Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dez Record Guides: Fleetwood Mac

When you talk about Fleetwood Mac, you are really talking about at least three different bands, connected only by the constant presence of their namesake rhythm section of John McVie on bass and Mick Fleetwood on drums. The interesting thing is that Fleetwood Mac, through its different incarnations, is really defined by the other members who gave the band guidance through different periods. British blues guitar legend Peter Green, blues acolytes Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwin, the unjustly forgotten Bob Welch, pop mistress Christine McVie and the dynamic duo of quirky genius Lindsey Buckingham and gypsy Stevie Nicks. But the constants have always been Mr. McVie and Fleetwood.

I don’t think any major band has had as many major transformations in sound. Most fans of Rumours would scarcely recognize the Mac of Then Play On. Even the reclusive Peter Green felt no connection with the latterday Fleetwood Mac, so much so that when Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, Green chose to perform his famous “Black Magic Woman” with fellow inductee Santana vs. his own old band, which made some sense since Santana had made the song famous. Still kinda awkward.

For the sake of clarity and because I find it interesting and because with Fleetwood Mac the personnel on each record is so crucial to the sound, I have noted the personnel on each record. The letter in parentheses corresponds to a key at the end of the post with the personnel. If you are counting, the band has gone through 11 distinct line-ups.

Here is the Fleetwood Mac labyrinth unraveled…

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac:
Peter Green’s version of Fleetwood Mac is still revered amongst hardcore British blues rock fans. Green is held in the same esteem as a blues guitarist as Clapton, Page, Beck, etc. As far as I go, I feel like you can cherry pick from this era and find incendiary, bold, incredible performances. But there is also a lot of generic blues. They were just getting really interesting with Then Play On when Green went off the deep end, left the band and became an acid casualty for several decades, a la Barrett or Erickson.

What I have done below is try and make some sense of the Peter Green era. Discographically speaking, it is a mess primarily due to several record labels owning the music. There have been countless budget compilations and collections of rarities and live tracks, many of dubious recording quality. I’ve waded through the muck and below is what I believe to be the core Peter Green era discography. You’re welcome.

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (1968) (A) ****
The debut is viewed in many circles as one of the seminal blues based rock records of the 1960’s. There are definitely some burning performances here, but my complaint remains that much of this does sound like generic, if very well played, blues with a rock and roll energy. I know many people would take me to task for not giving this five stars. I just can’t. It is hard to best the “Shake Your Moneymaker,” here, I admit.

Mr. Wonderful (1968) (A) **
Some more well played blues, but even fans of this era acknowledge that there is a lack of inspiration on the follow-up.

English Rose (compilation, U.S. only) (A, B) (1969) ***
The Pious Bird of Good Omen (compilation) (A, B) (1969) ***

Many of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous songs from this era were released as singles only. These compilations collected many of those singles, as well as random album tracks. The gorgeous “Albatross” and signature tune “Black Magic Woman” can be found on these compilations/releases.

ABOVE: The talented but troubled Peter Green

Then Play On (1969) (B) ****
Now here is where things get really interesting. With the three guitar/vocalist/songwriter line-up of Green, Spencer and Kirwin, there is a lot of firepower (although word is that Spencer by this point was contributing little). But what is really great is that they finally seem to be expanding beyond being mere blues acolytes and forging their own sound, incorporating some folk and rock sounds as well for a potent mix. If this line-up had been able to stay together longer and continue to explore these paths…wow. It is a tantalizing “what if.” Kirwin’s “Coming Your Way” features a fantastic groove from the McVie/Fleetwood rhythm section, and Green’s “Showbiz Blues” and “Rattlesnake Shake” show that he was finally moving beyond honoring others and writing his own, quite original, blues. But the centerpiece is Green’s stunning nine minute opus “Oh Well,” with the opening minutes featuring a riff so huge it stands tall next to the best of Led Zeppelin. But then the song suddenly veers into an acoustic folk meditative piece. Utterly brilliant, and if only Green had not soon after gone nuts and become a recluse, we could have had more of this.

Live in Boston (aka Boston Tea Party) (live) (1970/1985/1998) (B) ****
The Peter Green era Mac is famous for its incendiary live performances. There are several poorly recorded releases out there, I chose to represent the live material with the best sounding of the lot. Released in various incarnations over the years, this is worth having, featuring the three guitar Green/Spencer/Kirwin line-up in all its glory. There is a lot of blues here, but the energy crackles through the speakers, and a 25-minute “Rattlesnake Shake” stands as one of the great extended live workouts of the genre.

Transitional Years:
Kiln House (1970) (C) ***
Future Games (1971) (D) **
Bare Trees (1972) (D) **
Penguin (1973) (E) *
Mystery to Me (1973) (F) ***
Heroes Are Hard to Find (G) (1974) **

After visionary leader Peter Green left, the band went through five years of transition. How do you get from Peter Green’s British blues to Rumours? That shift can only be understood through an understanding of this period. It is virtually forgotten these days, and while the records as a whole were quite uneven, there are some fantastic songs scattered about. Bob Welch was crucial during this time, and he was criminally omitted from the list of inductees when the Mac were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Quite simply, without Welch, there would not have been a Mac for Buckingham and Nicks to join by 1975. He and Christine McVie kept it afloat during these transitional, lean years. Christine is a huge presence during this period as well, and does not have to compete with Ms. Nicks.

Classic Mac:
This is the Fleetwood Mac most radio listeners know. With the addition of California folk duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, the magic formula was finally found. Compare Rumours or Mirage to the Peter Green years, and you’ll see why I said this is the most drastic transformation in rock and roll by any major band. Buckingham and Nicks bring such distinct sensibilities, and neither are rooted in the blues. It is Southern California pop mixed with a healthy dose of Nicks' hippie/gypsy ethos. Buckingham is the one who gives the band its unity in sound. He is an incredible guitar player, fantastic songwriter and singer, and genius producer/arranger. Add to that Christine McVie’s continued evolution as a top notch pop songwriter/singer, and you can understand why for a decade they were a constant presence on the charts.

Fleetwood Mac (1975) (H) ****
Rumours (1977) (H) *****

From the outset, it was clear that this was a new Fleetwood Mac. Appropriately titling their new record simply Fleetwood Mac, this might as well have been the debut record of a brand new band. Look at the hits/well known tunes from these two records: “Rhiannon,” “Say You Love Me,” “Over My Head,” “Landslide,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” “The Chain,” “You Make Loving Fun” and “Gold Dust Woman.” Rumours especially was filled from start to finish with a-list material. Most are familiar with the soap opera drama going on behind the scenes (and played out often in these songs) during the recording of Rumours. Nicks and Buckingham were breaking up, Nicks had a brief affair with Fleetwood, John and Christine McVie were divorcing. Amidst all of this, they managed to produce one of the biggest selling records of all time.

Tusk (1979) (H) ***1/2
Far from attempting to just recreate past glories, the band really tried to do something different on the follow-up to Rumours. Lindsey Buckingham took the production reigns over on this sprawling double, throwing in some very experimental tracks (the title track, for instance, featuring the USC marching band). Like many doubles, this could have been trimmed to make a stronger single, but there is some fantastic material here nonetheless. Stevie Nicks’ “Storms” is gorgeous.

ABOVE: The always beautiful Stevie Nicks also possesses one of the most unique and powerful female rock voices

Fleetwood Mac: Live (live) (1980) (H) ***
Excellent live record from their peak. Not a lot of surprises here, but energetically played.

Mirage (1982) (H) ***
They step back from the experimentation of Tusk and produce a straightforward pop/rock record. Some good songs here (“Hold Me,” “Gypsy”), but the most forgettable record from this era.

Tango in the Night (1987) (H) ****
This record had some big hits, yet I still feel it is often overlooked. It was Lindsey Buckingham’s swansong with the band until he returned a decade later. The production is meticulous and representative of Buckingham’s over-production-as-artform. But mainly, this is a hell of a set of songs from all three songwriters. Christine hits the mark as usual with a couple of killer pop songs with “Little Lies” and “Everywhere.” Nicks’ “Seven Wonders” is one of her best and Buckingham really delivers with “Big Love,” “Caroline” and the title track. It is definitely of its time with heavy 80’s + Buckingham production, but it is also fantastic.

Behind the Mask (1990) (I) NR
Time (1995) (J) NR

Without the visionary production leadership of Buckingham, the Mac were adrift. These are justly forgotten, although Time has a rather intriguing line-up of has beens. Had this group of people joined forces in the 70’s, they could have done something really cool.

The Dance (live) (1997) (H) ****
Say You Will (2003) (K) ***
Fleetwood Mac: Live in Boston (live) (2004) (K) ***
Extended Play (EP) (2013) (K) ***

The reunion of the classic Rumours line-up was surprising considering the apparent animosity within the ranks of the band. You do have two ex-couples, afterall. But the live reunion and subsequent record were a hit, with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks both returning to the fold in top form. In fact, with the jawdropping acoustic “Big Love” and a burning workout on “I’m So Afraid,” Lindsey Buckingham emerges as an extraordinary guitar player. After the triumph of The Dance, Christine McVie decide to go into semi-retirement, so they have been a quartet since then, although there are rumours that Christine may be rejoining the fray soon.

ABOVE: Lindsey Buckingham's incredible solo performance of "Big Love" from 1997's The Dance. That guitar playing!

The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (compilation) (2001) (A, B) ****1/2
Greatest Hits (compilation) (H, I) (1988) ****
25 Years – The Chain (compilation box set) (various) (1992) ****
The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (compilation) (2002) (H) ****

It took awhile, but finally a professional, good sounding, well put together compilation of the Peter Green years is available. Most everything that is essential is here, including some of their best songs that were only released as singles, like “Black Magic Woman,” “Albatross,” “The Green Manalishi,” “Dragonfly.” If you want a one stop for the Peter Green years, here it is. The Mac have so many hits that it is hard to screw up a compilation covering the Rumours line-up. All of these above contain most of the essentials, although the box set (now out of print) was somewhat of a lost opportunity with its haphazard programming.

Solo Work:

Many of the current and former members of FM also released solo work. I am only familiar with Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. McVie's records prove an interesting thing. Her songs work so well within the larger framework of an FM record in part because her tunes offer nice, pop contrast to the more intense, insular work of Buckingham and the gypsy/hippie/mysterious vibe of Nicks. But listening to her three solo records shows that full albums of just McVie pop songs gets old pretty quick.

As for Buckingham, I've got all eight of his solo records. With him, it depends on how you feel about what some consider his strengths as a producer and others view as self-indulgence. The meticulous and quirky production on FM's Tusk and Tango in the Night...that is basically what his solo work sounds like. Then add that he has even less restraints, as he is not really worried about keeping a brand going. I think Live at the Bass Performance Hall (live) (2008) **** may be where to start, as it features some choice solo tunes, great renditions of some Mac cuts and several showcases for his jawdropping acoustic guitar playing. Everything else is hit and miss, but almost all of his records feature some stellar tracks.

Not surprisingly, Stevie Nicks had the most solo success. I don't have any of her studio records, although I understand several are quite good. Crystal Visions - The Very Best of Stevie Nicks (compilation) (2007) **** is a fantastic sampling of her solo hits. Interesting story behind her killer song "Stand Back." If you listen closely, notice the chords are the same as Prince's "Little Red Corvette." That is no accident, as Prince co-wrote "Stand Back" with Nicks. She told a funny story in an interview that has always stuck with me about Prince's strange genius. He came to the studio to lay down that pounding synth part. As Nicks told it, he hardly said a word, not even "hello," walked in and nailed that rhythmically complex and awesome synth line, and then walked out. Again not saying a thing.

(A) Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(B) Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwin, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(C) Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwin, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(D) Bob Welch, Christine McVie, Danny Kirwin, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(E) Bob Welch, Christine McVie, Bob Weston, Dave Walker, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(F) Bob Welch, Christine McVie, Bob Weston, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(G) Bob Welch, Christine McVie, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(H) Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(I) Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Billy Burnette, Rick Vito, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(J) Christine McVie, Dave Mason, Bekka Bramlett, Billy Burnette, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood
(K) Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wasted Talent, or RIP Robin Williams, 1951-2014

I was recently thinking about a possible post regarding talented people whose work I, for the most part, despise. Despise more than the work of untalented people. Untalented people can't help it, they do what they can. But it is the person who actually has gifts but then wastes them on crap that really gets my blood up. My case study was going to be Billy Joel, but the suicide of Robin Williams changed my focus.

It may be hard to recall, especially if you are young, just how talented Robin Williams was. Go back to the late 70's, into the 80's. As a fast thinking, fast talking stand up comic, his rabbit holes could be works of art. He could improv most anyone else into dust.

But you must look ultimately to his filmography to judge his legacy. That is how most people know him. How underwhelming much of that filmography is. Even though his range was truly impressive (he trained at Julliard), there is crap in every genre he worked in. Low rent comedies like The Survivors and Best of Times. Bad kids movies abound, like Hook and Flubber and Toys. His serious roles are also of inconsistent quality. Often built on sappy sentiment and cheap emotional ploys, films like Dead Poet's Society definitely have their fanbase but that fanbase is easily mainipulated emotionally. It gets worse with What Dreams May Come. Of course, there is the Marianas Trench of sappy films, Patch Adams, which was absolutely criminal in its badness.

ABOVE: The Bearded Movies. Often when Williams sported a beard, you knew it was a serious role. Good Will Hunting and Awakenings are the prime examples.

But let's stop speaking ill of the man's work. It wasn't all bad. Mrs. Doubtfire, while not sophisticated comedy by any means, had real heart and real laughs too, while remaining a family friendly film. He brought incredible life to the genie in Aladdin. Same with the wartime DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam. My favorite role of his was very much against type. He played the psychopathic killer opposite Al Pacino's troubled cop in Insomnia. Mrs. Doubtfire vs. Michael Corleone doesn't sound like much of a fight, but Williams surprised all by being a formidable adversary to Pacino. Most impressively, he did it without using his manic, bombastic persona, which most would consider the most potent weapon in his arsenal. It was all reserve and holding back. In fact, that is what made him so creepy. He did something similar in One Hour Photo. Why didn't he do more of these type of roles? I don't know. He was very, very good at them and had a real gift in that genre. Perhaps in light of his personal troubles, these troubled dark characters hit too close to home? I don't know.

ABOVE: Pacino and Williams face off in the excellent thriller, Insomnia

At any rate, it is a sad end to an iconic career. By all accounts, he was a generous man who was much loved by colleagues and friends and family. He was key in organizing the charitable Comic Relief that raised so much money and awareness to battle homelessness. By the numbers, his career was incredibly successful. I just think that artistically, it could have been so much more. RIP Robin Williams.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Indianapolis Speech: Anatomy of a Scene

First a quick history lesson. In July of 1945 the U.S.S. Indianapolis delivered uranium and other parts to the island of Tinian in the Pacific for the atomic bomb that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima. The ship successfully delivered its cargo, made a quick stop at Guam, and then headed towards Leyte in the Philippines. The Indianapolis never reached its destination, sinking quickly after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. About 300 men went down with the ship, while 880 went into the water. They were not rescued for three and a half days, with most of the men swimming with or without life jackets (very few lifeboats), holding on to any debris they could. Out of the 880 who went into the water, only about 320 ultimately survived. The incident is famous in part because it featured the most shark attacks on humans in recorded history for a single event. Most of the men actually died from exposure, drinking salt water and drowning, with many of the bodies being dragged off by sharks. But quite a few of the living were also attacked.

The reason it took three and a half days to find the survivors is because the Indianapolis was never reported missing. This was primarily due to a series of gross acts of negligence on the part of various naval personnel. The person in charge of making sure she arrived at Leyte did not make any report that she did not actually arrive. The Indianapolis sent distress signals, but one was ignored by a drunk captain, one was never reported up the chain of command and one was thought to be a Japanese trap. They were only found by a random American patrol plane, whose pilot, with great risk to himself and his plane, rescued about 50 men himself (strapping some men to the wings) and then radioed for help.

ABOVE: The U.S.S. Indianapolis

Anyway, the sinking of the Indianapolis is central to a key scene in the film Jaws. In what for many is the most memorable scene in the entire film, a scene that features no action, Robert Shaw's Quint relates the mesmerizing tale of his survival on the Indianapolis to Roy Scheider's Brody and Richard Dreyfuss' Hooper. Here is the scene. Even if you've seen the film, it is worth watching the clip. Shaw gives an acting clinic on subtlety and storytelling.

Now, there are a few historical details that he gets wrong. Like the date. Notice he says "June the 29th," when the ship sank on July 30. Also, there were, in fact, distress signals sent. But the makers of Jaws can be forgiven for that oversight. Jaws was made in 1974 (released in '75), and the Indianapolis distress signals became known later after military files were declassified. Before that, the story was that no signals had been sent due to the top secret nature of the mission.

There is quite a bit of dispute over who wrote this crucial speech. It is crucial in that it explains Quint's obsession with killing sharks, it gives the Quint character much needed depth (before this, he is mostly a salty bully), and provides the calm before the final climactic battle.

One of the reason there is dispute is due to the way Jaws was made. This was only Steven Spielberg's second feature film. He wasn't yet STEVEN SPIELBERG, he was just a 27 year old, still largely untested director. Jaws was made collaboratively and filmed largely on location in Martha's Vineyard. Spielberg rented a house and it was almost like a frat house. He lived there along with various production members and actors coming and going. Shaw would often show up full of booze. Spielberg would host dinners with many of the production and actors, always tossing around ideas.

Peter Benchley, author of the book, wrote the first draft of the script. Screenwriter Howard Sackler wrote a draft. Then Carl Gottlieb came in and rewrote a lot of it. (By the way, Gottlieb's The Jaws Log is a must read for anyone interested in filmmaking, whether you are a fan of this particular film or not. It is generally regarded as the best "making of" book ever written.)

But many things in Jaws came from suggestions or improvisations. Roy Scheider's famous "we're gonna need a bigger boat" line, for instance, was improvised on the spot by Scheider himself. The very funny scene where Quint and Hooper try and one up each other by crushing the beer can and coffee cup was the joint idea of Spielberg, Gottlieb and Dreyfuss over drinks.

Gottlieb swears that the Indianapolis speech was written by Robert Shaw himself. Shaw was also a noted playwright and writer, so he certainly was capable of good writing (his assessment of the Jaws novel, by the way: "a piece of sh*t"). The scene is not in the novel at all, and Gottlieb states that writer Sackler first introduced the scene into the Jaws script. But then Gottlieb and Spielberg himself worked extensively on it, and still were not satisfied. Spielberg called in his friend, writer and directer John Milius (writer of Apocalypse Now) to help with some ideas. (Gottlieb admits that the scene where Quint and Hooper compare scars - that was Milius). But after all of these versions were tossed around, it was Shaw who took them all and then wrote the actual speech that was shot. Apparently when they rehearsed it, he was drunk and couldn't really get through it and went into some embarassing admissions about his personal life. But once the camera was rolling he nailed it, and that is what you see onscreen. Gottlieb says of Shaw: "Shaw's genius as an actor of the old school is evident; he could work drunk or sober, and still be brilliant."

John Milius has a different recollection about who wrote the crucial scene. Milius:
"I wrote that thing and they gave it to [Shaw] when he was drunk. Could barely walk, he was really drunk...I was writing that [scene] until nine in the morning, I called in, that was their time and I was writing it over the phone. They went out that afternoon and shot it...Robert Shaw had just been caught f*cking the nanny, and he's sitting there, he's really drunk. They're trying to get him on the boat. He falls half off, and they're really 'how are we going to do this?' He's sleeping, reading the script and sleeping. They finally got him to start rehearsing it, and he hated Richard Dreyfuss. He sort of takes a swat at him, and he starts saying 'you ever see a shark's eye? It rolls up, it's a dead eye. Like your wife, when she tells you about the nanny.' And he's talking like, 'what happens when you get put in the water all alone, after f*cking the nanny?'...He gets [Spielberg and crew] so strung out on his personal life...then, when they turned on the cameras, he was perfect."

Gottlieb, while not denying Shaw's personal troubles, still vehemently denies that Milius wrote the meat of the speech. Gottlieb: "Who do you believe - the guy who was there and tells you someone else wrote the speech, or a guy who wasn't there and claims he did?" The only thing they do seem to agree on was that Robert Shaw was drunk.

My guess is that it was a collaborative effort, but with Shaw indeed pulling it all together and putting it in his/Quint's vernacular. While it does have a Milius-like clipped quality and focuses on military history, a Milius specialty, it just seems so personal to Shaw. Gottlieb claims that the night before filming Shaw came to Spielberg's rented place and read it to Spielberg, Gottlieb, Dreyfuss and producer Richard Zanuck almost word for word what ended up onscreen.

Interesting tidbit. Spielberg turned down Universal's offer to direct the sequel, and said he would only do it if the sequel were a prequel, about Quint's time on the Indianapolis. Universal said no. Now that would have been interesting.

Finally, the speech is such a brilliant piece of film writing, it is worth reading on the printed page. Or the glowing computer screen.

"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We were comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte...just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about half an hour. Tiger. 13 footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, Chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know, was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin', so we formed ourselves into tight groups.

You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like you see in the calendar named 'The Battle of Waterloo' and the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away...sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And you know, the thing about a shark...he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'...until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then...ah then, you hear that terrible high pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and you to pieces.

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don't know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I don't know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain's mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he'd been bitten in half below the waist.

Noon, the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us. He swung in low and he saw us...He was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper here. Anyway, he saw us and he come in low and three hours later a big fat PBY cruiser comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened...waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a life jacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb."

Thanks to Carl Gottlieb's The Jaws Log and Patrick Jankiewicz's A Jaws Companion for the quotes and much of the info.