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Fleetwood Mac: Back on the Chain Gang

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Lindsey Buckingham was born to relative privilege in Palo Alto, Calif., and raised nearby in Atherton. His father, Morris, ran a coffee plant ("Small and slowly not doing so well and eventually went under"); two older brothers were golden, suburban jock types – brother Greg won a silver medal for swimming in the '68 Olympics. Lindsey was a high school junior singing "California Dreamin'" at somebody's house when transfer student Stephanie Nicks, a senior, saw him. Two years later, she was the chick singer and he the bassist in a post-high school band called Fritz. It was understood that none of the guys would hit on her. But when Nicks and Buckingham migrated to Los Angeles to shop the band's demo (he was on guitar by now), they were tapped by the Polydor label – without their band mates. In Nicks' room at the Tropicana Motel, confusion was sown, innocence lost. "Why it happened between me and Lindsey was because we were so sad that we had to tell the three guys in the band that nobody wanted them, only us," she says.

Once they'd broken up with the band and their respective steadies, "our relationship was great," says Nicks. "We had other problems: didn't have a lot of money, alone in L.A., didn't have our families, no friends, didn't know anybody. But we had each other.

"I knew that we were going to be somebody," says Nicks. "I think that he had a little bit less belief in the fact that we would really make it big. I always knew."

Fleetwood Mac Debut At No. 1

This particular crystal vision did have to wait. When Buckingham got mononucleosis, they moved back north, short on cash. Nicks continued college but often stayed with the Buckinghams in their living room. The two cut tracks, working nights in a spare room at the gloomy coffee plant. "It was scary there," says Nicks. "Good acoustics, though." Working with a four-track Ampex tape machine, they built songs one channel at a time, the old Beatles way. The tracks would form the basis for their 1973 album, Buckingham-Nicks, but the musical idyll was interrupted by his father's heart illness and death, at age 54. "His dad died within a year, as we watched, and it was awful," Nicks says. "I picked up the phone and had to hand it to Lindsey the morning his father died. Devastating. Changed all of our lives."

The singing duo set up shop in a slightly beat section of L.A. with engineer Keith Olsen and another musician friend, and despite the occasional passed-out sessionman on the floor, Nicks and Buckingham grew domestic. "From '71 through '75," says Nicks, "I lived with Lindsey all those years. We were absolutely married. In every way [but for the ring]. I cooked, I cleaned, I worked. I took care of him."

Buckingham-Nicks, made with credentialed studio players like Jim Keltner, had an almost Delaney and Bonnie Southern twang and even got a pocket of rabid fans in Birmingham, Ala. This aberration may have been what led to an odd New York meeting with a Polydor A&R type who told them, "I think you'd be better off, you know, if you did something more like this," and put a 45 on his office turntable – Jim Stafford's crackerbilly hit "Spiders and Snakes." They had a tenuous spec deal to make a second record, but even as the advisers "were trying to glom us off on the steakhouse circuit, the one-way ticket to Palookaville," as Buckingham says, Fleetwood was making his legendary visit to Olsen's studio and hearing "Frozen Love," from the duo's LP. A week later, when Bob Welch left the band that Fleetwood had been nurturing since 1967, Buckingham got the call, and within days, the newly minted Mac were in rehearsals.

What would become a sturdy friendship between Nicks and Christine McVie took immediately, in a let's-see coffee-shop meeting. By contrast, John McVie, who still missed the band's original but now acid-damaged guitar god, Peter Green, found Buckingham – who began by advising him to play "simpler" – brash.

John McVie, a man of wry and placid, not to say mournful, aspect, misses Green (now embarked on a low-key comeback) to this day. He distinctly recalls the fateful trip to Germany where Green went astray. "We had been selling more records than the Beatles," he says. "It was an amazing time." Then, one night at a gig, came "German jet-set kids, hippies with money, and they had a whole ploy. They dangled a carrot in the shape and form of a beautiful young German model in front of him, and they got him away for two or three days in a studio in a basement. And if I ever meet those bastards . . . because what they did is unforgivable."

"Somebody gave him some bad acid," says Christine McVie, who was married to John but not yet in the band, "and it freaked him out. I saw one Peter Green leave and a completely different one come back – pale, wan, depressed. A little mad, really."

This was far from the end of sex, drugs and rock & roll for this most tumultuous of bands, but the fivesome's honeymoon produced 1975's Fleetwood Mac, with its suitably goofy cover art and, despite its pop accessibility, curiously dour demeanor. Christine McVie's "Say You Love Me" thrummed irresistibly; Nicks' "Rhiannon" was an obvious FM classic, and her "Landslide," written in Aspen, Colo., during a bittersweet moment in relations with Buckingham, seemed to herald the arrival of a rock goddess just spooky enough for a generation's second stoned decade.

Women Who Rock: The 50 Greatest Albums of All Time: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

With the abruptly successful band trapped between its new hordes of hangers-on and its own romantic troubles (not just the couples: Fleetwood's marriage had been running erratically ever since his wife, Jenny, briefly ran off with his pal, lead guitarist Bob Weston, from two lineups previous), Commander Fleetwood mandated that the record would be cut in the slightly remote outpost of Sausalito, just north of San Francisco. What they did there is one of the legendary blood-and-glory tales of rock-album making. "We had a good time, bad time, fun time, sad time," says John McVie. "Something great came out of it." Twenty-five million records later, Rumours carries its own bona fides; among its many attributes, it would seem to be the most inescapable album of its era.

Nicks and Christine McVie encamped in a pair of nearby condos. "All we had was each other, really," says McVie. "We certainly weren't getting on with our respective husbands or boyfriends." Meanwhile, says John McVie, "we lads had our thing, too." In a residence that was part of the studio complex, the boys set up shop – "with parties going all over the house," says John. "Amazing. Terrifying. Huge amounts of illicit materials, yards and yards of this wretched stuff. Days and nights would just go on and on. It was very loose."

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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