Q Magazine (04/2004), Mad World
Q Magazine, April 2004, Issue 213
Warning: Joining this band could seriously affect your sanity
Darkness seeps through the light on Rumours: sun-kissed LA pop with an ugly black heart.
Spring 1976, and Mick Fleetwood is about to witness something strange. Fleetwood Mac are making their 12th album, Rumours, at The Record Plant in Sausalito, California. There are five very disparate individuals in the group now. Vocalist Stevie Nicks and singer/guitarist Lindsey Buckingham occupy the US corner: a couple of gifted prima donnas whose personal relationship is unravelling before their bandmates' eyes. English gentleman drummer Fleetwood's wife has just run off with his best friend. Meanwhile, bassist and fellow Brit John McVie is barely on speaking terms with his soon-to-be ex-spouse, vocalist/keyboard player Christine. Worse still, despite no end of retakes, their tireless consumption of Dom Pérignon, hash cakes and cocaine ensures that the music they make never sounds on tape like it does in their heads.
Even against this backdrop, what greets Fleetwood as he enters the studio will shake his understanding of the band. McVie is a no-nonsense Londoner, reared, like Fleetwood, on the British blues circuit of the '60s. While his hotshot American bandmates may have heads full of Californian bullshit, McVie is too grounded for any of that. Until now. Crippled with self-doubt while trying to nail a tricky bass part and believing he's alone, McVie drops to his knees and starts praying in front of a picture of the Indian guru, Maharaji. Stumbling across this incongruous scene, Fleetwood realises that the whole band, even his trusty lieutenant, have careened wildly off the rails.
With the reissue of these three albums, the listening public can revisit the torment of these relationships. Rumours and Tusk now come with second discs of demos and out-takes, including the Rumours-era, Nicks-penned Silver Springs added to the body of the main album. Disappointingly for voyeurs, there's no marital squabbling to be heard, although someone - Fleetwood, presumably - counts time in the manner of a shrieking banshee on an early take of Rumours' Gold Dust Woman.
The making of Rumours has become a high watermark of excess in Fleetwood Mac's history, but the group had been dogged by trouble from the off: since 1969 they'd lost three guitarists to religious cults and/or drugs-related mental illness. By late '74, once more pared down to the core trio of Fleetwood and the McVies, they'd washed up in Los Angeles, their future uncertain and perceived by their record company as a blues band incapable of writing hit singles. Three years later Rumours would yield four US Top 10 hits. But first, they needed someone to help write them.
Californian Lindsey Buckingham and Arizona-born Stevie Nicks had recorded as a duo, Buckingham Nicks, before the former took a call from Mick Fleetwood on New Year's Eve'74. By now Nicks was waiting tables for a living, and Buckingham's gallant proviso for joining Fleetwood Mac was that they took his singing girlfriend on as well. Christine McVie was given power to veto the decision, but warmed to Nicks, sensing strength in female numbers.
Fleetwood Mac  was recorded in a matter of weeks, driven by a band eager to get back on the road and earn a crust. They toured it into the ground and, 15 months later, in September '76, it had crept to the top of the US charts. In World Turning, Crystal and Rhiannon, Nicks and Buckingham contributed songs that remain among their career best. Striking still is how this summery, air-conditioned rock contrasted with the dirty-fingernailed blues of the original band. Although Christine McVie's Home Counties voice flies a tattered Union Jack, her songs seem to have acquired a honey tan. Buckingham's slobbering admiration of The Beach Boys seeps through on Monday Morning and a guitar solo on which you can practically smell the doobie smouldering between his fingers. Somewhere down the road The Eagles were refining a similar strand of top-down Los Angeles freeway rock but, for now, this extended family of journeyman Brits and younger Americans had taken the lead.
By the time they reconvened in February 1976 at Record Plant to make Rumours, the band were in pieces. Nicks and Christine McVie bonded over their broken relationships, while their estranged other halves clashed: the perfectionist Buckingham, emerging as the ideas man, getting a glass of vodka in his face from an angry John McVie. Groupies latched on to the newly single men; dealers kept the bag on top of the mixing desk filled with cocaine, and everyone was writing songs about everyone else. Rumours fine-tuned the last album's easy West Coast grooves, but it's the the darkness seeping through the light that makes it such a powerful record; sun-kissed LA pop with an ugly black heart. Christine McVie's You Make Loving Fun is a tribute to her new partner on which, of course, her ex-husband has to play bass; Buckingham's spitting Go Your Own Way a barely coded instruction to Nicks, herself forced to add backing vocals to this Dear Stevie letter. Then there's The Chain, neutered by endless use as TV background music but, in the context of Rumours, a glowing example of cathartic songwriting: the damaged band hunkering down together and acknowledging the hole they've dug themselves into.
Rumours' overriding air of West Coast easiness - all silver coke spoons and crushed velvet suits - blighted the group in the eyes of critics, tiring of old rock's complacency in the days of punk. None of that matters now. To post-war British long-hairs such as Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, California, with its copious sunshine, sex and drugs, must have seemed like paradise. Rumours is the sound you'd expect from these imperfect Brits and their perfect Californian cousins. You might as well have told The Clash not to sound like they lived in a West London tower block.
Oddly it was The Clash and their contemporaries who were to inspire Lindsey Buckingham when he retreated to his home studio to make their next album. Rumours sold 10 million copies in its first year, but Buckingham felt bruised by its critics and wary of duplicating its commercial formula. A double vinyl album at a time when the industry was already suspicious of such things, it took more than a year and a then-shocking million dollars to finish.
Buckingham's discontent runs through '79's Tusk like indelible ink: his songs often struggle for punk's imperfection before being wrestled to the ground by sunny backing vocals. Tusk pinballs between its guitarist's angry, spartan rock [Not That Funny], Christine McVie's sometimes trite soft pop [Never Make Me Cry] and Nicks's mad-woman warbling [Sisters Of The Moon]. Somehow, they managed a hit with the title track. Tusk's schizophrenia is jarring and fascinating: as Nicks's beguiling Sara sashays out of the mist to be usurped by Buckingham's fretting What Makes You Think You're The One, on which Mick Fleetwood sounds like a hyperactive child banging a toy drum. Today, you could edit your own version, cutting out McVie's deadwood and sectioning Buckingham's paranoid rants. But its messiness is part of Tusk's, and indeed Fleetwood Mac's, charms.
By the start of the '80s the rot had set in and a decade of diminishing returns and Betty Ford Clinic visits awaited. These albums - drug comedowns, marital strife, Indian gurus and all - should be savoured just the way they are.
Thanks to MS for the submission.
2004-04-01 Number of views: