Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Fleetwood Mac’s Quartet of Classic 45s

The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown) is not only a real mouthful to say, but, for me, remains one of the greatest singles of all time. I’ve listened to it a lot over the past few weeks, as I did ten years back, after recovering from a liver transplant. Maybe it addresses aspects of living through a time of  crisis/emergency? It was the final single that Peter Green wrote for the band, quitting after a bunch of German aristo-hippies spiked him in Munich, during a Mac European tour. The lyrics to Manalishi are chock full of dread, and they sound autobiographical, Green appearing to be struggling with both his spirituality, and the pressures of leading a very successful group at the pear of its powers.

Manalishi got to Number 10 in Spring 1970, and it’s another reminder of how very weird stuff indeed could still get into the charts back in that day. Driven by the band’s three-part guitar work (Green, the late Danny Kirwin and the also religiously-minded Jeremy Spenser), the single is an electric howl of torment, and can be compared, but with the dial turned up to 11, to Nick Drake’s Black Dog, another sinister song of persecution by a feral presence. Formerly one of the best UK 12-bar blues exponents, Fleetwood Mac were searching for new sounds by 1968, with the release of Albatross, a timelessly oceanic instrumental number, that not only got to Number One in that year, but was a hit once again in 1973. The follow-up, Man of the World, had a similarly slow, reflective, even mournful (vocal) track, was another massive hit, falling just short of the top position, in 1969. Both songs still sound fresh today, and the band’s ‘run’ of hits was still far from over.

Oh Well, Pts. 1 & 2 remains sui generis. Amazingly, it too reached Number Two in 1969. The first side features strong acoustic and electric guitar motifs, and a memorable 6-note riff, as well as a ‘freak out’ middle section, started by Mick Fleetwood’s cow bell (somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of Honky Tonk Women, released at exactly the same time, in Autumn 1969).. The coda to Side One consists of plangent acoustic strumming backed by echo-ey electric fills. Side Two continues in the same vein, moving into sub- Ennio Morricone/Fistful of Dollars territory, all tumbleweeds and whistling. The mood is desperately mournful, and again, was surely a reflection of Peter Green’s uncertainties at the time (he’d just renounced his Jewish faith and had converted to Christianity). The concluding passages contains an achingly beautiful, but simple, piano refrain, a piece of Spanish-style acoustic guitar and an orchestral passage of strummed magniloquence. All in five or so minutes of a ‘B side’.

For some bands, this would have been a career high, but Manalishi topped the lot for sheer power and paranoia. As Vernon Joynson says about Oh Well in his essential 1963-76 encyclopaedia The Tapestry of Delights, “Hearing it today, it seems remarkable that such an uncommercial sound could have gotten to Number Two in the charts”, but the same could be said about any of these four canonical singles. It was tragic (but probably inevitable) that it all turned to shit at the band’s peak. The Mac story is too well known to bear further repetition, but Fleetwood Mac 1.0 certainly managed to leave us with one of the greatest sequence of 45s in rock/pop history.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby