Fleetwood Mac’s nightly recording sessions in a cramped, windowless studio were fueled by booze and cocaine. The band’s complex romances left every member heartbroken. Shouting matches lasted longer than the songs.
Today, 35 years on, an anniversary box set of “Rumours” shows how the musical cocktail of two women and three men was shaken and stirred by their romantic splits. Newly released material shows the tracks getting endlessly reworked and improved as they squabbled.
It was a “crucifyingly difficult” process, drummer Mick Fleetwood notes. He was going through a divorce, with his wife dating his best friend. He never imagined the chaos would lead to a 40-million-selling LP: the best of 1977, according to the Grammy judges, and one of the finest efforts of the 1970s, maybe even of all time.
The American couple in the band added a pop edge to British blues. Californian Lindsey Buckingham had been inseparable from his singer girlfriend Stevie Nicks for five years. When Fleetwood asked him to join, Buckingham insisted she be included too. Now they were all arguing, and the frustrated guitarist started writing a bitter rant called “Strummer.”
On the box set, we hear how this evolved from a simple acoustic demo into a Celtic rag and finally a sleek piece of disco with hints of the Bee Gees, retitled “Second Hand News.” There’s a percussive roll which, it now turns out, was made by bashing an old Naughahyde chair near the mixing desk.
Buckingham throws the opening words at his ex: “I know there’s nothing to say, someone has taken my place.” (Nicks was romantically linked to Don Henley of the Eagles, then Fleetwood himself.)
Her own breakup lyric “Dreams” is a swift rejoinder: “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom.” The song’s first mix, nowhere near so radio-friendly, puts her voice starkly to the fore and buries its optimism.
This creative jousting inevitably leads to Buckingham replying, bluntly inviting her to “Go Your Own Way” because he was “Never Going Back Again.”
The band’s other couple, the McVies, were walking from the wreckage of an eight-year marriage. They were on such bad terms that they would only speak about music.
Christine McVie defiantly shows how she’s moved on with “Don’t Stop” about her on-tour romance with the band’s lighting director. “You Making Loving Fun” tells her husband that her new flame is much better.
Coproducer Ken Caillat recalls how huge rows in the Sausalito, California studio would be followed minutes later by the composition of sweet harmonies. He deserves credit for singling out the most tender ballad, “Songbird,” and taking it somewhere else -- more precisely, to the Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, which had the right acoustic and a Steinway piano.
The younger Nicks had the tougher words, but McVie is outstanding with her performance here: “And I love you, I love you, I love you, like never before, like never before.”
When the LP came out, I was a very young punk bassist and hated it, of course. This expensively produced, sentimental mush was exactly the stuff we were rebelling against. Just a few years on and I got it. “Songbird” now moves me every time. The record’s soft rock has echoes in acts such as Sting, Heart, Kelly Clarkson and Neko Case, to name just four.
The creative madness which had threatened to sink records as varied as “Exile on Main Street,” “Pet Sounds” and “Station to Station” again resulted in an act coming out with its best. Miracles do happen. As the lyric has it, “thunder only happens when it’s raining.”
The album is available on Warner as a remaster; a 3-CD version including the original album, bonus tracks and live material ($16); and a box with further outtakes, a DVD and a vinyl LP ($86). Rating: ***** for the shorter versions; *** for the large box because it’s too much for all but the most dedicated fans.
Fleetwood Mac’s tour starts in April.
Caillat’s book “Making Rumours” is published by John Wiley & Sons priced $25.95. To buy the book in North America, click here. Information: http://www.makingrumours.com/
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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