Thursday, 19 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #89: Greatest Hits (1988)

Fleetwood Mac's only appearance comes in the form of the compilation which followed the break-up of their most consistent and successful line-up in 1987.

Fleetwood Mac began in 1967 as a blues band headed up by Peter Green, with bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood in tow (the band took its name from the latter two's surnames). At the height of the late-60s blues boom in Britain, the band's first album, Fleetwood Mac (1968) received good reviews. However, Green's experiments with LSD had made him a schizophrenic; with his playing abilities (and his mind) wasting away, he left the band in 1970. For the next five years the line-up of the band constantly fluctuated, with McVie's wife Christine joining on keyboards and vocals alongside many others. In 1975, however, Fleetwood invited singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks and her husband guitarist and vocalist Lindsey Buckingham to join, after being impressed by their solo effort Buckingham Nicks (1973). This so-called 'classic line-up' - Fleetwood, Nicks, Buckingham and the McVies - lasted 12 years (ending with Buckingham walking out on the night of a tour) and produced five albums - the critically acclaimed Fleetwood Mac (1975) and Rumours (1977), the experimental Tusk (1979) and the more commercial Mirage (1982) and Tango In The Night (1987).

The compilation's opener, 'Rhiannon', is a good showcase for Nicks' voice before her cocaine addiction in the 1980s took its toll. But while Christine McVie has done a fair job here - with an opening to die for and decent lyrics - the truth is that this is much better live, at least where Nicks is concerned. Compared to the live version from the debut album's tour, this sounds rather weak and processed.

Much better are the next two tracks. Both 'Go Your Own Way' and 'Don't Stop' are taken from Rumours and shift the emphasis to Buckingham. The former, written by Buckingham about his break-up with Nicks between the two albums, stands as a useful example of Fleetwood's ability on the drums (which has been criticised as much as his pony tail - though here they have a point). More distinctive is Buckingham's unique guitar playing - throughout his career he has never used a plectrum, plucking the strings in the same way a bassist would. On this occassion, thanks to a little distortion, produces a jazzy sound which fits his voice very well. 'Don't Stop' - which conjures up images of Bill Clinton, who used the song to get elected - finds McVie at her best. The song utilises her skills on the keyboards, has a deceptively simple drum part and, for the devoted listener, is the first song to feature her husband coming through strongly on bass.

'Gypsy' is more pop-based, and shifts the vocal duties back to Nicks. Taken from Mirage, this is a kooky yet catchy little number almost built around her vocal range and style - hardly suprising, since she wrote it. Aside from her voice, it is a little indistinct, one of the big criticisms of the whole album - and yet her harmonies with McVie are strangely compelling, for want of a better word. The solo style that Nicks had honed on her solo effort Bella Donna (1981) are very visible, and very welcome.

'Everywhere' begins with twinkling keyboards from McVie, who dominates this song. For all the impressive backing efforts of Buckingham on this number from Tango In The Night, it is clear from the outset that this is a keyboard song. The lyrics are repetitive almost to the point of being irritating - being pop, and aimed at the US market, they had to be in order to sell. Yet this is an ethereal number with a romantic vibe. It's just a shame that the ending is so bizarre, sounding like the 'love grunts' on 'Big Love' crossed with scatt singing.

Hereoin the bottom falls out with four songs that showcase the lesser side of the Mac. 'You Make Loving Fun' feels very middle-of-the-road, and is let down especially by John McVie: his bass is too loud and overproduced, drowning out Christine's lyrics and ruining what could have been a better-than-average song. 'Big Love' is no less laughable - not just because of the now-famous 'love grunts' (done by Buckingham, no less, and tweaked in the studio), but because there is just too much going on. As well as showcasing his disconcertingly wide vocal range, we are also 'treated' to unnervingly catchy and distracting guitar parts. Coupled with Fleetwood on electric drums, it's an 80s relic to the letter. Both 'As Long As You Follow' and 'Say You Love Me' are Christine McVie at her most inane. Like most Fleetwood Mac songs, the lyrics come second - but unlike most Fleetwood Mac songs, these sound hollow to the point of being indistinguishable from the latest one-ballad wonder. If McVie's voice were any different, it would be difficult to put a name on the band on both of these songs. Though, out of the two, 'Say You Love Me' sounds better, the presence of a banjo gives this an unforgivable country feel, ruining it beyond repair.

Having been put through all that, things pick up more than a little with 'Dreams'. Nick tells her side of her break-up with Buckingham, with a delivery a welcome few tones higher than her usual gravelly siren sound. The song sees Fleetwood playing fills intrusively instead of just keeping the beat like a session drummer. This is truly the first record on the album that feels like the band truly gelling together - ironically, since this was the time when all five either split up or got divorced. Nicks' lyrics are heartfelt and memorable (a first so far on this record), as seen in the chorus:

Thunder only happens when it's raining
Players only love you when they're playing
Women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean you'll know

From the best song on Rumours to the best song on Tango In The Night. 'Little Lies' is 80s pop rock at its best. McVie and Nicks share the vocals in the perfect combination - McVie takes the emotive verses, Nicks comes in with chorus harmonies. The whole thing, from the synthesisers in the beginning to the echoes at the end of lines, sounds mystical, almost enchanting. And while both Fleetwood and John McVie are relegated somewhat to the background, this hangs together very well. For once, it is good to see Buckingham being unobtrusive in his guitar, something which made Mirage a difficult listen. In this period of their history, this was the best song the 'classic Mac' ever produced.

Before long, we sadly return to FM mediocrity. Buckingham's country-style 'Oh Diane' feels humdrum from the outset. Lines like Love is like a grain of sand/ Slowly slipping through your hand hardly justify his real abilities as a songwriter, and his voice sounds terrible in that register. There can be little which can be said to redeem this rotten apple on a tree of hits, so we shall quickly move on.

'Sara' is classic Nicks - the usual registers, the usual delivery, the usual kind of chords from Buckingham. The song, taken from Tusk, is lighter than 'Dreams' without feeling like an airhead's tune. Fleetwood's soft brushes and John McVie's quiet bass work make this truly Nicks' song, and she doesn't squander the limelight - has she ever? Written during her stint in the Betty Ford Clinic, it feels like a distant yet overproduced folk song - making it a very attractive 80s pop song. But while this item from Tusk is an easy listener, and has all the classic features of the Mac, the title song of the same album is... well, weird. World music drumming, whispered lyrics, sinister bass lines, latin-style trumpets and yodelling(?!) - this song cannot make up its mind as to what it is. The whole album saw Buckingham playing producer; evidently his attempts to stop the band becoming formulaic produced a directionless mess - and, that aside, considering the next two albums it didn't work.

'Seven Wonders', the last Tango song to make it onto here, begins very well and softly on keyboards and hi-hat, before Nicks launches it up about 3 gears, singing at the very limits of her Arizona range. At moments she strains too hard to be comprehensible, and overall she sounds a little too much like Bonnie Tyler - one of the most unfortunate things in the world, considering the gulf of talent between them. And yet this feels more like a proper rocker than either the previous track (that isn't hard) or anything since 'Dreams' (which is a real achievement).

'Hold Me' sees more from McVie, and about time too. She plays the distinctive opening with panache, with Fleetwood kicking in at just the right time. But while the female vocals are impressive, the male backing vocals - probably from John McVie - sound seriously out of place. Thankfully, while vocally Buckingham is also the guilty party, he more than makes up for it with impressive guitar work before the final choruses. The closer, 'No Questions Asked', is a bright and apt way to end the compilation and wrap up this chapter of Mac history. It encapsulates a lot of what made this Mac so successful and long-lasting - Nicks' attractive, distinctive delivery; Christine McVie's swirling, breathing keywords; Buckingham's resonating guitar; and Fleetwood's simple but well-meaning drumming. John McVie is drowned out - as on many songs of this era - but this doesn't really affect the whole product.

Fans of the original Fleetwood Mac, or indeed any of the preceding incarnations, will find this disappointing. Well, obviously. This is a complete departure from the Green-era nasal blues, for better or worse - though generally this leans towards the better. Whether out of personal preference or critical acclaim, this period of Fleetwood Mac is not only their most consistent in terms of personnel, it was also their most successful commercially. This compilation is good because it chronicles this, as well as highlighting the variegated songwritings talents of this unique five-piece. It's a great way to discover the Mac for the first time, especially if you are put off by the blues. Which means, considering how popular this kind of thing was, this is an ideal compilation for just about anyone's collection.

3.71 out of 5

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