Pretty much everyone with a passing familiarity with Fleetwood Mac knows at least a little something about the personal tumult behind their landmark 1977 album Rumours: it’s one of rock’s most famous soap operas,” writes Jordan Runtagh at Rolling Stone. Christine McVie put it even more succinctly— “Drama. Dra-ma.”
But isn't this how great songs get written, as we find out when we read the autobiographies and interviews of great songwriters, who sublimate their personal ups and downs in lyrics that touch the emotional lives of millions? The saga of Fleetwood Mac just happens to be a particularly juicy example, given that the band members’ romantic anguish mostly came from failed relationships with each other.
The tale will forever be a cautionary one for musicians, though it’s hardly much of a deterrent. Just listen to those songs! But as Evan Puschak—otherwise known as video essayist the Nerdwriter—shows above, it takes a lot more than a bad breakup with the guitar player to make timeless pop art. Rumours “feels alive, months and years and decades after its creation.” It’s so much more than the sum of its parts, even if those parts are rare and indispensable: the considerable musicianship on display, the songwriting experience, and especially the “virtually unlimited budget and time” Warner Brothers allotted the band.
Such extravagance is virtually impossible for anyone else to come by. Still, noodling indefinitely with fancy instruments and equipment does not a great album make. Puschak takes Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams” as an example of how the band excelled in the studio. Written “in about 10 minutes,” as Nicks tells it, while she sat in a “big black-velvet bed with Victorian drapes” in a studio belonging to Sly Stone, the song’s studio version shows off the lush, layered production the band spent the better part of a year bringing to her two-chord demo.
“Dreams”—one of the most mesmerizing songs in the band’s canon—acquired its hypnotic qualities through the use of a looped drum pattern, pulsing, repetitive bassline, and the subtle coloration of guitar textures that give the deceptively simple song its ebb and flow.
The story of Rumours is as much about fantastic songcraft, musicianship, arranging, and production as it is about triumph over the human resources nightmare behind the scenes. The personal inspiration for these songs makes for good gossip, but these are not life events anyone needs to emulate to make art. Fleetwood Mac’s collective inventiveness, emotional honesty, and skill are what ultimately make them such an inspiration to musicians, and creative types in general. For another example of how they built the architectural marvels on Rumours, see the short take above from Polyphonic about the album’s moodiest song, “The Chain.”