Monday, March 04, 2013

Who's Afraid of Fleetwood Mac?

You will wake up one day and realize that you are being followed. You are being stalked across the streets and through the forests, trailed at every step by a stomping shadow that appears just outside your peripheral vision, hunted by a beast whose hot breath raises the white hairs on the nape of your neck. And then one day you catch a familiar tune coming from a nearby radio, and you turn your head without thinking and come face to face with that elusive specter: you come face to face with Fleetwood Mac, and you realize they had already been there all this time.

We all know Fleetwood Mac, and I'm equally confident in asserting that the vast majority of us under a certain age are perfectly content to dismiss them out of hand. After all, weren't they just overproduced, glossy dad-rock - as in, literally, the music your dad listened to, maybe even the music your dad and you mom had on the turntable when you were conceived? Weren't they exactly the kind of rockstars - no, scratch that, not the "kind of" rockstars, the specific rockstars who had inspired such disdain and wrath from the first generation of punks? Weren't they obsessed with cocaine and infidelity and overdubs, all the worst excesses of the 1970s rolled up into one big ball along with a closet full of diaphanous scarves?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes, to all the above - Fleetwood Mac were terrible for all these reasons, but they were also something more.

When you look back and see Fleetwood Mac staring you down, you realize that you've never really listened to them. Oh, you've heard all the songs. Not a track off Rumours is new, they've all been done to death (well, maybe not "Oh Daddy"), played a million times on a thousand radio stations and heard in the soundtracks to a hundred movies. Hell, the President of the United States himself picked Fleetwood Mac for his own personal anthem. But even though you've heard it all before, you've never really heard it. There comes a time when you find yourself actually listening to the music, listening to the words, all the sounds you've heard on the radio for thirty-five years but never really understood. Maybe it'll be a rhythm - the way Mick Fleetwood and John McVie get intense in the last minute and a half of "The Chain." Or maybe it will be a voice - the way Christine McVie sounds more vulnerable on "Songbird" than you could ever imagine any human ever being. But something will happen and you will realize that there is depth far past the most obvious, easily dismissed surface surface charms. And you will realize that that "Don't Stop" is actually a monumentally grim song, a song about happiness sung from the position of people in the grip of tremendous depression in the here and now. Today is actually a pretty terrible proposition: "Why not think about times to come, / And not about the things that you've done . . ."

And then you hear "Go Your Own Way" and you realize that this is basically what every rock record for the last three decades has been trying to sound like. Did you ever really hear this song before? The way those drums come in with the acoustic guitar after the electric scratches out the opening chords, the way the acoustic guitar hits like percussion, the way the bassline carries the melody and the harmonies don't quite completely fit, but sound just slightly off and ragged enough to sell the song's urgency? Everything fits, everything counts: the tension in the verse building to the explosive bridge and chorus, the way the song somehow makes Buckingham's voice sound intimate even when it's raging in a tornado, the way it finally detonates when the acid guitar solo hits in the last minute - wait a minute, there's a guitar solo this angry in a Fleetwood Mac song? Where was my mind the last hundred times I heard this on the radio, that I'm just now hearing this?

It's simple, really: Fleetwood Mac were never complex songwriters. Their best material doesn't carry any kind of conceptual heft (Tusk notwithstanding), their lyrics were straightforward, their playing was - while accomplished and sophisticated - hardly ever idiosyncratic. All of the ingredients are there on the table for Fleetwood Mac to be the most awesomely generic rock band ever. And yet, and yet . . . together, they seem honest in a way that I don't think I ever really appreciated until this moment. "Honest" doesn't mean "authentic," this isn't about any kind of credibility. Fleetwood Mac don't have any credibility, despite the fact that their sound is all over contemporary indie rock (and I mean all over, as any examination of Pitchfork's end-of year lists for the last decade should provide ample evidence). They were too popular to ever really be cool, they made too much money, did too much coke, were just too damn pleased with themeselves in the flush of their success. They represented an ideal of mid-to-late 70s rock culture for punk in opposition to which punk crafted its own creation myth. Even though punk is far from the dominant sound in rock these days most rock is still created with punk as the default ideological stance, and there's no way a band like Fleetwood Mac can ever get past that historical bias.

The good news is that they don't need to. They sold some forty million copies of Rumours. That means they get to be the influence that no one wants to acknowledge - or, now that enough time has elapsed, they get to be the influence that everyone pats themselves on the back for thinking was cool when no one else did. The point is, they're always going to be there, and the reason why they're going to be remembered when similar mega-selling acts from the same era have faded to irrelevancy is that they're still pretty good. It's hard to move past the fact that every song on this damn album sounds as good as some bands entire careers. What they lacked in imagination they made up for in a maniacal attention to detail and a scrupulous willingness to sit in the studio and say the most hurtful things to one another with a tape recorder on. They're not reprehensibly smug like the Eagles or quite so dated as the (disco era) Bee Gees. Despite the fact that they were briefly the biggest rock band on the planet they still sound like basket cases. It's the precise combination of emotional brutality and studio shine that makes the album so fascinating.

It's the same reason why Let It Be isn't the best Beatles album but it's by far the saddest, you know? It's devastating.

There reached a point for me, while listening to "The Chain," where instead of just taking the song for granted as an FM radio staple I listened to the words, maybe for the first time. And what I heard was Buckingham saying, "And if you don't love me now / you will never love me again." And I realized that this wasn't the kind of sentiment a kid could sing. This was something only a full-grown adult could say and mean. It's a simple and direct statement of painful experience. It's a grown-up emotion. There's nothing about youth here - there's no youthful energy or spirit, no rebellion or even sex, no interesting metaphor or poetic imagery. This is music for mortgage payments and divorces, all those terrible quotidian things that aren't really very glamorous when you're fifteen but seem frightfully important when you're thirty. But that doesn't make it hurt any less - on the contrary, it hurts even more because it's that much harder to romanticize. When you're a kid you wonder how anyone could ever be so old as your parents, and then one day you stop to look and realize that you're as old, no, you're older than your parents were when you were born.

Listen to "You Make Loving Fun." I'm convinced that this is the lynch-pin for the album, even if it's not the one you hear more frequently on the radio. If you listen closely, you realize that, yes, like most of the album this is a remarkably sad song. But it also cuts to the heart of exactly why Rumours is such a strong album: it's a sad album written by a group of grown adults who are old enough to know better, but who nevertheless can't help but remain hopeful despite themselves. When Christine McVie sings, "I never did believe in miracles, / But I've a feeling it's time to try," she takes a few words that might in another context sound sad or even sardonic, and somehow manages to sell them as purely sweet. Put on the headphones and crank up the volume and you'll hear that the melody for this track isn't actually the guitar or even McVie's voice, it's the bassline, John McVie's loping bassline dancing around Fleetwood's crisp snares and serving as counterpoint to his ex-wife's singing. Buckingham and Nicks aren't even necessary for this song, if you edited out their harmonies and guitars and just kept the two McVies and Fleetwood, you'd still have the same song, a sad song sung by one of the most beautiful voices in rock history to her ex-husband and given rock-solid support by their best friend. Next to McVie's contributions, Nicks' two solo vocal outings ("Dreams" and the deathless "Gold Dust Woman") can't help but seem callow. Buckingham likewise, despite his later outsized contributions to the band, only contributes three solo compositions. It's McVie's album, really, she's just gracious enough to let the others tag along.

Rumours is an album for grown-ups, by grown-ups, about grown-ups. If you were in your early teens in 1964 when the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show, you were in your late twenties when Rumours hit the shelves. You had grown up with rock and roll, and to a degree rock and roll had grown up with you. And as far as that goes, Rumours was as real as it got: this was grown-up disappointments and heartbreak, love without lust and regret without the consolation of youth. But then, a reaction was not merely inevitable, it was necessary. I like to think of Rumours as the last album of the "classic" rock period (I guess you'd say rock's "Silver Age"), basically the end point of the narrative arc kick-started by the Beatles right after Kennedy was killed. (Remember, rock was already a dying fad in the States when "Please Please Me" hit the airwaves.) Rumours hit shelves on 4 February 1977. Two weeks later the Damned's Damned Damned Damned was released, on 18 February, and suddenly everything old was new again, and the old folks with their silver spoons and magic crystal visions were escorted off the stage, never to be cool again. I like the neatness represented by those numbers, and in my own mind that's how rock history should run: the final notes of "Gold Dust Woman" on the B-side of Rumours fading into the aggressive rumble of "Neat Neat Neat" on the A-side of the first actual punk LP (notwithstanding Ramones in 1976, an outlier if ever there was one). Given enough time the punks would produce their own Fleetwood Mac. All to the good.


DanielT said...

Enjoyed reading this as I rediscovered "Rumors" myself last year. I think you nailed it.

And I laughed out loud when I saw what "their own Fleetwood Mac" linked to.

Help the Aged said...

I'm not as familiar with Fleetwood Mac. I probably didn't know any of their songs until Clinton used them and the Smashing Pumpkins did that fantastic cover. I just always never like them by name. I don't know why other than classic rock is for old people, as you mentioned. (Give me more "Neat Neat Neat"!) But in the past year I find myself listening to the radio a lot during commutes and now and then some older songs kind of catch my ear and I am horrified when Shazam tells me it is Fleetwood Mac or a Stevie Nicks solo song. I don't know if my taste in music is growing crappier as I age (truly a horror movie if there ever was one) or if being middle-aged means shedding the arrogance of the youth who dismisses things without ever getting to know it.