Friday 9 March 2018

Classic FM: 20 songs to determine your level of devotion to Fleetwood Mac

"I'd rather jack / than Fleetwood Mac," squawked the insufferable Reynolds Girls in 1989, but history has proved them to be a) culturally short-sighted, and b) absolutely shit. As we all know, Fleetwood Mac are in fact the greatest thing to happen to sound. But as we all know equally well, Fleetwood Mac come in several flavours, having gone through approximately 431 different lineups since their 1968 debut album. So how big is your love for the Mac? In an exercise designed to reveal the embarrassing limits of my music analysis skills, I've gathered what I believe to be the 20 best tracks with which to familiarise yourself depending on how much of a Macologist you'd like to be. If you don't think you want to be any kind of Macologist then you can quite literally go your own way (i.e. bugger off).

Thanks to the miracle of streaming, about which it's worth remembering that artists receive one grain of salt for every 10,000 plays, you can listen to all 20 tracks on this exclusively curated playlist while you read! Isn't the future amazing?

Level 1: Clueless novice
L-R: John McVie (bassing), Christine McVie (keyboarding and lady singing),
Stevie Nicks (lady singing and twirling), Mick Fleetwood (banging),
Lindsey Buckingham (man singing and guitaring)

The golden age of Fleetwood Mac lasted from 1975 (when soon-to-be ex-lovers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band) until 1987, when Buckingham fucked off in a huff about how he was being, like, totally creatively stifled, man. This is the Mac you'll know even if you think you don't know Mac: the magical period when Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie's combined singer-songwriting produced some of the most gratifying aural sex your ears have ever juiced up for. Here's one track from each of the five albums they made during this precious time which you should listen to on a constant loop to achieve your GCSE in Basic Fleetwoodwork.

Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac, 1975)
Stevie Nicks' best song is a smoky, swirling folk tale about a Welsh witch "taken by the wind", presumably after a cauldron full of dubiously-sourced lamb vindaloo. Lindsey Buckingham's undulating guitar riff stops the song floating off into mystical whimsy, while Nicks' voice is at its sultry, sexy best, before it started to resemble that of a distressed goat.

The Chain (Rumours, 1977)
Tough to pick between this and Go Your Own Way; The Chain is all about sticking together and Go Your Own Way is, erm, not, so I guess it depends how apanthropic you feel at any given time. The Chain is a masterclass in harmonies and texture though, not least in its surprising turn from faintly menacing chant to hammering, bass-driven rock anthem. If you know this only as the Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 song then I am shaking my head in condescending dismissal of you. It is quite obviously the Formula 1 song.

Tusk (Tusk, 1979)
John McVie's usually functional bass playing finds a simple but irritatingly catchy hook with which to surf Mick Fleetwood's drums in Tusk's short, bonkers title track about jealousy and paranoia. It's the addition of the entire University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band thumping their tubs to Fleetwood's tribal beat that lifts the song into orbit though; have a go on the 1997 live version for the full, definitely-not-overbrassed effect.

Hold Me (Mirage, 1982)
Mirage is not a great Mac album but Hold Me is probably its least average track, its MVPs being Buckingham and Christine McVie's voices laid over each other like syrup on sandpaper. It is possibly more notable for inspiring the band's first video: a typically early-'80s mess of ideas laden with meaningless faux-symbolism, in which Fleetwood and John McVie twat about in the desert unearthing guitars and pianos while Stevie Nicks (who doesn't contribute to the song) literally lounges around on her ass.

Big Love (Tango In The Night, 1987)
Lindsey Buckingham reluctantly yanked this from his own forthcoming solo album in order to keep the Mac juggernaut running, and thank Christ he did. It's a rolling boulder of pristine production, spiced up with weird sex noises at the end. And just to prove he could carry it all by himself, Buckingham does a mind-blowing live solo version that will have you wondering exactly how many fingers he has on each hand in order to play like that.

Level 2: Discerning muso
L-R: John McVie (bassism), Danny Kirwan (guitarism), Mick Fleetwood (drummism), Peter Green (singism, more guitarism), Jeremy Spencer (even more guitarism)

The savvy Mac fan will also be able to extend their appreciation further back in time, into the band's formative days as a group of British blues avengers assembled by Peter Green. An almost comical rotation of guitarists came and went between 1968 and 1974, their departures precipitated variously by booze, drugs, abduction into cults and inappropriate insertion of themselves into their bandmates' wives. While the band's sound during these heady days bears little resemblance to the later Buckingham/Nicks era, there are plenty of killer tunes to be found by the discerning, degree-level Macademic.

Oh Well, Part 1 (single, 1969)
Peter Green busts out Fleetwood Mac's single greatest guitar riff for this musical insight into what it's like to be unable to sing, not pretty and somewhat thin in the legs department, which might be why I identify with it so strongly. The last minute (and indeed the whole of its B-side Oh Well, Part 2) unexpectedly veers off into some weird Ennio Morricone territory, as if Clint Eastwood has just appeared and is considering just how many coffins would be required to put the band out of his misery, but for 140 seconds this is absolute peak early Mac.

The Green Manalishi (with the Two Prong Crown) (single, 1970)
The sound of a particularly ugly personal demon clawing its way out of a pit it should never have left, this dread-infused musical nightmare about the perilous combination of money and drugs sees Green go black as night. While he howls into an echoey void to the chugging of an insistent riff, the whole band are held down by a bassline so deep it's barely audible to the human ear. One man's Hell has rarely sounded so cool.

Lay It All Down (Future Games, 1971)
Guitarist and singer Bob Welch began nudging Fleetwood Mac away from the blues and towards a poppier sound on Future Games, where this bouncy highlight thrusts its hips around, yakking away about Moses and paradise and other Biblical stuff that's generally at odds with its funky swagger.

Remember Me (Penguin, 1973)
Christine McVie's impeccable talent for an absolute tune finally broke loose on Penguin's opening track, providing the clearest indication of the future Fleetwood Mac's signature tunesmithery. She has to provide her own backing vocals here, making you wonder how great this could have been with the Buckingham/Nicks machine behind it, but in their absence it still ploughs a solid groove.

Hypnotized (Mystery To Me, 1973)
Bob Welch gets a bit trippy in this UFO-inspired track that sounds like nothing else any iteration of Fleetwood Mac ever produced. Guitarist Bob Weston throws in some gorgeous jazz licks which Mick Fleetwood still speaks highly of, despite the fact that at the time Weston was having it off with Mrs Fleetwood. In ensuring his own imminent dismissal from the band, Weston unknowingly hinted at its future as a hotbed of intra-band sex shenanigans and ugly (but sexy) betrayal.

Level 3: Tedious completist
L-R: Stevie Nicks (hair), Mick Fleetwood (hats), Rick Vito (not Lindsey Buckingham), Christine McVie (friend's sexy mum), John McVie (rethinking waistcoat),
Billy Burnette (also not Lindsey Buckingham)

Post-Tango In The Night, Fleetwood Mac never regained the flawless alchemy of their decade-long purple patch. The three albums they made between 1990 and 2003 are all fine, but with Lindsey Buckingham largely absent from Behind The Mask, Stevie Nicks joining him in self-imposed exile for Time and Christine McVie sitting out Say You Will (despite Buckingham and Nicks' surprising return), the holy trinity's refusal to appear on the same album at the same time renders this period a minefield of thin ice for the ill-prepared listener. Gems are there to be dug up though, and the following represent the best of the deepest cuts for those studying for their master's in Mac.

Love Is Dangerous (Behind The Mask, 1990)
The void left by Lindsey Buckingham's departure was so vast that it had to be filled with two new singer-guitarists: Rick Vito and Billy Burnette, neither of whom seemed to have ever heard a Fleetwood Mac song before. Vito's contributions in particular suggest a man who had spent the past year listening to the Road House soundtrack on permanent rotation, but this duet with Stevie Nicks proved that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Love Is Dangerous may be lyrically uninspired (turns out love is, like, really dangerous?) but it rocks its balls off, Nicks in particular contributing the kind of climbing bridge that only she could pull off.

Sooner Or Later (Time, 1995)
Christine McVie tried her best to hold the songwriting fort on the Buckingham/Nicks-less Time, and this lament to lost love was one of the album's precious few highlights. A menacing rhythm section and simple, repetitive guitar line provide a dark counterpoint to McVie's honeyed vocals and unerring ear for melody, and you thank the gods that these guys' consistent inability to maintain a healthy relationship has provided so much fuel for their music.

Nights In Estoril (Time, 1995)
Christine digs into her big box of happy memories again, tainting them with the pain of inevitable sadness that seems to have accompanied her every romantic entanglement. Most of her songs on Time follow this pattern, and hindsight suggests she's talking as much about the band she was about to say goodbye to as the men she's left behind. Yet again though, a bouncy chorus distracts attention from the heartbreak, and as a bonus features the only reference in pop music to Portugal's famous tourist hotspot that I can think of right now.

Murrow Turning Over In His Grave
(Say You Will, 2003)
With Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks back to sing hate songs about each other but Christine McVie nowhere to be seen, Say You Will saw a welcome almost-return to form for the Mac. This Buckingham-penned rant about the parlous state of the modern press features an unwieldy title and chorus, but he spits his lyrics and guitar parts out with the kind of tangible vitriol that hadn't been heard from the band since Go Your Own Way.

Everybody Finds Out (Say You Will, 2003)
Beginning with a vocal treatment for Stevie Nicks that makes her sound like Rob Brydon's Small Man In A Box, this soon transforms into a thumping, sexually-charged monster that proves that a) Nicks can still wring new and ambiguous content from her decades-old split with Buckingham, and b) the two of them combined are so much more than the sum of their parts.

Bonus level: Insufferable bore
L-R: Lindsey Buckingham (had enough of this photoshoot),
Christine McVie (very nearly had enough of this photoshoot )

If you've made it this far, congratulations! You have achieved a master's degree in Fleetwood Macology and are sure to annoy your friends on poker night by asking Alexa to play only the most obscure Mac tracks while everyone else just wants to listen to Bruno fucking Mars or whatever, the ignorant MORONS. To achieve your full doctorate though, you'll want to dabble in those difficult side projects: the solo albums nobody bought and the offshoots that nobody in their right mind would admit to liking, let alone owning a vinyl copy that was really quite hard to track down actually and so what if my heart skipped a beat when I found it at that record fair full of like-minded losers. Take your Maccery to the darkest depths with the following five bonus bangers:

Don't Let Me Down Again
(Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks, Buckingham Nicks, 1974)
Back when Buckinicks were a solid, sexy and very hairy couple, they knocked out one excellent, country-tinged (wait, come back!) album that served as their job interview for Fleetwood Mac. Its arguable highlight is this none-more-seventies toe-tapper that wouldn't have been out of place on the next couple of Mac albums. As great as the music is, though, absolutely nothing beats that album cover for sheer, sexy hairiness.

Edge Of Seventeen (Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna, 1982)
The undeniable peak of Stevie Nicks' solo career came with this Destiny's Child-inspiring track full of typically Nicksian mystical symbolism and weird bird noises (who hasn't heard a white-winged dove singing "ooh baby ooh say ooh"?). That insistent, chugging riff carries Nicks' raw vocals on its shoulders for over five minutes of singalong fun, tempered only by the depressing realisation that the song is in fact about the death of John Lennon.

Go Insane (Lindsey Buckingham, Go Insane, 1984)
Due to its inclusion in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies Lindsey Buckingham's most popular solo song is probably Holiday Road, about which I'm sure he's delighted. But dig into his not-entirely-easy-listening solo career (the sound of which he's gone to great pains to distance as far from Fleetwood Mac as possible) and you'll find crackers like this title track from his second LP, which is about 16th century Belgian porridge farmers. LOL jk, it's about Stevie Nicks. They're all about Stevie Nicks.

One In A Million
(Christine McVie, Christine McVie, 1984)
McVie is, to be fair, a bit dreary by herself, but the strutting bassline on this track from her second solo album makes it a standout. She's accompanied vocally here by Steve Winwood, which improves the song but inevitably makes you wish she'd just got Lindsey Buckingham along to do it.

Too Far Gone
(Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, 2017)
The release of 2017's snappily-titled Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie should have been the Fleetwood Mac reunion we'd waited years for, if only Stevie Nicks had bothered to turn up. The album misses Nicks, but with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie in support of the headliners it's the best we'll get for now. Too Far Gone shows this dysfunctional collection of pensioners can still turn out a stomping great party tune when required. And you just can't say that about The Reynolds Girls.


That's it, school's out. Your Fleetwooducation is now complete and your level of devotion to the Mac has hopefully been determined. In the highly likely event that you just scrolled past all those boring words in the hope of finding a playlist of all the songs mentioned, then you're in luck! But also I hate you.

Disclaimer: the version of Oh Well, Part 1 contained herein is a live version performed by Lindsey Buckingham, because Spotify can't be arsed to have the Peter Green version. Don't @ me.

Friday 2 March 2018

Copacabana: The Movie

It should be enough just to know that a musical film exists based on Barry Manilow's 1978 disco-busting earworm Copacabana. When I spotted it in the BFI catalogue a couple of months ago I realised that my life could now be split into two distinct periods: ignorance of Copacabana the movie, and awareness of Copacabana the movie. The delight I felt knowing that my all-time favourite go-to karaoke standard is out there in expanded, visual form - with Manilow in the lead role, no less - could barely be contained. But humanity by nature is greedy, and I wanted more. I didn't just want to be aware of Copacabana; I wanted to see Copacabana.

Conscious of the fact that there was only one screening, I booked my ticket immediately, before it inevitably sold out and became the next Hamilton. By some miracle there were actually quite a lot of tickets available; perhaps the BFI's website had crashed under the sheer volume of traffic and I had somehow managed to head off the hordes of fanilows who had brought the site to its knees.
Priceless. (Actual price £9.00)

My natural assumption was that a 1985 TV movie comedy-musical, based on an unironically naff chart-topper by the maharaja of MOR and boasting his own hitherto (and, in all honesty, thereafter) undiscovered acting talent, might not be the Citizen Kane of under-appreciated cultural artifacts. And I'll be honest, the thought that it might just be absolutely, hilariously terrible filled me with even more glee. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case. Copacabana is, disappointingly, not rubbish at all. It isn't great either, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is agreeably sweet and occasionally quite mad, and therefore absolutely worth seeking out for fans of the song, i.e. anyone who has heard it. For the sake of context:

Copacabana (the song) is brilliant for many reasons, but primarily for the love triangle story that unfolds over just two narratively economical verses - with a tragic coda saved for the third - which evokes deadly, tangled lust in the nightclub underworld of the Caribbean. No doubt you're aware, even if you didn't just watch the above piece of Manilow magic, of Lola (showgirl, yellow feathers in her hair, dress cut down to there), Tony (always tended bar, worked from eight till four) and Rico (wore a diamond, escorted to his chair, went a bit too far). The tale ends with blood and a single gunshot, but Manilow leaves unanswered the crucial question of just who shot who. All we know is that thirty years later Lola survives, unable to let go of the past and drinking herself into madness.

Copacabana (the movie), then, takes these events as the bones upon which to add tasty, if somewhat cheesy meat: we learn about the characters' backstories, hopes, dreams, families, failures and quite remarkable costume choices. Peripheral characters and subplots are introduced (and occasionally abandoned), and a thrilling Havana-set rescue unfolds against the unlikely backdrop of a delirious pirate-based song-and-dance show called El Bravo.
Throughout all this, Barry Manilow - in the role of talented but frustrated songwriter and hero Tony Starr, naturally - is adorably goofy and charming. Gangly and awkward, he doesn't so much dance as clatter across the sets like a newborn giraffe, occasionally stopping to spread his jazz hands far and wide in his signature (and only) move. The peak of his performance comes as he attempts to hawk his new ditty to a series of unimpressed music moguls: each one demands he plays the song in a different style (in one of the script's scarce moments of genius, the song is called Changing My Tune), which he does with boundless enthusiasm and irrepressible charisma. Most of the time Manilow's acting is on a par with the average school nativity play, but given that we really just want to see him sing it hardly matters.

Initially dressed in conservative knitwear and bumblingly inelegant, Manilow plays Tony like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, which is appropriate given that Annette O'Toole - who was Lana Lang in Superman III just two years earlier - plays Lola Lamar. O'Toole is almost as delightful as Manilow, and clearly relishes vamping away in sleazy gin joints and bouncing about in the ridiculous outfits of her later career as the star of a Cuban cabaret. It's only in the film's bookend scenes (literal translations of that final, pitiful verse), where she's required to gaze at a comically ghostly Manilow, that she provokes unintentional giggles, but that's almost certainly down to the fact that she's buried under several strata of unconvincing old lady makeup.
Note yellow feathers in hair. Dress cut down to there just out of frame

What's perhaps most disappointing for a Barry Manilow-written musical is the forgettable roster of songs: only a couple - Man Wanted, sung initially in a sleazy jazz style by Lola before Tony sexes it up into a swing banger, and El Bravo, which accompanies the hijinks of the climax - really register. The big showpiece number Who Needs To Dream, with which Tony serenades Lola and magically transforms her initial dislike of him into unconditional love, is a saccharine dirge designed almost exclusively for Manilow to show off his vox chops. I'm sure I'm missing the point, but as someone whose Barry Manilow collection extends to that one greatest hits compilation you can find in any charity shop vinyl tub across the land, I'd have been much happier with a jukebox musical packed with all the hits.

There's plenty of fun to be had in the expansion of the song's story though, not least the discovery that the Copacabana club is located in Manhattan, revealing Manilow's claim that it's "the hottest spot north of Havana" as a barefaced lie: a cursory google reveals that setting it somewhere in south Florida would have been less geographically and meteorologically inaccurate. But it's great to see these characters in the flesh, particularly the dastardly Rico, gloriously described by a cop who's been after him for years as "the deadliest snake in the western hemisphere". That potentially exciting crime aspect is just one of the subplots that goes undeveloped, but if it's at the expense of the one in which Tony embarks on a jealousy-fuelled affair with a wealthy divorcée who shows him a world of champagne, caviar and double breasted blazers, then it's probably worth it. As for who shot who, well, that's a mystery you'll have to discover for yourself.
Look, the internet is not awash with hi-res production stills from Copacabana, OK

Tragically Copacabana remains the only entry to date in the MCU (Manilow Cinematic Universe). We can only dream of what might have been with movies of songs like Bermuda Triangle, in which Barry's woman mysteriously disappears with an alternate Barry in some kind of baffling space-time paradox, or Can't Smile Without You, in which Barry is doomed only to feel the emotions of others, feeling sad when they're sad and feeling glad when they're glad, or Could It Be Magic, in which Barry discovers that he's a wizard. Still, music and passion are always the fashion, so fingers crossed that somebody, somewhere, is ready to take a chance again*.

* Ready To Take A Chance Again is another Barry Manilow song