Rumours tends to be remembered as the album that was characterised by personal strife between the band members, but what makes it worthy of note is the quality and longevity of the songs, the singing, the musicianship, the arrangements and the production.
It wasn’t an easy record to make. Although on its release Fleetwood Mac were riding high on the charts with their previous album, when the band went in to record their eleventh studio album, it was another of a long line of records from a group who paid their bills from constant US touring, while never having matched in North America the pinnacle of their UK achievements, which included selling more records in 1969 than The Beatles.
For those who don’t know, Fleetwood Mac, named after drummer Mick Fleetwood and bass player John McVie, were formed by Peter Green as a British blues band in 1967, after Green had replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the others having been Bluesbreakers: McVie since 1964 and Fleetwood for five weeks in 1967. Originally a quartet completed by Elmore James-style slide guitarist and singer Jeremy Spencer, the band subsequently added another star guitarist, Danny Kirwan from Boilerhouse.
The quintet went on to develop into an exciting and melodic rock band, and had a string of Green-penned hits in the UK, including Black Magic Woman and The Green Manalishi (with the Two-Prong Crown), covered subsequently by Santana and Judas Priest respectively. Their biggest success was with the Shadows-style instrumental Albatross, which hit #1 in the UK in December 1968, but a further three Top 10 UK hits couldn’t temper the blow when Green abruptly quit the band in May 1970, apparently as a result of wanting to give up material things, exacerbated by the effects of LSD.
Without their spiritual and musical leader, the core musicians recruited a succession of players, starting with John McVie’s wife Christine, who, as Christine Perfect, had been keyboardist and co-lead vocalist in Chicken Shack, another UK blues band, whose biggest single hit was Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind, sung by Christine. She joined Fleetwood Mac after Peter Green’s departure and became the third consistent member throughout the following years.
Fleetwood Mac had recently signed to Warner Brothers Records, based in the US, and over a period of time, they managed to carve out a career there, in spite of losing guitarists Spencer and Kirwan, with a further three guitarists joining and leaving in the process of releasing six albums. All the albums had charted in the US Top 100, and in 1974 the group had relocated to Los Angeles, so, since their most recent release Heroes Are Hard To Find had peaked at #34, by the end of the year the band were in a reasonable position with the US public and their record label, although they had long since left their UK audience and their blues roots behind.
In one of the fortuitous incidents that punctuated Fleetwood Mac’s long career, Mick Fleetwood made an impromptu visit in December 1974 to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley, California, while researching new recording locations. Engineer Keith Olsen played him a tape of Frozen Love from the debut album by Buckingham Nicks, which piqued Fleetwood’s interest, the guitar playing in particular. At the same time, a waif-like blonde was singing in the adjoining studio, and he asked who she was. ‘That’s Stevie Nicks’, came the reply. The other half of Buckingham Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, was also on hand and he was introduced to Fleetwood, the two of them chatting politely, with no thought of anything further.
A week later, Bob Welch, the longest-serving of the replacement Fleetwood Mac guitarist/vocalists, suddenly quit, looking to establish a solo career, which reduced the band to the core of Fleetwood and the McVies. Mick Fleetwood tracked down Lindsey Buckingham, having been told that Lindsey would only consider joining Fleetwood Mac if his girlfriend, vocalist/songwriter Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Nicks, was included.
On December 31st 1974 Lindsey and Stevie joined Fleetwood Mac. They had met at High School in the San Francisco Bay Area when Buckingham and his band were playing California Dreamin' and Nicks joined in on the harmony. Some years later Buckingham invited Nicks to join his band Fritz, resulting in the two becoming romantically involved and eventually dropping out of their San Jose college to record demos at Buckingham’s father’s coffee plant, then pursue their musical future in Los Angeles. As Buckingham Nicks, they signed to Polydor Records, but the failure of their eponymous debut album led to their being dropped by the label, which did at least mean they were open to opportunities when Fleetwood came calling.
They brought with them a strong sense of melody and harmony, their voices already an accomplished folk-rock blend, while Buckingham had also perfected a unique way of playing the guitar – a cross between strumming and finger picking - which avoided a lot of the indulgent cliches that were beginning to dominate stage performances of the major groups of the day, although, ironically, Mac were to be attacked by young punks after the global success of Rumours as an example of that very excess.
Buckingham and Nicks had been songwriters for years, and they were able to contribute songs for Fleetwood Mac to consider, including Rhiannon and Monday Morning, both of which had been played live with Buckingham Nicks, though not recorded.
Signifying a new beginning, the first album with the Fleetwood / McVie / McVie / Buckingham / Nicks lineup was entitled simply Fleetwood Mac, the same as the original band’s 1968 debut, and was subsequently to be known as ‘the white album’ because of its monochromatic cover, featuring a stylised photo by Herbert Worthington of an elongated Mick Fleetwood and a foreshortened John McVie, Alongside the band, Keith Olsen produced, as he had the Buckingham Nicks album, and the result was a well-crafted, highly melodic affair, which began a slow burn on its release in August 1975, finally taking off when the single Over My Head peaked at Number 20 in the US singles chart.
Which slice of somewhat tangled history brings us to the making of Rumours. The ‘white album’ was increasing its sales, and so it wasn’t too much of an issue for Warner Bros to let the band make another album. The band produced themselves and had been so far under the Warner radar that there was virtually no interference from the WB executives or A&R Department.
Much has been made of the fact that the album took a year to complete, but actually it was partly a result of the continuing success of the white album. As the group were forced to add in live dates to capitalise on the airplay they were getting on singles from the white album, with each successive single hit, the expectations were raised for the band, both from the record company and the public. Apparently Fleetwood Mac was the first album to spawn three US Top 20 singles, and certainly it was out of the ordinary in 1976 for albums to have many singles extracted from them – one or two was the norm. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon from 1973 was a massive seller, with one single, Money, which went to No. 13 in the US. Peter Frampton’s live Frampton Comes Alive was the hot seller at the time, with the first single Show Me The Way hitting No. 6 in the US in March 1976, and although he did eventually have three songs pulled from it, Mac beat him by having Rhiannon hit No. 11 in June and Say You Love Me also get to No. 11 in September.
So the alleged excessive use of recording time (and recreational habits as a result) was more that the band were allowed to pursue a quality result with more time in the studio than the average artist at the time. On the other hand, although the recording bill would eventually top a million dollars, it would all have been recouped from their royalties eventually, and since the white album had sold a million copies on its own by September 1976, hitting Number One on the way, it was more or less a safe financial bet for all parties. Did they spend the time wisely? History says they did, because, as noted in co-engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat’s recent book about the making of the album, the time was mostly spent refining the song arrangements, whether choosing exactly the right rhythm section take or creating the precise overdub to complement the feel of any particular track.
The first sessions took place in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, at the Record Plant, a well-appointed but secluded facility, where the band weren’t bothered by hangers-on. Ken Caillat, who had been working at LA’s Wally Heider recording studio, had previously mixed a radio broadcast for the band, and had stepped in to remix the single of Rhiannon. The band’s live engineer Richard Dashut, who had also worked on the white album, had been asked to supervise and engineer Fleetwood Mac’s new album, but he felt that it would be beneficial to work alongside Caillat, so that became the engineering team for Rumours. The results went so well in the first few months that Caillat and Dashut were designated co-producers alongside the band and were encouraged to add in creative suggestions and sonic additions.
Similarly, by Caillat’s account the band were also very hands-on, and the final result appears to have been a genuine 7-way partnership, with none of the final selections of backing tracks, overdubs or mixes released without the approval of all parties. Therefore it would be invidious to single out any member of the team. A large part of Rumours' continuing appeal is the quality of the songwriting, from McVie, Buckingham and Nicks, but there is also the interest created by three lead voices, the stacked up harmonies with intricate yet unobtrusive parts, the rock-solid rhythm section, with some very unconventional drum parts in places, and the inventive bass playing of John McVie, whose bass lines tie the whole enterprise together.
Not withstanding the great vocal work from Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks, many of the musical textures were added by Lindsey Buckingham, who also sang lead on his own compositions, plus alternated vocals with McVie on Don’t Stop. Buckingham took a lot of trouble, along with the co-producers, to add embellishments that would keep the listener’s interest and also emphasise various parts of the song where necessary. It would be hard to imagine Dreams, for instance, without the guitar mini-solo part at 1:45, which reinforces the sadness inherent in the lyric and vocal, while a prominent acoustic guitar that enters just for the chorus sections makes the important and dynamic distinction between the chorus and verses. Equally important is the rhythm section throughout: Fleetwood and John McVie back up Buckingham’s chorus embellishments with a push section on bass and kick drum which adds a subtle slowing down feel to the section, before the straight time feel returns for the next verse. Then, towards the end, discreet tom-tom and conga fills are added towards the end choruses, all seamless yet necessary.
Although Rumours is also regarded by some, mostly in Britain, as a perfect recording by perfectionists in a perfect parallel universe while punks on council estates were protesting, there are actually many parts of it that sacrifice perfection for feel. Again, on Dreams, for instance, the lead vocal is an early Stevie Nicks take, done while laying down guide versions of the song with the band. She felt that the subsequent takes didn’t have the same intensity, so the original vocal was stripped in to the most recent backing track.
Rumours is full of this sort of attention to detail to heighten interest, including touches like Lindsey Buckingham’s high-strung guitar counterpoint in the verses to Second Hand News, which also includes him beating on a chair for some percussive power; the recording of Christine McVie’s Songbird in the Zellerbach Auditorium of the University of California, Berkeley in an all-day session that ran till 4am, the phased electric harpsichord on Gold Dust Woman and the total creation of The Chain from a Christine McVie song called Keep Me There, retaining the chorus and adding new verses, dobro intro and lyric outro.
As the white album continued its ascent of the US charts on the back of Over My Head, so further singles were released: Rhiannon peaked at No. 11 in June, as did Say You Love Me in September, at which time the album hit Number One in the US, and reached over a million copies sold. This also meant that the band had to take breaks to slot in live dates, so from mid-June to the end of July they were unavailable for recording, except for a week in Miami at Criteria Studios.
The band performed a further set of dates from August 24 to 31, before knuckling down to more months in the studio doing overdubs and occasionally recutting songs. By then, the sessions had looked like this: end of January to April 10th: The Record Plant in Sausalito; 14th May to mid-June: Wally Heider Studios, Los Angeles; 5th-11th July: Criteria Studios, Miami; 4th-22nd August: Wally Heider Studios, LA.
Following a week in Len Kovner’s Davlen Studios in North Hollywood, where they put the studio’s $40,000 9-foot Bosendorfer piano to good use on Oh, Daddy, as well as adding acoustic guitars and laying down backing vocals on a selection of tracks, the sessions came to a screeching halt. The production team discovered that the 24-track tapes had started to shed the oxide coating (which records the audio), separating it from the plastic backing that holds the whole reel together. The tapes had been run backwards and forwards on the tape machines so often that the recorded music was starting to fall off the reels, gone forever. As it happened, right back at the start of the recording of the backing tracks, the Record Plant sessions had included duplicate recordings at the same time as the masters, so there were first-generation 24-track tapes available of the backing tracks. These only contained the bass, drums and keyboards, though, so all the following months’ overdubs, including vocals, guitars and extra percussion, had to be transferred from the rapidly fading overdub reels. Since there was no computerised sync system to keep the tape machines at a constant speed, this had to be done by hand, but eventually all the recordings were saved, using good quality versions of the backing tracks.
With the home straight in sight, by September 1976 there were only a couple of issues to settle. Steve Nicks’ song Silver Springs was deemed, at 4’33”, too long to include on the album, and although it was completed at the sessions, it was ultimately to be excluded, used instead as the B Side of the first single Go Your Own Way. That left a space for a short song, so the band, without Stevie, cut another of her songs, I Don’t Want To Know from the Buckingham Nicks days, in 5 hours, including the rhythm section, acoustic guitars and Lindsey Buckingham’s co-lead vocal. Once Nicks had added her own distinctive harmony lead vocal later, the track was finished.
The final piece of the puzzle was the resolution of Keep Me There, a Christine McVie song with a strong chorus, but thought to be lacking something in the verses. Lindsey Buckingham had a vision that include re-writing and re-recording the entire first half, so a new tape was added to the front of the song and a carefully timed bass drum recorded as far as the middle of the existing song, over which Buckingham played a new dobro part. Stevie Nicks had some lyrics and a top line melody which fitted, so with a few more musical and vocal overdubs, the song was completed as The Chain.
More overdubs, the last of which included vibes on Dreams, were completed in October, before the mixing of the first single’s A & B sides at Wally Heider, after which the team decamped to the Producers Workshop studio in Hollywood for the album mixing from mid-November. The album was finally finished on January 2nd, and, with a further two weeks of mastering to create 146 LP lacquers for pressing plants worldwide, the album hit the shops in February 1977, 12 months after it had started.
The rest of the story is told with the success of the singles from the album: Go Your Own Way went to No. 10 in the US in March 1977, propelling the album to the top of the US charts in April, where it stayed for 31 non-consecutive weeks. Dreams topped the US singles charts in August (Fleetwood Mac’s only US No. 1 single), with Don’t Stop reaching No. 3 in September, and You Make Loving Fun going to No. 9 there in December.
The UK was harder to crack in the post-punk world, but Rumours became the album you couldn’t avoid, whether instore, at parties, or on the radio, and the album finally topped the UK chart in January 1978.
Now recognised as the classic post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac album, its sales are legendary, but what’s interesting is that, despite its huge success in the 1970s, its sales have continued consistently into 2012 and beyond. By 1980, 13 million copies of Rumours had been sold worldwide, increasing to nearly 20 million by 1987, and by 2009 the album had gone beyond 40 million units. As of 2012, Rumours is the 14th best-selling album ever in the UK and is certified 11× platinum by the British Phonographic Industry, recognising more than 3,300,000 units shipped. It is 19 times Platinum in the US, for 19 million units shipped, making it, as of 2012, the sixth best-selling album in US history.
In 1998, Q magazine placed Rumours at number three in its list of '50 Best Albums of the 70s', (behind The Clash's London Calling and Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon), while in 2012 Rolling Stone ranked it at number 26 in its special issue of ‘The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. In May 2011 Rumours re-entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 11 and the Australian ARIA chart at No. 2, probably inspired by TV show Glee dedicating an entire episode to performances from the album. It seems there’s plenty of life in the album yet.