The art of falling apart

Fleetwood Mac's best-known album was made while romances among band members were disintegrating, John Robinson writes, resulting in a clutch of classic songs. A 35th-anniversary edition belatedly broke cover this week.

Fleetwood Mac, circa 1977. Clockwise from left: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie and Stevie Nicks, centre. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
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Rumours – Expanded edition
Fleetwood Mac
Warner Bros

The centrepiece of Fleetwood Mac's biggest-selling album starts with the sound of an exasperated profanity - a strange beginning, or so it first appears, for so stirring a song, on so ubiquitous a collection.

Rockers love it, and for a long time, part of the piece has been the signature tune of BBC motor racing coverage. For the members of Fleetwood Mac, The Chain has become nothing less than an anthem: to see footage of the band performing the song is to witness a group in near-delirious celebration of themselves and their enduring connection. We will never, they tell their ecstatic arena crowds, break the chain.

If that fact feels like a cause for celebration now, it certainly didn't at the time of the song's composition. Rather than being connected by some kind of mystical interlocking of energies, at the time they made Rumours, Fleetwood Mac were more manacled together by circumstance. A group until recently chiefly made up of two couples - John McVie (bass) and his wife Christine McVie (keyboards and vocals); Lindsey Buckingham (guitar, vocals) and Stevie Nicks (vocals) - the relationships were now breaking down. Amid this emotional scene, they faced a challenge: to write and record the follow-up to an album (1975's Fleetwood Mac) that had debuted their new and sophisticated transatlantic pop-rock sound, and become a platinum seller.

The album they made, rather than reflecting the ease brought about by the dramatic improvement in their professional lives, instead anatomises the relationship fallout that engulfed the band while holed-up in a windowless studio in Sausalito, California, working on it. Buckingham, the studio perfectionist and inspired pop arranger, wrote the hostile Go Your Own Way for (more accurately "at") Nicks. Christine McVie wrote the optimistic Don't Stop for her soon to be ex-husband, reminding him that things would look brighter with passing time. This was possibly only a small consolation for the fact that she had also written You Make Loving Fun for her new boyfriend, Fleetwood Mac's lighting director. Nicks wrote the slightly vaguer, disappointed Dreams ("You say you want your freedom …") for Buckingham. Nicks also wrote Gold Dust Woman about another damaging affair - her relationship with cocaine.

Given its confessional, incestuous nature, John McVie suggested the album be titled Rumours - an album that has since become so popular that it can regally turn up, as it does here, a year late for its 35th-anniversary edition. Over the course of the material collected here, meanwhile (a three-CD "expanded" edition that includes a live album and a CD of working roughs; a "deluxe" edition that adds to this another disc of near-complete mixes, and a DVD of Rosebud, a much-bootlegged 1977 documentary film), you can intimately chart the band's progress through their unenviable task.

The toxic, humid mood is tough to hide, even outside the songs. In photos of the period, Christine McVie is seldom seen without a bottle of white wine. In the Rosebud film, Buckingham asks McVie how he wants to do something, and McVie just shrugs blankly. "I don't care," he says, "I just want to go home." The album took a year to make, during which time the mastertapes began to degrade from overuse - as if the very hardware of the recording studio was reminding them how damaging it could be to go over the same emotional issues.

The only group composition on an album made by self-obsessed individuals, it is The Chain that best articulates Fleetwood Mac's situation at the time - its three discrete elements articulating the band's estrangement from one another. As you can hear over the course of this set, one part comes from a rather sleepy Nicks song called The Chain. The concluding guitar blowout comes from an outro to a McVie composition called Keep Me There. The verse comes from a reworked old song by Buckingham. It's not called The Chain because of some cosmic understanding between band members. It's called The Chain because it comprises three utterly separate elements that have been pragmatically stuck together by Lindsey Buckingham. Hence, one presumes, his exasperated swearing on the lead-in.

Time has made it an anthem, but the expedient composition of the song reveals an important truth about the pragmatism at the heart of Fleetwood Mac. Once a stalwart hard rock band, necessity had forced them to change so often that by the time they arrived at the line-up that made Rumours, the band were in their third distinct phase. Fronted by the mercurial Peter Green, at the end of the 1960s the band had enjoyed chart success with an eerie and lyrical take on the blues. When Green left, mellower songs were written to diminishing commercial returns by another guitarist, Bob Welch. When Welch departed, Mick Fleetwood (the drummer for and sergeant major of the band) doggedly searched again for new musicians.

As is often the case with relationships, Fleetwood went looking for one thing, but found another - he went looking for a guitarist, but found the defining sound of the 1970s. Buckingham and Nicks, musically speaking, were an odd couple (he a meticulous tunesmith and arranger; she a far vaguer writer, her wafty persona part white witch, part reiki masseuse), but their talents, even when directed at one another, helped create an affluent, supremely harmonious new sound.

For the "Me" decade, Fleetwood Mac delivered the "me" album. Rumours, with its gleaming tunes and subtext of "we need to talk about us" is as indivisible from the affluent American culture of the period as a woman in a beret discussing her aura. At precisely the moment when punk rock was thought to have the monopoly on rawness, Fleetwood Mac provided all of the emotional rancour and disappointment ("Being with you/Isn't the right thing to do …") of the most ardent punk band, and yet delivered it in the most fabulously smooth and appealing fashion. These are hard words that are softly intimated.

Still, as modern as it sounded - critics said it was "very 1970s", even in the 1970s - there were still traces of the band that Fleetwood Mac had once been. Christine McVie's Don't Stop (later Bill Clinton's election campaign song) was based on the kind of gutsy piano shuffle that would have pleased the blues aficionados they once played to. On Go Your Own Way and The Chain, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood provide groovy rhythm support for Buckingham's screaming lead guitar.

Things never quite become unhinged, however. McVie's piano is Bluthner grand rather than battered barrelhouse, and Buckingham's guitar is simply another texture that he adds to his palette in his ongoing mastery of studio dynamics. Throughout the album, in fact, we find the very signifiers that we formerly associated with the wild and searching nature of 1960s rock music to have been repurposed and redirected. Turned inwards, in order to articulate a set of raw, domestic, and individual truths.

On Rumours, the band's disparate talents (Buckingham's folky pop melodies; Nicks's mystic incantations) are all likewise polished to serve the streamlined sound. It is probably Christine McVie's writing, however, that seems most absolutely in tune with the times. You Make Loving Fun, a sprightly funk on a Fender Rhodes piano, is a tidy, Steely Dan-like groove. Her solo showcase Songbird, meanwhile, is a classic confessional ballad of the period, simultaneously completely personal and instantly universal. That it was recorded in an empty concert hall, a rose and a bottle of champagne atop the piano should almost go without saying.

That mix of public and private is the peculiar genius of Rumours: it transformed the utterly specific human resources problems arising from a rock group's workplace romances into the ninth biggest-selling album of all time. The album's massive commercial success, meanwhile, has become a different kind of chain for the band: a diamond-studded leash and collar that has kept them together long after it would arguably have been healthier to part. The band will tour again this summer.

Successive generations of fans, meanwhile, have come to the record seduced by its melodies, and stayed for the emotional veracity of the songs. A younger generation has found its own labels ("coke rock"; "divorce rock") as an ironic way to distance themselves from their enjoyment of such a mainstream, even unfashionable record.

Neither are wrong: from the very start of its lifespan, Rumours has been an album impossible to separate from the circumstances of its making. In 1977, Stevie Nicks didn't shy away from the fact that the torrid romantic narrative behind the album would help sell it. Of the story, to Rolling Stone magazine she shrugged, "Am I going to try and say that's not interesting?" Today, in the liner notes for the album, she has hardened her position: "The truth about Rumours," she says, "is that Rumours was the truth."

John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.