In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1977: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours
The ‘70s were the decade when the entertainment business discovered the blockbuster. This is not to say that blockbusters hadn’t existed before but the modern idea of a blockbuster, the idea that a piece of work could become a big money maker and public spectacle, began to take shape in the ’70s. The first big example of this new blockbuster mentality came in film with the 1975 release of Jaws which, unlike major films before opened in hundreds of theaters at once and was heavily promoted. As a result, Jaws became a major financial success quickly becoming, for the time, the highest-grossing film of all time. To this day, we’re still living under the blockbuster model that Jaws pioneered.
It was around that same time when the music business began to adopt its own blockbuster approach to success. In 1975, Elton John became the first artist to have an album debut at #1 on Billboard’s 200 chart with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and he did it again that year with Rock of the Westies. A year later, Stevie Wonder followed Elton John’s path by becoming the second artist to debut an album at #1 with Songs In The Key Of Life. This new success proved that you could build up enough hype to get instant chart and sales success rather than the slow-building climb that usually happens with big albums.
But none of those albums had the immense success and impact that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors had in 1977. When it was released in February that year, it became an immediate sensation selling over 800,000 copies in its first week vaulting to #1 that April where from there until January 1978, it was the top album in America for thirty-one non-consecutive weeks. Not only was it 1977’s biggest album, it continued to sell so much into 1978 that it finished that year as the #3 album behind the soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Current estimates put sales of Rumours at over 40 million worldwide and over 20 million in the United States where the Recording Industry Association of America puts it at #11 on its best-selling albums of all-time list.
Aside from selling a lot of copies, Rumours broke new ground when it came to the number of hit singles an album could spin-off. Before Rumours, albums typically only went three singles deep at most but Rumours bested it by releasing four singles and all of them made the Top 10 including one #1. Looking at it now, Rumours represented a new kind of hit album where every song sounded like a potential hit instead of the mixture of hit singles and deep cuts that albums typically follow. It’s this kind of hit potential that the music business would continuously chase going into the ‘80s as this column will get into.
All of this from an album that’s been noted for its tumultuous backstory. It’s an album born from a band of people who were breaking up and divorcing each other and weren’t talking much. This is the kind of situation that should have made for a messy album that would have led to more tension and eventual breakup. Instead, they used that tension to create a classic listenable album communicating their feelings while allowing us to relate to them. Because of that nature, Rumours has had amazing staying power and relevance over the years as shown last fall when someone posted a clip to TikTok skateboarding to the album’s #1 hit “Dreams” causing the song to re-chart on the Hot 100 at #12.
The Fleetwood Mac that became a sensation with Rumours was a far cry from where the band started out even if turmoil was the one thing each iteration had in common. The saga begins in the late ‘60s London blues-rock scene when three members of the band John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: Peter Green, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood split from Mayall to form their own band Fleetwood Mac, a combination of Fleetwood and McVie’s names. With Green as frontman, Fleetwood Mac hit it off almost immediately with their style of heavy psychedelic blues leading to a few hit singles in the UK including the #1 hit “Albatross.”
But Green wouldn’t be around much longer as drug use and mental illness started to take over leaving the group in 1970 later being diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed into psychiatric hospitals fading into obscurity up until his death last year. Soon after in 1971, guitarist Jeremy Spencer abruptly quit to join the Children of God religious cult. New members came in most notably John McVie’s new wife Christine but their new music didn’t hit the way it had with Green. Not helping was their manager creating a fake Fleetwood Mac band leading to a legal battle between the real and fake bands which the real Fleetwood Mac eventually won.
Hoping for a fresh start, Fleetwood Mac moved operations from England to America in 1974 settling in Los Angeles where while checking out a studio one day Mick Fleetwood heard a song from a local duo named Buckingham & Nicks played by the studio’s engineer. Liking what he heard, Fleetwood met with its guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and asked him to join Fleetwood Mac which Buckingham agreed to while also bringing along his musical partner and then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks.
Together, Buckingham and Nicks proved to be just what Fleetwood Mac needed to attract a wider audience with the band releasing a self-titled album in 1975. Fleetwood Mac, the album, was a big hit hitting #1 eventually selling over seven million copies and finishing as the #2 album of 1976 behind Frampton Comes Alive!. Its two big singles in America, “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me,” both reached #11 on the Hot 100. More importantly, the album set a new sound for Fleetwood Mac with the original blues-rock sound gone for a softer California-based pop-rock sound. It’s a pretty good listen but it’s clearly the work of a band establishing a new identity.
After almost a decade, the band finally had their big break but they still could not break free from the turmoil that plagued them early on. Soon after the self-titled album, Fleetwood Mac would be tested in ways that would break most other bands. Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham broke up, Christine and John McVie divorced, and Mick Fleetwood was divorcing his own wife outside the band. And they had to record a follow-up. And there was lots of cocaine being used. This was not going to be an easy recording process.
By all accounts, it was not an easy recording process. The band spent much of 1976 recording Rumours at the Record Plant studio in Sausalito, California just north of San Francisco with the two couples in the band not speaking much outside of the studio and everyone was continuing to indulge themselves in drugs and alcohol. The main writers in the band mainly wrote their songs by themselves as shown by all but one song on the album being written by one person with the one exception, “The Chain,” being written by all five members. With so many obstacles, Fleetwood Mac somehow managed to pull it together.
Listening to Rumours for this review, it’s easy to hear why people still love the album over four decades on. It’s an album chock full of classics that keeps things tight with 11 tracks totaling almost 40 minutes with no song going over 5 minutes. Because of that, it never drags when listening to it. A lot of the songs have become so well known that as Stereogum’s Tom Breihan pointed out it’s weird to think that tracks like “The Chain,” “Gold Dust Woman,” “Second Hand News,” and “I Don’t Want To Know” were deep cuts instead of hit singles. It’s a fun enjoyable listen from beginning to end.
Considering the many inner band relationship dramas, it’s no surprise the album is essentially one long soap opera with the three main singers in the group writing their own takes on the relationships. The fact that Fleetwood Mac had three main songwriters and singers is a big plus for why Rumours works as well as it does. Having these different voices throughout the record allows us to hear multiple perspectives that highlight the different ways people react to a breakup or divorce broadening its relatability. If it was just one singer and songwriter like most bands then it wouldn’t hit the same way.
The songs from Buckingham and Nicks largely deal with the fallout of their relationship but in different ways. Buckingham goes more bitter and passive-aggressive especially on its big song “Go Your Own Way,” “Packing up/Shacking up is all you want to do.” Nicks also touches on the relationship but in a less abrasive way and being Stevie Nicks she turns her sorrows into mystical vibes. The big hit “Dreams” lives up to its title with its sparse yet effective beat while the phaser and dobro sound on the album closer “Gold Dust Woman” creates a cool mystery tension as Nicks sings about the indulgent lifestyle she was partaking in. Despite how harsh the songs may get toward each other, both Buckingham and Nicks sing backup on each other’s songs which much have felt awkward both in the studio and in concert. On the Nicks penned, “I Don’t Want To Know” the two are even singing equally together that sounds like they are mocking each other amid the jaunty instrumentation.
Christine McVie on the other hand takes a more optimistic and supportive tone shown by the upbeat optimism of “Don’t Stop,” the sparse hug of “Songbird,” the euphoria of “You Make Loving Fun,” dedicated to her new lover, and “Oh Daddy” written to support Mick Fleetwood in his divorce. The one standout, “The Chain,” acts of an anthem of defiance stating that no matter the turmoil the band was in they would not be broken with the three main singers singing together. The group managed to work through their many turmoils by not losing sight of their craft and creating great music.
I’m not exactly sure how much the various relationship drama played into Rumours’ success. Had it come out today, you can bet that people would be going crazy digging into its lyrics to find hidden meanings and figure out who’s being referenced. It’s the kind of thing modern acts like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Ariana Grande have pulled off immensely well in the era of social media. Considering the success and goodwill from the 1975 self-titled album, that alone was already enough to ensure Rumours would continue the band’s newfound success with the band drama adding more intrigue and hype to the album.
But that’s beside the point, the main reason Rumours has held up so well is the simple reason that these songs are really good and timeless sounding. Aside from the Stevie Wonder funk-influence of “You Make Loving Fun,” much of the album doesn’t follow a lot of the ‘70s pop and rock production quirks that would immediately date it to 1977. You can listen to Rumours today and it still sounds as fresh as ever that you really can’t place it in time and think “that sounds so ‘70s” compared to what their contemporaries were putting out at the time. Even if you don’t know or don’t care about the personal contexts of the songs, you can still enjoy these songs whether it’d be singing along in the car or randomly dancing during a divorce meeting.
Coming off the blockbuster success of Rumours, Fleetwood Mac, like any act in that situation, could never repeat that feat and so they didn’t. The band followed with the more experimental double album Tusk released in 1979 which compared to Rumours was a huge drop in success peaking at #4 managing to go only double platinum and spawned just two Top 10 hits with the title track and “Sara.” Though to the band’s credit, that’s probably what they wanted as Buckingham explained to Billboard years later about not wanting to make another Rumours, “For me, being sort of the culprit behind that particular album, it was done in a way to undermine just sort of following the formula of doing Rumours 2 and Rumours 3, which is kind of the business model Warner Bros. would have liked us to follow.”
The relative failure of Tusk didn’t stop Fleetwood Mac going into the ‘80s. They continued putting out hit albums and singles all through the decade while its three main stars launched various successful solo careers. Stevie Nicks easily had the biggest becoming a hitmaker and star in her own right in the ‘80s launching with her biggest work 1981’s Bella Donna which contains her most recognizable hits like “Edge of Seventeen” and the Tom Petty collaboration “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Lindsay Buckingham released his own music around the same time and while not as successful did land his sole solo Top 10 hit with 1981’s “Trouble.” The same situation happened with Christine McVie who had her biggest solo success with the 1984 single “Got A Hold On Me” which peaked at #10.
After the ‘80s, Fleetwood Mac’s music has hit less and less but they remain a reliable touring machine continuing to perform to packed crowds while more turmoil affects the band in its membership. Christine McVie left the group in 1998 going into retirement later attributed to her fear of flying before returning in 2014. And before their last tour in 2018, Lindsay Buckingham was let go after reportedly some arguments ensued over the tour though there have been talks that he and other surviving members of the group will reunite for a tour. We’ll see. Even at this late stage, Fleetwood Mac hasn’t stopped thinking about tomorrow.
Honorable mention: Stevie Wonder’s aforementioned Songs In The Key Of Life, 1977’s #2 album, is the end result of Wonder’s classic period of the ‘70s where he put out five critically acclaimed albums in short succession with Songs being the most ambitious as a double album almost two hours long and it’s great. Songs In The Key Of Life, much like Rumours, is a fun listen throughout showcasing Wonder’s many talents while containing some of his most famous hits like “I Wish,” “Sir Duke” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”
Next time: Led by the monster hits of the Bee Gees, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack launches a film, an actor, and a genre to mainstream cultural prominence