Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
Thirty-five years after its release, we can revel in the most accomplished slice of adult contemporary rock ever made
Rumours is unique in being a 20th-century masterpiece that did more damage to rock’n’roll than any other album in the history of music. It’s impossible not to revel in the songcraft of Christine McVie’s Songbird. Lindsey Buckingham’s Go Your Own Way is the ultimate drivetime anthem. The Chain is the last word in soft rock excitement and the slick studio sophistication of Don’t Stop is too tasty to resist. But Rumours is also the 30 million-selling monster that, by making it OK to be a moaning, self-obsessed rock star peddling commoditised emotion to the record-buying public, set in motion a terrible chain of events. We can blame Rumours for the vast majority of horrific middle-of-the-road rock that blighted the 1980s, not to mention any number of bland singer-songwriters aiming to sound intimate while also wishing to appeal to the widest demographic possible, and we can thank it for helping make punk happen as a reaction to it.
Now, 35 years after its release, on a three-CD special edition or, better still, a 45rpm vinyl double album that expands the clarity of this exercise in sonic science, we can revel in the simple pleasure of listening to the most accomplished slice of adult contemporary rock ever made.
In 1973, the Eagles were the biggest band in America and the last people you would expect to eventually challenge their domination was a bunch of troubled stragglers from the British Sixties blues boom. Fleetwood Mac had already lost their founder and guitarist Peter Green to schizophrenia and their second guitarist, Jeremy Spencer, to the Children Of God cult when they relocated to California in the hope of reviving their fortunes. That’s where Mick Fleetwood, the drummer, heard Buckingham Nicks, the 1973 album by a struggling, curly-haired guitarist and his haute hippy girlfriend. Fleetwood was impressed. Buckingham Nicks captured an emerging aspect of young Los Angeles life: narcissistic and hedonistic but sensitive and folksy too. It was hippy idealism combining with American materialism. The album wasn’t a hit. Stevie Nicks was supporting the couple by working as a waitress and cleaner, making them open to Fleetwood’s suggestion that they team up and form a new Fleetwood Mac. The first product of the union was 1975’s self-titled album, which was a hit, but it’s Rumours, released in 1977, that really bore fruit.
The romantic entanglements that inspired Rumours are well documented, but they’re worth recounting because it makes listening to the album so much more involving. The Eagles’ drummer Don Henley, whose motto, “Love ‘em and Lear ’em”, summed up his approach to being a rock star, seduced Stevie Nicks after she split with Buckingham and, in her own words, “taught me how to spend money”. She fell pregnant and felt pressured into having an abortion; her heartbreaking 1979 song Sara is about the experience. Meanwhile, Christine McVie and her bassist husband John were splitting up, as were Fleetwood and his wife Jenny. What Rumoursarticulated, more than the straightforward bitterness you might expect from couples in disarray, was the conflicting morass of love, possessiveness, freedom and reflection that the end of a relationship brings.
One way or another, Rumours contains every rollercoaster emotion of a love affair. Christine McVie’s gentle You Make Loving Fun is about the simple joy of being in love with someone, but it follows The Chain, which is powered by the angry energy that comes when you’re trying and failing to break away from a lover. Buckingham does his best to be all grown up and non-possessive on Go Your Own Way, while wallowing in the self-pity of a spurned man on Second Hand News. Nicks uses a bit of hippy philosophy on I Don’t Want To Know, before drawing a far more realistic picture of herself as a cocaine-addled lovesick wreck on Gold Dust Woman. Rumoursworks because the feeling behind it is genuine, unlike so much of the soft rock that came in its wake.
Then there’s the sound. For an album that has come to be held up as the ultimate in high-fidelity audio experiences it’s remarkably simple. Everything is in the right place and, despite the excess associated with the band, musically expedient. Buckingham’s Never Going Back Again has little more than an acoustic guitar and Buckingham’s chiming, note-perfect voice. The Chain draws out the power behind every beat. Gold Dust Woman conveys the dark glamour of self-destruction with low drums and drawn-out guitar notes sitting behind Nicks’s despairing, girlish vocals.
The universal appeal of Rumours cannot be denied, however much damage it might have caused to music. Now Fleetwood Mac are back together. Whether they can be anything more than a heritage act is moot. But as long as there are love affairs, break-ups and consolations, Rumours will continue to have significance the world over. (Reprise)