The Life of a Song: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ |

JANUARY 9, 2017
by: David Honigmann

The hit was born of a romantic geometry complex enough to baffle the Bloomsbury Group

Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie perform in Atlanta, Georgia, June 1977 © Getty

In early 1975, two Americans, Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend Stevie Nicks, had just joined a once-famous British blues band now down on its uppers. Buckingham, a perfectionist, buzzed around showing the other members how to play their parts on the songs he was bringing to the project. The bassist was unimpressed.

“The band you’re in is Fleetwood Mac,” John McVie told him. “I’m the Mac. And I play the bass.” And that — as Mick Fleetwood, who was the Fleetwood, records in his autobiography — was that.

A couple of years later Buckingham and Nicks had been integrated into the band, and the new line-up had a successful album under their belt. It was now Fleetwood and McVie together who laid down the signature bass-and-drums riff that would define what was (with all due deference to former members Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch) the high water mark of Fleetwood Mac: “The Chain”, from their globe-conquering album Rumours.

Fleetwood Mac were in the throes of romantic geometry so complex it would have bemused the Bloomsbury Group, and recording in a Sausalito studio in a blizzard of liquor and cocaine. All of them were writing bitter songs about each other. Steve Nicks essayed a song she called “The Chain”. “I’m down on my knees/begging you please/baby don’t leave me/”, she sang — presumably to Buckingham. In demo form, at least, the song is pretty but abject.

At the same time, Christine McVie, John’s by now former wife, was working on “Keep Me There”, a throwback melodically to her solo album of a few years previously. The opening may have been nugatory, but the chord progression up into the chorus had a driving tension. And three minutes in, her ex-husband let fly with that 10-note bass riff and the song raced through an extended coda, with Christine McVie playing jazzy electric piano.

Nearly all the elements were there. The two songs were forged together. New lyrics emerged, turning the submission into defiance. “Damn your love, damn your lies”, Nicks now sang. The sound-world of the song became bleaker. McVie’s keyboards were toned down. To knit the whole thing together, Buckingham recycled the instrumental guitar passage that opens “Lola (My Love)” from his and Nicks’s earlier Buckingham Nicks album. The resulting amalgam simultaneously hymned the pain of personal separation and the strength of community within the band. “I can still hear you saying/you would never break the chain.” It was the only song from this line-up credited to all five members of the band.

Many songs from Rumours were released as singles, but not “The Chain”. In the UK, though, the song achieved ubiquity when the BBC used it as the theme music for its Formula One coverage — the Doppler rush of the instrumental break perfectly mirroring the head-turning swivel of watching race cars. This must have delighted Fleetwood, at least, a car enthusiast from his youth.

Cover versions are surprisingly rare. The Saskatchewan hair metal band Kick Axe fuzzed the riff into unintelligibility. Florence + The Machine performed it at Glastonbury in 2010, casting around valiantly for the appropriate key but fully channelling its tribal intensity.

US country-folk singer Shawn Colvin, tasked with reproducing the song for a 1998 track-by-track version of Rumours, made “The Chain” slinky and soulful; her take fades out just before the bass riff. By contrast, the Los Angeles punk experimentalists Liars, on Mojo magazine’s Rumours Revisited, doubled down on the darkness: their reading is glitchy, murky, obsessive — and again, riffless.

But the world of hip-hop can tell a powerful riff when it hears one. Cleveland rappers Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Wind Blow” is essentially freestyle rap over a more-or-less unchanged middle section of “The Chain”, foregrounding the bass melody. A more ingenious homage came in “Up Your Speed” by the British rapper Sway DaSafo. His song is a tribute to automotive antisocial behaviour, with a video full of souped-up monster cars performing doughnut handbrake turns. It ends with just a snatch of the outro from “The Chain”, combining the band’s imperiousness with a cheeky nod to Formula One.

Fleetwood Mac themselves fell out, broke up, recruited new members, grew up, and eventually reunited in their five-piece form. The centrepiece of their live sets is still, inevitably, “The Chain”.

Photograph: Rick Diamond/Getty Images