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Fleetwood Mac – Future Games – Classic Music Review

This completely unexpected review is the direct result of the serendipitous melding of three disparate phenomena: winter weather in Nice, my ingrained discipline concerning preparation for sex and the determination of mother and daughter to forbid my father from even thinking about coming into the kitchen when we’re preparing a meal.

Climate change variables aside, my favorite time of year in Nice is late winter, when the temperature range is 50-60º F (10-15º C). It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or showery; all that matters is the temperature. That’s the temperature range I grew up with in San Francisco, and it’s perfect fuck weather for those of us who don leather garments to heighten the sexual experience.

Unlike most people who try to balance the drain of the workweek by partying all weekend, I never go out on Saturday night unless a performer I want to see happens to show up in town. I usually go out for dinner on Friday nights, but that’s more to reconnect with the people I love than to try to obliterate memories of the work week through heavy doses of alcohol. Although I have sex with my partner most weeknights when we’re both in town, we save Saturday night for the longer, more elaborate experiences referred to in the BDSM world as “scenes.” And like professional actors (though nothing we do is an “act”), we engage in deliberate, painstaking preparation for the big night. I won’t bore you with the details, but one fundamental rule is to avoid eating a large meal before a scene. That requires the participants to have a satisfying meal around lunchtime so they have enough stamina to perform at peak levels. “Dinner” before a scene usually consists of something small like a pannisse or bread with cheese—just enough to prevent stomach growl.

It all works out because I usually hang out with my parents on Saturday afternoons, and my mother and I like to cook together. Last Saturday, we were preparing a pasta dish from ingredients we’d scored at a farmer’s market and just as soon as the garlic made contact with the olive oil in the sauce pan, we could hear my father, bloodhound that he is, heading directly to the source of the scent. Just as he was about to place one of his big feet on the kitchen floor and say, “Something sure smells good,” my mother and I cried out in unison.

“GET YOUR ASS OUT OF OUR KITCHEN!”

He pulled his foot back and whined from a safe distance. “Sheesh! Just seeing if I could help!”

“If you want to help, put on some music!” I cried.

“Something nice,” my mother added.

“Something nice, huh?” It seemed to take him quite a while to find “nice,” but eventually the music started drifting into the kitchen.

“Ah, good choice,” maman responded within two chords.

“Wow. I don’t think I’ve heard this since San Francisco—pre-college.”

“Nice enough?” Dad shouted from a safe distance.

“Yes, beautiful,” maman replied while chopping fresh basil for the pistou.

“It’s coming back to me—this is a nice album,” I opined, but was still drawing a few blanks. “This is . . . early Fleetwood Mac, right?”

“Correct. The Future Games album.”

The album was playing in the background as we sat down to enjoy the meal. One of the melodies caught my attention and I said, “This really is a nice album.”

“It is,” responded my dad in between mouthfuls. “Bob Welch’s début.”

“But . . . what’s his name is still there . . . Danny . . . ”

“Kirwan,” said dad, filling in the blank.

After the album ended we had a discussion that morphed into trying to establish the definition of a “nice album.” We began by brainstorming a list of albums that could qualify as “nice” based purely on gut feel, then started looking for common themes. The first thing we agreed on was the absence of pretentiousness—any album purported to be “epic” is by definition not a nice album. The second criterion we came up with was “melodies that drift through the air,” one of those vague qualities that comes down to “you know it when you hear it.” We then agreed on the most obvious feature—the sound of a nice album cannot cross the line into “loud or harsh.” The final suggestion sparked some debate as my dad tried to argue that nice albums “make you feel good.” Maman correctly pointed out that both Future Games and Rubber Soul (our nominee for The Beatles’ nicest album) were tinged with melancholy sentiments. When my dad tried to argue the point, I nailed his ass by referring back to the first album he offered during the brainstorming phase: Paul Simon’s Graceland. “Shit, dad, even ‘You Can Call Me Al’ paints a pretty sad picture.” Maman and I made him feel better by agreeing that Graceland qualified as a nice album despite Paul Simon’s epic pretensions, allowing the man of the family to rise from the table with his fragile masculine ego intact.

*****

One of the frustrating things about being a millennial is that most of my generational colleagues have no sense of history—musical, political, cultural—they just don’t give a shit. I’ve never heard a fellow millennial even mention Fleetwood Mac in conversation. Even many members of other generations think of Fleetwood Mac in a very limited way—the band associated with Rumours. Though this may bore the Boomers in the audience who have mastered the band’s complicated lineage, here’s a brief introduction to Fleetwood Mac:

  • The only constant members are drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. That’s where the band’s name comes from, and they won a lawsuit to prove it.
  • Fleetwood Mac began life as a blues band during the peak years of the British blues movement. Their first album is officially titled Fleetwood Mac, but nearly everyone refers to it as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, referring to the band’s lead guitarist and singer. This début album was a smashing success, and remains one of the most enjoyable blues records of the era. A gent named Jeremy Spencer contributed slide guitar and some vocals. As was true for so many British musicians of the era, Peter Green developed his chops in John Mayall’s band.
  • Peter Green stayed with the band  through the third studio album, Then Play On, the first album with Danny Kirwan. Kirwan would emerge as sort of co-leader with Jeremy Spencer on the fourth album, Kiln House. Spencer left the band shortly thereafter. Christine Perfect, aka Christine McVie, who had appeared occasionally on earlier albums, became a full-time member after Kiln House, the name change reflecting her marriage to John McVie.
  • Prior to Future Games, an American musician by the name of Bob Welch joined the band, sharing guitar duties with Kirwan. This relationship ended after the follow-up album Bare Trees when Kirwan’s drinking and temper led to some serious altercations with Welch, which in turn led to Kirwan’s dismissal. Welch contributed to five studio albums, and the period from Future Games to Heroes Are Hard to Find are colloquially referred to as the Bob Welch Era or similar designation.
  • In 1975, Christine McVie pushed hard for more radio-friendly music to pad her bank account. Welch thought he’d be better off going solo and left the band. Fleetwood Mac replaced him with Americans Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, became a milquetoast pop band, sold millions of records and bore me to fucking tears.

All my Fleetwood Mac records come from the Peter Green to Bob Welch period; if I do any more Fleetwood Mac reviews, that’s where they’ll come from. Since the British members moved to the States in the mid-70’s and then added two more yanks, I consider the Nicks-Buckingham version of Fleetwood Mac an American band and subject to my boycott of American artists.

Lucky me. I can’t stand Rumours.

*****

Future Games was poorly received by the critics of the time. From Lloyd Grossman of Rolling Stone:

Future Games is a thoroughly unsatisfactory album. It is thin and anemic-sounding and I get the impression that no one involved really put very much into it. If Fleetwood Mac have tried to make the transition from an energetic rocking British blues band to a softer more “contemporary” rock group, they have failed. If they have simply lost interest, I hope they regain it in time to salvage what was once a very promising band.

Translation: “My limited brain cannot process experiences beyond what I expect to experience. Experiences I do not expect are therefore bad.”

Robert Christgau’s commentary shows how much the man admires what he perceives as his superior ability with wordplay as well as the usual pomposity and factual errors:

These white blues (and hippie rockabilly) veterans shouldn’t have to depend on new recruit Bob Welch’s deftly metallized r&b extrapolation for rock and roll, but unless you count the studio jam, they do. And if the best song on the album isn’t the slowest, that’s only because Welch also has mystagogic tendencies. It’s the simplest in any case: Christine Perfect’s ‘Show Me a Smile.’

Errors galore! Christine was no longer calling herself Perfect but was still good enough to qualify as McVie. Bob Welch actually contributed relatively little to Future Games: he wrote two of the songs (including the title track) and “played mostly rhythm guitar.” And to apply the term “mystagogic” to Bob Welch is completely absurd, for “A mystagogue is a person who initiates others into mystic beliefs, and an educator or person who has knowledge of the sacred mysteries of a belief system.” Neither of Welch’s songs come close to qualifying as a trip into the mystic (though Danny Kirwan’s do).

Dean of American Rock Critics my ass.

Let us correct the record. Future Games balances the impressive songwriting talents of Kirwan, Welch and Christine McVie. Each of those artists put a great deal of effort into crafting those songs, a glaring truth that is obvious to anyone who actually takes the time to listen to the record. Danny Kirwan is clearly the dominant presence, contributing the three songs most crucial to establishing the reflective mood of the album. If anything, Future Games increased Fleetwood Mac’s “promise” by extending their playing field beyond straight blues-based rock ‘n’ roll.

The expansion of the band’s range is established immediately in the pair of sus2 acoustic guitar chords that form the intro to Kirwan’s “Woman of 1000 Years.” Patterns of sustained and major seventh chords have an elusive, indefinite feel, calling up adjectives like “ethereal,” “dreamy” and “melancholy.” Most songwriters fail to develop chord structures to support them, leading to a vague, uncertain musical statement that lacks a sense of forward movement—songwriter and song remain suspended in a musical vacuum.

Danny Kirwan was not one of those songwriters. “Woman of 1000 Years” has one of the most beautiful and satisfying chord structures I’ve ever heard. When I reproduced the chords on my acoustic guitar, I felt myself moving into a still, reflective space where I was at one with the sheer beauty of the musical progression. I switched to piano and the progression had the same entrancing effect. The sense of movement and wonder is enhanced by subtle changes and additions along the way that keep things challenging and intensely interesting—but not once does a chord feel out-of-place. Chord charts on the Internet are often hit-or-miss (half the contributors couldn’t tell a minor chord from a major to save their lives), but I found one on Ultimate Guitar that gets it right. If you are a musician, I encourage you to head over there and explore the pattern—the improvisational opportunities are limitless.

Back to our story, the “resolution” chord is Asus2, which effectively means there is no resolution at all—the woman of a thousand years remains an indefinable mystery. Although not specifically identified as such in the lyrics, the woman is certainly a manifestation of the muse, but Kirwan doesn’t limit her role to sparking creativity in the artist. She inspires men on land, sea and sand with her beauty, beguiling them through her mystery, igniting the desire to please her and earn her favor.

AS. IT. FUCKING. SHOULD. BE.

Danny Kirwan’s vocal is beautifully restrained and blends marvelously with Christine McVie’s harmonies. The first guitar solo is a gorgeous display of simplicity, completely consistent with the nature of the composition as it seems to end a bar before its time, avoiding definitive resolution; the complementary guitar fade supplies an appropriately gentle exit. While “Woman of 1000 Years” is hardly your typical album opener, it is a compelling experience nonetheless, establishing a mood for the album that asks the listener to shift gears, slow down and take some time to enjoy the magic of music.

Even nice albums need some kick, and Future Games certainly delivers on that score. Christine McVie’s “Morning Rain” gives her a chance to warm up her piano fingers in a percussive role dedicated to reinforcing the solid rhythm established by the ever-grounded pair of Fleetwood and McVie. I love the way this song opens, lulling the listener into believing the root chord is F# before making a move to establish F# as the tension chord demanding resolution to B major. The sweet bluesy guitar licks that highlight that transition make me smile at the cleverness of the ruse as they settle into the solid groove. For a rock song, Christine’s vocal in the verses (supported by harmony) is comparatively subdued, but soon we learn that she’s been saving her vocal chords for the more enthusiastic performance in the bridge (which IS in F#). The contrast between the two vocal styles adds to the appeal of the song, and even more excitement awaits us in the instrumental passages where the guitarists let loose. I also love the way the piece ends, with Christine and the boys reminding us of the song’s essential melodic nature with a nice round of wordless singing. “Morning Rain” is a tasty little piece promising that Future Games will cover a lot of musical ground.

Although I couldn’t find confirmation of the story, the word on Wikipedia (ahem) is that “What a Shame” was added at the last minute because the album submitted by the band contained only seven tracks and the record company wanted eight. The band responded with a single key jam with heavy bass featuring Christine’s brother John on saxophone. I’m glad John picked up a few bucks in the process, but other than executing the piece with due professionalism, the band doesn’t sound particularly interested. If they had to include it on the album, it might have been better to move it back into the fourth slot to serve as a brief intermission between “Future Games” and “Sands of Time.” It’s sufficiently low-key so as not to disturb the nice album vibes (and short enough at 2:16), but . . . really?

Moving onto Bob Welch’s Fleetwood Mac début, “Future Games” makes use of the sustained and major seventh chords we heard in “Woman of a 1000 Years,” in this case producing a slight drone effect with the unifying B-note (Em, Cmaj7, Asus2, B7). However, Welch’s piece features clearer resolution to E minor in the verses and G major in the chorus, hinting at a more definitive theme in the lyrics. Despite the unknowable nature of the future, Welch pulls it off by universalizing the message: playing out future possibilities is something everyone does, whether it’s speculating on the afterlife, the possibility of a relationship with this person or that person, or worrying about disasters that may come our way. “I know I’m not the only one to ever spend my life sitting playing future games” is the theme-within-the-theme, highlighting both the all-too human trait and its inherent danger: playing future games is way to avoid having to deal with the real world and the real people who inhabit that world. “You invent the future that you want to face,” is a deliciously ambiguous line, as it could mean “you have the power to create your future” or “you invent an unlikely future where all your dreams come true and try to live there.” The first is a slogan, the second self-deception, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Musically, “Future Games” complements Kirwan’s contributions to the album with its pensive mood and restraint. The band passes up the opportunity to go big in the instrumental passage featuring the guitar solo, using that passage to reinforce the melody before easing into the third verse. Though I think they could have shortened the fade a bit, “Future Games” works on multiple levels, and demonstrates Bob Welch’s gift for melody that would later result in “Sentimental Lady.”

Though the chord structure isn’t as complex as “Woman of 1000 Years,” the flow of Danny Kirwan’s “Sands of Time” is as gentle and mesmerizing as the flow of a mountain stream. The music here alternates between G major and its E minor complement, spiced with a delightful variety of guitar fills, cascading arpeggios and some nifty cymbal work from Mick Fleetwood. The lyrics involve the interplay of darkness and light, as expressed in the verse that opens and closes the song:

The magic of a blackened night
Can go so far but not seem right
Although my love will drive away the sunshine
The magic of a blackened night

The deep ambivalence expressed here—resisting the darkness while love drives you to return to that magical place—feels almost like an inner war between puritanical guilt and pleasure-seeking in “dark” places. The minor key verses ironically express the embrace of the light, but the sadness of the minor key questions the sincerity of that embrace. As in “Woman of 1000 Years,” resolution remains illusive and indefinable. Though the song flows naturally, the inner tension expressed in lyrics and tone add depth and texture to the listening experience—another beautiful piece of work from Kirwan.

In a stunning turn of events, Danny seems to go full country in the introduction to “Sometimes,” with Christine McVie’s down-home piano and sweetly picked guitar leading the way. The first impression is more early Eagles (gasp!) than Fleetwood Mac, but the mood shifts to something with a melancholy flavor once Danny inserts a minor chord into the mix and John McVie fills the empty spaces with deep, penetrating bass. Danny then steps into the role of jilted lover, remembering the good times while throwing his aching back into his work to help push the emotional pain to the sidelines. The song straddles the line between classic sad song and defiance of sadness, expressed both in the lyrics and in the surprisingly muscular guitar fills. Although not as deep or complex as his other two contributions, don’t let its subtlety fool you: “Sometimes” is first-rate songwriting by a very talented songwriter.

The one contribution on the album I could have done without is Bob Welch’s “Lay It All Down,” a rather pedestrian attempt at blues-influenced gospel with the usual “just like the good book said” crapola. Thematically it’s a weak fit; I suppose one could argue that it maintains the connection with the earlier model of Fleetwood Mac, but that was then, this was now, and this song flat-out sucks.

Fortunately, Future Games ends on a high note with Christine McVie’s “Show Me a Smile.” Songs written by parents for their children generally don’t grab me because of the latent sentimentality, but there’s one verse that lifts this song out of the maudlin and into the reality that a child’s future is likely to result in disappointment:

Take everything easy
Show me a smile
Soon you’ll be a man
My little one
So have fun while you can
Or there’ll be none

Carpe diem, my child, because in this life . . . you’re on your own.

The song anticipates Frank Black’s obsession with the soft-LOUD dynamics that defined the Pixies and a generation of grunge bands. Its use in grunge became a tired cliché after a while, but here it has meaning—the mother’s tenderness and the mother’s anxiety both operating at full capacity. I have never been a parent, and don’t ever want to be a parent, but my parents tell me they are permanently wired to nurture me and keep me safe from harm (and they do!). Christine captured that dynamic beautifully, carefully balancing her vocal so that she never goes too soft or over the top. The music is equally supportive of that balance, with luscious arpeggiated guitar, lead guitar fills and splashes of piano guiding us gently through the verses, and John McVie delivering serious punch with his bass during the louder passages. “Show Me a Smile” ends Future Games by underscoring the album’s essential beauty.

Look. I don’t know what the hell was going on with music critics in 1971 . . . both Rolling Stone and The Village Voice were anti-Establishment rags back in the day, so for all I know Nixon was behind it. What I do know is that Future Games is an album full of enchanting songs and well-designed arrangements that deserved much more respect than it received at the time.

It’s a damn nice album!

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