by Andrew Galvin
March 1976, California: all hell has broken loose. After months of next to no conversation between the members of Fleetwood Mac, a huge battle is taking place between the band’spower couple, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Both hurl vicious insults at each other, as the band’s keyboardist Christine McVie begins working out the chords to You Make Loving Fun, a song about her current affair; made all the more awkward by the fact that her ex-husband John is stood across the room holding his bass guitar.
The band realise that they are recording. Immediately, Nicks and Buckingham are silenced, wandering forward to share a microphone as Christine’s instantly recognisable keyboard riff bursts into life and the pair exchange exquisite Californian backing vocals.
This was the backdrop for Fleetwood Mac in early 1976: not an occasional flair up, but a painful daily grind for all five members. Unable to communicate past music talk in fear of a blazing row, they instead poured all their pain, regret, fury, accusations and drug abuse into eleven songs that conquered the world.
Fleetwood Mac had, of course, been a going concern for the last decade. Formed by Peter Green in London and becoming the frontrunners in the 60s blues explosion, by 1975, Green had long been lost to schizophrenia, leaving just drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie and wife Christine standing.
While at the house of producer Keith Olsen, Mick Fleetwood was admiring Olsen’s new sound system, which was duly showed off in style. Fleetwood was knocked sideways by the blistering guitar solo which came flying out of the record player. A meeting was swiftly organised with the unknown guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, and he was invited to join the ailing group on the spot. He said yes, on the proviso that his partner and girlfriend Stevie Nicks came along as well.
Buckingham-Nicks would introduce themselves to the world with the full-throttle howl of Rhiannon, a hit which helped propel the band’s eponymous tenth album to the top of the US charts.
The band made the most of the success, and set out on a gruelling tour around the world. Strung out, exhausted and getting slowly more reliant on drink and drugs to keep them going, events soon took their toll. As John McVie’s drinking got to be more of an issue, Christine left him, and divorce papers were soon filed.
The changing band dynamic was also starting to rock the once-inseparable Buckingham-Nicks. As a duo, Lindsey had always been the star, but suddenly Stevie was front-centre of the stage, the success of Rhiannon making her a genuine star. The fights between the pair started soon after. “My success was not easy for Lindsey, not easy for any of them,” Nicks told Spin Magazine, “And I just felt terrible about that”.
Even the band’s man-mountain leader couldn’t escape emotional torment: sick of being second to the band, Jenny Fleetwood quickly shacked up with his best friend, Bob Weston.
With members not talking to each other, the band retired to their Californian studio in February 1976, the rhythm section promptly spending the next two months partying. Most evenings would start with a feast of both food and cocaine, so by the time they finally came to record or play anything at around 1am, they were too high to make any sense.
As Fleetwood and McVie dined on a diet of endless women and drugs, and the girls hid out in their Californian condominium, it was up to Lindsey to find the breakthrough and move the album forward. Unable to get space from Stevie, he poured his frustrations into the nasty and dark lyrics of a new song called Go Your Own Way. The song, later described by Fleetwood as “a bittersweet testimony from one lover to another”, its anger and bitterness was masked in pop songcraft of the highest order.
Nicks was quick to see through the song. One line in particular (“packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do”) caused the most pain. She told Rolling Stone, “He knew it wasn’t true. It was just an angry thing that he said...I wanted to go over and kill him”. Speaking in 2009, Nicks admitted that she still hadn’t forgiven Lindsey for the lyric. Not that her songs were much brighter. Sneaking off one afternoon, Stevie put together one of her most beloved songs, Dreams, as a response to Go Your Own Way (“you say you want your freedom...”). I Don’t Want To Know, meanwhile, spoke for itself while album closer Gold Dust Women detailed the dangers of cocaine.
Christine’s songs, however, were full of warmth and love. Don’t Stop was a nod of affection to her now ex-husband, letting him know that it would all be ok in the end, and Oh Daddy was a dedication to the band’s hurt and damaged leader Mick.
However, Songbird was something a little more special. Playing it in what she thought was an empty studio, what McVie didn’t know was that producer Ken Caillat was listening in the control room. Struck by the ballad’s powerful call for inner strength, Caillat realised this needed something a bit grander. So he took Christine out of the studio and into the nearby Zellerbach Hall, looking to give the song a bit of ambience. A grand piano was set up in the main hall, with a single spotlight on it. McVie walked up to the piano to find it decked out in roses and champagne, and began to play. This live version was the one that ended up on the album.
Songbird’s isolated creation was indicative of an album whose musical complexity, as well as the lack of communication between band members, dictated that the songs be built up bit by bit with overdubs. Arguably Rumours’ most ubiquitous song, The Chain, would take this to its logical conclusion.
Starting with that bassline from John, Fleetwood and Buckingham soon joined in to put together the powerful ending to something...they just didn’t know what. Determined to finish the song himself, Lindsey eventually caved in and handed it over to Nicks, Taking an old song that the pair had written years back, she found it fitted perfectly, and the band’s only full-band composition was born, bit by bit. Formula 1 would never sound the same again.
Rumours was released on February 4th, 1977, going straight to number one in the US, where it would stay, undefeated, for the next six months. The album’s melancholic lyrics against the Californian sunshine of the music struck a chord internationally, with the album going on to sell forty million copies, the 9th biggest seller of all time.
Speaking to Melody Maker at the time, Fleetwood would describe Rumours as, “Introspective and interesting, kind of like a soap opera. The album will show sides of people in this group that were never exposed before.” How right he was.