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The Story Behind The Song: Fleetwood Mac's chilled classic 'Albatross'

Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ is undoubtedly the most well-known song of their early years. Written by the band’s founder and guitarist, the late Peter Green, the iconic instrumental was one of the first rock tracks to place emphasis on feeling, rather than technique. It is outings like these that mark Green out to be what he was, a guitar-playing pioneer who’s influenced everyone from Noel Gallagher to Tom Petty.

The song took inspiration from a variety of places. The title derives from the English expression “an albatross around your neck”, a term that can be traced back to the sailors who regarded the bird as a sign of bad luck. Famously, the bird also appears in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the 1798 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which cemented this feeling in wider society. Green read the poem as a child and it stuck with him, and he felt the instrumental would be the perfect place for it. 

Musically, a handful of songs inspired the track. Santo & Johnny’s 1959 rock ‘n’ roll instrumental ‘Sleep Walk’ is said to have inspired Green to pen the track. There are also claims that draw parallels between ‘Albatross’ and Chuck Berry‘s 1957 track ‘Deep Feeling’. Typically blues, Berry’s track takes its cues from the 1939 standard ‘Floyd’s Guitar Blues’ by Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy, which featured legendary jazz guitarist Floyd Smith. 

Green also weighed in on the inspiration behind his biggest track. In Martin Clemins’ 1998 biography on Green, he explained that an early inspiration for what became ‘Albatross’ came from “a group of notes from an Eric Clapton solo, played slower”. Classically Green, the name of the Clapton song has remained a mystery. However, we would posit that it might have stemmed from Clapton’s mid-’60s stint in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, ironically, the band that would welcome Green to eventually replace Clapton in 1967. 

In the book 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, Green is quoted as saying: “I heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers cover of blues singer Jimmy Rogers ‘The Last Meal.’ I thought I would take it and develop it.” The song does not exist in a recorded capacity in The Bluesbreakers’ back catalogue, so he must have caught them live, a brilliant reappropriation. 

The most memorable part of the composition is that it evokes the feelings of being at sea, on a relaxed boat trip, the complete opposite to the traditional feelings an albatross stokes. Drummer Mick Fleetwood created the sound of waves by using timpani mallets, and this dreamy sound was augmented by Green’s blissful solo.

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The band had been in existence for a while before they added 18-year-old guitarist Danny Kirwan, who helped to elevate the group’s sound and ballast, Green, as the frontman and lead guitarist. When Kirwan entered the fold, they’d been working on ‘Albatross’ for some time, and Green and slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer had run into creative conflict stemming from the different directions they wanted the song to go in. 

Kirwan’s addition helped Green complete the piece, and it was recorded only two months after he joined, without Spencer, who didn’t feature on the single. He was, however, featured on the cover photograph. Although he didn’t feature, videos show Spencer miming Green’s sultry guitar parts whilst the recording sessions were underway, clearly showing his support. Released in October 1968, it became an instant classic. 

Although it has inspired many, the most famous instance is said to have been that ‘Albatross’ directly inspired the luscious Beatles song, ‘Sun King’ from 1969’s Abbey Road, and there are certainly many parallels to be drawn.

The most enduring of the Green-era Fleetwood Mac songs, ‘Albatross’ helped to pave a new way forward in rock. Feeling was placed in the driving seat, rather than technique and flair. Via his unmistakable guitar line, Green helped to re-establish what the guitar player could and should be for the modern age. He took cues from B. B. King and provided a platform for the likes of David Gilmour, Kurt Cobain and Noel Gallagher to flourish. 

Listen to ‘Albatross’ below.