If you haunt used record stores, you probably take it for granted that most of your favorite artists have had erratic careers, full of experimentation, moments of commercial oblivion, and the terror and uncertainty of replacement band members. Mainstream, superstar acts — the kinds gracing Dodger Stadium this weekend as part of the two-day Classic West festival — usually want us to forget the commercial and artistic sinkholes they sometimes fall into.
But it’s utterly fascinating when a band goes from the top to the bottom, and then climbs back up to the top. The (very) few that accomplish this feat join an exclusive clique, which we shall call The Brotherhood of the Elder.
The Brotherhood of the Elder is named, of course, after Kiss’s wonderfully peculiar ninth album, Music From the Elder. In 1981 Kiss decided it was time to escape their comic book image and make a serious musical statement. Music From the Elder is a grandiose concept album swelling with orchestras, minor chords and extended instrumental passages; it is so grave and momentous that Lou Reed was recruited to co-write some songs. It was a commercial disaster and nearly ended the band. But after this debacle, Kiss returned to being the ludicrous Kiss we all know and love, and resumed churning out hit records in all their gory cartoon glory.
Anyone can go from the top to the bottom and stay there, but only a select few can climb all the way back to the top and join the Brotherhood of the Elder. As it happens, one of the best examples of this phenomenon will be at Classic West.
From 1977 to 1982, Fleetwood Mac had three No. 1 albums in the United States. In 1997, they scored another No. 1 with The Dance. But in 1995, they released a new studio album that didn’t even make it into the top 200.
The album was called Time, and it was recorded by a decidedly odd and mercifully brief incarnation of the Mac that contained nary a Buckingham nor a Nicks. Instead, the band was fronted by Dave Mason, Bekka Bramlett and Billy Burnette. Mason was a founding member of Traffic, and he did some wonderful work with them; he also had a remarkable career as a sideman. On a good day, Bekka Bramlett sounded like a B+ Marcia Ball/Dusty Springfield imitator; on a bad day, she sounded like your wife’s cousin who insisted on singing “What If God Was One of Us” at your wedding. As for Billy Burnette, by 1995 he had been in Fleetwood Mac for eight years, attempting to simultaneously channel the spirits of both Lindsey Buckingham and Peter Green; he didn’t do a bad job, really, but that’s a damn tough job description.
So, this odd crew — abetted by the amazing Christine McVie and the greatest rhythm section in rock history, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie — made Time.
Time is not an interesting disaster, as, say, Music From the Elder is, or a historically curious disaster, like The Clash’s Cut the Crap, or a little gem of a disaster, like Aerosmith’s Rock in a Hard Place, or a vastly listenable disaster, like The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, or a what-the-fuck-was-that disaster, like Neil Young’s Arc.
Time is dull, overwrought, overlong and occasionally dire. At its worst, there’s Mason’s “Blow by Blow,” a nearly faceless, faux-muscular rocker shouted with the kind of hoarse sincerity that Eddie Money aspired to. (Note: I can forgive Mason for “Blow by Blow” because in 1967 he wrote and sang Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe,” one of the greatest sugarplums of phased and goofy ersatz Hindi psychedelia ever recorded.)
Bramlett’s vocals on Time have a strangely subdued character, as if no one had told her that these were the actual takes. I am not sure what went wrong; bringing a female blues shouter into Mac was an interesting idea, but Bramlett just wasn’t the right choice, or maybe the recording engineer hated her, or perhaps she took a couple of Benadryl before stepping to the mic. Nevertheless, Bramlett has a genuinely nice moment or two on Time. She’s quite effective on the (slightly) Sandy Denny–ish “Dreamin’ the Dream,” which is the album’s best non-McVie track (it also reminds me of the kind of rainy-day sad pop early Mac singer-guitarist Danny Kirwan specialized in).
Burnette’s contributions to Time aren’t that bad, but they're so generally anonymous that I chose to delete the paragraph I wrote discussing them.
Time features a handful of very good Christine McVie songs, and I wish these had been revisited elsewhere. The lilting “All Over Again” belongs on side one of any McVie mixtape; it reminds me of some of her best and most sensitive moments, like “Never Make Me Cry” from Tusk and the exquisite, Nico-ish “When You Say” from her 1970 Christine Perfect album.
At the end of the day, Time is just a mediocre album with some truly awful moments, some adamantine Christine McVie songs and one downright bizarre track: “These Strange Times,” which features Mick Fleetwood’s only-ever lead vocal, a spoken-word bit over a Burundi rumble.
Now, are any other artists performing at Classic West members of The Brotherhood of the Elder?
Not really, but Journey once applied for membership. Their Generations album, released in late summer 2005, topped out on the Billboard album chart at a sad-trombone No. 170. This was the second release in their commercially fallow Steve Augeri era, and they returned to the top 10 when Steve Perry sound-alike Arnel Pineda joined the band.
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It should come as no surprise that The Eagles never came remotely close to joining The Brotherhood of the Elder. Let’s just leave it at that and get out of this sentence before I say something vile about them, perhaps referencing Roman Polanski, that I might later regret. Likewise, Steely Dan’s chart performance (and the artistic reception of their albums) has been remarkably consistent.
Earth, Wind & Fire don’t qualify for membership in The Brotherhood, since they more or less gracefully aged out of the charts in the late 1980s.
Finally, during their long career, The Doobie Brothers have had one (and only one) album that completely passed over the charts, 2000’s Sibling Rivalry. Their most recent album, 2014’s Southbound, actually performed quite well, but it was one of those humiliating abominations wherein a band revisits their hits with a parade of guest vocalists. Such albums, unless they are centered around elderly vocal legends, are the equivalent of pity sex, and no one feels good after listening to them.
The peculiar, shiny shambles that is Time doesn’t detract from Fleetwood Mac’s amazing career. Rather, the fact that they could recover from it underlines what a continuing source of fascination and surprise they have been for 50 years. Still, I would rank it only as the Mac’s second most obscure record; the first, without a doubt, is the out-of-print 1970 album of bizarre musical parodies and pastiches they released as a Jeremy Spencer solo album. But that’s another story.