The Infinite Jukebox: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’

In my enforced detachment from pop music of nearly all kinds, my only contact with the charts was the weekly Top 10 printed in small type in the Daily Express, taken by my grandparents in Droylsden and read en masse by me once a week, mostly for the strips. I didn’t go searching for it, and didn’t miss it on weeks where it was either left out or I failed to spot it.
One week, in early 1969, I happened to notice one particular entry, either at or somewhere very close to Number 1. It was called ‘Albatross’, and was by some band called Fleetwood Mac. The title intrigued me. I actually wanted to hear it, and find out what a song called ‘Albatross’ could be about.
However, without it being requested on Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice one weekend, I didn’t know how to do that. Maybe it was requested: I do know that at some point I heard it, it was pre-announced, and I listened with eager ears for the words.
They seemed to be a long time in coming, which was because I was listening not to a song but an instrumental, though I didn’t seem able to grasp the concept of that, even though I was reasonably familiar with things like ‘Stranger on the Shore’ and ‘Telstar’.
The question became moot because I didn’t hear it played again, the band never turned up to play it on Crackerjack (Crackerjack!), and I forgot about it.
Just a little over four years later, ‘Albatross’ was re-released. Radio 1 took it up, it re-entered the Top Thirty. If I hadn’t already been familiar with the track by then, I soon got to grips with it. It was cool, it was smooth, it was relaxing. It was a walking blues, though I couldn’t have defined it as such then. I loved hearing it. It climbed the charts in the slow, regular fashion of Seventies hits. It neared Number 1 again. I was wishing it on but, in the end, it didn’t quite get there, it peaked at Number 2, behind 10cc’s ‘Rubber Bullets’ (so at least not a travesty).
Apart from being a walking blues, a reference I take to be to its slow, smooth, unhurried pace, what is ‘Albatross’? Tony Blackburn hated it, thought it boring, which was definitely a plus point in 1969, and again in 1973. Given his preference in music, about which he is greatly knowledgeable, it’s no surprise that Blackburn should not take to this track. I disagree profoundly, though I don’t hold it against him.
Even for 1969, ‘Albatross’ was an unusual number 1, an instrumental but also a blues instrumental, played by three guitarists, each offering different slow melodies as the track weaves its way unhurriedly from beginning to end.
Peter Green leads the way, rolling out slow, deep notes as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood providing a slow, even, basic pulse, creating the effect of ocean waves, ceaseless and unheeding of all that is life, over which Green’s imagined Albatross flies, riding air currents on great, wide wings, silent and unconcerned. Jeremy Bentham and Danny Kirwan add airier grace notes to complement Green’s sweet tones, stilling the world until all that exists is this calm sound, a bird in flight. It’s the sound of soaring, of being so far above and beyond, existing in lines of melody of differing weights, and a rhythm that keeps it from evaporating into mere sound.
For those not in tune, yes, it could be called boring. For those who, like myself, respond to the peace inherent in this sound, ‘Albatross’ could have been extended to an hour or more, drifting in contentment, alone with what passes for thoughts.
Fleetwood Mac went on to be massively successful and a long way from their roots in the blues. For a time I was one of the acolytes of the early Buckingham-Nicks era, a proud possessor of Rumours. But time and maturity directed me to the earthier, bluesier sounds with which they began, to that extraordinary run of singles between 1968 and 1971, of which ‘Albatross’ was the unexpected, and pure highlight. ‘Man of the World’, ‘Oh Well’, ‘The Green Manalishi’, even the unsuccessful post-Green track, ‘Dragonfly’ followed in its serene wake, but nothing ever captured that same sense of remoteness and unconcern.
Nor can any words, except Albatross.

Danny Kirwan R.I.P.

I don’t know much about former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, whose death aged 68 has been reported today. What I do know it that he wrote and played this beautiful 1972 instrumental from their ‘BareTrees’ album, that I have loved since I first heard it.

May he rest forever on the Sunny Side of Heaven.