Influenced: Beck, The Cranberries, Sheryl Crow, Death Cab For Cutie, Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, The Besnard Lakes, The Civil Wars, The Lumineers, Ladies Of The Canyon, Sharon Van Etten, Lorde, Haim, Best Coast, Taylor Swift
Influenced by: Ry Cooder, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, The Bee Gees, Neil Young
Some records are so massive that you don’t even have had to actually listen to them to know what they’re about, for them to have shaped your listening habits. Fleetwood Mac’s 11th album Rumours, a multi-platinum, easy-listening cultural phenomenon, is one of that handful of records – famous for the emotional turmoil that underpinned its sunny yet uneasy So-Cal harmonies. It has long since become a yardstick for accessible yet substantial pop, a template for any kind of music whose gleaming, immaculate exterior seeks to hide emotional chaos or darkness underneath.
Douglas Wolk’s 2004 article for Slate concerning the band’s album re-issue campaign called Fleetwood Mac the ‘least influential great band ever’, a claim that looks laughable in view of what happened over the subsequent decade. Artists who broke big at the end of the noughties and throughout the 2010s, such as Mumford & Sons, Haim, The Lumineers and Lorde just to name a few, have sought inspiration from the Mac’s ability to unite huge and different musical tribes with crowd-pleasing, malleable hits with a universal relatability. Some much more successfully than others, it must be added, but for better or worse its influence is beyond dispute.
But Wolk’s piece did hit upon a truth that’s often forgotten: until quite recently, Rumours was not considered to be a great album, merely one that had sold a lot of copies, but it’s quite amazing how its reputation has been rightly restored over the last decade. You’d have been ridiculed (or worse) for admitting to liking it in certain circles a little over ten years ago when it turned 30 years old, but in 2017, the year of its 40th anniversary, Rumours is as relevant as it was back at the time of its release, and sells almost as consistently.
It was a similar story back in 1977: while it sold as strongly as had been predicted following the success of 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, it took a while for it to become the sales behemoth of legend, eventually topping the UK charts after 11 months in January 1978, a rare example of a slow-burning smash hit. To date, it has spent 630 weeks in the charts. Likewise in the U.S., where it is the sixth biggest-selling record ever (with 20 million copies sold) and was awarded the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1978. Globally, it has sold just over 45 million copies.
However, four years before that Grammy win that cemented their position in the highest echelon of rock, Fleetwood Mac was in the wilderness and in disarray. The band’s revolving-door membership had seen a number of singers and musicians serve time in the previous ten years (notably the enigmatic guitarist Peter Green in the ‘60s, responsible for the beautiful chart-topper ‘Albatross’). In 1974, the then-quartet permanently decamped from Britain to America, and guitarist Bob Welch made way for the Californian songwriting duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to complement the trio of Christine and John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood.
The success of this line-up’s first album in 1975, and Stevie Nicks’ personal anthem ‘Rhiannon’ which was a smash hit, crucially allowed them the time they needed in the studio to tweak and perfect its follow-up throughout 1976. However, the intense touring following that record had taken its toll on the band’s relationships, famously making for Rumours’ emotional bitterness and barely disguised heartbreak. Buckingham and Nicks’ romance was failing throughout the writing process (although the band didn’t know this until most of the way through its recording); John and Christine McVie’s marriage had collapsed; and Fleetwood’s wife and mother of his two children was in the process of divorcing him.
All of which makes for a rather voyeuristic listening experience. Although some of these songs are bona-fide anthem, to be played in large venues and sung by huge crowds, the sensation that you’re occasionally eavesdropping on personal torment is disconcerting. However, it is this aspect that helps lend these 11 songs their longevity and relevance that makes them so popular four decades later. Virtually everybody who has dealt with matters of the heart can find themselves in these songs of love and loss.
It also helped that Fleetwood Mac boasted no fewer than three great songwriters in their ranks, and all from different musical backgrounds and with strengths that their colleagues didn’t have. Buckingham had essentially seized control of the band’s artistic direction by this point, with the Southern Californian rock aspect more or less completely eclipsing the blues-rock traditions of the band’s origins throughout Rumours. The record’s sunny disposition on its surface disguised darker clouds brooding on the horizon. In a way, this was reflective of the time and place of its recording: in late ‘70s post-Watergate America, the freedoms and political / sexual revolutions of the 1960s had evolved, giving way to something a lot more uncontrolled, seductive and hedonistic yet which could take its toll on the human heart.
Buckingham’s bitterness reflects and condemns this, with the failed and failing relationships strewn amid Rumours acting as a sacrificial testament to this reality. His opening ‘Second Hand News’ is as scabrous as the music is upbeat, making for a jarring experience that sets the tone for his contributions to the record. It’s opening line is “I know there’s nothing to say / someone has taken my place” – an encapsulation of what’s at stake on Rumours whose straightforwardness makes it all the more powerful. It’s a trick he pulls again on ‘Never Going Back Again’, a guitar-pickin’ track indebted to Ry Cooder that’s downbeat but philosophical and ridiculously pretty.
‘Go Your Own Way’ is one of many famous songs on Rumours, an amazing fire-walk of an anthem about self-confidence, independence and leaving the past behind, and boasts a terrific guitar solo. Strangely, it’s been a slow-burner of a hit that’s probably more famous now than ever before, only reaching #38 in the UK upon release as a single and going flat in America initially too.
Buckingham’s writing partner and now former lover Stevie Nicks gets joint-headliner status on Rumours with her magnificent contributions. Where Buckingham is bitter, Nicks is rather more conciliatory, but that also sometimes merely provides a seductive cover for an emotional gut-punch. ‘Dreams’ is a perfect example of this, its dreamy, beautiful escapism in which Nicks vows to look after her own heart all the more effective when she finally twists the knife with couplets like “the stillness of remembering what you had / and what you lost”. Her closing ‘Gold Dust Woman’ can be interpreted as an attack on groupies fawning over male rock stars, or simply as a sideways observation on the amount of cocaine that went in to the writing and creation of the album.
It’s worth remembering just how groundbreaking Nicks’ style was at this time. The idea of the rock frontwoman was nothing revolutionary in itself by 1977, but Nicks’ natural glamour and mystique and husky delivery was creating a new language for women to perform with and context to perform in, rather than simply trying to ‘keep up with the boys’ in their style of performance art.
Christine McVie’s contributions to the album are sometimes overshadowed by the Buckingham / Nicks dynamic, but she actually provides four tracks to their three each. By far and away the best-known is ‘Don’t Stop’, which has to be one of the unhappiest ‘feel good’ songs ever released, but its dynamic is fundamentally optimistic like Nicks’ ‘Dreams’.
Her writing is peppy and direct, as evidenced in the disarming ‘Songbird’ which Eva Cassidy made famous many decades later, and together with the airy and spacious ‘Oh Daddy’ she provides something different, reserved and British to her Californian colleagues. However, her star moment really comes with ‘You Make Loving Fun’, a pointed track inspired by an affair she was having with one of the studio technicians at the time of Rumours’ recording, which must have been pretty brutal for her soon-to-be ex-husband John to record.
It is this hydra-headed dynamic of three great songwriters, all offering something unique, that pretty much no line-up of any other great band – except arguably The Beatles at the very end of their career – has been able to match, making Rumours’ stand-out qualities extremely hard to imitate. All the group came together for ‘The Chain’, the record’s musical centrepiece that was compiled from snippets of previously rejected material, primarily Christine McVie’s composition ‘Keep Me There’. Blues mutates into rock with its iconic bass part, and its fractured structure evokes the broken relationships between its creators.
Taken individually, these songs are still quite overplayed. ‘Don’t Stop’ has arguably had its power dulled by its use on everything from political campaigns to household products advertisements, and the sheer number of crap cover versions of ‘Dreams’ and terrible karaoke renditions of ‘Go Your Own Way’ would sink inferior songs.
But the reason they endure is precisely because they are such good songs, and, played in sequence in a beginning-to-end listening of Rumours, they add up to much than the sum of their already impressive parts. It rings with sweet melody and savage power, and the emotional payload of that heartache and division still pays out 40 years later. If you want to keep a house party going at 2am – just reach for Rumours.
Listen to Rumours here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 40 years old, 40th anniversary, Christine McVie, classic 70s, classic album, Ed Biggs, Fleetwood Mac, John McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Rumours, Stevie Nicks
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