Honoring the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac masterpiece that deserves just as much discussion as Rumours, Tusk and Tango combined
I’ve been a lifelong fan of Fleetwood Mac: the legendary drama, the witchy glamour, the bluesy melodies and mesmerizing harmonies layered over an intoxicating rhythm section, Stevie Nicks’ iconic vocals and lyricism weaving hatred and love together, then directing it all towards the man with the hair and the guitar.
But the fact that there was a Fleetwood Mac long before Stevie and Lindsay ever made their entrance was unknown to me for…well, let’s just say it was an embarrassingly long time. I knew Rumours, I knew Tusk. I could sing along with just as much vitriol Lindsay felt in the studio while recording “Go Your Own Way,” and chuckle as I pictured Christine McVie dedicating “You Make Loving Fun” to her new lover while her ex-husband plugged along on the bass beside her.
Then I heard Mr. Wonderful.
It’s safe to say that Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 release was met with less fanfare than its self-titled debut, or its mesmerizing followup single, “Black Magic Woman.” Recorded in only four days at CBS Studio in London and released on Blue Horizon, this was blues-rock in its truest form: dirty, loose, and swinging, a collection of searing, electrified blues jams held haphazardly together by Mick Fleetwood’s heavy-handed drumming and John McVie’s thundering bass. But while it was deprived of the acclaim that launched Fleetwood Mac to the top of the charts, and the band to what seemed like overnight success, Mr. Wonderful did exactly as it was meant: it picked up where Fleetwood Mac left off, and firmly rooted one of the most iconic British blues-rock bands in a genre expanding rapidly around them.
Produced by Mike Vernon, one of the most prolific and iconic blues-rock producers of the era, Mr. Wonderful offers few glimpses of what Fleetwood Mac would become in seven short years. The record is raw and listens through at a breakneck speed, testament to the band’s depth of knowledge of the blues tradition. Even so, there are hints of jazzy soul and swinging, juke-joint rock woven between the Delta-inspired, Brit-refined riffs and Jeremy Spencer’s skillful slide playing, thanks to the horn section and Christine Perfect — the future Fleetwood Mac front woman Christine McVie — on piano.
Featuring a combination of original blues compositions written mostly by Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, and blues standards by legendary names such as Elmore James, Robert Johnson, J.T. Brown, and Buster Brown, Mr. Wonderful is a deliciously drunken tribute to old-school R&B. Harmonicas scream over Peter Green’s slurred, gruff vocal delivery, at times nearly fighting the horn section for prominence, while Christine Perfect slams away on the piano and Jeremy Spencer’s slide guitar wails furiously on top of it all. Mr. Wonderful lacks a certain polish that became synonymous with other British blues-rock offerings; perhaps the four day recording session can be blamed, but when Mick Fleetwood described the record as “ragged, low-down blues by the seat of the pants,” he could have only been more accurate if he’d called it a bar fight captured on tape.
This was a group haunted by the same desperation and longing that tormented the minds of Robert Johnson and Elmore James, inspiring them to write the songs that Fleetwood Mac — and dozens of other aspiring imitators — would ultimately translate from the Delta to the world at large. It’s displayed no more profoundly than on the closing track, a bone-dry, soul-baring, slow-burner penned by Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. Featuring only acoustic guitar, harmonica, and muted, contemplative vocals, “Trying So Hard to Forget” steps away from the swinging rhythms and brash horn sections and takes the band back to the core of the blues mystique.
Over thirty years later, Mr. Wonderful’s gritty, homemade shake-n-bake would take its place in the foundation of Fleetwood Mac, re-released as part of the box set The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions, yet Mr. Wonderful isn’t a record for the casual listener; it demands a knowledge of not only Fleetwood Mac’s history, but the blues as a whole. It would be easy to cast it aside, in exchange for a more commercially palatable record where four of the songs don’t begin with the same Elmore James riff and the band seems to be in a general consensus when it comes to ending the songs, rather than diving into extended jam sessions until the tape runs out.
But for those listeners who are willing to dive into the imperfections and embrace the down-and-dirtiness of Mr. Wonderful, the dark, haunting allure behind Fleetwood Mac’s folk-rock sensibilities becomes more obvious as the band’s roots are uncovered. Mr. Wonderful, and Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer’s fiery interpretation of the Delta blues, may never receive the critical acclaim of Fleetwood Mac, or the band’s later records, but its importance and necessity as a stepping stone in the evolution of one of the greatest bands of all time can’t be overlooked — or under-appreciated — by the generations of diehard fans lured in by the raw, unyielding power of Fleetwood Mac.