In the late 60’s, a handful of men managed to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the blues had no color, or even nationality. The one who, along with the long gone Duane Allman, proved it deepest and truest, was Peter Green, founder of the original Fleetwood Mac.
He died today in a world that is on fire in large part because the lessons of his music remain ignored and discarded. I’m not feeling too good myself, but I pause to remember and reflect. Maybe we should listen this time. Maybe we should even refuse to forget.
Tusk was the third album released by what had already become the most famous version of Fleetwood Mac. The history is well known but bears repeating.
The group started out in the mid to late sixties as a first rate English blues rock outfit, distinguished from dozens of others, and even most of the better ones, by Peter Green’s scintillating guitar, the rock solid rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and some better than usual songwriting.
With Green’s departure, the early seventies’ version of the band brought on several new members–Christine McVie (née Perfect) and Bob Welch preeminent among them–and gravitated towards a mellower soul-pop sound.
The first version had kicked up some serious dust. The second version hung around.
Eventually it, too, fell apart and Fleetwood found himself in recruiting mode again.
This time, he happened on an up and coming guitarist and vocalist named Lindsey Buckingham, who already had a record out with his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood and the band offered Buckingham a job. He said he would take it but only if his girlfriend could join too.
There was a big meeting–laughable in hindsight–to determine whether the two women could get along.
In the years to come, the two women would be just about the only ones who got along. But what the new Fleetwood Mac did over the next four-and-a-half years, as they were cutting each other to shreds, was remarkable by any standard.
The new unit’s first album, Fleetwood Mac, was released in 1975 and to date has sold seven million copies in the U.S. alone. Their next album, Rumours, made that, and nearly everything else released in the decade, look like chump change.
Both albums deserved their status as massive sellers and era-defining records. Good thing, because by the time they were done, Stevie Nicks was no longer Lindsey Buckingham’s girlfriend and Christine McVie was no longer John McVie’s wife.
It seemed they had taken sexual politics as far as it could go–further than the Mamas & the Papas, who had shattered under similar strains in the sixties and left a legacy in the arena other romantically entwined male/female outfits (Jefferson Airplane, Abba, Fifth Dimension) who had gotten in between couldn’t touch.
On Rumours, Buckingham and Nicks in particular, has blasted past all that, answering each others insults face to face and voice to voice on the album, the radio, and stages all over the world.
There really should have been nowhere to go.
But selling albums in the tens of millions, as opposed to mere millions, brought a whole new perspective.
How could they break that up?
And, after Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do and Players only love you when they’re playing, how could they not break it up?
A million dollars, a studio built especially for the ask, and many obsessive months later, Tusk was the answer. One which, in effect, bound them together forever, and from which they would never recover.
“Over & Over”–Gently, gently, Christine the Bystander leads us into the house of horrors. It’s placement at the top of the album might have been designed to mock the jump-start openers on their previous two albums. The mood Lindsey the Boyfriend was in, I don’t doubt such placement was deliberate. Lindsey the Producer was savvy enough, though, to give this the full late-sixties Beach Boys vibe and Lindsey the Guitarist was sensitive enough to provide a gorgeous fade that evokes a clear blue mountain lake, glimpsed through a high window.
“The Ledge”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend puts the lines You can love me baby but you can’t walk out and six feet under in the same song. He didn’t put them next to each other, but he was singing this one himself, so there’s no mistaking the meaning, which would have been the same if he had just sung the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“Think About Me”–Wait, we better put a hit single on here somewhere. Let’s throw it to Christine the Bystander! And Christine delivers, except, as hit singles go, Baby once in a while, think about me is not Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow or Over my head and it sure feels nice. Top twenty sure, but by this time that was counted a flop. They didn’t play it in concert for twenty-five years. If you listen close, you can hear the stinger in the lyric. That part about not holding you down and maybe that’s why you’re around.
“Save Me a Place”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend turns philosophical. He’ll come running. He promises. If you’ll love him. If you don’t, it’s all on you, because he needs to be amazed.
“Sara”–Stevie the Ex is finally allowed to get a word in edgewise and the very first thing out of her mouth is Wait a minute baby...Then she pretends to be the someone else he wanted her to be while she’s explaining how he tricked her into thinking he was the someone else she wanted him to be. Somebody understood. It went Top Ten and became the album’s only radio staple. Must have been the part about drowning….in the sea of love….where everyone….would love….to drown. The sentiment was sure fire. It had worked for Phil Phillips and Joe Simon in times past. But the hesitations were new. Very 1979.
“What Makes You Think You’re the One”–Something struck deep. Lindsey the Boyfriend is starting to hone his attack. It’s not entirely clear that the attack will be limited to words. By the end, it sounds like he’s thrown every dart he can get his hands (or tongue) on at the Stevie the Ex’s back. And if she doesn’t turn around? What then?
“Storms”–Or worse, what if she turns around and sings a lullaby? What if it’s impossibly lovely and wounded, the sound of a broken flower? What if it ends with I have always…been a storm. Watch out, she’s hesitating again.
“That’s All For Everyone”–I spent a lot of years not looking at the titles on this album so I always heard Last call for everyone. Last call for me. And that’s still what the voice says, lyric sheet be damned. Already the album is veering towards things words either can’t say or can say but better not.
“Not That Funny”–And just in time, too, since this is the sound of a man breaking into his ex’s house and telling her to stop making him do it while he punches her in the face, and the way he sings don-n-n-n’t bla-a-a-me me-e-e hardly belies the air of menace.
“Sisters of the Moon”–At which point Stevie the Ex, bound to think this might have something to do with her, is forced to turn herself into a ghost who walks through walls. When she gets to the next room, she turns and watches her temporal body from a distance, not really wanting to look, but not daring to go too far either. There is serious competition, but arguably her greatest side. The key is how she makes In-tense si-lence sound like in-tense violence…Lindsey the Producer’s grasp of the mood helps as does Lindsey the Guitarist’s blistering fade.
“Angel”–The morning after: Peace, and a powerful, lilting suggestion that what came before was just an ugly dream….or a suppressed memory. (And I’ll bet if Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend had known there would one day be compact discs and streaming services that obliterated side breaks, Lindsey the Producer would never in a million years have granted Stevie the Ex two songs in a row.)
“That’s Enough For Me”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend hears what he did the night before transmuted into something he can’t recognize or understand. He senses this might give him an edge and swears it’s all he ever wanted! Damn convincing, too.
“Brown Eyes”–Clearly personal, but because Christine the Bystander, who’s got problems of her own, isn’t involved in the main drama, she has to bury her personality under an abstract vocal, which sounds like it’s coming from that room where Stevie’s ghost wandered. Only Christine can’t walk through walls, which means she can’t leave.
“Never Make Me Cry”–Hear what I mean?
“I Know I’m Not Wrong”–Don-n-n-t bla-a-a-me me. Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend cries. You can see him clinching his fists, staring at them, wondering what they might be capable of if somebody else doesn’t take the blame very, very soon.
“Honey Hi”–Christine the Bystander still can’t get out of that room because she still can’t walk through walls. She’s started to sound more like a ghost though.
“Beautiful Child”–The memories are now so suppressed Stevie the Ex has reverted all the way to childhood.
“Walk a Thin Line”–Lindsey, knowing he will never again be the Boyfriend, that being the Producer and the Guitarist will never again mean as much as they did before, perhaps horrified by what he has done or thought of doing, perhaps torn apart by the ex’s retreat into a vocal beauty so pure he ca never hope to comprehend it, walks the thin line between loading every chamber and playing Russian Roulette. No one was listenin’….
“Tusk”–The sound of the fantasy rape that takes place when the Boyfriend, jilted or otherwise, has had enough! Recorded live at Dodger Stadium, with the USC Trojan band accompanying. Top Ten in the moment. Kept off my radio ever since by those very forces that put so much effort into making it easy for us to assume they don’t know what they’re doing.
“Never Forget”–None of this ever happened. It’s really just an album folks. Listen again. Right now. You’ll see.
When Gregg Allman–of Nashville, Daytona Beach, Macon and Savannah–came back from the West Coast in the late sixties, to join his brother and some friends in yet another attempt to find a place in the rock and roll Cosmos, White Blues was a concept owned by Brits and Yanks.
He immediately gave the newly formed Allman Brothers Band a huge advantage over everyone else who had tried the concept. There had been a number of formalist White Blues guitar players–Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Gregg’s brother Duane–who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues guitarists, while sounding like no one but themselves. Gregg Allman was the first formalist White Blues singer who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues vocalists…while sounding like no one but himself.
Aside from Ronnie Van Zant–of Jacksonville, Florida–he was also the last.
In the manner of singing like a black man, it evidently helps to actually know some black people.
Except for a brief romantic and professional liaison with Cher in the late seventies, who he was at the beginning remained who he was at the end–somebody determined to keep the spirit of what had moved him alive in the modern age. If that made him seem like an anachronism as time went on, it also made him a committed soul. At his best, from the beginning to the end, he embodied the spirit of the Southern Rock he helped invent–and threw off the chains that bind us.
Hope there’s a Skydog Reunion in the works somewhere tonight.
(L–R: Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie: Fleetwood Mac, circa nineteen seventy-something…What could possibly go wrong? Clearly these folks love each other!)
In the late seventies Fleetwood Mac’s music was so ubiquitous I never bothered to buy any of it. If I wanted to hear them they were never more than a radio click and half an hour away. (“Dreams” alone filled the air so insidiously that I knew the words without ever once having paid the slightest attention or even begun to wonder what they might mean.)
Anyway, I was on a budget and I kind of figured they were going to be around.
I liked them, then, when they were everywhere…but they weren’t exactly the soundtrack of my inner life.
They’ve come pretty close to being that in the last five years or so.
Sure, I’d gotten around to buying their records long before that. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk… Some comps, one or two things from their earlier period with Bob Welch and their even earlier period with the great Peter Green (eventually even the fantastic box set with all the Green-era music).
I’d even gotten around to listening to them. Quite a lot.
Good things abounded. Great things weren’t uncommon.
I think I resisted Rumours a bit more than the rest, though, kept it squarely in the like-don’t-love category for far too long, for the usual lunk-headed reason. You know, how could anything that popular (27 million sold to date “officially”…which, given the standard accounting practices of the forever-going-broke music business, means the 40 million often mentioned as the “real” number is likely still low-balling) be that good?
I mean, I’ve never thought The Dark Side of the Moon, or Thriller, or the Saturday NIght Fever soundtrack, or Born In the U.S.A. or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–to mention some albums with similarly stratospheric sales numbers that I actually like–were that good or that special.
Not change-my-life special. Not forever-deep-in-the-marrow special.
So it came as quite a surprise to me when Rumours somehow joined the list of those select few that are forever-deep-in-the-marrow-life-changing. Even more of a surprise because, even now, I’d be hard pressed to say why and how this occurred.
Normally, I’m spilling over with ideas on a subject like that.
But, with Rumours I come up dry.
Of course, bonding with rich So-Cal rock stars (who had previously been, for the most part, either semi-rich British blues-rock stars or No-Cal rich kids) is not my usual thing.
And, as far as the album’s major theme goes, I’ve never had any heartbreak romances to start with, let alone gone-to-pot-cry-in-your-cocaine aftermaths.
But that doesn’t explain much. I never particularly needed any kind of personal identification badge to bond with the musicians I loved. Just as a for instance, the soundtrack of that inner life I mentioned in the late-seventies when I was living in the deep South and politely ignoring Fleetwood Mac (and most of the rest of the decade), was the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.
I’d never touched a surfboard or been anywhere near a knee-cracking Jersey goom-bah either. Didn’t matter.
Then again, Brian Wilson didn’t actually surf and Frankie Valli was running hard to get away from the Tony Sopranos of the world. So I learned not to be too surprised by the barriers rock and rollers could break through, including those set up by their marketing departments.
Besides, when Fleetwood Mac’s then-latest incarnation reached us down South they didn’t need a marketing department.
One day, nobody ever heard of them. Next day they were scratch-their-name-on-your-school-desk cool. With everybody. Well, probably not with punks, but if there were any punks running around my part of Jackson County, Florida in 1977, they were keeping quiet about it (which I guess would mean they weren’t really punks anyway). For everybody else, “Over My Head” was the fanfare, and Rumours, arriving the following year, was the coronation. I mean, I knew at least one person who condescended to (“You like them?”) and/or despised (“Oh God, I can’t stand them!”) every single band that mattered. The two bands everybody agreed on were the Beatles (who everybody loved…except for the few people who merely liked them) and “the Mac” (who everybody liked…except for the few people who actually loved them).
I wonder what we, and the rest of the world, would have thought if we’d heard the version of Rumors that now exists, strewn across bonus discs for the 2-CD version released in 2004 and the 3-CD set released in 2013? (NOTE; There’s also a 4-CD version, which apparently has both bonus discs, a DVD, vinyl version, etc….but that’s for when I’m really rich.)
I’ve heard both bonus discs before this week…had these particular releases around for a while and was actually quite struck by the 2004 release the one time I sat and paid attention all the way through.
What I heard this week, though, when I finally sat down to listen close, was something different, something that probably has to do with just how much I’ve absorbed the original Rumours LP over the years (especially since acquiring that 2004 version, which has “Silver Springs” restored to the original release and nesting smack dab in the middle, where it was originally slated until it was nixed at the last minute, supposedly because its length would compromise the fidelity of the album back in the pre-digital age, more likely because Lindsey Buckingham, from some combination of fear, anger and spite, wanted Stevie Nicks to have as little room to fight back as possible).
So while I still have no real idea how the original Rumours (meaning the album that the public originally heard, which, in this case maybe even more than usual, was not the album originally created) came to occupy such a place of consummate familiarity, I have all kinds of ideas why the other album nested inside it is likely to grab hold just as deeply, now that I’ve finally managed to hear it.
The first reason is that, miraculously, that underlying/undermining album isn’t merely half-formed, the usual series of interesting false starts, confined to mere allegations of the greatness that’s only waiting for a last coat of studio polish to bring it kicking to life, but a thing that’s every bit as great as the final product while also being a markedly different entity altogether.
Mind you, the perfect alternate Rumours doesn’t exist in a neat package. The cuts on the 2004 release and the 2013 release are completely different with the former being mostly outtakes (that is something close to finished tracks) and the latter mostly demos (meaning very rough early takes, often with the sparest possible accompaniment and different lyrics). Each has a few songs or fragments (other than “Silver Springs”) which didn’t make the final cut.
What’s remarkable is that just about everything deepens and enhances an album known to millions, rather than distracting from it or “replacing” anything.
There are some stunning numbers on the 2013 “demo” disc. I’d point especially to a version of “The Chain” (the one song from the finished LP not included on the 2004 extra disc) that reveals it as the Stevie Nicks’ song it was always meant to be (Buckingham and Christine McVie shared mighty leads on the finished cut); a slightly slowed down, passionate take on Buckinghham’s “Go Your Own Way” with a key line altered; a stunning track from McVie called “Keep Me There” which is as fine as anything she ever did (and which was eventually combined with Nicks’ song to make the final version of “The Chain); and a heart-stopping Nicks’ vocal on a fragment of the never-finished “Doesn’t Anything Last” that answers Buckingham’s tormented fragment of the same song on the earlier disc, the brevity of which amounts to a tragedy.
One could dive deep in other words and I would certainly need these tracks at the very least to program the dream double-LP the thirty-four “extra” tracks spread across the two discs could easily comprise, even pared to essentials.
But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick to the 2004 disc as its own mystery.
Or maybe I should say its own clarification: the ghost that haunts the great heart of an LP that defined its troubled era as thoroughly as any album has defined any era before or since so thoroughly that it finally lights up the dark places and throws shadows on all the easy assumptions 40 million and counting are bound to have engendered.
The first eleven tracks of what I’ll now call the Ghost Disc, track Rumours closely. Ten of the twelve songs (including “Silver Springs”) are placed in their familiar running order, with “The Chain” and “I Don’t Want to Know” (the song that, according to Nicks, replaced “Silver Springs” on the finished LP) omitted and a track called “Think About It” added.
Deprived of that “polish” I mentioned, the Ghost Disc becomes a lot of new things: an unlikely marriage of Gram Parsons and Fairport Convention; a hard link between the “country-rock” of seventies L.A. and the “alt-country” movement that would emerge a few years later in bands like Lone Justice and Jason and the Scorchers; a sharp reminder that Rumours itself was born largely of the intersection between pain felt and pain masked.
And, most of all, a singer’s album, by which I mean an album where writing and producing and playing become truly secondary and the voices of the three greatest singers to ever join in one band (and with the possible exception of the early Temptations, the three greatest to ever be in one vocal group) to tell parts of the tale with a clarity that was bound to be blunted or buried when fame had to be validated and front office suits had to be mollified.
I don’t mean that the versions of “Second Hand News,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” et al, which exist here are “better” than the famous versions. That would be silly. Rumours, after all did validate their fame and pretty much every claim ever made for it or them.
For instance, I certainly wouldn’t want the world to be without the irresistible, anthemic flourish that opens the finished version of “Don’t Stop,” which here is reduced to a soft piano roll with a hint of Randy Newman in it before it gives way to the Fats Domino stomp it always was (and maybe thereby proves just how much both Randy Newman and Christine McVie owed to Fats).
But, now that I know it exists, I wouldn’t want to be without the subtle shift found in the song’s tone here either.
In it’s never-wear-out hit form it was the most optimistic song imaginable (and a breath of fresh air on Rumours itself, a welcome respite breaking up the vicious, epic cutting contest the just-broken-up Lindsey and Stevie were carrying on), a straightforward assurance that tomorrow will be better.
Here, with the production muted, the emphasis in the harmonies ever-so-slightly altered, the song becomes double-edged, precisely poised. The difference between joy and melancholy, reassurance and doubt, is left hanging on the knife edge until the “O-o-o-o-o-h” that lifts the hit version into the world’s best smile, shifts the tone entirely in the direction the hit refused to go.
Suddenly “don’t you look back” carries an unmistakable hint of its famous corollary….
You know…”Because something might be gaining on you.”
Then the band break up into giggles and it sounds like they’re trying to fend off a haint that just walked through the door.
No longer suitable for a presidential campaign’s theme music in other words.
Those kinds of twists and turns exist throughout the Ghost Disc.
The voices, brought forward in the mix, singly or in harmony, carry new dimensions on every single track (“Never Going Back Again,” the one track that’s now an instrumental, sounds like a delicate piece of chamber music crossed with somebody’s bluegrass record collection…in other words, it suits the mood just fine).
“Dreams” is more forceful, less wistful. “Second Hand News,” stripped of Mick Fleetwood’s thrilling, just-right, drum flourishes (here he sounds like he’s driving nails or maybe like he just learned to keep time on the kit and can’t get over the rush) becomes naked, vulnerable, as if the man singing is actually hurting rather than remembering hurt. “Songbird,” always quiet, becomes utterly still. “Silver Springs” too, becomes quieter, less epic, more personal. Ditto “Gold Dust Woman,” (which starts here with somebody screaming in the other room, rides the country guitar licks that got buried in the final mix, and then gets repeated, quieter still, more vital still, in the “demos” section of the disc). “You Make Loving Fun,” always a bit of an (admittedly deathless) sing-a-long before, here levitates between unstoppable passion and nagging doubt and moves to the very top of McVie’s vocal chart.
After that, you get a killer version of “Oh Daddy” that amounts to a duet between McVie and her ex-husband’s bass, punctuated by McVie/Nicks harmonies that would raise the hair on a corpse.
And all of that is followed by what might be the album’s piece-de-resistance, a Nicks’ number called “Think About It.”
As deservedly famous as “Silver Springs” became over the years for being what somebody called “the greatest song ever left off an album,” “Think About It” (a version of which ended up on Nicks’ first solo album, where it was about a tenth as good) might deserve the title even more. Since it didn’t appear on the original album, and apparently wasn’t even considered, there’s nothing to compare it to.
There or elsewhere.
The closest I can come is to say it’s probably what a band like Little Feat was always aiming for and, if they never quite got all the way there, it’s probably because they didn’t have Stevie Nicks.
There are five additional demos and two “jams” and they’re hardly incidental. They include the aforementioned extra take of “Gold Dust Woman,” Buckingham’s version of “Doesn’t Anything Last,” and his killer guitar work on “For Duster (The Blues).” Every cut is worthy of interest. Every cut adds something to both the legacy and the mystery. Taken together they demonstrate, all by themselves, just how off-the-charts the raw talent in this band actually was when it was producing the album that defined them.
But I’ll leave it there. It will probably be years before I fully absorb the implications of all this. I haven’t encountered anything like it before–a truly “alternate” version of a truly great album that has just as much to offer–and I’ll be surprised if I ever encounter the like again.
But I listen to this and think about what might have been and God how I wish that picture at the top was a lie…that something other than paychecks and professionalism could have somehow held them together all these decades.