Fleetwood Mac embodied the high gloss, tube-topped reality of the late ’70s like few others. Equal parts British blues rockers, folkie bohemians and thick South California soft-pop harmonies, they crafted a songbook rife with strife, long on eroticism and charged by the cocaine-fueled reality of the era. Post-disco, it was the illusion of earthy, mystical post-hippie magic, the return of electric guitars and rhythm sections that echoed.
Ironically, it was the merger of two Northern California dreamers—Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks—that provided the solid rhythm section of Britain’s ferocious Mick Fleetwood on drums, velvety vocalist/B-3/pianist Christine McVie and melody-driven bassist John McVie the catalyst for superstardom. Aggressive playing, pop-inflected melodies and sexual frisson ignited rock that was palatable in the malls as well as back rooms, yet some of pre-Buckingham/Nicks songs remain pivotal in the catalogue.
And what a catalogue! The self-titled “white album” lead to the 45-million selling Rumours—inescapable for a period of almost three years. They followed with the progressive, challenging two-record set Tusk, the more conventional Tango in the Night and Mirage. When Bill Clinton made his ran at the White House, it was “Don’t Stop” that fired up his team; for his Inauguration, the band reunited to play.
Here are the 20 best songs from Fleetwood Mac:
In some ways, it felt a little like “Stevie does Stevie,” but it’s hard to argue with the free-spirited declaration of self. For Fleetwood Mac, the other side of Southern California’s “peaceful easy feeling,” this was the Bohemian manifesto of sparkle, sunshine, chiffon and wanderlust on a cloud of creamy synthesizers from Christine McVie—with a confectionary video that was every hippie girl’s dazzling fantasy embodied by Stevie Nicks in full regalia.
(Then Play On)
People forget that the Mighty Mac started as a British blues band, mining the roots and creating an electric homage a la Led Zeppelin or the Yardbirds. To understand the toppling rhythms that drove latter versions, start with Peter Green yowling about sex and masturbation and Mick Fleetwood brings those sticks down hard and John McVie undulates with a melodic sense that underscores the potency of the beat. (And Playboy founder Hugh Hefner with “Hee Haw” Honey girlfriend Barbi Benton adds a nice flourish)
When “the White Album”—as it was known among Mac fans—was released, “Over My Head” seemed to be the track people watched. A jangling bit of satiny desire, the notion of surrendering to want and savoring what was there was driven by Christine McVie’s warm alto and steamy B-3, but also given heft from then-husband John McVie’s bass and brand new Lindsey Buckingham’s electric guitar embellishments.
(Who’s the New Girl?)
Having just joined the band, Lindsey Buckingham figured out how to bridge the realm of Brit blues and the more euphoric rock/pop he and paramour Stevie Nicks had been making on their own. This kiss-off, rendered with a bit of ’50s pop urgency and a lacerating guitar part, foreshadowed the turmoil that defined Mac’s Rumours; but in the moment, it was a hard-charging feel-good “eff you” that had just enough teeth and a blistering guitar solo to make the Mac’s most successful line-up more than spacy hippies.
The vitrol of betrayal drips from this track, stretched over Fleetwood’s percussive bed like some gothic torture chamber. As an entire band imploded under drugs, booze, hubris and the romantic uncouplings of the McVies and Buckingham-Nicks, this raw three-part vocal harmony, circular and in unison, against a stark track is staggering in its delineation of the promise made—and broken, the disorientation of what’s happened and the resolve of acrimony in the wake of it all. Built on a vacillating guitar part, that like tortured grief never crescendos or abates, the tension ratchets up to what becomes a tour du force jamslam between Buckingham, McVie and Fleetwood.
Tusk was the experiment that failed, yet several ambitious tracks emerged and sustained. “Sisters of the Moon,” with its creepy minor key, solidified Nicks’ witch status, the queen of the occult, the night things, the spells and conjurings. With Fleetwood’s big bass drum thumping, the tale of spells and the woman who casts them—as well as a Heathcliffian romantic suggestion—made this a crowd favorite long before it found a place on an album, and offered a rock surge amongst the increasingly Top 40 fare the band was becoming known for.
(Mystery To Me)
A hypnotic saunter from the late Bob Welch, the hush and the light jazz beat conspires with Welch’s dusky vocal to create the sort of demi-story narrative that would become a trademark. But here, it’s just soft-rock with the tension of Welch’s guitar plucking notes and short runs over Fleetwood’s gently pushing rim work. As much a spell as anything Nicks’ ever conjured.
The barnyard chicken scratch moment of Mac’s emergence, as Buckingham finds his hillbilly etching tools for this love-who-you-can-where-you-are-right-now torch cry from former Chickenshack anchor Christine Perfect McVie. The sweeping siren call of want amongst the demands and indifference gave Fleetwood Mac a certain brio, the notion of hair out of place, bodily fluids surging and the will to push the moment to a more carnal solution delivered a grittiness of rock’n’roll authenticity that endures.
The drugs were becoming a problem, as were the internal crises. Again, Fleetwood with a cowbell and sticks on the rim and Buckingham’s serpentine electric guitar—that would flange into pools of quaver as punctuation—cast a spell for Nicks’ harrowing portrait of the wages of morning afters, vampire coke whores and the ravages of realizing the cost of empty encountering. Throatily, she cautions, “lousy lovers pick their prey, but they never cry out loud” and “rulers make bad lovers, you better put your kingdom up for sale”—two enjoinders destined to be carved into notebooks well into the ’90s.
Released as a single from Bare Trees, the desired effect was stalled until Bob Welch made his solo French Kiss, brought Christine McVie into sing—and had Fleetwood help create a spine for one of the ’80s biggest AC smashes. A descending melody line and bland homage to a woman seems out of place in the Mac’s charged narrative, but not when the band released it in 1972.
Taut, resigned neorosis, Buckingham’s guitar part blisters with a breakdown that outstrips even the strain in his voice. Was it fear of not making it (after Buckingham-Nicks’ failure)? Romantic omniscience of a bad end? Does it matter? To hear something so loaded with terror was its own reward.
( Rumours )
Christine McVie’s prayerful benediction—that closed Rumours’ psychological meltdown—offered a balmy refuge after all the sturm und drang. Mostly quiet and spent, the good wish rose on McVie’s alto and light piano chording. It endures as the supergroup’s set closer for years.
Again, McVie with that smoky alto has the gently rollicking come on of all time. As feathered hair and lip gloss defined the age, this was the get out of jail free card for the post-disco apocalypse. Rolling, tumbling, foaming and just the kind of feel-good bromide that made the late ‘70s hedonism so sparklingly and disposable.
Teenage girls have been in swoon since 1975 for the quiet little ballad with the natural imagery and Nicks’ throaty musings about her place in the world. Later exhumed and taken to the top of the country charts by the Dixie Chicks, “Landslide” was a downy offering of self, hope and romantic love, wrapped in acoustic guitar and not much else.
Nothing like the USC Marching Band to suggest big, brassy things in the sway; for the double-album follow-up to the 45-million seller Rumours, Fleetwood made marching bands central to the mix. Rhythmically propulsive, with a drone vocal from Buckingham and the blaring of trombones, tubas and trumpets, the Mac suggested nothing was beyond their solid platinum purview—and odd as it was, this song found the top of the Top charts.
Rumours’ first single bristled acrimony, as Buckingham seethed his way through his own personal declaration of “get out.” Like so many songs on Grammy winner for Album of the Year, this was a charged performance that seemed to fly off the vinyl—and the guitar part was a psychotic dervish of rage, frustration and desperation. For Buckingham, whose words fell like fists, it was the guitar that splintered the single, making pop radio a much rockier place to be!
(Then Play On)
The Riff Hall of Fame would most certainly have this lick, perhaps even more iconic than Peter Green’s lyric of disgust and disengagement. Again, working from a blues motif, the 1969 release has remained a potent piece of Mac’s legacy for the pitching and lurching feeling, the bare arrangement and the notion that for all that’s not right, your opinion is of little to no interest. What better rallying cry than “I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin?” Indeed.
When the swell hit car radios in 1976, the notion the song was about a Welsh witch never occurred to most. The undulating song delivered in a coppery vibrato swept you up in the rhythm section’s push and the cascading guitar work of Buckingham. Yet Nicks hit a nerve—the very nerve that made her a deity to the people writing and producing “Coven”—with the fraught tale that dissolves into a Giselle or Mad Woman of Chaillot vocal vampage that torques, builds and eventually dissolves into a narcotic over and over of “Dreams unwind / Love’s a state of mind.”
In spite of the (melo)drama and stridence amongst the McVies, Fleetwood, Buckingham and Nicks, Fleetwood Mac refused to relinquish all hope. The bouncy “Don’t Stop” suggested no matter how dire things were, chin up, gaze to the horizon. Another idyllic midtempo rocker that sounded like cotton candy, McVie’s claret-stained tone offered a musical “You can do it” that gave the Me Generation a reason to believe. Indeed, that anthem fueled the Clinton Administration’s unlikely campaign—and his inaugural remains the reason the band got back together after many years estrangement.
Nothing kept time with your windshield wipers like “Dreams,” Stevie Nicks’ scales of loss and cost in the romantic scrimmages that marked Rumours. Fleetwood’s drums beating like a heart, the forlorn swelled up, the electric guitar notes fell like tears and Nicks’ voice rose to take her lament heavenward. If “players only love you when they’re playing,” Nicks understood that heartbreak rendered over a soft focus melody is the most universal feeling of all. If she was not the queen of broken hearts before this song was released as a single, she was rock’s romantic pin-up girl of romantic yearning when it was done—and Fleetwood Mac became the intersection point of introspection and good-times for the next several generations.