By James Turano
If Hollywood is looking for its next riveting tale in the successful footsteps of recent big-screen rock biopics—namely the capture of Queen in the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody and captain-fantastical life story of Elton John in Rocketman—there is a 42-year-old script written and waiting.
The elevator pitch could describe this fact-based fable as a “rock-and-roll romantic comedy”—only the comedy is dark, and the romance as tangled as a gnarled tree trunk. And there is no slow-motion, blissful airport reunion. In this story, none of the couples get back together.
Nonetheless, it surely would appeal to today’s audiences’ ravenous voyeur appetites and keep them awash in some of the 1970s’ most memorable classic rock music.
Simply, Rumours has it.
Fleetwood Mac’s seminal album remains rock’s ultimate vinyl soap opera. With more pillow talk, twists, turns, and trysts than Luke and Laura of General Hospital fame could ever have imagined, Rumours is more a “love pentagon” than triangle. During the album’s laborious, drug-infused writing and recording, the band’s five members all were breaking up, sleeping around, sleeping with each other, not speaking to one another, and, basically, going their own way.
But somehow, navigating through all the self-inflicted, personal tumult, Fleetwood Mac emerged from what would have been a “must-see” episode of Dr. Phil to create Rumours. It stands as one of rock’s most sustaining collections. And, four decades later, the fivesome—most of it, at least; more on that later—is still touring. How’s that for the perfect Hollywood ending?
As for their magnum opus, the legendary and astutely titled Rumours album will be performed in its entirety at Ravinia on June 22 by Classic Album Live. This elaborate ensemble of noted musicians and singers will perform a note-for-note, cut-for-cut refreshed retelling, faithfully re-creating every sound of the original album.
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was released in February 1977, and soon after, the band became an international phenomenon. For months upon months, songs from the album dominated playlists of both the leading Top 40 and “Album-Oriented Rock” stations of the day. It’s no wonder. As recently as last month, a gaggle of music magazine editors—in this case, those of Mojo—selected Fleetwood Mac’s 50 “greatest” songs. Not surprisingly, four of the top 10 in this list appear on Rumours—most notably “Dreams,” which was chosen as number one.
This writer recalls making a weekly sojourn to the music section of the beckoning Goldblatt’s’ department store in the once-bustling Belmont and Central Avenue shopping corridor on the Chicago’s Northwest Side. I’d retrieve the newest WLS-AM Survey that summer, and sure enough, what was listed at the top of the list week after week? Rumours.
And that’s not just some misty, pre-adolescent memory. In reality, Rumours selfishly rested atop Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart for 31 weeks (albeit nonconsecutively), and its four singles—“Go Your Own Way,” “Don’t Stop,” “You Make You Loving Fun,” and the group’s sole number-one hit, “Dreams”—all dutifully followed one another into the top 10.
The album gave hungry rock fans something to chew on in 1977 as the music scene was dishing up disco titans like KC & The Sunshine Band and toothy teeny boppers like Andy Gibb and Shaun Cassidy.
Rumours resulted in an all-out “Mac Attack,” with its enigmatic Mick Fleetwood drumbeats, its Lindsey Buckingham scowling and tuneful guitar, its Christine McVie pop piano, its John McVie steady, bluesy baselines, and of course, its Stevie Nicks moody meditations. Not to forget its eccentric, suggestive cover shot of Fleetwood and Nicks looking elegant and awkward.
And during the 42 years since its unassuming release, the onslaught hasn’t slowed. To date, Rumours has sold more than 45 million copies, placing it among the best-selling albums of all time, and it’s regularly ranked among the greatest albums of the rock era by critics and fans alike.
Founded in Britain in 1967 by guitarist Peter Green and drummer Fleetwood, the band initially forged a traditional, hard-edged blues path. Many of its original members first played with the influential British blues outfit John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers (which once employed a young Eric Clapton). After breaking out on their own and going through a few lineup changes, Fleetwood Mac scored a couple hits early on, “Black Magic Woman” and “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown).” In 1969, they came to the US and recorded at Chicago’s famed Chess Studios, playing with such local legends as Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy.
However, by the mid-’70s, Fleetwood, the band’s de facto leader, decided a major shift in sound and personnel was needed. Change, after all, is seemingly imbedded in the band’s foundation when you consider that in its 52-year history, Fleetwood Mac has had 18 full-time members.
But as much as that rock-and-roll revolving door continually spun within the group, when the multi-talented Lindsey Buckingham and rock’s ultimate witchy woman, Stevie Nicks, stepped through in 1974, Fleetwood Mac became “Fleetwood Mac.”
In one of the most fortuitous package deals in rock history, Fleetwood had recruited Buckingham to play guitar, replacing then-axman Bob Welch. Buckingham, however, came with a caveat: his girlfriend and musical collaborator, Nicks, must join him.
Thus, with these two key additions, Fleetwood Mac made a deliberate detour toward a more commercial sound that would ultimately enshrine the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Buckingham brought a much-desired pop-sensibility to the band, while Nicks delivered dreamy, dramatic, introspective poetry tinged with hints of heartfelt hippie mysticism.
And combined with the songwriting skills of co-founder John McVie’s wife, Christine, whose pop-ish compositions were hook-heavy and appealing, Fleetwood Mac had all the ingredients for next-level success.
As they converged in February 1976 to record Rumours (under the working title Yesterday’s Gone) and settled into the tranquil, hidden nook of the Record Plant recording studio in Sausalito, CA, just across San Francisco’s sparkling bay, the band was flying high—literally.
Coming off a grueling concert tour hinged upon the major success of theit 1975 self-titled album and its impressive string of hit singles—“Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” and “Rhiannon,” plus the Stevie Nicks signature, “Landslide”—the group was flush with fame. But they were also deep into dysfunction, dalliances, divorce, drugs (there was talk of giving a Rumours album credit to their dealer), and the desperate external and internal pressure to repeat.
At the outset, Buckingham and Nicks were in the final stages of a fading romance. John and Christine McVie had recently divorced and weren’t speaking to each other. Lastly, Fleetwood’s marriage was shaken by his wife’s affair with one of his friends (and Fleetwood later had a fling with Nicks). Just another day in the rock-and-roll lifestyle, eh?
Despite these chaotic and conflicting forces, the band still entered the studio determined and inspired. Though not purposely conceived as a “concept album,” the romantic and personal travails that had or were occurring during the recording quietly crept into each member’s songwriting process.
In the documentary Classic Albums, which chronicles the making of Rumours, Christine McVie observed, “We were all writing songs about each other, basically, although we were unaware of it at the time. All the songs were about our own private relationships and troubled relationships.
“I think it was John [McVie] who suggested the name Rumours, because we were writing sort of journals and diaries about one another,” she said.
“We had to get over each other, while working with each other,” added Nicks about the swirl of raw emotions that hovered over the sessions.
Whether conscious or accidental, many of the songs were almost “talking” to each other, even if the band members themselves weren’t.
In “Don’t Stop,” McVie boldly exclaims to her regretful ex-husband, John, that “yesterday’s gone.” And in many of the songs written individually by Buckingham and Nicks, the two appear to be involved in a toxic, ongoing musical dialogue.
They may have been drifting apart physically, but mentally they were obviously still in each other’s heads. And maybe even hearts.
For example, in Buckingham’s kiss-off, “Go Your Own Way,” he defiantly declares, “Loving you isn’t the right thing to do. / How can I ever change things that I feel?” And Nicks seems to achingly answer Buckingham’s plea in “Dreams” by solemnly singing, “Now here you go again, / You say you want your freedom, / Well, who I am to keep you down.”
Painstakingly co-produced by the band, Ken Caillat, and Richard Dashut, Rumours is filled with diverse songs, styles, and the distinct voices of Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks.
Musically, it rattles and shakes (“Secondhand News,” “I Don’t Want to Know”), saunters softy (“Songbird,” “Oh Daddy”), tastefully glides (“Never Going Back Again”), gets gritty (“Gold Dust Woman”), and compellingly pounds (“The Chain”); while lyrically, it bitterly blames (“Go Your Own Way”), regretfully releases (“Dreams”), happily boasts (“You Make Loving Fun”), and confidently moves forward (“Don’t Stop”).
And just how much excellent material did Fleetwood Mac create during this period? Well, one song that was left off the album—reportedly because there were too many slow songs—was relegated to the B-side of “Go Your Own Way.” It is now considered one of the band’s best and certainly one of Nicks’a most beloved: “Silver Springs.” If you can afford to leave this tender, yet forceful ballad off an album (Nicks was not pleased), well, you must have one heck of an album on your hands.
No matter how personally or even venomously directed at specific band members some of the songs may have been, the intangible chemistry of Fleetwood Mac working as a complementing, cohesive unit—most apparent on “The Chain”—is undeniable.
In the Classic Albums documentary, Nicks explains the dynamic between her and Buckingham during this difficult time in their relationship. “Lindsey had a way of taking my songs and making them wonderful … when he was happy with me,” she said bluntly.
And Buckingham readily admits a tension between the two former lovers: “There were times I didn’t want to help her.”
But help he did. And the impressive, enduring results are the proof.
Buckingham’s creative control grew during Rumours, and it overflowed during the band’s big, bloated, experimental follow-up in 1979—the double album Tusk. Buckingham’s heavy hand was in part blamed for its commercial failure; 40 years later, Tusk is more favorably viewed for its adventurous sonic risk-taking. After the Tusk concert tour, Fleetwood Mac went on a recording hiatus and Buckingham ventured to solo work. And another chapter of the Fleetwood Mac soap opera began.
In 1987, Buckingham left the band and didn’t return until 1997 for the successful reunion tour and live album The Dance. It brought back the original Rumours lineup after more than 15 years, but it was short-lived.
In 1998, Christine McVie then “retired” and left the band. However, she returned in 2014, again reassembling the vintage Rumours lineup and selling out concerts around the world. But then, in 2018, after a reported backstage rift between Buckingham and Nicks (surprise?), she gave the band an ultimatum before setting out on an extensive world tour: it was her or Buckingham. Buckingham was again gone—this time not by his choice.
Subsequently, it took two people to replace Buckingham (who earlier this year underwent heart surgery). Guitar master Mike Campbell, formerly of the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and Neil Finn, one of the guiding forces of the ’80s hit-makers Crowded House, are now the latest members of Fleetwood Mac. Fifty-two members and counting.
Trials and tribulations, squabbles and soured relations. These may be forever linked to Fleetwood Mac’s past, present, and future. However, Rumours is evidence you can never truly break their chain. ▪
James Turano is a freelance writer and a former entertainment editor, feature writer, and columnist for national and local magazines and newspapers. He has written official programs for eight Elton John tours since 2003 and is also a Chicago radio personality and host, heard regularly on WGN Radio 720AM.