At the time of release of their third album ‘Then Play On’ in September 1969, Fleetwood Mac were an absolute musical powerhouse. While the band were not as purist in their blues ethic as before, on that release, bandleader Peter Green’s song writing, vocal style and guitar playing are at their career peak, while Danny Kirwan shows increased confidence in his role as second guitarist and songwriter. As usual, both Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are faultless in their rhythm section duties. Despite the strengths, cracks are also beginning to appear: although Fleetwood’s third vocalist-guitarist Jeremy Spencer is credited as appearing, he made no contributions to the original LP.
When ‘Then Play On’ was issued in the US, a couple of tracks were removed from the album and the running order changed in order to accommodate the non-album hit ‘Oh Well (Parts 1 & 2)’. Spencer played piano on ‘Oh Well (Part 2)’, but generally speaking, his role within the band wasn’t very creative by that point. At live shows, he chose to either perform Elmore James numbers on the slide guitar, or appear as Earl Vince, a rock ‘n’ roll tribute artist complete with gold suit. This unsubtle act – which would occasionally involve a dildo poking out of his trousers – didn’t always go down too well when touring the US.
Despite their brilliant recorded output, Fleetwood Mac weren’t an especially cohesive unit by the turn of the new decade. However, in March 1970, things got much worse. While on tour in Germany, Peter Green took some bad acid which led to his creative decline. He left the band shortly after and was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. His first solo release, ‘The End of The Game’ may well represent his state of mind at the time. His smooth, beautiful blues style is replaced by angular, aggressive playing. The album itself consists of one long free-form jam subsequently edited down into six tracks. Although difficult listening, its fusion of Grateful Dead style meandering delivered with Cream’s fury has its place…and even at its worst, the album still represents Green in a better light than the Fleetwood Mac he left behind.
The departure of such a great frontman left Fleetwood Mac more than floundering. Down to a four-piece, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer were left with the near-impossible task of keeping the band alive. With Kirwan and Spencer as principle song writers, the band’s fourth album, ‘Kiln House’ was always going to be a difficult one, but it’s doubtful even the most critical fan would have suspected it would turn out as badly as it did.
It’s bewildering as to why Spencer was offered such a creative role after Green’s departure, given that in the year or so previously he’d become so inflexible regarding the styles of music he was willing to play. Unsurprisingly, as a result, ‘Kiln House’ is heavily biased towards fifties-style tributes, with five of the ten cuts taking that route. The album could have probably found room for one of those, but to pad it out with another four was creative madness.
The shuffling ‘This Is The Rock’ showcases a couple of interesting musical aspects, as far as a fifties tribute is concerned: Mick Fleetwood’s brush-led drumming is both subtle and professional, while John McVie’s bass line is warm and inviting. It’s a great pity that once Jeremy Spencer steps up to the mic, anything interesting is almost swept aside by his bluster. A raucous run-through of Fats Waller’s ‘Hi Ho Silver’ may have sat well (or not) in a live setting, with the pint-sized Spencer imitating his 1950s idols, but it hardly has a fitting place on a Fleetwood studio disc, especially one delivered at such a crucial point in the band’s career. Spencer barks and yelps his lines with gusto, under some sort of misapprehension that he’s second coming of rock ‘n’ roll; if you can get past that, Fleetwood and McVie sound settled in their rhythm section roles and Danny Kirwan’s backing vocals add a little colour. The band may have been having fun (largely at Spencer’s instigation), but this doesn’t really come close to being essential listening.
‘Buddy’s Song’ is a “loving tribute” to the work of Buddy Holly and sounds exactly as you’d expect. Lyrically it features Spencer name-checking as many Holly songs as he can muster, over a tune which is a direct lift of Holly’s own ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’. While a completely heartfelt pastiche, it needs to be asked whether this would be something existing Fleetwood fans would have wanted to listen to in 1970, likely still smarting from the departure of Peter Green? It seems unlikely. ‘Blood On The Floor’ – a Spencer original, and a tribute to old style country music – features a crooned vocal filled with tales of heartbreak; it’s lyrics carrying all the subtlety of a brick. The only vaguely inspiring moments come from McVie’s loud bass sound, but even so, his playing lacks the spark previously heard on ‘This Is The Rock’. Although the harmony vocals are well-placed, Spencer’s lead vocal is so bad, it’s almost a joke. And while it can be suspected that Spencer intended this to be so, it’s a very unfunny joke at that. Words almost cannot describe how awful this track is.
‘One Together’s influence from past musical styles is far more slight than Spencer’s usual stabs at paying tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll era. While the vocal melody hints at fifties-style pop, the delivery shifts away from rock ‘n’ roll shouting in favour of something rather more sophisticated. The gentle voice is backed suitably by gentle ‘Albatross’ style drumming from Fleetwood and a very understated bass line from McVie. While a step up from Spencer’s other offerings, it still doesn’t inspire in the ferocious way the band had with Green at the helm – even on their most forgettable material. Similarly, a cover of ‘Mission Bell’ (a US hit in 1960 for Donnie Brooks) is bland. Its musical arrangement hovers somewhere between the softest rock ‘n’ roll love song and a piece of Hawaiian junk, and its inclusion here would be rather bemusing – if it were not for the fact that at least 70% of ‘Kiln House’ could best be described as rubbish. Its only redeeming feature is an uncredited backing vocal from Chicken Shack’s Christine Perfect, although she’s woefully underused.
With Spencer’s contributions out of the way, it’s up to the often understated style of Danny Kirwan to raise the bar. ‘Jewel Eyed Judy’ begins with gentle verses showcasing a slight influence from American roots rock – the kind JJ Cale would excel at over the next few years. Kirwan’s soulful voice is very sympathetic to the sound, creating something rather pleasant. The choruses are in a bombastic seventies rock style, with Kirwan’s vocal opting for something shouty, though never at the music’s expense. Although lacking the finesse of some of his other compositions, it’s a commendable effort – and one of ‘Kiln House’s more listenable numbers. ‘Tell Me All The Things You Do’ is a reasonably powerful rocker capturing Kirwan in fine voice. The band sounds truly energized: the lead guitar parts have plenty of drive and the occasionally heavily reverbed parts recall some of the band’s work from the previous year. While this doesn’t have quite have the ferocity of the ‘Then Play On’ instrumental double-whammy ‘Fighting/Searching For Madge’, it proves that (once Jeremy Spencer can be persuaded to take more of a backseat) the Mac still had the chops to be a real tour-de-force even without Green. On this track, even Jeremy Spencer brings something useful by way of some great electric piano work, perhaps his only decent contribution to ‘Kiln House’.
The rootsy, and vocal driven ‘Station Man’ features a couple of interesting moments and a few half-decent guitar motifs, but is nowhere near light enough. The rhythm guitars are a little too loud and even the often beyond criticism Fleetwood/McVie rthythm section attack their roles in a rather staid manner. Kirwan doesn’t sound completely at ease vocally, despite having the superbly talented (but again, uncredited) Christine Perfect on hand to add harmonies. Despite lacking a lightness of touch, this track is still better than most of ‘Kiln House’, though. It certainly makes the listener wonder how much better this album would have turned out, had Kirwan had a more forceful presence and taken the reigns away from Spencer more often.
The album’s only essential track, the Kirwan-penned instrumental number ‘Earl Grey’, is a strong showcase for his guitar work. He wisely uses its four minutes to weave an almost hypnotic riff, as opposed to any kind of soloing and flashiness. His lead work displays a gentle twang, placed over some sparingly used acoustic rhythm. Fleetwood backs him with a drum part which, again, occasionally recalls ‘Albatross’ to great effect. It seems ‘Earl Grey’s subtlety is its strength – and, unsurprisingly, Spencer is nowhere to be heard.
Following the release of ‘Kiln House’, Jeremy Spencer supposedly went out shopping (either for groceries, or to a bookstore, depending on which tale you believe), never to return. He was later found having joined a scary religious cult. Little more was heard from him for the best part of a decade, until he released an okay album, ‘Flee’, in 1979 before disappearing from the music scene once again for over a decade. Joining a cult was never going to be the best lifestyle choice, but for Fleetwood Mac, Spencer’s leaving the band was possibly the best thing which could have happened. If he’d stuck around to offer similar creative input for a follow up to ‘Kiln House’, it almost certainly would have finished them off for good.
It took Fleetwood Mac a long time to recover their previous fortunes. In 1971 American guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Bob Welch was drafted in to replace Spencer and Chicken Shack’s Christine Perfect (later McVie) took a permanent role as pianist/vocalist. [A hugely gifted songwriter, Perfect would provide the band with consistently brilliant material over the following two decades]. With Bob Welch’s input, the band released five albums which helped re-shape their sound. While only heard by die-hard fans (and not released in the UK until many years later), most of the albums from this period feature some hidden gems (particularly 1972’s ‘Bare Trees’ and 1973’s ‘Penguin’), though little which would prepare the band for their worldwide popularity a couple of years later, when joined by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
Many great bands and artists have a dud album in their collective back catalogues (see Queen’s ‘Hot Space’ and Neil Young’s ‘Landing On Water’ for good examples), but rarely do they have one as staggeringly awful as ‘Kiln House’. The fact that Fleetwood Mac ever recovered from such a creative atrocity is an amazing tribute to Mick Fleetwood’s tenacity.