When you combine a huge recording budget with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, then add in jealousy, infidelity and divorce – between members of the band, no less – it hardly sounds like a recipe for a successful album. The fact that Rumours, Fleetwood Mac’s hit album, was ever finished, let alone stayed atop the charts for 31 weeks, win the Grammy for Album of the Year and became one of the biggest selling albums of all time (more than 45 million copies), is testament to the artistry of the individuals comprising the group — and gives credence to the notion that through adversity, great things can emerge.
Work on the album began in 1976. The British-American band had just come off a successful, yet grueling, six-month American tour which showcased the talents of new members Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham alongside regulars Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and John McVie. “Drama. Dra-ma” was how band member Christine McVie described the making of Rumours to Rolling Stone soon after the album’s release on February 4, 1977.
The band was under pressure to produce another hit album
Created in the United Kingdom in 1967 by guitarist Peter Green and drummer Fleetwood with bass guitarist John McVie, Fleetwood Mac would experience a revolving door of talent over the decades, with John McVie and Fleetwood the only members of the group to appear on every release from the band. Keyboardist and vocalist Christine Perfect married John McVie and joined the then-blues-focused group in 1970. Four years later, vocalist Nicks and vocalist/lead guitarist Buckingham added their folk/rock/pop stylings to create the foundation behind the band’s first massively successful album: 1975’s eponymous release featuring the hit singles “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me” and “Rhiannon.”
Such a hugely successful prior album and lauded tour added pressure on the band to produce something extraordinary as a follow-up. Professionally, they were on top, but personally, things were falling apart. Rock-and-roll soap operas don’t get more dramatic than the months spent at close quarters recording and mixing Rumours. When the five gathered near San Francisco to begin recording, all members were in the midst of an emotional maelstrom.
Relationship drama between the members plagued the band while they recorded the album
Married for almost eight years, Christine and John entered the studio at the point of divorce. Adhering to the notion of British reserve, the former couple stayed silent around each other, avoiding contact other than during work sessions. The situation further deteriorated when Christine began openly dating the band’s lighting director.
Nicks and then-longtime lover and musical partner Buckingham had also recently called it quits. Opposite to the McVies, there were reported shouting matches between the American exes, which only ceased when the recording light was turned on.
Just before recording began, Fleetwood had become aware that his wife and mother to their two children was having an affair with a close friend, and divorce would soon follow. If the intra-band relationships weren’t already convoluted, Fleetwood and Nicks would embark on a short-lived affair by year’s end.
Emotional turmoil turned into biographical hit songs
Such high emotions would ultimately result in hit songs with brutally honest lyrics, a confessional recorded on vinyl laying out the group’s innermost thoughts and feelings. “Go Your Own Way” was Buckingham’s strident response to the disintegration of his relationship with Nicks. “Don’t Stop” was Christine's ode to looking ahead in life, while “You Make Loving Fun” was a celebration of her new-found romance away from ex-husband John. “The Chain” was the group’s joint anthem regarding betrayal.
“Everybody was pretty weirded out,” Christine said of the time. “Somehow Mick was there, the figurehead: ‘We must carry on … let’s be mature about this, sort it out.’ Somehow we waded through it.”
Immediately following the album’s 1977 release, a candid Nicks told Rolling Stone she didn’t “care that everybody knows me and Chris and John and Lindsey all broke up. Because we did. So that’s a fact.” Nicks added that the majority of songs she wrote for the album “are definitely about people in the band …. Chris’ relationships, John’s relationship, Mick’s relationship, Lindsey’s and mine. They’re all there and very honest and people will know exactly what I am talking about … people will really enjoy listening to what happened since the last album.”
The band used drugs and alcohol to cope with the tumultuous environment
As emotions fueled the creative output for the album, alcohol, pot and cocaine helped fuel the group’s physical need to stay focused, work long hours and navigate the increasingly tumultuous landscape. “You felt so bad about what was happening that you did a line to cheer yourself up,” Nicks told MOJO in 2012.
Rumours producer and engineer Ken Caillat described the drug use as having an Atlantic divide. “There were the blues Fleetwood Mac from England – they were the boozers and that was pretty much what they did,” Caillat said to the Huffington Post in 2012. “And there was the California Fleetwood Mac – they were the pot-smoking hippies with Lindsey and Stevie. Then the cocaine entered the picture. So it was booze versus pot really, with a little cocaine cocktail.”
Cocaine use was so rampant the band even considered thanking their dealer in the album credits, but such recognition never came to pass. “Unfortunately, he got snuffed – executed! – before the thing came out,” Fleetwood wrote in his 1990 memoir Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac.
Rumours became one of the band’s most successful albums
Though Rumours would go on to become a massive international hit and musical anchor to the latter part of the '70s, Buckingham remembers having mixed feelings about creating such a bittersweet ode to love lost and found. “When Rumors went crazy, I just couldn’t bring myself to feel strongly about the album,” he said to Rolling Stone in 1984. “At some point, all the stuff surrounding it started to become the main focus. There was a gap between what I felt was important internally – what I had accomplished musically – and the popular acclaim.”
The core five members of Fleetwood Mac would go on to produce further studio albums and tour and would disband and then reunite over the decades. Considered by many fans and critics as the band’s best release, Rumours was selected in 2018 for preservation in the National Recording Registry. Rolling Stone placed it at number 26 on their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, describing the band as turning “private turmoil into gleaming, melodic public art.”
“Rumours remains so powerful because it’s so ruthlessly clear-eyed about the crisis, instead of smoothing it over,” Christine explained to Rolling Stone. “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.”