Most artists with careers measured in decades have that one album, one that casts an unavoidable shadow over everything that comes after. Exile On Main St., Who’s Next and Purple Rain aren’t just collections of memorable songs but also embodiments of what the musicians who made them capable of. The same is true of Fleetwood Mac and their 1977 blockbuster Rumours. Recorded as four of the five band members were ending relationships with each other – and one of those four became romantically involved with the fifth – Rumours remains the group’s most successful release as well as one of the most popular albums of all time.
By any sensible measure, the circumstances around the making of Rumours should have promptly fractured the Buckingham/Fleetwood/McVie/McVie/Nicks line-up. Lindsey Buckingham encapsulated this sentiment in a 1987 interview, “To break up with someone and then see them for the next 12 years. That’s just not normal.” The album’s overwhelming success, however, warped the calculations of what constituted normal. Four Top 10 singles and millions upon millions of copies sold worldwide gave the record a life of its own and drove the band back into the studio to record a follow-up.
The 1979 double-album Tusk took ten months to record, in no small part because Buckingham pushed the rest of the group to avoid replicating the sound of its predecessor. Unfortunately, for all the retroactive regard it’s earned and sales that many artists would have found enviable, Tusk was viewed as a disappointment at the time. Nevertheless, the band supported the release with a lengthy tour – documented on their 1980 live album – which set the stage for the fractious decade ahead.
In keeping with their version of normal, the public expression of this schism took musical form with three of the five members releasing solo albums in 1981. Nicks had been writing songs during the tour for Tusk. Recognizing both the need for time away from the strained relationships within the band and that she had more songs than a group project could accommodate, the singer decided to make a solo album, one she knew from the outset would be called Bella Donna.
Bella Donna sold over a million copies after just three months in stores, and four songs reached the US Top 40. Though the two biggest singles featured other artists – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and Don Henley on Leather and Lace – the album firmly established Nicks as an artist in her own right.
Mick Fleetwood released his solo album The Visitor around the same time as Bella Donna, but it wasn’t as commercially successful. Despite featuring the Top 10 hit Trouble, neither was Buckingham’s solo debut, Law and Order, the making of which Fleetwood helped inspire.
After the drummer told him that the band wouldn’t be repeating the experimental approach of Tusk, Buckingham realized that “If I wanna continue to take risks [and] try to define myself as an artist in the long term, I’m gonna have to start making solo albums.” Though Law and Order included some offbeat pieces like Johnny Stew, the album as a whole displayed a strong pop sensibility with a 1950s feel, an aspect emphasized by Buckingham’s cover of the 1959 hit It Was I.
That style carried over to his contributions to Fleetwood Mac’s next album, Mirage. A conscious effort to craft a more accessible record, Mirage smoothed down the rough edges musically and lyrically. “Mirage was an attempt to get back into the flow that Rumours had,” said Christine McVie. “But we missed a vital ingredient. That was the passion.”
The latter comment seems like an overstatement on McVie’s part. Mirage is immaculately crafted but doesn’t lack for feeling, as exemplified by Hold Me, a song she co-wrote that was the album’s biggest hit. With lyrics portraying a relationship in flux, the instrumental sparkle simply provides an inviting counterpoint. Even the songs about love gone wrong, such as Buckingham’s Book of Love and Nicks’ That’s Alright, come across as wistful rather than bitter.
After a brief tour that included a headlining appearance at the US Festival, the band members went their separate ways, leaving the group in limbo for several years. During this time, Buckingham and Nicks released additional solo records, as did McVie. All three albums included Top 40 singles, but Stevie Nicks’ releases remained the most popular, especially 1983’s Stand Back. McVie and Buckingham also contributed to Mick Fleetwood’s second solo album, I’m Not Me, released under the banner of Mick Fleetwood’s Zoo.
By Fleetwood’s own account, he was the one most interested in bringing the band back together, but Christine McVie proved to be the catalyst for the group’s reunion. Asked to record a cover of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love for a movie soundtrack, she recruited Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood to play on the track, as well as John McVie, who’d embraced semi-retirement after the tour for Mirage. Finding their musical chemistry still intact, the quartet recognized the potential for a new album as Fleetwood Mac and got Stevie Nicks on board, though, her involvement was limited due to touring commitments and other personal issues.
Buckingham, who had started work on his third solo album when he agreed to handle production on what became Tango in the Night alongside longtime collaborator Richard Dashut, became the album’s pivotal figure. In addition to contributing songs he’d been working on for his own record, he co-wrote three songs with Christine McVie. Above all, be supplied the resolve to keep the group focused during the recording sessions, a process complicated by substance abuse issues on multiple fronts.
This situation was particularly pronounced with Stevie Nicks, who had recently gone to the Betty Ford Center to overcome her addiction to cocaine. “[Tango in the Night] took close to a year to make, and I think we only saw Stevie for about three weeks out of that time,” Buckingham recalled in a 1997 interview. “And these weeks weren’t the greatest three weeks.” The guitarist described having to piece together her vocal tracks from a patchwork of sources. In spite of these challenges, Welcome to the Room…Sara, Nicks’ oblique ode to her experience at the Betty Ford Center is among the album’s highlights.
Tango in the Night was released in the spring of 1987 – preceded by the single Big Love, one of the songs Buckingham originally wrote for his own album. The album got good reviews and quickly reached the Top 10 in the US and several other countries, including the UK where it spent a total of five weeks at #1. It stands second only to Rumours among the group’s best-sellers.
With a successful new record in stores, the discussion shifted to touring, but Lindsey Buckingham was reluctant. “My belief at the time [was] that I just couldn’t be around that particular circus anymore,” he recalled. “I couldn’t contemplate doing it, and I think I felt comfortable with the decision I made.”
The rest of the group, however, were less comfortable with the guitarist’s choice. A meeting to discuss the tour turned into a fierce confrontation (the specifics of which are disputed) and ended with Buckingham leaving the band to resume his solo work. Retrospective expressions of both praise for his work on the album and empathy for his decision about the tour somewhat obscure the raw emotions of the time. When asked about it three decades later, Mick Fleetwood’s response bordered on the philosophical: “Making Tango in the Night – and then falling apart before we could take it on the road – it’s one of those many elements in the Fleetwood Mac story that could only be us.”
This wasn’t the end of Fleetwood’s Mac or even the last of the band’s exploits in the 1980s. The remaining members recruited singer-guitarists Billy Burnette and Rick Vito for the tour, which started in September of 1987 and continued the following spring. This line-up also recorded new tracks for a 1988 greatest-hits collection and stayed intact for the 1990 album Behind the Mask and another tour before beginning to fragment.
By this point, the band and Buckingham had started mending fences. The guitarist played on Behind the Mask’s title song and made a guest appearance at the final show of their 1990 tour. He would eventually rejoin the group via a confluence of events and individuals – including a US President – allowing further dramas to emerge down the road.
As in the 1980s, the members continued to record collectively and in various combinations, but as a band, touring emerged as their primary activity. While this deviated somewhat from the blueprint established in the 1980s, a larger point held true. Fleetwood Mac is better when this line-up works together, but they’re only capable of doing so for limited windows before someone needs to go their own way.
Press photo of Fleetwood Mac for “Tusk”