Happy 40th Anniversary to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, originally released February 4, 1977.
Many studies have suggested that expectant parents who regularly speak to their baby in utero are aiding in an important early step in their child’s language development, while also strengthening the attachment the baby has for his or her parents. Similar studies have pointed to the positive impact that playing music during the prenatal months has on a baby’s budding auditory recognition. In my case, I wouldn’t be surprised if I happened to learn that my obsession with song began way back in the cozy confines of the womb, aided in no small part by my parents’ fantastic taste in music.
I was born in October 1977, eight months—nearly to the day—after Fleetwood Mac released their watershed album Rumours in early February of that year. And while my parents’ voices undoubtedly figured prominently in my earliest aural experiences, I’m also convinced that three other voices made an indelible mark on my blossoming brain: Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie.
Even if completely unknowingly, I suspect that Rumours, a staple of my parents’ record collection that they played often during my incubation, was the record that first fed the curiosity that would subsequently evolve into my full-fledged love for the album format. Indeed, if there is a single album to which the earliest seeds of Albumism can be traced, it’s unquestionably Rumours.
Granted, a few years would pass after I was born before I was old enough to truly recognize the brilliance of Rumours’ eleven songs. But suffice to say that Fleetwood Mac—and the crystal visions of the band’s bewitching sorceress of song, Stevie Nicks, in particular—left a permanent imprint on my young mind, heart and soul. Though its classification as “West Coast Rock” is admittedly a bit cliché, I consider no album to be more synonymous with my upbringing in the Golden State than this one.
Shrouded in a rock & roll mystique rivaled by few albums, Rumours’ infamous and extensively documented backstory is notable for many reasons. First, the album followed—and eventually eclipsed—the success of its immediate precursor, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac. A breakthrough album in its own right, the band’s self-titled long player formally introduced the aspiring and remarkably adept songwriting duo of Buckingham and Nicks. The pair’s energy and compositions (Nicks’ “Rhiannon” and “Landslide,” Buckingham’s “Monday Morning”) fundamentally reconfigured Fleetwood Mac’s sound and revived the band’s career, which had been gradually declining after nine, largely blues-rock imbued studio albums and the group’s late ‘60s, Peter Green indebted heyday.
“I didn’t want someone that was going to mimic what we’d done before,” drummer and co-founder Mick Fleetwood told Mojo magazine back in 2013. “That would have been hokey. Lindsey and Stevie came to us fully formed. It worked right from the start. Chris, Lindsey and Stevie’s voices created these wonderful harmonies.” Indeed, the creative and seemingly instant chemistry that the American Buckingham and Nicks so gloriously cultivated with Brits Fleetwood, keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie, and bassist John McVie transformed Fleetwood Mac from a cult favorite with a modest track record of success in their native UK to international megastars many times over.
In addition to the musical context behind Rumours’ genesis, the album was created amidst incredible personal upheaval for all five of the band members. Fleetwood had recently finalized a divorce from his wife, Jenny Boyd. The McVies’ marriage disintegrated, but Christine and John persevered, at least professionally, for the greater good of the band. Meanwhile Buckingham and Nicks’ romance began to unravel as well. As a result of the pervasive turmoil, recording sessions were invariably fraught with tension and bitterness, emotions that inevitably bled into the songs themselves.
“You can look at Rumours and say, ‘Well, the album is bright and it’s clean and it’s sunny,’” Buckingham explained to Uncut magazine in 2003. “But everything underneath is so dark and murky. What was going on between us created a resonance that goes beyond the music itself. You had these dialogues shooting back and forth about what was going down between us and we were chronicling every nuance of it. We had to play the hand out and people found it riveting. It wasn’t a press creation. It was all true and we couldn’t suppress it. The built-in drama cannot be underplayed as a springboard to that album’s success.”
In retrospect, the fact that the record even came to fruition at all is a credit to the individual band members’ dedication to and belief in their musical partnership. “I am often still flabbergasted at how the hell we managed to make it in the first place,” Christine McVie admitted to Mojo in 2013. “But that was what tied us together—we knew that the music was good.”
Produced by Ken Caillat and largely recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California throughout 1976, rumors—no pun intended—of the band’s liberal cocaine use and overindulgent recording practices still run rampant, many of them having long been substantiated by the band themselves. No matter though, as the group’s laundry list of shenanigans and dysfunction ultimately proved the means to a very gratifying end. The eleven excellent songs, which unfurl as the respective songwriters’ most personal of journal entries, matter much more than the studio hijinks and tabloid-friendly fodder that accompanied their creation.
Unlike most bands that typically boast one or perhaps two principal songwriters at most, Fleetwood Mac features a trio of gifted lyricists, and on the filler-free Rumours, the songwriting credits are divvied up in refreshingly egalitarian fashion among Buckingham, Nicks, and Christine McVie.
The album opens with Buckingham’s guitar-driven gallop “Second Hand News,” which establishes the core thematic thread of the album, with a deceptively upbeat rhythm that belies the pain and yearning within his lyrics. Evoking his split with Nicks, Buckingham regretfully acknowledges that she has moved on to a new lover, leaving him as little more than second hand news, an afterthought. But through his heartache, he’s not able to completely relinquish his desire for her, imploring her to reconsider matters, in the event that her new relationship runs afoul (“When times go bad / When times go rough / Won’t you lay me down in tall grass / And let me do my stuff?”).
The first single released from the album in December 1976, “Go Your Own Way” is a propulsive, buoyant slice of shimmering guitar-pop, which finds Buckingham struggling to reconcile his competing feelings of wanting to set Nicks free and accepting that he still loves her, reflecting that “If I could maybe I'd give you my world / How can I when you won't take it from me?” On the acoustic, lyrically sparse ditty “Never Going Back Again,” Buckingham adopts a noticeably more defiant tone, vowing to move forward with a new lover, never to return to the trials and tribulations of his flawed romance with Nicks.
Of her three compositions on the album, Nicks’ “Dreams”—which can be interpreted as her ever-so-thinly veiled response to Buckingham’s “Second Hand News”—is arguably the most memorable standout, and my personal favorite across the entirety of Rumours. Propelled by John McVie’s unforgettable bass groove, Nicks’ distinctive, versatile contralto is the voice of reason, resignation and clarity here, as she conveys little sympathy for her ex’s transgressions, while she commits to her new life without his love. In the pre-chorus, Nicks sings, “Like a heartbeat drives you mad / In the stillness of remembering what you had / And what you lost and what you had and what you lost,” cutting right to the crux of the emotional and psychological consequences that Buckingham must now confront. Rather astonishingly, considering the incisiveness and evocative imagery she brings to the song, Nicks claims that it took her all of an hour to write “Dreams.”
One of Rumours’ small handful of underappreciated tracks, Nicks’ wrote “I Don’t Want to Know” prior to joining Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and—much to her chagrin at the time—it replaced her “Silver Springs” (later released as the B-side to “Go Your Own Way”) in the album’s final track listing. An endearing duet by Buckingham and Nicks that examines the complexity and ambivalence of love, the song is also an intriguing artifact of the duo’s more innocent days together, before fame and glory arrived.
"The definitive magical Stevie Nicks vocal would have to be 'Gold Dust Woman,'" producer Ken Caillat insisted to Grammy.com back in 2012. "She was possibly possessed at the end of that song." Beyond Nicks’ impressive vocal performance on her ode to a troubled soul who finds escapism through cocaine, among other destructive vices, the meticulously produced “Gold Dust Woman” is also the album’s most intriguing and unorthodox track, musically speaking, with Buckingham incorporating more obscure dobro and sitar elements within the arrangement.
Though often overshadowed by the more prominent public personas of her California-bred bandmates, Christine McVie contributes four sublime songs that reinforce her multi-dimensional talents as a songwriter, vocalist, and instrumentalist. The most instantly recognizable of her tunes is the exultant “Don’t Stop,” a duet with Buckingham that she penned in the wake of her breakup with John McVie. With a new lease on life and fresh optimism, McVie refuses to allow the past to destroy her spirit, as she accepts that “yesterday’s gone” and wonders, “Why not think about times to come? / And not about the things that you’ve done?” With its themes of forward-looking progress and renewal, it’s no wonder that Bill Clinton claimed “Don’t Stop” as the anthem for his successful 1992 presidential bid.
In keeping with the exuberant tone and tempo of “Don’t Stop,” the sanguine “You Make Loving Fun” is a funky, clavinet-fueled groove that finds McVie referencing an alleged affair and celebrating the redemptive power of new love. Her other two songs are more plaintive fare, with the gorgeous piano ballad “Songbird” standing as one of the album’s finest moments. Recorded in a single night at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium, “Songbird” can be interpreted as a post-breakup love letter to John or more broadly, an affirmation of the love that the band members have for each other, even despite their respective conflicts. In stark contrast to the more uplifting messages of the three aforementioned tracks, the somber “Oh Daddy” is a guilt-ridden plea to her lover and a haunting examination of their co-dependence.
An undeniable highlight and the only song on the album for which all five members share songwriting credits, “The Chain” is Fleetwood Mac’s impassioned fight song, their anthem of perseverance and loyalty to each other, if not personally, then at least creatively and professionally. Anyone who doesn’t feel chills upon listening to McVie’s bass-driven bridge that segues into Buckingham’s fevered guitar solo shortly after the song’s 3-minute mark needs to have their pulse taken and their ears examined. The fact that Fleetwood Mac are still going strong 40 years later affirms that the proverbial chain has never been broken and it has indeed kept them together longer than even they could have ever imagined.
Bookended by their other masterpieces, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and 1979’s Tusk, Rumours remains the high water mark of Fleetwood Mac’s prolific recorded repertoire, its critical accolades and commercial triumphs more than well deserved. Reflecting upon the album’s enduring appeal during a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Nicks confided, “I think the original feelings do come back. They take me right back to where we were….To me, they are always exciting. I never feel bored when we burst into one of our big hit songs, because what they were all written about was so heavy that they could never be boring.” The antithesis of boring, Rumours is a masterwork of emotion, passion, and the steadfast conviction in the power of music to overcome even the toughest challenges of life and love.
To this day, as I too approach my own 40th “anniversary” later this year, I consider Rumours to be one of the few truly indispensable albums in my vast collection, one of my four or five so-called desert island discs. “Celebrating our love affairs with albums past, present and future” is Albumism’s core mission, and my love affair with Rumours is unconditional and eternal.