'Rumours,' Fleetwood Mac’s Break-Up Magnum Opus, Turns 40

It’s a small miracle that Fleetwood Mac, in its most famed iteration, remains still intact. With Christine McVie’s return in 2014, each member of the quintet that defined popular music for the larger part of the 1970s continues to tour, drawn back together again by some centripetal force. It’s a miracle not just because, since its creation, Fleetwood Mac has been a particularly pliable thing, with a grand total of 17 members playing musical chairs, but because The Fab Five specifically—Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie, Christine McVie, and Mick Fleetwood—have never had a smooth go of it, their music less a product of personal camaraderie than its antidote.

Purveyors of pop culture conspiracy have suggested Fleetwood Mac was cursed from the beginning: three of the band’s previous guitarists, the ghosts from the Mac’s past, became unhinged while on tour, with founder Peter Green most famously taking tabs with a sketchy group of fans in Munich, experiencing an intensely messianic acid trip, and proceeding to dress up as Jesus before leaving the band for a religious cult. Thereafter, the specter of Fleetwood Mac’s past lives loomed large, a kind of eerie bellwether for things to come. And what came, of course, was Rumours.

In January 1976, the group arrived at Record Plant in Sausalito, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, to record their second album together. Riding a wave of momentum from their debut Fleetwood Mac, the Fab Five was dangerously close to self-combustion, its two core couples, The McVie’s and Buckingham/Nicks, having separated. Fleetwood, too, was going through a divorce from his wife, Jenny Boyd, while Christine McVie carried on an affair with the band’s lighting director, Curry Grant. With the pressure of their debut breathing down their necks, the fivesome left little daylight between their personal lives and their music, and it showed in the final product. “Terminal dysfunction,” was how Ms. McVie described the recording sessions to Newsweek magazine.” Trauma. Like a cocktail party every night.”

Forty years ago this February, the world got to see just what Fleetwood Mac made of their terminal dysfunction with the release of Rumours, the record that brought them to their career-threatening precipice and career-making peak. The official date of the album’s release, February 4, 1977, would go down as a seismic moment in the history of Western music, a touchstone by which future rock records would be measured and an exemplar of the ways the album, and art more generally, works as salvation for the broken-hearted.

Nowadays, we clamor for inklings of personal information about artists and entertainers, and they respond in kind. With the probing impulses of the Information Age, and the radical transparency of social media, the inner lives of famous folk seem almost like a matter of public record. It’s become rarefied, as we flood the zones for celebrity scuttlebutt, to experience an album as something both confessional and musical, a direct exchange between artist and listener. We’ve forfeited a crucial distance, developed an impatience, even a collective unwillingness to let artists tell their stories as they wish, of their own accord. Whether its narrative was real or fabricated, the novelty of Beyoncé’s Lemonade was in its autobiographical tilt, which pushed back against this trend, generating fodder on the artist’s own terms, within the work rather than outside of it.

Rumours had this same profound impact, having been released well before the relentless muckraking that’s come to define fame and celebrity. It’s both an accident of the band’s internal strife and a byproduct of its musical alchemy that the record would live on as the standard-bearer of its form, combining catharsis with the commercial appeal of a soap-opera. The band’s vicious romantic infighting played out before the country’s ears, in the album’s artful missives and sweeping hooks. This created a dynamic that plays to great effect throughout Rumours, its sequencing giving the impression of a kind of constant brawl between members, with adjacent moments of anger and levity and longing and regret. Oh, and lots of cocaine, gold dust.

It’s both an accident of the band’s internal strife and a byproduct of its musical alchemy that the record would live on as the standard-bearer of its form, combining catharsis with the commercial appeal of a soap-opera.

On first or 500th listen, one still feels the profound tensions of those sessions in Sausalito, and the genius those tensions produced—the album is, among many other things, a musical memoir of the constant misfortune of working, day and night, with one’s ex. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s aged like a fine, Northern California wine, the voices of former lovers circling one another as if the studio was a boxing ring.

The album’s first climax, Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams,” reportedly came about in just five minutes. Nicks wasn’t needed in the booth, so she went next door, to Sly Stone’s studio at Record Plant, where a piano sat in the center of the pit, the room shrouded in red and black velvet. This was where she wrote the slow-burning number one hit, a sad and biting rendering of love that went off the rails, punctuated by her exes’ backing vocals. “I can remember how hard it was for me to play “Dreams” the first time, for the whole band, because I know it would probably really upset Lindsey, and probably really upset Chris and John, and probably really upset Mick and really upset me,” Nicks has said. “And if I could even get through it, I’d be lucky.”

Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way,” the anthemic kiss-off that comes three songs later, is the masculine corollary to “Dreams,” all unbridled anger and no Nicksian philosophy. Nicks took issue with the line “shackin’ up’s all you wanna do,” which she perceived as a slight, but of course her tracks were equally scornful, perhaps a bit more subtle in their recriminations. “I mean, maybe we would have killed each other if we hadn’t have been able to write those songs,” Nicks told the BBC in 1998. As is often the case, feelings had to be hurt in the name of artistry.

The only song on Rumours in which all five members had a hand was “The Chain,” a pastiche of previously recorded work by Ms. McVie, with a new intro by Buckingham and Nicks and a final guitar section penned separately by John McVie and Fleetwood. It’s apropos, given the collaborative, sliced-and-diced nature of the song, that “The Chain” is where all of the record’s harrowing undertones materialize. When Buckingham and Nick’s sing the chorus in unison—”if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again”—one can practically see them taunting one another, the violent thump of the rhythm section sounding tribal and indignant. It’s the album’s centerpiece, where the individual talents of all five members fuse in a cocktail of menacing guitar licks and white-knuckled harmonies.

Christine McVie penned four songs on Rumours, contributions that suggest heartbreak isn’t all bitterness, regret, and endless lines of coke. There’s “Songbird,” a spare, affecting ballad, and “Don’t Stop,” the peppy jaunt eventually chosen as the theme for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign; ironically, the song’s not as happy as it seems, functioning more as a salve for the downcast than a blind ode to what tomorrow holds. “You Make Loving Fun,” written about Grant, is perhaps the best example of McVie’s gifts. “I never did believe in the ways of magic,” she belts in the chorus, “but I’m beginning to wonder why.” The line, which takes on new meaning when enjambed in McVie’s melody, could easily be self-reflexive: presented with every obstacle to their success, the band indeed found a way to make magic with Rumours, surprising even themselves in the process.

At 40, Rumours continues to prove its remarkable durability even if it booked its spot in the musical pantheon long ago (it’s been remastered and reissued twice already). The songs are airtight and endlessly singable, engineered with a Midas touch that belied the band’s deep-seated instability. Its peaks are alpine, its lows almost nonexistent, and in the record’s 11-song tussle between lovers—between light and dark, sweetness and bitterness, British blues and West Coast soft-rock—it’s united still by its glossy, California sheen.

And somewhat oddly, the melodrama of it all, and the spectator sport that is Fleetwood Mac mythology, has become more novel with time. There have been a zillion breakup albums that similarly narrated the rage and turmoil brought on by the dissolution of a relationship—Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights is one analog, their marriage crumbling as the album was made. Rumours, though, was the form’s progenitor, a singular record that made theatre of its members’ cobweb of romantic entanglements without sacrificing quality.

“I don’t care that everybody knows me and Chris and John and Lindsey and Mick all broke up,” Stevie Nicks told Rolling Stone in Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe’s 1977 cover story. “If it’s interesting, I’m not opposed to giving out information.” She continued: “On this album, all the songs that I wrote….are definitely about the people in the band. They’re all there and they’re very honest and people will know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Herein lies the brilliance—the honesty, the voyeurism, the incredible self-possession—of a record like Rumours. It’s not merely the magnum opus of break-up albums, though it’s spawned a genre unto itself, its internecine warfare more complex than the standard relationship paean. Nor can it be reduced to the music, which in its 40-minute runtime is far greater than the sum of its ego and ire. Rumours remains, four decades along, a testament to the importance of work in the face of heartache, to the healing powers of art. It is, itself, a kind of weird elixir. It may even give us a reason to believe that bad omens can be overcome, once and for all, by the ways of magic.

Jake Nevins is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter

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