In the latest in our series exploring classic albums from decades past, we reflect on one of the most beloved and influential releases of the past 50 years – a soft rock masterpiece fuelled by heartacheTags: Music,
“Fleetwood Mac had this reputation for being ‘easy listening’. I would say they were really great at uneasy listening.” This apt description from Rolling Stone magazine’s David Wild captures the tension and drama at the heart of Fleetwood Mac’s iconic album, Rumours. Released 46 years ago, it is one of the silkiest sounding soft rock works of the 1970s, yet its lyrics speak of sadness, conflict and heartache, reflecting a fraught and tumultuous period in the lives of its creators.
Rumours was recorded over several months of intense 24-hour sessions, most of which took place at the Record Plant in Los Angeles and the Criteria in Miami between February and August 1976. During this time, the band members’ relationships were falling apart: John and Christine McVie’s marriage was breaking down, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were splitting up, and Mick Fleetwood’s relationship with someone not in the band had ended due to his alcohol addiction.
“The playing is outstanding … and Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks’ terrific vocals infuse the album with the perfect folksy, bluesy feel”
Ironically it was this destructive energy that fuelled the often-brilliant songwriting on Rumours. On the surface, the album sounds like the epitome of mid-70s, Californian soft rock – smoother even than The Eagles’ Hotel California, which it knocked off the number one spot in the US Billboard album charts. It is beautifully recorded, thanks to the analogue technology of the time reaching something approaching its apex. The playing is outstanding, the culmination
of performing together in one guise or another for over ten years, and Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks’ terrific vocals infuse the album with the perfect folksy, bluesy feel. It’s surely the greatest so-called adult-oriented rock (AOR) album ever made, with one of the most famous origin stories.
Released on February 4, 1977, Rumours sold 800,000 copies in its first week in the US alone, and went on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest selling albums ever released. For anyone not around in the 70s, it is hard to understand the cut-through that it had. The album’s singles – ‘Go Your Own Way’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Don't Stop’ and ‘You Make Loving Fun’ seemed to be playing on every station, all the time, whenever you switched on the radio. While the Sex Pistols and punk rock were stealing headlines, Fleetwood Mac was dominating the airwaves. “By the end of the 70s, we were getting sick of it, we’d heard that album so much on the radio that we were going to puke!” Nicks once remarked.
Rumourswas the second album of a new Fleetwood Mac line-up formed in 1974, and the pressure was on for them to achieve commercial success. The band set up shop at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, and hired engineers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut. Recording sessions were held in a compact 6x9 metre (20 x 30ft) room, and committed to tape on a 24-track 3M open reel.
“The atmosphere in the studio was volatile, not just because of the group’s complicated dynamics”
While it produced a record of excellent sonic quality, this wasn’t the technological state-of-the-art at the time – ELO’s Out of the Blue would soon be recorded on a 48-track machine. The group used the best microphones available, with an API mixing console, and whilst Calliat was happy with the sound, he felt it seemed a little dry, tonally – something that’s clearly audible on a good hi-fi system now.
As Dashut later recalled, the atmosphere in the studio was volatile, not just because of the group’s complicated dynamics, but also the large quantities of drugs and alcohol being consumed.
“I describe the recording of Rumours as lengthy moments of boredom, punctuated by sheer moments of terror,” he once explained. “Although cocaine and marijuana were the major drugs of choice … the album was not drug induced, it was soul induced, instinct induced.”
There was certainly a sense that the album was being recorded amidst various crises. Chris Stone, co-owner of Record Plant, once remarked: “The band would come in at seven o’clock at night, have a big feast, party until 1 or 2am, and then when they were so whacked-out that they couldn't do anything, they'd start recording.”
Fleetwood Mac’s members were the senior producers on Rumours, but a lot of weight was put on the album’s two co-producers. Dashut later said that he ended up as an emotional support for several band members. “I can remember a time when there was absolute tears, there was a lot of anger, a lot of yelling…. That’s why the album reflects that, because it was real, it came from the gut, but it was a painful process.”
For Nicks, it was born of the intense emotional pain the group’s members were in. “Devastation leads to writing really good things,” she later observed. Christine McVie, meanwhile, who sadly died in November 2022, once said that making the record offered a way for the group to communicate at a time when their personal relationships had collapsed. “The only way that we could really communicate with each another at that point was through the music, it was the only platform on which we had everything completely in common,” she once remarked.
The group somehow fed off this tense atmosphere, channeling their heartbreak, anger and sadness into the music. “It was a challenge to constantly try to find your bigger self, and rise above things…. ‘The Chain’ for example was really just the sense of the five of us sticking it out, I think,” Buckingham once noted.
“Sonically, Rumours has an open and expansive feel that gets even better when listening on a top quality system”
Alongside personal dramas, the album’s producers struggled with technical issues during production. The Sausalito studio tapes were damaged by repeated use, and a specialist had to be brought in to re-sync the affected sections using the safety master as a reference. Despite this, the end result was exceptional.
Sonically, Rumours has an open and expansive feel that gets even better when listening on a top quality system. Although it has an obviously dated feel now, lacking the crystalline purity of modern hi-res digital recordings, it’s still highly rewarding to listen to. At the time of its release, it enticed many of the general public to invest in modern hi-fi stereo systems. By today’s standards, it still sounds surprisingly immediate, due in part to the close-up way that vocals were miked, and the baffles placed around the drums and bass guitar. This gives the album an intimate feel that worked incredibly well on FM radio, for example.
Much has been written about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in the four-and-a-half decades following its release, but it remains one of the great rock classics, and is highly evocative of its time and place. It established the band’s reputation as one of the world’s top supergroups, and was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
Whilst it’s sad to think the album came from a place of personal suffering, it surely would not have been the same if it had not. In this sense, Rumours feels like something of a historical document, a record of a turbulent period set to music.
All the band originally wanted was a “no filler” rock album with several potential singles, but with Rumours, they ended up creating something far more profound. Lindsey Buckingham later recalled that, “there was a lot of theatre and drama in its production, which wasn’t particularly a musical consideration”, but perhaps he was wrong about that. Indeed, it seems this theatre and drama was the spark that fuelled some of their finest work.