As Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” Returns to The Charts After Forty Years, Steve Crawford Revisits
By the time they found fame in America, Fleetwood Mac had been through more costume changes than Liberace at a weekend Drag Queen Biker Festival. The Mac formed in London in 1967 with guitarist Peter Green (a.k.a., “The Green God”) serving as the major creative force. Their first charting U.K. single was “Black Magic Woman,” a song now primarily associated with Santana. They topped the U.K. charts in 1969 with “Albatross,” a bluesy reworking of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” that presaged the Quaalude era. Then, they had Top Ten U.K. singles with the navel gazing “Man of the World,” the funky blues of the can’t-sing, ain’t-pretty, legs-are-thin “Oh Well,” and the acid inspired “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pong Crowned).”
Mick Fleetwood, summed up this era by declaring, “Fleetwood Mac never wanted to be pure blues like John Mayall, or rock like Hendrix or Cream. We were a funny, vulgar, drunken, vaudeville blues band at that time [1967–70], playing music as much to amuse ourselves as to please an audience.” Peter Green, who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, left the band due to some combination of having guilt about making so much dough and going bonkers after taking too much LSD at a German commune. We’ve all been there.
During the early 1970s, the band had a major shift with the departures of guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan and the additions of Christine McVie and Bob Welch. Welch caught a lot of stick in the late ‘70s for his slick, soft rock hits (“Sentimental Lady,” “Ebony Eyes”), but brought some fine psychedelic inspired blues rock to the table with “Hypnotized,” (later a solo hit for Welch) and “The City,” while Christine McVie starting writing in a mainstream pop vein with songs like “Why” and “Come a Little Closer.” Although there were fine albums in what we might call the McWelch era of Fleetwood Mac, commercially they were deader than week old possum roadkill at a vulture buffet. Welch exited stage left and musical/romantic partners Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the fold.
Reprise Records released the “Fleetwood Mac” album in 1975. While eponymous titles are generally used for debut albums, in a very real sense, Fleetwood Mac was a completely new band to the American mainstream audience and a very different one for anyone else who was paying attention. Fittingly, Christine McVie, who had been laboring in obscurity for years, penned two major singles – the soft rock “Over My Head” and the piano driven “Say You Love Me.” Nicks contributed the witchy woman rocker “Rhiannon” and the next generation standard “Landslide.” The album topped the charts and went multi-platinum. Like the Eagles and Elton John and Jefferson Starship, the band found the commercial sweet spot where they could be played on Top 40 and AOR stations, meaning they could sell both singles and albums. Their next album made them one of the biggest acts of the decade.
So, I’ve finally made it to the “Rumours” album and I can hear Iman Lababedi’s cheers of relief and applause! I’m supposed to mention up front that Fleetwood Mac were snorting mountains of cocaine during this timeframe. I have no idea how this impacted anything that was written or performed, but, hey, 1970’s – rock stars, cocaine, sex. Where do I sign up? Now, the sex part is more relevant. Fleetwood Mac always generated more soap opera content than a year’s worth of story lines on “Days of Our Lives.” At this point, Stevie Nicks had dumped Lindsey Buckingham. At the same time, Christine McVie was in the process of divorcing John McVie and had an affair member with a crew member in the process. Just to complete the circle of life, Nicks would later have an affair with Mick Fleetwood. This band could probably identify each other’s DNA strands on flash cards.
OK, you might be asking, but how does the music sound? Incredible. Really, really incredible.
Let’s hand out some props. First, the production is amazingly crisp. Listening to the album today, nothing sounds dated. This partially is due to the traditional instrumentation the band used, they weren’t chasing any trends. Secondly, that blues based rhythm section kept anything from sounding like, say, Firefall or Seals and Croft. Listen to how solid John McVie and Mick Fleetwood are on “Dreams.” You could build a skyscraper off that foundation. The discipline of the band is amazing – there are no ‘70s era wanker solos or unnecessary spotlight moments, every note played and sung serves the material, not the individuals. This was one tight band. Finally, the layered harmonies sound like the aural equivalent of chocolate cake icing.
In terms of songwriting – you get four pop classics from three different songwriters, three pleasant Buckingham ditties, three dead dogs, and one menacing band collaboration. From a sequencing perspective, the stuff you don’t want to hear (“Songbird,” “Oh Daddy,” and “Gold Dust Woman”) were placed at the end of each album side. I’m sure teenagers all over America knew when to pick up the stereo needle.
Lindsey Buckingham is particularly inspired throughout the album. Check out his white boy scatting on the jaunty, folkish opener “Second Hand News,” and his guitar hook on the Celtic inspired “Never Going Back Again,” and the vocal enthusiasm he brought to “I Don’t Want to Know.” This was a man taking full advantage of every opportunity he was given.
“Dreams” – A Stevie Nicks atmospheric #1 single about a mystical, spurned woman singing about a freedom wanting player who will be haunted when remembering what he had and what he lost. Take your medicine, Lindsey Buckingham!
“Don’t Stop” – A Christine McVie keep your chin up composition, sung by Lindsey that was surely developed to be a pounding, sing along, arm waving, beach ball swatting arena rock anthem. The intro with the swelling organ mimicking a synth sound and Mick Fleetwood’s pounding drums lifts you right out of your seat.
“Go Your Own Way” – The most forceful rocker on the album, with Buckingham expressing his disgust over a woman with the kiss off “Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do.” Lindsey had a nice trick of putting a soaring guitar moment on the outro of the song, ratcheting up the intensity, before saying goodbye. Lyrically, of course, take your medicine, Steve Nicks!
“You Make Loving Fun” – This song has the best clavinet hook in pop music history not written by Stevie Wonder. Christine McVie penned the lyrics about the man she was having an affair with. She told John McVie that it was about the family dog.
Honorable mention: “The Chain” has a dark country blues vibe and could have been a murder ballad in a different time.
The peaks on the “Rumours” album have everything anyone could want from a rock band – inspired songwriting, quality production, smart arrangements, and emotionally charged performances. In 2020, “Dreams” didn’t return to the Top 40 just because of a viral social media video, it’s resurgence is because the music still sounds fresh, vital, indispensable. Almost four and a half decades ago, Christine McVie sang, “Sweet, wonderful you/You make me happy with the things you do.” The pop music universe continues to feel the same way about the band.