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.

Patti Smith’s “Horses”

Patti Smith's Horses album cover

I listened to Patti Smith‘s 1975 LP “Horses” for the past seven days. There’s a lot to learn here as a songwriting musician. I’ve heard about Smith for years;  I have fans as friends; Yet, this week was the first time I’ve heard her work, and  I love it. It sounds incredibly like 1970s New York City, sitting somewhere between the sound and intelligence of Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and the attitude of the Ramones. This album features fantastic lyrics, great music, great production, and cool vocals.

The lyrics star as the focus of “Horses”. With this debut album, Patti Smith produced a rock n’ roll version of the way beat poets like Jack Kerouac gave poetry readings with jazz accompaniment. She arrests your attention within the first twenty seconds; “Gloria” opens the album with the powerful line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” This is not a cover of Them’s “Gloria” or even a re-interpretation. Smith uses the classic garage rock song as source material they way an artist uses an image in collage. Considering that “Gloria” is one of the most covered songs in rock, the use of the chorus gives the audience something they know to keep them invested with the first listen. However the refrain may be using “gloria” as a word rather than a name ironically connects the chorus to the opening line.

In the song, Kimberly, Patti speaks about the desire to keep her little sister safe. She does this through an overt narrative of being in a barn with her baby sister during a storm. The lightning is frightening, so the older sister distracts her baby sister and covers her to hide the flashes. With lines like “I knew your youth was for the taking, fire on a mental plane,” there is suggestion that she’s worried about more than a storm during her sister’s infancy. A verse towards the end of the song, more spoken than sung, demonstrates Smith’s great command of poetry and imagery:

So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me
Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as the lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack

The lyrics are perhaps at their most dense and intense in “Land” where they also provide the album title “Horses”. The tell a troubling story about a young man named Johnny being raped in the hallways of what is probably a high school during the mid-1960s. Then later the speak has a romantic encounter with Johnny.

The lyrics incorporate several references to Land of a Thousand Dances. I consider these lines as drifting in from down the hall. Perhaps the hallway scene takes place during a school dance. She layers these references to dances of the 1950s and 60s with the rape; Names of dances like the Twist and the Watusi become descriptions of the act. Johnny’s mind escapes into another world, his assailants become as horses. After they finish off on Johnny, an angel or somebody named Angel taunts him “Oh, pretty boy, can’t you show me nothing but surrender?” Then the song further explodes poetic chaos.

There’s ambiguity and layering references to film noir, teen dances, sex, romance, rape, rock n roll, and the poet Rimbaud. They are cut together like a William S. Burroughs cut-up. I sensed this as a long time-Burroughs fan that has experimented with cut-ups many times. However, I also have read this week that Smith was inspired by the novels of Burroughs. Similarly, she has layered vocals so that disconnected lines interact with each other; Interactions like these cause our brains to interpret and fill the space between with meaning. I have always loved methods of layering and creating juxtaposition in all forms of art, and this song is a brilliant example.

And after a description of Johnny leaning against a parking meter, with a vision of him humping it, she ends with a vision of a man dancing to a simple rock n roll song, in the sheets. Is this the bed where Johnny screams out and nobody hears “the butterfly flapping in his throat”? This to is unclear. Is the “simple rock n roll song a Land of a Thousand Dances, or some other song? It’s most likely not self-referential; Of all that “Land” is, it’s definitely not a simple song. To me, this may suggest rock n roll itself as the savior of troubled or misfit youth. In the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N Roll“, Lou Reed described how “Despite all the amputations, You know you could just go out and dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station.” Patti Smith closes this troubled tale of Johnny with:

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock n roll
Song