Counterbalance No. 58: Fleetwood Mac’s 'Rumours'
This week Counterbalance lays Fleetwood Mac's 1977 megahit down in the tall grass and lets it do its stuff. Rumours is the 58th most acclaimed album of all time, and it's next.
Klinger: We've covered several albums from 1977—and we'll hit a couple more before the Great List's top 100 is under our belts, but Rumours is the only one that's an actual unqualified worldwide hit record. To hear the critics tell it, 1977 was the year of punk rock. But as someone who lived through it, I can tell you that here in Middle America punk was a dot on the landscape. Fleetwood Mac was everywhere. In fact, in listening to this album lately, I realized just how thoroughly Rumours had seeped into my consciousness over the last 34 years.
That seems to underscore an interesting point about the difference between critical acclaim and commercial success. For all the importance that's placed on the punk and New Wave movements (and with good reason, as we see the influence that music had on the generations that came afterward), we can't really talk about 1977 without talking about Rumours. So, Mendelsohn, what do you make of this tastefully appointed living room of an album?
Mendelsohn: This one is tough. Even if someone had tried to stay willfully ignorant of the Fleetwood (and I've tried), escaping this band is nearly impossible and for better or worse, this album in firmly entrenched in American culture. It's not hard to see why though--there is something for everyone on this album and the songcraft and production are second to none. Even for me, and I wouldn't imagine counting myself as a Fleetwood Mac fan in a thousand years, this album is really hard to hate.
As a tastefully appointed living room, I think Rumours is holding its own. Like any furniture set from the 1970s, it’s a little worn but well-made and fairly comfortable. Over the years it has come in and out of style, and now it’s considered retro chic. All you have to do is keep the furniture dusted and the shag carpet vacuumed and make sure the goldfish that live in the lamps are swapped out when they die, and this record will never—ever—go out of style.
Klinger: Yes, I suppose that this album is hard to hate, but I maintain that it's also kind of hard to love. At least for me, since I've mostly only heard these songs in supermarkets for the last few decades. Even then I was mainly thinking that this was exactly the kind of slickly produced Malibu pop that explains exactly why punk had to happen. And that I was out of paper towels. And that I should consider voting for Bill Clinton.
You know, as I was listening to this album again (repeatedly), I started thinking about the big story that every rock scribe tells about Rumours: that it was recorded while the two couples (Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, John and Christine McVie) were in the process of splitting up, and how that tension fueled the creative process and brought richer undercurrents to the album. And all I could think was "No it didn't." I can't for the life of me hear any insights in, say, "Go Your Own Way" that suggest that the song couldn't have been written at any other time in Buckingham's career. In fact, lyrically, the relationship songs on here strike me as being about as bog-standard as you can get. I hate to sound callous, but as far as breakup albums go, this isn't exactly Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. I can't help thinking that critics have been trying to read more into this album than what's actually there.
Mendelsohn: A good story goes a long way, Klinger. Which sounds better to you—a band convenes in sunny Florida, does a metric ton of cocaine, and makes one hell of a pop record, or a band comes together under duress as intimate relationships within the group deteriorate, only to put aside their differences to write music while seeking a cathartic release through thinly-veiled lyrics, resulting in an unqualified hit record?
Music critics love to mythologize rock and roll—that sort of hyperbole gives their chosen pursuit more weight, allowing these hacks to equate themselves to some modern-day Boswell, weaving interpersonal drama into what may actually be a rather mundane background story. On the flip side, these types of myths can be just as helpful to the musician--myths many times perpetuated by the artists themselves, who have seen the value in such extrapolations on half-truths or outright lies.
But that's rock and roll. It’s all about the show and Rumours doesn't disappoint in that category—at least it didn’t when it came out. These days the crass commercialization of past hits has completely sterilized large chunks of this record. "Go Your Own Way", "Don't Stop", and "The Chain" have been totally stripped of any meaning, replaced instead by the products or people they've been used to push over the years. Considering the way the advertising industry has poached this record, do you think it will help or hinder its status in the long run as the younger generations come to it more and more through 30-second sound bites?
Klinger: I must confess that I’m not sure how younger generations will respond to an album that they've mainly heard through commercials. I know it certainly isn't the hot-button issue that it was when I was coming of age. What I have trouble imagining is a young person hearing a song like "You Make Loving Fun" and thinking of it as anything other than a comfy-sounding bit of fluffery. I was wondering at first if maybe the familiarity of this album had sanded down any rough edges in my mind, but it's pretty clear that the group had done that long before the album even came out.
When I told my wife we were doing Rumours for Counterbalance, she was surprised to hear that it would be this high on the Great List—and she bought the album when it came out. I think that living in the aftermath of Rumours' ubiquity essentially inoculated us against its mystique. To us, it’s just another album from when we were kids. I don't think Fleetwood Mac even carried all that much cachet until after 1992, when people started feeling nostalgic for the whole idea of decadent Malibu chic. (Wasn't Courtney Love acting like she wanted to be Stevie Nicks for a while?) So people are more willing to overlook this album's many flaws—hello, "Songbird"—and embrace its sheer craftsmanship, which does, I'll grant you, seem like a rare commodity.
Mendelsohn: The craftsmanship carries this record. The songs that are good are made great by the simple fact that Fleetwood Mac was full of musicians who knew what they were doing and could do it well under any circumstance--or under chemical influence. There is a telling moment on this that record caught me off guard, but I think it helps illustrate the type of thought that went into this album. There are a fleeting couple of seconds in "Dreams" in the beginning of the song where Nicks is singing the refrain about the sound of a lonely heart and Mick Fleetwood starts to hit the tom just a little bit harder to mimic the sound of a beating heart. It only happens for a few seconds and it's not nearly as pronounced later in the song or as cliché as the cymbal crash when Nicks sings "Thunder only happens when it raining", but it's that level of attention to detail that I find amazing and maybe, just maybe, justifies this album's place on the list.
And that makes me a little sad, because future generations might never get around to hearing those little things because they don't want to be bothered with an album that is more picked-over marketing carrion than it is artistic statement. But then, this album really isn't a statement and maybe the world would be a better place without the Fleetwood. Wouldn't it?
Klinger: First of all, I have no idea why you keep calling them "the Fleetwood", but I am enjoying your enthusiasm. And as grumpy as I've been throughout this whole thing, I'm going to stop far short of suggesting that the world would be a better place without it. I think there are more than a few moments where I agree that the songcraft carries the day. It's hard to find fault with their harmonies, which you hear echoes of all throughout today's indie pop scene. "Dreams" surprises me with its sumptuous arrangement, which is made all the more impressive when you really hear just how sparse the instrumentation is on it. The production on Rumours is immaculate, and while that can occasionally veer into the sterile, when it works it's perfect.
Plus I can see why so many people are willing to go to bat for Lindsey Buckingham as a pop genius. His contributions, by and large, make the album for me. He hadn't yet gone weird yet (that came with the next album, Tusk), but he's just off-kilter enough here to keep things from going too Mellow Gold. His distinctive fingerpicking on "Never Go Back" is a highlight, and I don't especially mind when "Second Hand News" gets stuck in my head.
But there you go—soothing, atmospheric and just a little bit quirky. At the end of the day, it’s awfully hard to deny the charms of a tastefully appointed living room. And in that sense Rumours is a freakin’ Pottery Barn catalog in audio form.