Fleetwood Mac “Then Play On”

At the time of its release an air of mystery pervaded the third studio album proper from Fleetwood Mac. The new, sombre product displayed a seemingly inexplicable change of direction from the preceding high-octane blues-fuelled style. The previously irrepressible Jeremy Spencer is totally absent from the recordings apart from one or two alleged (and inaudible) background piano noodlings, though he appears smiling broadly in the band’s back cover picture. The diminution of Peter Green’s dominance, already clear from the second album, is evinced even further here. Shouldering the new responsibilities is unknown wunderkind guitarist Danny Kirwan, given an unprecedented five (originally seven, but two deleted to allow retrospective inclusion of Green’s double-sided single “Oh Well”) of the individual songwriting credits.

After the rollicking ebullience of the earlier records, the music of Then Play On is often spare and bleak, largely instrumental and, in the case of Green’s compositions, world-wearily sad, both musically and lyrically; the seeds of his later disillusionment, depression and eventual schizophrenia can be clearly heard here. His songs retain a blues flavour, but it’s more oblique, almost incidental. Kirwan’s compositions are more harmonically complex and somewhat more upbeat, but still wistful enough to gracefully complement Green’s songs. What’s most remarkable is the empathy between the two guitarists, who intertwine seamlessly, stylistically and melodically, with just Kirwan’s sharper tone, more pronounced vibrato and generally higher-register playing the difference. Green probably never found a more empathic performance partner, Kirwan a more accommodating mentor. Mick Fleetwood’s drumming is inventive and varied throughout whilst never being overbearing; John McVie’s bass work metronomically understated as ever. For me the highlights are Green’s multifaceted nine-minute masterpiece “Oh Well”, the energetic guitar jam “Searching For Madge” / “Fighting For Madge” which benefits from some fine, mildly lysergic studio editing, Kirwan’s delightful instrumental “My Dream” and Green’s almost unbearably downbeat closer “Before The Beginning”.

Retrospectively this can be seen to be one of the great transitional albums, marking the departure of one of rock’s guitar legends and the start of the first and longest of several turbulent periods for what would become one of rock’s institutions. The absence of the unpredictable Spencer is now thought to be due to a lack of enthusiasm for Green’s downer songs, a theory supported by his making a solo album at the same time . . . to which the other Mac members all contributed. Kirwan’s sudden prominence in the band might have been due at least in part to a romantic attraction on the part of Green, who nicknamed him “young eyes”. And Green’s now universally known psychiatric problems explain his reducing control and ensuing exit. The historical context isn’t necessary to appreciate this haunting, introspective album, but it helps.

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“My Dream”

:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Reprise | search ebay ]

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  • jesselun

    Amazing album. And if you can find the outtakes you can see what was happening as far as the transition. Danny Kirwin rules

  • alpo

    Thanks for a nice read. This is without question the definitive Fleetwood Mac album, bar none. “Before The Beginning” and “Coming Your Way” are 2 of the most haunting and impossibly perfect songs ever written and recorded. Add “Supernatural to these two brilliant songs, and you can see why B.B. King anointed Peter Green as the best guitar player, over the likes of more popular guitarists Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

  • Jason

    I agree, this is probably the best album they’ve ever released – at least from an artistic perspective. The Stevie Nicks era is a bit too commercial for me though they had some good songs that sold very, very well. I put this up there with Parachute, Exile on Main Street, Abbey Road, Lola and Who’s Next. It’s one of the all-time great classic hard rock albums.

  • Thanks for the review on this. I’ve heard Fleetwood Mac praised mightily but there’re a few gaps in my knowledge of them. I didn’t like the the Buckingham-Nicks version because they were just too bloody omnipresent but appreciate their stuff a bit more now, particularly Tusk. I have the double Best Of, which features the Peter Green version and love the minor key blues on that. My favourite stuff so far is the Bob Welch-Bob Weston lineup, particularly Mystery To Me, which I think is a great album. Will delve deeper into the Danny Kirwan era on your ecommendation.

  • LG

    Amazing record which is long overdue for a proper remaster. We can only hope that the original masters are still available (and usable) for a definitive edition that could include the original UK LP running order plus the US-only tracks, the contemporary singles “Man of The World” & “Green Manalishi”, and the Jeremy Spencer “Milton Schlitz” EP. But of course, I won’t hold my breath on this one.

  • It’s a great pity that the original version of Then Play On as it appeared in the UK on 12inch vinyl has not made it’s way to CD. This version has brilliant Danny Kirwan songs that were dropped to make way for the addition of Oh Well for the US market. In my opinion this original UK version is the superior one.

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