Why Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' Hits Home Right Now

Band confronted their own romantic chaos on 1977 masterpiece, asking tough questions that still resonate

Rob Sheffield explores the genius of Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' – and why the album's themes of betrayal seem even more relevant 40 years on. Credit: Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Happy birthday to Fleetwood Mac's masterpiece Rumours, released 40 years ago this week, on February 4th, 1977. Human beings had been mating and separating for several dozen thousand years before Fleetwood Mac existed, but this band walked out of Rumours basically owning the whole concept of breaking up. The emotional trauma behind Rumours is the stuff of legend. As Lindsey Buckingham confided to Rolling Stone at the time, "Being in this band really fucks up relationships with chicks." Buckingham split with Stevie Nicks. Christine McVie divorced the bassist and moved in with the lighting director, shifting John's wedding ring to a different finger. Mick Fleetwood left his wife Jenny Boyd and fell for Nicks. As John McVie put it, "About the only people in the band who haven't had an affair are me and Lindsey."

It's an album that has eerie soothing powers when you hear it in the midst of a crisis, which might be why it hits home right now, with our minute-by-minute deluge of apocalyptic news, the rottenest month to be an American since FDR died. People have always gravitated to Rumours in hard times – it's the sound of five rock stars trying to plant their feet in the middle of a landslide, looking for strength amid all the emotional carnage. "Everybody was pretty weirded out," Christine McVie 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." You know things are desperate when the voice of maturity is Mick Fleetwood. But Rumours remains so powerful because it's so ruthlessly clear-eyed about the crisis, instead of smoothing it over. After all the tantrums and breakdowns and crying fits, the album ends with Stevie Nicks asking you point blank: "Is it over now? Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?" If the answers are "no" and "no," you flip the record and play it again.

The battle of Lindsey vs. Stevie is the heart of the album – it's still strange to see the Mac take the stage and open each show with these two lovebirds chanting "The Chain" together. As Stevie told me in 2014, "We write about each other, we have continually written about each other, and we'll probably keep writing about each other until we're dead. That's what we have always been to each other. Together, we have been through great success, great misunderstandings, a great musical connection."

Maybe, as Stevie warns in "Gold Dust Woman," rulers make bad lovers – but these two are just so damn great at being bad lovers. You can hear the tension explode in Lindsey's "Go Your Own Way," where all three singers join their voices for a rant about packing up and shacking up. For some reason, this song generated harsh vibes. "Now, I want you to know – that line about 'shacking up'?" Nicks said in 1980. "I never shacked up with anybody when I was with him! People will hear the song and think that! I was the one who broke up with him." So what went wrong? "All he wanted to do was fall asleep with that guitar."

The Seventies had so many divorce classics – Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Carole King's Tapestry, David Bowie's Low, Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear – except Rumours is where you hear the broken couples do their mourning and moaning together. It's like if every woman on Blood on the Tracks got to narrate her own verse, from the topless dancer to the Dante freak to the mathematician. There's pain all over the music, but there's also enough playful energy and lust to remind you why these bad lovers find it tough to let go. As Sly Stone sang in "Family Affair," perhaps the finest 1970s divorce song that doesn't involve a single member of Fleetwood Mac, it's a story where you don't want to leave because your heart is there, but you can't stay because you've been somewhere else.

Strangely, when Rumours dropped, the question was whether it could follow up the success of their 1975 blockbuster Fleetwood Mac, which looked like a fluke. The long-running English blues band, originally led by doomed guitar guru Peter Green, rolled through a strange haze of lineup changes, with guys like Danny Kirwan or Bob Welch taking over and moving on. Lindsey and Stevie joined as new kids in town, a pair of hungry San Francisco singer-songwriters scrounging around L.A. The new Mac became a surprise smash – but they paid for it, in a blizzard of narcotic and sexual chaos. "I don't care that everybody knows me and Chris and John and Lindsey and Mick all broke up," Stevie said. "Because we did." But she had no way then of knowing – none of them did – that Rumours would become a myth of monstrous proportions.

Part of it is the musical chemistry, anchored by Buckingham's virtuosic guitars and a rhythm section with a decade of blues gigs behind them. It's Fleetwood and Mac who define the groove – listen to any other band cover "Dreams" and you can hear right away it's not the same song. "The Chain" climaxes with a bass breakdown – remarkably akin to Peter Hook's epochal punk bassline in Joy Division's "Shadowplay." Buckingham showcases his finger-picking in "Never Going Back Again," which sounds like a breezy acoustic interlude until you hear his wounded, defeated vocals. And "Second Hand News" is such an evergreen pop riff, it became a career-making hit two decades later for Hanson, who changed the words to "MMMBop." For some daft reason, the Mac left "Silver Springs" off the album – barely anybody knew it existed until Stevie revived it on their 1997 reunion The Dance, giving Rumours a whole new self-sabotage legend.

There's an optimistic post-hippie fantasy at the core of Rumours, the hope that these civilized adults can be gracious in heartbreak and even empathetic, building a new community in the ashes of the old one. Christine McVie hides behind the "free to be you and me" sunshine of "Don't Stop" and "You Make Loving Fun," even though she's forcing John to play bass on an ode to how awesome it is to bang the new guy. ("I don't have to tell you, but you're the only one" – sure, Chris, that goes without saying.) It didn't work out with a happy ending for Fleetwood Mac – they kept torturing each other through the sublime madness of Tusk and the gloss of Mirage. Stevie made her big solo move with Bella Donna, and generously gave an autographed copy to Lindsey, who set it down on the studio floor and left it there unplayed for two weeks, until Stevie got mad and stole it back. That's why Rumours resonates – instead of a cozy ending where everyone ends up friends, it points to a future of struggle. How do you go on living in a community full of broken faith, face to face with the people who've betrayed you? Forty years after 1977, that question is a lot more than just these five rock stars' problem.

Watch five things you didn't know about Fleetwood Macs 'Rumors'.