‘Rumours’: Fleetwood Mac’s timeless charm and chain

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 5:06pm

Rolling Stone

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It took Stevie Nicks approximately 10 minutes to write “Dreams” in early 1976. This was shortly after her breakup with fellow bandmate and longtime romantic partner Lindsey Buckingham. The song’s early development echoes on a Fender Rhodes piano in a near-empty studio, cloaked in red and black Victorian drapes — the very setting you’d expect from a mystic, coked-out Nicks. And across a thread of looping F and G chords, she details her frustration with Buckingham in unwavering venom; she wearily accepts that Buckingham “want(s his) freedom” but promises “when the rain washes you clean you’ll know” exactly of the pain she felt in their relationship.

And like casting a spell, the song, in a cruel twist of fate for Buckingham, went on to become the band’s most successful and beloved single, forcing him to perform and relive it again and again for over 50 years. This isn’t to say the destiny of “Dreams” was always apparent — rather, that Buckingham’s contributions helped make it a success. In fact, when Christine McVie first heard “Dreams” as an early demo, she deemed it “boring” and sided with the rest of the band in tossing it out. It was after much begging on Nicks’s behalf that the rest of the band, especially Buckingham, went back to work on making it the rich, full-bodied sonic experience it is today.

Within the span of a year, various revisions were made to “Dreams.” Layered over Nicks’s piano and vocals were Buckingham’s acoustic guitar, McVie’s Hammond B3 organ, Mick Fleetwood’s drums and John McVie’s bass guitar. From there, the band members each added their own embellishments and nuance to the song. Fleetwood added some standout hi-hats to vary the rhythm, Buckingham looped it over eight bars with the producers, John McVie recorded some soupy licks on electric guitar that build up and give away to acoustics in the chorus and Christine McVie and Nicks hummed the dreamy, ghostlike backing vocals that fill the pre-chorus. These patchwork additions to the simple, sheer piano demo built it up into the characteristically haunting and airy energy that make the song so famous and beloved.

It is this strange backdrop of corrosive distrust and resentment that bred such an effective formula for the rest of Rumours; the members couldn't stand one another. At the time of Nicks and Buckingham’s split, the McVies were settling for divorce and Fleetwood discovered his wife was having an affair, all while many members were suffering from cocaine addictions and the media-brewed tension from publicized rumors. Can you guess where the album name comes from?

Nonetheless, the members could bring themselves to speaking terms when it was in the name of making music. In a way, their shared instability and fractured relationships wove the thematic thread for Rumours; the trials and tribulations they faced were at least the same from a surface-level understanding of their individual situations. It didn’t take much effort on their behalves to formulate a thematically cohesive album, even — if not especially — when they refused to work on songs alongside one another. If anything, their frustration and unwillingness to compromise only made for more writing content. In fact, the only song written by all five members on the album was “The Chain,” which, nevertheless, built itself up in the same patchwork fashion, borrowing pieces from individual songs written by each band member.

Regardless, “The Chain” places itself within the very center of this classic album. It does exactly what Nicks and Buckingham do in “Dreams” and “Go Your Own Way,” respectively, by calling out other members on their flaws and unwillingness to understand the other, but in belligerent, vague unison. The image of a chain itself embodies the self-awareness of Mac’s members. Its links are united and work together for a single shared task, even though it’s confining and restrictive — in a similar way, Fleetwood Mac ensnares itself in its own instability by forcing its members to work with one another and lead a toxic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

The tension is palpable in even their live performances, their emotions peeking through whatever tattered veil of professionalism they attempted to create. This holds true in every show, especially with “The Chain” consistently serving as the opener to their shows. A notable performance depicts an obviously disgruntled Buckingham shouting the lyrics into the microphone with his eyes fixated on Nicks, who takes this as an invitation to one-up her ex-lover.

From an abstract perspective, Rumours shouldn’t work as well as it does; Fleetwood Mac’s members’ inability to properly settle their differences shouldn’t have made for a cohesive album, let alone fuel the entire concept of it. It’s just as much a fabric to Fleetwood Mac as Stevie Nicks’s shawls, and tore the band apart again and again in the long run.

Rumours, however, catches every member where their instability was at its apex, morphing their separate, stubborn predicaments into a singular issue only they could understand. For this reason, songs like the longingly solemn and gorgeous “Dreams” can exist on the same album as tracks like the nonchalant and upbeat “Go Your Own Way.” They manage to trace a lot of the distrust and heartache that shame many of our own fractured relationships. The inability for the bandmates to truly connect and collaborate with one another gives it its multifaceted and rich dive into the complexity of relationships and what makes them go wrong, with multiple perspectives molding a single story. By skillfully capturing the pain and confusion of heartache, uncensored and through various lenses, Rumours embodies a timeless appeal.