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On Second Thought
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
never fully recovered from the appalling shock of discovering my father’s collection of Fleetwood Mac albums…” -- Glen Baxter
Although I laughed at the above-quoted Baxter cartoon when it was handed to me on a gift card, aged 11, I never understood peoples’ aversion to Fleetwood Mac. What’s not to like, I thought? Eventually, the latent rock critic stumbling foal-like to its feet, my young mind surmised that it must have been because Gold FM (our local and most prominent classic hits radio station) played their songs a lot and that must make them daggy. Of course, being a) an avid Gold listener and b) a fan of classic rock, even then, this wasn’t an issue to me. Still, something stopped me from ever really educating myself in the ways of Fleetwood Mac, despite an attraction to their ways with a pop song. There was always something else to listen to; first it was The Beatles, then psychedelia, early metal, show tunes, Led Zeppelin, punk, disco, even Top 40.
Sure, it wasn’t like I was consciously avoiding studying up on Fleetwood Mac, but maybe something in me knew that I’d have to wait to really get them, as though there was something in those snippets I heard on Gold that said to me, “you’ll appreciate this later on”. After all, The Beatles—influential as they remain—are really ‘My First Rock Band’, their tentative steps into genres that other bands later filled out and explored more exhaustively suited my young ears. Psychedelia and early metal perfectly suited that ill-advised quasi-hippie phase that so many teenaged girls get stuck in, and of course Led Zeppelin was the natural extension of this—who didn’t know at least one mysterious older boy with that “Stairway” poster in their bedroom?—as for show tunes, let’s not go there; punk, for showing how well versed I was in music history when everyone else was listening to Green Day; disco, good for floor-filling at end-of-school parties; Top 40, a great way to demonstrate your ironic cool to your first-year-uni lecture buddies.
And so it was that eventually I found myself in a car with my big sister, driving to uni, discussing my second big heartbreak in about as many years; I was turning into a grown-up and it was painful. Blazey was all ears and advice and, pushing a tape into the car’s beaten-up stereo, inspirational music as well. Out of the tinny speakers came blasting Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”. Years of subliminal learning, Gold FM style, meant I was belting it out as heartily as she was: “Don’t! Stop! Thinking about tomorrow/Don’t! Stop! It’ll soon be here”. It’s a good sentiment, she offered reassuringly. She was right, and something in the song connected in a way that it hadn’t before. Soon enough, “Go Your Own Way” came on, then “Songbird”—great mix-tape, I remember goofing. I was somewhat taken aback when she told me that it was actually a tape of Rumours; how could all these seamless hits that I’d heard so often on Gold all come from the one album? That day after classes, I went home and dug the copy of Rumours that I’d often passed by out of the record pile. It was an enlightening listening experience.
I was struck firstly by the quality of the music, a sparse, gilded sound unlike any of the other California bands I’d heard, the production was at once echoing and claustrophobic. There was no Hotel California pseudo-introspection, no cloying America sentimentality, no Steely Dan genre-hopping. But, even despite the sparkling pop confections contained within the album’s sleeves, there was something incredibly moving about Rumours, something that listening to the songs individually had only hinted at. Something in the songs corresponded with me, as though having recently been introduced to heartbreak was some kind of key to understanding the record. Of course at the time I had no idea, but I would later find out that the songs of Rumours were not just songs about heartache, but songs created during and because of and in spite of heartbreak. This was the key to its power.
When vocalist Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks and guitarist/vocalist Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac in 1976, they ushered in—depending on who you believe—between the sixth and tenth line-up of the band. Though they’d had mid-level success since the late ‘60s (beginning as a traditional British blues outfit and growing from there), there was a magic that these two gorgeous Californians brought to the band that was to spark a meteoric, if late, rise to fame. Buckingham’s sunny, intricate guitar lines and Nicks’ bewitching vocals melded seamlessly with Christine McVie’s whiskey voice, and meant that the band now counted three strong, characteristic songwriters amongst its ranks. 1975’s Fleetwood Mac was the first record to showcase this newfound might, unleashing the hit singles “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me” on the unsuspecting public as the new line-up was introduced on an extensive ’76 tour. However, it was the follow-up album that was really bound for glory—only what the band didn’t realise was just what a labour its creation would become.
Almost as soon as they’d stepped into the recording studio, Fleetwood Mac had reached crisis point. Founding member John McVie (he’s the ‘Mac’) and his wife of eight years, Christine, were breaking up. Drummer Mick Fleetwood’s marriage was falling apart. And Nicks and Buckingham were facing a similar fate. No one was talking to anyone. It was very nearly a disaster, especially when you add a cancelled national tour and mangled demo tapes eaten by the equipment at the Record Plant studios. Taking charge, Fleetwood corralled the band into a tiny dubbing studio on Hollywood Boulevard, where they began assembling and mixing their songs. It was there that the true nature of Rumours began to reveal itself: independently of each other, Christine McVie, Nicks and Buckingham had all written about their relationship breakdowns. Shutting down the studio to writers and hangers-on, they polished the songs into their final glory. Their publicly private confessional was to become one of the highest-selling albums of all time, and the reason was precisely that—apart from the exquisite quality of the music, the lyrical content and stories held within its leathery cream sleeves would strike at the hearts of over 19 million record buyers who’d ever felt a smidgen of the pain of love and its loss. And that was just what happened when I slipped the dusty vinyl out of its cover and was swept out of my sooky solipsism and into a grown-up world of heartache and beauty.
Opening track “Second Hand News”, for all its acoustic strummery and bubbling momentum, bristles with Buckingham’s recent do-over. “I know there’s nothing to say / Someone has taken my place”, he shrugs, while his case of the ex—Nicks—blithely sings backing vocals. His barely-contained pain becomes almost unbearable to listen to when the song reaches its climax and he hollers, “I’m just second hand news / I’m just second hand news”, sounding like he’s sobbing at Nicks, “I’m your second hand news”, and that following “yeah” becomes a hopeless admission of defeat beneath a rollicking keeping-up of appearances. Nicks’ response comes in the form of “Dreams”, announced with Fleetwood’s restrained drum kick and McVie’s rolling bass. “Now here you go again / You say you want your freedom”, she sighs, and a little later comes the killer: “But listen carefully to the sound / Of your loneliness / Like a heartbeat, drives you mad”. What a chilling, saddening, familiar idea it was, that deadening, inescapable silence deep in your heart—even if you’re at the swingin’est party around, the loudest music is an uneasy quiet—the sound of the forced reflection of the lonely. And, listening to Buckingham’s distant pealing slide guitar and Fleetwood’s ticking-clock drums, it’s hard to think of a lonelier lonely than the one that you feel when you’re mourning the opportunities lost after the death of a relationship. The sparse, drifting arrangement only adds to the melancholia. Nicks’ wheezy voice is at once taunting and reassuring when she concludes, “When the rain washes you clean… you’ll know”.
Buckingham’s perhaps deliberately obtuse “Never Going Back Again” serves as something of an interlude, his Appalachian steel-string once again touching on the unrest laid down in “Second Hand News”—given the song’s loose structure, it serves more as a cursory thought than any true exploration of feeling, but as such it’s an accurate representation of the shifting musings on the lessons you have and should have learned when you’re coming out the other side of a partnership. But before you’ve had too much time for introspection, the unmistakable piano/keyboard intro of “Don’t Stop” chimes in and drags you somewhere else again. It’s the first of Christine McVie’s songs on the album, and hints at a deeper understanding and sympathy for her failed relationship. “All I want is to see you smile / If it takes just a little while / I know you don’t believe that it’s true / I never meant any harm to you” is her peace offering, while that closing refrain of “Ooh / Don’t you look back” rings of hope for the future. Musically, it’s energised and exciting, the first time Buckingham really breaks out the axework on the album, and Christine’s catches of almost honky-tonk piano add to the driving rhythm. Immediately after, it’s Buckingham’s turn to break out, with the thunderous “Go Your Own Way”. In its petulant assertion for the lost lover to “go your own way”, it’s lyrics could almost be the musical equivalent of those god awful ‘70s posters with sunsets and seagulls adorning their laminated largesse—but that role is reserved for Christine’s “Songbird”, the closing track on side one. Although on the surface “Songbird” seems cloyingly sweet, it’s in couplets like “And I wish you all the love in the world / But most of all, I wish it from myself” that McVie shines as a simple and affecting lyricist. Accompanied only by her piano and Buckingham’s horizontal steel-string, what could have been a saccharine Carole King lament is remarkably restrained and all the more moving for it.
By this stage you might want a cup of tea, or maybe a stiff drink. Some would argue that, apart from “Songbird”, it’s been easy sailing so far, but that would be missing the point. One of the things that’s so impressive about Rumours is how it manages to avoid sentimentalism or mawkishness while still retaining an emotional might (largely lyrically) its contemporaries struggled to achieve through songs syrupier and more maudlin. Side two, though, is arguably the darker companion piece to side one’s upbeat optimism.
Leading track, “The Chain”, is the sole song on the album to be written by all the band members (though some believe it is a Nicks composition with elaborations from the rest of the gang). It’s the most openly despairing song on the album, with its highway-duty stomping beat, Cooder-esque mandolin, steel-string and cutting lyrics; “If you don’t love me now / You will never love me again”. But perhaps the most shocking phrase is, “Damn your love / Damn your lies”. What brings a relationship to the point where love is something to be damned? It’s one of the sole harsh moments on Rumours where the tension beneath the civility shows through; it’s hard not to be momentarily taken aback. It’s over soon enough, and another of Fleetwood’s expertly restrained drum intros heralds the sublimely mellow “You Make Loving Fun”, Christine’s commercially ethereal song of hope. Along with “Never Going Back Again”, it’s probably the most inconsequential songs on the album—lyrically as well as musically—and more of an interlude or mood piece than another sketch.
But really, Fleetwood Mac could have recorded white noise and dogs’ barking for ten tracks as long as they’d still included “I Don’t Want To Know”, one of the most perfect pop songs ever committed to tape. A Stevie song, sung in duet with Buckingham, it’s a shimmering confection of ringing electric guitar over almost West African-sounding steel-string, with Fleetwood’s booming kick drum and the whole-band hand-claps punctuating the blissful din, while Buckingham’s Byrds-esque outro solo is a joy to behold; “The Chain” might have been written by the entire band, but “I Don’t Want To Know” is where they really come together as one almighty whole. Why the song was never a world-beating hit is completely beyond me.
There’s really nowhere to go from there but down, unfortunately, with both the chanteuses providing one last heartbreaker before the end of side two. First is Christine’s “Oh Daddy”, a ponderous lament, and finally Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman”. “Gold Dust…” is the more successful track, a droning valley song that escalates into a full-scale Apache holler. And as Stevie yowls “pick up the pieces and go home”, that’s more or less what the band did. They tied up the loose ends, polished the recordings and presented the fruits of their labour to the world.
It’s no secret that Rumours is a classic and a phenomenon unto itself. It was one of the first records to be certified Diamond status, and as the Recording Industry Association of America said upon the ’99 announcement of the recipients, “The impact of these titles goes far beyond sheer sales; indeed, Diamond titles are cultural touchstones of our times. These are the albums that managed to unite the increasingly fragmented pop audience and support the adage that music forms the soundtrack of our lives”. Among the other inductees were The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Led Zep’s IV, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, to name a few. It was proof that good choons alone did not guarantee greatness (in a critical/commercial sense, at least) and that the listening public felt the need to connect with their records. Even though the recording process was fraught and it didn’t do their crumbling relationships any good to push through such a painful creative process, the fact that Fleetwood Mac allowed the listener to share in their very personal business like a trusted confidante made Rumours all the more powerful.
It quickly became one of my favourite albums of all time, a work of musical genius and lyrical beauty as much as it is a great driving record and a great vacuuming album. I discovered it at just the right time, many of its tracks making their way onto hopelessly desperate break-up/make-up mix-tapes in the hope that the other person would somehow get it they way I had; sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it will always remain a treasured friend, advice column and inspiration all in one.
Oh yeah, and I’m 21 now and I still don’t understand peoples’ aversion to Fleetwood Mac—but maybe they’re just not ready for it. Hopefully, for them, their time will come.
By: Clem Bastow
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