Monday, 13 August 2012

A New Bend in the Road... the return of Jeremy Spencer by James Nuttall

Today, when most people hear the name Fleetwood Mac they automatically think 'Rumours'... the tenth biggest selling album of all time. An album that painted a musical picture of the personal traumas of the 1977 line up of the west-coast soft-rock phenomenon as they dealt with interpersonal break ups, the pressure of super stardom and drug addiction. They picture seventies siren Stevie Nicks twirling around in her chiffon skirts and Lindsey Buckingham's unique style of playing guitar.

This is the Fleetwood Mac you will be watching on Behind the Music. However, the big Mac had already been around since 1967 as one of the most successful blues bands on the British music scene, and already featured 10 members by the time Buckingham Nicks joined the group in 1975.

This Fleetwood Mac might get ten minutes devoted to them in a 60 minute documentary before the current line up's story takes over. However, the earlier line ups had just as much drama as any incarnation of the band.

Jeremy Spencer was, until 1971, was in the middle of this drama. As a founding member of the band, he played slide guitar on some of the early hits, such as 'Black Magic Woman' (later to be made a smash hit in America by Carlos Santana), 'Albatross' and 'Oh Well'. All three Fleetwood Mac albums to feature Spencer reached the top 10 in Britain. 

Things started to fall apart for the super group in 1970, when the bands' front man and lead guitarist, Peter Green, voted the third-greatest guitarist in the world by Mojo magazine, left the band after an ill-fated LSD trip in Munich. 10 days before a US tour, bass player John McVie's wife, Christine McVie, who used to front the blues band Chicken Shack joined the band on keyboards. She would go onto write some of the Mac's biggest hits for the next 20 years such as 'Don't Stop', 'Little Lies', 'Everywhere' and 'You Make Loving Fun'.
'Bend in the Road'  by Jeremy Spencer CD cover

Fleetwood Mac has used nine different guitar players since its formation, and each left at some stage. Jeremy was to be the second guitarist to leave. In 1971 he disappeared in Los Angeles outside a book store and was later found by the band's manager with a religious group, The Children of God. Spencer is still a member of this group today, although they are now named 'The Family International.' Mick Fleetwood recalled "It was like Scott of the Antarctic."

Band members often recalled Spencer reading a bible he had sewn into his coat, and that he was often much quieter than his charismatic and loud on-stage persona.

Jeremy had already released a solo album while he was in Fleetwood Mac, the 1970 LP 'Jeremy Spencer'. Another album was to follow in 1972 after he left the band, and then another in 1979. However, it would not be until 2006 that the world heard Spencer's fourth solo album, 'Precious Little'

Now in 2012 he has recorded a new album, 'Bend in the Road'. Sticking to his blues roots, Spencer covers an Elmore James track and gives us 14 blues tracks in total. A limited edition double album vinyl edition was released to coincide with Record Store Day, and the CD edition is due for release on 28 August.

I spoke to Jeremy via email to talk about his projects, old and new... 

Hi Jeremy, thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
You are welcome James. I like to do email interviews – at least I don’t get misquoted!

You were influenced by the blues musician Elmore James, and you cover 'The Sun Is Shining' on the new album. Can you remember where you first heard him, and have you a particular favourite song by him?
I came to hear Elmore James after a friend and fellow student named ‘Acker’ rescued me from a cruel prank at Stafford Art College one evening in 1964. He invited me for dinner and put on a blues album while we ate. It was a British Pye records compilation from Chess called The Blues Vol 3. It had Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon etc; good stuff, but it wasn’t grabbing my ear while we chatted, as I was preoccupied and down about the incident earlier.

Suddenly ‘The Sun is Shining’ by Elmore came on. I jumped up and stood mesmerised at the record player. I had never heard of him before and I couldn’t believe my ears. I think what grabbed me was Elmore’s singing and the answering of his guitar like one voice. It sounded so anguished and powerful.

From that point on, I was determined to play and if possible sing like that. Problem was, that was the only available song of his in England at the time until Sue records issued an album called ‘The Best of Elmore James’ which I obtained at the time of my fractured leg accident about nine months later.

Was it James that first attracted you to the slide guitar?

Which of the Fleetwood Mac albums do you consider to be the best?
To be honest, for enjoyable, detached listening, I liked the first two albums they put out in the 70’s with Buckingham and Nicks the best - Fleetwood Mac’ and ‘Rumours’.

Do you consider 'Bend in the Road' your best solo work to date?
It’s difficult for me to decide between this one and my previous release in 2006: ‘Precious Little’. I consider them both my best by far.

Do you ever manage to come and play over in Europe anymore?
Actually, I do live in Europe. My wife is German, and we have been living in Germany. I have performed occasionally here in Europe over the last ten years, as well as in America.

You've written the majority of the songs on Bend in the Road; you also wrote  much of Fleetwood Mac's material when you were in the band. However, some of the songs on this new album were written in the 70's and 80's. How often do you find yourself writing songs?
I am always getting ideas, and I have a huge unfinished and unused backlog of 40 years on my computer and in my noddle! I just have to knuckle down and finish them. Opportunities like recording ‘Precious Little’ and ‘Bend in the Road’ force me to do so.

Do you tend to start with lyrics or melody when you write a song?
I usually start with a melody and maybe a lyric line or a title. Again, I usually have to push, or get pushed to finish the song! That’s where the hard work comes in. They say that inspiration is ninety percent perspiration!
Alternate cover for the vinyl edition of 'Bend in the Road'

You've used a lot of different guitars over the years, do you like to use any particular one to record with?
For recording, I like to use a 2008 limited edition PRS with three P90 pickups and a five-way switch. It gives a broad ‘palette’ and covers all the bases. I usually like to stick with only one or two electric guitars for a session, and just one for a gig.

Are you still in contact with the members of Fleetwood Mac?
I have regular contact (usually by phone) with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.

Fleetwood Mac are planning a tour next year, do you think you will go and see them?
If they are around, and it’s a convenient trip, I’d like to.

What does your current touring band consist of?
I seldom tour, but when I do the occasional venue, I usually have a second guitarist, bassist, drummer and sometimes a keyboard player. I am concluding that I can do with either another guitarist or a keyboardist to share the solo spots; it’s unnecessary to have both. It must be something about the ‘less is more’ principle, where the individual instruments have more air and space.

I have also been encouraged with a recent experience playing as a duo with Papa George. We both played resonator guitars; it clicked amazingly and we could have played for hours!

Who do you enjoy listening to when you're at home?
I have a playlist of favourites from the 50’s and each decade until now, to which I occasionally listen. I like to listen to Mark Knopfler, Dido, Enya and Albert King to name a few, but as I said in answer to an earlier question, I have so many ideas in my head, that when I want to listen to music, I make it!

You've been a professional musician since the '60's, is there a particular highlight of your career, such as a stand-out show or album?
Norway with a team of Norwegian blues musicians, and collaborating with guitarist Brett Lucas in Detroit on ‘Bend in the Road’. A recent highlight has been briefly working with a young French guitarist, Mick Ravassat, with whom I hope to do more.

Finally, a must-ask question, do you think there is any chance of the original blues line up of The Mac getting back together, even for a one-off gig?
Maybe I should ‘quote’ Mark Knopfler’s response to a similar must-ask question in an interview -- with an ‘audible sigh’!

Bottom line, James, even if Peter and Danny were able to participate, which is unlikely, I would decline, despite the hypothetical cries of ‘do it for your fans.’

On that note, I would like to leave you with this quote from Steve Jobs, taken from his recent biography written by Walter Isaacson:‘If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.

‘The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, “Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.” And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.’

Even though I remain true to my blues ‘roots’, I enjoy and need to keep moving forward musically, and I hope and believe, by the grace of God, that I have re-emerged a lot differently!

By James Nuttall © 2012

Once again, my thanks to Jeremy for his time and detailed answers.

Jeremy Spencer's new album, 'Bend in the Road' can be purchased at:

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