We look back at Fleetwood Mac’s seminal album and assess its enduring appeal as the group is set to tour in 2015, including a headline slot at the Isle of Wight festival.
Any music collector remembers the time they first heard a song that led to an album purchase that still gives value for money decades later. I recall, with complete clarity, Bob Harris as he presented the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test introducing the first play of ‘The Chain’. The next day, Rumours was released, I was in my local record shop buying the album – it remains one of the most played albums I own.
Back in the 1970s, before the advent of the internet, album purchases were an event. You bought your album, took it home, took it out of its sleeve, put it on the turntable, and sat and paid attention as it played. There was never the notion of doing anything else but listening and absorbing the music, and music was made with that attitude in mind. I played ‘The Chain’ over and over again, captivated by the sound of Stevie Nicks’ voice and the guitar interplay that Lindsey Buckingham used to enhance its ethereal appeal. From there, I moved onto ‘Gold Dust Woman’, with a similar structure of multi-tracked acoustic guitar, sparse percussion, minor chords, and that haunting voice. Another story of a broken heart delivered with that Fleetwood Mac trademark of authenticity – this was music made by people who knew of what they sang and played. And know it they did, all of them, with recent and raw experiences of heartbreak, betrayal and loss. The problem for the band was not that they brought their external traumas into the studio and wrote and sang about them surrounded by the unique comfort and support that a band atmosphere offers. The opposite applied – the band were each other’s heartbreakers, betrayers, life-shatterers, and as Christine McVie memorably pointed out at the time: ‘Most people go to work for a rest from the pressure and strain of a breakup, we went to work with the people who were causing ours, and our work was to sing and play about it all day every day.
This is the thread that runs through Rumours – it is that in-built sense of naked emotion that runs through the singing and playing that reaches out to generations of music fans. It’s that timeless feel for love and loss that makes Rumours one of the greatest albums about romance and loneliness that has ever been made. Its success made Fleetwood Mac a cultural phenomenon.
A lot of people imagine that when Fleetwood Mac were sinking slowly to the bottom of their commercial career in the early 1970s that the Californian duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks arrived, saved the band, recorded Rumours, and the rest is history. The truth is somewhat different.
In terms of career trauma, Fleetwood Mac had already endured enough for several bands – starting with the loss of their founder guitarist, the brilliant Peter Green who was lost to the tragedy of prolonged mental illness following a bad acid trip. Guitarist Danny Kirwan, who actually played all the guitar parts on the band’s hit single ‘Albatross’ was lost to alcoholism, and periods of homelessness, present whereabouts unknown. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer left the band’s hotel to buy cigarettes, while they were on an American tour and never returned. He was recruited on a street near the band’s hotel into The Children Of God – a religious sect, where he remains to this day, perfectly happy and contented away from professional music. It’s testament to the ongoing bottomless tenacity of founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie that the band never gave up hope.
The famed Californian sound of Fleetwood Mac actually began with the inclusion of guitarist Bob Welch who joined the band in 1971, and it was at his urging in1974 that Mick Fleetwood and the bass and keyboards husband and wife John and Christine McVie relocated to Los Angeles to try to resurrect their fading band’s career. Welch is under-credited for his part in moving the band on, not only physically but also musically to California. He left the band in 1974 and eventually enjoyed a successful solo career before adding to the Fleetwood Mac hall of tragedy by committing suicide in June last year.
Seeking a studio to record the band’s next album, Fleetwood travelled to Sound City and heard a demo from Buckingham and Nicks, an American duo that were recording in the studio next door. Such are the coincidences that meet together and lead to massive changes in lives and careers – Fleetwood was played the songs simply to demonstrate the studio facilities, but something about the sound intrigued him. When guitarist Welch quit the band at the end of the next tour, the remaining band members decided to try out Lindsey Buckingham as their new guitarist. Buckingham insisted he and Nicks were a package, and the duo were duly signed. The eponymous tenth album for Fleetwood Mac turned them from a struggling British blues band into a fully-fledged AOR pop-rock band with platinum status and an eight-figure bank balance to go along. The band had everything going for them; it finally looked as though all their problems and heartaches were over. If only…
If the musical career of Fleetwood Mac had suddenly cruised into the commercial fast lane, the personal relationships within the band began to hit the emotional buffers, starting with the McVie’s, and moving through the band like some sort of bizarre domino effect which left no one untouched. As sessions for the follow-up to the Fleetwood Mac album got under way, the emotional unravelling of the band’s members continued, with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks coming apart as a couple soon afterwards, and finally Mick Fleetwood’s marriage already rocked by his wife’s affair with former band member Bob Weston, also ended. Five people, including two couples, were all trying to make a record about love and breakup, while each of them endured the end of their own personal relationship. It sounds like a bad soap opera, but Fleetwood Mac endured the daily trauma of living and working with individuals who were rapidly coming to hate the sight of each other. Matters were not helped by the laissez-faire attitude of the record label and studio personnel which meant those studio sessions were open-ended time wise, and cocaine was limitless and freely available to anyone who felt the need of an emotional escape – which in this case meant everyone in the band.
After 3,000 hours of recordings, and the virtual, emotional and physical collapse of the entire band, the album was finished, and released in January 1977. It has since sold over 40 million copies, making it one of the top 10 best selling albums ever made – and one of the only albums whose genuine quality and groundbreaking songwriting make it worthy of its sales. In terms of influence, Fleetwood Mac, and in particular guitarist Lindsey Buckingham have gone on to directly affect the styles and writing of millions of guitarists and songwriters, a great many of whom find their way into the pages of this magazine. The miracle is not just what a wonderful album Rumours is, it’s that the band survived intact, and the individuals managed not to kill themselves with alcohol, cocaine and sheer overwork. Many bands would have crumbled and dissolved at any of the disparate stages in the saga of Fleetwood Mac, but as millions of fans know, this is not just any band.
When I last spoke to Lindsey Buckingham about the future of Fleetwood Mac, he told me that his own personal ambitions for the band were to see out perhaps the next 10 years, and that was five years ago. True to his ambition – Fleetwood Mac reconvened in February 2013 for rehearsals leading to a world tour. Gossip abounded that they’d headline Glastonbury, but at the time of writing, that’s not happened. They have a world tour planned for 2015, with a headline slot at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Although all the band are in their sixties now, the vigour and pleasure they bring to their live shows remains undiminished, and the realisation that the band itself, and the music they have made is greater than the fights and feuds that they endured making it. So be sure to see a genuine musical legend perform live for what may be the final time, and if you are not one of the 40 million people who own a copy of Rumours, now is the time to find out why so many people do. If you have ever loved and lost, you will find songs that speak to you from the musicians who know exactly how it feels and who put their lives into their work forever.
A final thought… I remember in the late 70s watching Fleetwood Mac play a stadium show, and punk icons The Clash playing my local town hall concert room, both within two days of each other. I was memorably amazed by the differences between them. One band was soft and flabby, going through the motions though their hearts were obviously no longer in what they were doing. The other was vibrant and energetic; the live versions of their songs being so left-field of the album tracks that it took a while to figure out what song they were actually playing. One band looked honestly bored and unenthusiastic, the other put so much fire and passion into their most inflammatory song that the guitarist broke a string, but simply carried on to the end of the song. In case it’s not apparent which band is which, only one of them will be touring in 2015. Having sold over 100 million records, Fleetwood Mac is one of the best selling bands of all time.