06. Fleetwood Mac (part one of two: Rumours)

I was a little kid in 1977 when Fleetwood Mac's Rumours came out, but my awareness of popular music was already sufficient to notice that this record was everywhere. The album was a massive hit, and at least half of the songs on it are thought of as timeless classics. There is no denying that Rumours has become an absolute cornerstone of 1970s pop music. If you have lived in the United States long enough to have absorbed any significant amount of late 20th century popular culture, you know half of the songs on Rumours even if you've never made a conscious effort to hear it. The songs are just floating around out there in movies, on television, in advertisements, and on music systems in stores or restaurants or bars. They're heard at parties, at weddings, and other social gatherings. They've crept into the public consciousness to enough of a degree that they're comfortingly familiar, even to people who don't necessarily seek them out. They're part of the tapestry of American life.

All of that said: until today, I have never, ever, made a conscious effort to listen to Fleetwood Mac.  In fact, I have made a conscious effort to avoid them, particularly in my teen years, when my musical taste was in its most crucial state of development.  In the interest of questionable internet journalism, I grabbed a copy of Rumours for part one of my Fleetwood Mac excursion, and then a two-disc best-of called The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac for part two.  As always, I did no research into these records before listening.  I just played them and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  The only editing to my comments after the fact was for spelling and clarity.

Fleetwood Mac
Rumours (1977)

"Second Hand News"
Has Lindsey Buckingham ever heard of an intro?  Wow, a little chugga-chugga then right into the tune.  Bam.  This tune seems more country than I expected.  Super-wide panning on the guitars is kind of distracting.  What is this, 1967?  That awkward panning is a decade out of style.  Those dense breathy backing vocals are tight.  Probably took a while to do those.  Did they just push the drums way up in the mix at about 2:00?  It seems that he's singing about a guy who wants a final lay before he gets dumped.  Kinda pathetic, dude.  It's kind of funny that the choruses have no lyrics other than "Bow-bow-bow-bow-buh-bow bow, bow bow, doo da doodladoo"  He can't sing anything else while he's bonin'.  I hope I don't find myself thinking "bow-bow-bow-buh-bow bow" next time I am screwing someone.  Then, during the outro, we actually get the song title for the first time.  This song is competently composed and performed, but I'm not inspired by it in any way.

Annnnd, into the hits.  This lyric almost seems like it might be what the woman is singing in response to the man in the previous song.  Man... Stevie Nicks's vibrato.  It really is a thing.  But she has a little rasp too that I don't mind, but then also a softness.  Drummer Mick Fleetwood throwing in that floor tom on the two and four halfway through the verse is nice.  Then we get more complex layered vocals, but mixed subtly... until the chorus; then they overwhelm the lead.  But overall the mix is tight.  Comparing this to Marillion and Steve Miller (see previous posts), the mixing is much better here.  This band probably had a much bigger budget of course.  This little guitar break is tasty, he's got a volume pedal going there or something.  But does he flub a note at about 1:58?  This is a fine smooth rock song.  It doesn't really develop dynamically though.  Just does it's thing, repeats, then gets out of dodge.  

"Never Going Back Again"
Wow, more of this bluegrass influence.  I never knew.  The mastering here is off, this whole song needs to be turned down a few decibels compared to the previous song.  It feels too loud.  I was expecting much more expansive production on this record, but they're keeping it clean and straightforward so far, except for the expensive backing vocals.  The doubling of Buckingham's voice on this one doesn't work, it betrays the acoustic bluegrass feel of the song.  The girls on backing vocals sound nice though. The instruments are a bit bright, this song would have benefitted if they either warmed up the guitar or if the bass player did something to round out the bottom end.  Super minimalist lyrics too.  

"Don't Stop"
This is one of those tunes you know from the very first chord.  As soon as that first piano riff starts, it is unmistakable. I like the whispy little synth way in the background, contrasting with the honky-tonk piano.  Rhythm section is tight.  Drums sound beefy and lock in with the bass.  The band seem just a little restrained.  Like they're holding back just a shade.  But at least they build it up a little in the end.  The last couple of songs didn't have as much dynamic development.  That little pause in the third chorus is a good example.  Little surprises like that keep a song interesting.  This one is probably a rousing crowd-pleaser when performed live.  Probably a good show-closer actually.  Feel-good message and all that.  Seems like we're four-for-four on breakup songs so far.  Is this whole album about breakups?

"Go Your Own Way"
Another Buckingham song that leaps right to the point.  There's a good longing in his voice.  He's selling it.  That acoustic guitar in the right channel sounds like it's strung with chicken wire.  The toms sound like cardboard.  What's up?  The drums sounded so much better on the previous track.  Has Stevie Nicks only performed one lead vocal so far?  I thought she sang a lot more.  So her job here is backing vocals and shaker or something?  The electric guitar on this one - like most of the others so far - is fairly minimal, but it works well that way.  He leaves room for the keys and the layered vocals.  The little feedback thing in the second verse just provides some tension without taking over.  This guy is probably an under-rated guitarist; the flashy guys get all the props but there's a lot to be said for minimalism.  Restraint.  These mixes have some space in them.  The bridge kind of treads water though.  Not much happens.  Oh, then they push the guitar up and layer it for the outro solo.  Actually, not much happens for the last two minutes of the song.  The hook repeats, the guitar noodles, and the intensity builds a bit.  Except that chicken wire acoustic guitar.  Fucking hell that thing sounds bad.  Oh yeah, this song gains some energy and momentum toward the end.  And Stevie's(?) maracas even get a spotlight for a few bars starting at 2:59.  Never mind what I said earlier, this is the show-closer.

Piano ballad coming in, I'll bet Stevie sings this one.  Oh, nope.  Is that Christine McVie singing?  I didn't know she did any leads.  But I guess that was her on some of the verses of "Don't Stop".  See?  I don't know jack about this band... but somehow I know their names.  I believe she is also the keyboard player, so that's probably her on piano.  This tune is a throwaway.  I'm sure it means a lot to certain people because piano ballads always do, but there's nothing at all remarkable about this song.  Lyrics, melody, performance: all are adequate but none are special.  But I guess it becomes special if people make it special.  It's generic enough that it must get played at a crapton of weddings.  Well whatever, congratulations, but this album is not one to choose a wedding song from; until now it seems to be entirely about breakups.  Don't jinx the wedding, folks.  Divorce is expensive.  Y'know this song could be a breakup song too, from a certain point of view.

"The Chain"
Another instantly recognizable hit.  And yeah, how did the bluegrass thing never register with me before?  That's what I get for ignoring these songs all these years.  This one has some swagger to it.  The spaciousness and ambience of the verses mixed with the more assertive choruses are nice.  No real hook though: the chorus sounds like a pre-chorus that is going to explode into a big expansive chorus, but it always lets us down.  Kinda like the broken promise of a failed romance, perhaps.  Like someone who broke the chain when they said they wouldn't.  And.. oh wait... bass solo.  Kinda.  Not really a solo, just a sort of breakdown. 

Reminds me of a joke:
A guy visits a primitive far-off land.
As soon as he lands he can hear thundering drums everywhere.  
He asks his guide what's up with the drums.  
His guide says, in broken English: "Big festival, when drums stop, very bad".
They drive into town from the airport.  
The drums get louder.
The guy says "man, those drums are loud!"
His guide says "when drums stop, very bad".
The guy checks into his room, and can't sleep because of the drums, pounding on and on for many hours.  
He calls the front desk: "When are those drums going to stop?
The clerk says "when drums stop, very bad".
Finally the drums stop.  
Now in a panic, the guy runs out to the street.  
He finds a local and asks: "The drums stopped!  Now what?"
The local says "Drums stopped. Now, very bad"
"What, what!" screams the man.
The local looks at him and says:
"Bass solo".

Are we still on "The Chain"?  Ok, unlike that joke, this song kind of springs into life and goes to an unexpected place at the end.  And Stevie's tambourine also gets a bump in the end, like her shaker in the other song. Gotta let her contribution poke through a bit.  This is the most competently made album explored for this project (so far), but I'm just not feeling moved by it.  But I guess I understand why so many other people like it.   

"You Make Loving Fun"
Ok, this is Christine singing again.  Noted.  The squishy clavinet is always cool, and with that panned to one channel and the Rhodes piano in the other, it sounds like Christine is all over this song.  This one also just seems sort of bland to me.  I think maybe I don't like her songs much.  They are a lot less creative or surprising than Buckingham's.  They're predictable and tepid.  But they resonate with people.  But this is like the fifth hit from this album?  Geez!  Oh, and this one isn't a break-up song.  That's a switch.  That high-hat in the left channel is so distracting.  Pull it down!  Hm, was that a teeny tempo bump at 2:20?  Yeah, they're definitely speeding up.  The band are doing a nice job with the groove and arrangement, but the song itself - lyric and melody - doesn't have much life.  But still, that's five big hits on this record.  An impressive feat.

"I Don't Want To Know"
Another bluegrass-influenced number.  Do I hear a banjo in there?  Nice handclaps. Vocals are kind of buried.  They should be bumped up a notch for this sort of song, and maybe emphasize that by pulling the drums back a touch.  This isn't a disco tune or a rocker.  The drums don't need to dominate.  

"Oh Daddy"
More from Christine, now trying to get some understanding from her father (yes?).  No, maybe "daddy" is her significant other.  Good atmosphere here.  This is the best of her songs so far.  Drums wayyy too loud again, they interrupt this atmospheric floater and just draw too much attention to themselves.  Who thought they sounded good so loud?  He's not even playing anything especially interesting.  I'd almost like to hear an alternate mix with no drums at all.  There's a little organ solo at about 1:45 that's completely drowned out.  This one goes on way too long.  Overstays its welcome for sure.

"Gold Dust Woman"
Ok, here's Stevie.  And the cowbell!  "I need more cowbell.  I've got a fever, and the only cure is more cowbell!"  This one also has a nice sense of space, but this time it's the cowbell (and hi-hat) that interrupt it.  Sounds like they left a metronome turned on.  The cowbell starts slowwwwly fading at like 2:10.  See, this song sounds so much better now.  Then, the floor tom comes in.  Yes, this works much better.  Wait, now they're creeping the hi-hat up.  No, leave it where it was!  It's so distracting!  Someone is paying attention to the mix though, listen to how the reverb changes at :54.  That was a careful and detail-oriented choice.  It's not carelessness that caused them to allow this distracting cowbell the whole time, it was just a questionable creative choice. Imagine this one with all of the percussion gone, and it's so much better.  Like an ambient space jam. Little guitar licks coming in all over the place and all sorts of processed vocal bits.  Anyway, is she singing about cocaine in the beginning?  Probably.  But it's another breakup song, ultimately.  Good album closer.  Wouldn't have worked in any other position in the running order.  Needed a better fade though, the very very end is a little dodgy.

A little post-listening research, and commentary:
Rumours is the 8th best selling record of all time, with about 28 million confirmed sales.  It was #1 for 31 weeks (non-consecutively).  Thats pretty amazing.  But I don't really get it.  It's a fine and inoffensive record, with some nice vocal stuff and a handful of memorable singles, but it's just kind of bland.  It is competently crafted, but broke no new ground.  It targeted and delivered what the mainstream wanted to hear at that moment in 1977.  Good for Fleetwood Mac.  Really.  They made some money and the people who bought the record were hopefully made happy by it.  But this sort of music never grabbed me.  It's clear why my youthful self abandoned this music and went for The Clash and Talking Heads instead.  I wanted something pushing things forward rather than treading musical water and pandering to the masses.  Fleetwood Mac are definitely treading water and pandering to the masses.  

1977 was a banner year for music, be it mainstream or otherwise.  Interestingly, there are just nine records in history that claim to have achieved more than 40 million sales.  Three of them were released in 1977: in addition to Rumours, the other two are Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell (#3 best seller of all time) and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack at #6.  During this economically fruitful year for the music biz, there was so much further good music released, and a lot of it was much more to my taste.  To keep things manageable, I'll list a few from just the last three months of the year.  

Starting in October, 1977:
David Bowie launched "Heroes" the same day that Ultravox broke new ground with Ha!-Ha!-Ha!.  XTC dropped their 3D EP.  Two weeks later, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols changed everything.  The Dead Boys, the Ramones, and The Jam all had music out within a month, then Throbbing Gristle's Second Annual Report really pushed some boundaries (maybe too far, even for me).  By the end of the year we had music by Suicide, plus Brian Eno's untouchable Before and After Science, and then Wire's Pink Flag, which planted the flag for post-punk only two months after the Pistols fired their mighty shot.  And if we wanna stick with the ol' classic rock stand-bys, E.L.O.'s Out of the Blue and Queen's News of the World also came out in October of 1977, as did Introducing Sparks: an admittedly weak effort by an act that I've always got time for.

Who the hell had time for Fleetwood Mac's repetitive old soft-rock cliches when there was so much exciting and cutting edge music happening?  That was my perspective for almost forty years!  But this series is all about going backward to discover hidden gems or just to have a better understanding of a widely loved swath of the musical canon that I chose to ignore for a long time.  So, listening with as open a mind as possible, I found Rumours to be tepid but decently crafted.  I'd rather listen to Fleetwood Mac than Marillion, any day.  Let's not completely write off the Mac yet though.  Next time we'll dig just a little deeper into their discography.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: let's wait until after part two.

Next: Fleetwood Mac, part two (of two) coming July 15, 2021

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