Wednesday 12 September 2012


(#195: 28 January 1978, 1 week)

Track listing: Second Hand News/Dreams/Never Going Back Again/Don’t Stop/Go Your Own Way/Songbird/Silver Springs/The Chain/You Make Loving Fun/I Don’t Want To Know/Oh Daddy/Gold Dust Woman

Once upon a time there was this family, and it was most unusually headed by two men, who had founded and named the family some number of years earlier. When I think of them, I think of Walter and Toby Shandy, or skip a century to the two old Oxford dons in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, middle-aged, secure of means and utterly content to talk, in great part, about nothing at all, because they know that is the surest guard against the wars they have previously seen, against the suffocating chaos of anything new. Despite this, the family is endlessly renewable, although its tree has of late grown rather circuitously.

Rather like Drabble’s omniscient narrator in The Ice Age, let us look at them as they were in the second half of the seventies. Let us see and feel how they lived. Now it is no secret that this family, who in a previous life helped give this very tale its title, was in severe disarray. Bonds had been broken, or left or made to break, but still they could not escape each other; they still had to work together even if they could barely speak to each other. There is no need here to recount names and histories that have been told a thousand times over. You know how it was.

And the question any reader has to ask themselves at this point is: why?

Not why they made a record – because, above all emotional else, they were a professional family, and believed in work – but why this record of all records has stayed with us, has never really gone and yet took so long to make its way into this tale, nearly a year after it was released. It has been there, lurking, beneath all these other records I have written about, and around, and even managed to stay on top in the USA for more than half a year. Call it a slow week, call it its only chance here, but…why?

Why Rumours, and not Hotel California?

Indeed, why “Rumours”?

1. They are singing about love and life, not life on the road.
When people talk about Hotel California they are talking about the title track, and maybe “New Kid In Town” and “Life In The Fast Lane.” Nobody remembers “The Last Resort” or “Pretty Maids All In A Row.” As an album it does not hang together with anything approaching the cohesion of Rumours; its metaphors are often stilted and overblown, its desired badge being “This Is An Important Record.”

I am aware of Don Henley, and Stevie Nicks, and “Witchy Woman.”

Whereas listening to Rumours is that most queerly satisfying of sensations; the feeling one is listening to a greatest hits album. At least nine of its tracks have gone into eternal circulation; Lena reliably informs me that you couldn’t spend an hour listening to the radio in late seventies California without hearing one or more of them. But if that achievement is due tribute to highly developed pop sensitivities, then its uncommon sense of integration, as a cycle of twelve songs, comes from emotion. All these songs are about love, or the look of love; listening to them is rather like viewing the same cube from a dozen different angles. Frequently each song comments on another, or is a riposte to another. If most of this intertextuality is based on a “you did that/but YOU did THIS!” dynamic, then there are yet other layers. These people were breaking up, both with each other and in themselves, and quite often you can feel this quite acridly in their music. And yet, they finally pull together; Lindsey is audible on Stevie’s songs, and vice versa.

It is, as Buckingham himself told me, an album predominantly composed of what he calls “femaleness”; even if you couldn’t keep track of who was doing what to whom, the average listener could identify immediately with songs like “Go Your Own Way” or “Don’t Stop”; this was, after all, the seventies, and people needed to be felt they were being talked to, or conversed with. Even in happy, sunny, don’t-need-punk seventies USA. You don’t generally get the same feeling with songs about being on the road. There is no need for the family to declare California a metaphorical hotel; on “The Chain” or “Gold Dust Woman,” the feeling of entrapment is palpable.

2. These people have a history.
“An American Masterpiece” says the removable sticker on the cover of my 2004 2CD redux/reissue copy of Rumours; one done by a group who were 60% British, and moreover came up in the sixties, playing the blues. Perhaps that is why listeners still prefer to keep Steely Dan at a wary distance, even though subsequent things like “Glamour Profession” come very close in subject matter and approach to “Gold Dust Woman”; Becker and Fagen came up via jazz, their skills something to be saluted rather than embraced (all the more so that listeners’ ears would glide over some of the most psychopathic pop lyrics this side of Arthur Lee).

But this family once had three guitarists, all of whom strayed in different but equally wayward directions. Once, above all, there had been Peter Green, whose spirit is constantly summoned up in Buckingham’s guitar playing (Buckingham’s version of “Oh Well,” as heard on the band’s 1980 Live double album, joins those particular dots). “The Chain” is related by key and sentiment to “Man Of The World,” its fast climax inaugurated and led by John McVie’s bass; otherwise we could easily still be in Olympic Studios in Barnes sometime in 1970. From the shrieking ruins of “Gold Dust Woman” the ghost of “The Green Manalishi” fights to come into the frame, as Nicks ends the record with an old and familiar question: “Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?,” then gripping on and stretching the word “home” like an electrocuting talisman she doesn’t know how to drop.

It is also very noticeable that hardly anywhere on Rumours do Fleetwood and Mac play straight 4/4; always there is a turn, a symbiotic curlicue, a comment to make; the subtly over-accentuated rhythm on “Dreams,” Fleetwood’s odd flourish of snare drum in response to a particularly fruity comment from Lindsey or Stevie; McVie’s frantic, brief bass run one-third of the way into “Gold Dust Woman.” Not to mention McVie’s morose and at times scarcely audible bass as Christine tells him how good her new lover is on “You Make Loving Fun.”

Also, note that this is an unusually integrated group; the only musicians you hear on Rumours are these five.

3. For the first time since the Beatles, three clearly identifiable and powerful songwriting voices are audible.
Lindsey, Stevie and Christine; three deeply connected but very different voices, and you couldn’t really imagine this version of the family minus even one of them; perhaps that is why the Christine-less Say You Will quartet was a little too intense and unrelenting for many, without that essence of reassurance, that levelling benevolence.

For the most part, you couldn’t really mistake one for another. Lindsey’s songs are scratchy, impulsive, quick-limbed. “Second Hand News” rams into fade-in with a choppy guitar and Buckingham goes “Pow pow pow” at random. The chorus isn’t revealed until well past the two-minute mark. His closing guitar solo is, to put it mildly, jarring. “Never Going Back Again” is solo acoustic, a Camberwick Green romp and a bitter, disjointed vocal (the track is mostly instrumental).

Even when the songs do not directly address each other, they seem conjoined; “You Make Loving Fun,” for example, doesn’t appear to have much to do with “Dreams” but the two songs are related by key, tempo, arrangement and programming symmetry.

But typically, Lindsey rants and hisses; Nicks meditates and asks. “Now here you go again,” she sighs at the beginning of “Dreams” in response to Lindsey’s “Let me do my stuff” on “Second Hand News”; “You say you want your freedom.” Be careful, she is warning him; your freedom will never give you what I was once capable of giving you – the steady oscillations between “what you had” and “what you lost” underline this – and it is almost (the six-note/syllable “go” at the song’s climax) like she’s not the one wanting him to go. The song’s seesaw nature is emphasised by the basic chord structure, veering between F and G (with the occasional A minor bend) and a closing F minor that – thanks to Lindsey’s guitar - might be the saddest closing chord in any pop song.

The other two Stevie songs I will return to later.

Christine – the reliable bedrock, the sensible Third Way. People choosing not to listen routinely consider “Songbird” the record’s one dispensable moment, just as once they thought the same of “Within You, Without You,” but in fact this song – the only song on the record to contain the words “I love you” – is the glue that holds the entire album together. Listen, says Christine, we know we’re all fucked up, but look, there’s still a chance, a hope; let’s at least try and stay together (note that she sings “And I wish you all the love in the world/But most of all, I wish it from [my italics] myself”). On “You Make Loving Fun” she is markedly more sceptical about “the ways of magic” than Stevie with her crystal spheres and mirrors, but she still wants to believe.

And yet, on “Don’t Stop” – another of her Let’s Pull Together songs – she sounds like Lindsey (a tendency accentuated by Lindsey’s guitar solo), while on “Oh Daddy,” she essentially “does” Stevie (“Yes, it’s got to be me,” “Why are you right and I’m so wrong?,” the latter followed by a rhetorical band pause, with electric piano, synthesiser and castanets wandering through the song’s limbo like irretrievable souls. Everywoman – or a voice for all causes, and seasons?

Or is it that the “nice” Christine writes the more forward lyrics, and the “grainy” Stevie the more vulnerable ones?

4. They kept at this even, or especially when, no one else was looking.
Listen to Penguin or Mystery To Me or anything else through the Weston//Welch years and it’s all there; the brooding but rooted adventurousness, the easy playing around with metre and emotion – it just needed Lindsey and Stevie to bring it into sharper focus. Even when you’re a cult band, playing for three winos and a dog in Poughkeepsie, people remember these things when you try to make it big again.

5. It was both the expected follow-up, and a decisive break.
Remember that Rumours was following up a huge record, which likewise patiently spent almost a year to make it to number one (for one week) in the States. Just as we can’t imagine the sunny optimism of Frampton Comes Alive to be believable in any year other than 1976, so Rumours firmly belongs to its time as much as it transcends it. The mood is darker, more suspicious. It was everything their new fans wanted and expected, and at the same time was a radical break even from things like “Landslide” and “Rhiannon.”

This record really isn’t the ideal soundtrack for driving down a coastal freeway in the sunshine; too much darkness, too many interfering whispers.

6. Punk rock started in Sausalito; discuss.
You can hear it happening. “Go Your Own Way,” the album’s first single (and trailer); Fleetwood’s mightily aggressive drum thumps, Lindsey’s stringy desperation (Green’s Mac still flashing throughout the background), and just when you think this album is going to turn into Jerry Springer Rocks, here comes Lindsey’s solo, which has been buzzing and boiling away all through the song; starting conventionally enough but rapidly gaining intensity and anxiety, the latter finally giving way to anger as bass and drums toughen up to Ramones staccato and Buckingham gives up playing notes, resorting to atonal bends and squeals, and finally Clash thrashes. The song feels like the spectacle of something being born.

7. In Britain, the record told us that previous number one albums were lying to us.
“Never Going Back Again,” the song goes, and after this there cannot have been any thought of going back to the yellowed antiquary of Mathis and Sinatra; all these TV collections hiding the truth from us, Rumours ripping the curtain apart as fervently as Bollocks and saying NO. On “The Chain” it feels like a terrible procession of a floating crap game of zombies (emphasised by the marching tempo of the song’s first half), doomed to encircle each other and make the same mistakes again and again. On “I Don’t Want To Know,” the only fully-fledged Buckingham/Nicks duet on the record, they agree to disagree, and while Lindsey’s DIY handclaps or knee slaps help set the ground for what he will do on the next album(s), it comes out: “Finally baby/The truth has been told/Now you tell me that I’m crazy/That’s nothing that I didn’t know.”

8. “Silver Springs”; the record’s Rosebud.
For reasons of long-playing record limitations, Stevie’s song “Silver Springs” was left off the original Rumours and relegated to a single B-side. On the standard CD edition, one still goes straight from “Songbird” to “The Chain,” but on the 2004 2CD edition the song was restored to its rightful, originally intended place, and just as this blog would offer no practical help by insulting its readers’ intelligence and pretending that this edition doesn’t exist, so I cannot now imagine Rumours without it. It is a necessary bulwark between Christine’s reassurance and Lindsey’s accusations, and in the line “Baby, I don’t want to know,” directly refers to track ten. It is the album’s slowest and most emotionally deliberate song as, for once, Stevie drops the mask and lets Lindsey hear the actual truth: “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me,” she sings, and as the song patiently builds up she erupts into “Gold Dust Woman” guttural screams: “You will never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you!” she roars, summoning into being a haunting which in pop will persist to the era of Eminem’s “Stan.” It is frightening, intense and heartfelt, and, finally, indispensable.

9. This is not an ending; this is THE END.
Note how the album has steadily progressed from cheery opening to apocalyptic climax if you’re not paying close attention. For “Gold Dust Woman” is one of the bleakest closing tracks of any album. Fleetwood’s drums mostly tick-tock like a nascent bomb and Nicks growls about death and self-destruction and false riches. Eventually, Buckingham, or the ghost of Buckingham, joins in at the end, and, as with much of the rest of the album, and as it was with Peter Green, his guitar says more than his words; starting with indie scratchiness, his solo builds up and culminates behind Nicks’ now wordless shrieks to produce a terrible dual howling. Phantom power, indeed; this is a fight between the ghosts of the past and the promises of the future. The song and performance’s full indications will not be properly realised until Kristin Hersh does it with “Delicate Cutters” nine years later; its wider implications will be recast in Hole’s Pretty On The Inside.

10. They MEAN it, man.
There is no knowingness or irony on this record. Everything is direct, unambiguous. And so, despite just one week at number one, Britain has kept by it, or kept it by its side; in the intervening years it has to date racked up 489 weeks on our album chart, its most recent appearance being as recently as last month. I would anticipate that people will still be buying and listening to this record long after the people who made it are gone, and their descendants and their families too; like the best art, it will call to people long outside the time when it was felt and made.