Fleetwood Mac, the least influential great band ever.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 19 2004 5:48 PM

Going Their Own Way

Why is Fleetwood Mac the least influential great band ever?

Chemistry that can't be copied
Chemistry that can't be copied

Has there ever been a less-influential great band than Fleetwood Mac? The three albums they've just reissued in expanded form made them international stars in the 1970s and 1980s. Rumours (Warner Bros., 1977) is one of the best-selling records ever, recently certified at 19 million copies and counting in the United States; Fleetwood Mac (Reprise, 1975) and Tusk (Warner Bros., 1979) went multiplatinum, too. "Landslide," "Never Going Back Again," and " Dreams"have been radio staples for decades. And yet almost nobody has tried ripping off Fleetwood Mac's basic sound and style—even unsuccessfully. Dozens of hit records have been derived from Led Zeppelin and Shania Twain and Michael Jackson; the only Fleetwood Mac pastiche that comes to mind is the Magnetic Fields' 1999 joke "No One Will Ever Love You." Bonnie Tyler and Courtney Love have tried to evoke the white-winged-dove essence of singer Stevie Nicks—but Stevie Nicks is not the same thing as Fleetwood Mac.

And that's part of the problem in trying to imitate them. In the late-'70s period documented by these reissues, the band had three front-people—Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine McVie—who individually wrote and sang major hits, an almost impossible feat. (The only other group to have done anything like this in the past 20 years was the Traveling Wilburys—more an all-star joke than a real group.)

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What really made these three albums tick, though—and made their sound basically irreproducible—was that late-'70s Fleetwood Mac was an improbable balancing act, powered by internal conflicts and bizarre chemistry. I don't mean the infamous intraband heartbreak (Christine and bassist John McVie, Nicks and Buckingham, and drummer Mick Fleetwood and his wife all split up before Rumours) or their massive drug intake, but their griffin-like hybrid of pop traditions. A California-to-the-core studio obsessive with a permanent case of the jitters (Buckingham), a dreamy mystical type with a gift for ornate, languorous melodies (Nicks), and a veteran British rhythm section with roots in raw electric blues (Fleetwood and the McVies): Try faking that combination.

The group had struggled for years to find the right lineup. It's easy to forget that Fleetwood Mac's self-titled 1975 album, the one with "Rhiannon" and "Say You Love Me," wasn't their first—it was their 11th. They'd started out as a straight-up British blues-revival band, a sort of cut-rate Cream. (The band's first single, back in 1967, was "I Believe My Time Ain't Long," a verbatim rip-off of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom.") Over the next eight years, they drifted into psychedelia, had a huge U.K. hit with an instrumental called "Albatross," lost their first three singer-guitarists to burnout, madness, and a cult, gained singer-keyboardist Christine Perfect (subsequently McVie), and burned through a few more frontmen. Finally, they hooked up with the American duo Buckingham Nicks—Lindsey and Stevie, who'd previously made a flop LP together—for their lush, mellow commercial breakthrough. Its reviewers called it "impressively smooth" (Rolling Stone) and "this year's easy listening classic" (Village Voice).

As these reissues point out, though, Fleetwood Mac stayed closer to their blues origins than they let on. The only constant members of the band were Fleetwood and John McVie, who never stopped trying to play Chicago blues, no matter what the rest of the band was doing. ("Don't Stop" is nobody's idea of a blues song, but the Rumours reissue's demo makes it clear that the rhythm section was pretty much treating it as "Dust My Broom," Part 18.) Singer-keyboardist Christine McVie's first hit, with her previous band Chicken Shack in 1969, was a cover of Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," and blues conventions turn up in her songs again and again, dressed in beachwear. Listen closely to the opening of " You Make Loving Fun": The beginning of McVie's first line—"Sweet wonderful you"—turns a poppy minor chord into a much bluesier minor seventh chord. (Imagine her singing "sweet" a note higher, and you'll hear the difference.) Her lyrics pull off similar tricks, like the first line of "Say You Love Me": "Have mercy, baby, on a poor girl like me."

None of which is immediately evident from these warm, breezy, minutely detailed albums: The surfaces of all of them are ear candy in the California pop tradition. ("Don't Stop" is right up there with OutKast's "Hey Ya!" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You [Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin]" in the pantheon of desperately unhappy feel-good anthems.) And much of the songs' attractiveness comes from another irreproducible effect, the combination of three peculiar singing voices. "Farmer's Daughter," a cover of a Beach Boys obscurity that's one of the bonus tracks on Tusk, strips the harmonies almost bare; you can hear the eccentricities of the voices—Nicks' incantatory bleat, Buckingham's uptight tremble, McVie's plummy enunciation—and how unlikely it was that they sounded so creamy together.

The Rumours and Tusk reissues have an extra disc apiece of rough versions and outtakes, and Fleetwood Mac now includes a pointless 1975 jam and four single mixes. But what's most striking about the bonus material is how little it adds to our understanding of these three immaculately buffed albums. It mostly reinforces the myth that Fleetwood Mac knew exactly what they were doing in the studio from the get-go and were primarily concerned with getting the sound of every instrument exactly right (even if that meant, in a few cases on Tusk, putting the drums away and whacking a cardboard box instead). That's not entirely true. Bootleggers have circulated some Nicks demos that sound very different from what they became, but they're not here. We do finally get to hear a fragment of "Butter Cookie (Keep Me There)," a Christine McVie throwaway that allegedly evolved into the entirely different song "The Chain." Frustratingly, we don't get to hear how that happened.

The new version of Rumours also indulges in a bit of Let It Be ... Naked-style historical revisionism: Stevie's lacerating kiss-off to Lindsey, "Silver Springs" (famously omitted from the final sequence and exiled to the B-side of Lindsey's own kiss-off to Stevie, "Go Your Own Way"), blithely shows up in the middle of the album as if it'd always been there.

Of the three albums, the one that's aged best is Tusk, which was originally considered a catastrophic stiff (it only went quadruple platinum). At once more sprawling and more intimate than Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, it retains a certain mystery that its precursors have lost to overexposure—partly because the band was trying so hard not to repeat itself (Buckingham's stabs at new wave miss the mark but anticipate the lo-fi movement of the '90s); partly because it's counterintuitive from its smallest details (Fleetwood's drum crescendo at the end of "Over and Over") to its overall sequence. Tusk is the only extant proof that it's possible to go into a recording studio for two years with millions of dollars and a mountain of drugs and emerge with something subtle. If anyone tried to follow Fleetwood Mac's example there, it's not surprising that they failed.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

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