The most important body of work in mainstream '70s pop/rock is given the redux treatment to remind us why Buckingham and Nicks still matter

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The arbiters of the rock canon remain suspicious about Fleetwood Mac-to be specific, the version of Fleetwood Mac rebuilt in 1975 around Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Yes, Rumours was bought by 30 million people, but are the Mac loved for their soap opera of heartbreak, cuckolding, divorce and neurosis rather than for the music they actually made? Were they anything more than the sound of rich coked-up hippies fiddling while punk burned? Here, in the form of remastered and expanded reissues of their three key 1970s albums, is the unassailable case for the defence.

Certainly, Buckingham’s ostensibly cheerful “Monday Morning”, which begins their eponymous 1975 LP, sounds like a wake-up call, the start of a new life for the group. Yet the song itself is about doubt (echoed by Buckingham’s already restless guitar) and by album’s end he is mired in the suicidal ideations of “I’m So Afraid”. The album itself demonstrates how easily the new Mac were able to transform from a clapped-out blues band into a seamless soft-rock machine, and much of its initial commercial appeal was down to the benignly reassuring songs of the band’s Third Way, Christine McVie (“Say You Love Me”).

While Buckingham’s approach was at this stage still conventional, Stevie Nicks’ three contributions sound as if they have come from another planet; certainly not from any “rock” music. Vocally the missing link between Buffy Sainte-Marie and Kristin Hersh, she sings of untouchable witches (“Rhiannon”), as well as the mountains and the sea?”Crystal”, with its long organ fade straight out of Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, and the chilling “Landslide” find Nicks quietly beginning to reinvent the concept of the female singer-songwriter.

Rumours (1977) streamlined everything into elemental despair. The record is the pop equivalent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon?the same tragedy witnessed from three different perspectives. As the individual musicians were pulling apart from each other, they miraculously pulled together as a group. Buckingham’s songs are the most obviously passionate and brutal?the guitar thrash which finally consumes “Go Your Own Way” IS punk through and through?but Nicks’ songs, sad and reproachful, pierce the heart more deeply. The closing chord of “Dreams” is the saddest of any pop song, and the hymn to cocaine oblivion that is “Gold Dust Woman” is the bleakest end to any ’70s album not released by Factory. Note also the undervalued role of Christine McVie as the Voice Of Reason?her seemingly slight “Songbird” is the simple but heartbreaking axis which holds the whole record together. But the reason why readers will have to trade in their old CD copies of Rumours is the restoration of Nicks’ “Silver Springs” to its rightful place on the album. Taken off the original vinyl issue for space reasons and released only as the B-side of the “Go Your Own Way” single, this is Stevie’s greatest vocal performance?the passion which she has restrained elsewhere now breaks forth. Her devastating screams of “You’ll never get away from the sound/Of the woman who loves you” are worth the price of this album in itself.

And then, in 1979, came Tusk. As Simon Reynolds noted in his 1994 article for Melody Maker’s “Unknown Pleasures” booklet, this was the exact AOR equivalent of PiL’s Metal Box, where a mainstream icon suddenly subverts their art from within the system; a double album, elaborately and unconventionally packaged, produced and entirely overseen?mostly locked away in his home studio?by Buckingham, a man by then aware of punk and post-punk (see panel left), a man desperate to drag his bandmates into the future.

It starts with the false security of McVie’s “Over And Over” which, with its pleas of “Don’t turn me away/And don’t let me down,” seems to be a warning not to expect more of the same. And scarcely has it ended than Buckingham storms in with his epileptic “The Ledge”, sounding like the Gang Of Four trapped in Sun studios with scratchy guitar, near indecipherable vocals and Kleenex boxes for drums. The remainder of the album is an exercise in tripolarity, with Buckingham, Nicks and McVie all scrambling to state their cases in rotation. Lindsey’s songs are by far the most elemental and experimental; hear the proto-Neubauten metal-beating of “What Makes You Think You’re The One?” or the disturbing “Not That Funny”, on which Buckingham’s near-psychotic guitar and vocal screams approach Pere Ubu territory. Hear also, however, a true harmonic heir to Wilson and Rundgren?the gorgeously shimmering chord changes of the suicide note “That’s All For Everyone”; the lovely doowop harmonies punctuating “Save Me A Place” and “Walk A Thin Line”; and the collision between Sousa marching band and free jazz/tribal drumming workshop which is the title track?along with “Death Disco”, the most avant-garde hit single of 1979.

Stevie provides profundity. Her hymn to her best friend, “Sara”, dissolves into a utopia of aqueous love (the single edit rather than the full-length album cut seems to have been retained, though on the second CD of demos and outtakes the version of “Sara” runs to nearly nine minutes). “Storms” is a quietly devastating meditation on loss, “Shadows Of The Moon” another explosion of rage, and “Beautiful Child” a tremulous prayer for the dying.

Even Christine’s contributions are elevated out of the ordinary by Lindsey’s production work?the slow-burning funk of “Brown Eyes”, for instance, or the way in which the backing to “Never Make Me Cry” seems to be submerged in water, Julee Cruise-style. By the time of McVie’s closing “Never Forget”, Lindsey’s ghost has invaded the machine?hear the strange electronic whooshes behind Christine’s voice, and Kleenex drums again.

The new editions of Rumours and Tusk each come with a second CD of demos, outtakes and rough cuts of each album’s songs. While this material will mostly be of interest to completists, mention must be made of the odd string of half-songs on the second Rumours CD with their thoughts of morbidity?try Nicks’ passionate “Planets Of The Universe”, wherein she spits out “Don’t condescend to me!” or Christine losing it on “Butter Cookie” (“What do you think about death?”). As for the Tusk demos, the highlight is the extended “Sara” with its opening debate (Nicks: “I want to be a STAR!” Buckingham: exasperated sigh. Nicks: “NOT A CLEANING LADY!”).

While last year’s masterpiece, Say You Will, finally succeeded in squaring Rumours’ emotionalism with Tusk’s experimentalism, these three extraordinary records prove that experimentation and rawness were not alien to ’70s mainstream rock; and it may be their most lasting testimony that, while punk burned itself out, the real radicalism of Buckingham and Nicks’ Fleetwood Mac now shines more brightly than ever.