andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Passion in the pasta aisle – or, why I love Fleetwood Mac – but won’t go to see them

What a strange place my local supermarket, Morrison’s, is. First there’s the Eighties rock-show style dry ice partially obscuring the living herbs in the fruit and veg section: I mean, whose idea was it to put that in? You half-expect Alice Cooper to loom out of the mist at you, offering a suggestively shaped courgette.
As you venture further amongst the greenery, the mists clear but things get weirder, as it becomes apparent that a disruption of the space/time continuum has led to tomatoes, for example, being available in January; in fact, so much of the fresh produce appears out of season that the whole concept of ‘season’ appears to have disappeared in this retail demi-monde you’ve stumbled into.
Okay, so I know the real reason for these little bags of unripe tomato-based water is they’ve been dragged out of the cold, unyielding Southern European earth with the aid of acres of plastic sheeting and some underpaid Morrocans made to sleep on a toxic agrichemical dump between twenty hour shifts, but let’s face it, if anyone had the commercial clout and corporate hubris to change the laws of physics, it would be the UK’s Big Four supermarkets.
Stumbling clear of the fruit and veg, dazed and confused, you might encounter further reality paradigm shifts amongst the alcohol, where any of the discounted wines are clearly sucked into a wormhole in space as soon as the shelves are stocked, that being the only reason that NONE OF THE WINES ON OFFER YOU WANT ARE EVER THERE.
But none of the above, for all its discombobulating effect on your general mental well-being, can compare with the music they play at you as you shuffle round, slack-jawed, filling your trolley with what you think you might want in three days’ time.
Ah, the music! I remember one time we shopped on Saturday evening instead, and they were playing showtunes. I mean, showtunes! I thought they played music to make you slow down and buy more stuff, gently calmed by reassuring melodies tickling the back of your medulla, didn’t they? Your actual showtunes. That stuff frankly just made me want to kill.
The Saturday morning selection, to be fair, is generally more palatable in a ‘best of MOR over the decades’ kind of a way. I’ve admitted before to having a high tolerance level for MOR (or is it AOR, I could never quite tell the difference?) that forever banishes me from the land of fully fledged, golden-eared musos. I mean, if you actually listen to it going round, as I do, there’s some unusual stuff mixed in there amongst the Dr Hook and the Sheryl Crow. Sometimes even the Stranglers sneak in.
I guess, to be honest, all this shows I’m overthinking it: it’s meant to be aural wallpaper; music for people that don’t really like music. But that doesn’t take account of the fact that even an MOR classic can inspire powerful emotions amongst customers; memories, dreams, fantastical imaginings that mean the family sized bag of fusilli pasta just gets missed that day.
A case in point. I can remember it as if it were yesterday: I was in the cooked meats section of the chiller cabinets when Fleetwood Mac’s classic, ‘Go Your Own Way,’ came on.
Morrison’s, what have you done: how on earth was I meant to find the sliced chorizo or, indeed, the Swedish meatballs, when the break up song that documented my every late teens to early twenties relationship crisis was blasting out above the hum of the refrigeration units? I mean, those heartfelt lyrics that man, you just knew almost by heart! That simple yet brilliant acoustic guitar riff scrubbing across the words! And, finally, that paint-blistering electric guitar solo at the end, telling the story – your story – better than the words themselves could (particularly as packing up, or indeed shacking up, wasn’t actually what any of my girlfriends of the time wanted to do, to be honest).
As I drifted, emotional flashbacks crowding me and my trolley, out of the chilled meats and onwards to the sandwich spreads and then, perchance, the cheeses, it was almost a relief for Buckingham’s guitar heroics to be interrupted by a colleague announcement inviting Donna to lend a hand at the checkouts. Almost. Still deeply annoying though. No offence, Donna.
Okay, so I’m overstating this for supposedly comic effect. Actually, it could just as well have been the dishwashing and detergents aisle: I’m fibbing when I say I can remember it as if it were yesterday, because it happens once every three months or so. My point, if I have one, is the music you grow up with, the music you first fall in love to, the music you chant at protest marches in your heady, idealistic youth, can still exert a strong emotional pull many years into your so-called adulthood.
And, in the interests of political balance, that for me goes also for ‘No More Heroes,’ ‘God Save the Queen,’ Roxanne,’ and most of Elvis Costello’s early stuff, before he started writing operettas and shit. Ditto Abba, as I have previously confessed without the need of waterboarding.
Anyways. My knowledge of Fleetwood Mac was, for many years, strictly limited to ‘Rumours,’ their classic 1977 album, and its not so classic follow ups, ‘Tusk,’ (of which more later) and ‘Tango in the Night’. However, my first conscious awareness of them came through an earlier single, ‘Rhiannon,’ which Wikipedia tells me was released in the UK in April 1976. I would have been a callow youth of 13 then (yes, I really am that old), an impressionable age to hear Stevie Nicks’s honey-voiced vocal, let me tell you.
It was only recently that I bought, through the all-encompassing might of Amazon, a CD of the album it came from, ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ the 1975 album which, I will argue, if not the equal of ‘Rumours,’ is certainly pretty damn worth a listen, having been eclipsed long ago by its successor.
(As an aside, when I talk about ‘Fleetwood Mac, the album,’ I do mean the second album Fleetwood Mac produced called ‘Fleetwood Mac.’ Not to be confused with the first album Fleetwood Mac produced called ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ in 1968. The second one, also known as their White Album, apparently. Not to be confused with the Beatles’ White Album… oh, you’ll get the picture in a minute).
So. For those of you not intimately aware of the band Fleetwood Mac and its history, by 1975 the original group, having scored early successes with hits like ‘Albatross,’ and having produced nine albums (including that first eponymous one) had been reduced personnel-wise to the gnarled blues-rock stump of Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), with McVie’s wife Christine having now joined them on keyboards and vocals.
In need of a guitar player, they decamped to Los Angeles (as you do) and were introduced to Lindsey Buckingham, who could clearly play a bit, but insisted on bringing along his girlfriend of the time, Stevie Nicks, with whom he had just released an album, ‘Buckingham Nicks.’ And so, on New Year’s Eve, 1974, the classic ‘Rumours era’ Fleetwood Mac line up was forged, in a heady mix of Californian winter sunshine, emotional baggage and, I shouldn’t wonder, a couple of celebratory lager shandies.
The really unusual thing about this line up wasn’t the instruments they played, but rather the combination of three singer-songwriters in Christine McVie, Buckingham, and Nicks. All extremely talented, all very different in style, somehow different collaborations of them were to produce some of their best work, although, as we’ll see, a lot of the songs were actually solo efforts.
So, for example, ‘Fleetwood Mac’ (‘the album’) opens with ‘Monday morning,’ a medium-paced, country-tinged rocker that the likes of the Eagles could have churned out equally well. A sunny, upbeat start to the album, musically it bears a strong resemblance to the opening on ‘Rumours,’ ‘Second Hand News,’ being both Buckingham compositions, and both short and sweet at under three minutes. Even lyrically, there’s a similar feel to it: the difference, ,mainly, is the later song had more care and attention put into the guitar work.
Overall, as on Rumours, the solo credits outweigh the collaborations: Christine McVie contributes ‘Warm Ways,’ ‘Over my Head,’ ‘Say You Love Me,’ and ‘Sugar Daddy;’ Nicks gives us ‘Rhiannon,’ ‘Crystal,’ and ‘Landslide,’ whilst Buckingham’s other solo effort is ‘I’m So Afraid,’ a harder-rocking number to finish the album, with a wig-out guitar solo from your man the last thing you hear.
For me, Christine McVie shows a strong influence from Carole King on her songs. ‘Warm Ways’ is a very mid-Seventies, keyboard-led schmooze; ‘Over My Head’ is again full of electric keys and yearning lyrics about a new love; whilst ‘Say You Love Me’ is the pick of them, a soulful, country-tinged rocker featuring Buckingham on guitars and banjo on the single version. It was a hit at the time, and it’s easy to see why: sunny, upbeat, funky and with a great vocal.
It was the kind of vibe McVie was to repeat – with even more success – on ‘Rumours,’ with ‘Don’t Stop,’ and ‘You Make Lovin’ Fun.’ The difference was, on the latter album she also contributed ‘Songbird,’ a classic piano ballad, recorded on a Steinway in a concert hall to give it its haunting, echo-laden sound; and ‘’Oh Daddy,’ a chilly, beautiful song reportedly about Mick Fleetwood, the ‘father’ of the band.
And then there’s Stevie Nicks. For a long time, Stevie Nicks felt like a guilty pleasure to me, because she seemed to represent the worst of that West Coast, hippy-dippy, ever so slightly pretentious lyricism that was just waiting to be swept away by John Lydon and co. Never, indeed, mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols.
And yet. And yet. ‘Rhiannon’ might be about a Welsh witch, and feature sixth-form poetry like ‘she is like a cat in the dark/and then she is the darkness,’ but it features a real earworm of a guitar riff, which is also eminently playable (go to A minor and fiddle about on the chord, budding guitarists – you’ll work it out for yourself) and, of course, that voice of hers. ‘Landslide,’ a quieter, melodic number, is lifted by that same glorious instrument, and Buckingham’s sensitive acoustic guitar.
Buckingham has to take most of the credit for the arrangement, one presumes, for ‘Crystal,’ the last and greatest of Nicks’s contributions to the album. For a start, he sings it, not Nicks. Then there is the utterly gorgeous cascade of acoustic guitar, complemented perfectly by Christine McVie’s keyboards. When I bought the album recently, I recognised one or two of the songs, but this – this masterpiece, sounding as fresh as the day it was recorded? Not that I could remember.
‘Fleetwood Mac’ became an instant hit, far greater than anything the previous incarnations of the band had done album-wise. And so the pressure began to build on the band for the next album – effectively, for this line up, that legendarily difficult second album. And into the studio they went, for about a year, giving rise to rumours and, er, ‘Rumours.’
On that album, Christine McVie was to reprise her King-esque, keyboard led, soul-funk Seventies thing, and then top it with those two classics, ‘Songbird,’ and ‘Oh Daddy.’ Buckingham was to pen ‘Second Hand News,’ ramp up the guitar wizardry on ‘Never Going Back Again,’ and just generally raise the craft of sympathetic guitar sounds – electric and acoustic – to a whole new level. (For an example of this, the bonus edition of ‘Rumours’ I now have features an earlier cut of ‘Go Your Own Way,’ without that magic acoustic guitar scrub. Suddenly, it’s fine, but it’s just not … special?)
The band as a whole were to collaborate on ‘The Chain,’ two separate songs by Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks spliced together, with that iconic bass solo from John McVie, and, of course, lashings of electric guitar from Buckingham to close.
Nicks was to contribute ‘Dreams,’ ‘I Don’t Want to Know,’ and ‘Gold Dust Woman,’ the latter an astonishingly frank – for its time – account of the dark well of cocaine addiction she was headed down.
‘Fleetwood Mac’ doesn’t quite match up to that in its songs, even if it had had the same irresistible back story of everyone breaking up with each other whilst off their tits on just about everything. For about a year (legend has it they took a day and a half to agree on the tuning of a piano). But it’s like, the band climbed Kilimanjaro one year with ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ and then next year donned respirators and conquered Everest with ‘Rumours.’ There’s no denying Everest, but Kilimanjaro’s quite a thing, too. And they did it without respirators. Or the right boots.
After ‘Rumours,’ things didn’t go so well. They gave Buckingham his head production-wise on ‘Tusk,’ and he had them lying face down on a tiled floor singing their vocals, because he thought that would produce the sound he was looking for. Or so he said: he might’ve just been taking the piss. I suspect it might have been quite difficult to tell at that point.
To be fair, just as Springsteen has said about the making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ ‘Tusk’ was being made in the monstrous, lumpen shadow of punk. The sunny, emotionally open West Coast vibe had gone, replaced by something a bit more pared back, and Buckingham, like Springsteen, felt the wind of change at his back. New, harder-edged heroines like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde emerged, and the only other way to go for female singer-songwriters seemed to be off-planet, like Kate Bush. For the blokes, wig-out guitar solos were only for the metal guys with poodle haircuts. It all got a bit tribal for a bit.
Two things happened in fairly short order to me recently: one was I bought, for the first time, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks…’ on CD. It was, like ‘Rumours,’ recorded in 1976, although not released till October the next year. Time hasn’t, for me, been so kind to it – although it’s hard to top the singles, particularly ‘God Save the Queen,’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK.’
The second thing is that I was reminded by someone that Fleetwood Mac, the complete, Rumours-era package, with added Christine McVie, were coming soon to an aircraft hangar near me, viz Glasgow’s SSE Hydro. The tickets are about eighty quid.
I won’t be going. For that money, I’ve seen Foals, Temples and Lucy Rose, three separate gigs with younger artists at the top of their game, with the added bonus of being in much smaller venues than the SSE. Much as I wish Fleetwood Mac well on their pension pot tour, I fear I would feel I was being marketed a reheated soufflé rather than something just out of the oven. Besides, I don’t think Daughter and Heiress would go with me, and the Redoubtable Mrs F doesn’t like standing at gigs.
1976 was such a long time ago. Blimey, next year it’ll be forty years! We live in such a changed world now. Fruit and veg with no seasons. Wine bottles disappearing into wormholes in space, and celeb culture oozing into every crevice in the collective unconscious. We change with it, or run the risk of becoming a heritage item.
But next time you see some middle-aged bozo pushing a trolley in Morrison’s, making strange guitar-like noises under his breath in the cold meats aisle, listen to whatever it is musically punctuating the customer announcements, and have a care.
If it’s ‘Go Your Own Way,’ that bozo could be me.

 

 

 

 

 

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