Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cutlass Ken

After reading a Stevie Nicks' biography, I started listening again to Fleetwood Mac's biggest album (almost anyone's biggest album) Rumours.  Which led me to Ken Caillat's book, Making Rumours: The Inside Story Of The Classic Fleetwood Mac Album.

Ken, who originally came to LA to be a songwriter, had been working as a recording engineer for a few years when he got an assignment to help mix the Fleetwood Mac single "Rhiannon." The song was from their Fleetwood Mac album, often called the White Album.  Mick Fleetwood, leader of the band, was impressed enough that he hired Ken (I'm going to be using first names because it's easier with two McVies in this story) to be an engineer--along with another relative newbie, Richard Dashut--for the band's new album.  They were so instrumental in making the album that before it was over they were promoted to full producers--which gave them a piece of Rumours, by itself almost enough to make them rich.

Ken went up to the Record Plant in Sausalito where the band spent a few months coming up with and working on new songs.  He arranged things so, from the POV of his booth, there was Christine McVie on the near left with her keyboards in front of Lindsey Buckingham and his guitars, and John McVie as bassist on the near right in front of Mick Fleetwood and his drum set.  Stevie Nicks didn't really play an instrument, so sometimes she'd stand in the middle, dancing and shaking her tambourine--which wasn't miked.  (In any case, the actual tambourine part would later be recorded by Mick). There were also two isolation booths on the sides of the control room where the band could play acoustic instruments--guitars, pianos, etc.--without leakage from other sound.

This was only the second album for the new lineup with Lindsey and Stevie aboard. Their singing and songwriting helped changed the sound of the band into something more pop-oriented, and considerably more commercial. At the time, their first album had only just come out and would spend several months climbing the charts.  Soon after starting, they found out "Over My Head" from the White Album was a top twenty hit--their first in America--and they started to realize how big they were.  Then "Rhiannon" (Ken's mix) went to #11, and so did "Say You Love Me." For the first time, Fleetwood Mac was a phenomenon in this country.

Dealing with rock stars is like dealing with children.  Children who can fire you.  The band was not especially temperamental, as such things go, but you had to treat them properly.  And each was different.  Mick was maybe the easiest to work with, but as the guy in charge he demanded the band and staff work long hours with almost no vacation.  John was fine, until a few hours in when the drinks started getting to him.  (In general, the British members of the band--Mick, John and Christine--were the drinkers, while the Americans working on the album tended to prefer pot. And, this being the 70s, everyone needed a bump now and then, so cocaine was always around.) Lindsey was usually pretty easygoing, but could suddenly go nuts.  And not just verbally.  He attacked his girlfriend during this period and at one point tried to choke Ken.  Christine was no-nonsense, and would tell you exactly what she thought, good or bad.  Stevie, not playing an instrument, was often not around.  She'd be in a nearby room writing her songs.  She sometimes felt she had to fight to get the attention her material needed.

The three songwriters, Christine, Lindsey and Stevie, would come in with their tunes, sometimes only partially written, and the band would work them into something.  Ken was painstaking--it took him a week to set up the drum mikes--but the band was professional and knew what they were doing.  They also had a great sound when they worked together.  At one point, Christine brought in "Songbird," which was so beautiful and so simple that Ken rented out a local auditorium so she could sing and play a grand piano while he recorded her in that setting.

The album was named Rumours because of all the rumors swirling about the band. In fact, every single band member was in the middle of relationship problems.  John and Christine had just broken up, and were dating other people.  Steve and Lindsey were in the middle of breaking up. And Mick's marriage was falling apart--during the Sausalito sessions, his wife back in England, Jenny Boyd, left him for an old friend of his. It's also possible, during the process, that Stevie and Mick got together, though Ken isn't sure.  But the band knew they had something special and didn't let their personal problems slow them down.  In fact, most of the songs are about their emotional tumult, one way or another, and some of the members ended singing back-up on lyrics that were, in effect, attacking them.

The sessions ended, but they had a long way to go.  Warner Brothers, their label, saw the band was getting big, and booked them into a stadium where Ken and Richard did the sound.  The reception they got was the first major indication to the band members how big they were about to be.

Back in Los Angeles (mostly at a studio just up the street from where I live) Ken worked on the tapes with various band members coming in to add or change parts.  Mostly it was Lindsey, the resident musical genius.  He'd play one brilliant guitar lick after another, but started insisting John and Mick play their instruments his way--a little tricky when they'd been around from the start and Lindsey was a recent hire.  This reworking went on much longer than the original sessions, though it was on and off since the band was on tour some of the time.  Ken's inside stories make you want to listen to the album again to hear special moments and effects that were added to create the magic.

There were some last-minute changes to the album.  Stevie's song "Silver Springs," which Ken felt was one of the best they recorded, had to be cut. It was too slow--too many slow songs could make the album feel lethargic--and too long--you could only put about 22 minutes per side before the quality went down.  Stevie wasn't happy about this, since it was an especially meaningful song for her.  The next day, Lindsey suggested they replace it with "I Don't Want To Know," a song of hers that the two performed before they joined Fleetwood Mac. The band recorded it without Stevie and when she came in the next day, Mick told her it was in, "Silver Springs" was out--and Stevie could sing lead on it now and collect the royalties, or have one less song on the album. Then they came up with a new version of "Keep Me There" which they renamed "The Chain" and was the only song on the album written by the whole band.

After that they had to come up with the song order.  This can be tricky, though to be honest, as long as they didn't put three slow songs in a row, I don't see how they could have failed with such stellar material.  In fact, I think they made a mistake ending the second side with "Gold Dust Woman" when "The Chain" would have tied things up better.

Caillat's book, written with author Steven Stiefel, is quite informative and sometimes fairly technical--which you'd expect from an engineer.  It also spends a lot of time on Ken's personal life--his romantic relationships, the drugs, his dog Scooter (who'd appear on the cover of the band's next album Tusk).  Rumours ended up winning a Grammy, and is the classic soft rock album of the 70s, so it's good to know there's a book that shows it didn't appear magically, it just felt like it did.


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