Again I present a piece written for Hanspostcard’s blog. As I outlined last week when I reviewed REM’s Automatic for the People, that site has invited me to be one of ten music writers looking at 100 great albums over 100 days. For my second post, I picked one of the musical landmarks of the 1970s.
Fleetwood Mac weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with their landmark 1977 album Rumours. Even the album cover looked reminiscent of ones they’d done before. Only perhaps a little slicker. Sexier. Like the music inside. They simply took what they did well before and did it a little better, under trying (to say the least) circumstances, and created perhaps the ultimate California rock/pop album of the era.
What was once a decidedly British blues band had morphed into a SoCal pop outfit and this one was the second with the “classic” lineup… the Fleetwood Mac people think of when we think of Fleetwood Mac. Of course Mick Fleetwood was still there behind the kit, and long-time couple John and Christine McVie still were too. But Bob Welch was gone, Peter Green long gone and Los Angeleninos Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had convinced the band to move to the land of palm trees and move their sound likewise. While they’d had success in the UK in the ’60s with songs like “Albatross”, North America generally first came to know them through their self-titled ’75 album which gave us the hits “Over My Head” and “Rhiannon.” By Bicentennial Day, July 4.1976, they played before over 30 000 in Tampa. Then they set about making a record that would draw even more fans.
They settled in to a studio in L.A. to begin under conditions which were legendary for both excess and drama.
Where to begin? Well, for starters, Christine had begun an affair with the lighting guy for their tours, and husband John wasn’t chuffed. They were divorcing and would only speak to each other about the music…and nothing else. Long-time couple Stevie and Lindsey were on the rocks, thanks to factors like Lindsey’s jealousy and Stevie’s… alluring… nature around men. Don Henley of the Eagles particularly, who was said to be ga-ga for her and prone to sending her things like stereos and bouquets back stage. Oh yes, of course The Eagles – the other huge SoCal band of the day – often played concerts with Fleetwood Mac and had adjacent dressing rooms back then! And big Mick was quite unhappy in his marriage to Jenny … the sister of Patti Boyd, the “Layla” gal. (You just know things are going to get wild when there’s a chance for Patti Boyd to enter a roomful of musicians!) So he found comfort in Stevie’s arms. To make things smoother in the studio, they did what any rich Californians would do in the ’70s… snorted pounds of cocaine and drank champagne like water. Christine remembers “the sessions were like a cocktail party every night.” The studio owner says “the band would come in at 7 at night, have a big feast, party till 1 or 2 , then when they were so whacked out they couldn’t do anything, they’d start.”
It’s an amazing testiment to human resiliency and artistic drive that they got anything done at all, let alone something of lasting greatness. Talk about making lemonade from a bag of lemons!
Mostly they wrote on their own, and the distinctive personalities shone through. Lindsey in particular seemed bitter; every song of his was a lyrical porcupine of quills aimed at Stevie. She in particular hated “Go Your Own Way” which she found “extremely disrespectful”. He also was said to have quashed another song, “Silver Spring” from the album, due to length. That happened to be written by Nicks and said to be not only her favorite one but one which she gave her mother part writing credits for. (The song has appeared on some re-issues on CD or digitally.) She seemed to give as good as she got with “Dreams” and “I Don’t Want to Know” and hauntingly self-aware with the brilliant “Gold Dust Woman” with the presumably self-referencing “take your silver spoon and dig your grave.” Christine, the other principal writer, seemed a bit more upbeat, if reflective with tunes like “You Make Loving Fun” and “Songbird.”
What could have become a nasty dirge somehow came out sounding fresh and happy thanks to the great music. Each listen… and we’ve all had plenty it seems… reveals something new. Mick’s drumming is steady and actually dazzling in its understated flair from start to finish, and Lindsey proves himself a virtuoso on guitars both electric and acoustic while the McVie’s come through more than adequately on their basses (John) and keyboards (Christine.) As familiar as they are, it’s easy to overlook how outstanding his acoustic picking is on “Never Going Back Again” or the electric solos on “Don’t Stop”. Even Christine’s work on the organ on songs like “Don’t Stop” is stellar if often unnoticed. Add in spotless, shining California production and the sound shines like a Malibu sun.
Of course, Rumours was a mega-hit. It’s double-diamond status (20X platinum or beyond) in both the States and Canada, and with over 40 million copies sold, it’s in a virtual tie for the seventh best-seller of all-time worldwide. It owned the American charts for a good chunk of the era when disco was otherwise king, being at #1 for an astounding 31 weeks. And while it launched four massive singles “ “Dreams”, “You Make Loving Fun”, “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop” ( the song that launched a presidential campaign), nearly every other song quickly became a radio staple as well. Turn on an oldies or classic rock station today and you have a fair chance of hearing “Second Hand News”, “The Chain,” “Never Going Back Again” or “Gold Dust Woman” along with the conventional hits. No wonder Rolling Stone consider it the 25th greatest album ever made and the BBC call it “near perfect.” And no wonder it influenced a new generation of musicians. Lorde says it was a big part of her childhood soundtrack and “a perfect record” for example.
It’s an album with a deceptively cheery, simple sound that’s tailor-made for driving around on a hot summer’s day with the windows down and the wind blowing through your hair or a late-night campfire singalong… who doesn’t know the lyrics, or at least a reasonable facsimile of them by now? Or just as equally well for curling up on a sofa licking your wounds after a nasty breakup. Like Stylus said of it, “what makes it art is the contradiction between its cheerful surface and its anguished heart.”
For me, it’s been a constant since my brother gave me a copy (along with Hotel California at the same time, appropriately enough) for my birthday over 40 years back. Rare have been the times in my life when I haven’t had a copy somewhere nearby, and enjoyed listening to it. While some of the hits of the ’70s that have been “adopted” as classics by radio have grown stale to my ears, Rumours has never grown moldy in its familiarity.
Most of the band have moved on and seem in happier places since the late-’70s, but they’ve never topped the music they made then. Rumours provides a lesson in perseverance. If they could make this masterpiece when they were at each other’s throats and at low points in their personal lives, why can’t I make something good in times that aren’t great. And that – the idea of making the best of a bad situation – is a message worthy of taking to heart in this weird year, is it not?
So, it might not be my actual second-favorite record ever. But as an album that’s been so much a part of my life, and so many other’s, for decades and still sounds highly enjoyable, it’s certainly worthy of my tip of the hat.