The transitional, experimental Mac circa 1969 has been unjustly overlooked—and overshadowed by the Rumours behemoth—but as a freshly expanded edition of 1969 gem Then Play On proves, this was a band with quite a bit to offer. Watch a live video of the band playing “Oh Well” following the text.
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
The conventional wisdom on Fleetwood Mac’s career is that it started off as a moderately successful blues band, suddenly went pop, then went on to megastardom. As with much conventional wisdom, the truth is more complicated.
A few months ago, as Rumours was being reissued, I asked Mick Fleetwood about how the band got from Point A to Point B. He pointed to their 1969 album Then Play On as the turning point:
“When we made Then Play On, Peter [Green] was already experimenting with orchestras. Then sadly, we lost Peter. Me and John [McVie] kept the band going. We recruited all these different people that made an eclectic bunch of music … Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.
“We started to explore some harmony with Bob [Welch] and Christine [McVie]. For us, it was a gradual morphing style [from Then Play On, to Rumours]. … With Then Play On, we started to experiment. We were the first band doing harmonies with dual guitar playing, even before the Allman Brothers. We were already making changes into a whole different thing rather than being a stock band playing the blues format.”
The release of an expanded edition of Then Play On, which includes a remastered version of the album in its original UK running order as well as the A- and B-sides of two hit singles released at the time, is a good time to take stock of this largely forgotten classic. (During its original incarnation, American fans were treated rather cavalierly by the group’s U.S. label Reprise; the initial release dropped two tracks from the British version, then when the non-album song “Oh Well” became a surprise hit single, the album was withdrawn and subsequently repressed to include “Oh Well,” leading to another revision of the tracklisting.)
As Fleetwood explained, the album shows both a blues band at the top of its game, as well as one undergoing a transition. And in many ways, Then Play On sounds like it could have been made by two different groups. About half the album is British folk rock, not far from what contemporaries like Richard Thompson were doing at the time. The other half is straight blues, full of jaw-dropping guitar work from the duels on the two “Madge” tracks (track 3, “Fighting for Madge,” and 11, “Searching For Madge”), to the slide guitar on “Show Biz Blues.” But most successful of all are the two singles, “Oh Well” which shifts from heavy blues to pastoral folk, and the haunting “Green Manalishi,” one of the best Mac songs of any era.
If the album lacks a little something in coherence, it more than makes up for it in emotion. It’s a pleasure to hear this version of the Mac playing on again.