Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Fleetwood Mac: Rumours

Rumours (1977) was Fleetwood Mac's world conquering AOR masterpiece, or something like it. The band went from one of the UK's best, and most purist blues bands, to naff MOR rock, to the pop rock titans of the late Seventies, releasing an album that held records, along Dark Side of the Moon and Eagles Greatest Hits, as one of the ultimate best sellers of the Seventies, and of all time.

As an example of how all pervasive the record became, is that even Radio Xhosa (as it then was) played "Go Your Own Way", the first hit single hit the album. Radio Xhosa did not play much rock music at all and it was a great wonder to me that they selected Fleetwood Mac to be their token rock act. In fact, I don't recall any other rock tune being played on the station in the period between 1979 and 1981 that I listened to it.

It took me a while to realise that "Go Your Own Way" was sung by a guy, Lindsay Buckingham, and the guitar sole it played out on was so freakily wonderful that I loved the song not only for the weird vocals but for this melodic yet driving guitar sound, and Lindsay Buckingham was also responsible for that.

A couple of other songs were pulled as singles and became big hits too, but none had that element of astonished surprise that "Go Your Own Way" gave me.

Back in 1977 and 1978 I was not the kind of music fan who would buy anything as commercially huge as Rumours. More to the point: I was far more interested in the music and story of the first version of Fleetwood Mac, with Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. I preferred Fleetwood Mac as a blues band to Fleetwood Mac as an AOR band.

In fact, when Rumours was released, I thought of this as almost a new band, then knowing very little about their history in the years between the demise of the blues oriented band and the ascension of the AOR monsters. I had not even taken notice of the release of Fleetwood Mac (1975), the breakthrough album that preceded Rumours.

In 1980 I did deign to buy Fleetwood Mac Live because I liked live albums that were also greatest hits albums, and this one was better than most. It is a splendid album and I would absolutely buy it on CD if I ever find it again.

My mate Emil Kolbe bought a Japanese copy of Rumours on one of his overseas trips as flight steward for South African Airways. He did his National Service stint straight after Matric and then joined SAA for a couple of years, saw the world and saved enough money to pay for his studies at the Film School at Pretoria Technikon. I started my law studies directly after Matric and deferred my National Service for 5 years, while I studied and built up a record collection.

Anyhow, Emil owned a copy of Rumours, (and also Heroes Are Hard To Find, from the early Seventies) that he stored at my flat for a couple of years and then kept in a box at home and finally gave to me when he got married and tossed out superfluous stuff. By that time the vinyl surfaces of both the long players were so full of static or scratches that both records were unplayable. I kept them with my other Fleetwood Mac records until I gave away the whole bunch in 2009.

All of my records were stored in boxes in a garage for about 3 years, since the time my wife and I bought the flat I'd been living in and moved in together. There was no longer any space for my record collection. As it was, even my much larger CD collection had to be packed away in wardrobes. Anyhow, over time water got into the garage and unfortunately the box with the Fleetwood Mac records was right in the way. When I picked up the various boxes with records to dispose of them, the Fleetwood Mac box fell apart and when I opened it up just about all of the albums inside had been ruined.

Fleetwood Mac Live and Tusk were amongst the ruined batch. They were the only examples of the Late Seventies output of the Mac that I owned. The great majority of the other records were all of the blues band Mac. The AOR Mac had a very limited appeal.

The big story about Fleetwood Mac circa 1977 was the resurrection of a British band that was almost moribund, though still coasting on the name en Sixties reputation, by 2 young Americans with a fresh new approach and a sex appeal that the Brits lacked. And in Lindsay Buckingham they found a genius songwriter, guitarist and producer that suddenly gave the band an edge again. Not to mention Stevie Nicks's fey post-hippie appeal and her strong song writing. With Fleetwood Mac and Rumours the band ascended to heights unimaginable in 1974 and put them alongside the other giants of the era, and they have not slipped from that position even if commercial success is no longer that stupendous.

The other thing, particularly around the making of Rumours, was the stories of the convoluted sexual and interpersonal relationship twists and turns within the band, principally the breakups between Buckingham and Nicks and between Christine and John Movie, which led to some inspired song writing and strange interactions in the studio; and the tales of drink and drugs consumed in the making of the album. The oft told tale is of how LA was "awash in a blizzard of coke" in the late Seventies and this probably means that the making of Rumours was no different, from the substance usage perspective, than any other major album from the era. Rock stars always did drugs and at that particular time and place rock stars, seemingly without exception, did a lot of coke.

The Fleetwood Mac of 1977 seemed very glamorous. The publicity shots showed the 2 women in long, semi gypsy dresses and boots and the guys wore satin and blue denim with white shirts. Back in the day rock stars dressed up and did their best to look different to the rest of us. Today bands mostly dress down in street styles that make them look just like the rest of us. A group photograph of a band could just as well be a group photograph of a bunch of work colleagues on casual Friday. The difference could also be that bands no longer want to be rock stars; bands want to be seen as musicians and as simple, regular folks.

Fleetwood Mac were anything but regular. There was the mop headed, handsome Lindsay Buckingham who like an entry in a Magic Dick (from J Geils Band) lookalike contest. Stevie Nicks was tiny, fey, and esoteric and far out glamorous; she gave new meaning to the title space cadet, or so it seemed. In her struggle days she cleaned houses to earn a living while Buckingham, then her lover, lived for music. Mick Fleetwood was the giant drummer, a man with two balls dangling on a rope between his legs. He looked almost twice Stevie Nicks's height. At one time he and Nicks were lovers. This must have made for interacting conjugations. Christine McVie was the much more down-to-earth English rose type who once played blues piano for the Mac (as Christine Perfect) and wrote plain, simple yet very affective love songs. John McVie was the bassist, a small guy, married Christine, was part of one of the best rhythm sections in blues or rock and preferred the simple pleasures of rock star life.

Together this group looked like a bunch of twee soft rock fashion plates, but they rocked on record and on stage and produced killer music. Not many bands get this kind of second chance and when it came Fleetwood Mac's way they grabbed it. It must have bemused Fleetwood and McVie to contrast their earlier success as rootsy bluesmen with their unbelievable success as glam rock stars who sold more records than just about anybody else. If I read the essay in the insert to the deluxe anniversary edition of the album (with second CD of out-takes and demos), Rumours has sold some 48 million copies worldwide since 1977. That is a lot of albums.


In 1977 Rumours was not exactly my cup of tea as an album. At the time my favourite bands were Dr Feelgood and Cream, I was just starting to build a collection of blues albums and my general take on rock music was that faster and louder ruled. I liked primitive sounding music that rocked. Synthesizers, the electric piano and the funky clavinet sounds then so popular on so many records, were my pet hates. In fact I avoided bands that had a keyboard player, although this was a tad silly. I loved rockin' boogie woogie piano, it was just the modish reliance on crappy keyboard styles I disliked intensely.

Even the phrase Adult Oriented Rock stuck in my craw. I was about 18 and did not understand how rock could speak to adults much less be aimed at them. And why did it have to sound differently and be more mature and staid than rock for the kids? The thing is that I am now 51 years old and still listen to rock, and though I am now more open to the tasteful use of synths I still absolutely hate the sounds of the Fender Rhodes electric piano so beloved of so many "anthemic" AOR bands, even today. I still prefer primitive, three chord rock to the music made through intellectual application to one's craft. Don't give me endlessly reworked sterility with ten chords, modulations, weird time signatures and crazy shifts in key. Do give me fuzz tone, three chords and a visceral attack to the gut and the feet. Of course there are exceptions but my basic tenet is: simpler is better.

Fleetwood Mac was no longer a blues band by the time they recorded Rumours. I would imagine that Buckingham and Nicks had absolutely no blues background. The other band members had moved away from it in any event when the band became the McVie's and Fleetwood plus guest guitarists, mostly American, and the musical strategy was to write and perform music that appealed to a middle class American audience with middle of the road tastes.

The most immediate impact on me was the sound of the solid, driving rhythm section, pushing the music forward at a deliberate pace. It was not flashy or showy, just a pulse that anchored the keyboards and guitar and melodies. It was not funk but to my mind Fleetwood Mac had the closest to a funk power rhythm that any band of that era ever had. Not only did the bass and drums add power to the performances, they also mitigated the AOR stuff on top. This is a formula that Bonnie Raitt adopted some years later when she made achieved her breakout to stardom.

Once you've absorbed the pulse, you start noticing the musical colouring added by the layering of other instruments. Although Lindsay Buckingham is a superb guitarist the Mac was not a guitar band; Christine McVie could tickle the ivories with the best of them but the Mac was not a keyboard band either. At worst one could say that Buckingham emphasised guitar in his tunes and Christine underpinned her songs with her keyboards.

Stevie Nicks combined these elements for her songs. It seemed she wanted filigree and solidity all at once in the same song, depending on the mood of the lyrics.

"Go Your Own Way" was my immediate favourite even though I was confused over the gender of the singer, as it is a motoring slow burning rocker with a killer guitar coda. Along with "Hotel California" , "More Than A Feeling" and "Don't Fear The Reaper this tune epitomises late Seventies AOR and sold gold rock for me. These tracks should be in every Seventies masters of rock compilation just because each of the is a stunning blend of power rock and hook. Lindsay Buckingham also succeeded in writing a painful lyric that struck a chord with me and his high pitched vocal seemed so androgynous that the words could be the scream of anyone who's been hurt.

I do not quite know why "Dreams" was the really big hit off Rumours. Perhaps it was because the record was a hit and by the time "Dreams" was released the album was fast becoming an event in itself and the single was being played by radio stations that usually only play hits and was being bought by an audience that only bought hits. Of course, the success of this single must have driven album sales as well.

I quite liked "Dreams" as well, not so much because I thought of Stevie Nicks as sex on tiny legs, but because the tune was of a somewhat different stripe to the standard pop single of the time. It sounded like thinking aloud. It sounded like the musing of a wounded yet stronger and wiser creature. It appealed to the stunted romantic in me.

I did not like "Don't Stop" at all because this, in contrast to "Dreams", was much too straightforward and optimistic and almost boosterish. No wonder some American presidential candidate appropriated if for his campaign somewhere in the mid-Eighties. It took a couple of years, and probably the Fleetwood Mac Live album before I could appreciate that Christine McVie was a damn good songwriter. She was more rooted in common sense attitudes than the fey Stevie Nicks, and that is perhaps the difference between growing up in the UK in die Fifties and California.

I must admit that I think mostly of Stevie Nicks songs when I recall Fleetwood Mac's hits but on close examination many of the best songs actually came from Christine McVie.

Eva Cassidy made "Songbird" into a hit (posthumously?) and it was only when I studied the songwriter credits in the booklet to the deluxe re-issue of Rumours, that I saw McVie is the composer. Now, that is a standard that should be a nice little earner for Christine McVie for the rest of her life. Apart from Courtney Love's cover of "Gold Dust Woman" I cannot quite see that many of Stevie Nicks's songs will ever become standards. That is a very different level of song writing.

Listening to Rumours again after many years reaffirms to a degree why I did not like the record in the first place. The reason is that it does not truly rock hard enough for my tastes. Back then I thought it kind of sucked, except for "Go Your Own Way" and perhaps "Dreams", precisely because the production sounded too pristine and immaculate and smoothed out too many edges and smothered whatever rock attack there had been. Not that Fleetwood Mac sounded much like a rock band to me. They had become just a superior rock band, a soft rock band at that. My tastes have probably become more sophisticated over the intervening years and I have become more tolerant of music that I once considered beyond the pale, but it is still difficult for me to love Rumours in any unconditional way. It is not visceral enough. It is too slick. It seems to pander too much to a mass audience. I expect that the latter belief is mostly ex post fact. No doubt the band never expected the almost unimaginable success they would have with this album.

I will probably always prefer the blues Fleetwood Mac to the super successful Fleetwood Mac because the blues band is rawer and to my mind more powerful than the AOR of the later version but I will give kudos to the 3 Brits and 2 Americans who recorded Rumours for producing a record that must have struck a huge chord with the popular audience. Not everyone can do that. I guess Hootie & The Blowfish, with Cracked Rear View, can claim something similar, but none of the individual members of Hootie (hell, apart from Darius Rucker, who were they?) ever had the same iconic solo careers of Lindsay Buckingham or Stevie Nicks and the band itself had no glamour, were not rock royalty or even rock Euro trash. Hootie represents worthy journeyman rock that got incredibly lucky and without the talent or obsessive drive to get that lucky again. Fleetwood Mac were big as a blues band, big as an AOR band and gave us big individual stars. The Stevie Nicks or Lindsay Buckingham solo albums are absolutely worthwhile owning (and I did own a few in pre-CD formats) and so are Tusk (which I actually rate far higher than Rumours as a coherent body of work) and Fleetwood Live. As I do not know any of the later albums at all, I cannot comment on them.

Tusk received a bit of a critical drubbing on releases, perhaps because it was too different and too sprawling compare to the succinct and compact Rumours, but I liked it immediately and still prefer it to Rumours. On Tusk the rockier tracks rock harder and weirder than ever and Christine McVie hits a really consistent high in sustained quality of song writing and Stevie Nicks's songs are truly spellbinding and moving. It seems that Tusk took a lot longer to get together than Rumours did, probably because the band had more money to spend on studio time, they had the monster of Rumours to follow and may have been scared shitless at the prospect and wanted to delay the follow0up as long as possible and Lindsay Buckingham apparently decided he now had the licence and incentive to go as crazy as he could with his songs and his production. For my money Tusk should also have been the giant commercial success that Rumours is, and it should absolutely be regarded as on creative par with its 2 predecessors.

The thing is that Fleetwood Mac probably played it fairly safe on Rumours, making a follow up to Fleetwood Mac and not attempting to break new ground. Fortunately the song writers had the topic of dysfunctional relationships and terrible break-ups as source material and could fashion some very memorable tunes from that source material, but just as some actors win Oscars not for their best performance but more as a consolation prize for being previously overlooked, I think that the success of Rumours had more to do with being at the right place at the right time, and making the most of a situation, an image and a couple of really great songs, than with the intrinsic value of the album as a whole. Obviously the humongous success colours the way one sees the album but I believe that a lot of that reverence has been generated because of the huge success. That success is seen as being a signifier of worth in an ex post facto argument.

Rumours is pleasant enough to listen to but hardly compelling listening if one ignores the back story. It is one of those albums where one can understand that the non-threatening, non-edgy style of music combined with a handful of hit singles was what made the package attractive to so many people all over the world. It is superior pop and often superior pop is best experienced in compilations where there is no let up in the endless series of hits. When almost-filler is on the same record as the hits, the hits shine brighter on the one hand yet on the other hand also cannot lift the whole into a different space altogether.

This is what Rumours is: technically highly proficient, musically polished, thematically coherent, conceptually incisive, and still viscerally lacking.