Fleetwood Mac:
The Buckingham-Nicks Years
Strongest album: Rumours
Weakest album: Tango in the Night

This page is not an attempt to cover the entire career of Fleetwood Mac, but only one portion of their career: their recorded output between 1975 and 1987. The reason for this is simple. The Fleetwood Mac name has been used by two almost entirely different bands in the past thirty years. The original Fleetwood Mac were a run of the mill late '60s British blues-rock band led by guitar wizard Peter Green. From what I have heard - this version of the band takes up an entire disc on The Chain box set - I'm not particularly interested. Aficianados of British blues-rock might be, but my tastes don't run toward that direction. All of this is my way of explaining that I am neither interested nor qualified to review the the pre-'75 portion of the band's career.

In 1975, however, the British blues band Fleetwood Mac lost several key members, retaining only their namesake rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, and keyboardist Christine McVie. Rather than break up, the remaining members recruited a California duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (who had recorded an obscure album in the early '70s), and promptly shot to superstardom with a string of smooth pop hits. Fleetwood Mac's formula can be summed up as soft rock with an edge: incredibly accomplished, inspired Beach Boys/CS & N informed pop undergirded by a rock solid but sensitive rhythm section (one of rock's all time greatest, in fact). Add a slight spaciness to the texture and the deep songwriting well that comes from having three talented singer-songwriters in the same band, and you've got the recipe for multi-platinum success and some of pop's most enduring radio classics. Ignoring Big Star for a moment (and Blondie), Fleetwood Mac were probably the best purveyors of pure pop for now people that the '70s produced. Of course I should point out right now that "good '70s pop" is generally rightly viewed as an oxymoron, but there were a few good pop bands from that hard rock/disco dominated decade, and Fleetwood Mac were one of them.

I suppose I'll have to justify making 1987 the cut-off point, also. The reason, again, is simple: I don't have any of their records made after 1987, primarily from complete lack of interest. By that time the band's infamous infighting had caused the walk-off of Buckingham, the primary architect of the post-'75 Fleetwood Mac sound. The rest of the band soldiered on as expected, but the gradual erosion of time (not to mention heavy drugs) had eaten away at their spark and abilities. It happens to almost every rock band that has lasted more than a decade. The '75-'87 lineup has recently reformed to cash in on their old glories, releasing a live disc, and I'm not interested in oldies acts so I'm not covering their "comeback" either.

Heard some secondhand news? Check out The Penguin.

Fleetwood Mac (1975) ****

It's best to view this as a debut album, which for all intents and purposes this is. The great strength of this album is the balancing of three singer-songwriters' contributions so that the pieces are at once varied and smoothly integrated into a seamless whole. It helps that Buckingham's updated Buddy Holly rock songs are feisty without turning into hard rock, and that Stevie Nicks' husky voice gives her mystic gypsy ballads a slightly bluesy edge. Christine McVie's songs are straight up soft rock, complete with blandly sweet vocals and love gushy sentiments, but for the most part they are infused with an infectiousness that's irresistable (the hit "Say You Love Me" with that wonderful "fallin', fallin', fallin'" at the end; even better is the upbeat, mid-tempo "Sugar Daddy"). Nicks' work is particularly strong this time out: "Rhiannon" was a deserved smash (which she would rewrite on the next album and call it "Dreams") in her patented spacey-swirley cadet mode; the ballad "Landslide," (covered badly by Smashing Pumpkins) is better still. And while Buckingham's songs are probably the weakest this time round, they're still good, and he ends the album with the weirdest tune: the bass-driven, almost Joy Division-ish "I'm So Afraid."

Rumours (1977) *****

The mega-platinum followup was the biggest seller of all time until Thriller, and one of those rare cases in which commercial and artistic accomplishment coincide. Much has been made of the fact that at the time of the recording, the two couples in the band - McVie & Mac, and Buckingham & Nicks - were simultaneously breaking up. A lot of folks attribute this album's classic quality to the soap opera tensions going on (in fact, it's the basis of a novel by Pagan Kennedy in which the couples in a band decide to break up with each other in order to recreate the Rumours vibe). Whatever the case may be, this is both more consistent and edgier than the previous album's blueprint. You probably already know this album by heart, and you're probably sick of Bill Clinton's theme song "Don't Stop," and you're probably even sicker of Nicks' "Dreams" and maybe all the rest, and I probably am too. But constant radio overexposure doesn't make this any less of a classic, and anyone who doesn't own a copy should probably tape this off their parents' vinyl collection. Hey, I'm even sick of a lot of the Beatles' stuff because I've heard it so much (and let's not even mention the Stones or Zeppelin)! Even though I play Tusk a lot more because it's never played on the radio, by any reasonable standard this is the band's peak, and if you were in coma during the '70s or hadn't been born yet, then check out a great pop band at the peak of their powers, before all that cocaine and ego messed with their heads.

Tusk (1979) ***1/2

The previous two albums had been evenly split between the three singer-songwriters, but on Tusk Buckingham clearly begins to dominate the band. A double album, this was a huge disappointment both commercially and artistically; frankly, few of the individual songs are as good as the songs on Rumours, and a handful don't work at all. Nicks and McVie haven't changed their style since the 1975 LP, and by now their limitations are clear: McVie's ballads tend towards blandness, and Nicks, despite the hit "Sara," shows herself for the gypsy cadet she is. So it's left up to Buckingham to salvage the album, and fortunately his contribution is generally stellar, and even when it's not, it's interesting. His artiste ambitions are starting to show, as he essays garage-rock new wave ("The Ledge"), a desire to be Brian Wilson ("That's All For Everyone") and a bizarre sonic collage/collaboration with the USC Marching Band called "Tusk," the most uncommercial piece on the entire album that perversely was released as the first single. While little of this album holds up well compared to Rumours or even Mirage, and it can get a bit wearying due to the length, it's their weirdest and least accessible set and therefore gets bonus points from me. However, don't go to this one until you've aquired the two albums that came before.

Reader Comments

Samuel Day Fassbinder, bk170@lafn.org

Actually, it's kind of fun to listen to this because the songs do all sound pretty much the same as they do on the other Fleetwood Mac albums (with the 1975-1987 lineup of course). Since the stuff from FLEETWOOD MAC and RUMOURS have been played to death on the radio, TUSK is nice because it's the same stuff, pretty much, but it hasn't been played to death.

Fleetwood Mac Live (1980)

The bane of the '70s - the live double album. This one contains several new (and otherwise unavailable) songs, including a Brian Wilson medley.

Mirage (1982) ***1/2

After they (or at least Buckingham) had gotten artiness out of their system, Fleetwood Mac return to the straightforward songcraft of the '75 LP, tempered with a self-consciousness strain of nostalgia. Buckingham had obviously been listening to a lot of early '60s Brill Building pop and doo-wop (the title "Book of Love" is a dead giveaway), and McVie's debt to Carole King has never been more obvious (particularly on the opener, "Love In Store"). Nicks keeps on being Nicks, and "Gypsy" is the latest example of the "Sara"-style ballad she'd rewrite her entire career (not that I mind - "Gypsy" is still a very good song). McVie's "Hold Me" is far and away the best song, and the big smash from this album, but the rest is consistently solid, if lacking a bit of the spark that made Rumours so special. For some reason Fleetwood Mac heads and the critics rate this one as particularly inferior, but it is noticably stronger overall than Tusk. Only it has no edge to it, which is why in my estimation those two LPs run a dead heat as the third-best Fleetwood Mac album.

Tango in the Night (1987) ***

Since I was all of three years old when Rumours came out, this is the album that introduced me to Fleetwood Mac. Like the hit-making machine they are, the songs on this album were all over the place during my junior high summer of '87, and while the hits are still as good as I remember, they're a step down from the band's '70s output. Also, the album tracks don't really offer any major undiscovered pleasures the way Fleetwood Mac albums are supposed to (which is what separates Fleetwood Mac from your run of the mill hit factories). Nicks' "Welcome To The Room...Sara," is the low point, but nothing else on the album is really embarassing. Buckingham's Spanish-guitar plucking on "Big Love" is the album's high point, even with the gratituitous grunts of Buckingham and his girlfriend moving heavy furniture. McVie grows blander and blander with every album ("Everywhere"). Very professional, very tuneful, it's okay but it's not something I'm terribly interested in the way I am with their earlier albums.

Reader Comments

George Starostin, starostin@geocities.com

Like your Mac reviews, some very good remarks on here. The only thing I wanted to say is that the group began to veer towards a more pop sound long before the onset of Buckingham-Nicks. I'd say it was on 1969's "Then Play On", with the coming of Danny Kirwan. Since then none of Mac's albums were pure hardcore blues like their first 1968 records (rather dull indeed). And albums like "Penguin" (1973) or "Heroes Are Hard To Find" (1974) cannot be called blues albums at all. I strongly advise you to check out those ones, too.

John Diller, jndiller@aol.com

I'll second Mr. Starostin here: there was definitely a "middle period" F' Mac from 1969 to the arrival of Lindsay & Stevie, worth exploring. Check out Kiln House and Bare Trees.

Christine MacVie's ballads follow the K.I.S.S. method.... She is one of my favorite ballad writers.

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