Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fleetwood Mac, the Time Ghost: Rumours Turns 40

Fleetwood Mac (circa 1968): John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green Jeremy Spencer.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” – Christine McVie

The recent release of a new duo album by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie is a good opportunity to re-examine the long strange trip of the phenomenal pop band they belong to. Fleetwood Mac was originally formed in 1967 by Peter Green, but Christine Perfect-McVie had already been on the scene in her own remarkable British blues band, Chicken Shack, even before her talented husband became the stellar bass player for one of the most successful rock outfits in music history. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been ten years since I published my book on the weird evolutionary leaps of Fleetwood Mac from gritty British blues to shiny Californian pop and yet, incredibly, it’s true. Back then, in 2007, it was the band’s 40th anniversary, hence my title 40 Years of Creative Chaos, and now suddenly I’m having to try and convince my publisher that they definitely deserve a 50th-anniversary update to their twisted saga. I suspect my editor can barely believe that they’re still together, despite the fact that Stevie Nicks has made one of her frequent departures to pursue her solo muse (herself) and Lindsey Buckingham has released an eponymous duet with the other sultry blonde in the group, my far-more-favourite British blues chick turned pop-diva, Christine McVie.

Even more incredibly, or at least ironically, Fleetwood Mac is being given a special award next year which cements their acclaim in even more glowing terms: the Recording Academy’s 2018 MusiCares Person of the Year, an honour that will be extended to the veteran rockers in conjunction with the 60th Grammy Awards. Amazingly, the Grammys themselves are only ten years older than this stalwart but grizzled crew of pop wizards. The award singles out musicians both for their artistry and for their frequent philanthropic contributions, with previous recipients including Dylan, McCartney and Stevie Wonder.

Founding member Mick Fleetwood has stated regarding the award --  which acknowledges fundraising that generates support for programs assisting musicians in need of housing, transportation, instrument or equipment issues, medical treatment, food and other services -- that it is “a tremendous honour to be the first band to receive the Person of the Year Award, and we are very appreciative of this recognition.” The last time the original British version of the band may have needed such charitable support themselves, of course, was probably when Peter Green was still in the John Mayall Bluesbreakers group in 1966 after replacing Eric Clapton. How five individual people can be recognized as the Person of the Year -- well, naturally that is something that could only happen in the exotic annals of rock and roll history, I suppose. What’s equally mysterious is that forty years have already passed since the release of their blockbuster break-up-but-stay-together album, Rumours, a perfect pop record that continues to sell to the grandchildren of its original listeners.

They are still out on the road, probably coming soon to a jammed stadium near you, and are also about to release a new album of fresh material after the eighteen-year hiatus of one of their key members, the gifted Christine McVie, who has returned to the fold after testing out retirement on her English estate. How the other band members convinced her to come back to their often dysfunctional family unit is a tale worthy of the pop legend they have all become. In fact, since Stevie Nicks is now finally reluctant to return for yet another Mac outing and instead wants her solo career back, while Christine and Lindsey Buckingham have even teamed up to write and release their own collaborative album, it’s Stevie’s turn for a vacation from Mac. Fine with me; personally, I can live without Stevie, but I can’t live without Christine. I can’t say what they cooked up is anything like the magic they made and still make with Fleetwood Mac, however.

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie.

Marcel Proust once accidentally offered a keen-eyed insight into the nature of popular culture when he observed that the men and women who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, or whose conversation is the most brilliant, or whose culture is the most extensive, but rather those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a kind of mirror. The Beatles clearly did it, Dylan is still doing it, and Fleetwood Mac has obviously managed to dynamically manufacture the same magical achievement.

Few people would dispute this soap-opera characterization, least of all the members of the pop phenomenon known as Fleetwood Mac themselves. But what many erstwhile fans may not know is just how the many mutations and evolutionary leaps and bounds, including their own personal challenges and tragedies, have all contributed to making Mac what it still is today: one of the most smoothly functioning musical units in pop music. At its heart is the pulsating time management of perhaps the greatest rhythm section in pop, Fleetwood on drums and McVie on bass, second perhaps only to McCartney and Starr as exemplars, or possibly Entwistle and Moon or Wyman and Watts.

What may surprise even some loyal fans is the pop band’s original roots as a British blues band, long before they morphed into the shimmering pop machine of today, and only after first going sideways as a psychedelic power band and then lurching forward again as a progressive rock band. What many fans thought was their first big hit release, the eponymously titled white Fleetwood Mac, in 1975, was actually their twelfth record in a long, twisted, sometimes sordid but always entertaining saga of chaotic creativity, indulgence and success.

How opposites not only attract but also merge into a single highly functional creative unit, allowing them to achieve together something superior – sometimes far superior – to what any individual participants could ever have managed to do alone: that’s the golden ratio of their success. Fleetwood Mac is perhaps the diamond standard for this kind of sublimated conflict and transcendent triumph over internal power struggles, with only The Beatles themselves demonstrating quite as clearly how personal creative competition can achieve a degree of professional perfection so exceptional that it impacts practically every pop music listener on the planet. And so it is with a little blues band of rude, boisterous and inspired Cockney kids who travelled far forward from channeling the black music of their American blues heroes to changing the sonic landscape of pop music forever.

So it was with Fleetwood Mac, which is really three different bands stretched across its volatile and raucous half-century of recording and live performances: firstly as a gritty British original with the brilliant but troubled Peter Green fronting, then as a Californian progressive rock band featuring the great but woefully underappreciated Bob Welch, and finally as a superbly polished and slickly produced pop band fronted by Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Their last incarnation alone has lasted over 40 years.

Mick Fleetwood, who calls himself a rock soldier, a drummer who does his duty, often calls memory lane a painful address, but it’s one still worth visiting, even from the wistful vantage point of half a century away from home. What keeps a band like this running on all cylinders after so long, since reaching for either celebrity or wealth is already a done deal? It’s the music, of course, and the strange magic channeled through one uniquely mismatched set of performing artists resulting in an ideal golden ratio. This golden ratio is anything but mystical and is best summed up by the ironic coat of arms of quantum physicist Nils Bohr: opposites complement each other. By mirroring each other they also mirror the audience; in fact, they brilliantly reflect several generations of audiences, and in several stylistic formats.

After a stellar blues-band debut, suddenly they were faced with the arrival of the other Peter Green, the one who didn’t just play the blues but was cursed with living the blues in reality. The period McVie woefully described as “trauma city.” Perhaps the ultimate departure record, Then Play On (1969), declared a new and proto-metal allegiance to Green’s new creative directions, leaving Jeremy Spencer completely in the dark, quite literally, with nothing to contribute. Maddened by his old label Blue Horizon's releasing more Chicago-style blues a year after their visit to Chess, and maddened by his growing paranoia about fame, wealth, celebrity and a gift that burned him up and out, Green continued into the downward spiral that would consume him utterly and yet also propel his little blues band into a new and uncharted pop territory.

Overtaken completely by dark forces probably latent in his insecure personality but exacerbated by effusive dream-vitamin intake, Green’s valedictory wave was the extremely strange dirge “The Green Manalishi (with the two prong crown),” released as a surreal single which somehow still shot to number one. One of his curses was the inability to concoct any song, no matter how exotic, that didn’t grab the public by the throat and entertain them, much to his own chagrin. It was in April of 1970 that Green announced he was leaving the breathtakingly successful band he had invented, forcing them to cancel upcoming tour dates. Problems had emerged early on in their wave of Macmania, with Green wanting the band to give away all their money and play for charity, after one too many trips on the brown acid that his new west coast cronies had provided. But the same year, he also released his final label obligation, End of the Game, an all-instrumental and heavily experimental opus in the live-Dead vein of spaced jamming. At first disdained by hardcore fans, history has shown it to be a masterpiece far, far ahead of its time, just like the rest of Green’s brief tenure at the helm of a ship that hit the rocks.

With Fleetwood’s Green God gone, Christine Perfect officially joined the band and transformed it immediately with her obvious grasp of the blues, her personal charisma and a much-needed feminine counter-balancing of the excess testosterone in the band. Green’s goodbye solo album was countered in an almost schizoid way by Perfect’s mellow introduction to a band that almost fell apart and perished after losing its charismatic founder. The remaining members were severely demoralized but were scheduled to begin an American tour that autumn. The band was living communally, always close to being a cult even at the best of times, in a converted oast barn in the Hampshire countryside called Kiln House. Spencer and Danny Kirwan, already on shaky ground themselves mentally, found it hard to imagine fronting the band alone. What they managed to thresh out there became a seminal transition, the first of many to come in a band that would soon enough make falling apart into a creative act.

The release of Kiln House, a beautifully transitional record in the forward-flow state of Mac, was mysteriously counteracted by Green’s astounding instrumental swan song, concocted as a freeform jam which, though disdained by many fans and critics alike, still has some spine-tingling creative moments that seem to almost evoke, if not reference, what Miles Davis was doing in the monumental Bitches Brew.

In order to complete their American tour they turned to their burnt-out leader and convinced what was left of him to fly over and play the remaining dates. On their return to Britain they immediately began working on a new album with a new member, the Americana Bob Welch, introduced to the band by a close friend, and along with Christine McVie he wrote all of the songs on what would become their perfectly titled new direction, Future Games, a quiet masterpiece that would prove prophetic in more ways than one. Ironically, just as they were launching their new feel, Blue Horizon chose to release outtakes of their original raw blues splendour called The Original Fleetwood Mac, a spooky parallel dimension which seemed to apply the solid masonary to their legend of transformative survival.

One night in 1971 while on tour, Jeremy Spencer went out for a newspaper and never came back, teased into the Children of God religious cult while tripping, where he languished for some twenty years. His loss was mostly mourned only by Elmore James cultists, in fact, since he had become a problematic member of the otherwise uniquely tight and progressive rock unit Mac had become by this point. The arrival of the gifted songwriter-guitarist Bob Welch would again alter their trajectory forever, easing them closer to California, and closer to a blockbuster career none of them would have dared imagine without him.

The revolving-door and roller-coaster metaphors are totally apt as the band evolved dramatically with the subtle interplay between new members, the now Christine McVie and the abundantly gifted southern Californian soul band survivor Bob Welch. Fleetwood Mac spent most of 1972 touring Europe and America. During a week’s break they went back to London and recorded their next album. On their return to America the tapes were damaged when going through the airport x-ray and work had to be done at a New York studio to repair them. Welch was touring with only a month of rehearsals under his belt, and several of his original songs were performed live at great risk, though the band itself was relieved that Fleetwood Mac had accidentally discovered a brand-new sound.

That year marks the departure of Danny Kirwan and the arrival of Dave Walker (from Savoy Brown Blues Band) – his successor, since no one could ever really replace the brilliant but troubled Kirwan. Bare Trees (1972) is his mournfully beautiful and accomplished swan song, with the wasted Kirwan surrendering to the same real-life brain blues that kidnapped his two fellow Mac guitarists. Walker is sacked after a few dates when Fleetwood declares that he is an interpreter and what they need is an artist. Welch proves to be a godsend for Fleetwood Mac and singlehandedly morphs them into a progressive rock band.

In 1973, while Buckingham Nicks released their first and only solo-duo record, the Mac band was blissfully unaware of the seismic shifts about to occur upon their encountering the lovelorn team. They still produced three more Welch-led Fleetwood Mac records which are among their finest, though greatly underappreciated. Coincidentally Buckingham was in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend after their emotionally challenging debut duo album. Buckingham and Nicks were fated to cross paths with the visionary (or incredibly lucky) Fleetwood in California, where the prescient Welch had already brought them in search of a new vibe, but first there was one more Mac album, perhaps their most thematically mysterious, to be delivered by Welch.

Bob Welch created a final masterpiece for the band before professional conflicts squeezed him out and the decks were cleared for a truly startling change in both band chemistry and style. Meanwhile, mayhem: Mick was breaking up with his wife, Lindsey was breaking up with Stevie, Stevie had an affair with Mick, Christine was breaking up with John, and yet not one of them ever considered breaking up the band. Instead, after the departure of Weston, the band cancelled the rest of its U.S. tour, at which point their manager Clifford Davis claimed he owned the name Fleetwood Mac and so assembled own substitute version to tour live, known to history as the Fake Fleetwood Mac. This peculiar time caused the real Fleetwood Mac to encounter identity and recognition problems, but it didn’t stop them from going into the studio in July to create the weirdly heroic Heroes Are Hard To Find, though Welch would quit in December, leaving this dark and muffled masterpiece as his testament.

As the long-suffering Welch tells it: “I felt we were going around in circles floundering and the creative freshness had faded [after five albums], I felt I needed to strike out on my own and find another context.” He found a successful, if somewhat bright and shiny, commercial career as a solo artist and a superb singer-songwriter. His, however, was not to be a happy history in the long run. Heroes Are Hard To Find also boasts one of the strangest album covers in rock history, featuring the ever-photogenic but somewhat emaciated Fleetwood in underwear holding his young daughter within a three-mirrored image. Gonzo.

It was while searching for new studios in which to record the follow-up to Heroes (which had received quite a lukewarm response from the public and critics alike) that Mick Fleetwood met the two people who would have the most dramatic
-- some would say melodramatic -- impact on the band’s already creatively and commercially satisfying saga, or so they thought. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had already been recording together for about ten years and were laying down tracks at Sound City in California when Fleetwood turned up to meet Keith Olsen and see/hear a demonstration of the studio's facilities. By pure chance or synchronicity, what he saw and heard next door was Stevie and Lindsey seemingly pointing the way to the future, a future no one could have imagined.

He heard tracks from Buckingham Nicks and was stunned; in fact, he probably still is. Initially wanting only a guitar player for his new line-up, he was suitably impressed by Lindsey’s blistering talents but he also agreed to take on girlfriend Nicks as well once he heard they were a duo act. Fleetwood absorbed them into the nucleus of Mac, re-recording several songs from their early premiere effort, and accepting hungrily the fresh new songs they would melt all over what was left of Fleetwood Mac.

This is the so-called Fleetwood Mac debut record of the new pop line-up, which put the band on the global hit-making map, ten years after their original historic British blues debut, and it’s an example of why we still know and listen to them today: perfectly crafted pop songs celebrating love and loss. As Barney Hoskyns has pointed out so well in his great history of the L.A. Music scene, while Warner Brothers hung onto its prestige artists, an indication of the changes in store for the music industry in general came with the new and surprising edition of Fleetwood Mac, whose “Brits in L.A. nucleus” had been bolstered by additional native Californians Buckingham and Nicks. Like The Eagles, the new Mac seemed to get the pop-rock balance just right, with the new songwriting duo’s influence expanding the original blues-based line-up’s creative vocabulary and giving their sound that crucial Californian pop feel. With her lacy attire, Nicks quickly became a kind of space-cadet sex symbol, while Buckingham’s infatuation with Brian Wilson came through in the orchestral intricacy of the album’s arrangements and production values.

Two thirds of the songs for this debut had already been featured on the Buckingham-Nicks solo record two years earlier, in a creative moment of sheer-entertainment extra-sensory perception. They continued to irk their management and record executives by ignoring their advice not to tour live in concert before releasing the album, appearing in May 1975 in El Paso, Texas to premiere one of the hottest live pop acts to be seen or heard in years. Released while the group was touring, the new, re-mixed version of “Over My Head” sold almost half a million units in the first month and went into the American Top Ten by November ’75. As Christmas approached, they had a gold record, a successful tour and four hit singles. They had officially arrived and were optimistic. Little did they know what their future blockbuster status would cost them in the hard-to-measure currency of the human heart.

Money started pouring in a waterfall, coupled by the various vices to which ultra-success in rock is often prone, especially in the West Coast dream factory and the industry that sprouted up to fuel the then new FM-radio formats hungry for content. This classic lovers-in-dangerous-times album, a diaristic album-oriented rock (AOR) soap opera about the group’s actual tangled personal and professional relationships, spent a stupendous thirty-one weeks at number one. The record business around them went boom-crazy. The sheer scale of their success, even by California’s jaded commercial standards, seemed to turn the most sober heads.

Buckingham clearly demonstrated why he had come on board, and why Fleetwood was so prescient in his ability to move sideways as the times and circumstances around him changed. The historical Mac camps split apart entirely at this stage, with three feuding sets of fans: those lamenting the lost edge of the blues and calling them sell-outs, those missing the progressive rock head-space of Welch and calling them capitalist buffoons, and those who simply enjoyed the pure perfection of brilliantly produced and arranged pop music, seemingly totally oblivious to the band’s original British roots. Personal problems swarmed all over the band in late '75/early '76: Lindsey and Stevie’s relationship finally fell apart (truth be told, it was already over but they didn’t tell Mac this upon joining); Christine and John McVie’s long-difficult marriage was on the rocks yet again; and Mick’s marriage was melting in slow motion as he rose higher to pop stardom and excess.

But through all the emotional angst there was never any discussion of breaking up the group, and this particular mindset, of going forward with the musical flow no matter what the outcome or consequences, is what informs the writing, recording and performing spirit behind their follow-up to the new direction of the White Mac album. It was a dangerous, brilliant, inspired and insane idea. Following its recording, the band hit the road again, but this time they were propelled to the heights John Lennon once characterized as the toppermost of the poppermost. At the Grammy Awards in February, Fleetwood Mac took Album of the year for Rumours, and almost won Best Arrangement for Voices with “Go Your Own Way,” perhaps the most ironic love song in history. Rolling Stone awarded them Best Album, Artists of the Year, and Band of the Year.

Following up this monumental achievement would prove both challenging and daunting. 1977 saw both the death of Elvis and the birth of punk, with Mac wedged comfortably but guiltily in between. But they were too busy thanking their lucky stars, and their money, buying jets and beginning their decades-long binges of champagne and coke, to concern themselves with the past. Tomorrow, as Christine’s song announces, was the only thing worth thinking about anyway.

Lindsey Buckingham, though pleased to have ascended to the same stellar production and commercial heights as his idols Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, was somewhat taken aback by the new creative directions music was taking around them as they looked down from lofty heights. The loathing which punks and other musical genres felt for the pop band, which found its most vile expression in The Rotters’ 1979 classic ode of disdain, “Sit On My Face Stevie Nicks,” really angered Lindsey, who prided himself on his musical eclecticism and his openness to the “new wave.” In his desire to, in his own words, “refute the machinery,” the obsessive Buckingham masterminded the eccentric act of virtual sabotage that was Tusk (1979), a double album of gorgeously eccentric sketches and doodlings which caused ripples of panic through Burbank boardrooms.

The ascent of Lindsay Buckingham demonstrateds just what lengths he would go to in order to outdistance the punks, and smother the guilt he felt from his massive success. It’s a glimpse into what makes him one of the most gifted guitarist/singer-songwriter/producers in the entertainment industry. The willfully perverse choice to release the whole album on FM radio must have severely hampered his hopes and hypes, accidentally alerting the Mac audience anticipating Rumours 2 that their AOR heroes had taken a sharp left turn into hyper-personal, almost solipsistic production and content experimentation. Their live Tusk tour was confusing to all concerned. From the vantage point of 38 years after the fact, though, it is clearly one of their major accomplishments, at par with the gorgeous stylistic squalor of Then Play On a decade earlier.

Although the album was in the Top 5 by the end of 1979, it sold a mere fraction of the 25 million units notched up by Rumours. Added to which were the ongoing “complications” in the band’s private lives, one of the many sources of their legend. Fleetwood and McVie were recovering from divorces, alcoholism and general cocaine mayhem, while Christine was inexplicably taking care of bad Beach Boy Dennis Wilson in Coldwater Canyon, a doomed frying-pan-to-the-fire switch if ever there was one.

Their live Tusk tour and live album release met with disappointingly tepid responses from impatient ears demanding more torrid romantic entanglements, not Lindsey’s channeling of Spector-Wilson operatics. Life on the road continued to take its toll on the sanity and health of the Mac machinery. Their Live album (1980) featured ample material from '75-'77 but it was presented in a schizoid stylistic salad with newer Buckingham material which would take many years for some listeners to accommodate and assimilate into their history. Considering their past commercial efforts, Tusk was also deemed a flop for selling only 4 million units, but to put this in perspective, Taylor Swift’s 2014 roller-coaster ride resulted in a perfectly respectable 3 million. But in the rarefied Mac world, this would have been considered very paltry business indeed.

1981 was followed by a brief rest, during which Nicks recorded a hugely successful solo album, Bella Donna, and both Mick and Lindsey worked on solo projects. The band regrouped and went to France to record the presumed follow-up to Tusk, which would prove almost as difficult as following up Rumours. Suitably chastened, they had also fled L.A. to avoid the "distractions” swirling around and inside them. Incredibly enough, the final chapters of their strangely compelling living novel are still being written today.

If serious followers of The Grateful Dead’s music are deadheads, then it stands to reason that serious followers of Fleetwood Mac would have to be loveheads, given their allegiance to a band celebrating romance over reason. Their records, some better than others, continued to flow energetically on for the next thirty years. Don’t stop, can’t stop, won’t stop.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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