Discoveries (10/2004), Fleetwood Mac Opens Up About Reissues and the Old Days
Discoveries, October 2004
Fleetwood Mac Opens Up About Reissues and the Old Days
by Chris Nickson
They were, if not the worst of times, then certainly not the best. In 1974 Fleetwood Mac were surviving. The band's basic trio of drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, and his wife, keyboard player/singer Christine McVie, had been augmented by guitarist, singer and songwriter Bob Welch for quite a long time. Their albums sold reasonably, if not spectacularly, they were playing the college circuit in the U.S., and getting over legal troubles.
While taking a break from touring behind their most recent album, "Heroes Are Hard to Find," Mick Fleetwood began looking for a studio to use for their next album.
"I met a guy who was repping a studio, trying to flog off studio time," he recalls. "I knew him vaguely, and met him in the supermarket. He said, 'Are you doing anything now?' I said, No, 'dropped the shopping, and literally jumped in his car. We went to Studio City in the Valley. I went to look at the studio, I forget which room number. An engineer named Keith Olsen was working there. He offered to play me something he'd recorded in the studio, and by pure happenstance he played the "Buckingham-Nicks" album, which was recorded in that room, as if to demo the room. And that's how I initially heard Lindsay's guitar playing. I heard "Crystal" and a couple of other things, and went on my merry way."
But in typical Mac fashion, a crisis was looming.
"About a month or so later, Bob Welch, at rather short notice, quit. It wasn't a total surprise, although it was in the fact that it happened very quickly and he hadn't mentioned anything. I think he was frustrated with the band's lack of success. Within hours, if not sooner, I'd phoned Studio City, and talked to Keith. I asked who he'd played me. It was that literal, and that's how this thing started."
At that point Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were a pair of unknowns. They'd met in the late '60s in a San Francisco-based band, Fritz, where Nicks sang and Buckingham played bass. When that outfit broke up in 1971 they got together, professionally and personally, and moved to Los Angeles searching for the big time.
It proved to be elusive. The album they made went nowhere (except, curiously, in Alabama, where it was a local hit). Buckingham was touring with Don Everly's band, and Nicks was waitressing. But they continued to write, and to believe something would happen. They just hadn't expected that something to be Fleetwood Mac. And they never expected to be asked to join without even an audition.
"We didn't play a note and they'd been told they were members of Fleetwood Mac, which was pretty trusting," Fleetwood Mac laughs. "I felt very confident and I made that decision in my own mind, then conferred with John and Christine. They pretty much followed my lead. I think they had good sense, they liked what they heard. The only request was Christine, who said, 'Let me at least meet her.' There's nothing worse than two women who don't get along. But that was that, really."
What was certainly useful was the fact they were both put on an initial salary of $200 a week.
"In those days we didn't earn very much money. They had to pay rent. We had an album budget. So we put them on salary, paid up their rent and stuff. Me and Bob had been in charge of the band up to that point. We had budget money, survival money planned out for us to be in the States anyhow, so they came in as newcomers to the not very well oiled corporation. It was a short space of time, then everyone was even-Steven."
The band at that point was simply getting by, although Fleetwood noted that "we did an Australian tour recently, and I read an interview with Stevie, her memory that she'd joined a big band, because they had nothing. They had heard of Fleetwood Mac, and we had albums out. She'd somewhat unbelievably forgotten that when she joined we were still driving our own station wagons to gigs. What she remembers is the limousines, which is testimony to poetic memories of something that probably was quite grand to her."
Those limo days were still in the future, however. What they had to do first was make their next album -- and see if the chemistry Fleetwood believed could be there actually existed.
"We went into rehearsals to make the album." We'd already been set to make an album with Bob Welch, so everything was sort of on schedule, except it wasn't with Bob. We rehearsed at ICM. Tom Ross, our agent, gave us the basement of the old ICM building. It was very apparent that there was cohesion, and the vibe was great. There were these two people who were, at that point, seemingly very happy together, and we made this music."
It fact, Fleetwood could tell there was real magic. The songs were different, and the personalities, voices, and styles gelled perfectly. In retrospect it's easy to think of the mid-'70s Fleetwood Mac typifying the period, but in fact their albums, especially Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, molded the sound of America then. Initially, however, their label wasn't convinced that what they were making was anything more than another Fleetwood Mac album, a Chevy among records.
"Warner Brothers is where we were. They always put our albums out -- we used to joke that we paid their east wing light bill or something. We were just a band that had been around a while and we'd definitely gone through changes, but they, to their credit, were still there, they didn't rip up the contract. What did strike me, because I was managing the band, was that something really special was happening while we were making that album. I do remember having a couple of brandies and going out to see Mo Ostin, basically to say 'If you don't believe in the music the way I do, because this is really special, I want you to let us go.' It was unbelievably naive, but quite truthful -- and quite charming, looking back on it, that I had the balls to do that. I don't remember getting an answer. What it did I'll never know, but Mo Ostin was a loyal, truthful chap who took an interest in what was going on. We weren't dropped, and they didn't let us go. I'm hoping what I did opened something up."
With the sense that they had something unique, Fleetwood began to make plans -- all of which went against established theory.
"I wanted to take the band out on the road before the album came out, [but] Warner Brothers said that would be the kiss of death. I said that we needed to do it, so when we did go out with the album, we'd have played onstage together, and I wanted to know these people can do what I think they can. We went out, and people had no idea who Stevie and Lindsey were. We had no new record. We played some of their stuff, and the rest of it was "Station Man," "Hypnotized," things Bob had done, and older material. It was pretty bleak for Stevie and Lindsey, but they did it willingly and did it well. It was very apparent that the audience received them with open arms, and that told me we were a complete unit."
Throughout the summer of 1975 they were on the road, opening for Loggins and Messina and the Guess Who, headlining their own shows. What first began to break them through to the U.S. big time was the release of the first single from Fleetwood Mac, "Over My Head," which had been mixed for radio (in mono), by Deke Richards, who'd done many Motown radio mixes. It began climbing the charts, and Mac stayed relentlessly on the road to capitalize on its own growing popularity.
They'd begun playing new material, and the song which won the greatest response from the crowds was one written by Nicks. "Rhiannon," introduced simply as "This is a song about a Welsh witch" seemed to capture the imagination of audiences around the country. It helped define Nicks, but also came close to ruining her voice.
"There were years, before she did voice exercising and learning to sing slightly differently, when she started to damage her throat. She used to belt it out. It epitomized the whole thing that was going on -- the garb, and what she is really to this day."
By the end of 1975 Fleetwood Mac had already gone gold, on its way to the top of the charts. It took the band to new heights, turning them into major stars. But along the way it took a toll on the personal lives of the musicians. John and Christine McVie split up, and so did Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. What they'd all worked for had arrived in a huge fashion, but with it came the problems.
"The album had pop music written on it somewhere, certainly. But always, even in the Peter Green days, there's always been a believable, slightly dark side to this band, which I think is still there -- the "Oh Daddy"'s of the time. It wasn't all hooks. None of it was planned, but I think it became something that made us be a band that did hang in there and have a believable thread, but yet did have this in everyone's living room type of thing musically. On top of that there was this soap opera where people got involved with the characters. We probably spoke about it too much.
Again to this day I think people think they know us. There have been times, certainly for Lindsey, when he got browned off not reading about the music, but about the bedroom."
It was in that atmosphere that the band went to the Record Plant in Sausalito to begin work on a follow-up disc. With great things anticipated, it was awkward, as many of the song they were set to do concerned the just-ended relationships -- with all the protagonists in the room.
"It wasn't always easy," Fleetwood says with understatement. "As lousy as some of it was, and I was stuck in the middle of it all, I think it finally is a testimony. The bottom line is that these are people who have been incredibly, deeply in love with each other. And they're not just disgruntled bandmates -- there are bands that are famous for loathing each other, and they have an ethic of how to get through it. We didn't have that: the love-hate, hate-love thing was really that. It was an emotional connection, not a bunch of lads or people who became connected through music and then business. They were connected as people, as lovers, as partners. So it was believable, and when we do walk onstage now with an element of balance and humor, we co-exist pretty damned well. There's so much there that no matter how rough it does get -- and from time to time, it still gets rough -- the reality is that I don't worry about it too much. Lindsey's married with three children, Stevie has her life, and it's a wild scene, but it's tempered where it has been an incredible journey, and as of this moment, that's where I think it'll stay. If for some reason we didn't make another album it wouldn't be because of that."
Success has also brought excess. Cocaine was in vogue, and the band succumbed to temptation; as Fleetwood notes, "I don't think the infusion of certain amounts of white substance necessarily helped the decisions. In truth, we were pretty out of it in many ways."
But they were also plagued by a number of genuine technical problems. There was the piano that wouldn't tune. And then "there was a tape machine we called Jaws that chewed up one of the masters we'd been working on for about a year. Ken Caillat, our producer/engineer, did some editing, and he managed to dupe up and splice things back in about three times. We used to have someone standing near the machine to press the dead button." That would have been bad enough, but it was far from the end. In the studio, doing endless overdubs and retakes, "we ran the tapes so much through the lengthy period we were recording that we ran the high end off. In those days you couldn't Pro Tool another copy out. Ken managed to makes copies before it got worse, as we hadn't finished the album. He went to A&M and got two machines. He couldn't sync them up, so he physically, with a variant speed, using the cymbals, made a perfect copy. And that's supposedly one of the better-sounding albums ever made! We took off the drums, and preserved them. We had to re-do some things, but it was a whole comedy of errors. After working so long on something, and being under the influence of certain things, I became a safety buff. We made these copies, which was unheard of then, and they all laughed of me, and we'd send masters to Phoenix and keep them in bank vaults. The album does hold up as a great piece of work from the songs to the recording."
Even as they were making the new album, whose working title was Yesterday's Gone (after a Christine McVie song), Fleetwood Mac finished its climb to the top of the charts, replacing Frampton Comes Alive. "Rhiannon" was issued as a single, leaping to the top of the charts, and confirming Mac as one of the leading acts of the day. Fleetwood Mac ended up selling some four million copies, a huge figure for the period, and Warners was hoping for another cash cow with its successor. But there was no hiding the tensions in the studio, and the label "heard rumors about what going on while we were making the album, and I think they were waiting to get a phone call saying , 'It's over." I'd tell them we were going to get it done, and they left us pretty much alone. Because I truly never saw any writing on the wall that meant this could disintegrate, because everyone was really committed. I know Lindsey at one point pulled me aside and said, 'I don't know if I can do this,' because he was going through a lot of emotional pain, and it was hard to just be there for Stevie as a musical companion. I remember saying, 'You know what, Linds? This whole band isall about compromise. If this is completely not acceptable, that you see nothing here apart from being permanently miserable with no hope, then you should probably shouldn't be doing it. But if you can somehow create some line through this, then we can get through it.' Everyone was very focused. Lindsey's love for the musical process, from my observation, and the window of opportunity -- which was considerable -- that he knew was there, helped him hang in there and do what he felt he'd been sent to do. And that's probably why the band didn't break up. It was in many ways contingent on Lindsey, because he was the one who was suffering. I think Stevie was suffering, but she'd made her decision, and that was to have a disconnect with Lindsey. And he handled it really well, considering the pain he was in."
Rumours, as the new record was finally named, arrived in stores in February 1977, preceded by the single "Go Your Own Way." The album's initial shipment was 800,000 copies, the first time Warners had pressed so many at one time. By spring Mac were back on the road, promoting the disc, and living the lavish superstar lifestyle that would become their hallmark in the late '70s, a symbol of the excesses of the music business.
"I don't think any of us got completely ga-ga over it," Fleetwood speculates. "Me and John, emotionally, we'd been really successful, had the number one hits in Europe. Christine had had some of it on her solo thing. I think it served as we've been up, we've been down, it's come, it's gone, we're back, and that became almost a mantra to this day. We're not a very skillfully run corporation, but we seem to survive. The transition was somewhat tempered. It certainly wasn't a problem to be enjoying comforts. But we didn't quite realize how successful we were, which was sort of charming. We were probably making enough money not to be driving around in two station wagons, and the equipment went ahead.
"Then we started living a life. The Stones and Led Zepplin were the bands that set the precedent of the excesses of the good life on the road. I think we just joined the ranks of that, I don't think we outdid anyone, although the romanticizing of Fleetwood Mac's history tends to put us almost at the top of the list. We lived in that bubble, we toured in a world within a world for many, many years. Everyone was part of the family. We treated everyone who worked with us incredibly well -- our road crew had their own limos. We had everyone on medical. We were probably a bunch of fools, to tell the truth. We weren't really aware -- including myself -- since was managing the affairs. We tried to save money on a couple of tours and everyone complained. It was like being in the Roaring '20s."
By late spring Rumours was selling some 800,000 copies every week, claiming the number one spot without any challenge, while it went double platinum in the U.K. It would go on to sell a total of 20 million copies, making it the biggest-selling album in history -- at least until Michael Jackson came along with Thriller a few years later. There were Grammys, American Music Awards. Mac were at the very top of the tree.
Success brought its own pressures, and there was no let-up in the cycle of record and tour. No sooner were they off the road than they were back in the studio to start work on the next album.
But the winds of change had started to blow around them. Punk and New Wave had graduated from the streets and into the charts, at least in a diluted fashion. The ideas they brought and focused, about cutting back music to the bone, made a big impact on Lindsey Buckingham, who'd become the group's main songwriter. And he wanted to take the band away from style they'd established to something leaner and much rawer.
"I think Lindsey's sensibilities...he was listening to the Clash. I was just relieved some bands were doing that, but we didn't sound like that. But he thought, 'Why can't you do that?' and he identified with what he thought were some of the musical emotive processes that were maybe not going in, but his picture was that there shouldn't be certain boundaries. And that became a context for Lindsey to see the way we made that album. He was to the fore of it. You can't just make a solo album and put it on a Fleetwood Mac album; that just wouldn't be right. And there was some of that, which I think John, and myself a little bit, thought 'well, is he coming in to the studio?' Lindsey and I spent a couple of days sitting around talking about whether he was going to leave or whether we were going to make an album he'd be happy making, and have some room to breathe in his own world and experiment without upsetting everyone. And we did end up with that album. We also ended up totally open to the process of what Lindsey was doing. We built the studio to make the album. I think there was some fright and fear in Lindsey's world -- what if I can't do this, and if I can't I'm not going to be happy. I think he felt that there was some wall he had to get through before this was given the all clear. I remember saying to him, 'you just have to make sure it feels like the band.' That and Then Play On are my favorite albums, actually. I really like Tusk, I think it sounds great. If you listen to the 5.1 things that were mixed out of that album, there's some pretty cool shit going on."
Fleetwood may have loved it, but the record company wasn't quite as overjoyed, in part because they were scared of this new sound. Mac had become an automatic income generator, a healthy plus on the bottom line, and this could scare away the fans. Not only that, "they weren't thrilled that we were doing a double album because the whole record business was collapsing. They thought that it was total suicide, and they tried very hard to persuade us not to do it. Again, to their credit, while I'm sure they could have just said 'You're not going to do this,' they didn't. Maybe we suffered because of it, maybe we didn't. I look at is as, if we hadn't made that album we wouldn't have had a band anyhow. It didn't sell zillions of copies, but it wasn't a failure. It was much more expensive than a single album. I think it sold about five million albums, which was a step backwards for us. I think Lindsey took a lot of flak in his own world for that, which wasn't necessary."
Of course, Tusk did have its own excesses, such as the title cut, where 112 members of the University of Southern California Marching Band were recorded in Dodger Stadium. But in general terms it was astonishing in its focus, an artistic success that moved the band out of their South California comfort and into a more dangerous zone.
In order to win over fans, and also push the record in the face of a high ($16) price tag, Warners was aggressive with its marketing strategies. One of their ideas, however, was a misfire from the word go: They gave the album to the Westwood One radio network, which aired it in its entirety, in sequence, giving everyone with a cassette recorder the chance to own it for nothing.
"That was ridiculous, and that was Warner Brothers' fault. I said, 'I don't think you should be doing this,' and they said, 'Oh no, it's all part of a new thing, friendly to radio.' But there are people with tape machines out there. And they played the whole album! I should have stopped it. But they'd convinced me it was part of a new, cutting-edge marketing thing. Who knows how much damage it did? To me it was like a milestone of stupidity, and rolling the dice unnecessarily. But the album survives, and it's getting more of a classical thing to it, the way people relate to that album. I would have loved to have the Best of Tusk, our choice songs on a single album, and maybe one day we will."
The tour for Tusk was bigger and longer than ever, taking a year (in two legs) to go around the world.
"It was a long time," Fleetwood agrees. "We'd been on the road or in the studio for about 10 years. We were living life high on the hog and we were getting a bit frazzled. We did need a rest when that came to an end, and we got that. I think Stevie and Lindsey were getting some pull from people around them. Stevie managed to juggle a solo career and Fleetwood Mac for years, which was a huge stress. I don't know how she did it. But she honored being in the band. I think there were several months in Lindsey's mind as to when he was going to bail, which turned out to be after we made Tango in the Night. He wanted out before it sucked him in, into a world he has no real respect for. We all had a nice life, including him. But he's happy if he has a pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers, as long as his car works. Therefore he didn't have the distractions. I enjoyed the life, Stevie enjoyed the life, Christine enjoyed the life. John was a bit more like Lindsey, not quite so lunatic. We had a ball until it got too much for anybody to handle."
Fleetwood himself used the break to travel to Ghana, working with local musicians to make The Visitor, which included a very different version of Tusk's "Walk a Thin Line."
"The sound on it holds up, and I still enjoy it." We recorded it on two Stevens 16-track [machines]. They were made by a very eccentric chap. They're all sealed, and they're probably one of the better-sound tape recorders ever made. They survived Africa. That album was a lot of fun."
Other members, too, worked on solo projects, and after the release of the inevitable Fleetwood Mac Live, regrouped for Tango in the Night, which proved to be the swan song for that line-up. By then they were already sliding from their peak. As the '70s became the '80s, with MTV and a rash of younger bands getting huge, Mac's reign had come to an end.
More recently the classic '70s personnel have regrouped, first for an MTV Unplugged performance, which became a tour and then 1997's The Dance album, which contained some new material among the golden oldies. They followed, albeit some six years later, with Say You Will, 18 songs that worked well, although Christine McVie only contributed keyboards, not vocals and no longer tours. It worked better than it should have, really, and much of the credit lay with Buckingham.
"Lindsey seems huge amounts of vision with unrelenting focus. He'll stick on something until he gets an answer about how we'll do something. It's sometimes awkward, and it's sometimes tiring, you can't believe someone's that intense. The payoff in the ranks of Fleetwood Mac is that we have someone like that. He doesn't win all the battles, but he'll fight for something he believes in. And when you look back, you thank the Lory he actually did."
All of which begs the question -- can Fleetwood Mac go on forever, like the Stones?
"I see an end," Fleetwood says. "Certainly if there's one more decision by anybody, this would never be tried again, unless we all said let's do it again. Right now there's a band with no intention of stopping. The touring reconnected [us] in a way none of us ever expected, and it's been fun. We are able to do that, and sensibly we can't say we'll go away for five years, we'll all get too long in the tooth. Stevie wants to do some poetry, art, children's books. She has plans for days that aren't here yet, but are probably going to loom in her world five years from now. I would think the Stones have said that hundreds of times! I would think that in five years this band won't be going out on the road for a year. Would we be able to make an album and do something to promote it? It's hard to say. Touring now is so much easier because we're a lot more consistent, we go to sleep at night. I would love to make another album, although I'm not sure that's going to happen in a timely fashion. I know Lindsey wants to do it. I think Stevie has some trepidations as to whether she wants to spend a year or so in the studio, then do the touring. But we'll see. I think if we could get it done quickly, but we don't trust ourselves. I'd love to think we could do an album in eight months, but it's always a year and a half. I see this band being active for at least another five years, maybe more."
The reissues of Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, and Tusk (the last two both add an entire CD of bonus material) showcase a band coming into its strength and quickly finding its prime. For those who were around at the time, much of the music is heavily familiar -- a reminder of the time when you couldn't switch on the radio without hearing the group. But it's material that's stood the test of time well, and the demos, outtakes, and alternate versions offer an excellent insight into the creative processes (not to mention the tensions) of what was really the era's superstar pop band.
Thanks to Daniel for the transcription and submission.
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