10/10 – BEST NEW REISSUE
Fleetwood Mac Rumours
Rhino / Warner Bros.; 1977/2013
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours would never be just an album. Upon its release in 1977, it became the fastest-selling LP of all time, moving 800,000 copies per week at its height, and its success made Fleetwood Mac a cultural phenomenon. The million-dollar record that took a year and untold grams to complete became a totem of 1970s excess, rock’n’roll at its most gloriously indulgent. It was also a bellwether of glimmering Californian possibility, the permissiveness and entitlement of the 70s done up in heavy harmonies. By the time it was made, the personal freedoms endowed by the social upheaval of the 60s had unspooled into unfettered hedonism. As such, it plays like a reaping: a finely polished post-hippie fallout, unaware that the twilight hour of the free love era was fixing and there would be no going back. In 1976, there was no knowledge of AIDS, Reagan had just left the governor’s manse, and people still thought of cocaine as non-addictive and strictly recreational. Rumours is a product of that moment and it serves as a yardstick by which we measure just how 70s the 70s were.
And then there’s the album’s influence. Though it was seen as punk’s very inverse, Rumours has enjoyed a long trickle-down of influence starting from the alt-rock-era embrace via Billy Corgan and Courtney Love to the harmonies and choogling of Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the earthier end of Beach House. Rumours set a template for pop with a gleaming surface that has something complicated, desperate, and dark resonating underneath.
Setting aside the weight of history, listening to Rumours is an easy pleasure. Records with singles that never go away tend to evoke nostalgia for the time when the music soundtracked your life; in this case, you could’ve never owned a copy of it and still know almost every song. When you make an album this big, your craft is, by default, accessibility. But this wasn’t generic pabulum. It was personal. Anyone could find a piece of themselves within these songs of love and loss.
Two years prior to recording Rumours, though, Fleetwood Mac was approximately nowhere. In order to re-establish the group’s flagging stateside reputation, in early 1974 Fleetwood Mac’s drummer and band patriarch, Mick Fleetwood, keyboardist/singer Christine McVie, and her husband, bassist John McVie, moved from England to Los Angeles. The quartet was then helmed by their fifth and least-dazzling guitarist, the American Bob Welch. Not long after the band’s British faction had relocated, Welch quit the band. Around the same time Mick Fleetwood was introduced to the work of local duo, Buckingham Nicks, who’d just been dropped by Polydor. The drummer was enchanted by Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar work and Nicks’ complete package, and when Welch quit, he offered them a spot in the band outright.
The group, essentially a new band under an old name, quickly cut 1975’s self-titled Fleetwood Mac, an assemblage of Christine McVie’s songs and tracks Buckingham and Nicks had intended for their second album, including the eventual smash “Rhiannon.” It was a huge seller in its own right and they were now a priority act given considerable resources. But by the time they booked two months at Record Plant in Sausalito to record the follow-up, the band’s personal bonds were frayed, there was serious resentment and constant drama. Nicks had just broken up with Buckingham after six years of domestic and creative partnership. Fleetwood’s wife was divorcing him, and the McVies were separated and no longer speaking.
While Fleetwood Mac was a bit of a mash-up of existing work, Lindsey Buckingham effectively commandeered the band for Rumours, giving their sound a radio-ready facelift. He redirected John McVie and Fleetwood’s playing from blues past towards the pop now. Fleetwood Mac wanted hits and gave the wheel to Buckingham, a deft craftsman with a vision for what the album had to become.
He opens the record with the libidinous “Second Hand News,” inspired by the redemption Buckingham was finding in new women, post-Stevie. It was the album’s first single and also perhaps the most euphoric ode to rebound chicks ever written. Buckingham’s “bow-bow-bow-doot-doo-diddley-doot” is corny, but it works along with the percussion track (Buckingham played the seat of an office chair after Fleetwood was unable to properly replicate a beat a la the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’”). Like “Second Hand News,” Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” is upbeat but totally fuck-you. He croons “shackin’ up is all you wanna do,”—accusing an ex-lover of being a wanton slut on a song where his ex-lover harmonizes on the hook. Save for “Never Going Back Again,” (a vintage Buckingham Nicks composition brought in to replace Stevie’s too-long “Silver Springs”) Buckingham’s songs are turnabout as fairplay with lithe guitar glissando on top.
“Second Hand News” is followed by a twist-of-the-knife Stevie-showpiece, “Dreams,” a gauzy ballad about what she’d had and what she’d lost with Buckingham. It was written during one of the days where Nicks wasn’t needed for tracking. She wrote the song in a few minutes, recorded it onto a cassette, and returned to the studio and demanded the band listen to it. It was a simple ballad that would be finessed into the album’s jewel; the quiet vamp laced with laconic Leslie-speaker vibrato and spooky warmth allow Nicks to draw an exquisite sketch of loneliness. “Dreams” would become Fleetwood Mac’s only #1 hit.
Though Fleetwood Mac was always the sum of its parts, Nicks was something special both in terms of the band and in rock history. She helped establish a feminine vernacular that was (still) in league with the cock rock of the 70s but didn’t present as a diametric vulnerability; it was not innocent. While Janis Joplin and Grace Slick had been rock’s most iconic heroines at the tail-end of the 60s, they were very much trying to keep up with boys in their world; Nicks was creating a new space. And Fleetwood Mac was still very much an anomaly, unique in being a rock band fronted by two women who were writing their own material, with Nicks presenting as the girliest bad girl rock’n’roll had seen since Ronnie Spector. She took the stage baring a tambourine festooned with lengths of lavender ribbon; people said she was a witch.
Like her male rock’n’roll peers, Nicks sang songs about the intractable power of a woman (her first hit, “Rhiannon”) and used women as a metaphor (“Gold Dust Woman”), but her approach was different. At the time of Rumours’ release, she maintained that the latter song was about groupies who would scowl at her and Christine but light up when the guys appeared. She later confessed that it was about cocaine getting the best of her. In 1976, coke was the mise of the scene—to admit you were growing weary would have been gauche. Nicks’ husky voice made it sound like she’d lived and her lyrics—of pathos, independence, and getting played—certainly backed it up. She seemed like a real woman—easy to identify with, but with mystery and a natural glamour worth aspiring to.
It’s almost easy to miss Christine McVie for all of Nicks’ mystique. McVie had been in the band for years, but never at the helm. Her songs “You Make Lovin’ Fun” and “Don’t Stop” are pure pep. “Songbird” starts as a plaintive ode of fealty and how total her devotion—until the sad tell of “And I wish you all the love in the world/ But most of all I wish it from myself,” (an especially heart-wrenching line given that McVie’s not quite ex-husband was dragging a rebound model chick to the sessions and Christine was sneaking around with a member of the crew). She didn’t hate her husband, she adored him, she wished it could work but after years of being in the Mac together, she knew better. Throughout, McVie’s songwriting is pure and direct, irrepressibly sweet. “Oh Daddy,” a song she wrote about Mick Fleetwood’s pending divorce is melancholy but ultimately maintains its dignity. McVie, with typical British reserve, confessed she preferred to leave the bleakness and poesy to her dear friend Stevie.
As much feminine energy as Rumours wields, the album’s magic is in its balance: male and female, British blues versus American rock’n’roll, lightness and dark, love and disgust, sorrow and elation, ballads and anthems, McVie’s sweetness against Nicks’ grit. They were a democratic band where each player raised the stakes of the whole. The addition of Buckingham and Nicks and McVie’s new prominence kicked John McVie’s bass playing loose from its blues mooring and forced him towards simpler, more buoyant pop. Fleetwood’s playing itself is just godhead, with effortless little fills, light but thunderous, and his placement impeccable throughout. The ominous, insistent kick on the first half on “The Chain”, for example, colors the song as much as the quiver of disgust in Buckingham’s voice when he spits “never.”
In the liner notes to the deluxe Rumours 4xCD/DVD/LP box set, Buckingham describes the album-making process as “organic.” Rumours is anything but, and that is part of its genius—it’s so flawless it feels far from nature. It is more like a peak human feat of Olympic-level studio craft. It was made better by its myopia and brutal circumstances: the wounded pride of a recently dumped Buckingham, the new hit of “Rhiannon”, goading Nicks to fight for inclusion of her own songs, Christine McVie attempting to salve her heart with “Songbird.” That Fleetwood Mac had become the biggest record Warner Bros. had ever released while the band was making Rumours allowed for an impossibly long tether for them to dick around and correct the next album until it was immaculate.
Given the standalone nature of Rumours, it’s difficult to argue that any other part of the box set is necessary. The live recordings of the Rumours tour are fine, lively even (perhaps owing to Fleetwood rationing a Heineken cap of coke to each band member to power performances). Only a handful of tracks on the two discs of the sessions outtakes lend any greater understanding of the process behind it. One is “Dreams (Take 2)”, which is just Nicks voice, some burbling organ, and rough rhythm guitar gives an appreciation of her fundamental talent as well as Buckingham’s ability to transform it; it makes the case for how much they needed each other. Another is “Second Hand News (Early Take),” which features Buckingham mumbling lyrics so as not to incense Nicks. The alternate mixes and takes (more phaser! Less Dobro! Take 22!), by the time you make it to disc four, just underscore the fact that Rumours did not hatch as a pristine whole. One does not need three variously funky articulations of Christine’s burning “Keep Me There” to comprehend this.
Nevertheless, it is difficult not to buy into the mythology of Rumours both as an album and pop culture artifact: a flawless record pulled from the wreckage of real lives. As one of classic rock’s foundational albums, it holds up better than any other commercial smash of that ilk (Hotel California, certainly). We can now use it as a kind of nostalgic benchmark—that they don’t make groups like that anymore, that there is no rock band so palatable that it could be the best-selling album in the U.S. for 31 weeks. Things work differently now. Examined from that angle, Rumours was not exactly a game changer, it was merely perfect.
Jessica Hopper / Pitchfork / Friday, February 8, 2013