Rampaging commercial success will not earn an artist the acceptance of the wider rock fraternity. Music fans can be more than a little sniffy. The second a band breaks through the glass celling and becomes a pop culture staple, eyebrows arch and scepticism takes hold. It’s a bizarre phenomenon but one that every music fan can recognize. There is no magic formula to earn credibility and kudos. Every critic in the land can fall in line and exalt an artist’s latest work, but it won’t stop the second-guessing and it won’t make you cool.
Fleetwood Mac represent the ultimate contradiction. When they ditched the trappings of blues-rock and embraced folk-pop they became the biggest band in the world. The critics adore Rumours and the public grabbed copies in their millions - but the Mac were never cool. Indulgent, genteel, and contrived, to their adversaries Fleetwood Mac were regressive and safe when music was at its madcap revolutionary best. Lindsay Buckingham was never on trend as far as guitarists were concerned - he chose to askew his considerable technical talents in favour of chart friendly sheen.
Fleetwood Mac’s guilty pleasure status has only grown with age. Chatting with young rock fans at Sonisphere Festival 2010 about the best live bands they’d seen in the last year, it was amusing to witness a fan try and couch his enjoyment at seeing Fleetwood Mac live. After a minute of mumbling hedges (“Well they’re not my kind of thing”, “Of course I didn’t expect to enjoy it”) he meekly came to the conclusion, in hushed tones, that “you know, when they played “The Chain” and really got going, they’re pretty good…if you like that sort of thing”.
It was truly astounding, not the length this one rock fan went to hide his clear admiration for the Mac, but the fact that he had to hide it in the first place. This was a Festival that featured prominent performances by the likes of Europe and Motley Crue, and the gent in question was wearing a Whitesnake tee! Surely if hair metal has been redeemed to the point where hardened rock fans will proudly don the garb of their poodle haired icons, it should be socially acceptable to admit that “you know, Fleetwood Mac are kind of alright”.
Perhaps the time is now. Fleetwood Mac have reformed with more fanfare than either their 2004 or 2009 sojourns and Rumours has been reissued to ravenous reviews. Even Pitchfork, the hipster bible which historically avoids dolling out top marks to even the most highly regarded middle of the road releases (see The Joshua Tree), took the plunge and gave Rumours a perfect 10. The fans are certainly excited, selling out a mammoth arena tour and forcing the band to add two extra dates in London. It’s self-evident: Fleetwood Mac are still relevant.
But if the band have always been this beloved, it begs the question…
Victims of circumstance: the injection of pop songsmiths Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1975 happened to coincide with one of the most revolutionary periods in pop music history. New genres and new sounds were being invented on a monthly basis and if the 70s could be distilled down into one succinct musical motto it would read: never look back.
David Bowie encapsulated this sense of experimentation as he ditched twee mod-pop, rushed through psychedelic isolation, mastered glam, went crazy on cocaine and released two Krautrock masterpieces in the space of seven short years.
Consider the breadth of innovation in the years when Fleetwood Mac released their best work – look at how dramatically music was evolving with each passing year:
1975 (Fleetwood Mac): Blood On The Tracks (Bob Dylan), Psychical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin), Blow By Blow (Jeff Beck), Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd), Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen), A Night At The Opera (Queen), Horses (Patti Smith), Another Green World (Brian Eno), Captain Fantastic… (Elton John), Neu ’75 (Neu!), Mothership Connection (Parliament), Ted Nugent (Ted Nugent)
1977 (Rumours): Marquee Moon (Television), Never Mind The Bollocks (The Sex Pistols), Low & Heroes (David Bowie), Animals (Pink Floyd), The Clash (The Clash), Exodus (Bob Marley), My Aim Is True (Elvis Costello), Bat Out Of Hell (Meatloaf), Trans-Europe Express (Kraftwerk), Rocket To Russia (The Ramones), Pink Flag (Wire), Talking Heads 77 (Talking Heads), The Idiot (Iggy Pop), The Heart Of The Congos (The Congos), Saturday Night Fever (The Beegees)
1979 (Tusk): London Calling (The Clash), Unknown Pleasures (Joy Division), Highway To Hell (AC/DC), The Wall (Pink Floyd), Entertainment (Gang Of Four), Off The Wall (Michael Jackson), Specials (The Specials), Metal Box (PIL), Singles Going Steady (The Buzzocks), Y (The Pop Group), Three Imaginary Boys (The Cure), 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Throbbing Gristle)
In four years the music world went from the height of excess back to its barest punk bones and came out the other side with a desire to rip it up and start again. By comparison the latter-day Fleetwood Mac feel cosy. When the rock world was living life on the edge, they occupied the middle ground, recreating the easy life aesthetic of the Californian pop maestros (albeit with the help of a boat load of cocaine).
But it’s 2013! Kraftwerk and The Clash are classic rock, and all that progression is ancient history…it’s time to ask the immortal question:
Revisiting the three classic albums of the Nicks/Buckingham era with fresh ears is next to impossible. The bizzarest aspect of listening to Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk is how unnervingly familiar the first two records sound. The hits are unavoidable of course, “Dreams” remains seductive and “Go Your Own Way” is an eternal toe tapper, but the albums (particularly Rumours) have been absorbed so thoroughly into the popular consciousness that every hook, harmony and sly riff is already buried in the deepest recesses of your mind.
Listening to Rumours is simply the trigger device. A signal is unleashed; a little microchip goes off in the back of your brain instantly alerting you to the Mac’s entire oeuvre. The sound of this album (which was already steeped in pop culture familiarity) has gone on to inform three further generations of radio rock and pristine pop.
This certainly doesn’t help “Don’t Stop”, or “Second Hand News” (with its nauseating bow-bow-bow adlibs), sound exhilarating in 2013. The thrill of discovery is rendered null and void by decades of pre-conditioning, but thankfully the highly touted tension remains in tact.
To the unconverted the endless discussion of the fraught Nicks/Buckingham relationship adds little depth to the music. Hearing “Go Your Own Way” on the radio is like sitting in on an episode of a soap opera that you’re not remotely invested in. Rumours brings the outsider up to speed in an instant as heart-breaking scorn, revengeful lyrics, and biting personal critiques are stacked curtly atop one another. It’s a bruising emotional affair. Neither party manages to land the knock out punch and both Buckingham and Nicks emerge the worse for wear.
Tusk, the much-derided flop of a follow up to Rumours, holds the most excitement for the intrigued newcomer. It’s still entirely off its rocker and thankfully it hasn’t been watered down by years of radio play. Tusk retains the capacity to astonish and had it been a commercial success, it would have been a daring triumph of weird progressive pop. Buckingham’s million pound pet project holds some of the band’s most austere ballads (“Never Make Me Cry”) and delicately crafted gems (“Storms”), but also their barmiest inventions and loosest playing.
Tusk is full of detours; mad country marches, explorations of new wave, and strange predictions of what pop might (and ultimately would) sound like in the next decade. It’s Fleetwood Mac’s cocaine record. It lurches from moments of despair and paranoid lethargy into explosive bursts of unfettered energy. Where Rumours sounded effortless, Tusk sounds on edge; it could careen off the rails at any point (and arguably does, repeatedly). If “Strawberry Fields Forever” nailed the mind altering allure of LSD then “Tusk” captures the skittish, near psychopathic, blend of paranoia and frustration that only cocaine and heartache can induce. Hardly easy listening.
Ultimately, Tusk represents a chance for the modern guitar rock fan to hear those mellifluous harmonies and slick riffs in a new context. Allowing a younger audience to understand the band’s brilliance without being burdened by the sheer familiarity of Rumours.
Will Fleetwood Mac ever be as cool or as socially acceptable as Jimi Hendrix? Probably not (just look at them), but in 2013 it’s time rock fans dropped their pretentions, fell in love with the precision-engineered arrangements of Rumours and embraced the insanity of Tusk.
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