Thursday 27 November 2014

FLEETWOOD MAC: Tango In The Night

(#355: 31 October 1987, 2 weeks; 7 May 1988, 2 weeks; 28 May 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Big Love/Seven Wonders/Everywhere/Caroline/Tango In The Night/Mystified/Family Man/Little Lies/Welcome To The Room…Sara/Isn’t It Midnight/When I See You Again/You & I, Part II

“Don’t know what’s wrong,” grunts Lindsey Buckingham halfway through “Family Man,” “but I do know what’s right.” Walking down that cold, cold road is this troubled man who is Springsteen’s junior by just ten days. But who is this “family”? “Mother…father…brother…”; well, if he means Fleetwood Mac, then that takes care of Christine, Mick and John. But somebody else is missed out. In any case, is there actually anybody on this song except him? Does this family even still exist? Or did they already make their excuses and leave?

Detour #1: a hallucinatory rainbow of Fairlight strings and harp and booming Cocteau Twins guitar, the coda to SMiLE Brian never managed to imagine. Then, eventually, a voice, slightly startling in its deepness, uttering words like:

“You, under strange falling skies
You, with a love that would not die”


“You, where the strange wind blows
You, with the secrets no one knows”

and beyond that, nothing except “You, you and I.” You probably won’t know it, because it’s “You & I, Part I,” which only appeared on the B-side of the “Big Love” single. Its omission from this album is rather like Pepper going straight into “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

Another thing to note is that this album came out in April and took just over half a year to make number one. In the States, it did very well but never got past number seven on Billboard. Its eventual appearances in this tale can be explained by “Little Lies” becoming a major hit single (and “Everywhere” the following spring, hence its return to the top). This indicates that a lot of people found the record problematic, not quite what they had anticipated ten years before.

But then, what do you make of an album whose lead song and lead single were “Big Love”?

Detour #2: 23 May 1997, in the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, before an invited audience; the “classic” Fleetwood Mac quintet have briefly reconvened for an MTV special entitled The Dance. It is the first time they have been on stage together since Clinton’s inauguration over four years previously. The performance will climax with a spectacular “Tusk,” featuring the USC Marching Band themselves. But for “Big Love,” Lindsey Buckingham is all alone with his guitar.

Nobody really knew what to make of “Big Love” when they first heard it. Yes, this is Fleetwood Mac – or is it (like “Caroline” and “Family Man,” it was originally intended for Buckingham’s third solo album but sequestered by the band, with some resistance from its author)? Certainly, even Buckingham has rarely sounded so intense or angry. On one hand, as is evident elsewhere on the album, he is having an awful lot of fun with this sparkling new Fairlight toy.

But, not expecting the audience to know about Buckingham’s tortured love life, whom is he addressing? One moment he is promising to build her a kingdom, but in the next verse she is begging him to stay in that very same kingdom; that is, if it is the same “she,” which I doubt is the case (there was Stevie, and then there was Carol Ann Harris, and latterly Cheri Casperi). All the while he is “looking out for love – BIG, BIG LOVE” as though “love” were the equivalent of Family Fortunes’ “BIG MONEY.”

It really is that story again – wanting love as a symbol of perfection, settling for nothing less and not understanding what love is really about. And despite the determined futurism on the music’s surface and the alleged blackboard lectures about New Pop, Buckingham’s howl reaches back to Roy Orbison and forward to Kurt Cobain. When the rhythm section really make themselves known – under the “ooh, aah” climax – Buckingham’s high, pealing, extended one-note guitar scream reminds us that this is the same band who once performed “Man Of The World” and “Oh Well.” Names and faces change but emotions don’t.

More disquieting, however, is the fact that the male/”female” cross-channel “ooh”s and “aah”s are not Lindsey and Stevie, but Lindsey entirely. Where is Stevie again?

A decade later, they are all present, but Lindsey is alone on the stage, and performs a lightning-speed reading of the song. If you know the tricks of playing guitar then you’ll know the playing is not quite as complicated as it sounds – one hand plucking the upper two strings, the other holding down or otherwise handling the lower three, so it’s a question of technical coordination above everything else – but nobody except Lindsey could perform the song with the intensity that he invests in it. When he reaches the climax, thrashing out flamenco chords, rocking back and forth as though in an uncontrollable fit, screaming and crying rather than grunting, and right at the end, cutting off and reeling back from the microphone as though having collided with a volcano, there is a terror that is not present in the original recording; his Orbison musings have mutated into Chris Isaak, and, particularly when taken in combination with the penultimate song on #516, the conclusion is that this is some kind of threnody for Kurt.

Consider the trappings of the original song, which were already oppressive enough; here is Lindsey Buckingham, here’s Charlie Kane, alone in his big castle, with things, but things are not PEOPLE, and he is alone and he knows that none of it means anything without love, the right love, and in 1987 he is not yet ready to break down like he does at the end of the MTV “Big Love,” to admit vulnerability and fear.

What did that old song say?

“And how I don't want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love.”

But where is Stevie?

“Seven Wonders” in Britain was the second single, and missed the Top 40 entirely, and it is recognisably Stevie Nicks but on closer listening sounds more like a demon possessing Stevie Nicks. It doesn’t help that she didn’t write the song herself – the songwriter was her long-time associate Sandy Stewart (who worked extensively with her on 1983’s solo The Wild Heart) and the sum total of Nicks’ contribution was to make minute changes to some of the lyrics and get one line wrong (it was meant to be “All the way down you held the line” but Nicks heard it as “All the way down to Emmeline” and that’s how it stayed, as if she’d just remembered Hot Chocolate).

But Nicks’ delivery is rough, tortured, furious. I’m not saying she heard Kristin Hersh on “Delicate Cutters” and knew that the bar had been raised a little – since she wouldn’t have been in a position to do so – but her voice could scratch paint off the Taj Mahal, despite Buckingham’s sterling background support.

As for Christine, she was responsible (or, in the case of “Little Lies,” one-half responsible, with her then husband Eddy Quintela) for the album’s two best-known songs. “Little Lies” works chiefly because of Buckingham’s keen awareness of New Pop mores – the arrangement and whispered chorales are distilled Prefab Sprout, whereas the chorus could be Bucks Fizz (“Tell-me-TELL-ME-LI-IES!” Who said something about their camera never lies?) – and its own little lie that it’s a charming late eighties love song when actually it is proposing a break-up (“We’re better off apart, let’s give it a try”). Likewise, the happiness on “Everywhere” sounds very transient indeed (“You better make it soon/Before you break my heart”); the latter is effective because of the cut-up symphony Buckingham and his Fairlight make of piercing, pointillistic stars of voices.

Elsewhere there is the unusual sight of three Lindsey/Christine co-writes. Of those, “Isn’t It Midnight” was again written with Quintela, and canters along like a standard mid-eighties MTV-friendly rocker until Buckingham’s furious, fuzzy and increasingly atonal lead guitar suddenly and terrifyingly appears on the scene and proceeds to erase the song altogether; the only other time this happens on the record is with the Buckingham-penned title track, poised as it is between morbid contemplation and unfettered fury, perhaps echoing the record’s cover painting, Homage á Henri Rousseau, by the Australian artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, which depicts a nocturnal glade by the seashore. At its centre something gleams with a light that has been pointed at it from a direction and source unknown; in the water there are two swans, one camouflaged, and between them lurks a crocodile, ready to come ashore and wreak havoc if it gets annoyed – therefore, an idyll which on closer inspection isn’t idyllic at all.

“You & Me, Part II” I’ll come to eventually, but the third Buckingham/McVie collaboration, which closes side one, is the rather lovely “Mystified” with its gorgeous, ruminating chord changes and a feeling of crisp eternity that is highly reminiscent of OMD; it could theoretically fade out altogether, but the song is about uncertainty when faced with what looks like love. It plays like a tropical beach hut silently surrounded by sharks.

Like practically all of the songs here not written by Stevie Nicks, “Mystified”’s lyric is minimalist, almost like a pop haiku, and it can mean whatever your circumstances demand it should mean. Otherwise, Buckingham’s “Caroline” is all scratchy Peter Gabriel manoeuvres, and something about reaching the mountain top and cutting the cord (signifiers!).

But if there are only three songs on this record sung (less than fully) by Stevie Nicks, only two of which she fully wrote, then there is a melancholy explanation for this, as Buckingham told Uncut in a 2003 interview: “It was a very difficult record to make. Half the time Mick was falling asleep. We spent a year on the record but we only saw Stevie for a few weeks. I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.”

Actually, over the seventeen months it had taken to make the album – recording began as early as November 1985 – Nicks had spent a cumulative total of two weeks in the studio. Her cocaine habit had worsened to the extent that she required a thirty-day stay in the Betty Ford Clinic (which was the inspiration for “Welcome To The Room…Sara”). On her release, however, she went to see a psychiatrist and was prescribed the tranquiliser Klonopin, to which she soon became far more seriously addicted; she did not manage to shake the addiction off fully until the early nineties. As an addict, she was hardly capable of turning up in the recording studio and doing her bit and so Buckingham was faced with the task of having to build her vocal tracks up from isolated lines, sometimes even isolated words, as described above. If Nicks’ voice on things like “Little Lies” sounds cut and pasted, it is a speeded-up Buckingham (the drop-ins on “When I See You Again” where it sounds as though he is messing about varispeed-style with Nicks’ voice à la “If I Was Your Girlfriend” – within all the “What’s the matter, baby” stuff - are almost certainly speeded-up Buckingham).

Then again, is that really Christine McVie singing on “Isn’t It Midnight” or a 60 rpm Buckingham impersonating McVie impersonating Nicks? Buckingham, in the abovementioned Uncut interview, summed it up: “Everyone was at their worst, including myself. We’d made the progression from what could be seen as an acceptable or excusable amount of drug use to a situation where we had all hit the wall. I think of it as our darkest period.”

In other words, everybody in this family was too fucked up to make this album, and Buckingham (with co-producer Richard Dashut) had to bear most of the burden of putting it together and making it work. Thus Tango In The Night looks like Fleetwood Mac, sounds at a distance like Fleetwood Mac, but isn’t really Fleetwood Mac. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the two Nicks-penned/sung songs. In contrast to Buckingham’s essentially futurist musical outlook, Nicks sounds stranded in the past; “Welcome To The Room” plays with notions of Tusk and Gone With The Wind but in truth she is far too far gone; at one point (“This is a dream, right?”) she sounds like the yet-to-be-born Taylor Swift. She is back in the past, with the other “Sara” (but “Sara” is Stevie – isn’t she?), with “Beautiful Child” and maybe even with “Quicksilver Girl.” I wonder whether the nod to Propaganda’s “Duel” (“The first cut is the deepest one of all…”) was at Buckingham’s prompting. Most chilling is when she sings, towards the end of the song, “When you hang up that ‘phone/Well, you cease to exist.” As far as the Fleetwood Mac of 1987 was concerned, she was barely existing as it was.

In “When I See You Again” she is dreaming, she is lost in a dream, in memories of things and relationships that once were, and when she can go no further, she gives up:

“And the dream says I want you
And the dream is gone
So she stays up nights on end
Well at least there is a dream left”

With that, she makes her exit from the song, and the album; and we are left with the ghostly voice of Buckingham to sing the final lines - “If I see you again/Will it be over/Again and again/Over and over?” – and sing them right into the next world. He wants to get on; she is incapable of doing so.

The record closes with its most disquieting and disturbing song. Musically, “You & I, Part II” is a cheerful daytime television electro-jingle; with a slightly different arrangement it could have fitted onto the end of Sulk (and yes, I can imagine Billy Mackenzie singing “Big Love”) – but lyrically (and this is Lindsey AND Christine) what the hell is going on? Eyes shut tight, phantoms crawling out of the night, hoping and praying that tomorrow never comes, a Queen Dido-esque entreaty not to “forget about me”…but then again, the phrase “hoping tomorrow will never come for you and I” can have two meanings, depending upon whether you regard the verb “come” as transitive or intransitive. This, however, is unquestionably the end, the sound of the singer closing the door on the “family,” on the group which a decade earlier had already sounded on the point of disintegrating.

And so it proved. Disgruntled by the prospect of touring the album, given the stresses incurred in recording it, Buckingham demurred and left the band. Tango In The Night remains the last new word that these five people have left us; The Dance included no new songs, and by the time of Say You Will, effectively a Buckingham-Nicks record, Christine McVie had retired, contributing only occasional, ghostly backing vocals. There is no indication that their forthcoming reunion will produce any new material. And so the dialogue, the pain, continued in other ways. By the time “You & I, Part II” has done its business, Buckingham’s voice has been reduced to a ghost in the Fairlight. Perhaps he saw the future only too plainly.