“Art is only a way of expressing pain,” reckoned John Lennon – and with Rumours, Fleetwood Mac took massive hurt and polished it into a tour de force of pop-rock that helped define the 1970s. Now a 40-million seller that has transcended genre and fanbase, this album’s legend is half-based on the fractious relationships and excess that surrounded its very making…

“Trauma. Trau-ma.” That’s how Christine McVie described the making of Fleetwood Mac’s 11th album to Rolling Stone just after its release in 1977, forewarning the world of the one thing that everyone now knows about Rumours – that it’s an album born out of intense strife.

The album was going to be called Yesterday’s Gone, an apt enough description of crumbling relationships, but it was John McVie who coined the final title, said Christine: “We were all writing journals and diaries about each other. But we didn’t quite realise that until all the songs were strung together.”

When the members of Fleetwood Mac literally forced themselves to make Rumours under a grim cloud of infighting and powder-snorting, they were already a No. 1 band. When they came out of the studio with Rumours under-arms, they were going to get even bigger. But not much had got better on a personal level. Stevie Nicks was still dealing with the decline of her relationship with Lindsey Buckingham. However, their relationship started to grow at the Rolling Stone cover shoot soon after, when all five were shot in bed together by Annie Leibovitz.

But here’s the thing…Rumours doesn’t sound like a troubled record. Yes, there is disharmony – venom even – in its lyrical underbelly, but such things don’t always translate to a sunny-afternoon cruise in a convertible with a car radio blaring. And for that recreation, Rumours is perfect. It’s melodically masterful: equal parts dream-pop, concise rock and pristine folk, all produced beautifully. Much of it sounds positively joyous. Go figure.

“We refused to let our feelings derail our commitment to the music, no matter how complicated or intertwined they became.It was hard to do, but no matter what, we played through the hurt.” – Mick Fleetwood

The reward for this stoicism, amid such a “classic intergalactic mess” (Fleetwood again), is an estimated 40 million albums sold. Rumours was dreadfully uncool at the time, of course. It came out at the vanguard of punk: The Damned’s Damned Damned Damned, the first full album by a UK punk band, was also released in February 1977. There were certainly few anarchy-chasing UK teens who’d countenance this California slickness by a bunch of ageing, drug-addled hippies. And rightly so, as Rumours is an adult record. Yet it’s certainly endured. Which makes its birth even more incredible.

The Songs

Early on, it was simply known as Strummer (although producer Ken Caillat has suggested Buckingham was at first just keeping the lyrics a secret from Nicks). Caillat also said John McVie originally had an “amazing, flowing and melodic bass part”, but the pop-focused Buckingham insisted it was changed for a much simpler quarter-note pattern. He wanted a groove that echoed the Bee Gees’ Jive Talkin’. “This was the start of [Buckingham] really calling the shots,” Caillat recalled. “It became a ‘my way or the highway’ thing with him, which he perfected on the Tusk album.” Part of the rhythm track is Buckingham banging out ‘drums’ on a faux-leather studio chair.

At Sausalito’s Record Plant there was a converted office/studio room known as ‘Sly Stone’s Pit’ – decorated with plush maroon carpet on the floors, walls and ceiling, a semi-circular black- velvet bed, and Victorian drapes – where Nicks would disappear to tinker on her electric piano. One day, she came back with the (essentially three-chord) song, Dreams. Christine McVie later explained to Q: “The Lindsey genius came into play and he fashioned three sections out of identical chords, making each section sound completely different. He created the impression that there’s a thread running through the whole thing.” Buckingham’s efforts seem somewhat incongruous, as Dreams’ metaphor-laden words are aimed squarely at him. Fans often point to the genius of Fleetwood’s metronomic drum playing on Dreams, but its basic hypnotic effect was achieved by Caillat lifting eight bars of his playing and looping it. Fleetwood added overdubs after.

Buckingham and Caillat were so focused on achieving the brightest possible sound for his acoustic guitar at the dead- sounding Record Plant studios that they agreed to change strings every 20 minutes during specific takes. In the end, they even moved to LA’s Sound City Studios to record this particular track. Caillat admitted that: “I’m sure the roadies wanted to kill me,” for having to re-string three times an hour, and they were probably more livid when he and Buckingham realised that the perfect guitar take of Never Going Back Again was in the wrong key. So, Buckingham re-recorded the two guitar parts and his vocals the next day – but without bothering to change his strings this time.

This was written by Christine for John, trying to assure him he’ll feel better one day about her leaving him. Which, even if he had been an ass, didn’t mean it was easy for him to play on. It started out with McVie alone singing, but that wasn’t working – so Buckingham took over all but the second verse. It was more positive than much of the lyrical content of Rumours: “It might have, I guess, been directed more toward John, but I’m just definitely not a pessimist.” It’s now forever entwined/tainted with Bill (and Hillary) Clinton’s political campaigning: President Bill persuaded the then-disbanded Mac to reform and perform it for his inaugural ball in 1993, and by the end, they were joined onstage by both Clintons, a host of White House aides and (why not?) Warren Beatty, Chuck Berry and Michael Jackson.

Buckingham wanted a drum feel akin to Charlie Watts on The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man: “[The] rhythm was a tom-tom structure that Lindsey demoed by hitting Kleenex boxes or something,” Fleetwood recalled. “I never quite got to grips with what he wanted, so the end result was my mutated interpretation…” (he later blamed his dyslexia). Nicks was particularly affronted by Buckingham’s acerbic: “Packing up/Shacking up is all you want to do.” Buckingham’s outro guitar solo was comp’d together by 84 Caillat at the last minute from “about six” takes at Criteria Studios in Miami. Buckingham nearly throttled Caillat when the producer/engineer deleted a take the guitarist said he liked… even though he had just told Caillat to delete it, because they were running out of tracks.

This was recorded at Berkeley’s University Of California Zellerbach Auditorium, with Christine McVie playing a nine- foot Steinway grand (with a bouquet of roses on top) and 15 mics placed around the auditorium. In Making Rumours: The Inside Story Of The Classic Fleetwood Mac Album, Ken Caillat wrote: “When Christine arrived, we dimmed the house lights so that all she could see were the flowers and the piano with the spotlight shining down from the heavens. She nearly broke into tears. Then she started to play.” Buckingham’s acoustic guitar was also recorded live as he monitored McVie’s performance, but recorded on separate mics away from the soundstage.

Side 2’s legendary opener is the only Fleetwood Mac song (by this line-up) co-credited to all five members. It started as a Christine McVie song called Keep Me There, was melded with a McVie bassline from an early jam as a bridge, was arranged largely by Buckingham and had words written by Nicks. It was pieced together from bits – hence ‘the chain’ – but the lyrics grew into something of a metaphor for the band members’ co-dependence. Richard Dashut has claimed the only time on Rumours when instruments at the Record Plant were recorded live together is the drums, bass and lead guitar of The Chain’s outro – famous for years, of course, as the TV theme for Formula 1 Grand Prix motorsport.

For once, Buckingham wasn’t around directing everything from birth, and Christine played Hammond B3, clavinet and Fender Rhodes with Fleetwood adding wind chimes and castanets to his drums. McVie couldn’t master the wah-pedal part on her clavinet simultaneously, so Fleetwood – on his hands and knees – played the pedal. Of Nicks and Buckingham’s ethereal backing vocals, Caillat recalled: “Stevie and Lindsey were having an argument. Vicious name-calling, ‘you motherfucker’ this, ‘you fucking bastard’ that. Back and forth it went. The tape would start rolling and they’d sing… just beautiful, two little angels. The tape would stop and they’d be calling each other names again. They didn’t miss a beat.”

Nicks’ lyrics were aimed at Buckingham, but on the recording, the duo aptly end up singing it at each other. The sonic detail in the recording of Rumours is evident in Buckingham’s acoustic guitar’s string squeaks. Buckingham had organised the rest of the band to record the backing track without Nicks’ knowledge – it was meant as appeasement, as he planned to leave her Silver Springs, also about Buckingham, off the album… Nicks was initially incensed.

Written by McVie for Mick Fleetwood (who the rest of the band called ‘Big Daddy’), and another track dominated by Buckingham’s delicate acoustic-guitar overdubbing. Known as ‘Addy’ for a month as a joke, after Caillat accidentally sliced McVie’s vocal on the master tape. They fixed it, of course. Another overdub!

Another song about a relationship gone horribly wrong: this time, Nicks’ (and others’) affair with cocaine. In 2003, she told Uncut: “Drug-taking was methodical when we got to LA. Gold Dust Woman was about how we all love the ritual of it, the little bottle, the diamond-studded spoons, the fabulous velvet bags. For me, it fitted right into the incense and candles and that stuff.” Nicks recorded her howling vocals at around 4am, after downing loads of Courvoisier cognac – before Fleetwood overdubbed his smashing of glass sheets, thrown from the top of a ladder while he was dressed in full protective overalls and goggles.

Music aside, the Fleetwood Mac “family” (their word) was hugely dysfunctional. Christine and John McVie had recently split after eight years of marriage and were not speaking. Nicks and Buckingham, despite their musical chemistry, were rapidly heading the same way. Mick Fleetwood was mainly talking to lawyers: he and his wife Jenny Boyd were in the midst of a divorce. “Everybody was pretty weirded out,” Christine McVie later told Rolling Stone. “Somehow, Mick was there, the figurehead: ‘We must carry on… let’s be mature about this, sort it out’. Somehow we waded through it.”

Fleetwood Mac booked into the Record Plant in Sausalito, near San Francisco, in February 1976 to record what would become Rumours. Although the Record Plant facilities in New York and Los Angeles were set up for expansive and loud rock recording, the Sausalito operation was much smaller. The bunker-like room Fleetwood Mac used was just 30 feet by 20 feet and a very dry-sounding space – it’s one of Rumours’ distinguishing sonic footprints.

Producers/engineers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut recorded onto a 24-track tape with state-of-the-art mics, though it still took a while to get the clarity of sound they wanted, and squashing in the band themselves was something of an emotional challenge. It was a kooky place. After a demand from previous client Sly Stone, the Record Plant had managed to obtain industrial-grade nitrous oxide under the pretext that the gas was somehow critical to an album’s recording process: it was actually so they could supply gas masks hanging from the studio’s ceiling for Sly to get high on ‘laughing gas’. But Fleetwood Mac weren’t laughing much at all. Caillat certainly had his work cut out, way beyond the basics of engineering and co-producing as a relative newcomer.

“I remember Mick walking into the control room as white as a ghost, and of course, everyone rallied around him… but then there was John and Christine’s break-up. She’d sneak her new boyfriend into the studio just as John was walking out through another door, and we were kinda ducking – ‘When are the two chemicals going to mix? When are we going to have the explosion?’” – Ken Caillat

In the liner notes to the Rumours reissue in 2013, Nicks wrote: “Even though Go Your Own Way was a little angry, it was also honest. So then I wrote Dreams, and because I’m the chiffony chick who believes in fairies and angels, and Lindsey is a hardcore guy, it comes out differently. Lindsey is saying, go ahead and date other men and go live your crappy life, and [I’m] singing about the rain washing you clean. We were coming at it from opposite angles, but we were really saying the same exact thing.“It was the fairy and the gnome,” she also judged, on the contrast between her songs and Buckingham’s. “I was trying to be all philosophical. And he was just mad.”

Christine’s songs weren’t as raw, but were mostly aimed at her former partner, who she had just left. He wasn’t enjoying himself, either: “I’d listen to the words [of Don’t Stop], which were mostly about me, and I’d get a lump in my throat. I’d turn around and the writer’s sitting right there.” It probably didn’t help that she’d left him for the band’s lighting director, Curry Grant, who John would see every time Fleetwood Mac toured; and that Christine’s You Make Loving Fun was a silky salutation to how wonderful her new man was. Bummer.

Relationships were so fraught that, while ‘the boys’ lived in the hillside house that came with residency at the Record Plant, Nicks and Christine stayed in separate apartments on the Sausalito seafront. But even some nights after they had left the studio, a stoned John McVie would come looking for Christine. “He’d be walking up and down the corridor, very upset, screaming her name, and she’d be hiding in my room,” Nicks later recalled. Despite his own marriage troubles, Mick Fleetwood knew he was getting off relatively lightly: “At least I didn’t have to actually work with my ex-spouse,” he noted. Indeed, John McVie’s turmoil lasted years.

When the band reunited in 1997, 20 years later, he was still smarting, according to Christine: “One night, during the 1997 tour, we all got drunk together in the hotel bar after a gig and he decided to address the entire room on the subject: ‘She’s a lovely, lovely lady, my ex-wife, even though she told me to fuck off,”’ she remembered John bellowing, before he struggled to his feet, fell and knocked over an entire table of drinks. “About the only people in the band who haven’t had an affair are me and Lindsey,” John McVie noted, wryly. (Note: just after Rumours, the clearly forgiving Christine soon invited Sandra Elsdon to share her new LA house – she was John’s secret on-off girlfriend, the ex-partner of Peter Green, and later married Rumours’ sleeve artist Larry Vigon. Keep up!).

The soap opera continued when Mac relocated to LA for overdubs and mixing. The tape machine at Wally Heider Studios kept chewing the 3,000 hours of Sausalito masters – the machine was duly nicknamed ‘Jaws’ – and they nearly lost the whole album. Fortunately, Caillat – for the first time in his career – had ensured backup 24-tracks were made at the Record Plant, which they brought in. More overdubbing (primarily Buckingham’s guitar layers) was completed in a small room in Hollywood Boulevard’s porno district. By then, Nicks and Christine McVie mostly stayed away, unless needed. There were even more overdubs recorded at Sound City and the Record Plant in LA, and at Miami’s Criteria Studios. When it became time for the band’s press duties, the five members insisted on being interviewed separately – inbetween sloping in and out of rehab.

Selling 800,000 copies a week at its height, Rumours became one of rock music’s defining recordings. When Rolling Stone initially praised its “pantheistic celebration of love and nature”, they only made the same error that everyone else did. It simply sounded fantastic – when records are crafted with this amount of skill, the underlying themes barely seem to matter. Or even get noticed. Gold pulled from the wreckage, a diamond from dust? Whatever else Rumours was, it was a fabulous pop-rock record.

“Looking back, it’s like listening to war stories. But you have to remember there were people yelling in pain with their legs shot away. There’s blood and guts and disagreements still to this day. But that’s what makes it mean a shit.” – Mick Fleetwood