Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, this intense, intimate, engaging miracle that we often take for granted, turns 40 this week.
It’s important that we separate this stellar achievement from the ludicrous time in which it was made.
Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s—or rather, when the mid-ish 1970s became the late-ish 1970s, that un-shining time when the freakish, frantic optimism of the Bicentennial cracked into the blackouts and Bowery-trash fires of 1977—may be too quick to file away Rumours with the other gargantuan leviathans of the Jimmy Carter/Ohmygod-Cheap Trick-is-on Midnight Special-era, i.e., do we just throw it all in a bin with the first Boston album, Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell, Frampton Comes Alive, or Hotel California, and be done with it?
But Rumours isn’t having any of that. It is far better than that.
Rumours may have a place in our 1970s experience, but the 1970s experience doesn’t tell us anything about Rumours.
Rumours is virtually nothing like any contemporary record, either mainstream or alternative.
How strange is that?
Rumours was Fleetwood Mac’s 11th studio album, released nearly a decade after Fleetwood Mac’s debut. How many bands attain that rare spot in the sweet and rapturous air of multi-platinum, record-breaking commercial Arcadia—much less achieve artistic transcendence!—on their 11th album? My God, it was their 11th studio album. Their fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth albums hadn’t even charted in the U.K. Only two and a half years prior to its release, the group had been considered so commercially invisible that their manager attempted to send imposters on the road in their place.
Yet Rumours is not only the ninth-best-selling album of all time, it is an adamantine artistic accomplishment that deserves to be mentioned when we discuss The Greatest Albums Of All Time—and it merits being removed from all the silly cultural confetti usually thrown in its direction, and should be examined with great, loving detail.[i]
Rumours is an old, sweet and complicated friend who gets more interesting every time you talk to them. Even when they tell you a story you have heard 88 times, you find some new details, some new angle, some new twist or emphasis you never noticed before.
But first, a few words about the fascinating story of Fleetwood Mac, and the road that led them to Rumours.
Circa 1974 there was no reason to think Fleetwood Mac’s commercial future would be any brighter than that of Savoy Brown, Renaissance, or Fairport Convention (to name three other credible and well-liked acts of English origin who could play medium and small/medium-sized venues in the States and place themselves on the mid-lower rungs of the U.S. charts). More confusingly, by 1974, the Mac had shuffled through a startling array of lineup changes and musical styles.
Between their formation in 1967 and 1970, Fleetwood Mac were an ass-tearing, incendiary blues and boogie band who pioneered some proto-metal tricks (they also had a penchant for both the ridiculous and, occasionally, the elegiac). A listener who was hearing early Mac for the first time might, not entirely inaccurately, lump them in with Gary Clark Jr., Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Cream.[ii]
For the sake of understanding where Rumours came from, our story really begins in 1970, when Danny Kirwan—originally a second guitarist and third vocalist—emerged as a co-leader of the band. Kirwan introduced an element of near-pastoral folk-pop into the mix, transforming Mac’s boogie churn into a platform for gentle and intense excursions into a sad blue pop.
Shortly thereafter, Christine Perfect, a buttermilk alto vocalist of almost aching sensitivity (and a keyboardist of great skill) joined the band, further supporting the transition of the “blues” Mac into a band with folk-pop and art-folk overtones (I covered some of this in a piece I wrote for the Observer in November of 2015 on Danny Kirwan; please pour yourself a Clamato and vodka and read it).[iii]
The initial foreshadowing of Mac’s mid-‘70s mega success can be found on the two Kirwan/Christine McVie-dominated Mac albums, Future Games (1971) and 1972’s Bare Trees.[iv] The difficult and fascinating Kirwan left Mac in late 1972.
American guitarist and vocalist Bob Welch joined the Mac in time for Future Games, and it’s easy—too easy—to identify this as an integral factor in the road to Rumours; I think this is a false flag. Some might say that gummy, tobacco-stained pop songs like “Sentimental Lady” (from 1972’s Bare Trees) preview Mac’s mega-gold future, but I think Welch’s sly, winking, pallid attempts at California snarl and FM bong-blues are an outlier in the Mac story. It is, in fact, Christine McVie’s simplicity and melodicism and the elegant sorrow of Danny Kirwan that anticipates Mac’s future as a gentle yet persuasive bittersweet macramé-and-satin pop machine.[v]
The first Fleetwood Mac album unquestionably recognizable as a “modern” Mac album is 1974’s Heroes Are Hard to Find. This is largely thanks to Christine McVie, whose material combines British post-folk wistfulness with an easily graspable rhythmic and chordal structure that recalls All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison.
McVie’s alluring and affecting contributions to Heroes show that the Rumours-era Mac was already fairly well articulated before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks even joined the band, and I don’t think she gets enough credit for this. The idea that Mac would be a band that mixed the simple, the soaring, the aching and the accomplished is very largely the gift of Christine McVie, and we see hints of this as early as 1970s Christine Perfect album.
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac at the very end of 1974, and their first album with the band, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, reached No. 1 (to date, the best performing Mac album in America had been Heroes, which reached No. 34).
I think it’s fair to say that Fleetwood Mac is clearly a beta version of Rumours. Rather dramatically, within the first second of Fleetwood Mac, we meet the clipped, hiccuping hyper pop of Lindsey Buckingham. Buckingham sounds like he’s Andy Partridge writing songs for the Cowsills, or maybe like some holy cross between David Byrne and Harry Nilsson; his opening salvo on Fleetwood Mac sounds almost alien, connected to a new wave future or to the sunny bubblegum of the Rubinoos or Paul Collins (though with that constant, peculiar overlay of an almost Orbison-esque Americana). Even over 41 years later, it still startles.
Although I find Buckingham’s songwriting contributions to Fleetwood Mac thin, his style, his presence, his aggressive and precisely syncopated guitar playing, and his simple but scientific leads are always nearby and pointing clearly to the (near) future.[vi]
And then there’s “Rhiannon.”
On track four of Fleetwood Mac, honey and opium have been poured over the future of the band in the form of this utterly compelling black light and Eve cigarette cat’s heartbeat of a song. In fact, the song itself had been dosed in opium and over-sweetened chamomile tea, since in its original form (performed live, but never recorded, by Buckingham and Nicks), “Rhiannon” was nearly twice the speed, had an almost Southern rock-ish twist, and Nicks’ seductive purr is replaced by an almost Joplin-esque howl.
This transition is very important to note, since it provides a clue about the core genius of the Fleetwood Mac/Rumours-era band: there is something about Fleetwood Mac (whether it’s the grace and glow of McVie, or the Bullet Train-clean pulse of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) that ropes and wrangles “Rhiannon,” and makes it dreamlike and nearly perfect.
Finally, we arrive at Rumours, released a year and a half after Fleetwood Mac.
One of the defining aspects of Rumours is claustrophobia. Sonic claustrophobia, that is. This, I believe, provides the context for all of its achievements.
The sounds on Rumours are tight, closeted, and largely lacking in ambience. This is virtually unique for a California-based mega-pop band of the 1970s (though more common to the punk records being made at this time in the U.K.).
Ambience—meaning, literal ambience, as in reverb, presence, and the listener’s awareness of the size of the room a band is performing in—is a vastly underrated and important quality. Ambience telegraphs a great deal to the listener about how they are involved in the experience. By creating this masterpiece of virtual non-ambience, on Rumours Fleetwood Mac makes the epic (those amazing arrangements, those amazing songs, those amazing performances) intimate and personal. It’s a very tough trick.
Each and every listener, even if they are listening to the album in a social setting or in a crowd, hears it as if it was a story being told just to them. Because of this, Rumours feels almost like a condensed epic, arranged within an inch of its life but never losing the small-electric ensemble feel.
This intimate ambience also provides a fascinating environment for Buckingham’s intensely orchestrated guitar parts, which are tucked so neatly into the mix that they do not display their feathers, except upon intense examination; discovering the depth and detail of Buckingham’s guitar work on Rumours is like an Easter Egg, or like taking out a magnifying glass and finding the Lord’s Prayer written on the side of a popsicle stick.
If this tight, intimate ambience provides the context for Rumours, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie provide the framework. I cannot stress this enough: For all the praise we can heap on Lindsey Buckingham and the shiny apples he puts in front of the listener, for all the admiration I can express for the warm, expressive genius of Christine McVie, for all the appreciation I have for Stevie Nicks’ sexy, horny voice and the lacy, blowsy cult that sprung up around her, I think that Fleetwood and John McVie are the reason Rumours is Rumours.
Taut, powerful, and utterly devoid of one single bar where they insist on the spotlight, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie’s performance on Rumours is, well, nearly perfect. Because Fleetwood largely eschews crash cymbals, often keeps the four beat on a tom, and plays a tightly screwed hi-hat, his drumming is often nearly invisible; but that just means he’s doing something very, very right. I can think of no English drummer, with the possible exception of session king Bobby Graham, who played with such a mixture of economy and power.[vii]
Bassist McVie, although certainly conscious of the chord changes, plays Fleetwood more than he plays Fleetwood Mac; which is to say he echoes, almost seamlessly, the steady, fat, flat kick drum, crisp snare, and heartbeat toms of Fleetwood’s playing. He underplays the chord changes, and plays exactly with and on top of Fleetwood. The rhythm section’s approach leaves a phenomenal amount of room for the guitars and the vocals to expand, emote, hum, harmonize, twinkle, and chug. Honestly, I think Fleetwood and John McVie’s performance on Rumours is one of the great album-length rhythm section performances in rock history, yet it never draws attention to itself.
Listen to the whole last quarter of “Don’t Stop.” At precisely the time when 99 percent of the drummers, dead or alive, would be trying to throw some variety, rolls, or time-tricky energy-boosting into the piece, Mick Fleetwood remains unwaveringly loyal and constant to the nearly motorik-like metronomic high hat/snare beat he has played through the entire song. Aside from Tommy Ramone, Klaus Dinger, or the aforementioned Graham, I don’t know of any other drummer who would have made this choice.
There is something about Lindsey Buckingham’s accomplishments on Rumours that defies easy description. Where does this gift come from, this ability to spin Harry Nilsson/Brian Wilson-level melody over “Farmer John” chords with Becker/Fagen precision (yet without ever dipping into Steely Dan’s jazzy pastel Capezios)? It’s virtually unique, almost as if Jeff Lynne was producing the Monkees, or Mutt Lange was producing the Association, or Phil Ramone was producing Captain Sensible (hey, that’s a good idea).
Who else, other than gorgeous oddities like Jason Faulkner, R. Stevie Moore or Sean O’Hagan, devote this much attention to getting the most sugary pop so very, very right, and then do it again and again?
As for Christine McVie, the captivating post-folk/pre-Kate Bush melodic melancholy of her presence (often, her blue, sugary woe reminds me of Nick Drake channeled by Hope Sandoval) provides the gorgeous lilting night-light to Buckingham’s proud, rumbling sun.
As for Stevie, well, she’s Stevie, ‘nuff said, and I am very fond of Stevie Nicks, but oddly, I would contend that she’s the most dispensable element to Rumours’ genius. She exists as a public face for this extremely well-tuned machine, but the gears function fine without her. Actually, I’m not sure Rumours contains a Stevie song half as good as “Rhiannon” or her extraordinary “Beautiful Child” on Tusk.
Rumours was a single, shining moment. With Tusk, the extraordinary ensemble playing that had kept Rumours centered and consistent flies off the rails, and that’s probably the reason that the best moments on Tusk belong to Nicks and Christine McVie, because unlike Buckingham, they are still thinking and acting like band members.[viii]
Buckingham’s work on Tusk is damn good (“I Know I’m Not Wrong” is pretty much as good as anything he wrote for Rumours), but it doesn’t sound like Fleetwood Mac. It sounds like Lindsey Buckingham. There is nothing on Rumours, not one bar, that doesn’t sound like Fleetwood effing Mac.[ix]
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a gift that keeps on giving. What was a generational touchstone has become, with time, a masterpiece worthy of detailed analysis; it is as joyful when heard in 21st-century headphones as it was when it was played on an over-heated stereo at some hazy high school party. It has grown with us, and will no doubt continue to do so.
[i] Confession: I adore Rumours, but it isn’t even my favorite Fleetwood Mac album. I prefer both Tusk and Bare Trees, and if I am going to take off my weighty thinking cap and just throw my head back and shimmy and scream a little bit—not a pretty sight—I would rather listen to the live albums Mac recorded at the Boston Tea Party in 1970.
[ii] The founder and original leader of Fleetwood Mac, guitarist and vocalist Peter Green, somewhat perversely named the band not after himself, but after his rhythm section, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie.
[iii] Perfect, who issued one exquisite must-have solo album in 1970, would be known as Christine McVie when she joined Fleetwood Mac.
[v] Having said all that, here are four fairly important things to note about Bob Welch: First, he introduces the idea that Mac could survive as a one-guitar band, a concept that would have been unthinkable just two years earlier, when the band had three guitarists; second, he compels the group to move to California, and that’s huge; thirdly, his departure in late 1974 paves the way for history; and finally, considering all the extraordinary and damaged characters who have been in Fleetwood Mac (the band has had 16 full and active members) it is an interesting statistical improbability that only three of them—Bob Welch, Bob Brunning, and Bob Weston—have died.
[viii] In my opinion, the second-best song in Fleetwood Mac’s entire catalog is Christine McVie’s shimmering, ghostly “Never Makes Me Cry” from Tusk. The first, if you were wondering, is “Albatross,” the heavenly instrumental from 1968, which is one of the greatest recordings ever made.
[ix] Buckingham’s solo work in the 1980s is so swallowed up with the desire to be seen as the precocious child in the classroom (a quality evident throughout Tusk, though nowhere on Rumours) as to be almost universally unlistenable. His ’80s solo catalog is replete with quirks and studio giggles that must have seemed smart at the time, but probably sounded dated, distracting, and useless by the time Buckingham got into the parking lot. This stuff is a prime example of what I have always referred to a SMPTE Code Syndrome—when someone becomes so utterly fascinated by all the little noises that the mixing board can make that they completely lose track of what those noises are contributing to the songs. But there is none of that on Rumours, not one iota.