In its prime, the best pop band of the '70s made divorce sound lovely
Ten albums into their career, Fleetwood Mac were a respected, minor British blues-rock band with a shifting lineup destabilized by the mental illness of two guitarists. When singer Bob Welch announced his departure in 1974, it seemed like just one more disruption. Drummer Mick Fleetwood had recently met Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks at a recording studio, and over margaritas, without even an audition, the two American songwriters, both 26, were invited to join. Soon, and for the next five years, Fleetwood Mac were the biggest band in the world.
Fleetwood Mac, released the next year, plus Rumours (1977) and Tusk (1979), offer just about every consequential lesson imaginable about the alchemy of music — how quickly it can spark, how refined it can get and then, in the wake of success, how rapidly the energy can dissipate.
This pacific, lovelorn trilogy — issued in deluxe remastered form with bonus outtakes that are, at best, footnotes — is a cautionary, uniquely '70s tale about mixing love and work, bigness and humility. It's also one of the most inspired three-album bursts in pop history.
Though the new lineup's first collaborations bore traces of blues-rock ("World Turning"), what Buckingham-Nicks did on Fleetwood Mac was slyly revolutionary: They lifted the inward-looking confessionals of the burgeoning California singer-songwriter movement up to seagull altitude, transforming the troubadour's ponderous declarations into a soaring, sparkling, defiantly grabby sound, one that embraced Neil Young and the Beach Boys with equal fervor.
Where previous incarnations of the band had pursued a '60s ideal of epic guitar solos, the holy grail was now the pop song, framed in as many guises and moods as possible. Christine McVie's songs (particularly the genius "Warm Ways") had a slithering, jazzy melancholy, Buckingham's were hammeringly direct and Nicks supplied mysticism and disarming romantic imagery ("Landslide").
The album had several hits (the skimpy bonus tracks here include only radio mixes) but was notable for an artistic balance that outstripped peers such as the Eagles: the tormented "I'm So Afraid" and the finger-picked "Rhiannon" coexist alongside conventional pop ("Say You Love Me"), linked by a dazzling chorale of voices and the solid, almost invisible pitter-pattering rhythm section.
Rumours took that blueprint to an awesome level of refinement despite upheaval within the band — John and Christine McVie split up, then Buckingham and Nicks ended their romance, then Fleetwood and his wife divorced. Somehow, the turmoil informed one of the warmest, quirkiest, most emotionally nuanced albums in rock history; from sexy ("Second Hand News") to recriminatory ("Go Your Own Way"), Fleetwood Mac turned woe and injury into something universal, not something petty, and made even the messiest of loves seem worthy, important and noble. Fans ranged from Bill Clinton (who made "Don't Stop" his presidential theme song) to Courtney Love (who covered "Gold Dust Woman," a reference to the band's taste for cocaine).
Though Buckingham and Nicks became the stars, Fleetwood and John McVie formed the support system: No matter how extravagant the vocal harmonies, the basic propulsion never wavered. That rhythm section shines on two previously unreleased free-form pieces, "For Duster (The Blues)" and a 10-minute odyssey featuring Bob Welch, "Jamb (Early Bits)."
After Rumours exploded (31 weeks atop the album charts, 18 million copies sold), the band spent $1 million — at the time, an unprecedented amount — recording the follow-up. Spurred by the mercurial Buckingham, they took a hard left, from steady and smooth to challenging and willfully unorthodox. The sprawling Tusk lacked not just the discipline and the balance, but the basic hook sense that made Rumours so durable. It was White Album–ish in its diffusion, an odd assortment of earnest Christine McVie weepies and ornate, sometimes wandering high-concept productions from Buckingham (who penned nine of the 20 songs). It offered a few great singles ("Over & Over," "Sara") and several worthy expressions that sound more potent now (Buckingham's fragile treatise on departures, "That's All for Everyone").
The unreleased gems are much wilder than those on Rumours — "The Ledge," in its early incarnation, was a less churning song called "Can't Walk Out of Here," while Nicks's first "Sisters of the Moon" caught a more ruminative brand of feminist sorcery.
The real news about this reissue isn't the occasionally revealing peek behind the curtain into the working lives of a group that was in constant motion. It's the careful remastering, which should have been done a long time ago. All three works suffered when initially transferred to disc, no doubt in a rush to capitalize on the CD craze — the edges were blunted, the crisp attack of Buckingham's guitars got buried, the voices blurred together ever so slightly.
Those who grew up on these early CDs should brace themselves, because these renderings reveal amazing little surprises, newly uncovered details that practically force you to hear this frantic five-year burst of greatness in a whole new way.
Go Your Own Way - The UK resource for Fleetwood Mac
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