Classic Album: Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

One of the weirdest gigs I ever attended was seeing Fleetwood Mac play Sheffield Arena back in 2009. While it was an entertaining enough show, there was a general undercurrent that resulted in an odd vibe. Christine McVie had departed the band for a solo career some years prior, Stevie Nicks, all slow hand-movements and ethereal drama, was evidently road-weary and had little notion of what country she was in, never mind which city. To Nicks’ (far) left stood Lindsey Buckingham, who despite being the band’s primary focus instrumentally, gave the impression that he was phoning it in, and it was evident that he had lost all interest in being a member of the band some time ago, with the only reason he was there being that his solo career just wasn’t paying the bills. Behind them stood the inscrutable John McVie, a man who even at the height of Fleetwood Mac’s commercial zenith, always looked like he’d much rather be a member of Chas and Dave’s backing band. The only member of the band visibly enjoying themselves was Mick Fleetwood, whose infectious enthusiasm bounced from the back of the stage to the far side of the packed-out cavernous arena. Despite the odd vibe, you couldn’t deny that the band played well and the majority of the audience were utterly enraptured by their performance of material which leaned heavily on albums like Tango in the Night, their eponymous 1975 album and, of course, Rumours. By the end of the night, the four primary members of the band had played a good gig, reminding everyone what they could achieve when they put aside their instincts to pull in different direction and worked collaboratively in the name of mutual benefit.

Years later, the thing that stood out for me about that gig, was its parallels with the scenario that Rumours was created. It’s well known that the individual self-interest of the five band members was temporarily left at the door of the recording booth, regardless of their desire to tear each other limb from limb. The trials and tribulations that the band members experienced immediately prior to, and during, the creation of the album are well recorded, and the details of who said, and / or did, what to who have been the subject of multiple documentaries of varying quality. What doesn’t vary in quality are the eleven songs that make up Rumours. Sure, to some, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours will never be anything more than the last word in bland, corporate, white-powder-coated corporate rock. For a few years this was certainly the accepted wisdom, particularly among my generation, however in the last twenty years, it has been reassessed due to the re-activation of Fleetwood Mac as a going concern. Forty years after its release, you’re hard pressed to argue that Rumours isn’t one of the most potent albums to be released during the American AOR boom of the late 70s, with its evergreen songs being a testament to the band’s three primary songwriters and their namesake rhythm section.

Rumours is one of those albums where every one of its individual tracks could potentially have been a single. Nicks and Buckingham were at the top of their games, but as ever, it was Christine McVie who brought the very best material to the table. McVie’s consistency as a songwriter is one of the more overlooked aspects of Fleetwood Mac’s career, whereas a standout Buckingham or Nicks song is regularly hailed as a masterpiece. The downside of McVie’s consistency was that she was so good so frequently during Fleetwood Mac’s commercial peak, that very few of her songs stand out ahead of her others, leading her to be relatively undervalued compared to her colleagues.

Kicking off with the relentlessly upbeat “Second Hand News”, you can’t argue with Rumours’ being a masterclass in songwriting. McVie’s “Songbird” and “You Make Loving Fun” are typically top-draw material, while Nicks’ “Dreams” and “Gold Dust Woman” allows her to do her scarf-wafting ethereal hippy-chick thing to solid effect, and Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” gives him the opportunity to take a few immature potshots at Nicks following the disintegration of their relationship. It’s always struck me that while Rumours was an exercise in Fleetwood Mac airing their dirty laundry, it was only Buckingham who took things a little too far when it came to settling emotional scores, and as a result, he comes across as the least classy member of the band by some significant distance. The flipside of this though is McVie’s “Don’t Stop”, where she contrasts Buckingham’s petty accusation throwing with a message of optimism and hope for the future. This results in “Don’t Stop” being a genuinely great song with an irresistible chorus and an anthemic bounce, and as such is one of the high-points of Fleetwood Mac’s lengthy career.

The fulcrum of Rumours is “The Chain”, the only song on Rumours for which every member of the band receives a writer’s credit, and a tune instantly recognisable to fans of Radcliffe and Maconie’s 6 Music show and Formula One. A hymn to sticking together through thick and thin, it’s co-credit is fitting, and it’s changes in pace give it the feeling of a show-stopping epic. Of course, it’s use as sporting theme music and a radio jingle has caused it to be so familiar that it’s impact is lessened slightly, put you can’t deny that it’s one of the most thrilling moments on an album not short on outstanding moments.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Rumours spent so long being undervalued is its familiarity. It’s one of those albums that most music fans have heard at least once in their life, and the fact that it has become musical shorthand for some of the worst cultural excesses of the late 70s has meant that it perhaps doesn’t always receive the detailed listen that it deserves. Approaching Rumours without prejudice reveals it to be a fine rock album, with powder-dry, crystal clear production, packed full of great drama-filled tunes by three writers at the top of their games, and a band whose very existence depended on the quality of the material you’re listening to.

Yes, Rumours has been picked apart by too many folks more interested in the fact that the individual band members were having personally turbulent times, rather than the music itself. Yes, it was too commercially successful for its own good and at least half the songs on here have been overplayed down the decades. Yes, half the time you wonder why Buckingham and Nicks weren’t just banished from the studio by the other three members of the band until they had matured into sensible and emotionally responsible grown-ups. Thing is, despite, or maybe because of, all this, Rumours is an undeniably brilliant album and taken just as a collection of songs, it remains little short of breath taking and unarguably Fleetwood Mac’s definitive album.

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