“Drama. Dra-ma,” was how Christine McVie described the recording of Rumours to Rolling Stone shortly after its release on February 4th, 1977. And that wasn’t even the half of it. Sessions for Fleetwood Mac‘s masterwork have all the elements of a meticulously scripted theatrical romance – elaborate entanglements, enormous amounts of money and mountains of cocaine.
The Rumours saga is one of rock’s most famous soap operas, but here’s a refresher course on the dramatis personae: Stevie Nicks had just split with her longtime lover and musical partner, Lindsey Buckingham, while Christine was in the midst of divorcing her husband, bassist John McVie. Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood’s extra-band marriage was on the rocks, leading to an affair with Nicks before the year was out. This inner turmoil surfaced in brutally honest lyrics, transforming the album into a tantalizing he-said-she-said romantic confessional. The musicians’ personal lives permanently fused within the grooves, and all who listened to Rumours become a voyeur to the painful, glamorous mess.
Drama aside, Rumours is among the finest work the band ever produced. “We refused to let our feelings derail our commitment to the music, no matter how complicated or intertwined they became,” Fleetwood later wrote in his 2014 memoir. “It was hard to do, but no matter what, we played through the hurt.”
Rumours is ultimately an unhappy love story with a happy ending. In the end, the excruciating emotional pressure yielded a diamond of opulent late Seventies rock. The RIAA agreed, later certifying the album as such. To date, the LP has moved more than 45 million copies worldwide, making it one of the highest-selling albums of all time.
In honor of Rumours‘ 40th anniversary, here are 10 little-known stories about its creation.
1. “The Chain” has its basis in an unreleased Christine McVie song.
The second side of Rumours kicks off with Fleetwood Mac’s very own Frankenstein’s monster. Built from a handful of disparate musical fragments, “The Chain” has the distinction of being the only song credited to all five members of the late Seventies lineup. At its core is the Christine McVie composition “Keep Me There” (also known as “Butter Cookie”), a tense, keyboard-driven track that remained incomplete during the early album sessions in February 1976.
“We decided it needed a bridge, so we cut a bridge and edited it into the rest of the song,” Buckingham told Rolling Stone in 1977. They settled on an ominous 10-note bass passage played by John McVie over a slow crescendo of Fleetwood’s drums. “We didn’t get a vocal and left it for a long time in a bunch of pieces. It almost went off the album. Then we listened back and decided we liked the bridge, but didn’t like the rest of the song. So I wrote verses for that bridge, which was originally not in the song and edited those in.”
Working backwards from the bridge, Buckingham used Fleetwood’s kick drum as a simple metronome to keep time. For embroidery, he borrowed a folky guitar figure previously used on his own song “Lola (My Love),” recorded with Nicks for the 1973 pre-Fleetwood Mac album Buckingham Nicks. “The ending was the only thing left from [Christine McVie’s] original track. We ended up calling it ‘The Chain’ because it was a bunch of pieces.”
The lyrics would be the final link. “Originally we had no words to it,” Fleetwood later told Lucky 98 FM radio. “And it really only became a song when Stevie wrote some. She walked in one day and said, ‘I’ve written some words that might be good for that thing you were doing in the studio the other day.’ So it was put together. Lindsey arranged and made a song out of all the bits and pieces that we were putting down onto tape.” The song remains a centerpiece of the band’s live set, an apt metaphor for the ties that bind Fleetwood Mac despite decades of interpersonal turmoil.
2. Stevie Nicks wrote “Dreams” in Sly Stone’s bed.
Sessions at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California could be tedious affairs, with little for Nicks to do. To keep the boredom at bay – and to keep friction with Buckingham to a minimum – she often sought refuge in an unused studio down the hall that had been built for funk renegade Sly Stone. “I would take a electric piano with me, and my crocheting and my journals and my books and my art and I would just stay there until they needed me,” she remembered in the 1997 documentary Classic Albums: Rumours.
By all accounts it was quite an inspiring space, done up in full-tilt Seventies style. “It was a black-and-red room, with a sunken pit in the middle where there was a piano, and a big black-velvet bed with Victorian drapes,” she recalled in Blender. “I sat down on the bed with my keyboard in front of me. I found a drum pattern, switched my little cassette player on and wrote ‘Dreams’ in about 10 minutes.” The simple repeated three-chord riff cast a hypnotic spell over an uncharacteristically dance-y groove.
Aware she had something special on her hands, she returned to Fleetwood Mac’s workshop. “I walked in and handed a cassette of the song to Lindsey,” she told The Daily Mail in 2009. “It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano. Even though he was mad with me at the time, Lindsey played it and then looked up at me and smiled. What was going on between us was sad – we were couples who couldn’t make it through. But, as musicians, we still respected each other.”
The song would be the second single released from Rumours, second to Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way.” Nicks would call the pair “twin songs,” as they both chronicled the struggle to untangle their toxic romantic partnership from their wildly successful professional one.
“Even though ‘Go Your Own Way’ was a little angry, it was also honest,” Nicks wrote in the liner notes to the Rumours reissue in 2013. “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.”
While “Go Your Own Way,” reached a respectable Number 10, it no doubt pleased Nicks when “Dreams” sailed all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. It remains Fleetwood Mac’s only Number One single in the United States.
3. Mick Fleetwood credits his dyslexia for the unusual drumming pattern on “Go Your Own Way.”
While driving into the Record Plant one morning, Buckingham and co-producer Richard Dashut began to discuss how much they admired the syncopated drum fills played by Charlie Watts on the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Considering the matter further, Buckingham decided that a similar pattern would be well suited for his new song “Go Your Own Way.” He passed the idea on to Fleetwood, who did his best to mimic what he heard, but the result was a disorienting, unsettled beat. Though very different from what Buckingham (and Watts) had played, the unlikely arrangement proved to be but a perfect fit for the track.
“[The] rhythm was a tom-tom structure that Lindsey demoed by hitting Kleenex boxes or something,” Fleetwood said in Classic Albums. “I never quite got to grips with what he wanted, so the end result was my mutated interpretation. It became a major part of the song, a completely back-to-front approach that came, I’m ashamed to say, from capitalizing on my own ineptness.”
Fleetwood believes that his so-called “ineptness” was actually the result of his ongoing struggle with a learning disorder. “Dyslexia has absolutely tempered the way I think about rhythm and the way I’ve played my instrument,” he wrote in his memoir, Play On. “By nature, what we drummers do is manage a series of spinning plates … [but] my methods of keeping my plates spinning are entirely my own. I really had no idea, nor the ability to explain in musical terms, what I was ever doing in a particular song.”
His style baffled other stickmen as well. When Boz Scaggs served as openers on a Fleetwood Mac tour, drummer Jeff Porcaro spent many nights in the wings, attempting to dissect the rhythms on “Go Your Own Way.” Flustered, Porcaro finally approached Fleetwood one night after a show and asked him to reveal his secret. Unfortunately, Fleetwood himself didn’t know exactly how he did it. “It was only after we continued to talk that Jeff realized I wasn’t kidding around,” he said later. “We eventually had a tremendous laugh about it, and when I later told him that I was dyslexic, it finally made sense.”
4. Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar was restrung every 20 minutes during the recording of “Never Going Back Again.”
Tales of Fleetwood Mac’s pursuit of sonic perfection are legendary. The band reportedly required four days, nine pianos and three tuners to find a suitable instrument for Christine McVie, and co-producer Ken Caillat tells Sound on Sound that sessions for “The Chain” were similarly exhausting. “I almost got fired while trying to record it because we spent five days on drum sounds – the band thought we were clueless.”
Caillat also paid extra close attention to Buckingham’s acoustic guitar sound while recording the delicate “Never Going Back Again,” leading to an unusual recording technique. “I noticed that anytime he played, there was a big different in how bright his strings sounded after just 20 minutes,” he told Music Radar in 2012. “So I said, ‘Can we restring your guitar every 20 minutes?’ I wanted to get the best sound on every one of his picking parts.”
The effort took an entire day, and drained the goodwill of several studio techs. “I’m sure the roadies wanted to kill me. Restringing the guitar three times every hour was a bitch. But Lindsey had lots of parts on the song, and each one sounded magnificent.”
The final results were pure perfection, except for one problem. “When Lindsey went to sing, he realized that he played all of his guitar parts in the wrong key. Oh, man! So we recorded everything all over again the next day, dispensing with the changing of guitar strings – we had to lose all of that so we could get Lindsey singing in the right key.”
5. The band used a chair as a percussion instrument on “Second Hand News.”
Buckingham’s album opener began as a Celtic-tinged march provisionally known as “Strummer.” Not wishing to antagonize Nicks any more than was necessary, he kept the song’s pointed lyrics to himself at this early stage, and the track progressed as an instrumental.
“The song itself consists of kind of a Scottish Irish folk influences, and when we first started cutting it, we started doing something that was maybe a literal translation of that, like maybe a march time on snare with brushes,” he recalled in the Classic Albums documentary. “But we were also very interested in keeping the pop element, because it was going to be the first song, and it was a pop album.”
Intrigued by the chugging rhythms found in the Bee Gees’ then-current hit “Jive Talkin” – which in turn were inspired by the sound of the Gibb brothers’ car crossing Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway – Buckingham sought to inject a slight disco groove into the song. To achieve the desired percussive effect, he pounded the seat of a Naugahyde chair found in the studio.
“Lindsey was the accent king,” Caillat marveled when speaking to the Grammy Museum in 2012. “He could accent with guitars, he could accent with toms [and] he could accent with Naugahyde chairs.”
6. “Songbird” was recorded live at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium.
Many tracks on Rumours went through an extensive transformation before finding their way onto the finished product, but Christine McVie’s modern hymnal was fully formed from the moment Caillat first heard it at the end of a long recording date. “We were finishing up one of the crazy sessions at Sausalito Record Plant and I was wrapping up some cables,” he recalled at the Grammy Museum. “Christine sat down at the piano and started playing this beautiful song. I stopped what I was doing and I turned around and watched her. I was just amazed at how beautiful this song was.”
Rather than drown the melody with a full-band treatment, Caillat decided to try a stripped-down approach. “Before Rumours, I had recorded an album with Joni Mitchell at the Berkeley Community Theatre,” he told Music Radar. “I thought doing a similar kind of concert recital recording was perfect for ‘Songbird.’ Christine and the whole band loved the idea.”
The Berkeley Community Theatre was unavailable, so Caillat booked the University’s Zellerbach Auditorium for March 3rd, 1976, complete with orchestra shell and a nine-foot Steinway. “As a surprise for Christine, I had requested that a bouquet of roses be placed on her piano with three colored spotlights to illuminate them from above. I really wanted to set the mood!” he wrote in his book, Making Rumours: The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album. “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.”
The session continued until seven o’clock the following morning, with the live performances captured by 15 microphones placed around the auditorium. “It took a long time because I had to do it in one take,” she remembered in Classic Albums. Buckingham’s acoustic guitar playing was also recorded live.
7. “Silver Springs” was left off Rumours due to space limitations.
Fleetwood Mac’s 11th full-length was conceived as a high-potency collection of potential hit songs – a plan that played out exactly as the group had hoped. Radio-friendly in the extreme, all four singles – “Go Your Own Way,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun” – reached the American Top 10, and the album’s astronomical sales figures are a testament to Rumours‘ production quality and musical craftsmanship. But the ruthless quality control had an unintended side effect: leaving one of Nicks’ future classics on the cutting-room floor.
“Stevie is so prolific, all of her songs were initially about 14 minutes long,” Caillat says in the documentary Stevie Nicks: Through the Looking Glass. “She would just go on and on and on, and there were stories about her mother and grandmother and meaningful stories about her dog, or whatever. So it was my job to sit with her and cut them down to three or four minutes. And there were tears: ‘You can’t take that line out!'”
One such epic was “Silver Springs,” a reproachful song aimed squarely at her ex. “I wrote ‘Silver Springs’ about Lindsey,” she says in Classic Albums. “We were in Maryland somewhere driving under a freeway sign that said Silver Spring, Maryland. And I loved the name. ‘Silver Springs’ sounded like a pretty fabulous place to me. ‘You could be my silver springs. …’ That’s just a whole symbolic thing of what you could have been to me.”
With vinyl only able to hold approximately 22 minutes per side, edits were a practical necessity. By the time the sessions wrapped in late 1976, Caillat faced a problem of mathematics and aesthetics. “We were in our ninth month of recording by this time, and we were starting to look ahead to what songs we’d have for the album. And we realized we had some long songs like ‘Go Your Own Way,” and some slow songs and medium slow songs. We were concerned that we might have too slow an album. We didn’t want to put the needle down on Side One and have all slow songs. We started putting test running orders together and found we couldn’t make a sequence of all the songs to fit the 22 minutes that didn’t feel too slow.”
So “Silver Springs” fell victim to the communal ax. In an effort to appease Nicks, the band recorded the instrumental track to one of her pre-Fleetwood Mac songs, “I Don’t Want to Know,” without her knowledge. Buckingham finally broke the news when it was time to record the vocals.
“They took me out to the parking lot and said, ‘We’re taking “Silver Springs” off the record because it’s too long,'” Nicks later wrote in the Rumours reissue liner notes. “Needless to say, I didn’t react well to that. Eventually, I said, ‘What song are you going to put on the album instead?’ They said, ‘We recorded “I Don’t Want To Know,”‘ and I think Lindsey thought it would be OK with me because I wrote it. But I wasn’t OK with it. That always put a shadow over “I Don’t Want To Know,” unfortunately – even though I love it and it came out great.”
“Silver Springs” was relegated to the B side of Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way,” a particularly galling move considering his song made reference to Nicks with less-than-complimentary lines like “shacking up’s all you want to do.” The track remained a relative deep cut until it was included on Fleetwood Mac’s 1997 live album, The Dance. This new version earned the band a Grammy, and earned Nicks some serious gratification.
“You have to realize that ‘Silver Springs’ was so genuinely kicked off the record 20 years ago, and I was so genuinely devastated … because I loved the song,” she told MTV at the time. “So I never thought that ‘Silver Springs’ would ever be performed on stage, [or] would ever be heard of again. My beautiful song just disappeared. So for it to come back around like this has really been, really special to me.”
8. Mick Fleetwood’s balls on the Rumours cover have a backstory.
One of the more peculiar details of Herbert Worthington’s iconic cover photo is the pair of wooden balls dangling from the crotch of Mick Fleetwood’s extremely tight pants. More than a spur-of-the-moment boyish prank, the balls – actually “lavatory chains” – date back to one of the earliest Mac gigs.
“I must admit I had a couple of glasses of English ale – and came out of the toilet with these,” he told Maui Time in 2009. “I was very destructive – I ripped them off the toilet and had them hanging down between my legs.”
While humor played a major role in the unorthodox sartorial choice, Fleetwood felt it was an appropriate nod to his musical lineage. “In truth, I started off as a blues player. The whole ethic of a lot of blues music is slightly suggestive, might I say. And suitably, I walked out on stage with these two lavatory chains with these wooden balls hanging down, and after that it just stuck.”
This was not his only tribute to virility. Fleetwood went through a lengthy period of placing a dildo on top of his bass drum. Dubbed “Harold,” the sex toy became something of a mascot during the pre-Buckingham/Nicks incarnation of the band. “Harold’s showbiz life came to a crashing end at an American Southern Baptist college, where we were very nearly arrested for his performance,” Fleetwood told The Express years later. “Poor Harold was too much for them and, much to my wife’s chagrin, he ended his days on show, sitting on our pine corner cabinet.”
Fleetwood’s balls, meanwhile, had a significantly longer life. They became the drummer’s personal good luck talisman, making an appearance at nearly every Fleetwood Mac performance. Sadly, the original set were lost on the road, but he makes due with a replica. “I won’t say they’re as old as me, but – it starts getting into X-rated commentary here – my balls are quite old.”
9. The band considered thanking their coke dealer on the album credits.
When studying the recording of Rumours, it’s impossible to avoid the topic of rampant cocaine use. Fleetwood famously worked out that if he laid all of the cocaine he had ever snorted into a single line, it was stretch for seven miles. “The tales of excess are true, but we’d all be dead already if we weren’t made of stronger stuff,” he wrote in Play On.
Coke was less of a pleasure and more of a necessity, helping combat fatigue during the grueling multi-hour sessions – and tortuous emotions. “You felt so bad about what was happening that you did a line to cheer yourself up,” Nicks told Mojo in 2012.
Cocaine played such a major role in the production of Rumours that the band seriously considered thanking their drug dealer in the album credits, until gangland violence apparently put a premature end to the idea. “Unfortunately, he got snuffed – executed! – before the thing came out,” Fleetwood wrote in his first memoir, 1990’s Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac.
10. Annie Leibovitz’s Rolling Stone cover shoot sowed the seeds of Nicks’ affair with Fleetwood.
Fleetwood Mac’s incestuous reputation was played for laughs on their first Rolling Stone cover, which depicted the entire band in bed with one another. “The intention was a spoof on the rumors about our private lives, and yet, symbolically, the picture showed us exactly as we were – all married to each other,” wrote Fleetwood in Play On.
Annie Leibovitz, already a bona fide rock-photography icon, played the role of the conscientious host when the quintet arrived at her studio for the shoot. “I thought I’d be nice and polite, and I brought a bunch of cocaine for everyone,” she remembered. “In those days, for photo shoots, you just brought cocaine. I took it out, and they looked a little freaked out at first, but then consumed it in, like, 30 seconds. Then I learned they’d all recently been to rehab. So they were all a little jittery and tense.”
Nicks doesn’t remember the hard stuff (“I thought it was a case of champagne!”) but does recall the jitters. “When Annie said she wanted us to lie down together on a big bed, it was like, ‘Hmm, hope you have a backup idea.’ But she said, ‘No, you’re going to look great, this will be fun, have a glass of champagne.'” The original concept called for the two ex couples to embrace in flagrante, but this cut a little too close to the bone. “For Stevie and me, the wounds and animosities were still very fresh,” says Buckingham. “So the idea for the photo wasn’t all that funny.”
Nicks ended up putting her foot down. “I said, ‘OK, but I can’t be in bed next to Lindsey.’ So I curl up next to Mick for the next three hours while Annie is suspended over us on a platform. And Christine really didn’t want to be next to John, because they were just divorced.” Instead, the bassist sits by himself, engrossed in a copy of Playboy.
Although they attempted to keep a respectful distance, the session sparked a brief romantic reunion between Nicks and Buckingham. “Afterwards, Lindsey and I got to talking about how amazing it was that not so long ago I was a waitress and he didn’t have a job, and now we were on the cover of Rolling Stone with this huge record. And we lay there for about two hours talking and making out. Finally, Annie had to tell us to leave, because she had rented the room for only so long.”
Perhaps more surprising, the hours Nicks spent snuggling with Fleetwood made a deep impression on them both. Fleetwood later wrote that the shoot caused him to realize that he and Nicks had “definitely known each other in previous lives.” Nicks herself admits that the session “planted the seed for Mick and me, which happened a year later.” The affair began in earnest during a late summer break in the band’s seemingly endless tour that year, just before they traveled to the South Pacific. “Stevie and I used to slip away and go on adventures after gigs, which was an easy way to get away.” Romantic trips to Maui, New Zealand and extended drives through the Hollywood Hills brought them closer together.
The relationship was not to last, but Fleetwood carries something of a torch for his bandmate. “We just love each other in the true sense of the word, which transcends passion. I will take my love for her as a person to my grave, because Stevie Nicks is the kind of woman who inspires that devotion. I have no regrets and nether does she, but we do giggle together sometimes and wonder what might have transpired if we’d given that passion the space and time to blossom into something more.”