Can You Make History Without Innovating a New Style? A Case for Fleetwood Mac

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Can You Make History Without Innovating a New Style? A Case for Fleetwood Mac

Between 1975 and 1979, when Fleetwood Mac released its blockbuster trilogy of Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk, it was the best-selling rock band in the world—and plausibly the best as well. But it was a strange kind of greatness. Unlike, say, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Prince or Nirvana, the members of Fleetwood Mac were not great innovators. They were synthesists. They took other people’s breakthroughs and integrated them into a kind of pop perfection that proved irresistible.

That leaves Fleetwood Mac with an ambiguous position in pop-music history, which is usually told as a series of conceptual breakthroughs. If you didn’t come up with a new sound but merely made the best music of your era, how do you fit into that story? More often than not, you don’t. Music historians, it turns out, are as obsessed with novelty as ninth graders trying to prove their hip credentials.

But maybe history shouldn’t be told as a sequence of innovative ideas; perhaps it should be told as a mountain range of emotional peaks. After all, we listen to pop music not for its hypotheses but for its passion. And Fleetwood Mac and Rumours gave romantic crises the melodic shape and rhythmic momentum every listener craves.

Like the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac contained the incredible surplus of three major singer/songwriters in one band—a feat subsequently duplicated only by the 2001-2007 Drive-By Truckers. Fleetwood Mac pursued Paul McCartney’s obsession with Brian Wilson to its logical conclusion as a melding of British pub rhythm and Pacific Ocean reverie. Moreover, Fleetwood Mac took the West Coast male/female vocal blend of the Mamas and Papas, Jefferson Airplane and Sly & the Family Stone, and raised it to a whole other level.

Those two albums provided a climax to that Beatlesque pop-rock sound. And when the punk/new wave revolution came along, what did Fleetwood Mac do? They synthesized once again. Lindsey Buckingham cherry-picked the elements he liked (mostly the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello) and wove those strands into the existing Fleetwood Mac sound to create Tusk. Once again the group wasn’t coming up with new ideas; they were just applying the latest trends better than almost anyone else.

Tusk, however, contained the seeds of Fleetwood Mac’s decline. Stevie Nicks had become the group’s most popular and least creative member. Nicks has always been the best singer and most charismatic presence Fleetwood Mac has ever had, and on Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, she wrote some undeniably great songs: “Rhiannon,” “Landslide” and “Gold Dust Woman.” But she began to believe her own press releases and began to focus so much on her mystical, white-witch persona that she stopped writing memorable melodies or lyrics. All the weakest songs on Tusk came from her pen.

That leaves Fleetwood Mac with an ambiguous position in pop-music history, which is usually told as a series of conceptual breakthroughs. If you didn’t come up with a new sound but merely made the best music of your era, how do you fit into that story? More often than not, you don’t.

And yet, even as her creative powers waned, her popularity soared. She was the only one of the five members to translate the band’s success into a thriving solo career. The solo projects from Buckingham and Christine McVie were better listens than Nicks’ efforts, but suffered much lower sales. As a result, commercial logic demanded that each succeeding Fleetwood Mac record should include as many Nicks songs as possible, no matter what their quality. This formula bogged down 1982’s Mirage and 1987’s Tango in the Night, obscuring some fine work by Buckingham and Christine McVie.

This spring Warner Bros. reissued Tango in the Night as a box set including three CDs, a DVD and a vinyl LP. Included is the newly remastered original album, supplemented by demos, B-sides, 12-inch remixes and promotional videos. The project began as a Buckingham solo album, and he dominates the proceedings, for he wrote or co-wrote seven of the 12 songs and co-produced everything with Richard Dashut. Nicks was such an infrequent visitor to the sessions that Buckingham sometimes resorted to speeded-up tapes of his own singing to fill in Nicks’ slots in the harmonies. Nonetheless, she contributed her best song in years: the torch ballad “When I See You Again.”

The production has the spare, new-wave sound that Buckingham had used on Tusk, though the songs weren’t quite as strong this time around. The new box set’s disc of “Demos, Alternates & B-Sides,” though, reveals that at least three of the seven songs left off the album—especially Buckingham’s “Down Endless Street”—are better than some of what was included. The biggest hit singles were Buckingham’s “Big Love” and McVie’s “Little Lies” and “Everywhere.”

Though Nicks and Buckingham are the most identifiable faces of Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie may best represent the band. There is nothing the least bit innovative about her; she just has a knack for crafting jewel-like pop singles better than nearly everyone else. If Nicks was the sorceress in the spotlight and Buckingham the mad scientist in the laboratory, McVie was the unassuming lady next door who happened to have a genius for pop hooks—Elton John without the jester costumes, Richard Rodgers without the banker’s suit.

McVie and Buckingham co-wrote three songs on Tango in the Night (and one of the better unreleased outtakes), and she has often credited the guitarist for adding the crucial polish to her pop gems. So it makes sense for the two collaborators to at long last make a duo album: this month’s Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie. Drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (Christine’s ex-husband) join in on some tracks, making this a Fleetwood Mac project in all but name.

Read Paste’s review of Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie here.

It began as a Buckingham solo outing. When Fleetwood and the two McVies joined in, it could have been a Fleetwood Mac album, but when Nicks opted out to work on a solo project, it became a duo record. Maybe it’s because they never had a romantic relationship, maybe it’s because they’re the only musicians in Fleetwood Mac that play chording instruments, but Buckingham, 67, and Christine McVie, 73, seem to work easily together. That compatibility has resulted in a more cohesive album than any Fleetwood Mac project since Rumours.

It also results in a placidity that lacks the raw drama of their younger selves. Ah, but the tunes are to die for. Handsomely framed by Buckingham’s guitar arpeggios and stacked riffs, these songs boast verse melodies that are better than most songwriters’ chorus hooks—and the duo’s refrains are even better than that. One would be foolish to deny the pure pop pleasure of songs such as his “Love Is Here to Stay,” her “Game of Pretend” and their “Feel About You.”

Fleetwood Mac often played the Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter” in concert; McVie dated Dennis Wilson for a while, and Buckingham co-wrote a song with Brian Wilson (“He Couldn’t Get His Poor Old Body to Move,” the B-side of “Love & Mercy”). So they have a strong Beach Boys connection, which comes through in the swooning melodies and ingenious studio production. But as with the Beach Boys, the lyrics are often a problem. Even a song as catchy as “Sleeping Around the Corner” is diminished by lyrics as bad as “Lord I don’t want to bring you down/No, I never meant to give you a frown.”

If Fleetwood Mac marked the apotheosis of McCartney/Wilson pop-rock, why don’t they occupy a larger space in pop-music history? Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to find traces of their influence in the rock ‘n’ roll that followed. As rock veered leftward into post-punk, grunge and indie-rock, Fleetwood Mac soon seemed quaintly irrelevant. Their most blatant imitators such as Firefall and Quarterflash were quickly forgotten, and their more capable heirs such as Sheryl Crow (once seriously considered as a replacement for Nicks in the band) and Jenny Lewis were less than earth-shattering. How can you be considered a crucial part of history if there’s so little evidence of your impact?

In fact, Fleetwood Mac did have a huge impact, just not in rock ‘n’ roll. As country radio abandoned traditional country in the ‘90s and embraced the arena-pop-rock of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac became the format’s two biggest role models. This made sense with the Eagles, who always worked with an obvious country flavor, but Fleetwood Mac had no obvious ties to hillbilly music. But that was okay; neither did hot-country radio. While the male hat acts of the ‘90s and ‘00s imitated the Eagles, the women looked to Fleetwood Mac. This was made explicit when the Dixie Chicks had a No. 2 country hit with a cover of “Landslide” at the end of 2002, just before Natalie Maines got a bit too honest about George W. Bush the following March.

As the Chicks were unofficially blacklisted from country radio, a whole slew of new groups jumped into the void to double down on the Fleetwood Mac approach to country. Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, the Band Perry and Little Big Town were the most successful of these Mac-country entrants. They all adhered to the same formula: pop-rock hooks wrapped in Southern California harmonies executed by a blend of male and female voices backed by a classic-rock rhythm section. And it worked: all four bands racked up both hits and awards.

There was a problem, though. None of these bands boasted songwriters as talented as Buckingham, McVie and the early Nicks, nor did most of them display the good taste in outside writers that the Dixie Chicks and their producer Lloyd Maines consistently demonstrated. As a result, Sugarland and Lady Antebellum often sounded pompous and calculating, more like Pat Benatar or the Jefferson Starship than Fleetwood Mac. The Band Perry got off to a good start, delivering a good imitation of the early Nicks on their first two albums, but then followed Nicks into bloated self-mythology and tuneless songwriting.

The only one of these post-Dixie Chick bands to turn in consistently respectable work has been Little Big Town. Their latest release, The Breaker, may well be the best Fleetwood Mac album of this decade. The four members (Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook) are fabulous singers but not major songwriters, so they have the good sense to rely on outside material. One of their admirers, Taylor Swift, gave them a terrific unreleased song about a romantic break-up, “Better Man,” which Fairchild fills with all the anger and regret one ex-lover can have for another.

Just as good are the six songs written or co-written by two of Nashville’s smartest writers: Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby. These numbers have the skillful lyrics and narrative drama that are missing from Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie—and from the cloyingly calculated Heartbreak, newly released by Lady Antebellum. When Little Big Town adds its sumptuous harmonies to Fairchild’s compelling lead vocals on the anti-consumerist message of “Free” and the mortality fears of “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” you can hear the clear echoes of Fleetwood Mac and their underappreciated impact on pop music today.

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