By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-08-14
The Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. “The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions,” Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists’ careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
By 1977 all the longhairs who’d lived through the Summer of Love were over thirty. They’d traded their painted vans for station wagons, left their communes for a split-level in the suburbs, and watched their free-love idyll end in divorce. The hippies had matured into yuppies. They had money to spend and hi-fi stereos to show off. They’d grown up during the golden age of rock, but it was the height of punk, and they weren’t going to listen to “God Save the Queen.” So instead, they listened to Fleetwood Mac.
Since its release in February 1977, Rumours has sold 19 million copies in the United States. Since the U.S. population has just passed 300 million, it’s not an exaggeration to say that nearly seven percent of America has probably owned a copy of Rumours at some point in their life. Not counting compilations or double albums, this makes it the fifth bestselling long player of all time. And unlike many of its fellow diamond-certified records that earned their status after decades of steady catalogue sales (Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, Volume I and II, Legend), this one was a blockbuster from the first, topping the charts for an astounding 32 weeks. Though it spun off four top ten singles “(Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” and “You Make Loving Fun”), every track earned airplay on AOR radio, making standards out of album cuts like “Gold Dust Woman” and “The Chain.” By 1979, it’d sold thirteen million copies. This was much more than a hit record—this was a phenomenon.
Rumours’ success is all the more surprising considering that in the early-‘70s, Fleetwood Mac barely functioned as a band at all. Original frontman Peter Green left the group in 1971, leaving only the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, who were forced to bring in McVie’s wife Christine, among others. Only later did they persuade folk-rock duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to join, the result being the Mac Mach II. Their first record, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, had been a smash in its own right, but the commercial triumph of Rumours launched them into superstardom, a feat they never managed to top, even if its immediate follow-up, the messy, idiosyncratic Tusk, is the more accomplished artistic statement.
Thirty years later, it’s important to remember the atmosphere Rumours was borne into: 1977 was the year punk rock broke on both sides of the Atlantic. Johnny Rotten said “fuck” on the BBC while Patti Smith performed songs like “Piss Factory” at CBGB’s. The sun-baked optimism of groups like the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had long since soured, and a coke-fueled disco inferno was right around the corner (1977’s other smash hit? The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack).
To pop music fans, Fleetwood Mac must have seemed like a safe middle ground between Richard Hell and Barry Gibb. Even critics bought into the act: in The Village Voice’s year-end Pazz & Jop poll, Robert Christgau wrote that “rock and roll is supposed to be about pleasure as well as all the heavy stuff, and I’m glad that in this year of the punk Fleetwood Mac [is] here to remind us of that.”
Christgau makes a crucial distinction: appearances to the contrary, this is not soft pop, but rock and roll. By 1987’s Tango in the Night, Fleetwood Mac had morphed into VH1-friendly easy listening, but Rumours still leans heavily on the blues-rock foundation built by Peter Green. McVie’s “You Make Loving Fun” and Nicks’ “I Don’t Want To Know” impress with their pop melodies, but are driven by a rhythm section as insistent as Watts and Wyman. “Dreams” and “The Chain,” ostensibly ballads, are built around thick drum patterns and churning bass lines.
The up-tempo material—Buckingham’s “Second Hand News” and McVie’s “Don’t Stop”—moves as fast as anything Dylan put to vinyl in the “Tombstone Blues” era. The cocaine-bright, oh-so-‘70s production finds room for Moog washes, rattling tambourines, rich Brian Wilson-esque vocal arrangements, and even the odd guitar flourish—see the tasteful solo announcing the fade-out to “Second Hand News,” or the gorgeous guitar break at the heart of “The Chain,” which could fit in fine on a Zeppelin record.
All good rock albums rely on rhythm sections, deep production, and fretwork. What distinguishes Rumours—what makes it art—is the contradiction between its cheerful surface and its anguished heart. Here is a radio-friendly record about anger, recrimination, and loss. Much has been made of the intra-band relationship problems that produced these songs—the McVies were divorcing, and Buckingham and Nicks had suffered a bitter split—but this is not a typical breakup album, like Blood on the Tracks or Sea Change, which find their respective authors looking back on heartbreak from a safe distance.
Rumours is the sound of a breakup in progress. Nine of the album’s eleven songs employ the not-so-ambiguous pronouns “I” and “you,” and usually prefer direct address to rumination: “I’m never going back again,” “I never meant any harm to you,” “You know you make me cry,” “You can go your own way.” This puts Fleetwood Mac in a grand tradition, stretching from Gershwin to the Supremes, of sad songs that sound happy. In this way, Rumours was as much a return to earlier forms as punk rock: the Ramones wanted to be the Beach Boys but twice as fast; Fleetwood Mac wanted to be a girl group, only slower.
It’s also worthwhile to note the record’s sheer consistency. Unlike Tusk, which spreads the work of Mac’s three songwriters over twenty songs in eighty-five minutes, Rumours’ eleven songs in forty minutes leave little room for self-indulgence. To these ears, the record’s only dud is McVie’s somnolent “Songbird,” which closes out the otherwise-flawless side one with a whimper instead of a bang. Some of the strongest tracks are seeming throwaways like Buckingham’s lovely “Never Going Back Again” or Nicks’ bouncy “I Don’t Want to Know,” and the major statements—“Dreams,” “Go Your Own Way”—retain their power even after decades of constant rotation on classic rock radio.
Unlike, say, the Beatles, where the work of each songwriter is strikingly distinct, the songs on Rumours sound like the work of one shared voice—an ironic effect, considering that the band came together out of circumstance. Heard in sequence, “Don’t Stop,” McVie’s attempt to cheer up an ex who can’t move on, and “Dreams,” Nicks’ kiss-off to a restless lover, almost sound like two different phases of the same relationship. The druggy egotist torn to shreds in Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” (a self-portrait?) could be the same woman to whom Buckingham became “Second Hand News” when she discovered a new lover. This is a portrait of a make-love-not-war generation that hit its thirties only to learn the hard way that sex kills, that love isn’t all you need.
While the Clash and the Sex Pistols renewed rock with a shot of youthful danger, Rumours allowed for the possibility that rock could age gracefully, and take on subjects of an emotional complexity unavailable to a teenager. This may have begat adult contemporary, VH1, and Phil Collins, but at least with Rumours, Fleetwood Mac wasn’t trying to soften rock, but to blunt its edge, to create something more expansive in effect and broader in appeal. The consequence was a career spent in the shadow of that peak; the reward was a receptive audience—of 19 million and counting.