Source Material: Fleetwood Mac, 'Rumours'
by Justin Farrar | January 30, 2013
Fleetwood Mac fans, rejoice: Warner Bros. has just unleashed the 35th-anniversary edition of Rumours, a deluxe package packed with all manner of goodies, from outtakes to demos to live material. With its release, we here at Rhapsody thought it the perfect time to submit the landmark album to our Source Material treatment.
The record's origin story is more than legendary -- it's a fable embedded deep within pop's historical consciousness. After a wildly popular 1975 self-titled album showed off the group's newest assets -- pop whiz-kid Lindsey Buckingham and his witchy-woman girlfriend Stevie Nicks -- the group entered a state of psychic and emotional free-fall: Christine and John McVie divorced, Buckingham and Nicks split, and Mick Fleetwood and his wife, Jenny, broke up. All of this, mind you, unfolded in a haze of alcohol, cocaine, infidelity and an endless stream of gossip splashed across every rock rag on the planet. But amazingly, maybe even psychotically, the group opted to soldier on, eventually creating 1977's mighty Rumours, one of the biggest-selling pop albums of all time, an instant pop-rock classic imbued with all that pain and turmoil and rotten love in every hook, note and beat.
All drama aside, what the group achieved musically is startling. The album is -- on a certain level, anyway -- simple and direct: catchy fodder tailor-made for the heavy-rotation demands of '70s radio. Yet if you spend time dismantling its construction, a wealth of influences and inspirations emerges. Anchored by the triple-headed songwriting talents of Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie, The Mac forged a collection of tunes fusing the emotional heft and cool resignation of the singer-songwriter movement (Joni, Jackson, Carole) with the innocently candied hooks of perfect pop (The Beach Boys, Elton, Todd Rundgren, Buddy Holly).
Yet the album is equally synthetic in the way it reconciled various aspects of the folk-rock tradition up to that point in the mid-'70s. All the deliciously layered vocal work on Buckingham's "Second Hand News" and "Go Your Own Way" betrays his deep appreciation for the harmonies of The Mamas and The Papas (another group infamously mired in drama), Simon & Garfunkel, and early Jefferson Airplane. Christine McVie, meanwhile, brought a distinctly British folk-rock vibe to the group: In her ghostly ballads "Songbird" and "Oh Daddy," one can detect subtle hints of the tragic beauty of Sandy Denny. Her performances on both are absolutely haunting; no matter what personal pain she's revealing lyrically, her voice, dark and cavernous, remains an ocean of mystery.
But unlike McVie, Nicks was far more of a world-weary, gypsy-queen extrovert. On "Gold Dust Woman" ("Take your silver spoon/ Dig your grave") and "Dreams" ("Players only love you when they're playing"), she flaunts her own pain, and in the process makes it sound so cool and elegant, like a cross between Janis, Ronnie Spector and Diana Ross. Consequently, the girl-group influence really comes out in her choked-up delivery, which contains a bottomless array of microscopic inflections and shades.
As for the musicianship and production, two qualities stand out. The first revolves around bassist John McVie and drummer Fleetwood: They're punchy and skeletal in ways a lot of pop rock rhythm sections simply weren't at the time. In this sense, they recall the strikingly economic sound drummer Timmy Donald and bassist Pat Donaldson achieved on Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (released in 1974).
The second quality -- which is more of a bigger-picture insight -- has to do with producer Ken Caillat and how he and the band applied a painting-with-sound approach. A clinic in shading, texture and atmosphere, the album possesses an uncanny ability to sound muted and compact, but also rich and expansive. "Gold Dust Woman" might be the best example of this, what with its ambient-like splashes of cosmic guitar and ethereal echo. Very few records achieved this mix before Rumours; one that did is Gene Clark's No Other (also from '74). If you've never heard this forgotten high point in California country rock, and you love '70s-era Fleetwood Mac, make a point of giving it a listen as soon as possible.
And now, on to the albums that comprise Rumours' source material.