Blog: The sad story of Bob Welch

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 12:13 11/06/2012

Bob Welch killed himself last week. It's sad when we hear about the passing of a musician we admired. It's devastating when you find out that it's suicide.

Welch was a singer/guitarist/songwriter. He had a solo career and was in a band called Paris. But he had also been a member of Fleetwood Mac.

Though history seems to have conveniently forgotten about the in-between years (when Fleetwood Mac was no longer a blues band, but wasn't quite the group that put the FM in FM radio), Welch was a crucial member of the band.

He helped to steer the ship through choppy and uncertain waters. Bob Welch

I first learned about Welch when I watched the documentary, Fleetwood Mac at 21. I've watched that film dozens of times, more than I've watched any other music documentary. It might be the film I've watched the most. Period. I started watching it when I was 10 years old and a fan of the Rumours, Tusk and Mirage albums/eras of the band. It was this doco that got me hooked on the blues-band version of Fleetwood Mac. I wore out a VHS copy of the documentary.

It would be a while before I heard any of the music Mac made with Welch, but I picked up his key solo albums, 1977's French Kiss and 1979's Three Hearts. Imagine putting those out and the band you used to be a member of releases Rumours and Tusk in those respective years. Geez!

If those albums were buried or forgotten then plenty of people still remember the songs Ebony Eyes and Sentimental Lady (Welch had recorded the latter with Fleetwood Mac in 1972 - he covered his own song five years on making it a solo hit).

Welch was a very good guitar player. He wrote plenty of great songs - and he worked well with Christine McVie, the two sharing the songwriting duties as Fleetwood Mac moved around a lot, stylistically and line-up wise, between 1971 and 1974; a short timeframe during which a lot happened.

Before Buckingham and Nicks ever entered the equation the band was already a soap-opera; various members were fired for drunkenness or conducted sneaky affairs with other band members' partners. There were battles over the sound and shape of the music - and through this all Welch stepped up and impressed. He was part of a six-piece line-up and part of a four-piece line-up. He had centre-stage at one point; at other times he was just a part of the puzzle.

He coped, as Lindsey Buckingham has had to do also, with covering Peter Green's key material too.

He was the rhythm guitarist. Then he was the lead guitarist - including one album where he was the only guitar player in the band; a group that had, up until that point, always entertained duelling guitarists - even having three players in the line-up, a huge luxury and a huge sound.

All of the albums that feature Welch - Future Games, Bare Trees, Penguin, Mystery To Me and Heroes Are Hard To Find - contain some great music. They're overlooked/under-discovered.

So much of that great music feels like it's been conveniently left out of the Fleetwood Mac story. You can still find those albums of course, you can dial up the clips on YouTube, but unless you knew to look you probably wouldn't stumble onto them.

Welch was a caretaker of sorts - a night-watchman even. He kept Fleetwood Mac together at a time when the only constant was the rhythm section. He added touches of jazz (certainly in his guitar playing; the phrasing) and moved the band towards a version of soft-rock and pop that, ultimately, would be the band's great legacy. It's just that the real success arrived when Welch, burnt out and bored, struggling to keep a marriage together and to get through life, quit the band.

Enter Lindsey Buckingham - bringing with him his girlfriend Stevie. The rest of course is the huge success story of one of the biggest, most enduring pop bands of the 1970s and 1980s.

I love all facets of the Fleetwood Mac saga and story - the music and the mayhem that inspired so much of that music. And I love all versions of the group - the early blues years through to the stadium sell-outs. But albums like Bare Trees and Mystery To Me, Heroes Are Hard To Find and Penguin still offer up surprises.

And Welch was - in so many ways - the glue.

His solo hit Ebony Eyes has endured. And that was, for many, the song to reach for when hearing last week's sad news.

What an awful and sad end for one of rock's more underrated and sadly undervalued guitarists.

He left a note. He died from a fatal gunshot. He had had spinal surgery and doctors had told him that he would not improve, he did not want to be a burden to his wife.

He was 65.

Welch didn't want superstardom - and his caretaker role in Fleetwood Mac met his goal of wanting "to be in a good band" and wanting to make the music he loved. He wanted "to travel the world and have adventures". Fleetwood Mac gave him that opportunity. As did a solo career after he left the band.

And then Fleetwood Mac refused to acknowledge him when the band was honoured at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Welch had sued his former bandmates over a royalties dispute. In recent days they have told of their love for him and for how crucial his role was in the band. As is the way when someone dies.

It seems a lot harder to eulogise a musician when the death is a suicide.

I still play my French Kiss and Three Hearts LPs often. And I couldn't be without the Welch-informed version of Fleetwood Mac. With the exception only of Tusk I listen to the four albums from 1972-1974 (Bare Trees, Penguin, Mystery To Me and Heroes Are Hard To Find) more than I listen to anything else by any of the versions of Fleetwood Mac.

A very sad end for Bob Welch. Fleetwood Mac had three Bobs in the band - at various points. Bob Brunning, the original bassist, and guitarist/vocalist Bob Weston (who played on Penguin with Welch). All three Bobs have passed in the last couple of years.

But Bob Welch should be remembered for offering so much more than what feels like a bit-part in the revised history.

What do you think? Were you/are you a fan of Welch's solo work or his material with Fleetwood Mac?

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14 comments
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Tahuna   #1   01:01 pm Jun 11 2012

Couldn't agree more about the undervalued Welch Era FM albums.

'Penguin' is a particular favorite of mine. Highlights include psychedelic tracks 'Bright Fire' and the 'Revelation' and the stunning Night Watch'. The album moves from classic McVie pop (Remember me) to straight out R&R (Roadrunner), a bit of country (Derelict) to the aforementioned spacier tracks. 'Revelation' also contains a stunning Welch guitar workout.

So, a sad end to a terrific song writer and underrated contributor to the Fleetwood Mac cannon.

Jim Coronado   #2   01:46 pm Jun 11 2012

I could not have said it any better. There is no doubt Welsh was the glue that gave them their jammin' sound.

dan   #3   02:23 pm Jun 11 2012

saw paris at college auditorium in spokane. they opened for golden earing. i had their album so we were up rocking to "black books open so you better jump back", and everyone was sitting throwing stuff at us telling us to sit down. it was a great show.

breen   #4   02:44 pm Jun 11 2012

Excellent blog, Simon. Here's what I posted on Friday, shoved inappropriately into the comments for that day's blog - I had just found out, was somewhat in shock, and this just poured out (I didn't know about the spinal surgery at that point).

"This is completely OT, but I'm upset to have just found out that Bob Welch (pronounced "Welsh") committed suicide. He was a talented and distinctive guitarist/singer/songwriter, who, as the first American to join Fleetwood Mac, kept the band going through their "wilderness years" of the early 70s, and turned in some stellar, and very underrated, work on 5 of their albums. The only real major success he had was with the solo album French Kiss (1977), on which he played every instrument except the drums, but other albums of his deserved much more attention than they got.

I know that he had struggled with addiction after his career fizzled out in the early 80s. He was, IMO, an unsung hero, I'm a fan, and for it to end this way is very sad. Vale."

A friend of mine says that, from all the FM stuff he's heard me play, Bob's era is by far his fave of the band.

Hmm, may be running out of space here - might have to post a Part 2 (sorry).

Peter A   #5   02:56 pm Jun 11 2012

Yes, very sad that Welch is no longer with us. I really like Fleetwood Mac's 1973 album "Mystery To Me" which is not only Bob's best effort with the group, but also an important stepping stone between Fleetwood Mac's blues roots and its multi-platinum future. In addition to "Hypnotised" there are other overlooked Welch gems such as "Miles Away" and "Somebody".

Who knows - if lead guitarist Bob Weston hadn't had an affair with Mick Fleetwood's wife at the time "Mystery To Me" was released (which led to a tour being aborted after just a few weeks and a "fake" band being put together by their infuriated manager) they may well have hit the big time two or three years earlier than they did.

Zorkdude   #6   03:01 pm Jun 11 2012

Very good summary !

Jeremy Gloff   #7   03:11 pm Jun 11 2012

I too reach for the "middle era" Mac albums more than any of the others. There's a certain kind of magic to those albums unlike anything I ever heard anywhere else. I think the most magical combo was the Kirwan/Welch/McVie era - those albums are otherworldly.

RIP Bob.

MM   #8   03:15 pm Jun 11 2012

The five 'Welch-era" Fleetwood Mac records are the only Fleetwood Mac records I ever listen to. And I listen to them all the time.

"Mystery to Me" stands out to me as the very best of this bunch of records. I like the way Bob Welch and Bob Weston play together. (Weston's playing reminds me of the Grateful Dead, in a good way). "Emerald Eyes," "Somebody," and "Miles Away" are top drawer.

Also, Christine McVie is writing some of the greatest songs of her career on these albums. ("Why," "Prove Your Love...") Bob Welch clearly brought out the best in this band.

There are beautiful, warm production qualities in these records, and lots of nice Melotron, ARP String Ensemble, Misc. 70's fabulousness. So much of this was lost to Lindsey Buckingham's bourgeois sensibilities-hyper-compressed production/playing styles.

That being said, I'm dying to hear the Welch albums remastered. People need to start REALLY listening to these records.

Thank you Bob.

breen   #9   03:18 pm Jun 11 2012

OK, so there are 2 more solo albums of his that are really good - both released in 1980 - The Other One (possibly my fave Bob album) and Man Overboard. They're less glitzy than FK and 3H (which are great), and are intriguing while still very catchy. I have these together on one rare CD (speaking of rare, I have the 2 Paris albums on CD!). Also have, on VHS, "Bob Welch and Friends Live at The Roxy", a TV special from 1982. The "friends" include Mick F, John and Christine M, Stevie, also members of Heart, and other notables. (Ah, the amount of Coca Cola that must have been going around backstage.)

Mick and Stevie have both commented on Bob's passing in typically eloquent fashion. I just really hope that Mick never tried to screw Bob out of royalties, as has been suggested.

Anyway, RIP Bob - we love your work.

Jeff   #10   04:03 am Jun 12 2012

The first song I ever heard by Fleetwood Mac was Future Games, during the spring of 1975. I loved it instantly. I bought the album and played it all that summer. Of all their album, Future Games remains my favorite. If you like the Bob Welch period, it is a must listen.


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