Thursday, March 8, 2012

Guiding Hand: Fleetwood Mac: "Oh Well Part 1 & 2"

There are times - they are rare - when, in the midst of turmoil and dissatisfaction, there is nevertheless a startling and still subtle sense of change. Something, you might feel, is going to happen; it is in the air; a harbinger or sign appears and it is as if all the molecules in the room shift, ever so slightly, in a different direction. Things may appear the same on a day-to-day level, but really, deep down, something is happening.

At times like these, people, ideas, chords seem to manifest, disappear, and reappear; the future reaches back to reassure the present that no matter how things look now, everything will turn out as it should. That doesn't always mean it will be pleasant; in fact, terrible things can occur along the way. But the promise of the present will be fulfilled.

Fleetwood Mac practically embody this with this single (I count it as one song on two sides of a single) to an uncanny degree. From the start they sound utterly on it, demonically all in gear, Fleetwood hitting the cowbell as if he's hitting a glass at a wedding for a speech. Peter Green pulls no punches: he knows he isn't much and warns you that if you want his opinion, he's going to give it, warts and all. There is nowhere to hide here, as the band rocks along tightly to the last verse - that he is close to God, God cares for him, but again, don't ask God his opinion either; you might not like what he thinks.

Then things take an utterly backwards - or is it forwards? - turn. The drums disappear, leaving only guitars and a cello, which meander along poetically, then dramatically, a recorder coming in now and then, kind of like Ravel meeting the Shadows. All is slow, meditative, very beautiful. It's not really rock or the blues as such; even as the piano climbs in to widen the scene, this is more cinematic than anything else; fit for a western, maybe one where there's no good guys, just lesser bad men.

Then a crash, the drums come in, the single solitary figure coming back, maybe from the near dead. It is as if it is a soundtrack to a soul lost and then found; someone who has suffered and survived.

Only Fleetwood Mac could have pulled this off, this split single, schizophrenic you may call it, and it sounds as if the future Fleetwood Mac is coming into shape with part 1, and part 2 is a more delicate, female forecast of what is to come. And yes, this all comes from the underworld of Peter Green, so it is prophetic in that way too - the sudden, unpredictable side of him, the one which wanted to be holy, to give money away. Green had been taking LSD and changing, changing so much that on one trip he went with a roadie to a party in a commune in Germany (where the band was touring at the time) and wouldn't leave the commune afterwards. The band got him out eventually, but Green left the band a few weeks later, as spiritual experiences were what he was after, and not musical fame and fortune. So by spring 1970, just a few months from "Oh Well"'s success, he was gone.

He did continue to make music, even touring with his old band when they needed him, but by 1973 he...disappeared*. Fleetwood Mac brought in Christine McVie and Bob Welch for a while; another original member, Danny Kirwan, left in 1972. Things got so strange for the band that a fake band claiming they were the 'real' Fleetwood Mac popped up, which didn't exactly help the tense and troubled group, who managed to keep recording and touring anyway. And then...

...Bob Welch (who basically made them a California-centered group) left, tired of the legal and touring hassles (the fake group being dismissed), left. Enter Mick Fleetwood, scouting for a good recording studio in Los Angeles, and enter soon after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who had recorded their album there. Fleetwood heard it, liked Buckingham's playing and asked him to join; he said yes, but only if you take Stevie on as well. Christine was delighted to have another female to talk to on the road and elsewhere, and the rest is pretty much history. That Buckingham was another guitar demon who grew up listening to early Fleetwood Mac is either destiny or fate, however you look at it.

Here is the new Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well"; this is the sound of a band reborn, claiming its roots, realizing; yeah, this is going to work; this song was made for us. It's a link from the past that the group keep doing, no matter who is there; a gift from Peter Green for the ages...

But what about the second part? The eerie quiet, as if something is about to happen...well, Green was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, given treatment for it (electroshock therapy, I believe) and generally had a troubled 70s, he managed, with his brother's help, to get himself together enough to get a record deal; he was friendly with Fleetwood and Fleetwood invited him to help out on Tusk's "Brown Eyes"; and thus the spiritual father of the group came by, amidst his own troubles (his first and only marriage was breaking down at the time) played and then left. He turned down a big contract (the band was eager to have him record again for Warner Brothers) - Green was happier to work on a smaller, humbler level. To stay out of trouble was enough for him, I suspect; having big deals after gaining some sanity would be too much for him. He was always helped out by his family and Fleetwood when needed, and he continues to play now and then, content to devote himself to the blues.

That is the second part - the trials, travails, and eventual welcome return, a return that not all ex-band members from 60s groups could handle**. This no-nonsense song, about truth, about being an outsider, about judging others but knowing you are also being judged just as fiercely by God - has a joy to it as well, a freedom, not just in the first part but the second; as if after turmoil there is peace. Green wrote this song perhaps to show there was more to him than the blues; perhaps to give a coda to the 60s, a hint that things were going to change, for himself and his band, and that ultimately all would be reunited, in ten years' time. The promise was fulfilled, after all...

*Jeremy Spencer, another original member, just up and left the group to join the Children of God, so Green stepped in.

**I tend to think Syd Barrett's prescence on Wish You Were Here is audible, even though he didn't play on it. For Green to help, even a little, on Tusk shows that the band still cared for Green, and maybe needed his own subtle influence while making the album.

No comments: