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Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours At 40: Heartbreak And Magic

Revisiting the classic 1977 album’s peak drama and incomplete endings

When I was fresh into my twenties, a pal of mine moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend. Our friend group thought she was wonderful, but we still had our concerns, not all of them tied to the fact that he was splitting from our established post-college, pre-adult house and leaving his portion of the rent uncovered. The concept was entirely foreign to me: I hadn’t yet loved anyone enough to want to share a space with them that wasn’t temporary and, perhaps, quickly forgotten. The shared machinery of love and trust has many parts and many flaws, and therefore many opportunities for disaster. At the time, it all existed on too thin a ledge for me to imagine walking.

When my friend and his girlfriend broke up three months into the lease, they stayed in the apartment together. Breaking the lease was too expensive, as was one of them taking on the rent alone. It also seemed that there was something about remaining inside of the wreckage that was more seductive than pushing one’s way out of it alone. It seemed, at the time, like stubbornness, but really it was a judgment call: If I can carry with me the destruction of something that I once loved, isn’t it like I still have a companion? The summer of the breakup, my friend would stay at our house late, making sure he could get home after his now ex-girlfriend fell asleep. They would avoid each other in the mornings, one sleeping on a tiny couch in the living room. Though it seemed like an absolute nightmare to me then, I remember both of them on the day we helped move them out of the apartment, as sad as I’d seen them in any of the months before. There are endings, and then there are endings.

In this way, heartbreak is akin to a brief and jarring madness. Keeping up the fight in order to not have to reckon with your own sorrow isn’t ideal, but it might help to keep a familiar voice in your ears a bit longer than letting go would. Heartbreak is one of the many emotions that sits inside the long arms of sadness, a mother with many children. I suppose it isn’t all bad, either. For example, right now I am heartbroken at the state of the world, so I take to the streets again. But the real work of the emotion happens beneath the surface. When the room you once shared with someone goes quiet, there are few good ideas. I have gutted a record collection because too many of the songs reminded me of someone I didn’t want to be reminded of. My friends have fled jobs, bands, states. I don’t enjoy being heartbroken, but I might enjoy the point in heartbreak at which we convince ourselves that literally everything is on the table, and run into whatever will dull the sharp echoing for a night, or a week, until that week becomes a year. It is the madness that both seduces and offers you your own window out once it’s done with you.

At some point, a person figured out that the performance of sadness holds value, and art has bowed at its altar ever since. Sometimes it’s a game we play: If I can convince you that I am falling apart, or in need of love, then perhaps I can draw you close enough to tell you what I really need. Other times, it is not entirely performance. In 1976, Fleetwood Mac were in desperate need of a hit to cement their shift from second-string blues-rock band to pop giants. Mick Fleetwood had higher aspirations than kicking around small clubs, and could sense the band’s time running out. Its previous album, 1975’s self-titled effort, was the first with California duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in the band. Containing songs like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide,” now seen as Nicks’s signature tune, the album saw success, paving the way for a monster follow-up.

But in the two years that followed, everything began to come apart. Here is the part everyone knows: First, bassist John McVie and keyboardist-vocalist-songwriter Christine McVie divorced at the end of a tour after eight years of marriage. Then Buckingham and Nicks, embroiled in a volatile on-again, off-again relationship since before joining the band, finally turned it off, which didn’t reduce any of the volatility. The press, catching wind of what was believed to be the band’s collapse, circulated inaccurate stories. In reality, the band was breaking apart, but not broken up. When the spring of 1976 came, they retreated to a recording studio in California. No longer at the edge of chaos, they fully immersed themselves in it.

The lyric that opens Rumours — the band’s most iconic album, released 40 years ago this week — is Lindsey Buckingham’s. “I know there’s nothing to say / Someone has taken my place,” he sings, and just like that, the tone is set. There are few lyrics that set an album’s tone like this one, and few songs. Nicks’s vocals weave in to clash with Buckingham’s in the verses, littered with bitter proclamations. What sells Rumours as more than just high drama spun out on record is the clean brilliance of its pop leanings. While their previous album felt like a blues-ish band trying on some new clothes (which it was), Rumours was the sound of the band fully committed to its new role as a pop act, playing the game and aiming for the charts. The collaborative spirit of Buckingham and Nicks, even fractured, played into this more than anything else. Taking on the bulk of the album’s writing and vocal duties, they fashioned a dual tone: Nicks, both remorseful and hopeful on “Dreams,” with Buckingham angry and spiteful all the way through the album, most impressively on “Go Your Own Way.” Even beyond this, the album's most interesting character, in some ways, is John McVie. He was the band’s most private and reserved member, and didn’t provide lead vocals on any song. This meant that the narrative of his failing marriage could only play out on record through Christine, the most brilliant and stunning example being “You Make Loving Fun,” an ode to an affair she’d had. She told John at the time that the song was about a new dog. It’s hard to ignore that the women made Rumours exciting. Christine McVie wasn’t as flashy as Nicks, but her familiarity and comfort within the band, paired with her and Buckingham’s musical rapport, allowed space for her to emote with ease and nuance. In comparison, she often made Buckingham sound like he was having a frantic, exceptionally skilled temper tantrum.

These are the politics of splitting apart: We run to our friends and tell them the version of the story that will ignite in them a desire to support our latest bit of grief. It becomes a bit tastier, of course, if your friends are millions of pop fans. If, in the telling of your heartbreak, you have to share a microphone with the person who broke your heart. If, perhaps, the drugs wore off just in time for you to remember watching your ex-partner go home with someone else the night before. This is what’s so fascinating and slightly troubling about the dynamic between Buckingham and Nicks: Rumours sounds like a real-time plea to see which of them could come out of the breakup more adored than they were inside of the relationship. Buckingham lost, and, really, he didn’t stand much of a chance. Nicks, gifted, charming, and singular, was the greatest and most fully developed character in the album’s soap opera, despite taking solo lead vocals on only two songs. But the album’s unique appeal goes beyond winners and losers. For the voyeur who prefers public collapse, there is no better combination than someone who is both sad and willing to lie to themselves about it.

Without a healthy investment in the art of denial, Rumours wouldn’t work. Only denial of an emotional desire for escape could lead a band to complete an album when, at its worst moments, its members were unable to talk to each other without screaming. In one of the rooms in the Sausalito studio where the album was recorded, there were no windows. Mick Fleetwood, after a few weeks of recording, removed all of the clocks from the walls. When there is no image of time to make stand still, everything can become a type of stillness. The album represents the sound of ’70s excess at every turn, asking the band how much of the process and all of its demons it could take into itself. It all spoke to the band’s interest in self-torture for the sake of Mick Fleetwood’s mission, his desire to make The Great American Pop Album at all costs, even if Fleetwood Mac had to be held together by cocaine and scotch tape.

“The Chain,” the album’s centerpiece, is haunting, angry, teeming with regret and disgust. It is the whole of the album, condensed into just four and a half minutes. It was crafted largely in separate rooms, pieced together with past parts of old songs. It churns along painfully, driven by a McVie bass riff that sounds like a caged thing finally coming to terms with its surroundings. On the song, Buckingham and Nicks engage in a tug-of-war on the chorus — “If you don’t love me now / You will never love me again” — and they sound like they are shouting at each other from across the studio. It is the one song on the album that makes me feel like something could be broken at any moment. It is the song that you play for someone when they ask you what the fuss behind Rumours is about. It is the entire emotional cycle of dissolution, peaking at the end of the song with the band singing, “Chain, keep us together” in unison, more as a plea than anything else.

It helps to think about Rumours as not just an album, but a living document. Once you push past the theatrics of it, the massive album sales and the thrilling gossip, it is a deeply sad project. Yes, it was such a hit that it afforded the band an ability to take risks in coming years, most notably with Tusk, the exciting Buckingham passion project that followed Rumours in 1979. But it is still an incredibly sad album. It reflects the human conflict of leaving and not leaving and trying to find some small mercy in the face of something that has left you briefly torn apart. The songs are perfect, drenched so richly in the late-’70s California aesthetic that, for a moment, you might even forget the conflicts that produced them. For anyone who has ever loved someone and then stopped loving them, or for anyone who has stopped being loved by someone, it’s a reminder that the immediate exit can be the hardest part. Admitting the end is one thing, but making the decision to fully break ties is another, particularly when an option to remain tethered can mean cheaper rent, or a hit album, or, at the very least, a small and tense place where you can go to turn your sadness into something more than sadness. It’s all so immovable, our endless need for someone to desire us enough to keep us around. To simply call Rumours a breakup album doesn’t do it justice. Most breakup albums have an end point — some triumph, a reward or promise about how some supposed emotional resilience might pay off. Rumours is an album of continual, slow breaking.

My favorite photo of the band from the Rumors era was taken by Annie Leibovitz for the March 24, 1977, Rolling Stone cover, a month or so after the album was released. The band is sprawled on a queen mattress that is resting on the floor, a single sheet covering most of the group. Mick Fleetwood is the glue in the middle, his long limbs stretching from the top of the mattress to the bottom. Buckingham has Christine McVie in his arms, a hand in her hair. Christine’s hand is outstretched, reaching over to touch Fleetwood’s foot. Nicks is resting on Fleetwood’s bare chest, her legs draped over John McVie’s stomach. John McVie is unbothered, reading a magazine. The joke is that they were always too connected to let each other go so easily. I like to think of this as the great lesson hiding in Rumours: There are people we need so much that we can’t imagine turning away from them, people we’ve built entire homes inside of ourselves for that cannot stand empty, people who we still find a way to make magic with, even when the lights flicker and the love runs entirely out.