In 1974, Fleetwood Mac stumbled into Los Angeles in disarray. Los Angeles is where rock and roll goes to die. Iggy Pop's talent was last seen in that same year, leaving New York, headed for the gutters of the Sunset Strip. The Sex Pistols crashed to their filthy knees at Winterland in San Francisco, but they got everything else wrong, too. They were aiming for L.A., trust me.
It's a strange thing for a band to go out there to be reborn, and Fleetwood Mac did it without meaning to. They hired the California duo Buckingham Nicks and Christine McVie settled into doing what she really wanted to do anyway: Writing pop songs. The story from there on out to the end of that grim decade should be not be seen as the revitalization of Fleetwood Mac. It was more like this: Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks hired one of the best rhythm sections on Earth and everybody got rich, laid, and miserable.
In that order.
The end of the 1970s killed them like it killed the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Steely Dan, just like the end of the 1960s killed Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and the Doors. They didn't break up right away, they just died on their feet and kept marching. What else do you do?
While it lived, the Nicks/Buckingham/Mac hit machine had two sides: McVie and Buckingham wrote fun, light pop songs. Nicks wrote real songs, sad, windswept, and painful. It must be understood that Ms. Nicks is a flake of monstrous proportions, packed to the gills with dippy new age nonsense and what some people call "spirituality". Nevertheless, the woman's also got a dark streak in her and it was that bitter edge that made these guys worth remembering. Historically speaking, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" didn't get them any farther than the Raspberries ever got.
During this period in the life of the band, there are three albums to be considered:
- Fleetwood Mac (1975)
- Rumours (1977)
- Tusk (1979)
It's not a vast body of work, but the sun never set on them during those years: NASA scientists have calculated that between 1975 and 1980, there was a total of only five minutes and fourteen seconds when one Fleetwood Mac hit or another wasn't playing on one radio station or another, somewhere in the United States. Sophisticated software, provided with contemporary playlists, has mapped thousands of paths a motorist could take from coast to coast on any given day in 1978 without ever passing out of reach of a radio station playing a Fleetwood Mac song.
What's special about those three albums is songs like "Rhiannon", "The Chain", "Gold Dust Woman", and half a dozen others. The sound is "laid back", but it's not Bread. It's beautiful stuff when you listen to it with headphones, even a lousy pair. Like Steely Dan (whose name scans identically in American English), they specialized in meticulous, detailed, thoughtful recording and arrangements. Their rhythm section had more personality than 'Dan's because, well... They had one. They weren't all cool and cerebral like Fagen and Becker. When Buckingham left Nicks for Christine McVie, Nicks wrote: "Rock on ancient queen... black widow... pale shadow of a woman... black widow..." She sang it like she had her claws in that evil bitch's throat. I'd give a lot to have been in that rehearsal room, and I'll bet most of the band would've given a lot to be somewhere else.
Nicks had -- and has -- a fine and very distinctive voice, badly roughened by a "throat nodule" of some kind, suffered before she was famous. In the studio she could get right to the edge and stay in control. Control is the thing. Fleetwood Mac in those days all about control and restraint. The band stands stone-faced and works its way through mathematically perfect chord changes, every note demanding the next, while Nicks grits her lovely teeth and stays. In. Control. But only just. At her best she's always playing chicken with the edge. The band ticks like a clock while the pretty lady goes haywire.
Everybody's tone is perfect, every detail is on target: Listen to the little razor-thin, glistening backing sighs that slide in and out on the way into the chorus in "Dreams". The tempo is just a hair slower than most bands would dare try for fear of killing the groove. Mick Fleetwood leaned on the toms a lot. He would play a simple four, bar after bar after bar, perfectly and even soulfully. Every time you expect a fill, there's no fill. He'll flip it over into the chorus with a tight little fill, sometimes just lifting his left foot halfway up on the hi-hat pedal. The expectation draws you in. Little gestures feel big by contrast. The bass is muscular and deep in the pocket. He doesn't show off, but he's good and loud in the mix. This band had a fat low end. On top of that, there will be guitars, several guitars, and keyboards (restrained, restrained), and usually at least two singers. There's a lot going on, but the sound is spacious. You can hear everything at once. That doesn't come cheap: The engineer has to find a home for each instrument and each voice somewhere between 40 and 20,000 Hz. He has to give each one enough room to breathe while leaving room for the others. It takes a good engineer. It's no wonder these records took a year or two to make. They're the kind of records where you hear new things in the mix long after you thought you knew it cold.
This is rock and roll for grownups. The kids bought it too, millions of units worth.
Until the early 1990s, the band continued to exist in varying forms and with the odd hiatus. They were never a hit machine again.