54th Favorite Album

Share

Rumours. Fleetwood Mac.
1977, Warner Bros. Producer: Fleetwood Mac, Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut.
Purchased, ??? (Seems like it’s always just been there).

IN A NUTSHELL: One of the most popular and enduring albums in rock music history, I’ve heard it so much that it’s hard to tell if I like it, or if I just find it familiar! But I think it’s because I like it: Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing throughout is what keeps me coming back, along with the terrific vocals from Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. The rhythm section is top-notch, too, although the thin, wimpy drum sound is hard to take.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
{Portions of this piece were first posted June 6, 2013}

If you saw The Mona Lisa tomorrow, for the first time ever and with no prior knowledge of it, and it was hanging inside the screened-in porch of your uncle’s fishing cabin, between one of those paintings of dogs playing poker and a Bob Ross mountainscape, would you recognize it as a masterpiece?

Okay, in that context maybe you would. But if she wasn’t “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world,” would you look at her and immediately decide, “Oh. My. God. This painting HAS TO BE the most famous painting in the world!”?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite desserts that my mom would make was something called “No Bake Cheesecake,” by Jello. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my mom wasn’t a great baker. She was, and remains, an excellent baker of cookies, cakes and those twin Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies Shoo-Fly Pie and Whoopie Pies.

But she has never been the kind of baker to go much beyond the types of desserts that a mediocre sports announcer might describe as being “in her wheelhouse.” So back in the 70s, to add some variety to our menu of desserts (which also served as our breakfast menu1) my mom would “mix things up” by mixing up things like Jello No-Bake Cheesecake.

I loved it. Then again, I loved all of the pre-packaged, imitation foods of the day: Tang, Space Food Sticks, Spaghettios (with Franks!) and perhaps my favorite of all non-desserts: Mug-O-Lunch. I never thought of Jello No-Bake Cheesecake as anything other than simply cheesecake. It was the only cheesecake I knew. The texture of the filling was creamy, a little stiffer than pudding, but not as firm as, say, imitation butter in a tub, and this very sweet, yet slightly tangy mass was plopped and spread into the loving embrace of a margarine/graham cracker crust. “Cheesecake” was officially my favorite dessert.

When I got to college I started dating a woman, M., who, by any standard available, would be described as “out of my league.” In addition to being more popular and more attractive than me, she was also far more worldly and came from a much wealthier family than me. We didn’t have much in common, but somehow we stayed together for about a year and a half. (If pressed, I’d attribute the tenacity of our relationship to mental illness, alcoholism, self-loathing, lack of communication skills, and an appreciation of a well-told joke; each distributed between us in relatively equal, though constantly varying, proportions.)

I went out to dinner with her and her family sometimes, typically near her parents’ home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and often at very nice restaurants. This fact alone attests to the differences between M. and myself, as “going out to dinner” in my family had always meant subs or pizza, McDonald’s or The Red Barn. We just weren’t a family that spent much money going out to restaurants.

At one of my first fancy restaurant dinners with M. and her family I was excited to see “New York Cheesecake” listed on the dessert menu. I loved cheesecake, and even though it seemed pretty pricey2, I knew her family was the type that wouldn’t object to me ordering a slice.

When it arrived, I tried to act nonchalant about the fact that I didn’t know what the fuck this tannish-gold, giant wedge of not-quite-set Quikrete was that had been placed in front of my face. But my hosts saw my look of distress, clearly, because someone asked, “Isn’t that what you wanted?” Although I hadn’t been completely domesticated by this time in my life, I did have enough couth to understand I needed to be tactful and polite. Thinking quickly, I remarked “No, it’s fine. I just haven’t had the New York style before.”

I ate the cheesecake and pretended to enjoy the lightly-sweetened density of what I now know to be a well-made, tasty cheesecake, but my mouth yearned for the sugary, creamy pudding of the Jello brand. I told everyone I liked it3 but I vowed to never order New York Cheesecake in a restaurant again. Maybe I was the crazy one, preferring the boxed, No-Bake dessert to what the rest of the world knew to be authentic cheesecake, but that’s the version that was familiar (and delicious!) to me. I knew it, I was comfortable with it and I really liked it4!

Just as with taste in cheesecakes and other delicacies, one’s appreciation for art is subjective. Some people don’t like Jello No-Bake Cheesecake, just as others claim The Mona Lisa isn’t really even all that great in the first place. Taste is subjective, unstable, prone to drifting. Your mood can affect your tastes; your friends can affect your tastes; your station in life can affect your tastes. Is it really surprising, then, to think that simple familiarity could affect your tastes? We’ve probably all had the experience of songs “growing on us” with repeated listenings, and I’m sure we’ve all grown weary of many others5.

I thought about the effect of The Mona Lisa hanging inside your uncle’s cabin6 because I’ve been having trouble clarifying my impressions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. Now, I’m sure many of you just cringed at my comparison of a 70s soft-rock album to a work of art by Leonardo DaVinci, but in terms of familiarity, I think the comparison is reasonable. Various websites list Rumours as having sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and as of December, 2016, it is the 6th best-selling non-greatest-hits record ever in the US. Ask a few friends to name 5 famous paintings and 5 famous rock records, and I think there’s a good chance The Mona Lisa and Rumours would both make most lists.

As may be the case with seeing The Mona Lisa today, it is hard to appraise Rumours solely on its artistic merits without constantly recognizing “Hey, this is Rumours!” There are so many songs on the album that have been played so frequently throughout the years since its 1977 release that the album has almost become part of the ambient world: the birds chirp, cars drive by, “You Make Loving Fun” plays, someone coughs, the sprinklers turn on …

Try this test: I will name a song and then give you a line and see if you can sing, or hum, at least 75% of the entire song in your head. (Bonus points if one or more of the songs plays in your head the rest of the day!)

“Dreams” – Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
“Don’t Stop” – Don’t stop/Thinkin’ about tomorrow.
“Go Your Own Way” – Loving you/Isn’t the right thing to do.
“You Make Loving Fun” – Sweet, wonderful you/ You make me happy with the things you do.
“The Chain” – And if you don’t love me now/ you will never love me again.
“Second Hand News” – Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass/ And let me do my stuff.
“Never Going Back Again” – Been down one time/ Been down two times.
“Gold Dust Woman” – Well did she make you cry/ Make you break down/ And shatter your illusions of love.

These are songs from my entire radio-listening life – some (“You Make Loving Fun,” “Don’t Stop,” “Dreams”) were soft-rock hits from childhood, played on WLBR, AM-1270, in the 70s7; some (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News”) were Album-Oriented Rock staples, from my teen and young adult years; still others (“Never Going Back Again,” “Gold Dust Woman”) have been played on Oldies radio (or what is euphemistically now called “Adult Album Alternative” radio) for years. I can’t remember NOT having this album. I think my sister had it in her famous milk-crate of music. In high school I had a cassette tape of it, and soon after I began buying CDs, I bought it on CD. After all this time, I don’t know if it’s Jello No-Bake or bakery-fresh: I’ve heard it too much to tell anymore. It probably should be either higher or lower than #54 – based on whether familiarity has either enhanced or devalued my love of it – so right near the middle of the list is probably perfect placement.

The album begins subtly, with the approaching rumble of acoustic guitar that opens “Second Hand News.”

One of the things I love about this song is that acoustic guitar – particularly the four little chords Lindsey Buckingham plays after the first line of verse, there at 0:08 and again at 0:12. Little guitar things like this are found throughout this album, placed there by the renowned perfectionist Buckingham. He is an underrated guitar player, a name that doesn’t spring to mind among the Jimi Hendrixes, Eric Claptons and Eddie Van Halens of the world, but folks who know realize he’s got the goods8. Fleetwood Mac is an excellent vocal group, with three top-notch singers in Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, each of whom is equally comfortable on lead or harmony. On this song, Nicks’s harmony vocals in the chorus (particularly 1:08 – 1:12) really make the song. Buckingham plays a cool, compression-heavy guitar solo that begins about 2:31, but before getting there, as the vocal harmonies and rhythm section are building, several guitar parts ring and sustain in the background. Again, these are the types of little touches on songs on this album that I love. The lyrics are a plea to an ex9 to keep certain privileges available to the singer even after the breakup. We’ll hear more about this and other breakups throughout Rumours.

In addition to singing, Buckingham, Nicks and C. McVie also write songs. Each has their own style, and since I started with Buckingham, I’ll stay there for now with another breakup song, “Go Your Own Way.”

This time the song starts with an electric guitar approaching the listener, and a chiming acoustic guitar once again provides subtle support (0:05). This song may be overplayed, and you very well may be tired of it, but let’s take a second to consider the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, a “Fleetwood” and a “Mac,” respectively. This song is really theirs, with McVie’s fun, rolling bass line propelling it, and Fleetwood’s tribal drumming carrying it. I like Fleetwood’s drumming, although I don’t care for the drum sound on this album. It’s thin, as if it shouldn’t be noticed, with a snare that sounds like a kid slapping water in a pool. But the actual drumming is really great. McVie is one of my favorite bass players because his bass lines are generally cool-sounding, but blues-based and in the pocket, with their “coolness” emanating not from virtuoso dexterity, like The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea or Geddy Lee, from Rush, but from their simplicity. There’s nothing special about the bass line behind the “You can go your own way” chorus, and that’s what makes it special! This song is a break-up song, once again about Nicks, and has fantastic electric guitar, with goodies through the entire song (like that ringing feedback at about 0:54) and a terrific solo at the end (2:39).

Do me a favor and go ahead and google ‘fleetwood mac rumours band turmoil‘ and read the 288,000 results – that way I don’t have to cover it all. Basically, long-term couple Nicks and Buckingham, and husband/wife John and Christine McVie were splitting up during the writing and recording of Rumours. This means all of the songs pack a wallop of emotion, as the band members were playing on sometimes venomous songs written about each other. This is like having two couples setting their court-ordered marriage-counseling transcripts to music and handing them around to say, “here, sing this.” AND – having the other band members take the transcripts and complete amazing performances despite the pain and anger and, frankly, awkwardness. Nicks tells her side of the story on the extremely popular “Dreams.”

Nicks truly has one of the all-time great voices in rock. It’s a smoky, husky voice, strong yet delicate, as at about 0:35, where she sings “it’s only right.” The rhythm section again is on display, and a two-note bass line has never sounded better. Fleetwood’s drums are still thin10, but his part is great, particularly the “heartbeat … drives you mad” at 0:52. And as is the custom in a Fleetwood Mac (Buckingham era) song, Buckingham’s guitar is the unsung hero of this piece. True, it’s Nicks’s voice that triumphs on this warning about regret to her ex, with particularly nice overdubbed harmonies against her own lead vocal, but the subtle, eerie guitar sounds that her ex provides really add shape and color to the piece.

Buckingham and Nicks may be thought of as the John and Paul of Fleetwood Mac, but the band’s George wrote most of the hits. I’m referring, of course, to keyboardist Christine McVie who, by my (Wikipedia) count, wrote eight top-20 songs for the band: “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” “Think About Me,” “Hold Me,” “Little Lies,” “Everywhere,” and two from Rumours, including “You Make Loving Fun.”

This song is often thought of as a yacht-rock, mellow, 70s-Love’s-Baby-Soft-Rock, but I’m here to make the case that (as is getting to be a theme here) it’s actually an awesome guitar song. Sure it has that uber-70’s, squawky Hohner Clavinet sound right off the bat, but by 0:12, Buckingham is overlaying super-tasty little guitar figures – the kind of stuff that’s lost when heard on AM waves through a transistor radio, especially when those lush harmonies of the chorus (0:50-0:59) are so very strong. The second verse of the song is a straight-on guitar solo, coming out of a nifty Buckingham noodle at 1:19, and when the chorus returns, he keeps pumping out the sweet riffs, particularly at about 2:40, after the “you, you make loving fun” vocals. The outro of the song begins at 2:50, and of course features more guitar. I also want to point out how much joy I get from the bass note that John McVie hits during “believe,” in the chorus, for example at about 1:54-1:55. I don’t know music theory – is it a 7th? A 9th? A suspended-myxolidian-13th? Who knows, but it sounds really great and makes me smile – and shows the immense professionalism of J. McVie, as he shines on a track on which his wife’s lyrics are a love letter to the man with whom she was having an affair. (Awkward!)

Her other big hit on the album is “Don’t Stop,” which – frankly – I never need to hear again – although it does have some great Buckingham guitar, but then again, what song doesn’t? Well, “Songbird,” for one. This McVie song is a beautiful solo piece for her (with a few touches of acoustic guitar.) I can’t hear it without remembering a friend, a jazz musician and man of immense talent and extremely good looks, who sang this song solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, to his new bride at their wedding. I remember thinking, “Great. He just spoiled weddings for every unmarried couple here: no man will EVER live up to that!”

Although I think of this record as the prototypical 70s rock record, and that was an era of studio excess and hours of recording, there are a few relatively simple songs on the album. For example, Buckingham has (basically) a solo performance piece on the poison-pen kiss-offNever Going Back Again,” which features his lovely fingerpicking guitar style. One of these simple, (relatively) production-light songs is my favorite on the album: the Stevie Nicks-penned “I Don’t Want to Know.”

The Nicks/Buckingham vocals are terrific on this song about all the feelings involved in a breakup, and the sense that all you can do to survive is to remain ignorant11. There’s another cool Buckingham background guitar riff, heard, for example, at 0:29, and J. McVie plays another simple, damn-near-perfect bass line. As diverse as this record is, this is the song that best captures the entirety of Rumours, lyrically, musically, and instrumentally.

But the song that defines the spirit of the album is the only group-penned song on the record, attributed to Buckingham, Fleetwood, McVie, McVie and Nicks, a song that touches on both the discord between the couples and the strength of the quintet, “The Chain.”

It opens with an ominous-sounding bass drum behind a twangy acoustic guitar. Of course, multiple guitars are layered on top as the band harmonizes, and an electric piano enters during the chorus. The first part of the song is angry, accusatory, referring to a partner’s indifference to “The Chain.” This collective pain and anger is the theme of the album, really, but what elevates this song is the second half, beginning about 3:05. John McVie plays another simple line, and Buckingham wails on another highly compressed solo as the band affirms: “The chain will keep us together.” When people speak about the album, they often ask “How could this band go through all that turmoil, and still produce such a great album?” And this song answers the question: The Chain keeping them together is The Music. The first half’s accusatory declaration, “I can still hear you saying that you’d never break the chain,” which implies a sort of dare to the partner (“Oh, what? Now you’re just going to leave the band because of this??”) is answered by the second half response: “The chain will keep us together.” The Music is more important than anything to them, even love, or even a sense of emotional self-preservation. That’s hard to believe for non-artists like you and me, but simply the level of commitment to one’s art that is required for success such as theirs.

Maybe the answer to The Fishing Cabin Conundrum is this: WHO CARES? The Mona Lisa can be good, and so can Jello No-Bake Cheesecake. It doesn’t really matter if I like Rumours because it’s been so ubiquitous in my life, or if it’s because I think the songs are excellent. The fact is, it’s been a part of my life, and I like it. As Stevie Nicks sang, “I don’t want to know the reasons why …”

Track Listing
“Second Hand News”
“Dreams”
“Never Going Back Again”
“Don’t Stop”
“Go Your Own Way”
“Songbird”
“The Chain”
“You Make Loving Fun”
“I Don’t Want to Know”
“Oh Daddy”
“Gold Dust Woman”

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Albums 60 - 51

What do you think? Let me know!