Where Do I Start With Fleetwood Mac?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 30 2013 1:02 PM

Where Do I Start With Fleetwood Mac?

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Fleetwood Mac performs in 2003.

Photo by THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images.

Fleetwood Mac, which put out a new EP today, was one of the few music choices my parents and I could agree on. I would scream along with the rocking chorus of “The Chain” on the way to school and dance around the house to “Little Lies.” Since then, my appreciation for the band—from Lindsey Buckingham’s virtuosic guitar playing to the group’s layered harmonies—has grown more sophisticated, but the songs still pack the simple, emotional wallop they did for me 15 years ago.

Alternately credited with and cursed for creating “adult contemporary,” the members of Fleetwood Mac are almost as famous for their personal drama as for their classic songs. Originally, though, Fleetwood Mac was a simple British blues band, formed in 1967 by guitarist Peter Green and named after drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. This lineup, with a few additions, put out three albums, which did well in the U.K., but received little attention stateside. (One of the singles from that era, “Black Magic Woman,” became a major hit for Santana.) In 1970, Green left the band after suffering from a mental breakdown (he was later diagnosed as schizophrenic). A year later Christine McVie, John’s new wife, officially joined. A keyboardist who wrote her own music, Christine increasingly came to shape the band’s sound. Mick and the McVies stuck together through the early ’70s and more personnel changes—one of their guitarists joined the Children of God and another had an affair with Fleetwood’s wife—as they tried to replicate their British success in the U.S.

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They didn’t have much luck until 1974, when Mick recruited the American folk duo Buckingham Nicks. For their first album together, this new version of Fleetwood Mac combined Christine’s songs with some that Lindsey and Stevie had already written. The eponymous result finally brought the band the American popularity they’d been looking for, selling five million copies and reaching No. 1 on the charts. It had four hit singles, including McVie’s poppy “Say You Love Me” and Nicks’ haunting “Rhiannon,” which highlighted her wild performance style.

Success also brought trouble, as it does. The band’s two couples began to unravel—as did Mick Fleetwood’s marriage to model Jenny Boyd—just as they returned to the studio. And so the musical legend of Rumours was born: The album is made up of songs that Christine, Lindsey, and Stevie wrote about their dissolving relationships. The most famous of these are Buckingham and Nicks’ dueling takes on their doomed love, her ethereal “Dreams” and his aggressive “Go Your Own Way.” But at the heart of the album is the only song all five of the band members ever collaborated on, “The Chain,” which emphasizes their commitment to carrying on as a group despite their personal disagreements.

After the massive sales of Rumours, the studio invested heavily in the band’s follow-up. But Buckingham was determined not to repeat himself and began experimenting with different recording techniques (including, for instance, laying on a tile floor as he sang into the microphone). Meanwhile, Stevie had embarked on a secret affair with Mick—which ended, much to her chagrin, when he left her for her best friend. Eighteen months and the largest recording budget of all time produced the messy Tusk. The album sold about a quarter of the copies its predecessor did, but the unnerving title track, which features the USC marching band, balances Buckingham’s desire for punky weirdness and the rest of the band’s gift for grandeur.

The band put out two albums in the ’80s: 1982’s Mirage—which was largely overshadowed by Nicks’ solo release Belladonna—and 1987’s Tango in the Night. Tango was troubled; the band’s lifestyle remained extravagant and Nicks had abandoned coke for Klonopin, which made her spacey and unreliable. Buckingham and McVie, who had a hit with my old favorite, “Little Lies,” took over most of the songwriting duties, but Nicks, with the help of Sandy Stewart, still managed to contribute one great song, the cheerful “Seven Wonders.”

After another blow-up with Nicks, Buckingham left the band right before the Tango in the Night tour. The split wasn’t permanent, but the band never really recovered; in 1997, Christine McVie permanently retired from Fleetwood Mac. The remaining foursome has toured sporadically since then. Their 2003 album, Say You Will, was fairly successful, but failed to live up to their earlier work.

The new EP is the band’s first new material since then. The best of its tracks, “Sad Angel,” hearkens back to the catchy pop-rock of Rumours, rather than the smoothed-out sound of their more recent stuff. Perhaps they’ve rediscovered the knack they used to have for transmuting a troubled dynamic into powerful songs, though it’s hard to tell on the basis of just three new songs, all by Buckingham. (The fourth track, “Without You,” is an old Buckingham Nicks tune.) However it turns out, I’ll always have “The Chain.” And if you’ve never given the band much thought, you’ll find 10 tracks to get you started below, both as a Spotify playlist and on YouTube and Amazon. Enjoy.

Rhiannon” from Fleetwood Mac (1975)
The Chain” from Rumours (1977)
Black Magic Woman” from The Pious Bird of Good Omen (1969)
Seven Wonders” from Tango in the Night (1987)
Tusk” from Tusk (1979)
Dreams” from Rumours (1977)
Second Hand News” from Rumours (1977)
Say You Love Me” from Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Little Lies” from Tango in the Night (1987)
Go Your Own Way” from Rumours (1977)

Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter.