Monday, February 6, 2012

Fleetwood Mac - THEN PLAY ON

By 1969, a group called Fleetwood Mac had been pounding stages across Europe for about two years. Started by guitarist Peter Green after serving an apprenticeship in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the original Fleetwood Mac’s mission was to serve a diet of straight-up blues to British audiences eager to hear something authentic. In that regard, Fleetwood Mac delivered the goods – big time! Yet, just as Eric Clapton had done with Cream, Peter Green would navigate his own ship through more progressive waters beyond the blues lagoon. In September of 1969, the above record appeared as the group’s third official LP. THEN PLAY ON came in the wake of several chart-topping single releases that placed the group at the forefront of Europe’s rock scene at that time. Aside from these popular record releases, Fleetwood Mac earned a reputation as one of the most blistering live acts of the era. Witness the “Live at the Boston Tea Party” discs recorded in the USA in February of 1970 – the material from those shows offer a glimpse of what the band was capable of at their peak. Downright mindbending, in fact.
    Yet, as 1970 wore on – Peter Green would lead the charge in a different way – he would abandon the group he founded due to personal problems with the other two guitarists following suit over the next few years. Green, in particular, would have to deal with the onset of legitimate mental health issues that undermined the momentum of a career once bent on superstardom. Though he remained active, Green would never quite recapture the spark and fire of his days leading the Fleetwood Mac. That September 1969 LP release would serve both as his undisputed progressive blues masterpiece and his swan-song to a former life. Even the front cover image reflects a sense of “leaving” and “loss” – the white horse is in full gallop with the naked man looking behind him with a slightly forlorn expression on his face. The orange leaves falling in the air around him reflect the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn.  It’s a spooky visual – a near-premonition of Green’s own gallop into the winter of his tortured spirit that would soon follow the release of this record.

    Now, you might say I could be reading a bit too much into the symbolism of the record cover here, but even one casual earful of the music itself quickly betrays an artist in turmoil. And considering what came AFTER this record, personally and artistically for Peter Green, it’s a story that ranks right up there with Brian Wilson’s SMILE / SMILEY SMILE drama. The last fully-realized track released from this edition of Fleetwood Mac with Green at the helm was the 45 “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)” – unleashed in May of 1970. On the Boston Tea Party tapes Green introduces this song with the casual statement “This is a song about the Devil”, although he has since maintained the song was equally a commentary about the evils of money. What it sounds like is an audio equivalent of a man struggling with personal demons – and not exactly winning, either!

    THEN PLAY ON was the first album delivered to Warner / Reprise under a new contract the band had signed with a hopeful eye to the future. Although that future would look pretty shaky six months down the road, the move to Reprise was an obvious attempt to have a better presence in the American market – something that had eluded Fleetwood Mac up to that point. They were huge in Europe, but relatively unknown in America. The desire to make a splash in the United States would lead to some futzing around with the running order of tracks on the album. There are basically three vinyl versions of the album and one digital (CD) version – each with a slightly different order / inclusion of tracks. Somehow, despite the confusion, the record manages to retain its power and sense of artistic integrity. Whichever version you may prefer is up to you. Here’s the short version of the differences:

1. UK LP -  14 track LP

2. US LP #1 – 12 track LP (same as above minus 2 Danny Kirwan tunes that had already been released on the Epic Records compilation “English Rose”)
3. US LP #2 – 11 track LP – a few songs deleted from the above order, shuffled around slightly with the whole 2-sided single “Oh, Well” stuck in as one big track.
4. Universal CD – 13 track edition (includes everything but the two Kirwan tracks featured on the original UK LP and cut from all Warner/Reprise releases).

        As it happens, my first encounter with this record was the US #2 LP version – the one with “Oh, Well”. I imagine this was the most well-known edition since the change to the running order happened pretty early on and remained the longest in-print. In a weird way, it happens to be my favorite version of the album. “Oh, Well” is such a strong track and does indeed fit in perfectly with the rest of the material on the album. As a 45 release it was split up into parts 1 and 2 – each quite distinct from the other: Part 1 being a pretty rocking, near-heavy metal rave up. Part 2 being – I kid not – classical chamber music. Trust me – it works and isn’t contrived or cheesy at all! Quite powerful stuff, in fact! In some ways the whole vibe of THEN PLAY ON is encapsulated by this one song – near-maniac heavy jamming on the one hand and heart-wrenching melancholy on the other. I really hesitate to even put this link up here since the sound is so awful, but here’s a u-toob version:
      No matter where the thread of the music leads, the beginning and ending of all versions of the record are the same – with “Coming Your Way” as the leadoff track on Side One and “Before the Beginning” as the last track on Side Two.  Where the listener is taken in between those two points depends on which version of the album you wound up with. There were two “Madge” jams – one “Fighting for Madge”, one “Searching for Madge”. These are instrumental detours away from some of the more serious and searching songs that seem to dominate the sonic landscape here. Songs about self-loathing / doubting show-biz performers, alienated men and women………..melancholy daydreams and inner-torment allsorts alike. Even in the jam segments, the dual lead-guitar pyrotechnics of Peter Green and Danny Kirwan are like shouting, screaming and pleading matches between the instruments to prove which is the more tortured……it’s brilliantly raw and scorching stuff with the thunderous pummeling from Mick Fleetwood’s drums and John McVie’s bass. California smooth-rock this AIN’T! (The un-cut studio jams have since been released on a 2-disc import set called “The Vaudeville Years” – for those who are familiar with the studio albums, hearing the raw takes is a revelation and a half!)

    When Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mick Fleetwood quoted a line from Shakespeare that provided the inspiration for the title of this record. At the podium that night stood the well-known version of the band – Mick, John McVie, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and some little gnarly looking old dude – who just happened to be THE Peter Green. In the world of rock music – Mick Fleetwood’s little gesture of including Green and reading that Shakespeare quote had to be one of the more touching moments I’ve witnessed connected to that much-maligned institution that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Equally inspiring is Peter Green’s return to regular guitar-duty over the last 20 years or so. The fact that he continues to make music in defiance of his illness is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. The fact that he turned his struggles into timeless art with THEN PLAY ON is nothing short of a miracle. The fact that there are three different versions of this classic make for a record-collector’s dream. The fact that all three versions still maintain the integrity of the artists’ vision is absurdly unlikely.

    Yet this album is merely ONE of the great things about that original Fleetwood Mac – scout out some stuff on the net – sample a few things, read some reviews – they’re usually laudatory for a REASON – the accolades are deserved. Fleetwood Mac Mark I still remains one of rock music’s best kept secrets – THEN PLAY ON, one of rock music’s least-recognized moments of pure genius! Grab a copy today!

US open-reel features the US #1 running order of tracks
Rare tri-color Spanish pressing. Features the US #2 running order, oddly enough!
Back cover of the UK reissue edition

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