Wherein the biggest band in the world run aground, leaving the tape recorders rolling to capture rancour, pathos and grace under pressure…
The best live albums are often more than just an artist’s greatest hits recreated in concert: they can offer glimpses of vulnerability beneath an artist’s PR-upholstered surface, illuminate a chapter in their existence, tell a story all their own. And so it is with Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 live album, gleaned from the global tour in support of their 1979 album, Tusk.
It’s an oft-told tale, but the last of a series of seismic membership upheavals that shook Fleetwood Mac throughout the seventies proved the making of the group. Following the traumatic acid-fuelled breakdown of genius founder guitarist Peter Green in 1970, the next few years saw Mac bid farewell to guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan, along with their replacements, Plymouth-born Bob Weston and laconic Californian Bob Welch. The next guitarist to grasp this seemingly poisoned-chalice was young Californian Lindsey Buckingham, who’d previously recorded a 1973 album, Buckingham/Nicks, with his girlfriend Stevie Nicks, with precious little success; Buckingham joined on the understanding that Nicks would also become a member of Fleetwood Mac..
While the arrival of Buckingham/Nicks to the ranks put an end to the constant reshuffling that had plagued Mac in the preceding years, life within the group was no less tumultuous. Infamously, during the writing and recording of the line-up’s second album together, 1977’s Rumours, Nicks parted from Buckingham and the marriage between bassist John McVie and singer/keyboard-player Christine dissolved; in the aftermath, Nicks began an affair with Fleetwood, who was in the process of divorcing from Lloyd. Such soap opera should’ve sunk the band; instead, it was the undercurrent that electrified the group’s best-selling album (and, indeed, one of the best-selling albums of all time).
It was this energy that first entranced me when I was twelve, catching an old Fleetwood Mac concert from their 1982 Mirage tour, rerun on British TV to promote 1987’s Tango In The Night LP. The only Mac I really knew at this point was their latest single, Big Love, which crackled with a delicious darkness, a danger signposted by the guttural love grunts that punctuated its chorus. The group’s performance of The Chain on that 1982 concert tapped into that same dark undertow, from its slow-build open – Buckingham’s bitter dustbowl blues licks coiled menacingly beneath haunted three-part harmonies – to the rage with which Buckingham and Nicks spit lyrics that marked the end of a relationship, very possibly theirs: Lindsey raging in straw cowboy hat, eyes piercing, voice breaking as he barked “If you don’t love me now, you will never love me again”; Stevie, similarly intense in peasant skirt and screwed-tight eyes, incanting “Never break the chain, never break the chain”. The palpable sense of emotional violence between the pair, looking for all the world like their bandmates were gonna have to pull them apart in a couple of moments, left me rapt, and not a little scared.
It wasn’t just the opportunity Rumours offered for listeners to rubberneck at these conjugal dramas that made the album a phenomenon. In the hands of these lyricists, set to such lean, tightly-constructed and melodically sophisticated pop, couched in pristine production by the group (mostly Buckingham) and Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut, an alchemical transformation occurred, making irresistible ear-candy of these emotional agonies. Rumours sat atop the Billboard album charts for 31 weeks, won that year’s Grammy award for best Album Of The Year, and has since shifted over 40 million copies.
Like most multi-platinum pop phenomena, at their peak Fleetwood Mac appeared invincible, having survived such profound internal ructions and, indeed, turned them into even further success. And like most multi-platinum pop phenomena, success bred excess, on every level. Tales of Fleetwood Mac’s extravagance during this era are legendary: on tour, the band established a standard for both luxury and hedonism that followers would be unwise to imitate: they travelled in separate limos from show to show, staying at only the finest hotels, and weren’t averse to having grand pianos winched up to Stevie’s hotel room if the whim took her. They played all over the world, to ever-larger audiences in ever-grander surroundings: the tourdates printed on the dust jackets of this live album show that Mac’s nine-month 1979/80 Tusk Tour voyaged from America, to Japan, to Australia and New Zealand, back to America and Canada, over to Europe and finally back across America once more, ending up at the Hollywood Bowl on September 1st 1980.
And yet Fleetwood Mac Live, the album culled from this tour, is no triumphant experience. The band don’t sound invincible; they sound vulnerable, wounded, tentative, haunted. And it’s probably an accurate portrait.
For the 1979 follow-up to Rumours, Fleetwood Mac had taken their excesses with them into the studio. By the group’s own later admission, the endless sessions for the album were fuelled by copious amounts of cocaine, which perhaps exacerbated the perfectionist tendencies of Buckingham. Producing the album in concert with Caillat and Dashut, Buckingham spent over a million dollars tweaking every last note at Los Angeles studio The Village Recorder, enlisting the aid of the University Of Southern California Trojan Marching Band on the album’s title track and lead single, recorded at Dodgers Stadium. They weren’t idling while at the Village Recorder, however, cutting enough material to make Tusk a double album.
It was the most expensive rock album of its time; as the sequel to the massively lucrative Rumours, however, Tusk seemed like a good bet to repeat its predecessor’s success. But the song Tusk, the album’s lead single, was no Go Your Own Way, no Don’t Stop, no Dreams. It was weird, wired, edgy, informed by aftershocks from punk-rock and subsequent movement within rock’s underground, which had somehow reverberated as far as Fleetwood Mac’s lofty strata.
Uninterested in producing a carbon copy of Rumours, Buckingham had indulged more experimental whims; his own songs on Tusk were strange, fitful things, the likes of That’s Enough For Me, Not That Funny and I Know I’m Not Wrong jagged and tense, playful and off-kilter, and not remotely anthemic. Nicks and McVie, meanwhile, delivered some of the best songs of their career, songs of substance, profound and haunting. In fact, there was much magic contained within Tusk’s four lengthy sides, as later critics would recognise.
In 1979, however, Tusk received a cool welcome. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, admiring Buckingham’s unique production, wrote “This is like reggae, or Eno,” but also added that “Buckingham is attuned enough to get exciting music out of a sound so spare and subtle it reveals the limits of Christine McVie’s simplicity and shows Stevie Nicks up for the mooncalf she’s always been.” In the US, it charted no higher than #4, and while it was awarded Double Platinum status for sales of over 2 million copies soon after release, sales swiftly dropped off, as word-of-mouth circulated that this was no Rumours II.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that, when Christine McVie introduces Over And Over at the end of Fleetwood Mac Live’s first side, the audience’s response is so muted. “Well, we haven’t played anything off Tusk yet,” she begins, with a tentativeness a million miles away from the show-bizzy grandstanding of, say, Kiss’s Paul Stanley. Having name-checked the title of the group’s latest album, she might’ve expected some applause of recognition from the fans at Oklahoma City’s Myriad Arena that night. But it never really comes – they’re here for Rumours, not its red-headed stepchild of a sequel – and Christine sounds a little shaken as she continues: “So we’re going to try some out tonight… For you… And, uh, the first one of which is actually the first track on side one…”
There’s a fatalism to her voice, as she continues, that suggests this isn’t the first night that a mention of Tusk has failed to fire up the faithful; indeed, the Myriad show, on August 24th 1980, came seven nights before the tour’s end, and only Christine can answer how many such moments she endured over the 105 shows that preceded it.
The real mystery of Fleetwood Mac Live is why the group would allow the release of a document that preserves such moments for perpetuity, capturing what was evidently a difficult tour for the group. Given the relatively disappointing sales of Tusk, especially in reference to its budget, it’s likely that Fleetwood Mac Live was assembled as a sop to the label, a quick, cheap release to make some money from the franchise.
It’s a strange album, and, especially, a strange live album. Its tracks were culled from eleven dates on the Tusk tour, and while some selections clearly capture something remarkable that happened that night – the fiery, epic I’m So Afraid in Cleveland, an intimate performance of Landslide from London’s Wembley Stadium – the reasoning behind why certain other tracks were chosen for release is opaque. For example, Dreams and Don’t Stop, the smash hit singles from Rumours, are represented here by cuts recorded at a Paris sound-check, the former a sleepy glide that’s far from magical, the latter a shoddy, half-hearted take that just sort of peters out to silence, evoking absolutely none of the optimism of the Rumours original. Why so exacting a studio maven as Buckingham would allow these substandard tracks space on Fleetwood Mac Live is a mystery suggesting indifference or perhaps even self-sabotage on the band’s part.
Or perhaps it was their intention all along for Fleetwood Mac Live to offer up an unforgiving portrait of where the group were at on the Tusk tour, warts and all. The album sleeve bears a soft-focus black and white shot of the band onstage, taking their bows at the close of a show. The reportage photos from the tour contained within the gatefold capture Stevie all draped in flowing dresses and playing up to her hippy witch persona, Lindsey kohl-eyed and lean, screaming and pressing his head into John McVie’s chest during one mid-song crescendo, Christine peering shyly over her accordion. Bottom left, Mick Fleetwood is captured in three frames, slobbering and mad-eyed behind the kit, looking frankly deranged, and perhaps rabid. Across the centre of the gatefold are individual close-ups of the group looking glamorous but roadworn (or roadworn but glamorous), a bearded, sweaty, dead-eyed Mick looking like a junkie rabbi, while Lindsey stares on, pin-eyed and intense. The vibe of these candid snaps is edgy, suggesting just how unhinged a circus a Fleetwood Mac tour might be.
Some of the best moments of Fleetwood Mac Live – and there are many –come when this vibe surfaces onstage, and the band cut loose and get weird. Not That Funny, an odd three-minute New Wave-y sketch on Tusk, stretches out to nine minutes of gonzo glam-rock gooning here, Lindsey hollering and howling and screaming throughout like Hasil Adkins in Gucci pants, and nudging the song into a one-sided call’n’response through another Tusk oddity, Don’t Make Me Wait. A muscular barrel through Peter Green-era blues Oh Well, meanwhile, sees Buckingham pull off needling, hard-nosed solos that prove California hadn’t made the Mac go soft.
A mordant, dread-wreathed I’m So Afraid is even more impressive, Buckingham closing the song with a four-minute solo that begins by mirroring the song’s bleak medley, before maniacally twisting it into a shrieking, screaming din heavy with drama and menace, jerky screeches of guitar ringing out like the staccato strings of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme. It’s the sound of someone at the end of some particular rope, the sound you might imagine the tantrum-tossed, ragged, hedonistic types captured on the sleeve to Fleetwood Mac Live making. It’s the sound of falling apart.
The charms of Fleetwood Mac Live don’t just lie in such fried freakouts. While the aforementioned Rumours singles suffer in comparison to their studio counterparts, Nicks hits Rhiannon and Sara are, respectively, fierce and luminous, while the riffing camaraderie of Monday Morning and the devil-on-its-heels rockabilly of Don’t Let Me Down Again rock out with vigour. A feral Go Your Own Way channels the spiteful energy I’d seen on the 1982 concert version of The Chain, a stung and cuckolded Lindsey letting loose. And two new songs, Stevie’s Fireflies and Christine’s One More Night, recorded at a special show before crew and friends at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, hold their own against the more familiar material.
But it’s the quieter moments that touch deepest here, perhaps lent extra poignancy by the vulnerability Fleetwood Mac display more readily on Live than on their multi-platinum studio outings. The mood backstage at these shows was possibly anything but triumphant; it’s hard not to imagine a melancholy pervading the ranks. It’s a mood that haunts Live’s gentlest tracks.
Live certainly plays to the group’s supernatural ability to conjure intimacy even when playing vast barns like Wembley Arena, before tens of thousands. That first track off Side One of Tusk that stirred so little applause from the Oklahoma City audience, Over And Over, is one of the album’s best: fragile, bruised, Christine pleading gently, “Don’t turn me away, no, don’t let me down,” followed by a hopeless, aching sigh of “What can I do to keep you around?” that leads into Lindsey’s sad, delicate guitar coda, a solo by turns stricken and heroic, like Christine’s lyric, its bittersweet chime shaded by her mournful Hammond chords.
Most remarkable, however, are the two folkiest moments on Live. Looser, slower than its Rumours counterpart, Never Going Back Again finds a lone Buckingham bringing a hush to the McKale Centre in Tucson, Arizona, four nights before the close of the tour, whispering and crooning and hollering as his acoustic plucks the haunting melody though ringing highs and pain-etched lows.
Stevie, meanwhile, brings the hush down to a total silence at London’s Wembley Arena for Landslide, a song I’ve since heard played many times over on countless Mac and solo Nicks bootlegs, though never so plaintively, so gently, so movingly. Cradled by Lindsey’s acoustic guitar, and later joined by Christine’s sun-dappled keys, Stevie brings alive the song’s dashed hopes, sounding by turns forlorn and hopeful and wise and sad. At times, she sings the song’s fragile tune in milky sweet tones, the dignity within a struggle; at others, her voice breaks, but not her spirit, urging the words on to the next chorus, sounding so small but still making a sound, and finding her strength again to sing of her reflection in those snow-covered hills one more time. The final note draws the loudest, longest ovation of the album, and deserves every second of it.
Upon its release in 1980, Fleetwood Mac Live rose as high as #14 in the Billboard album charts, a more-than-respectable placing for a live album, especially one following the disappointment of Tusk. The album would be trailed by two singles, Nicks’ previously unreleased Fireflies, which charted at #60, and a backstage recording of the Beach Boys’ Farmer’s Daughter at the Santa Monica concert, which didn’t chart, but was entirely charming, stripping the band’s sound back to just John McVie’s chugging Cali-surf bassline, Mick Fleetwood’s toms, and Lindsey, Stevie and Christine’s spectral three-part harmonies.
In the years that followed Fleetwood Mac Live, the group’s commercial fortunes waxed and waned some more, before Lindsey exited after 1987’s Tango In The Night, marking the end of the Rumours-era line-up. Tusk has latterly been recognised as something of a ‘lost classic’, redeemed in adulatory essays by the likes of Simon Reynolds, while the Mac themselves have enjoyed something of a critical renaissance, and are certainly held in much higher esteem than many of their 70s pop megastar contemporaries.
The Eagles, say, with their cocaine fantasies and their cod-Western fringing, seemed to have so little going on beneath their Hollywood veneer, and perhaps that was their attraction: they were a fantasy to be bought into. But there was flesh and blood, self-doubt and agony, behind the airy polished gossamer-pop of Fleetwood Mac, rancour hiding beneath the FM-friendly sheen. In an era when rockstars were aloof and superhuman, Fleetwood Mac weren’t afraid to get hurt and show you the bruises.
That’s what you hear on Fleetwood Mac Live: a vulnerability, a nakedness, amid the grandiosity that makes everything suddenly real, and all the more affecting. As documentary evidence of where the group were at at this point in their turbulent career, it’s pretty damned vivid, lurid sleeve and all. But it also offers irrevocable truth that, even in their lowest moments, Fleetwood Mac could conjure up brilliance.