Excuse all flaws, this baby has been overdue for weeks and I just can’t bear to fiddle with it anymore. You should be grateful that Fleetwood Mac had much higher standards.
Stirred into my dreams a few nights ago was an unexpected sprinkle of Fleetwood Mac. I can’t remember quite what happened that involved them but when I woke up I was absolutely sure I had been dreaming of Fleetwood Mac. But then it dawned on me that there are many very good reasons why they would occupy the good parts of my head. On reflection I realise that I have loved them for longer than I’ve loved any other band. It goes back to 1987 and ‘Little Lies’, ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Big Love’, way before I fell in love with The Stones, Zeppelin and The Beach Boys, as well as all the other bands I love, and that you should too. Before all of that to come there was Fleetwood Mac, and I think it’s about time I let you know just how truly magnificent they are (this is the bit where you are free to read on or just go back to whatever you were doing – I won’t judge you, much).
Anyone who knows anything about music knows that FM have been through quite a few line-up changes. This is not usually good news for a working band, but rather than weaken the core it only made it stronger and, one could argue, better; able to endure almost anything any other band has had to contend with (for a while, at least). First there was the blues version of the late 60’s, during which Peter Green planted his flag as a genuine guitar god, before it all got too much for him. Next came a few years of English pastoral, sadly accompanied by dismal sales, and that then became a slightly more of a soft rock thing as Christine McVie started spreading her wings and Bob Welch lent a scatter of airwave perk and a little something American to proceedings (start with ‘Sentimental Lady’ and ‘Hypnotised’ and try and work out why they weren’t bigger hits). But the FM that everyone seems to love the best was the next lot. Looking to give it another try in America, Mick Fleetwood and John & Christine McVie took a gamble on a couple of beautiful Californians, and the rest is the sort of stuff you really couldn’t make up.
There is no shame in loving Fleetwood Mac. None at all. Nor should there ever be any shame in loving any band that can make music as good as theirs (the only issue being that so few other bands did, or ever could). They’re not simply soft rock like most of the rest. If they had rivals as titanic in the late 70’s then that would have been The Eagles, and I used to love The Eagles, but now I just like them; they’re too stuck in a rut, too clinical, too almost bland. FM on the other hand were just stacked full of aces, and to have had such killer cards and not made the most of them would have just been plain rude. For a start they had Fleetwood and McVie, one of the best rhythm sections ever. Indeed, as I write this, with their sound in my head, I wonder if there is a better one, if not just for the music they made but also for sounding like no other and for being so effortlessly recognisable. Neither could ever claim to be the best in the virtuoso business on their own, but the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. McVie’s bass can be deep and light at the same time and has so much bounce and feel that when he locks in under Fleetwood’s airy, soft, pulsing drumming something magical happens. They don’t need to blow you away with power, they want you to drift on the sound they make; equally you could try and ignore them, but they just don’t let you. It’s as if your heartbeat changes to fit in with them. They are that good.
But a great band is never just a rhythm section. In Christine McVie they had one of the best British songwriters of her generation. Give me a choice of her against the likes of Joni Mitchell and Carole King and I’d take McVie in a proverbial blink. She could really sing too and worked a piano as well as any of the competition. And then in Stevie Nicks they had their female icon and the keeper of some kind of mystical flame, who sometimes seemed a bit OTT daft, but when she hit a chord it set something alight that literally no other band had at that time (I’m thinking of songs like ‘Sara’ and ‘Gypsy’ when I write that). She was always at her best with The Mac, as if the rest of the band were fuel to the fire she was burning. It’s fair to say that just the four of them would still have made some very good music, but they were also lucky enough to have a true alchemist in their ranks, one who managed to stitch everything together into perfection like some manic, wired, needle-happy wizard. Enter their most powerful weapon: Lindsey Buckingham. Genius gets used to label far too much and many, but Buckingham has definitely earned that name. Listen to almost any song they made between 1975 and 1987 and you can hear him somewhere, whether it be flittering about and decorating the background or right up in front of you with an energy and spark he is too rarely given full credit for. It is crucial to respect Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks as songwriters and singers but have no doubt that a lot of their songs for FM simply wouldn’t sound as good if Buckingham hadn’t sat down, played around with them, and added something extra from his formidable arsenal. I’m not being biased or unfair, I’m just being honest.
In that time frame FM made five studio albums and released a live one as well. That doesn’t seem like much in twelve years but then not many bands had to deal with all the emotional baggage and fractures that they seemed to will upon themselves. Still, of those six albums not one is less than brilliant and a couple of them are amongst the greatest ever made. According to me at least. Their recordings are lush and inventive, warm and beautiful. It sounds silly to say this but Fleetwood Mac in their prime were a great sounding band (you don’t sound that good just by having great songs) and also amazing that they made THAT sound their sound and that Buckingham couldn’t resist getting stuck in with the producers and mastering the studio as an instrument. To him it wasn’t enough just having songs. He wanted to create something as close to perfection as the sounds he heard as a kid, the songs his heroes, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys seemed to churn out with what appeared to be flippant, youthful ease but in fact required painstaking craft and boundless ability. You can hear it in the blend of voices and the little seductive splashes and ripples of quick wristed charm. The sound of Fleetwood Mac owes a debt to that; music learning from music, passing it down the line; and then adding to it. This was how to make music as gorgeous as the best anyone else out there could muster, often more so.
And so that run of six albums is up there with the best run of anyone. That line up of Fleetwood Mac were absolutely top division material. Their eponymous debut has a lovely feel to it; talk about taking a gamble and spinning a winner straight out. Of how Stevie Nicks’ ‘Landslide’ is so winsome and fragile a song and yet Buckingham’s solo is as soft and sexy as it is possible to be with a guitar. ‘Over My Head’ starts like the biggest pillow you can imagine, and is then run through with a mix glitter and gravel; adoration and caution. And if you wanted proof of what John McVie brought to the table there is limitless joy to be had listening to him come in on the intro of ‘Sugar Daddy’. The follow up, Rumours (you may have heard of it) is a fabulous album and deserves every accolade thrown at it. It may not be absolutely perfect, but then no album has ever achieved quite that status. It is an accumulation of bitterness, regret and, in a few corners, joy. ‘Second Hand News’ is a perfect opener, and almost a Buckingham one man band (including chair leg for percussion, in later variations replaced by tissue boxes) all edge, push and barely reined-in fury. ‘Gold Dust Woman’ and ‘Dreams’ are Stevie Nicks doing what she did best: assured yet emotional, ‘Dreams’ being another perfect drum and bass outing; a study in atmosphere. You also have ‘The Chain’, a cut and shut of two songs which really finds the way in the second half with that bassline and a razor sharp Buckingham solo which gets about as much use from one note as it is possible to, before spilling out into a storm of electric and driving harmony – Fleetwood Mac could do rock when they wanted. But perhaps the highlight is ‘You Make Loving Fun’ which is all white funky and sinuous, with keyboards and guitar weaving their way around each other, explorative and tactile. It is glorious, super-hot and celebratory. Altogether an album born from pain and delivered into some type of victory. It certainly wasn’t all about the sales and the money.
Tusk is perhaps the flawed Fleetwood Mac masterpiece. It is very much a work that revolves around Buckingham, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the rest of the band. It is, like most great double albums, sprawling, ambitious, eclectic and not at all for everyone, but if you give it time it is packed full of greatness and should at the very least be admired for not just sounding like another Rumours, whilst also sounding exactly like Fleetwood Mac. Highlights are splattered everywhere: ‘Sara’ is a Nicks masterpiece, the brushed drums and fluid bass underpinning a show case of just what she could offer. ‘Storms’ and ‘Angel’ aren’t far behind, and McVie offers more muted splendour in ‘Over And Over’, ‘Brown Eyes’ and the delicious ‘Honey Hi’. By now Buckingham was really taking things in hand, a hand which was simultaneously shovelling up a touch too much coke for his own good, I suspect. He wrote almost half the songs on the album, desperately trying new ideas to keep up with the new wave. Many work well, a couple are a bit jarring and a few – the title track, ‘Save Me A Place’ and ‘I Know I’m Not Wrong’ are terrific, jumpy, twitchy things which should not be dismissed lightly in the FM pantheon.
And then off they went on one of those opulent tours that only the biggest bands ever get to experience: hotel suites redecorated on a whim, grand pianos in every room, mountains of drugs and everything else you both would and wouldn’t want or expect. The live album they released is broadly fantastic. Over-indulgent in places (in this case pretty much Buckingham’s fault), but this was undoubtedly a band that could handle the stage and the audience. The live version of ‘Rhiannon’ is a huge improvement on the studio one and there is a lovely soundcheck performance of a Nicks song called ‘Fireflies’, of which I have always been very fond. Oddly, for such a big band their live offering didn’t sell all that well and once they went their separate ways for a break and solo adventures things were never quite the same. Rather than reconvene as a band they seemed to gather instead as a group of individuals who just happened to play very well together – there is a difference. Their next album, Mirage, is as polished as you can get in a studio and is never less than a joy to listen to, but there is a reason why it is often less celebrated than the others: that nagging feeling that they weren’t quite firing on all cylinders. Nevertheless, ‘Gypsy’ is a joy from start to frantic, fluid, finger-picked finish, ‘Hold On’ is all tasty lovely, and if you try telling me songs like ‘Eyes Of The World’, ‘That’s Alright’, ‘Oh Diane’ and ‘Love In Store’ aren’t perfect pop then we’re going to have a fight on our hands. You know what? Mirage is brilliant, after all.
The next few years were not kind for the members of Fleetwood Mac. Faltering solo careers, bad business decisions and rather a lot of rehab for Stevie Nicks meant that they were really looking for a rabbit in a hat when they met up for what turned out to be their last triumph for a very long time. To my ears Tango In The Night is one of the very best albums of the 80’s. Some people still dismiss it by saying it is very 80’s, but then weren’t most things in the 80’s very 80’s? What matters is that it shimmers and twinkles like a cut diamond (how else could you describe a song like ‘Everywhere’?), not a note out of place, even on the slightly less than great songs, most defined as such because the rest are terrific. Buckingham dominates once more, but this is partly due to him having prepared material for a solo album that he subsequently donated to the band for the greater good (in fairness he must have made far more money under the FM umbrella than he would have on his own). All added up Tango is an absolute cracker: rather than point out highlights it is easier to say that up until ‘Mystified’, the first side (as vinyl would have it) is nothing short of perfect and the other side is only really let down by Nicks’ drugs anonymous grumble of ‘Welcome To The Room…..Sara’. All the rest is pop nugget perfection and ear friendly rock – tunes, words, fire and skill, albeit with quite a lot of studio doctoring. That it can bring such joy from the dark times and minds involved is a testament to what FM have always done best: triumph over adversity. Lindsey Buckingham left before the band went on tour and after that Fleetwood Mac, I’m sorry to say, turned to shit very quickly indeed. They got back together in a fashion 20 years later, kind of like the Five Musketeers, but by then their legacy was well in place. And why shouldn’t it have been? Those six albums of that Fleetwood Mac represent some of the best, most indulgently listenable, wonderfully crafted and meticulously honed music of all time and stand to remind us that above all else music should give us pleasure. In this case an almost extreme aural bliss. The warm feeling of listening to them is to be shared and loved by us all, together, in harmony; but you’ve probably worked that out by now. Or you never got this far.
G B Hewitt. 14.02.2022