Fleetwood Mac - Future Games

Fleetwood Mac
Future Games

Released 1971 on Reprise
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 05/04/2021ce

Fleetwood Mac is a fascinating group in how it has such a varied history. Everyone knows the Buckingham-Nicks era of coke-fueled soft rock, of course, and the original Peter Green incarnation always gets a lot of respect. But the middle period, from roughly 1970 through 1974, is usually ignored. And ironically enough I find it the most rewarding Fleetwood Mac era of all, one which, despite constant lineup changes, found the group experimenting with a variety of styles that were far removed from the slick hits of the late ‘70s or the blues workouts of the early Green era. The group even sort of carried on with the progressive direction Peter Green introduced with his 1970 swansong, the almighty “The Green Manalishi With The Two Pronged Crown” (my favorite Fleetwood Mac song – the Seth Man’s review of it on here is required reading!); not so much in the progressive heavy rock aspect,* but still in a definite progressive direction, one that was no longer married to the blues. And of all of Fleetwood Mac’s albums, “Future Games” would be the strongest contender for what you might consider the group’s progressive album.

Even at this early point Fleetwood Mac had radically changed, so much so that the back cover features a handy rundown of each member and how long they’ve been with the group, with further notes on the bottom letting you know when the previous members left! So at this point only bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood were left from the original lineup; Peter Green left in early 1970, followed by fellow guitarist Jeremy Spencer (after the release of the Spencer-fueled “Kiln House” in 1970). This left lead guitarist Danny Kirwan, a 21 year-old prodigy (and protégé – of Green’s) who’d joined just a few years before, and newcomers Bob Welch and Christine McVie. Welch, per the back cover, was “from various Californian R&B groups” and played second guitar; he’s got a dazed look on the back cover that perfectly captures the spaced-out vibe he’d bring the group. Christine McVie, at this point married to John, was of course on various keys – which she’d also contributed, without credit, to a few songs on “Kiln House.” (And she also did the cover for it…probably one of the best covers in rock history, so colorful and wistful, and a shame she didn’t do more!)

Kirwan, now running the show, took Fleetwood Mac in a more progressive direction, along the lines of say Mighty Baby. Actually it would be more along the lines of the West Coast sound (though Mighty Baby also sounded West Coast). This isn’t just due to the presence of Bob Welch, though future albums would see Welch bringing even more of a Southern California sound to Fleetwood Mac. If anything Kirwan and Welch are just on the same wavelength, as their songs pair well together, very much on a dreamy and communal early ‘70s “I’m thinking about joining a cult” sort of trip. Christine McVie’s two contributions even gel with the LP’s overall vibe, while at the same time pointing the way toward the MOR soft rock pop she’d be turning out with the band in the late ‘70s. Overall though this album encapsulates the feeling of a rainy day. In some ways the cover of their following LP, “Bare Trees” (1972), would be more suitable to the contents. (Or better yet, they should’ve just asked McVie to do another one!)

Speaking of Christine McVie, I like how she isn’t out front in every track; usually when a rock group has someone on keys, you hear the damn keys on every song. But McVie is usually in the background (and on some tracks she doesn’t even seem to be present), providing counterpoint or adding layers of sound. The guitars dominate, even on the two tracks McVie contributes to the album. But despite the twin guitar lineup, this is a very mellow album…I mean don’t get me wrong, it still rocks at times. But it’s not heavy. This could be due to how the album is mixed; fuzz-wah is often present on some songs, but always relegated to the background. Overall there is a clean tone to the guitars, with occasional reverb and echo, adding to the dreamy mellow vibe – you can almost see the pot smoke in the studio. The lyrics for the most part follow suit; Kirwan’s are post-psychedelic poetic and Welch’s are moodily introspective (especially on the title track); only McVie’s are a bit more concerned with the more common pop concerns of love and whatnot.

“Woman Of 1000 Years” opens the album with strummed acoustic guitar, which abruptly increases in volume as someone fiddles at the mixing console. The vibe is very much CSN, with airy vocals over the mellow backing; innocuous bongos and woodblocks can occasionally be heard in the background, giving this a sort of “around the celestial campfire” vibe. Kirwan’s electric lead and solo is as dreamy as the rest of the song. Kirwan tackles the track with a very high voice, and the first time I heard it I mistakenly assumed it was Christine McVie singing. She does seem to provide harmony backing at times, though. The song drifts along, not going through many changes but sticking to its mellow vibe as Kirwan doles out those post-psychedelic lyrics: “Woman of a thousand years/How are your sons of a time ago/Do they still admire your silvered ways/As you go down.” The vibe grows increasingly wistful; a curious track to start off an album with, but it very much gives an indication of the mellow mood we’ll be encountering throughout “Future Games.” The last minute or so features the acoustic strumming away as Kirwan’s dreamy lead dances around the sound spectrum. The track ends, too, no fade; so my assumption is the incorrect seven-minute runtime stated on the sleeve and label is a goof (it really runs 5:28), and not an indication that the track was originally longer and cut down so as to make for a more reasonably-lengthed LP side.

Christine McVie’s “Morning Rain” follows, an upbeat number with piano that completely ruins the vibe created by the previous track. That is, until a very mean fuzz wah-wah comes out of the left channel…to roar mightily as it flows into the right channel…only to be abruptly lowered in the mix, barely present in the background from there on out. I can only assume this is Welch, with Kirwan again providing the reverbed electric lead. We have another track duration goof; the label and sleeve tell us this one’s over six minutes long, but it’s barely over five. “Morning Rain” is notable for providing a glimpse of the studio pop Fleetwood Mac would be turning out in the later ‘70s, but with a bit of a rougher edge, mostly due to the dual guitar attack. It’s an interesting hybrid of the band’s early and later sounds. McVie even has a rougher edge to her voice as she belts out the lyrics – her voice is actually deeper than Kirwan’s was in the previous track – which have to do with her usual topic of relationship struggles.

Track three, “What A Shame,” was supposedly recorded on the spur of the moment, as another song was needed for the album. It’s a two-minute instrumental that almost sounds like a capoff of the preceding track. It starts off mean and lean, with guitars riffing before they drop out and Fleetwood lays down a bottom-heavy beat. This takes us into a fuzzy blues riffer that almost sounds like something you’d hear in a grimy burlesque. Once again there’s a fuzz-wah guitar too buried in the mix, providing the funky main riff that underpins the track. J. McVie’s bass almost seems louder than anyone else, but this isn’t a complaint…though due to the dense mix I really can’t tell if C. McVie’s playing a Fender Rhodes or not. Her brother, John Perfect, provides sax, which only furthers the strip club vibe.

Bob Welch’s first contribution to the album, the titular “Future Games” closes out side one and does run the stated 8+ minutes. This has always been my favorite track on the album, and one of my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs of all. It’s about as cosmic soft rock as you can get, or maybe mellow progressive pop would be a better description. What I find so cool about this number is that it was Welch’s first song for the band, but there’s no learning curve here; I mean this is pure progressive early ‘70s and perfectly catches on to the mellow vibe introduced by Kirwan with “Woman Of 1000 Years.” And these aren’t “baby I love you” type lyrics, either; there is a maturity and awareness to them, about how people waste their life thinking about what the future will bring: “I know I’m not the only one/Playin’ those future games.” Welch and Kirwan trade off on guitar duties, it sounds like, with a memorable sort of birdlike trilling following each chorus. I suspect Welch plays the main guitar part, as it has the same sound of his solo work from a few years later. Curiously Welch’s vocals aren’t as buried in effects as they would later be, mostly just double-tracked or with a bit of echo. He too has a light voice, like Kirwan’s, and he really hits some high notes on the chorus, perhaps belying his R&B background. There’s also a groove hidden beneath the dreaminess, particularly evidenced by the fat guitar riff that kicks off each verse section. As for the McVies, Christine for the most part provides subtle backdrop on the keys, with John’s bass again a solid bedrock. This might be one track though where his bass is a bit minimized in the mix. Speaking of which there are some nice stereo effects in the finale, with (what appears to be) Kirwan’s guitar spiralling across the stereo field. I also really like how the intensity increases in the final minute. A definite masterpiece from Welch, one that should’ve been an FM radio hit…I could especially see Alison “The Nightbird” Steele at WNEW-FM in New York digging it, as it would’ve fit right into one of her cosmically-attuned setlists.

Side 2 opens with Kirwan’s “Sands Of Time,” which gives Welch’s title track a run for its money as album highlight. In fact one could argue that this is the strongest track on the album, and I bet you could play it for someone unfamiliar with this era of Fleetwood Mac and they’d have no idea who it was. They’d probably guess it was some obscure early ‘70s progressive rock act who only released one rare album and quickly hit Discogs.com to see how much copies went for. A fade-in brings us into what sounds like a slightly more upbeat take on “Woman Of 1000 Years,” with Fleetwood on drums instead of bongos but with that same overall dreamy vibe. But it’s a fake out, as around 1:30 the pace suddenly quickens and McVie’s electric keys come in. We’re now firmly in “early ‘70s progressive rock” territory and will stay there for the duration of the song. Clever stereo panning goes on throughout, like cymbal fills floating from right channel to left or swirling effects on Kirwan’s vocals – which by the way are deeper on this track than they were on “Woman Of 1000 Years.” It’s hard to describe this song as it doesn’t sound like anything else I’m familiar with…again, a slightly less country (and sax-less) Mighty Baby is about the closest comparison I could think of. As with Welch’s title track, the lyrics are more poetic than anything, for example the chorus: “We will go right down to the sea/Bathing in light we will be free to wander.” I’ve seen some people claim this is their favorite Fleetwood Mac song, and I can certainly understand why. The more I hear it the more I love it; it’s hard to believe something so sophisticated was written by a 21 year-old kid. There is something positively joyous about it, while still possessing the dreamy vibe of the overall album. Kirwan multi-tracks his guitar (I’m sure Welch is in there, too), turning out progressive solos that are completely unlike anything the group ever did before or would do again. All told, this one’s a masterpiece up there with Welch’s title track. And also the 7:23 stated on the jacket and label is correct; not a second of those 7+ minutes is wasted.

“Sometimes” follows, also by Kirwan, though at the start of it you could be fooled into thinking it’s another McVie song. This track brings in some country rock elements (again with the Mighty Baby vibe – ie their country-fueled “Jug Of Love” LP, from this same year), yet at the same time there’s something about it that reminds me of John Lennon’s solo work of the period. Maybe it’s the vocal bridge that pops up at times, or the wordless “lah-eea-aa” melody line. But I mean if “Yoko” was mentioned a few times in the lyrics this could’ve easily fit on “Imagine.” This is another track with a b.s. runtime on the sleeve and label; they both claim it’s 6:25, but the track really runs a minute shorter. Acoustic guitars and a bottleneck guitar (it sounds like) bring us into the song, making us expect a country number until the Lennon-esque melody hits us: “Sometimes I get to thinking/About the times we used to have/But now you’ve gone away and left me/So alone.” Fleetwood’s drums have a nice kick in this one, mixed a little punchier than elsewhere on the album. I get the impression this was Kirwan’s concession toward a more “standard” sort of song, or at least something radio friendly. And truth be told this easily could’ve fit in with anything else that was playing over the FM airwaves in 1971.

Welch’s “Lay It All Down” is easily the album’s heaviest track, but we’re not talking Led Zeppelin or anything. In fact it again has more in common with what he’d be doing in his solo years in the later ‘70s; I could see it easily fitting on “French Kiss.” But, comparatively speaking, it rocks harder than anything else on the album. Welch’s voice is now buried in effects, his lyrics featuring a Biblical theme, with references to Moses and the golden calf and prophecies. Heavy, man! Otherwise it’s a somewhat-funky rocker (again belying Welch’s R&B background) with those dual Kirwan-Welch guitars running the show, soloing over one another.

The album closes with the same mellow vibe it started with: Christine McVie’s “Show Me A Smile,” which starts off almost sounding like a reprisal of “Woman Of 1000 Years.” But it also sounds like a concerted effort at a hit…and again a prefigure of the sort of thing Fleetwood Mac would be turning out in a few years. What separates it is, again, are those dreamy dual guitars; this is one of the more consistent albums I’ve heard, so far as the overall sound goes. McVie builds up a sense of drama with mounting crescendos (complete with cymbal crashes) before each chorus, bringing the album to a fitting close. Her husband’s bass is also pretty pronounced – but then it’s nice and loud throughout most of the album. (Original vinyl, at least; I assume it’s been minimized in the CD/digital releases, per tradition.)

All told, “Future Games” is a classic. It has a consistency of vibe that you don’t encounter very often, and it’s something every member of the group should’ve been proud of. But it didn’t make much of an impact on the rock radar; Rolling Stone panned it, for whatever that’s worth, claiming that it sounded like the band wasn’t “trying very hard!” But then, one man’s bland background music is another man’s mellow progressive masterpiece. (And also, a lot of those Rolling Stone critics were morons.) Me, I’d rate this as one of my favorite Fleetwood Mac albums, if not my favorite. It never gets old, no matter how many times you play it. Unfortunately it would prove to be a one-off; while the same lineup returned for the following year’s “Bare Trees,” the progressive vibe was very much diminished, and there was nothing on the level of this LP’s title track, “Sands Of Time,” or “Woman Of 1000 Years.” Instead, there appeared to be a focused effort to minimize the progressive vibe and go for more radio-friendly material, particularly in the songs by McVie and Welch.

The pressing:

I have an early ‘70s US pressing, with the green cover (the cover for the US first pressing was yellow). Not sure where I picked it up or if someone gave it to me, but I know I’ve had it since around 2007 or earlier. Sounds very dynamic, with good separation and a very pronounced bass, though the drums could have a little more punch. Unfortunately my copy has occasional slight surface noise, so I figure whoever originally owned it must’ve played the hell out of it (or had a cheap-ass turntable). The surface noise is most evident in the quiet passages, especially when listening on headphones, which is a bummer as the headphones provide a more immersive experience for this mellow proggressive album…the stereo treatment of the guitars is especially nice. Otherwise sound quality is very good, and you’d do fine picking up this copy or any other US pressing of the era, but I gather the original UK pressing is the one to get – if you can find it!

*Ironically it would be newcomer Welch who ultimately followed in the progressive heavy rock footsteps of “The Green Manalishi,” but it was after he left Fleetwood Mac: In 1976 he put together a power trio called Paris, and their self-titled debut album (Capitol Records, 1976) is a high-octane blast of progressive-psychedelic heavy rock, unjustly ignored both then and now. Welch also, all by his lonesome on guitar, did some kick-ass live versions of “Green Manalishi” while he was in Fleetwood Mac; two shows were recorded in 1974 for posterity (one of them broadcast on KSAN FM, the other for TV – and you can find both online), and in each this Green masterwork was performed. With a flanger effect Welch takes the song into almost space rock territory…it’s a shame he didn’t do anything similar for a song of his own on an actual Fleetwood Mac album.

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