(Foreword: In the early 2000's Carwyn Williams undertook an infamous road trip to Morocco from Hossegor that was covered in a recently launched magazine called Surf Europe. Their vehicle had one tape stuck in the stereo that could neither be stopped not ejected, Right Said Fred's Up, which played continuously throughout the trip. Rather than view that as unfortunate, Carwyn was typically upbeat. "Brilliant!" He enthused. "That's all you need, isn't it? No need fucking about changing the music... one surf trip, one album. Perfect."
In honour of Carwyn's shaky premise, we consider the albums genuinely worthy of continuous rotation on a surf trip. This time, Billy Wilson reviews Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.)
I have been in a rage for several weeks. Last month Stab published an article, together with an accompanying playlist, called “StabFM: She’s Mad But Magic” — an “ode to the female vocalist”. According to Stab's Morgan Williamson, who I'm still not entirely convinced is a real person, “there is nothing more heart-wrenching and beautiful than a woman with pipes”.
Very well, I thought, that sounds like a solid enough premise for a playlist. And in fairness it has its moments. There’s a very good song by Stereolab. Nina Simone’s cover of “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen is interesting and oddly endearing, if not quite as good as it ought to be. A French singer called Soko makes several intriguing contributions.
You will have guessed that there is a "but" coming.
Some would argue that criticising other people’s lists simply for not containing one’s own particular favourites is the height of cuntishness. Well, they may not be far off there. But I would counter that the actual height of cuntishness is compiling a playlist dedicated to female vocalists and neglecting to include a single song by Fleetwood Mac.
I should like to suggest an alternative playlist. It is called Rumours.
“Football is the only sport, Guinness is the only drink, John Cooper Clarke is the only poet,” the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle once said. He might have added that Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is the only album.
In 1977 Fleetwood Mac could boast not just one but two women with pipes, and what pipes they were. They belonged to Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, and with a little help from Lindsey Buckingham they constituted possibly the best plumbing system in the history of popular music.
“When times go bad / And you can’t get enough / Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass / And let me do my stuff?”
It might be objected at this point that Lindsey Buckingham, who had joined the band with his then-girlfriend Nicks only a year earlier, sings lead vocals on at least 4 of the album’s 11 songs. (It’s one of the many contradictions of their relationship that Buckingham had what is more commonly a woman’s first name, and Nicks what is more commonly a man’s.) But this misses the point. Not only are all the Buckingham-led songs rich in female harmonies, they are all about or addressed to the band’s female members — or indeed written by one of them, as in the case of the Nicks-penned “I Don’t Want to Know”.
Thus on the album opener “Second Hand News” Buckingham asks, in one of the better chat-up lines ever committed to vinyl, “When times go bad / And you can’t get enough / Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass / And let me do my stuff?” Yet two songs later he promises he’s “never going back again”. On “Go Your Own Way”, the riposte to Nicks’s “Dreams”, he changes tack once more and, overflowing with a bitterness masquerading as generosity, tells Nicks she’s free to “call it another lonely day”, if that’s what she really wants to do with her life.
Buckingham and Nick’s relationship, and the dissolution thereof, is not the only one to play out on the record. Chistine McVie’s eight-year marriage to the bassist John McVie had recently ended, and her affair with the band’s lighting technician (for whom she wrote “You Make Loving Fun”) was now out in the open. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood, the band’s drummer and de-facto manager, was still recovering from the news that his good friend Bob Weston, until recently also a member of the band, had been having an affair with his then-wife. For his own part, Fleetwood hadn’t yet embarked on his affair with Nicks, nor on his affair with Nicks’s good friend Sara Recor, but both were in the offing.
"Fleetwood hadn’t yet embarked on his affair with Nicks, nor on his affair with Nicks’s good friend Sara Recor, but both were in the offing"
The warring couples thus communicated through the songs, channelling all the anguish and disappointment and doubt into the lyrics. The only problem with this method of communication, as Fleetwood once jokingly pointed out, was that John McVie didn’t sing. He was therefore restricted to stalking the corridors of Christine and Nicks’s shared condominium late at night, screaming his ex-wife’s name.
He did have the bass, however, and several of the best bass lines in history to play on it. (For the most obvious example see "The Chain", below, on which, uniquely, all five band members shared writing credits.) This was generally enough. “If I had anything that I thought was world-shaking or profound, I’d say something,” he once told Rolling Stone in a brilliantly dour interview shortly after the album’s release. “I really can’t come up with anything on politics, state of society, the relation of music to society… it’s just horseshit. I play bass.”
“I really can’t come up with anything on politics, state of society, the relation of music to society… it’s just horseshit. I play bass.”
That is surely the most bassist thing a bassist has ever said. It is also a fine and admirable philosophy, and indeed one that could apply to a great many people, with the difference that most of those people have not yet found their own personal equivalent of the bass guitar.
Your bass guitar, your instrument of self-expression, is your surfboard. But why does Rumours deserve to be taken on your next surf trip, and what can it tell you about self-expression? What can it tell you, for that matter, about getting on (and off) with other people on the road?
No album has ever quite encapsulated its makers or the circumstances of its making quite like Rumours. It doesn’t merely tell the story of a group of volatile men and women confined for months to the prison-cum-womb of the studio, fucking and fighting amongst themselves while off their heads on cocaine, kept together only by the chain that must never be broken. It actually is that story. Rock & roll meets tragicomedy meets performance art.
There is a whole school of literary criticism dedicated to the notion that an author’s biography is irrelevant to all discussion of his work. It’s an occasionally persuasive argument but it begins to look unsteady as soon as Buckingham strums the first chords of “Second Hand News”, and is already a pile of rubble by the time Stevie Nicks has finished with “Dreams”.
"It’s also a phenomenal record to drive to"
None of the extraordinary details of its making would count for anything, of course, if Rumours were a bad album, and the songs didn’t hold water of their own accord. As it is they are brilliant, almost to a song, as 32 consecutive listens will confirm. They contain lines like “Players only love you when they’re playing” and “the songbirds are singing like they know the score” and “Rock on gold-dust woman / Take your silver spoon and dig your grave” — all sung beautifully. They contain melodies and harmonies that I cannot hope to adumbrate here. They contain, as we do, multitudes. I should add that it’s also a phenomenal record to drive to (I am thinking here of “You Make Loving Fun”, “Go Your Own Way”, and “Gold Dust Woman” in particular.)
One last word about the album cover. It has to be one of the best covers in the history of album covers and will look perfect on your dashboard. Fuck it’s good.
You will notice that two balls are dangling between Mick Fleetwood's legs. In fact they are two lavatory chains and their wooden handles, which Fleetwood had stolen at an early Fleetwood Mac gig, and which became a kind of mascot. “I must admit I had a couple of glasses of English ale – and came out of the toilet with these,” he recently told Maui Time. (Originally from Cornwall, Fleetwood now lives on Maui for much of the year.) Obviously we wouldn’t want to encourage vandalism, but let that vignette serve as a reminder that a good surf trip should resemble a Fleetwood Mac tour as closely as possible.