Celebrating 50yrs of Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On

Celebrating 50yrs of Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On

fleetwood mac peter green then play on
Fleetwood Mac, 1969 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

September 19th marks the 50th Anniversary of Fleetwood Mac's classic third album Then Play On, their first album for Warner/Reprise, and their last album to feature Peter Green at the helm. It's also the album that features the mighty "Oh Well", which Australian audiences saw Neil Finn and Mike Campbell lead the band through over the last month. ILYOS looks back at one of the great British blues-rock albums of the late 60s, and one of the most distinctive and enduring tracks of the era.

First, here's the Fleetwood Mac 2019 version of "Oh Well"...

As the 60s headed towards closure, London's Fleetwood Mac were in the midst of upheaval. It would not be the last time this would happen to the band, of course. Singer/guitarist Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of the band and a man who specialised in Elmore James-style hard blues licks and, incongruously,  parodies of earlier rock'n'roll styles, was disconnecting from the group as it progressed into more mature areas, and as he found his place beside Peter Green in the band's frontline usurped by newcomer Danny Kirwan. Teenaged Kirwan, a more delicate player, had made his presence felt immediately combining with Peter Green on the gorgeous instrumental "Albatross", the band's first UK #1. Kirwan was clearly present on the band's next single too, the somber and haunting "Man of the World" (which featured Green's gut-wrenching line "I just wish that I'd never been born") which made #2. “Man of the World” is another track revived by Finn and Campbell in the current Fleetwood Mac.

Fleetwood Mac 2019 “Man of the World”

Signing to the US-based Warner/Reprise label, the band then recorded what would become Then Play On. Jeremy Spencer, while still a member of the group, did not play on the album. He did play piano on the B-side of the single "Oh Well, Part 1"/" Oh Well, Part 2", which was released a week after the album. He was also central to an EP of humorous rock'n'roll and blues numbers that was recorded to be given away with the album -  but which the record company eventually didn't proceed with – and he did record a full album of that sort of material, backed by the rest of the band, that became the first solo album by a Fleetwood Mac member when it was released in January 1970.

"Oh Well", with its arresting stop-start riff and weighty tone, came on something like a laconic Led Zeppelin. It would be another smash; number 2 in the UK – and their first Top 100 entry in the US. An early FM radio favourite, it was soon added to the album in the US, and it has remained on the record in subsequent editions. The album version was originally Parts 1 and 2 strung together into one track, with the middle section, which had faded out at the end of Part 1 and faded in at the start of Part 2, inexplicably included twice.

“Oh Well” (Jeremy Spencer of maracas, Danny Kirwan trading licks with Peter Green) 

Then Play On featured a good number of other classic tracks and revealed the full range of the band's stylistic endeavors, minus Spencer's straight-ahead blues and parody material. The album has at times an unusually distant vibe – on a track like "Before the Beginning" it feels like Green is standing back from the mic to lessen his presence, while they play Kirwan's catchy rocker "Like Crying" without the rhythm section (no Fleetwood or Mac it sounds like), as if holding something back. 

These tracks draw you in – you have to listen closely to hear them, which was perhaps the intention. On the other hand, there's the weighty blues-rocker "Rattlesnake Shake" (infamously about masturbation) which, like "Oh Well", had the band rivaling Led Zeppelin riff for riff, and Kirwan’s opener "Coming Your Way" with its sensual Latin vibes. (Don't forget that Santana would soon have a massive hit with the 1968 Mac hit "Black Magic Woman" – Carlos was no doubt a fan.) Green's "Underway" was another atmospheric guitar-led instrumental, not too far from "Albatross"; "Closing My Eyes" was another sombre and slight vocal piece from Green, not a million miles from "Man of the World". "Showbiz Blues" was an old-style slide-driven country blues style number, the title of which was perhaps telling.

Green was by now dismayed by the music industry; the weight of the band's growing success was heavy on his shoulders and spirit. He felt guilty and thought the group should give its money away. His increasing drug intake, no doubt, wasn't helping his mental health. Indeed the band's next single – the violent and shrieking "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)" – was based on a nightmare Green had in which money is represented by a green dog; the song was heavy and scary enough for it to be later recorded by Judas Priest.

A third consecutive Top 10 UK hit, "The Green Manalishi" would be Peter Green's last record with Fleetwood Mac. His final performance with the band was less than a week after the single's release in May 1970. Apparently, an acid trip in Germany was the final trigger. The upheaval that had been first sighted in Jeremy Spencer's distance from the band had taken an unexpected turn with the group's leader departing; unexpectedly Spencer and Danny Kirwan would lead the band on its next album Kiln House.

After gradually fading away from the music scene, Peter Green returned in the 90s. Surprisingly, given what he went through, he's still around, although sadly Danny Kirwan passed away last year. Then Play On remains Green's crowning achievement, and one of Fleetwood Mac's finest moments. The 2013 Remastered Edition includes "Oh Well" as originally separated into two parts, as well as that final Green Mac single "The Green Manalishi" and it's haunting B-side "The World In Harmony". 

Get all Fleetwood Mac albums and collections on CD and vinyl here. 

Listen to Then Play On on Spotify

Listen to Then Play On on Apple Music 

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