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Keep On Going – Bob Welch and the Rise and Fall of Fleetwood Mac

In December 1974, as Fleetwood Mac were approaching the end an American tour in support of their latest album, Heroes Are Hard to Find, frontman and principal songwriter Bob Welch announced that he intended to leave the band. It was not difficult to assess why; since he had joined the group just four years earlier they had lost a singer and a guitarist, had relocated from England to America and had found themselves in the middle of a legal dispute with their management over their right to continue performing under the name Fleetwood Mac. All the while, Welch had struggled to move the band in a more commercial direction, while not alienating the longtime fans who still yearned for a return to their earlier blues sound, yet despite all this they had failed to match the critical success of their debut album. Exhausted and frustrated, Welch decided that it was time to part ways with his bandmates and form a group of his own.

This left Fleetwood Mac in the same position they had found themselves in when Welch had first joined in late 1970. Ever since their inception, born from the London blues scene of the mid-1960s, the band had suffered one major setback after another, constantly pushing the members to breaking point. This first began when founder and frontman Peter Green announced his retirement from the group while touring Europe, following a bad LSD experience that had left the already troubled singer emotionally unstable. Less than a year later, guitarist Jeremy Spencer failed to appear at a show at Los Angeles’ legendary Whisky a Go-Go and after several days of searching the band found that he had shaved his head, changed his name and joined a religious cult known as the Christian of God, renouncing both his career and his family and once again leaving Fleetwood Mac without a creative driving force.

Welch was born in Los Angeles into a family rich in entertainment; his father was Paramount Pictures producer and occasional screenwriter Robert L. Welch, whose credits included a list of comic westerns starring screen legend Bob Hope, while his mother was 1960s TV star Templeton Fox, who had worked with Orson Wells on his Mercury Theater some thirty years earlier. Raised on his parents’ record collection, while also devouring the rock ‘n’ roll classics of the 1950s, Welch’s interests in performing music began as a child when he took clarinet lessons, before eventually turning to the guitar. He joined his first group Seven Souls in the mid-1960s before moving to another outfit, Head West, prompting him to Europe for what would prove to be an unsuccessful tour.

‘I was living in Paris, the band had gone back to L.A. because a couple of the guys’ wives were pregnant and so really I was like, ‘What am I going to do? Stay here?’ And I got a call from an old friend of mine who lived in London,’ Welch explained to Dick Clark on American Bandstand in 1982. Welch’s friend, Judy Wong, was then dating Glenn Cornick, bassist of popular rock group Jethro Tull and it was through Wong that the members of Fleetwood Mac first learnt of Welch. Their last record Kiln House had barely made its way into the UK Top 40, climbing only as far as #39, their first studio album that failed to break the Top 10. With Spencer having given up his life of music and embraced his faith, the remaining members had been forced to turn to Green, who had since retired from the music industry, in the hope that he would perform on the remainder of their shows.

Their final release with Spencer came in March 1971, but with both Green and Spencer now out of the group the future of Fleetwood Mac seemed uncertain. In an interview with weekly British music paper NME, keyboardist and co-singer Christine McVie explained, ‘Over the past year, it seems as if we have just been battered and beaten about the head with a giant club.’ But both drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, whom Green had formed the band with after leaving London-based blues act the Bluesbreakers in 1967, had no intention of allowing their group to fall apart and so, on the suggestion of Wong, invited Welch to their country mansion to discuss the possibility of joining Fleetwood Mac.

When Welch arrived at the band’s home, a large retreat close to their former commune on the border of Hampshire, he soon found that the meeting was less of an audition and more of a chance for Fleetwood and McVie to judge whether or not Welch not only had the musical talents but also the strong will to cope with the brutal environment that often surrounded the band. While LSD was no longer an issue, members of the group had been known for heavy drinking, with McVie among the most notorious. Yet Fleetwood, Christine and McVie had become the core of Fleetwood Mac and following the recent departures of Green and Spencer, as well as the relative disappointment of Kiln House, the very future of the band was now at stake. While their time with independent British label Blue Horizon had resulted in three Top Ten albums and even a number one single with 1968′s instrumental piece Albatross, since signing with Warner they had failed to meet the expectations of their major label.

It was made clear from the very beginning that the band had no desire to return to either the blues sound of their earlier records or the rock ‘n’ roll style of Kiln House and with both of their key songwriters now long gone, Welch was given free rein to write whatever material he saw fit. By this point blues had begun to lose popularity in Britain and instead a more psychedelic and progressive rock sound had taken its place, with albums such as Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother gaining considerable acclaim from music critics. Yet Welch felt that the band were still traumatised by Green and the influence that he had left behind. ‘Peter Green most definitely haunted them,’ he explained in the 1995 Rock Family Trees documentary The Fleetwood Mac Story. ‘It was never expressed in so many words. Actually, I probably would have been more happy if it had been. I knew there were certain guitar licks you did not try to play.’

But before they were to return to the studio to record what they hoped would be their comeback after a year of internal conflicts and drama, the band decided that they would take Welch out on the road to see how well he would cope performing the songs in front of an audience, while also assessing his chemistry with his new bandmates. Commencing at the Kinetic Circus in Birmingham on 3 June Fleetwood Mac spent almost two months during the summer of 1971 touring small venues and clubs around England, returning to their roots in the hope of recapturing their earlier magic, albeit with a new line-up and sound. Around the same time, impressed with the dynamic that Welch had brought to the group, they made their way to Advision Studios on Gosfield Street in London to commence work on their fifth album, once again acting as their own producers, as they had done with Kiln House.

Of the eight songs that would be selected for the final track list, two would be written by Welch, and one he would co-write with the entire band, while guitarist Danny Kirwan would contribute three and Christine McVie the remaining two. From the very beginning it became clear that Welch had not been hired merely as a guitarist but was also expected to influence the direction that the band would take through his songwriting. The resulting album, Future Games, marked a radical departure for Fleetwood Mac from their earlier raw sound, instead capturing a polished and melodic style that would mark the first step in a direction that would eventually lead to platinum sales. But at the time of its release the album failed to generate much interest in their native Britain, although it would earn the band a gold disc in the United States.

But from the very beginning Welch felt that there was a divide between himself and the veteran members of the band. Despite the fact that they had welcomed him with open arms and had allowed him the freedom to contribute whatever material he saw fit, there was always a sense that he was not invited into their inner circle. ‘Everybody was very ‘nice’ to me when I joined,’ he told fan site in 2008. ‘We all sat around and had tea, talked for hours, etc. The ‘whammy’ that Mick, John and Chris worked, was a much subtler thing…which is why they could be so frustrating. It had to do with undertones, and little ‘looks’ and ‘glances’ and hmmmmmmms and lack of forthrightness, that, over time, kept you off balance.’ There were tensions elsewhere in the band, however, as McVie’s longstanding issue with drinking continued, while his marriage to keyboardist Christine McVie was often strained due to the added pressures of recording and touring together. Despite this, the five-piece returned to the studio once again to record their follow-up to Future Games.

This time they chose De Lane Lea in Wembley as their base of operations, a studio that had first opened shortly after the Second World War with the sole purpose of dubbing movies into French. Yet in the years since its formation acts like the Beatles, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who and Queen had recorded material there, while such blockbusters as Hellboy II: The Golden Army and the Harry Potter franchise had also made use of their facilities. Recording took place throughout January and February 1972, with the writing chores once again split between Kirwan, McVie and Welch. Arguably the most celebrated song on the album was the Welch-penned Sentimental Lady, which enjoyed minor success when it was released as a single in May 1972, so much so that Welch would re-record and release it as a solo artist several years later. Warner had released the accompanying album Pale Trees a month earlier and while once again fans in Britain seemed a little underwhelmed by the new direction they had taken, they achieved their first platinum record in America.

By this point it was clear that Kirwan was struggling with life on the road but events did not come to blows until shortly before a show in America when he had an argument with Welch over the tuning of their instruments and smashed his guitar in a fit of rage. Refusing to go onstage, Kirwan instead stood in the audience and shouted abuse at his bandmates. There was no choice but to fire Kirwan, meaning that once again Fleetwood Mac were without a member and were forced to find a replacement. As with both Green and Spencer, Kirwan was one of the group’s main songwriters and this would mean that Welch and McVie would be burdened with writing more material for their next album. The band’s manager, Clifford Davis, agreed to cancel the remaining shows and allowed the group to return to England to take a break and decide how they were to overcome the latest setback.

The majority of successful rock groups during the 1970s had an enigmatic singer who did not compromise his performance by playing an instrument, instead acting as an entertainer to their devoted audiences. Black Sabbath had Ozzy Osbourne, the Rolling Stones had Mick Jagger and Led Zeppelin had Robert Plant; Davis felt that this was what Fleetwood Mac needed if they were to achieve the same kind of record sales as their contemporaries. The band themselves did not agree, as they had already achieved modest acclaim and commercial success without a charismatic singer, yet they eventually submitted to their manager’s insistence and so a new vocalist was brought onboard. Dave Walker was the frontman of a blues group called Savoy Brown, who had once shared a touring bill with Fleetwood Mac and had made a suitable impression on the band. Reluctantly, they agreed that Walker could make an ideal addition to their group and was immediately hired, forcing him to quite his current position.

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac

Kirwan had also played an important role as guitarist – Fleetwood Mac had always functioned with at least two guitarists – and so it was decided that a sixth member should be recruited. On the same tour that had introduced them to Walker, there was another act on the bill, Long John Baldry, and Fleetwood had taken a liking to his guitarist, Bob Weston. Although he agreed to join, Weston still performed additional guitar on Baldry’s next studio album Everything Stops for Tea, which was produced by noted artists Elton John and Rod Stewart. Both Walker and Weston joined Fleetwood Mac on the same day and before long found themselves embarking on a short tour before commencing work on the band’s first album as a six-piece. ‘It looked very promising from the start,’ Weston told the Fleetwood Mac fan site. ‘Dave’s forte was as a frontman in live performance. Initial rehearsals were full of energy and we all felt he was the right man for the job. This was further endorsed with the initial Norwegian tour, structured to break us in as a team. Then the Penguin sessions began and so did the doubts.’

Recording for Penguin took place in the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio in january 1973, this time with the assistance of producer Martin Birch, who had previously worked as an engineer for Fleetwood Mac on their 1969 album Then Play On, as well as Kiln House and Bare Trees. The studio, which had been built by members of the Rolling Stones a few years earlier, had allowed the group to record where they saw fit, instead of having to relocate to a specific location outside of their comfort zone. It had proved so successful, having recorded their recent albums Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street there, that other popular acts such as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin had also cut albums there. This seemed an idea environment for Fleetwood Mac and so it was decided that they would record the sessions for Penguin there. Unlike the previous two albums, the overall feel of the new songs were more energetic and pop-orientated, with the writing of Christine McVie and Welch predictably dominating the material.

There were no doubts among the Fleetwood Mac camp that Walker was a dynamic presence onstage and that he won over his audiences with ease, yet in the studio it was another matter. Despite his increasingly problematic drinking habit, something which John McVie was just as guilty of, it was clear that he brought very little to the band. Talking with in 2000, Walker admitted, ‘I did have difficulty writing for the Penguin album, as the bulk of the writing was being done by Christine and Bob Welch. Also, they were better at it. But I found it frustrating not really feeling like a part of the creative process. How did I feel about the finished album? As I had very little contribution on the finished product I must admit that I was at best, ambivalent about it. The songs that I sang on the album I didn’t do very well, but I felt that those tunes were just added as an afterthought. I do not want you to think that there is any bitterness present but my thoughts on the album are just a personal matter of fact.’

By the time that Walker was dismissed from Fleetwood Mac their old record label had re-released an early single, Albatross, which had managed to climb to near the top of the charts, yet the band were hard at work in the studio. Once again, Welch and Christine McVie were the focal point, taking turns as the frontman or woman, the result of which would be Mystery to Me. Penguin had performed better than their more recent albums, yet overall the feel was that it had been a disappointment, from an artistic standpoint at least. The reviews for Mystery to Me were mostly positive, if nothing special, with Billboard stating, ‘Vocals of Christine McVie on cuts such as Just Crazy Love and Bob Welch’s guitar on tunes such as The City are superb. A band that can rock or keep it soft.’

Yet it was clear that Fleetwood Mac had been struggling for a few years, both artistically and personally, with numerous line-up changes and internal conflicts threatening to pull them apart. But by the release of Mystery to Me in October 1974, it seemed that the end was almost near. The marriage between John and Christine McVie came under threat when it was discovered that Christine had been in a relationship with the band’s producer, Martin Birch, yet just as they were managing to overcome this serious issue, Fleetwood realised that his own wife, Jenny Boyd, was having an affair with his guitarist, Bob Weston. Having fallen victim to the ultimate betrayal, Fleetwood was unable to continue touring with Weston, which would once again put the reputation of the band and their future at stake, and so Davis, unable to talk his drummer round, ordered the roadies to escort Weston from his hotel and send him home, no longer as a member of Fleetwood Mac.

As Weston would later recall, ‘I had an early morning call from the tour manager, insisting I come up to his room, whereupon I was greeted with an air of hostility by the crew chiefs of lighting, sound, etc. My tour manager told me very simply that the tour was cancelled, Mick had already left for Africa, John and Christine for London – obviously it was a fait accompli. Certainly no mutual decision-making. I was handed a plane ticket and driven to the nearest airport. I didn’t see any of the band between waking up and getting on the plane.’ They had overcome many things throughout their career – drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, disappearing band members and irrational outburst, yet two affairs within the close-knit community threatened to pull the group apart, with each member feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted. There was no choice, the band felt, but to finally take a break and reevaluate their future. Yet their manager, it would seem, had other ideas.

Davis had insisted that the band prepare for another tour to make amends for the dates they had cancelled, yet none of the musicians had any strength left in them, and Fleetwood in particular needed some time away from the music scene to get his house in order. But Davis felt that this was unprofessional behaviour and blasted his clients for being, in his words, ‘irresponsible musicians.’ Ignoring his claims, the members of the band went their separate ways, with Welch returning to Los Angeles and Fleetwood and Christine McVie making their way back to America, while John McVie decided that he needed some time by himself and so retreated to Tahiti in the French Polynesia. But Davis refused to lose out on money and tarnish his reputation and so was determined to send the band back out on the road. Yet with none of the members willing to entertain the idea, he decided to form a new band to tour under the same name, believing that Fleetwood Mac was a brand and that he owned the name. The first the real band heard of this was when Welch came across a flyer while in California, which advertised a show for the ‘New Fleetwood Mac.’

‘I was the first one that became aware that there was a ‘bogus’ band going out under our name, from a conversation I had with Rich Engler, a promoter in Pittsburgh,’ Welch said years later. It seemed uncertain to the members of Fleetwood Mac what Davis’ agenda was, despite the obvious intention of making money, as for reasons unknown he reported to the music press that both Welch and John McVie had quit the band, and that Fleetwood intended on playing drums with the new line-up on their upcoming tour. The all-male band that Davis had brought together – which consisted of frontman Elmer Gantry, guitarist Kirby Gregory, drummer Craig Collinge, bassist Paul Martinez and keyboardist John Wilkinson – commenced their tour of the United States in January 1974, just three months after the release of Mystery to Me and one month after their latest single For Your Love was issued.

In retaliation, the members of the real Fleetwood Mac decided that they would pursue legal action against both their manager and members of the faux group, and so in April Fleetwood Mac Promotions took action against Clifford Davis Management. Three months later the band scored their first legal victory when their request for an injunction was granted. In their 27 July issue Billboard reported, ‘The injunction, which was resisted, remains effective until judgment in this case. The judge said there appeared to be a case against Davis, his company and the three individual musicians. The original group had a reputation through the name Fleetwood Mac that Davis thought was worth using, said the judge.’ Meanwhile, unable to perform or record under their name in Great Britain, Welch suggested to his bandmates that they relocate to the United States, where they would be outside of British law. Despite some reluctance, the other members agreed and so, even as lawyers on their behalf fought against Davis and his own band, Fleetwood Mac started a new chapter of their life in California.

By July they were in the studio once again, even while the future of their band name seemed uncertain. For the first time recording an official album outside of the United Kingdom, Fleetwood Mac settled on Angel City Sound in Los Angeles to record their ninth studio album, Heroes Are Hard to Find. With four songs composed by Christine McVie, the remaining seven were written by Welch, who had become the guiding force of the band over the last couple of years, and who was dealing simultaneously with legal issues surrounding the fake group touring under their name. Their latest album was released through Warner’s Reprise label on 13 September 1974 and managed to climb as high as #38 in the American charts, although once again English audiences seemed less than impressed with their current direction. In their review of the album Billboard stated, ‘Welch is a top-notch guitarist and the band as a unit has learned to mix good blues with more pop-orientated rock material.’ But Heroes Are Hard to Find proved to be yet another disappointment, failing to meet the expectations of the label, the fans and the band itself.

Welch had fronted Fleetwood Mac for almost four years when he suddenly announced to his bandmates that he was going to step down to pursue other projects. The pressure had been on him from the very beginning to revamp the group’s sound and achieve a new level of commercial success for them, yet for the most part they had failed to reach their goal. ‘Part of the reason I left in ’74 was for all the reasons I’ve always given, needing to ‘try my luck,’ wanting to do harder rock, being ‘burnt’ from the lawsuit, etc. But the part I never talked about, was needing to get away from them,’ Welch confessed to the Fleetwood Mac fan site many years later. During his time with the band he had played a major part in the writing and production of five underrated albums, each one a step in the evolution of Fleetwood Mac that would ultimately lead them to become one of the most revered rock acts of all time. Even by the time he had announced his retirement, Fleetwood had already set his sights on another gifted guitarist called Lindsey Buckingham who, along with his girlfriend and collaborator Stevie Nicks, would help steer the band to major success by the end of the decade.

Bob Weston, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood

Bob Weston, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood

Welch, meanwhile formed a new group with former Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick called Paris, before ultimately pursuing a career as a solo artist, scoring minor hits in the late 1970s with Ebony Eyes and a new rendition of Sentimental Lady. When Fleetwood Mac were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, many former members of the band were included in the honour, yet Welch was noticeable absent. ‘My era was the bridge era. It was a transition. But it was an important period in the history of the band,’ Welch told the Plain Dealer at the time, ‘I could understand it if I had been a sideman for a year. But I was an integral part of that band for five years.’ Sadly, Welch took his own life on 7 June 2012 at the age of sixty-six, allegedly due to recent spinal surgery and not wanting to become an invalid and a burden to his wife, after being told by doctors that his situation would not improve. In a statement to Reuters immediately after his death, Fleetwood said, ‘He was a huge part of our history which sometimes gets forgotten…mostly his legacy would be his songwriting abilities that he brought to Fleetwood Mac, which will survive all of us.’ Incidentally, Welch had been the second former member of Fleetwood Mac to die the same year, as guitarist Bob Weston, who had performed with Welch on both Penguin and Mystery to Me, had passed away on 3 January from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage.


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