survival, which eventually led to a major, major chapter in Fleetwood Mac that everyone knows about. But they don’t know about the period in these pages to that extent—and they never will. Some people who aren’t here—Bob Welch isn’t here anymore—but there are people and moments that should be accoladed, and this book is part of it. Fifty years down the road, it’s a few pages that needed to be seen.

The book really gives its due to Peter Green, even down to the name The Love That Burns. How did you arrive at the title?

It’s one of Peter’s loveliest songs that he used to sing and it became very relevant. I see him when we go to England but we’re not connected. That’s a whole other story. This is about the music and what we were doing, not what happened to the people and all the blood and guts. But there was a moment, I did an interview with him [for the book] that went on about three hours, just so that Peter had a little bit of a voice. But I took license at one point and I asked him, “Why did you ask me to play drums?” He could have picked anybody. I knew him and we’d played together, but it wasn’t planned. Everyone thinks that the three of us dumped John Mayall and formed Fleetwood Mac. It was nothing of the sort. He was pressured into putting a band together and said, “Would you like to play?”

Courtesy of Mick Fleetwood Archive

I said, “Well, why did you ask me?” One would imagine it was something like, “Well you’re a pretty good drummer…” but it was totally nothing to do with music at all. He said, “Don’t you remember? You were really sad. That’s when you broke up with Jenny.” I eventually married her later on, but I was devastated. He said, “You were so sad. You had nothing to do and you needed to pull your socks up.” The point being, that is the power of what is encompassed on and off through the whole history of Fleetwood Mac. It’s a mass of fear and loathing and love. [Afterwards] I burst into tears because it was so moving. He said, “I was your friend.” Later on, in a comedic way I say, “S—, I thought it was because maybe I was a halfway decent drummer!” [laughs] But there’s a lot of charm to that, hence the title made even more sense because the truth is, for better or for worse, that is still going on. And that’s a whole other story.