By Brian Ives
“No matter where I am in the world, and I don’t know why it is, I keep hearing Fleetwood Mac tracks.” This is a quote from U2 bassist Adam Clayton in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “Why is it those songs have got such big, strong legs?”
While Fleetwood Mac has had a great career with a bevy of hit albums, let’s say that at least 50% of the time when Clayton — or anyone else — hears a Fleetwood Mac song, it’s from 1977’s Rumours, which turns 40 this weekend (February 4). It’s an album that has sold over 45 million copies worldwide, so it has strong legs, indeed.
Their prior album, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac (also known as “The White Album”) marked a new beginning for the band. It was their tenth album, but the first with new members Lindsey Buckingham (a singer/songwriter/guitarist) and Stevie Nicks (a singer/songwriter), who joined long-time singer/songwriter/keyboardist Christine McVie, and founding members Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass).
Fleetwood Mac was a great album: it had “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me” and “Landslide.” It put the one-time blues rock band on the map as a major pop act, and has gone on to sell over five million copies.
But Rumours took Fleetwood Mac to a whole other level: it topped the Billboard album charts, spawning an onslaught of hits including “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” “The Chain,” “You Make Loving Fun” and “Gold Dust Woman.” It has sold over 45 million copies.
How great was Rumours? So great that one of Nicks’ finest songs, “Silver Springs,” didn’t make the cut. It was first released as the b-side to “Go Your Own Way,” and the band later recorded it for their 1997 live reunion album The Dance, and today is considered a classic among fans.
As most pop culture fans know, Rumours chronicles the end of several relationships within the band. Buckingham and Nicks, who joined as a couple and as a duo (they’d recorded their debut album as Buckingham/Nicks before entering the Fleetwood Mac fray) were breaking up. Fleetwood was going through a divorce (and would eventually have an affair with Nicks) and the McVies were splitting up as well. Christine was starting a new relationship… with the band’s lighting director.
In the liner notes of Rhino Records’ excellent 2013 reissue of the album, Buckingham says, “I really think there came a time when the sales of Rumours became less about the music and started being more about the phenomenon and the musical soap opera of it all. Something about it really tapped into the voyeur in everyone — including us. And it was voyeuristic in the best way possible; not in a tabloid or exploitative way, but on a more honest and real level.”
Decades later, there are surely those who enjoy listening to these songs and knowing the context in which they were written, as Buckingham notes. But it’s safe to say that the songs have not only transcended their era, but also the drama that spawned them. Listening to Nicks’ “Dreams” today, it’s clear that it’s a breakup song, but it could be about your breakup. “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom/Well, who am I to keep you down?” Same with Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way”: “Tell me why everything turned around.” Who hasn’t felt that about a relationship as it’s going south? On the other hand, Christine McVie’s “You Make Loving Fun” reads as an enthused ode to a new relationship: “You make loving fun, and I don’t have to tell you that you’re the only one.” To a younger audience, it may not matter that she still shares a last name with the guy plunking the amazing bassline on the song.
“Don’t Stop,” famously used as Bill Clinton’s campaign song, is another Christine McVie composition. “If you wake up and don’t want to smile, if it takes just a little while/Open your eyes and look at the day, you’ll see things in a different way.” Is that a trite way to say “goodbye” to an ex-? Maybe, but there’s sweetness and compassion there too. And, clearly, what Clinton’s team gravitated towards is the song’s optimistic message, rather than the circumstances that spawned it: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow/Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here/It’ll be better than before/Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” The song was so vaguely written that it could work for anyone: any number of candidates or campaigns could’ve used “Don’t Stop.”
And therein may lay part of the album’s enduring popularity. Sonically, it doesn’t sound especially attached to any era, but more than that, the lyrics — whether you know the context or not — have a universal appeal. It’s not just about breaking up, it’s about breaking up and still being able to look at each other. In a country where so many divorcees have children and still need to be able to communicate with some level of civility, that resonates.
It also resonates because we’re in an era the country seems to be coming apart at the seams. As estranged as protestors may feel from Trump supporters, and vice-versa, it feels like the country is as divided as it has ever been. You may be angry at someone who voted differently than you, but you’re probably even angrier at someone who broke your heart and left you. Perhaps, there’s something to be learned from Fleetwood Mac.
Despite their history, Fleetwood Mac always come together every few years to remind us how great they are together. It’s not always neat; after 1987’s Tango in the Night, Lindsay Buckingham left the band, leaving Nicks, Fleetwood and the McVies to replace him with two guitarist-singers for a tour and a (forgettable) album, Behind the Mask. Of course, the five came together for 1997’s The Dance, but Christine McVie once again left the band the following year. Nicks, Buckingham, Fleetwood and John McVie trudged on with 2003’s double album Say You Will and 2013’s Extended Play EP, before McVie once again rejoined in 2014 for a tour.
While there’s been talk of a new Fleetwood Mac album for a while, Stevie Nicks has spent a lot of time on the road lately doing solo tours. So the latest development in the band’s drama is an upcoming Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie duets album, featuring the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. If this album ever sees the light of day, it will, in all but name, be a Nicks-less Fleetwood Mac album.
Fleetwood Mac fans have been through this before; at this point, there’s little doubt that Nicks will eventually return to the fold. Because all five musicians seem acutely aware that they are stronger together; sometimes they just need some time apart to be reminded of this. And given that their music still seems ubiquitous four decades later, they’re likely to be reminded often.