40 Years of Excess: The Making of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a monument to excess; fueled by enormous budgets, sleepless nights and mountains of cocaine. Earlier this year, the album celebrated its 40th anniversary and we decided to take a look at what exactly went into the recording and mixing process of this classic album.
Rumours was recorded over 12 months at The Record Plant in Sausalito, California in 1976. Even the studio owners thought Fleetwood Mac were going overboard. Chris Stone said, "They would come in at 7 at night, have a big feast, party till 1 or 2 in the morning. And then when they were so whacked-out they couldn't do anything, they'd start recording."
Well, apparently they were on to something.
It’s hard to believe, but Rumours was Fleetwood Mac’s 11th studio album. It was produced and engineered by Ken Caillat and Richard Dashu, and released by Warner Bros Records in 1977. It stayed at the top of the Billboard charts for 31 weeks. In 1978, it won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Since then, it's gone on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.
While Rumours was the band's most successful album, their eponymous “White Album” from 1975 also reached number 1 on the Billboard charts. During the recording process for Rumours, the band were raking in royalties from tracks like "Over My Head,” "Say You Love Me,” and "Rhiannon."
Some bands crack under the pressure of fame and fortune, and Fleetwood Mac were no different.
According to Rolling Stone, cocaine was such an integral part of making Rumours the band "seriously considered thanking their drug dealer in the album credits.”
Mick Fleetwood wrote about it in his autobiography Play On; "The tales of excess are true, but we'd all be dead already if we weren't made of stronger stuff. Coke was less of a pleasure and more of a necessity. Helping combat fatigue during the grueling multi-hour sessions – and tortuous emotions."
The Rumours sessions were riddled with infidelity, awkward silences, and… well, rumors.
The band had just come off of a six-month tour supporting their wildly successful self-titled album. This was their first tour with new members Lindsey Buckingham (vocals/guitar) and Stevie Nicks (vocals). Of course, there was an underlying tension caused by adding new members. But that was only amplified by their on-again/off-again relationship, and frequent fighting.
Shortly after returning home from tour, keyboardist Christine McVie and bassist John McVie filed for divorce after eight years of marriage. Unlike Buckingham and Nicks, the McVies’ preferred the silent treatment. They quit speaking to each other outside of the studio, and only discussed music.
Even drummer Mick Fleetwood was struggling with relationship problems. Just before recording began he discovered that his wife was having an affair with his best friend.
If art is suffering, then Rumours is a masterpiece.
Living in the Moment
A lot of the writing for Rumours took place in the form of jam sessions. Christie McVie was the only one in the band with any formal music training. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie both came up playing the blues and had strong improv skills. According to Dashut, “Buckingham understood “the craft of record making.”
Buckingham and Christine McVie worked together to lay down the basic structure of each song. Fleetwood would set up his drum kit outside of the studio partition to keep eyes on Caillat and Dashut and gauge their reactions. John McVie played his bass inside the drum baffles to help lock in the groove.
The Rumours sessions were all about capturing the magic. In "Second Hand News,” the Celtic-rock rhythm is a recording of someone tapping on a chair in the studio.
"Songbird" was recorded live at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium. Caillat wanted to recreate the vibe of a live performance, so he booked the theatre for the night. He even set the mood by putting a dozen roses and a spotlight on the nine-foot Steinway Christine McVie used.
The session continued until seven o'clock in the morning because McVie had to do it in one take. In true Fleetwood fashion, they used 15 mics to record the song.
The Record Plant
Aside from “Songbird”, the rest of the tracks were recorded at The Record Plant. Caillat was responsible for most of the engineering duties, but he wasn’t happy with the space.
Caillat: "I didn't like the sound in there. It had very dead speakers and a lot of padding — you'd walk into the control room and it was so still that you'd almost hurt your ears.”
Dashut complained that the windowless rooms disoriented everyone and caused them to lose track of time. The cocaine may have had something to do with that too though…
Caillat: “I recorded at 15ips, Dolby, zero level to retain as much transients as possible without saturating the tape. I could have pushed the tape harder, because back then the standard was +3, but I wanted to keep a lot of headroom for transients. It was a different time.”
The Rumours sessions didn’t start well. Caillat and Dashut spent over a week trying to dial in the right sound. Caillat said the duo nearly got fired.
"Everything sounded like a miniature person was playing these miniature instruments, and we were just pulling our hair out. Richard and I tried everything to make the sound bigger. We even taped two kick drums together out of frustration, trying to get some size and some beat out of them. But nothing would work. Finally I got pissed off. I said, 'Goddamn it, what the hell's going on here?' I literally just started turning knobs. Within about five minutes of doing this on a track we were trying to cut, it was sounding great.”
Caillat said that “opening up the preamps” on the API console and "+12 on every EQ channel” was all it took.
Caillat: "Once I did that, I started twisting knobs, and boom-boom-boom, it worked. The band walked in after we'd recorded this one song and they were like, 'Wow, so what was the last eight days all about? It just took you guys 10 minutes to get a killer sound.'"
After Caillat and Dashut got the sound they were looking for, the recording process was underway. Many of the tracks were recorded with the full band playing together. In an interview with Sound on Sound, Caillat recalls many of his micing techniques for the record:
Kick: Sennheiser MD 441
Snare: AKG C414 with a 20dB pad
Toms: Dynamic mics
Overheads: AKG 451s
Bass: Fat Box DI + AKG C414
Caillat: "I used to love that sound. I didn't think you could get any better than that. The amp got in the way most of the time. But we'd still record the bass on two tracks — direct and amp. Probably mic'd with something like a 414. And many times we erased the amp when we needed another track."
Electric Guitar: Shure SM57 + AKG C451 B
Caillat: "I found that those two mics complemented each other. If I put the 57 about an inch from the cloth, and the 451 about two inches from the speaker, a little off to the side, and then moved the two faders up and down both together and independently, I could change the sound radically."
It took a particularly long time to record the acoustic guitar for "Never Going Back Again." To achieve such a bright, brilliant guitar tone, Caillat had studio techs changing the strings on Buckingham’s guitar every 20 minutes.
Caillat: "I wanted to get the best sound on every one of his picking parts. 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 worst part? They tracked everything in the wrong key, and had to do it all over again the next day.
A variety of different keyboards were used when recording Rumours, including a grand piano, a Rhodes, a Wurlitzer and a Hammond B3. Each of them were recorded direct, and sent to different isolated amps for various effects.
The guide vocals were recorded with "whatever mics were least susceptible to leakage — SM57s, SM58s, 441s.” The final vocals were recorded during overdub sessions after wrapping up basic tracking for each of the songs.
The end was finally in sight. Rumours was recorded. It was almost finished. All that was left was mixing and mastering. And that’s when the bottom fell out…
Working with a 24 track tape machine meant many tracks had to be bounced down to save space. Caillat recalls printing over 60 tracks to a single reel of tape.
Caillat: "Are my ears going or does this sound duller than usual? It seems like I'm adding more top end all the time.' Eventually, I turned to the second engineer and asked him to clean the heads. When he did this, I noticed there was a lot of shedding going on. Every pass we had to stop and clean the heads, but still we pushed on, trying to get the work done, until finally I said, 'Maybe there's a bigger problem here. Maybe we're doing damage.”
After spending months recording and re-recording, writing and re-writing, arranging and rearranging — the tapes were so worn out from being played back they had lost all of their fidelity. Everything sounded “lifeless.” All of their hard work agonizing over tones and perfecting takes had been for nothing.
Caillat: "At one point I even brought up the kick drum and the snare, solo'd them, went back and forth between the two, and asked anybody if they could pick out which was which. Without any other timing information or instrumentation you couldn't tell the difference between them. So much character was gone from the kick and the snare that they just sounded like 'pah, pah'. That's when the fog cleared from our brains and we knew we had a problem. The fact was, the tapes were just worn out."
The album release was pushed back, a sold-out Autumn tour was cancelled, and a specialist was hired to attempt to restore the tapes.
Caillat: "Tape machines will never run at the same speed twice. So this guy put a pair of headphones on, and put the hi-hat and snare from the original tape in his left ear, and the hi-hat and snare from the 'safety master' in his right ear. We kept marking the tape and hitting 'start' on both machines at the same time until it was close enough at the beginning. Then he would use the VSO [vari-speed oscillator] on one of the machines, carefully adjusting the speed slightly and basically playing it like an instrument. He did that all night long and saved our butts.”
If not for "a real technical guy at ABC Dunhill” Rumours would have been lost forever. Mick Fleetwood calls Rumours "the most important album we ever made because it allowed us to continue recording for years to come.”
Fleetwood Mac went on to leave a legacy. Numerous documentaries and books have been released about Rumours, Fleetwood Mac, and the band members themselves. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic may have summed it up best:
"Each tune, each phrase regains its raw, immediate emotional power—which is why Rumours touched a nerve upon its 1977 release, and has since transcended its era to be one of the greatest, most compelling pop albums of all time."