Sunday, February 03, 2013

You could fill a library with lurid stories from Fleetwood Mac’s past

Their own way
Sunday Star Times
by Grant Smithies

You could fill a library with lurid stories from Fleetwood Mac’s past, but everything you need to know is in the 12 songs of Rumours.

AH, YES, 1977. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a year of great rejoicing among the old and tired, due to the launch of the new National Superannuation Scheme, but, elsewhere, political tensions ran high. That old bully Muldoon was still in power, presiding over the shameful dawn raids in which hundreds of Polynesian ‘‘overstayers’’ were deported, and a group of Ngati Whatua was ensconced at Bastion Point, protesting government inaction over land claims. Sleeping Dogs was screening in our cinemas, a movie that imagined Aotearoa as a police state, complete with bombings, torture, and reluctant revolutionary Sam Neill hooning around in the Coromandel bush.

I, meanwhile, was marinating in male hormones in Whanganui, riding the rapids of puberty while listening to a steady soundtrack of David Bowie, The Commodores, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

The latter was re-released this week in a variety of deluxe 35th anniversary editions, and listening to it again after all these years is like turning on a tap marked ‘‘nostalgia’’. From the very first note of Second Hand News, memories gush forth; my head swims with images of summer barbecues, furtive beer drinking at Lake Wiritoa, sociopathic teachers and hot girls from my class doing PE in rompers.

When Rumours first came out, I’d just turned 16 and Stevie Nicks was a powerful object of desire; a Californian hippie witch with ragged hems and a look in her eyes that suggested she wanted me badly. Or so I thought at the time. I talked to her in 2009, and she sounded surprisingly aloof, given how much she’d fancied me back in ‘77.

‘‘Those 12 songs came out of a very dark time’’ she said when I asked about Rumours, her voice every bit as husky and nasal as you’d expect. ‘‘We were telling stories everybody could relate to, so people carried those songs around like their own little mantras.’’

And what peculiar little musical mantras they were: Melodically indelible, hooky as a pirate captain, but bitter as vinegar. It was the sound of pain polished to a high gloss under the unforgiving LA sun, with lyrics that touched on the defining themes of the era – the drugs, the sexual shenanigans, the emotional carelessness, the hippie dream beginning to curdle and sour.

And what better band to tell such stories? Even within the notoriously dramatic world of rock’n’roll, Fleetwood Mac’s career was notable for its lack of restraint. The band’s history resembles a soft-rock Spinal Tap, replete with madness and religious cults, bogus touring bands, bad acid, bankruptcy, seizures, suicide, clandestine rooting, industrial strength bitchiness, oceans of alcohol and blizzards of cocaine.

Indeed, you could fill a library with lurid stories from this band’s past, but, really, everything you need to know is contained within the 12 songs on Rumours, all written during a time when it seemed impossible for anyone to keep it in their pants.

While the album was being made, keyboard player Christine Perfect left bassist husband John McVie for the band’s lighting director, writing You Make Loving Fun about the amorous superiority of her new man. To add insult to injury, her ex had to grudgingly play it every night on tour. Meanwhile, Nicks dumped guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, later secretly hooking up with drummer Mick Fleetwood after a New Zealand gig during the 1977 Rumours tour. Two years later, Fleetwood started playing hide the sausage with Nicks’ best friend, while Nicks convened a soft-rock supergroup shagfest with The Eagles’ Don Henley.

No wonder album standouts Dreams, Go Your Own Way and The Chain seethe with sexual jealousy, fume with rage, leak pure grief. Rumours declared to millions the difficult truths the five band members couldn’t say to one another in private. This was pop music as blood sport, with all its bruises showing.

‘‘Nineteen seventy-seven was a very crazy time for us, and Rumours is a diary of that time’’ confirmed Fleetwood when I phoned him in Hawaii a few years ago for a chinwag. ‘‘In many ways, Rumours was a musical soap opera, with all these distressed musicians communicating to each other through the songs. Every band member except me had split up from some other band member, and my first wife was having an affair with my best friend! All five of us were very traumatised, but the one stable thing left in our lives was the music. All the sexual intrigues and the weirdness ended up going into those songs. That’s why it’s such an odd pop record. It’s really quite dark, rather than just cute and stupid.’’

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