Rumours in retrospect: Revisiting Fleetwood Mac’s seminal album on its 40th anniversary

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours has just celebrated its 40th birthday and, even though there are probably thousands of articles dedicated to how special this album is already, I think it deserves at least one more. It’s an album that is strangely omnipresent even today, and has managed to become so universally loved that it’s almost uncool to not like it. When it was first released in 1977, Rumours rightly won every high profile music award around, continually beating the Eagles’ fantastic – but not quite Rumours-level fantastic – Hotel California into second place. It retains its relevance forty years on as it transforms the private heartbreak of five people into something universal, and utterly unforgettable.

It retains its relevance forty years on as it transforms the private heartbreak of five people into something universal, and utterly unforgettable

When trying to answer the question of what makes the Mac’s seminal album so durable, there are a lot of bases to cover. Created at a time when every single romantic relationship in the band was falling apart, it conveys emotional trauma with a rawness that is incredibly vulnerable. It’s been said before, Fleetwood Mac walked onto the scene with Rumours and pretty much owned the concept of breaking up. Through the course of recording the album, bassist John McVie and his wife, singer and pianist Christine, finalised their divorce, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham ended their six-year relationship, and Mick Fleetwood’s wife had an affair with his best friend. Christine also went on to have an affair with the band’s lighting director who then had to be let go. Add to this the studio’s ever-present ‘community bag’ of cocaine and it’s difficult to imagine how they ever got anything recorded at all. In fact, the band were so grateful to their drug dealer after they’d finished recording that they planned to thank him on the album credits. Unfortunately his dealer competitors murdered him before the release date.

The three songwriters, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks were all venting their pain through their music and consequently writing songs about each other. There was no such outlet for the non-writers in the band and poor John McVie could only suck it up and play bass on the Christine-penned ‘You Make Loving Fun’ – an upbeat pop-rock song dedicated to her new boyfriend. Apparently she told her ex-husband that it was written about her dog. I’m sure he bought that. But despite the emotional deluge that shaped its production, the California folk-rock of Rumours can often have a strangely calming effect since, not only is it about tragedy, but about the solace in acknowledging an overwhelming situation, finding your footing, and tentatively looking towards the future.

On the subject of moving on, the songs of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks emerge from completely different standpoints. Tension is palpable in the acoustic beginnings of Buckingham’s ‘Go Your Own Way’, whose tortured verses  – ‘If I could / Baby I’d give you my world / How can I / When you won’t take it from me?’ – erupt into a harmonic chorus that translates frustration into anger. It’s no secret that this song was a direct attack on Stevie, who resented having to sing the line, ‘Packing up / Shacking up’s all you wanna do.’ She later told Rolling Stone, ‘He knew it wasn’t true. It was just an angry thing that he said. Every time those words would come onstage, I wanted to go over and kill him.’

By contrast, Stevie’s sweetly lilting ‘Dreams’ is infinitely gentler in its approach and speaks to finding forgiveness instead of bearing anger: ‘Women, they will come and they will go / When the rain washes you clean you’ll know.’ Christine McVie’s ‘Don’t Stop’ takes yet another approach to getting over someone, using its catchy riff to drive home the fact that dwelling on the past won’t get you anywhere. The lullaby ‘Songbird’, however, in which Christine alone accompanies herself on the piano, allows time for reflection, and the slightly creepy ‘Oh Daddy’ shows an awareness of greater forces holding the band members together despite the temptation of calling it quits.

The song that really epitomises this philosophical bent is ‘The Chain’; the result of piecing together parts of rejected songs from all three writers in the band. The song is anchored by McVie and Fleetwood’s bluesy rhythm section, over layered with a melody co-created by Christine and Lindsey, and finished with Stevie’s haunting lyrics, pulled from an earlier demo relating to her break up with Lindsey. (This demo can be found on YouTube and everybody should listen to it– it’s so beautiful and absolutely heart breaking.) Finally, the guitar riff in the outro to ‘The Chain’ is perhaps its most arresting part, imbuing the closing lyrics with a real urgency and desperation: ‘Chain – keep us to together.’

My personal favourite track, however, is the final one on the album: ‘Gold Dust Woman’. Sometimes referred to as the band’s ‘cocaine anthem’, Stevie’s lyrics are spookily prophetic as she sings ‘Take your silver spoon / Dig your grave’ and wonders whether wealth and fame are worth the personal consequences: ‘Rulers make bad lovers / You better put your kingdom up for sale.’ The final seconds of the track are filled with uninhibited wailing and sounds of shattering glass, rendering the final tone of the album dark and vaguely threatening. But it is also a beautifully self-aware note to close on. When Rumours stops spinning, emotional turmoil is still very much present, but evidence also lingers of a concerted effort, still applicable today, to ‘pick up the pieces and go home.’