Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”

Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album coverI spent the past week listening to Fleetwood Mac‘s 1977 album “Rumours” which is considered by many to be one of the greatest ever. Before I get into that, let’s go back to my childhood again. This album came out two weeks before my birth. Radio played the singles with heavy rotation during my first few years. My family bought a CD player in 1985 and we soon acquired this album on CD. I grew up hearing this album, but I haven’t listened to it much on my own until this week. What did I learn from this album to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician?

One of the best-selling albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” stands as a quintessential example of mid-late 1970s soft rock. This album is well-crafted and immaculately produced to a fault. I find the sound so likeable and easy to enjoy that it becomes unbearably pleasant. I hesitate to say there’s not enough risks taken, because much of the music is very inventive. It even feels odd to complain that the album is too good. It feels so awfully like it aims to please, which is often at the cost of sincerity.

However, these are not lyrically happy or pleasant songs. Feelings of heartache, listlessness, lost love, emptiness, and pain run throughout the album. This comes as no surprise considering the atmosphere they wrote and recorded the songs in; Two of the band members were going through a divorce (from each other), two other band members were in the process of breaking up, and another was divorcing his wife. We can hear the band members speaking to each other about these situations through the songs. The strong songwriting, musically and lyrically, shines through the pleasant soft rock feel making the album worthwhile.

My favorite track on the album is “Dreams“, which was written and sung by Stevie Nicks. At 12 years old, I recorded a song with a chorus of “Once you’ve been and once you go”;  Only years later did I realize that they mimicked Stevie’s “what you had and what you lost”. In addition to her songwriting, Stevie’s amazing voice makes this song stand out. I think they would’ve done better if she sang lead on more tracks.

The song is in Am at a moderate tempo of about 115 BPM. Interestingly, most of the song plays through a VI7-VII (F-G) chord progression. They touch the tonic Am chord only briefly during the guitar solo. I like that this keeps the song feeling like it never really resolves, but when it almost does it feel particularly sad because it does so with a minor chord.

Christine McVie track “Songbird” feels like Joni Mitchell lite, but I like it. Part of the attraction may be that it is a break from the soft rock. I don’t think much of the lyrics, though I like the titular line “And the songbirds keep singing, like they know the score.” The accompaniment follows a I-IV chord progression, with some ii and vii during the second half of the verses.

Second Hand News” does a great job of opening the album. Full of the breezy production of “Rumours”, but also with a good driving rhythm.  It feels like rolling down the windows and driving in the country on a nice summer day.  In contrast, the first two lines fittingly introduce the album: “I know there’s nothing to say; Someone has taken my place.” It’s strange to think how the words are directed at Stevie Nicks, but she’s singing backing vocals.  The verses about the breakup end with some uncouth lines “Won’t you lay me down in tall grass and let me do my stuff.” Lindsey delivers the lines enjoyable making the listener want to sing along. Then go into the catchy, but decidedly meaningless, chorus of “bow bow bow buh bow bam bow”.

Slate ran an article a few years ago with the subtitle of “Why is Fleetwood Mac the least influential great band ever?”  I don’t know their answer, but I agree with the question. While these songs are all well written, well performed, and immaculately produced, they fail to inspire me as a songwriting musician.  The whole album is good, but it doesn’t excite me.

The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed”

Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" album coverI’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones‘ 1969 LP “Let It Bleed” for the past week. Each week, I give attention to an album widely considered great in order improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. I’m also getting to hear a lot of great music as a result. “Exile on Main Street” had its turn a couple of months ago. I’ve been into that album for a few years already, but “Let It Bleed” as an album is new to me. I’ve enjoyed some familiar tracks and been introduced to some I hadn’t heard before. Though overall not as good as “Exile,” there’s a lot to appreciate on “Let It Bleed”.

The opening guitar riff of “Gimme Shelter” has long been one of my favorites. It’s an oddly muted and gently picked arpeggio on a clean electric guitar through either a tremolo or Leslie, with a simple solo of sparse notes played on a slightly overdriven electric guitar. I love this amazing and highly unusual sound. The strange chord progression (I-VII-VI) adds to the urgent yet eerie atmosphere. Normally, a descending progression would continue to the fifth to provide a natural sounding return to the tonic, but that doesn’t happen in this song.

With it’s a chorus of “War, children, it’s just a shot away; It’s just a shot away”, this song has appropriately been used in countless documentaries and movies, especially those dealing with the Vietnam War. The very sound of the intro conjures of those images; since I wasn’t born until after the Vietnam War, I can’t say if the documentaries are the reason or if it is the song itself. Generally speaking, the lyrics of these songs reflect the hopes and anxieties of the late 1960s, including serial killers.

This dark topic is explored in “Midnight Rambler“. As a narrative, the song progresses like the classic spooky tales where the murderer keeps getting closer and closer. The perspective of the lyrics changes throughout and we wonder who is speaking. Mick asks “Did you hear about the midnight rambler?” suggesting that he is an innocent gossip spreading a warning tale. As descriptions grow more detailed and the murderer gets closer, the speaker becomes the assailant. This leads up to the final verse, where all is violent confusion:

Did you hear about the midnight rambler?
He’ll leave his footprints up and down your hall.
And did you hear about the midnight gambler,
And did you see me make my midnight call,
And if you ever catch the midnight rambler,
I’ll steal your mistress from under your nose.
I’ll go easy with your cold fanged anger .
I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts.

The song’s V-IV-I chord progression (though it might be I-VII♭-IV) drives along with a slightly menacing bluesy eight-note groove. In keeping with the lyrics, the accompaniment builds slowly in intensity until dropping to a near-crawl at the half-way point. From there the tempo gradually ramps up in speed again rising in crescendo to the stabbing at the end.

There’s a bit of country influence on these songs, but the worst example is “Country Honk“. It’s a country reworking of their great song “Honky Tonk Women” which had been released as a single earlier. Unfortunately, they really just made a mockery of both country music and their own song. It’s the weakest moment of the album. Better is the old blues song “Love in Vain“, which is a cover of a song by Robert Johnson. Because I’ll be getting to Robert Johnson in a later week, though, I’ll hold on discussing it

The strong title track “Let It Bleed” uses a regular I-IV-V-V7 chord progression. The feel-good sing-along first chorus says “Well, we all need someone we can lean on and if you want it, you can lean on me” with later choruses playfully replacing “lean” with “dream”, “cream”, and “bleed.” I’m not sure how much sarcasm we can read into the chorus, but the verses seem to tell a much different tale. Notice here also the rhyme scheme as well as the repeated use of slightly similar sounding three word phrases.

I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
With that jaded, faded, junky nurse oh what pleasant company

My favorite track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” opens with a boy’s choir singing the first verse. I believe removing this intro would be an improvement. Then the song repeats a I-IV chord progression almost the whole way through, with the choruses ending with a II-IV-I cadence. The sound of Mick Jagger’s clean vocals up-front with a lone acoustic guitar is a great opening to the song. With the last line of the first chorus, a piano and organ add to the accompaniment. A choir of voices join Mick to sing “You get what you need”.

Like other songs on the album, the verses are narrative with the chorus providing a message or lens through which to see the verses. The chorus of “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” provides a great way to close the album about the turbulent 1960s. This bumper-sticker type of philosophy usually makes me roll my eyes, but the way they work with the verses makes it OK. The fourth verse is probably my favorite; I love the narrative of a small moment through which we get a glimpse of a character’s life.

I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And man, did he look pretty ill
We decided that we would have a soda
My favorite flavor, cherry red
I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy
Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was “dead”

Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

Blonde on Blonde album cover.This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan‘s 1966 double LP “Blonde on Blonde” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. I listened to Bob Dylan’s earlier “Highway 61 Revisited” for this project about two months ago. That has long been one of my favorite albums, but “Blonde on Blonde” was mostly new to me. Overall, Dylan got even better in the year between the two. The writing and performance are more focused and less chaotic. In its entirety, this double LP is remarkable with incredible high points. Some songs could stand to be cut to create a fantastic single LP album.

The album opens with perhaps the weakest song, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. I like the raucous marching circus accompaniment; Still, the lyrics are really too silly to justify four and half minutes. No matter what interpretation you read into the song, yhe “Everybody must get stoned” pun doesn’t deserve this much celebration. I’ll also skip by “Pledging My Time“, a blues track that fails to grab my attention.

My absolute favorite song on “Blonde on Blonde” is Visions of Johanna. The accompaniment is primarily an acoustic guitar strumming a chord progression mostly based on I-IV-V7. The mid-section of each verse builds some suspense by repeating I-IV. A V7-I cadence closes each verse. Wistful lines of sustained notes are played on an organ in the right channel balanced by a twangy guitar’s occasional noodling on the left channel. A bass guitar in the center plays jugband bass-lines travelling the across chords. Dylan’s carries more emotion than typically heard on other songs; This is appropriate considering the subject matter, ambiguous as it may be.

The lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” made it quickly my favorite. It’s not particularly clear who or what Johanna is and if the “visions of Johanna” are memories, fantasies, or something else. Whatever they are, the speaker is uncomfortably haunted by the visions; they add a tinge of sadness to real experiences in the present. In a way, the visions “that kept me up past the dawn” remind me of Poe’s raven that visited “upon a midnight dreary.”

There are two female characters: the Johanna who is “not here” and Louise who is. There are several apparent male characters: the speaker in first person, Louise’s lover, the night watchman, the little boy lost, the peddler, and the fiddler. I wonder if all of these male characters are different aspects of the same person. Even Louise can act as a mirror forcing the speaker to look back within himself. Within that mirror the speaker sees himself replaced by the ever present visions of Johanna.

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Another song I love, “I Want You” feels more like walking alone passing through various scenes. The chorus is a straight-forward “I want you, I want you, I want you so bad”. I read somewhere that often in songwriting, the chorus provides the lens through which to interpret the verses and that’s definitely the case here. This simple chorus also provides a nice contrast to the verses in which so much happens. In all that the speaker sees and encounters, the desire for subject of the song. I actually first heard this song as covered by Sophie B Hawkins when I was 15. Here version brings out the feelings of longing and hurt more than Dylan’s, but I think both are excellent. I especially like the motif played on a clean electric guitar that plays throughout the verses of the Dylan recording.

I continue to find Dylan an amazing lyricist and I’m really appreciating his use of traditional chord progressions and instrumentation. About 10 years, I was concerned about using too many common chord progressions and basic chords. I thought of this as a weakness and that chord progressions were an area where being unusual and creative were a measurement for quality songwriting. When I started writing songs for Trip Gunn, I threw out this assumption. Many amazing songs have been written on little more than I-IV-V progressions.  Variety is good, but there’s nothing wrong with the familiar.

What I learn as a songwriter from Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde” is much the same as “Highway 61 Revisited” and that includes the lesson that it’s beneficial for instruments to be in conversation with each other. The difference is that on the earlier album the individual instruments were often playing independent of each other and on this album they are working together. While the lyrics on “Highway 61” are often more inventive than they are here, there’s a greater sense of meaning and expression on “Blonde on Blonde.” There rhymes also feel more natural this time around. I like the use of imagery and setting of scenes on this album.

Unfortunately, the album versions of these songs are not available on YouTube, but I’ve provided links to decent versions that are similar. Most are live.