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Debate Club

Fleetwood Mac's Second Best Album

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WELCOME TO the first meeting of Debate Club, the printed equivalent of overhearing two loudmouths argue about music at a bar. For this inaugural edition, Music Editor Ned Lannamann and Mercury contributor Mark Lore drank beer on a sidewalk in Sellwood, trying to decide which album is Fleetwood Mac's SECOND greatest album. Mark picked 1979's Tusk, the band's follow-up to their immensely successful Rumours. Ned chose Then Play On, a 1969 effort that sounds nothing at all like later-model Fleetwood Mac. They argued for 57 minutes and did not reach a consensus. Meanwhile, four-fifths of the classic Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac lineup (minus Christine McVie) play the Rose Garden on Sunday, June 30.

NED LANNAMANN: So the whole idea of this discussion is that neither of these albums is Rumours, which you're probably sick of, right?

MARK LORE: I'm not. But it's more interesting to talk about something else.

NED: Is Rumours your favorite Fleetwood Mac album?

MARK: I'd say, probably. Only because Tusk has some filler on it. It's a 20-song double LP, and to me Rumours doesn't have a bad song on it.

NED: But what about "Songbird"?

MARK: See, I knew you were going to say "Songbird" before you even said it.

NED: The reason I like Then Play On is just because it's not the same band. It's the same rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, but it's totally crazy and different and doesn't sound anything like the later version. Maybe it's sort of an underdog and that's why I like it.

MARK: Peter Green was the guitarist on this one, right? With his stuff, there are some great songs, but for me it blends in with the blues-based rock at the time.

NED: Then Play On is kind of them getting rid of that. There are maybe two or three blues songs and a lot of jamming, but there's also a lot of weird psychedelic shit.

MARK: What are the songs that you like?

NED: "Oh Well" is the highlight, I think. It wasn't even on the record originally. It came out as a two-part single at the same time, and they put it on the US version. It is sort of a blues song at the beginning, I guess, and it's really fast and rocking, and then it just goes into this weird Japanese flute thing for six minutes, this long instrumental thing.

MARK: Yeah, flutes were big in the late '60s. The one song I will say I really like is "Although the Sun Is Shining." That's a really great song.

NED: That's Danny Kirwan. Then Play On was his first album with them. Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were the other two guitarists, and for that album they brought in Kirwan as a third guitarist. But I was doing some research, and I guess Jeremy Spencer doesn't play on the album, and he didn't write any of the songs. It's just weird that he was a member of the band and doesn't play on the album. There was the whole separate EP of his songs that they were going to release at the same time, but it never came out.

MARK: That was the last Peter Green album, right?

NED: Yeah. It's interesting that each version of the band had three songwriters that are all pretty different from each other. So was Tusk part of your childhood?

MARK: Yeah, my parents saw them live on the Tusk tour. Man, I wish I still had that shirt. My mom got one of those jerseys; she gave it to me when I was in junior high and it's long gone. But yeah, those two albums were on heavy rotation. My parents would have friends over and have get-togethers, and they'd play Fleetwood Mac. And if we were on vacation, they'd be on the eight-track player.

NED: So did you differentiate between Tusk and Rumours, like Rumours being the classic and Tusk being the black sheep?

MARK: At the time? Oh, no, no. To me it was all just Fleetwood Mac. But I do remember being really fascinated with the different voices. Rumours is somewhat cohesive, but Tusk is definitely not. Christine McVie has two of my favorite songs on there, even though some of the filler songs are hers, like "Brown Eyes."

NED: Everything that she does on the second half, I hate. There's that song, "Honey Hi," the one that sounds like a bunch of people in their 50s down in Florida on vacation, drinking tequila, about to get frisky.

MARK: Now you've tainted it for me.

NED: That's my job.

MARK: But "Think About Me," I think is a great fucking pop song. I love that song. And her two kind of bookend songs, the first song and the final track—"Over and Over" and "Never Forget"—I think are both really, really good. But a lot of what makes "Over and Over" good is Lindsey Buckingham. His guitar work on that song is absolutely gorgeous.

NED: I actually added up the durations of all the songs—because all of Lindsey Buckingham's songs are around two minutes and all of Stevie Nicks' songs are, like, five minutes. So even though he's got the lion's share of songs, I think duration-wise she has 10 seconds more of the album than he does. But all of his songs are at least interesting. I wouldn't say they're all good, but they're all innovative in a way.

MARK: That album is the Lindsey Buckingham show. He pretty much produced it all. He recorded a lot of his stuff at home and fiddled around with weird noises. It's kind of dry sounding, flappy drums... and that's why I like it, I think. A song like "The Ledge"—that's such a fucking weird song.

NED: The guitars sound like rubber bands. I don't have a lot of love for it, but I don't dislike it at all. I think it's interesting. But the Buckingham songs that stand out to me are songs like "What Makes You Think You're the One." That just gets stuck in your head without you realizing it. And then there's the really slow one on Side One, "Save Me a Place."

MARK: I had some friends play that at [my] wedding. I like that one a lot.

NED: All his other songs are really fast—coked out, almost—but that one's really nice and soft.

MARK: Yeah, that's a nice mellow one. And the chorus, the harmonies on that are really cool too. "Not That Funny" is another one I like, another kind of coked-out one. You're shaking your head...

NED: I don't like it. It's good that his songs are so short because with a song like that, if it were five minutes long, you'd need to turn it off before it was over.

MARK: On Tusk even the album cover is weird.

NED: Yeah, it's kind of shitty.

MARK: It's cool. I mean, I like it.

NED: It's like that marble thing you find in '80s condos. We talked about how home-recorded Tusk sounds, but one of the things about it is that it cost loads to record. Wasn't it the first album to cost more than a million dollars to record? Which is a good reason to hate it, I think. Especially at the time, during punk rock.

MARK: Well, half that budget was just for coke. The actual album itself probably cost about $200,000.

NED: I mean, you do think, "Where did the money go?"

MARK: They were doing so much blow. I'm really fascinated by that. I don't try to glorify it, but I like the decadence of some stuff. The thought of them in this studio railed out of their minds, recording this stuff, it's interesting. It's a product of its time.

NED: It's not like money buys a better album.

MARK: You think about it costing a million bucks to make and you're like, "I don't hear it." But it was probably drugs, and drugs for the engineers. It was probably this big party. Because they could, they were so filthy fucking rich.

NED: There are some really boring Christine McVie songs. And the Stevie Nicks songs... they’re just not tight. With Lindsey Buckingham it’s in-and-out, like, here’s the chorus then we’re done. Whereas Stevie Nicks songs wander all around, she’s twirling her scarves, and they all have maybe one and a half chords in them. She’s not a Brian Wilson, that’s for sure.

MARK: Or a Lindsey Buckingham.

NED: So is the title track the best song on the album? It's a weird song. When you'd hear it, you're like in the middle of a rock block, or it comes on the jukebox in a bar, and you say, "Who put this on?" It's sort of broken in a way. You can tell what Buckingham was going for, with the marching band and the slow creepy groove and the whisper at the beginning. It's sort of mean and nasty, and there's an element of being coked out, and then when the marching band comes in, it doesn't sound right. The first time you hear it you’re thinking, “Uh, they should have got a better band to do that than the USC marching band.” But then that’s sort of the point, it’s a coked-out nightmare of a song. I don't think it's meant to be a pleasurable song, but it's definitely an artistically valid song.

MARK: And you listen to it in headphones and you get the full effect. I think the marching band part was actually recorded at USC. It's not like they brought 'em into the studio.

NED: It doesn't sound like they rehearsed it very much.

MARK: Yeah, there's definitely an element of sloppiness throughout the whole record.

NED: Would you say "Tusk" is the best song on the record, or close to it?

MARK: Yeah, I'd say it's probably at least one of the two or three best... I'm a big fan of "The Ledge" just because it's so weird. Not weird in the broad sense, but weird for Fleetwood Mac. Does Then Play On have a centerpiece song?

NED: Well, if it does, it's sort of a red herring, because it's "Oh Well," which wasn't on the original tracklist. I've actually never heard the original UK version of the album, which has two songs that aren't on the version that I have. They changed the order of the songs, too.

MARK: Wait, so you've never even heard the true version of Then Play On—the original version as it was meant to be?

NED: True. I was actually looking for the original version online today and I can't find it. I think those two lost songs are available elsewhere, but there's no complete version that's out there. You could say it's an album that's out of print, that doesn't exist anymore. You can't buy the proper version of it, which is kind of cool, I guess. So yeah, it's an album that I just can't wrap my head around, which is maybe why I like it.

MARK: Was it always one of your favorites?

NED: I don't remember if I liked the album or not the first time I heard it, but it made a big impression. And I always loved that album cover. "Oh Well" was a song I knew by name, so I was thinking it would be, "Oh, here's a classic-rock song that's nine minutes long," and then you listen to it and it's two minutes of the rock part and then it's just zone-out craziness with Asian-sounding flutes, almost like the soundtrack to a kung fu movie or something. One of the reasons I have so much affection for the album is that it's one of those records that you need to champion—you need to be like, "Oh, so you like Rumours? WELL, let me blow your mind."

MARK: I'm sure there are people out there that like both versions of Fleetwood Mac, but I figure most people are either into the Buckingham/Nicks era or the Peter Green period. Not both.

NED: I'm picturing some 17-year-old coed in 1978 who loves Rumours soooo much, and Fleetwood Mac are her new favorite band, and she goes to the record store downtown and picks up Then Play On and brings it home and is just like, "What. Is. This." It doesn't even tell you the name of the musicians who played on it. That's sort of great.

MARK: Whatever.

So, who wins the debate? Cast your vote for Fleetwood Mac's second best album on Blogtown right now!

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