Alexis Petridis’s album of the week
March 23rd, 2017
This 1987 classic is a blend of solid-gold pop and super-slick production, interwoven with the sound of a band sliding into chaos
The mid-80s were not the kindest time for 60s and 70s rock legends. For every gimlet-eyed operator who successfully navigated an alien and unforgiving landscape of power ballads, crashing snare drums, Fairlight synthesisers and MTV moonmen – the Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey; Tina Turner – there were scores who seemed utterly lost. It was a world in which the natural order of things had been turned on its head to such a degree that the drummer from Genesis was now one of the biggest stars on the planet. David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed … at best, they ended up making albums that diehard fans pick over for tiny morsels that suggest they’re not as bad as the reputations preceding them; at worst they made stuff they’d spend subsequent years loudly disowning, involving terrible clothes, inappropriate producers, awful cover versions and – in extreme cases – attempts to rap.
In theory at least, Fleetwood Mac should have been in more trouble than anyone. The band that reassembled after a four-year hiatus to record 1987’s Tango in the Night was in even greater disarray than usual. The celebrated complications in their personal lives that had fuelled 1977’s 40m-selling Rumours were still taking a psychological toll, as was the band’s celebrated capacity for excess. Singer Stevie Nicks emerged from rehab, free of cocaine but soon to become addicted to clonazepam, a tranquilliser so strong she claimed not to remember a subsequent four-month US and European tour. Nicks rarely turned up to the recording sessions at guitarist and vocalist Lindsey Buckingham’s home studio; when she did, Buckingham banished her and drummer Mick Fleetwood to a Winnebago on the driveway, horrified at the state they were in. Bassist John McVie’s drinking was out of control; he had an alcohol-induced seizure the year Tango in the Night was released. The era was brought to a suitably miserable close when Buckingham and Nicks had a physical altercation after the former announced his departure from the band.
Tango in the Night should have been a disaster; instead it sold 15m copies. But despite Buckingham’s belief that its synthesised slickness successfully “bulldozed” away the chaos behind its making, this 30th-anniversary edition, complete with two CDs of outtakes, B-sides and remixes, reveals Tango in the Night isn’t quite so straightforward. It is certainly polished to gleaming perfection – the only outtake that isn’t improved on is the version of closer You and I, four minutes longer and packed with gorgeous vocal harmonies and dreamy atmospherics, curiously excised from the album. And there’s some bulletproof pop songwriting here, a lot of it from the pen of Christine McVie, always the most poised of Fleetwood Mac’s trio of composers: Little Lies, the peerless Everywhere and Isn’t It Midnight, the latter a confection of booming drums, precise, tinkly synth and wailing guitar solos that sounds as if it’s just waiting to appear in the background of a film starring Ally Sheedy.
But there are also tracks that speak loudly about Tango in the Night’s background. Most obviously, Nicks’s performances, which are pretty frayed at the edges. She pulled herself together for Seven Wonders, a song as gold-plated as any of McVie’s – though, in fact, it was written by Sandy Stewart and her contribution to its composition extended to mishearing and thus mis-singing a line. The reality of Nicks’s situation is revealed in Welcome to the Room … Sara, a fractured retelling of her time in rehab (“This is a dream, right?”) and When I See You Again, an acoustic ballad – or as acoustic as anything got in Tango in the Night’s heavily buffed sound world – on which she sounds authentically zonked, a spectral presence at the centre of her own song.
Buckingham, meanwhile, couldn’t seem to stop an unsettled twitchiness seeping into even his most commercial songs: the staccato vocals of Family Man; the title track’s surges from quiet tension to florid solos; Big Love’s backing of grunts, moans and scampering guitar riffs. The latter found an unexpected audience in Ibiza as a Balearic anthem, but it’s hardly blissed out. Quite the opposite: it’s edgy and self-loathing (“I wake up alone with it all”); music with its eyes nervously darting about.
This deluxe reissue feels timely. Buckingham may publicly fret that Fleetwood Mac are “incredibly unhip”, but we now live in a world where their influence hangs heavy over pop, from the sound of Haim to hipster DJ collective Fleetmac Wood, who play nothing but Fleetwood Mac records. Rumours is hailed as a work of consummate songwriting power, rather than the kind of thing punk came to save us from, Tusk is viewed as an experimental tour de force rather than a confused sprawl, and even 1982’s soft-rock compromise Mirage is lauded by artists including Hot Chip. But somehow Tango in the Night has escaped critical re-evaluation: something of what you might call the unrevived 80s – the aspects of the decade too crushingly uncool to warrant nostalgia – still clings to it.
But if anything, Tango in the Night seems even more deserving of the “flawed masterpiece” tag than Tusk. The gloss can’t hide the turmoil, no matter how thickly it’s applied. As with Roxy Music’s Avalon, you’re struck by the sense of an album with something far darker and odder at its core than its reputation as a yuppie soundtrack suggests. In the 30 years since its release, the five people behind Tango in the Night have not managed to make another album together. That’s a pity – as the run of albums that began with 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and ended here demonstrates, the quartet were once an unstoppable musical force, even when forces conspired to stop them. But listening to Tango in the Night’s repeated lurches from breeziness to angst and sparkle to gloom, it doesn’t seem terribly surprising.