Fleetwood Mac, 1969: John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Mick Fleetwood, Jeremy Spencer, Peter Green
Jeremy Spencer and the very early ‘Fleetwood Mac’
The original Fleetwood Mac (1968-1971) were a very different band than the one that conquered the American airwaves in the late seventies and became on of the biggest bands in history.
The originals group– Peter Green (guitar/vocals), Jeremy Spencer (slide guitar/vocals), John McVie (bass) and Mick Fleetwood (drums), supplemented in 1969 by Danny Kirwan (guitar/vocals) were a hard rockin’ blues band, one of the best ever, with a great rhythm section and a triple threat front line who took their American blues influences and created a totally unique sound. I prefer them to anything Eric Clapton ever did, not to mention anything Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page did after the Yardbirds. Much has been written about Peter Green so I’ll leave the subject alone for today to concentrate on Jeremy Spencer’s contributions, but we can’t talk about Fleetwood Mac without mentioning Green, it was his band, he was main singer/writer and guitarist. For the two cents my opinion is worth, I’d say that Green, a working class Jewish kid from London’s east end (real name Peter Allen Greenbaum), was the only British blues guitarist to emerge with his own completely unique style. He never aped the licks of his American heroes like Clapton did, he had a beautiful tone and touch, and at his peak his guitar sound could shimmer like quicksilver or boom like thunder, often in the same four bars. He wrote classic tunes— Oh Well, Rattlesnake Shake, Albatross, Green Manalishi, Love That Burns, Black Magic Woman, etc. that practically assured his stardom. Stardom, when it came was not Green’s cup of tea, and with a naturally introspective personality and a huge dose of strong acid he soon fell apart, leaving the band at the peak of their U.K. stardom in 1970, shortly after their best selling (in the U.K. and Europe) LP Then Play On. It’s really a shame what happened to him. He gave away his money and guitars, took a job as a gravedigger, spent time on a kibbutz, in mental hospitals and wandering the streets endlessly. By the time he was ready for a comeback in the late eighties, that undefinable x-factor that separates genius from hackdom had slid through his fingers, and he could never recapture his unique sound or subtle touch so evident in his first recordings. But he’s not our subject today, for this posting I shall examine the contributions of Jeremy Spencer, Green’s foil in the band, an incredible talent in his own right.
Born in 1948 in West Hartlepool, Cleveland, England, Jeremy Spencer grew up worshipping Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly until, like Brian Jones before him, coming under the spell of the great American slide guitarist Elmore James. Spencer, a talented guitarist and singer and a gifted mimic soon mastered Elmore James’ style in a manner that was damn near uncanny. He put together a trio called the Levi Set who were discovered by blues collector/producer Mike Vernon, then running the British Blue Horizon label. Vernon was putting together a group around Peter Green, fresh from a stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Vernon put the pint size dynamo Spencer (just over five feet tall) together with Green and ex-Mayall rhythm section Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (although McVie , the band’s first choice for bass player wouldn’t join until the band had been together for a few months, unwilling to give up a steady L 40 a week paycheck with Mayall, when their success seemed assured he finally joined the band that already bore his name in part). The new group, dubbed Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer gave all four original members some sort of billing. Their first single was a version of Elmore James’ Dust My Broom retitled I Believe My Time Ain’t Long, backed with a Peter Green original Ramblin’ Pony Blues, Spencer sang the a-side, Green the b-side. Their first LP appeared in 1968 and was a huge hit in the UK staying on the charts for over a year, the LP (called oddly enough Fleetwood Mac) contained no less than five of Spencer’s Elmore James impersonations: My Heart Beats Like A Hammer, Shake Your Moneymaker, My Baby’s Good To Me, Cold Black Night and Got To Move. Like Elmore, he had two basic songs– the fast boogie (Shake Your Money Maker, Hawaiian Boogie, etc.) and the standard Dust My Broom blues, so all his Elmore James influenced material sounded pretty much the same. Their second LP Mr Wonderful had another five in the exact same vein (including Dust My Broom). Given his single minded approach, Green brought another guitarist/writer, Danny Kirwan into the band to widen their scope.
Like everyone who has had the unfortunate job of playing guitar in Fleetwood Mac, Jeremy Spencer found rock stardom more than he can handle and basically lost his mind, quitting the band abruptly after being wooed into the Children Of God cult in L.A., his mind somewhat unhinged after having landed at L.A.X. during an earthquake and after having a bad mescaline trip in San Francisco several days before. But we’re getting ahead of our self by three years. I digress.
The years 1968-70 were big ones for Fleetwood Mac who had a #1 U.K. single with Green’s moody instrumental Albatross (an earlier single, Green’s Black Magic Woman failed to chart but would become a smash hit in the U.S. two years later via Santana’s cover version). These singles were not issued on LP in the U.K. but a third album English Rose made up of 45’s and outtakes was issued for the U.S. market in 1969. They were literally selling as many records as the Rolling Stones and Beatles in the U.K. and Europe and gaining a steady audience in the U.S. with blues and boogie loving hippies. These were the years of rock with groups like CCR, the Band, the Rolling Stones, the Flamin’ Groovies and the Mc5’s Back In The USA leading the backlash against psychedelia by re-examining their (God I hate this word) “roots”, that is, returning to the music they grew up on. It had only been thirteen years since Elvis hit the TV screen and changed everything but the music had been in a constant state of flux and change for better and worse. Fleetwood Mac were a great rock’n’roll and blues band, but very much of their time. They were given to long jams, although in their case, in testament to Green’s talent, could keep in interesting as heard in this extended workout on their classic ode to onanism Rattlesnake Shake from a BBC broadcast (although Spencer only plays maracas on it). A great selection Mac’s incredible 1969-70 BBC recordings can be found here.
Getting back to Jeremy Spencer. A part of Fleetwood Mac’s set during his years with the band
always involved Spencer, often in a gold lame suit and quiff, re-appearing onstage as Earl Vince and doing impersonations of Elvis Presley, performing old tunes by Buddy Holly (Buddy’s Song), Conway Twitty (Heavenly), Johnny Burnette Trio (Honey Hush, oddly enough Johnny’s nephew Billy would join the band in the eighties), Freddie Cannon (Tallahassee Lassie), Little Richard (Can’t Believe You Want To Leave) and as well as Jeremy Spencer originals in the same vein (Jenny Lee, Linda, When I See My Baby, Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight). The audience loved it, especially when he introduced Harold, a huge dildo as part of the act. This side of Fleetwood Mac wouldn’t make it to vinyl until their first post- Peter Green LP Kiln House with the exception of Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kick In Tonight which appeared as the b-side of the Man Of The World 45 in the U.K. Instead of using the rocker material on their LP’s, Spencer became the first member of the group to record a solo LP, called simply Jeremy Spencer it was issued by Immediate in 1969, and a killer record it was and still is (it’s never made it to CD). Opening with the Buddy Holly sounding Linda, Spencer boogies through The Shape I’m In, wails the blues on Mean Blues and Don’t Go Please Stay, delves into doo wop with String A Long, takes on Bo Diddley in Here Comes Charlie, throws in some rockabilly with Jenny Lee and Ray Smith’s Sun classic You Made A Hit, creates a perfect teenage hard on ballad with Teenage Love Affair, lets out a belch that beats the one that opens Raw Power on Take A Look Around Mrs. Brown, he even tries his hand at surf with Surfin’ Girl, the LP ends with an Elvis style ballad– If I Could Swim A Mountain that is more than a little tongue in cheek (file it next to the Bonzo Dog Band’s Canyons Of Your Mind). This LP has gotten a bad rap over the years, but I’ve always thought it was a killer, just a notch below the Flamin’ Groovies’ Flamingo, issued the same year, and on par with Dave Edmunds’ Rockapile which spawned a worldwide hit with his revival of Smiley Lewis’ I Hear You Knockin’, another forgotten classic of that year. You can find Jeremy Spencer’s solo album here (password is stuckinthepast).
When Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in 1970 the band was shaken and depressed, neither Spencer nor Danny Kirwan wanted the responsibility for filling his gigantic shoes, so Christine Perfect aka McVie, wife of bass player John McVie and a star in her own right in the U.K was brought in to help front the band, play keyboards and write new material. While Spencer contributed three excellent tunes to Kiln House— a rocker This Is The Rock, the country ballad Blood On The Floor, and the country/rockabilly One Together whose self doubting lyrics are a good look into a troubled mind, as well as singing Honey Hush (retitled Hi Ho Silver) and the Buddy Holly medley Buddy’s Song, they would be his last contributions to the band. You can find Kiln House here (password is stuckinthepast).
Spencer was always something of an enigma, only 19 when he joined the band, he was married to his 17 year old childhood sweetheart and had two young children. Something of a split personality, he was remembered as quite and shy, given to reading his Bible which he kept sewn into the lining of his jacket, yet onstage he became a different person, given to down and dirty performances (Harold the dildo was his idea), he would often insult the audience, even calling out an audience member to fight when the poor guy got up to go piss during Spencer’s Elvis/oldies set– “Nobody walks out on Elvis”! he screamed.
In January of 1971 the band arrived in San Fransisco to begin their first post-Peter Green tour with a show at the Filmore West (Mick Fleetwood remembered it as one of the best performances Spencer ever gave, especially during the Elvis part of the show– “that night he played with a manic fire we’d never seen from him before” It would be his last show. He took some mescaline and had a hard time coming down. Mick Fleetwood knew there was something wrong. In his book Fleetwood: My Life And Adventures in Fleetwood Mac (with Stephen Davis, Avon, 1990), Fleetwood recalls Spencer had a horrible foreboding and didn’t want to go to the next shows, a series of sold out gigs in L.A. at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. “Something bad’s gonna happen Mick, you wait and see”, Spencer told him. He was convinced L.A. was full of evil, ugly vibes. Which it was, and still is. It was just months after the Manson murders and all sorts of nuts were highly visible like the Process Church in their black shrouds and German Shepard dogs on leash. When they landed at LAX the aftershocks of an earthquake were still rumbling. It was one of the worst earthquakes in L.A. in the 20th century, with dozens killed and many buildings toppled. The band checked into their hotel, Spencer told the band he was going out to a bookshop he’d been to last trip, it was the last time they saw him. After a search that made the TV news broadcasts and much ground beating, they found him a few weeks later, he’d taken up with the Children Of God, a creepy pseudo Jesus freak cult given to classic brain washing techniques. The idea that he’d run off with a cult was one of the first things that ran through Mick Fleetwood’s mind when Spencer went missing–“he was ripe for the picking”.
The Children Of God over the years have been accused of child abuse among other unsavory charges. Spencer himself was cited in several legal documents for child abuse charges within the cult, including having sex with his own children as well as allegations by his ex-wife, and was also accused by a woman named Celeste Jones in the U.K tabloid The Daily Mail in 2007 who claimed Spencer abused her as a child growing up in the Children Of God. Part of her statement read– “The routine was by now was familiar – undress, pray, kiss and then give him (Jeremy Spencer) a hand job”. You can examine these various charges if you like at the bottom of his Wikipedia bio (here) as well as his response to them. Spencer has stayed with the Children of God for almost forty years now (they changed their name to the Family of Love, then more recently to Family International). In the mid-70’s Spencer released an awful LP called Jeremy Spencer and the Children, which may not even be him, there’s much speculation as to who is actually on the LP. Spencer, the former rock star, was used by the Children Of God to recruit other members and evidently treated much better than the average recruit once the initial brain washing process had worked its unsubtle magic earasing his personality. He seemed to grow into his role as part of their propaganda machine over the years.
More recently he’s attempted a half assed comeback of sorts, playing a few blues festivals and scattered gigs, now living in Ireland after stints in C.O. G. compounds in Texas, Oregon, India, Brazil, the Philippines and Italy. Like most of the higher ups in the Children of God cult he does his best to keep one step ahead of the law. He was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame in 1998 as an original member of Fleetwood Mac. Some of his many children are in an English band called JYNXT. He released a live LP cut in India (1999) and an album called Precious Little appeared in 2006, I’ve heard neither of these. As far as all the allegations against Spencer, I don’t know what to say, or even think. I certainly won’t defend the guy. The Children Of God are known creeps. They used to engage in something they called “Flirty Fishing” where they’d send sexy young girls out to seduce men and lead them back into the fold. This is well documented as are other examples of behavior too cretinous to comprehend.
As far as his music goes, for four years- 1968-71 Jeremy Spencer was one of the greats. Although he was overshadowed by Peter Green’s incredible talents, I think a major reassessment is in order. Especially his solo LP (which really should be re-issued) and his material on Kiln House. The double CD of Fleetwood Mac’s BBC recordings is a must have for every rock’n’roll home (I used to have a tape of a 1970 Jeremy Spencer solo gig on the BBC doing Cliff Richard’s Move It and tunes from his solo LP but lost it over the years. Anyone out there have a copy?). Even my old pal Hank Ballard, who did not give praise lightly, loved Jeremy Spencer. He told me “I closed my eyes and thought it was Elmore James”. You get the feeling if a stadium full of today’s Fleetwood Mac fans showed up and the original band walked on the stage and played Rattlesnake Shake and Shake Your Money Maker they’d get booed off the stage. I guess that’s a good thing, after all, Dr. John was booed this year at Jazz Fest in his own hometown by fans waiting to see Bon Jovi, scheduled to follow him on the same stage. I can’t imagine too many Stevie Nicks fans would groove to Jeremy Spencer in a gold lame suit pounding out Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kick In Tonight or Honey Hush. Baby, that’s rock’n’roll…