Friday, October 18, 2019

Fleetwood Mac’s Frozen Love: Ryan Reed’s Chronicle

Fleetwood Mac (from left, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, pose with their awards at the 1978 Grammys after winning Album of the Year for Rumors. (AP Photo)
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” – William Faulkner

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”  – Christine McVie
This is a good opportunity to re-examine the long strange trip of a truly phenomenal pop band. Fleetwood Mac was originally formed in 1967 by blues genius Peter Green, long before they morphed into one of the most successful rock outfits in music history. And they refused to break their chain.

Each segment of this band’s incredible saga has been focused on a brilliant guitarist: first Peter Green, then Bob Welch and finally Lindsay Buckingham, all so different and yet all possessed of the necessary ingredient to serve as a pivot for fine vocalists and the superior rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. In the interest of what I guess people call full disclosure, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been twelve years since I published my own book on the weird evolutionary leaps of this band from gritty British blues to shiny Californian pop and yet, incredibly, it’s true. Back then, in 2007, it was merely the band’s 40th anniversary, hence my title 40 Years of Creative Chaos, but now suddenly I’m delighted to report that Ryan Reed has updated their insanely twisted saga to mark a shocking full 52 years of survival as rock and pop behemoths.

In his comprehensive tome cheekily subtitled All That’s Left To Know About Rock’s Iconic Survivors, published as part of Backbeat Books’ FAQ series, this author takes a clear-eyed look across the entire landscape of lunacy that has threatened to rip the band apart while at the same time managing to somehow magically keep them glued together. At least, that is, up until fairly recently. This is something that only could happen in the exotic annals of rock and roll history, I suppose. What’s equally mysterious is how four-plus decades have already passed since the release of their blockbuster break-up-but-stay-together record, Rumors, an absolutely perfect pop record that continues to sell to the grandchildren of its original listeners. But the band that made that personal-diary blockbuster of love and loss has now, finally, entered the history books: they relatively recently “fired” their resident genius, Lindsey Buckingham, not someone you can easily replace (even by two erstwhile pro rockers such as Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s band, and Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House).

So it appears that that long-imagined swan-song period for this historic band may have finally arrived. Then again, as Reed’s outline of key lineups and stylistic shifts clearly shows, they’ve already had about four or five swan songs. Losing their troubled founder Peter Green in 1970 and then the great Bob Welch in 1975 may be something they somehow miraculously recovered from (by reinventing themselves as bright and shiny pop masters via Stevie Nicks and Buckingham’s shared venomous vibe). But losing Buckingham and pretending to replace him with two talented mercenaries just to keep their juggernaut lumbering in a forward direction – that’s something else altogether. Luckily Reed’s compendium of their chaos was released in time to capture the latest twisted turn in the trajectory, which he referenced very astutely in his concluding segment, Bucking Buckingham.
Lindsey appeared to be the only member of this classic machine who boldly realized that the time may finally have come to hang up the gloves, at least in their longest-lasting incarnation of angst together. Both he and Nicks seem to have been occupied with “other commitments,” meaning, perhaps, that they’d both grown weary of recycling their own personal breakup yet another time for the sake of some extra cash neither of them really needed. As Reed reported, after private disagreements about their long-planned 2018 tour dates, the band parted ways with Buckingham in April of that year. “Sad? Absolutely. But could there be a more perfectly imperfect ending to this story? If the previous five decades of Mac fandom have taught us anything, it’s that Fleetwood Mac simply can’t carry on without some kind of seismic shift every few years. The band is like a snake shedding its skin – it’s part of the life cycle, even if it’s hard to watch.” I would add, as a follower of this band literally since 1968, that lately it’s a story that’s hard to listen to as well.

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 multi-year hiatus of one of their key members, the gifted Christine McVie, who 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, Stevie Nicks is now also finally reluctant to return for yet another Mac outing and instead wants her own solo career back, while Christine and Lindsey have even teamed up to write and release their own recent 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 that what they cooked up together is anything like the magic they made and still make with Fleetwood Mac, however.

As far as Mac itself goes, Nicks is at least honest about the difficulties of trying to recapture lightning in a bottle every few years: “I don’t think we’ll do another record. If the music business were different, I might feel different. I don’t think there’s any reason to spend a whole year and an amazing amount of money on making a record that, even if it has great things on it, isn’t going to sell.” Reed comments on this philosophical attitude quite accurately in his highly readable FAQ book: “No, a new Fleetwood Mac LP certainly wouldn’t match Nicks’ high commercial standards. When you’ve released an album that’s sold over forty million copies, your concept of success shifts a tad. But fearing the unknown is no reason not to create art. Everyone in this band is capable of greatness individually, but their odds increase exponentially when they work together.” It was always thus.

Fleetwood Mac in 1968.

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 the Fleetwood Mac soap opera has obviously managed to dynamically manufacture the same magical achievement, for at least as long as they could, and maybe even longer.

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 they still are today: one of the most perfectly polished and 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 younger fans, though, 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, in fact, the eponymously titled white Fleetwood Mac in 1975, was actually their tenth record in a long, bent, sometimes sordid but always entertaining saga of chaotic creativity, indulgence and success. They were poster-brands for the mysteries of the cooperative process, a volatile dynamic that helped one of the most famous (some would say infamous) creative partnerships in musical history not only survive but thrive past tomorrow. 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 literally impacts practically every pop music listener on the planet. But they lasted a mere eight years. Proportional harmony amid excess: so it is with a little blues band of rude, boisterous and inspired Cockney kids who traveled far forward from channeling the black music of their American blues heroes and plunged into changing the sonic landscape of pop music forever.

Fleetwood Mac in 1971.

Fleetwood Mac 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. And then, in 2018, kaput, since I can’t really ever call what they are now Fleetwood Mac: it’s more of a cover band, or a tribute group impersonating the real thing by delivering crisp copies of the original songs. Some fans won’t care or can’t tell the difference, but I can’t cope. As good a guitarist as both Campbell and Finn might be, I mean, come on, they’re no Buckingham!

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 in this new book, 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 that rare and ideal proportional harmony. This golden ratio is anything but mystical and is best summed up by the ironic coat of arms of quantum physicist Nils Bohr: opposites always 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.

The FAQ author Reed, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, is a self-described freelance music/pop culture journalist, communications professor, editor, musician, rock music junkie, and fellow vinyl record collector whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork and The Village Voice, among other places. It’s accurate to say he takes a fresh perspective on one of the most prolific and well-loved catalogs of songs and albums in the rock canon, and also that he digs deeper than the average music compendium, while also sidestepping the often tedious nature of most general band overviews. Yes, it’s serious, but also playful, with a hybrid of historical breakdowns, question-and-answer interviews, music criticism, favorite and best of lists which more than adequately chronicle the band’s huge influence and long-lasting legacy.

Fleetwood Mac in 1981

True, he takes the necessary and worthwhile time to discuss the mythical psychological fracture of the brilliant but mercurial (to say the least) band founder Peter Greenbaum, whose rightful acclaim begins even before forming his eponymous band while replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s legendary Bluesbreakers band in 1966, and also the insanely incestuous confusion and dedication of the later Buckingham-Nicks opera while creating Rumors in 1977. But he also takes the crucial time (especially for long-time listeners like myself) to penetrate the shimmering web of love, lust, drugs, combat, ambition, breaking up, making up, and carrying on which has become the hallmark, motif or emblem of this enduring pop band. I maintain, however, and I think Reed’s book confirms this sense, that they remain at heart a blues band, though one that has amplified that sentiment up to the purples.

This was the Fleetwood Mac I remember first listening to in the late '60s, and it was a unit that Reed explores extensively in his richly illustrated and well-researched book. 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 out in reality. The period McVie woefully described as “trauma city.” Perhaps the ultimate departure record, Then Play On declared a new and proto-metal allegiance to Green’s new creative directions, leaving Spencer completely in the dark, quite literally, with nothing to contribute. Maddened by his old label Blue Horizon releasing more Chicago-style blues a year after their visit to Chess, crazed by his growing paranoia about wealth and celebrity and terrified of a creative gift that burned him up and out, Green continued into the downward spiral that would consume him utterly and yet also accidentally propel his little blues band into a new and uncharted pop territory.

The revolving door and roller-coaster metaphors are totally apt as the band evolved dramatically with the subtle interplay between new members, 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 returned 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. But it would still be a five-album interlude prior to the arrival of the bickering couple who would become most identified with the ultimate pop version of this band in the public’s mind.

A Marriage Made in Heaven and Hell: time flies when you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open. The road warriors pretend to actually like each other, back in 2016.

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 would meet 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 Mick 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 their first duo record, Buckingham Nicks, and was stunned; in fact, he probably still is. Initially wanting only a guitar player for his new lineup, 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 accepted hungrily the fresh new songs they would melt all over what was left of Fleetwood Mac. Mick Fleetwood heard the future arriving loud and clear that day, and he was happy to jump on board. This is the so-called Fleetwood Mac white debut record of the new pop lineup, 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 on to 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 songwriting duo’s influence expanding the original blues-based lineup’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. Christine McVie was reborn as an unparalleled pop singer-songwriter: two thirds of the songs for this debut were already featured on the Buckingham-Nicks solo record two years earlier, in a creative moment of sheer entertainment extra-sensory perception. Released while the group was touring, the new remixed version of Christine’s “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 of wealth, 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 even the most sober heads.

The album could have been subtitled Scenes from a Marriage: it offered insights into the dark-mirror relationships that fueled a pathological singer-songwriter binge of introspection, indulgence and sheer production perfection. Buckingham clearly demonstrated why he came 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 sellouts, 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.

John McVie and Mick Fleetwood: the heart and soul of a fifty two year old pop/rock band, and still secretly a blues band.

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, 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 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.

The rumours about them were all true, as the band often cheekily teased, and in 1977, following up the monumental debut achievement would prove both challenging and daunting. The same year 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 inspired song implied, was the only thing worth thinking about anyway. At the Grammy Awards in February, Fleetwood Mac took Album of the Year for Rumors, and 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.

Incredibly enough, the final chapters of their strangely compelling living novel are still being written today. As Reed so effectively points out, “In short, saying that ‘I love Fleetwood Mac’ probably means one thing: that you and everyone else in your apartment complex own two vinyl copies of Rumors. But it could also mean twenty-five other things. I’ve divided their timeline into five distinct sections: the Peter Green era, the Transitional era, the Buckingham-Nicks era, the Post-Classic era, and the Modern era.”

Their highly experimental and punk-infused follow up to Rumors bombed bigtime, with few people grasping Tusk’s ahead-of-its-time vibe and quirky back-to-basics sensibility. It still seems incredibly surreal and wonky some forty years later. And yes, Reed does ample justice to every other lineup, album and song in those intervening four decades.

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 considered loveheads, given their allegiance to a band that is obviously so devoted to celebrating romance over reason. Their records, some better than others, but all equally compelling and strangely enchanting, continued to flow on energetically like a pop river bursting its banks. Not to mention breaking the banks financially. Don’t stop, can’t stop, won’t stop: it’s the enigmatic emblem of their enduring legacy. This, people will say in the future, regardless of what their personal tastes might be, this was a pop band, doing what pop bands do best: making music, selling records, and fighting their way forward against all odds.

I’m also pleased to report that this new book on them from Backbeat by Ryan Reed delivers exactly what its cheeky subtitle suggests: all that’s left to know about the iconic rock survivors.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.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 Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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