THE FORGOTTEN BOBS
This is a little essay I started last year, almost completed, then promptly forgot about.
That is until one morning during my self-imposed COVID-19 quarantine. I was reading email on my laptop, iTunes was running in the background on Shuffle, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Why” popped up just like it had the day I started this essay. It was time to finish my thoughts.
If you’ve not heard it, “Why” is the last song on Fleetwood Mac’s 1973 album, Mystery to Me, a song on which Christine McVie’s manages to be wistful, plaintive, and majestic, all in less than five minutes.
But what sets the song apart for me, beside Christine’s beautiful melody, haunting lyrics, and soulful delivery, are the contributions of Bob Welch and Bob Weston, or as I think of them, the Forgotten Bobs.
Peter Green, one of the finest blues guitarists ever, fellow guitarist Jeremy Spencer, bassist Bob Brunning, and drummer Mick Fleetwood began performing in 1967. When John McVie replaced Brunning a couple of months later, Fleetwood Mac was born. Their playlist consisted of blues covers and original, and increasingly innovative compositions, by Green. And yes, Peter Green, not Carlos Santana, was the guy who wrote “Black Magic Woman”.
Eighteen-year-old guitar prodigy Jeremy Spenser joined the band in 1968. For maybe the finest example of this iteration of the band’s music, check out the singles like “Need Your Love So Bad”, “Albatross”, and “The Green Manalishi”, and what may be my favorite Fleetwood Mac album, Then Play On.
By 1970, an LSD-addled Peter Green had left the band taking with him their Chicago blues roots. Jeremy Spencer followed a year later, joining the religious group Children of God, and leaving Fleetwood Mac without their strong link to 1950’s rock-n-roll.
Searching for a second guitarist to compliment Kirwan, they selected Bob Welch, the first American to join the hithertofore all-British band. The first album Welch played on was Future Games, which is also the first album on which Christine McVie, nee Perfect, appears as a full-fledged member of the band, although she had done session work with them as far back as 1968.
I sometimes think of Danny Kirwan as a an unregenerate British folkie despite his blues chops. With the addition of Welch’s jazzy R&B roots and unique mysticism combined with Christine’s soulful ballads and mid-tempo rockers, Fleetwood Mac now featured three strong and distinctly different songwriters who nevertheless were able to blend their talents, their voices, and their playing to enhance each other’s material.
Fleetwood Mac had morphed from a blues/rock-n-roll driven band into more of a mainstream, yet still idiosyncratic, early ’70’s rock band. Anchored by the incomparable rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the group recorded two fine studio albums, Future Games and Bare Trees, before Danny Kirwan, who contributed half of the material on each, was fired as a result of ongoing altercations with other band members.
Enter Bob Weston, a blues-rooted guitarist known for his slide work. The reconstituted Fleetwood Mac released Penguin in early 1973 and Mystery to Me in late 1973.
And that brings us to “Why”. Christine McVie has written many hauntingly beautiful melodies and lyrics. And that voice. For my money, she is one of rock’s finest contraltos. Long time Fleetwood Mac fans never fail to mention that her maiden name, Perfect, says it all. Few singers can express such heartbreak and as much erstwhile resignation at the same time as she can.
The casual listener may be familiar with “Don’t Stop”, “Say You Love Me”, “You Make Loving Fun”, and “Everywhere” from the late ’70’s onward version of Fleetwood Mac; but Christine McVie had been making great music since the mid-’60’s. Just listen to “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from 1972’s Bare Trees or “Show Me a Smile” from 1974’s Heroes Are Hard to Find or her 1969 cover of the Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” from the her days with Chicken Shack.
The forgotten gem in all of this? “Why”. Rarely done in concert, here is a 1976 performance with the Buckingham Nicks iteration of the group. Take a listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxjDHw5FtOA
Beautiful? Yes. No doubt. Great songs are hard to mess up, but take a moment and listen to the studio version from Mystery to Me.
That’s right. A 4:54 minute cut opens with 1:22 minutes of Bob Weston’s slide guitar and Mick Fleetwood’s drum before the first piano chords. Furthermore, Christine’s first vocals don’t come in until 1:51. Some have criticized that long intro. I suggest that Weston’s slide work sets the proper melancholic tone before Christine delivers her bittersweet verses with lines like “And the hurt I feel will simply melt away”, laced with Bob Welch’s crystal-sharp electric guitar notes that pierce like daggers into the heart. The song ends with the triumphant harmonies of the coda juxtapositioned against the lyric “Why don’t you love me?”.
For these reason, I consider it the superior version. Alas, this iteration of the band, like many others, did not last. Bob Weston was sacked on the 1973 tour for among other things having an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife Jenny Boyd. There must be something about those Boyd women, witness Patti Boyd Harrison Clapton who inspired George to write “Something” and Eric to write “Layla”.
The 1973 tour collapsed, and the band’s anxious and unscrupulous manager, claiming he owned the rights to the name “Fleetwood Mac”, put together a group of unknowns to complete the tour as the New Fleetwood Mac. Hard to imagine that making anyone happy, particularly in light of the lawsuits it spawned.
With the lawsuits finally resolved and a new record deal in place, Fleetwood Mac returned to the studio in late 1974. For the first time in its history, Fleetwood Mac was a four-piece band with only one guitarist. Together they produced Heroes Are Hard to Find, their highest charting album to that date.
The quartet with additional keyboard backup then went out on tour to support the album. I saw them in Jackson, MS, on that tour. If I remember correctly, after the first number “Coming Home”, Bob Welch stepped up to the microphone and said something like, “If you were ripped off by the fake Fleetwood Mac tour, we’re going to make it up to you tonight.” And they did with a setlist that reached from “The Green Manalishi” to “Bermuda Triangle”, from “Hypnotized” to “Spare Me A Little of Your Love.”
That tour was Bob Welch’s last hurrah with Fleetwood Mac. In December of 1974, he left the band for personal and professional reasons and embarked on a solo career that included its share of ups and downs.
In 1975, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac. I was familiar with them through a friend who had the Buckingham Nicks album. I found them pleasant enough but was not a huge fan. Their work was a little too slick and commercial for me. And that cheesy cover. Still, I admired Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar work and still do, although I have never been a fan of Stevie Nicks’ vocals or her on-stage theatrics.
So, I inwardly and outwardly groaned when I heard that they were stepping into the void left by Bob Welch’s departure. A band, whose music I had enjoyed through all their permutations since 1968, would be changing dramatically. I had no idea how much. Their monstrous success led to its own problems, but they produced some great music, which I came to appreciate only by considering them in their own right, and not comparing them to previous versions of the band.
In 2019, Fleetwood Mac toured with Mick Fleetwood on drums, John McVie on bass, Christine McVie on vocals and keyboards, Stevie Nicks on vocals, Mike Campbell (formerly with Tom Petty) on guitar, and Neil Finn (formerly of Crowded House) on vocals and guitar. Their setlist reached all the way back to “Oh Well” and “Black Magic Woman” and acknowledged Peter Green.
Nevertheless, these days those founding guitarists, Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer and later Danny Kirwan, who passed away in 2018, are largely unknown by most fans. More’s the pity.
And the Forgotten Bobs, well, Bob Weston’s short tenure and contributions are essentially unremembered and rarely even mentioned. And Bob Welch, whose songwriting, vocals, and guitar work in many ways formed the bridge that carried Fleetwood Mac from their blues roots into the mainstream world of rock music, is all but forgotten.
In 1998, the original members of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, along with Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bob Welch and Bob Weston were not included, their contributions never mentioned, their names not even uttered.
Bob Welch and Bob Weston died within six months of each other in 2012, the Forgotten Bobs.