Rumours at 40:
The Facts and the Friction
THOSE who say “time really flies” have no idea how true that is…
in the world of music. I often look at albums and songs I adored growing up and cannot believe how long ago that is – or how old I am! Music seems to operate in some sort of weird time warp or on a different calendar. I remember listening to Rumours as a child and following it through my 20s and 30s. It is an album that was blighted by drama – Christine McVie defined the recording sessions as nothing but drama and arguments – and it is a surprise it got made at all. Given the band’s two couples – Christine McVie and her husband John; Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – were embroiled in fights and conflict would have been enough to derail any recording process. As it was, the album WAS made and stands as one of history’s greatest. Before looking at the background and its songs; Steve Nicks wrote Dreams in Sly Stone’s bed whilst credits his dyslexia for Go Your Own Way’s unusual drumming rhythm – there are a lot of other little-known facts you might not know about Rumours. Lindsey Buckingham’s sonic perfectionism meant his guitar was restrung every twenty minutes during Never Going Back Again; The Chain – the legendary epic and only song credited to all five band members – has Christine McVie’s song Keep Me There is at the core and was the foundations – before other members of the band piled in and added their ideas to the song. John McVie’s ten-note bass passage tees the song whilst Fleetwood’s impassioned percussion gives it its drive and fervency. Aside from the music-related tidbits, the infamous extra-marital affairs threatened to split Fleetwood Mac for good. Not only did some of the songs blatantly put these affairs at their heart – Christine McVie’s You Make Loving Fun about the lighting technician she was in a relationship with; Lindsey Buckingham’s Go Your Own Way – a kiss-off and screw-you to Stevie Nicks. Nick’s Dreams – perhaps the centrepiece and most astonishing song on the album – struggled to get made and studio time was hard to come by as Buckingham’s iron first ruled the production.
The fact it did get made (with doubts from the band and a lack of enthusiasm) gives Rumours pristine beauty and haunting etherealness – plenty of hopefulness and intricate beauty. Affairs and cocaine were as prevalent and in-demand as was musical impetus and dedication to the music. We all know about the splits, rifts and Mick – quite often the fifth wheel who had to ensure the coldness and immense friction; although his marriage was on the rocks and he had an affair with Nicks around this time. Even before the album started recording, there were problems and press intrusion. Inaccurate reporting and inflamed hyperbole – Buckingham and Nicks rumoured to be parents of Fleetwood’s daughter, Lucy after they were pictured with her – was intransigent and scandalous at the very least. In spite of this, with speculations the original band members would return to the fold, the band came into the studio with plenty of stigma in their blood. Keith Olsen was fired as producer – who put percussion and rhythm low in the mix – and the McVies formed Seedy Management: a company that put the band’s interest first and ensured recording sessions would begin on a good footing (sound-wise at least). Soon enough Buckingham stepped in and took control of the recording sessions. He wanted to make a ‘Pop’ album which was at odds with other members of the band – who came from a Blues-Rock background and favoured a looser and less disciplined style of recording. Buckingham’s discipline, vision and ultra-precise methodology and studio set-up were unique and inspired. Buckingham and McVie crafted the guitar-and-piano combinations together whilst John McVie played his bass facing Mick Fleetwood’s drums. Buckingham’s configurations and dynamics meant the band members were focused: instruments arranged to create the best sound, and in a way, ensure the warring band members were not (physically) too close to one another.
Recording at Record Plant, there was not a lot of after-recording socialising. Cocaine binges and frosty relationships meant the individual members were isolated throughout much of Rumours and lead to sleepless nights. If The Beatles breakdown and fall-out created one average album (Let It Be) and a Abbey Road’s genius relief – know this would be the last time they recorded together – Rumours’ music was astonishingly focused and inspiring in spite of all the problems. Critics do not rate the album a work of genius in order to pander to trouble musicians and emphasise with their demons: they do so because the music is consistently brilliant. If you did not know about Fleetwood Mac’s backstory in 1977, you would assume Rumours was the product of a happy and together band in inspired form. Aside from The Chain – all members coming together in an anthem for unity and holding on – the remaining tracks were written alone by songwriters Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. If Nicks’ Dreams seems like a message to keep focused and do not give in – it has a breakup and heartbreak at its centre. The members of Fleetwood Mac were oblivious to the true nature of their (wracked and pain-stricken) songs until hindsight provided clarity. Perhaps mired in stress and fear; the full truth and meaning of the music was revealed and apparent after release. Try and make an album like Rumours today and it would simply not work. For a start, musicians are not as enigmatic and fascinating as the American-British alliance. Tabloidisation and stamped-out predictability has rendered character and obsolete – there are certainly no inter-gender bands like them that could pull off such a recording feat in the face of impossible odds. Despite Nicks’ hostility towards Buckingham – or his towards her more accurately – he still had a knack of making Nicks' songs sumptuous and beautiful (credit to their creator for bringing them to Buckingham already gorgeous and fertile). Yes, there was enormous self-indulge and excess during recording that threatened to mire productivity.
The open-ended budget meant late-night parties would last to the wee hours and sleep was an elusive construct. The band would finish drinking and snorting, being in a desperate, zombie-like state, and get straight down to recording. It became apparent the most productive results occurred under these conditions – perhaps the band numbing their peripheral senses and full acuity helped from a musical standpoint. Talk all you like about legend, folklore and technical specifications: it is the music, pure and simple, that is the child. You can talk about conception, parental rights and whatever: the final product is what matters and damned to the petty squabbles around it. The music is near-perfect. You talk about albums that are beyond criticism and should be preserved forever: Rumours is on a very elite list. Perhaps The Beatles and Led Zeppelin are the only other bands who could add their names to that list. Rumours was, given the civil wars and uncivillsed bitching, the most consistent and focused work of the band’s career. The follow-up – the double album, Tusk – contained filler and was too bloated but did have a solid amount of brilliance. Rumours was a make-or-break album that circumvents history and social protocol and is simply wonderful. The interplay between the three vocalists – Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham – is stunning and the affection between them heartwarming. They were, and still are, brothers and sisters. Even at their most tense and uncertain, the respect they had for one another as musicians outranked any personal beefs. Buckingham’s crisp, clean and assured production makes songs like Don’t Stop infectious, luminous and endlessly catchy.
Go Your Own Way is, in my view, the best song on the album and benefits from a truly astonishing vocal turn. The Chain is a remarkable compartmentalisation that is, ironically, the song of unification and brotherhood. It’s rumination and mixed D.N.A. shouldn’t work but sounds utterly natural and beguiling. Dreams is that somnambulistic and divine Nicks hymn; whilst McVie talked about Mick Fleetwood in Oh Daddy – ‘Big Daddy’ was the band’s nickname for the drummer – with Nicks providing the final line: “And I can't walk away from you, baby/If I tried”. Perhaps a shot (from McVie) at the direction Fleetwood was taking the band, or a subtle illusion to their impending affair (Nicks' line). Gold Dust Woman documents the struggles (Nicks) faced in L.A. – a harsh metropolis where stranger sneers are more common than affection and commonality. McVie came into her own as a writer and penned the hair-raising, transcendent Songbird – a little prayer from the keyboardist and a song about nobody and everyone. If the band’s two female writers were at their peak Lindsey Buckingham was stealing the limelight. Not only was his leadership and production a major factor in Rumours’ success but his bittersweet songs were scene-stealing. Go Your Own Way and Never Going Back Again are obvious in their derivation but, mythology and cynicism aside, are incredible works of music. Second Hand News is the acoustic opener that starts things off wonderful; Buckingham’s hand in The Chain cannot be understated. The songwriting credits – Buckingham had three solo credits from eleven; Nicks; McVie four – makes the album a democracy and collaborative thing (rather than one member taking all the attention).
There are few albums as enduring as mysterious as Rumours. It is a fascinating album in terms of its production and behind-the-scenes revelations but even more so from a musical perspective. The rumours and explosions might have salivated the mouths of the press but the band were keen to bridge the divided and come together to create a truly wonderful album. That is exactly what they did in 1976. When the album was released a year later, contemporary critics were raving. They noted how the music was directly propelled by inner-turmoils and romantic entanglements. As I said, most bands would be unable to separate life from art whereas Fleetwood Mac were all too aware of the reality of their situations but used it to create some of the finest music of the 1970s. It is radio-friendly and shiny; it has gloss and immaculate production but plenty of emotions and contradictions. The vocals, especially from Stevie Nicks, range from wailing and harrowed to sensual and alluring, whereas the compositions and song structures are immaculate. There is not a song immune from high praise and the album is an extraordinary testament to a group of musicians who found love and common ground in the middle of divorced relations and drug-filled chaos. The fact a butterfly emerged from a dystopian chrysalis is a story in its own right – why has nobody made a film/drama about Fleetwood Mac’s astonishing story?! Magazines, websites and music fans constantly place Rumours near the (or at) the top of their greatest albums polls. Musicians around the world have been inspired by the music and continue to source it forty years down the line. There are few albums as long-lasting and nuanced as Fleetwood Mac’s masterpiece. It is a wonderful record and one that began life rather auspiciously.
From its rocky birth, it was doubtful how Rumours would be received and where the band headed next. The fact they are still performing together today can be rooted back to 1976/’77. Music overrode everything and they knew, when recording the album, there was respect and affection in the camp – that unbreakable connection and professional admiration could never be broken. As The Chain states:
“And if, you don't love me now You will never love me again”.
The feuding couples might have taken their love elsewhere but the love the members had for the band shines on every song. Forty years from its release, we are still enthralled by the drama and hedonism of the recording sessions; the fascinating lyrics and story of three unique songwriters hitting their peak – a five-piece at their strongest when in the studio. On its big 4-0, go listen to Rumours and discover the one truth: this is an...
ALBUMi that will continue to influence and seduce for many more decades yet.