“I’ve played with all sorts of songwriters, and the bottom line is that a great song is a great song, and it almost doesn’t matter what I do behind it,” the legendary drummer Mick Fleetwood says as we begin our long and fascinating call from his Hawaiian home.
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Of course, Fleetwood’s disarming statement is more than a little humble. While he and his bass-wielding foil John McVie have backed some peerless songwriters—Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and, of course, the recently departed Peter Green—over the course of his remarkable career, Fleetwood has helped elevate their songs into the stratosphere, creating a long list of stone-cold classics in the process.
And those songs, many of which have soundtracked our lives, continue to find new audiences nearly sixty years later. The Dance introduced the latter day MTV generation to Fleetwood Mac back in 1997. Now their 1977 hit “Dreams” has returned to the charts once again, thanks to a viral Tik Tok video. When Idaho factory worker Nathan Apodaca (aka 420doggface208) was seen cruising to work on a skateboard and drinking Ocean Spray cran-raspberry with “Dreams” playing in the background, the song re-entered the Billboard 100 on the strength of more than 230 million streams.
“Yes, that was a surprise,” Fleetwood tells American Songwriter with a chuckle. “But that’s the thing about great songs. They keep becoming these other things and finding new lives. That’s a perfect example.”
Fleetwood Mac all began in London in the mid-1960s, when the then-aspiring professional musician connected with John Mayall, who then led him to McVie. While Fleetwood didn’t last long with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, his kinship with McVie was instantaneous, as was his relationship with Peter Green, the guitarist who replaced Eric Clapton in Mayall’s band.
“Peter’s mantra was ‘less is more,’” says Fleetwood. “He listened like a hawk. Plus, early on, what was so important for my relationship with Peter was that my heart was in it. It suited me to be that person because it really suited having that empathy with playing blues. I didn’t really realize it, but that’s how our relationship developed, in service to the songs.”
As for his musical partnership with McVie, Fleetwood says the pair complemented each other well.
“I always joked [early on] with John that I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Fleetwood says with a laugh. “At the beginning, my bass drum regimen was all over the place. But if you listen to any recordings of us—especially live—you can tell that John was listening. And he was incredibly melodic because he’s much more conversive as a musician. So John learned to accommodate me.”
Soon, Fleetwood and McVie added Jeremy Spencer to the mix to round out the group. Spencer, an adept slide player, and Danny Kirwan on rhythm guitar became part of the band’s three guitar attack that set them apart from the rest of the burgeoning English Blues scene.
“Jeremy was an absolutely crucial addition to that era of Fleetwood Mac,” Fleetwood says. “His playing was gorgeous—because he approached the songs as a songwriter would, and really elevated them, and he was just fantastic onstage, even though it was Peter [Green] and Danny who got most of the attention.”
Even after Green left the band, Spencer struggled to find his place in it. While he and Kirwan crafted many of the songs that appeared on the first post-Green release, Kiln House, Spencer abruptly left the band in the middle of the album’s 1971 promotional tour.
“We were booked at the Whisky, but we never played because Jeremy was just gone,” recalls Fleetwood. “He always had his nose in a Bible, which I’ll be honest, was more than a bit unusual back in the day. But out in California, he met up with some people with the Children of God and just never came back. It was tough going after that for quite a bit.”
Still, Fleetwood’s memories of the period aren’t all bad.
“Kiln House was our ‘What are we left with?’ album. We were lost, but there’s something really charming about that. And then things picked up, and the history of Fleetwood Mac has always been about that anyway,” argues Fleetwood.
“Not to be corny, but I’ve applied the same thing to any song that any songwriter has presented to the band since my first days with Peter. I listen,” he continues. “So those days were hard because, in many ways, we were quite lost without Peter. But everyone rallied around, supporting each other.”
The period is chronicled in Fleetwood’s gorgeously illustrated deluxe book, Love That Burns, a book which presents a band on the cusp of conquering the world before it nearly collapsed.
“Peter was gone,” Fleetwood recalls of the period. “You know, your lover has left and is not coming back. But he’d left a trail. So after the shock, I had to consider, ‘What is the good and bad of what I can take out of this?’ And that was, with Peter, apart from the sadness of losing him, everything was good for him, including his generosity in gifting us this band. Plus, I had John at my side. And that was the trigger for me to be writing a song that was called ‘Fleetwood Mac.’ I had learnt that through Peter.”
With guitarist Bob Welch on board, the gigs got smaller, and the record sales were virtually non-existent. But then, fate stepped in once again.
“One day, in a recording studio in Sausalito, I heard Buckingham Nicks, and I found myself doing the same thing that Peter had done with Jeremy,” says Fleetwood, reflecting back to hearing the music Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had created at the infamous Record Plant outpost in Northern California. “I was hearing somebody that made me smile and that I wanted to work with.”
Suddenly, Fleetwood Mac was no longer a post-English Blues band with a modest following. It had joined the ranks of California’s singer-songwriter groups, and was poised for world domination.
But Fleetwood says he simply kept his head down and did what he had always done.
“I’m repeating myself, but in those earliest days in the studio with Lindsey and Stevie— and, of course, Christine, too—John and I were listening,” he says. “It was evident after half an hour of listening to the music that these songs were a new direction. It registered because we were open. It was really as simple as being moved. Peter Green had trained us. John and I had trained ourselves. But it also explains the power of what I heard that first time hearing their album, not even knowing all the details about them writing songs together. Bob (Welch) was actually still in the band, but whatever—boom—something so evident and visceral happened.”
Instantly, Fleetwood says he was enamored and obsessed with Buckingham.
“I saw the same essence as Peter being portrayed in a different way,” he recalls. “There was harmony and tone and this absolutely unique guitar playing that was nothing like Peter—nothing—but really unique. Like Peter!”
Still, Fleetwood recalls that Buckingham was unlike any of the many songwriters he’d crossed paths with previously. Though the band’s new producer, Buckingham often showed up to sessions with half-finished songs.
“With Lindsey, I would beg him, ‘Just make up some words that I can play to and be with,’” says Fleetwood. “John and I wanted to honor the front line, so we had to always have our wits about us, even if we were sometimes confused. So again, it was back to really listening and not showing off.”
Inevitably, for Fleetwood, it was the perfect fit at just the right moment.
“Bless Bob Welch’s heart, because the beginnings of sharing vocals and singing together—Bob and Christine—had left us primed for the full monte of meeting Stevie and Lindsey,” Fleetwood insists. “It was unique, and tutored by Peter Green, through his music and his empathy and his pain, that became a legacy that got us to the point where working with Lindsey and Stevie was the perfect fit, but also inevitable. And they nearly didn’t join!
“But it was a dream come true, and it was the story that needed to be told,” Fleetwood adds empathically.
“People say, ‘Mick, I’ve read your books. It has not always been the gravy train for you,’ but behind it, there’s always been the music and the songs,” Fleetwood says, when the tumultuous history of Fleetwood Mac, and especially the Buckingham/Nicks era, is broached. “And that was the glorious train. And Stevie—all of us—would say the same thing. So I didn’t write the songs. I didn’t sing them. But I was there every moment because I loved it so much, finding a way to express myself through the making of the songs.”
In the end, Fleetwood is pleased that new generations have embraced all eras of Fleetwood Mac, though he doesn’t seem all that surprised either.
“New audiences are finding us because the music connects,” he says as we wrap up. “I want it to matter, and that’s what’s so lovely about new recruits, and often young recruits, realizing that there’s a body of work and that they can trace it back, and that every aspect and era of it is fascinating. Lots of people, of course, have no idea about what happened. But if they simply connect with the songs, that’s enough for me. Because that’s quite a legacy.”
nugs.net is proud to announce the world premiere screening of ‘Mick Fleetwood & Friends Celebrate the Music of Peter Green and the Early Years of Fleetwood Mac.’ This star-studded concert took place at the iconic London Palladium on February 25, 2020 and was originally due to be screened in cinemas worldwide. However, and due to the pandemic, nugs.net will leverage its streaming video platform to host the global premiere online in HD and 4K video with enhanced Dolby Atmos sound.
Ticket holders can tune in to the live premiere on 24th April 2021 at 3pm ET, or purchase the concert via video on demand for up to 5 days.
Tickets on sale now starting at $19.99: nugs.net/fleetwood
Photo Credit: Ross Halfin