An album that was written and recorded while the band’s relationships were going through hell, the reason a whole generation of Americans spell the word ‘romors’ as us British people do and was the epitome of the AOR punk was trying to blast away? Not the strongest place to start in trying to sell this particular album to you, I suppose, although you’d likely be intrigued. But I think Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, has always had a bit of an image problem. But don’t let all that fool you; it’s an astoundingly good album.
I first heard Rumours in 1988, over a decade after it was released, and it sounded like an album out of time and at odds with the Fleetwood Mac I knew through Tango in the night. Tango, the Mac’s highly successful 1987 album, was a polished and perhaps over produced comeback, copies of which were finding their way onto coffee tables across late ’80s Britain. I’d expected Rumours to be more of the same, and was met with a band sounding stripped of 1980s production styles, a fact which has left Tango sounding far more dated to 21st century ears. Still, despite my teenage hesitance, I could tell Rumours was a good album and I instantly recognised the opening of “The Chain” as the music from the BBC’s Formula 1 racing programmes. Of course, the album sold millions worldwide, and once held a record for the most weeks on the UK album chart (not sure if that still stands). It certainly spent about 4 months at no.1 in the States. But it felt like music from another time and place in 1988, with the echoes of something deeper going on. The something deeper was the five people in Fleetwood Mac and their relationships (either with each other, or with outsiders), and I think that’s the clue to why this album still means something to me. There’s also a fairly memorable piece of cover art there as well, although what on earth Fleetwood and Nicks are actually doing in that photograph is open for debate.
Fleetwood Mac formed in the late ‘60s and found success as a blues rock band. Their biggest British single is still 1968’s instrumental “Albatross” (their only UK no.1 hit). Then of course, guitarist Peter Green went ‘round the bend a bit and set the precedent for all Mac guitarists. The most famous line up made their vinyl debut in 1975 after rhythm section and founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, with his now ex-wife Christine, hooked up with Californians Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Lindsay and Nicks were involved in a romantic relationship then of course (Oh…take it easy, boys…. Lindsay is a bloke). By then The Mac were an American (based) soft rock group that bore only a passing resemblance to Green’s Brit-blues combo. Yet for many, this is where the Fleetwood Mac soap opera started getting interesting, in a mire of trashed emotions and drug addiction with the plastic world of sunny California as a backdrop. The album can sound deceptively laid back and sunny, in that easy Californian way, but often the love songs are tainted with blacker moods; dual emotions.
It was all about love and hate, then. The earlier Fleetwood Mac album must have been a breeze to make compared to the grief that went into making Rumours. You could argue that if nobody in the band had had designs on each other, we wouldn’t have got such a great record. It wasn’t created in a melting pot of fidelity, that’s for sure. Stevie and Lindsey were separating for good, and Christine was musing on her past relationship with John. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood was going through his own bitter separation. That album was the sound of divorce on wax, whilst on a diet of cocaine. Serious shitloads of coke, by all accounts.
So even in 1977, I suppose Rumours was an album out of time. It didn’t have anything to do with Disco or Punk- the two most prominent styles of the day.I suppose it sounded oddly dated back then, a bit more 1967 than ’77, with some songs displaying laid back harmonies and a deceptive veneer of Californian sunshine. But if the music had the half forgotten kiss of the summer of love, there was no love being lost between some of the band. Yet that added to their talent for this outing, rather than taking something away. One thing to keep in mind, you see, is what a good band Fleetwood Mac was and is (especially in this incarnation). Whatever chaos there was between them, in the studio this was a band working in beautiful harmony. There is a distinctly different approach to the three main songwriter’s contributions, with Buckingham, Nicks and McVie being allowed to fulfill their own expression. Nicks, for one, is the sound of the ambiguous wise mystic in contrast to McVie’s more lyrically accessible stories of love and lust. But even in those commercially sweet moments, McVie is singing about love gone wrong. “You make loving fun” is about her illicit affair, not about her husband. By the time you reach “The Chain”, you’ll be stunned such a disfunctional band could produce something so tight and potent, throbbing with driving intent. The Mac never truly rocked out in the usual sense, but they could still surprise you. “Gold dust woman” ends the album with a menacing and melancoly melody, arriving in its dying moments to the sound of wails, dark heartbeat drums and the end of love.
Rumours is a bitter sweet collection of confession, blame, regret and possible reconciliation. It’s the sound of love gone wrong, put there by a group of talented but damaged individuals.
“ Well, here you go again”, sings Nicks at the very beginning of the album, “you say you want your freedom”. But what price for freedom? Is there another way? These are questions many of us will hear in our own lives at some point, and sometimes it feels like we get it right, sometimes not. Either way, it’s oddly pleasing to hear what Fleetwood Mac made of it all. If you open your heart enough you run the risk of being hurt and often that can mean being hurt badly. You may also hurt other people. Rumours is all about that. Songs like “Songbird” and “Dreams” are so perfectly poignant, that they could easily bring on tears. Yet with “Don’t stop” there’s hope for the future and a promise for a brighter tomorrow, with the earnt reward of experience. Just like real life, if you want it. A great record then, and one that’ll mean something to anyone who’s fallen in and out of love.
Also, when a band can still record and tour together over thirty years later, and make good music, you know that there’s a bond that made Rumours special and that bond keeps people together, even after so much pain. It might take Buckingham and Nicks a lifetime to truly forgive and be true friends again, but in some ways Fleetwood Mac is their life work and it remains a bigger concern than their strife. For all they probably had to forgive themselves for, and any regrets that might linger, I don’t think they need to feel any regrets about Rumours.
An alternative version of this post first appeared on this site five years ago.