PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.  

Fleetwood Mac 101

It’s impossible to pin down exactly what makes one band obscure and another band one of the biggest-selling attractions in the world. Fleetwood Mac is conspicuously the latter—the group has sold tens of millions of records, and its current stadium tour was recently extended to accommodate the demand of fans, old and new—but it almost didn’t make it. The current and most recognized lineup of Fleetwood Mac is made up of two halves: the original Fleetwood Mac, a British rock band formed in 1967, and the American singing-songwriting duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. At the start of 1975, each of those halves had been struggling, completely unknown to each other, for years. Fleetwood Mac had hit the ground running with its deeply bluesy, cult-favorite, self-titled debut in 1968 (also known as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, both in honor of the group’s founding singer-guitarist and to differentiate it from the group’s eponymous, 1975 breakthrough album), but it had floundered in a perpetual turnover of frontmen; Buckingham and Nicks had released one self-titled full-length under the name Buckingham Nicks in 1973, a gorgeous work of understated, California folk-pop that failed to find any traction with the public at large. Some of the tracks from Buckingham Nicks, most notably “Crystal,” would later be performed with Fleetwood Mac to much greater acclaim.

Something inexplicable happened when Fleetwood Mac and Buckingham Nicks joined forces for 1975’s Fleetwood Mac. The merger was spurred as much by desperation as anything else, but that Hail Mary resulted in a victory. Buckingham’s lithe, chiming guitar owed an equal debt to the jangle of The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and the elegant intricacy of jazz legend Django Reinhardt, both of which were heroes of Buckingham. Nicks’ husky, otherworldly voice was the perfect complement. But Fleetwood Mac brought Buckingham and Nicks what they lacked: The subtle muscularity of a rhythm section provided by drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, and the ethereality of singer-keyboardist Christine McVie. Fleetwood Mac also had the readymade recipe for tension: Two romantic couples formed most of the group, a dynamic that sparked more friction when Fleetwood Mac slowly but surely rose to the top of the charts on the back of hits like the brooding “Rhiannon” and the bouncy “Say You Love Me,” not to mention the introspectively anthemic “Landslide.” The crush of success put an instant strain on a group of twentysomethings—still getting to know each other, and flush with overnight wealth plus all the temptations that come with it—and that pressure would perversely fuel their imminent masterpiece.

Rumours was that masterpiece. Released in 1977, the 10th anniversary of Fleetwood Mac’s founding, it became monstrously successful. While the band’s closest contemporary, The Eagles, were riding high on the success of their biggest album, Hotel California, Rumours spun a similarly moody, weary, West Coast vibe into something far more timeless. Alternating between the fragility of “Dreams” and the acidity of “Go Your Own Way”—and between the hopeful swagger of “Don’t Stop” and the dreamy funkiness of “You Make Loving Fun”—the album harnessed the band’s internal emotional combustion in a way that felt effortlessly catchy. Artists as recent, and as different, as Midlake and Haim have demonstrated just how durable the influence of Rumours has remained, even after being played to the point of becoming aural wallpaper over the decades. It’s the epitome for the multiplatinum pop album, but it’s also serious, with dark depths abound and an elaborate, painstaking production that reflects Buckingham’s increasing obsession with another hero of his, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, at the time. And like The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Rumours is a once-in-a-career pop phenomenon: an intensely personal vision that ultimately resonates because of its idiosyncrasy, rather than in spite of it.

Intermediate Work

Buckingham’s obsession with Wilson-esque lushness—not to mention the nervier influences of punk rock and drugs—didn’t bode as well, commercially speaking, for Tusk. Fleetwood Mac’s first album since Rumours, it was released in 1979 and, understandably, was one of the most anticipated albums in history up to that time. For fans as well as the music industry, it didn’t live up to Rumours, although hindsight has redeemed it. It didn’t exactly flop. It still sold in the millions, although far less than Fleetwood Mac or Rumours. But the exorbitant cost of Buckingham’s manic production sessions—plus the double-album format—made it problematic when it came to profitability, and that put extra strain on a group that suddenly found itself on a pedestal as one of the most popular acts of all time. That ambitious sprawl also made it a challenge for radio programmers as well as listeners, especially after the smoothness of Rumours. Tusk’s redemption is in its songs; while the whole feels fragmented, the parts are stunningly adventurous, from the rambling Nicks’ tone-poem “Sara” to Buckingham’s stark, country-punk oddity “The Ledge.”

The Rumours song “Go Your Own Way” became a punchline of sorts when—following the tepid reaction to Tusk and the breakup of both couples involved in Fleetwood Mac. By 1981, three of its five members—Fleetwood, Buckingham, and Nicks—launched solo careers. Fleetwood Mac reconvened in 1982 for Mirage. It’s neither the most distinct nor most accomplished album in the band’s discography, but it’s a beautiful one nonetheless. Compared to the elephantine dimensions of Tusk, Mirage is a mouse: meek, understated, and neatly contained. Then again, it was the start of the ’80s, and much of the excess of the ’70s had begun to be pulled back. That restraint suits Mirage well, especially on the song’s biggest hit, “Gypsy,” which is as mystical and atmospheric as anything in the band’s catalog—only edited impeccably, to the point where “Gypsy” became Nicks’ signature song. But the rest of the album stands up just as well, with tracks like “Hold Me” and the telling “Can’t Go Back” encapsulating Fleetwood Mac’s ability to adapt its sumptuous, romantic songcraft for a new age.

Tango In The Night chased Mirage by five years, and by then the entire world of pop had undergone a transformation. Fleetwood Mac responded by doubling down on the dreaminess. Tango may not be ranked up there with Rumours, and it didn’t do anything new, but it’s still a wall-to-wall delight; swimming in echoes and shadows, it bears a shimmering grace that embodies maturity in the best possible way. Rather than warring, the members of the group had learned to peacefully create music without actually interacting much, and that placid accord comes through on the lovelorn fantasia of Christine McVie’s “Everywhere” and the creeping beauty of her “Little Lies.” It sold well, but it also marked the end of the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup as a recording entity. Since then, various configurations of the group have released full-lengths, but none has featured all five of its most famous constituents, regardless of how they’ve triumphantly reunited for their current tour.

Advanced Studies

Fleetwood Mac’s pre-Buckingham-and-Nicks output is nowhere near as lauded as the band’s work from 1975 on, and that’s understandable. Not only is it largely dissimilar in sound from Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, it’s not even remotely consistent within itself. Between 1968 and 1974, the group released nine albums, and on those records no less than seven lead singers and/or primary songwriters pitched in: Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan, Bob Welch, Bob Weston, Dave Walker, and Christine McVie. Within that broad span, a scattering of gems can be found, from Green’s soulful, progressive blues to Welch’s wispy yacht-rock. Some, like Christine McVie’s “Remember Me,” from 1973’s Penguin, could have easily fit on Fleetwood Mac. But it was the non-album single “Albatross”—released in 1968 and rereleased in 1973—that wound up as Fleetwood Mac’s most successful pre-Fleetwood Mac song. As soaring as its name suggests, “Albatross” is also tellingly an instrumental—proof that in the early days, Fleetwood Mac’s lack of a consistent vocal identity was so marked, it took the absence of a singer altogether to result in a hit.

After Tango In The Night, Fleetwood Mac released only three studio albums. Of those three, 1990’s Behind The Mask and 1995’s Time are barely worth considering as part of the band’s canon: sporadic high points aside, neither feature significant contributions from Buckingham, and Time also suffers from the complete absence of Nicks. 2003’s Say You Will was the first glimmer of a renaissance; although Christine McVie appears in the background on only two songs, Buckingham and Nicks are back in full force. In particular, Buckingham’s circular twang and haunting voice are stunning on “Murrow Turning Over In His Grave,” and Nicks’ honeyed rasp is as potent as ever on the album’s title track. McVie rejoined the band for the band’s current tour—her contributions to Fleetwood Mac have never been quite as celebrated as Buckingham’s and Nicks’, even though they’re just as vital—but it wasn’t in time for the group’s under-the-radar mini-comeback, 2013’s digitally released Extended Play. As advertised, it’s just an EP; still, those four bare-boned songs are an earnest, lively reminder that Fleetwood Mac—its legacy already well secure—might just have another good album in them.

The Essentials

1. Rumours
2. Fleetwood Mac (The White Album)
3. Tusk
4. Mirage
5. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Buckingham Nicks

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