Canadian guitar hero Kim Mitchell, before he found quasi-fame as a solo artist and, much later, the drive time DJ for Toronto’s classic rock powerhouse Q107, was in a little Seventies hard rock band called Max Webster. While better known songs would come from their third album (including “A Million Vacations”), their second album is more consistent. This is pure Seventies prog-pop-rock, make no mistake. If you like Rush but hate all the Ayn Rand fanboying and all the endless concepts, or you like Supertramp but feel like they’re just not cheesy enough, High Class In Borrowed Shoes is the right direction to travel in. The title track, “America’s Veins”, “Rain Child”, and the stoned-in-a-convertible “Oh War” all prove Mitchell’s hard rock guitar chops. “Diamonds, Diamonds” and “Gravity” both play with the proggy concepts a bit more, and “In Context Of The Moon” actually functions pretty well as a killer hard prog song, including the ill-advised disappearance into a keyboard-laden k-hole. “Words To Words” probably fueled a few awkward teenage pregnancies, or at least some of that really, really awkward teenage dancing that Mitchell would later sing about on “Patio Lanterns”. Incidentally, “On The Road” is also just as awful as “Patio Lanterns.” You were warned.
Also, I don’t know what’s up with the cover. Did Canadians just not know how to design things in 1977? Actually, looking back on it, no. No they did not.
Released February 4th, 1977 on Warner Bros. Records
Rumours is the sound of a band turning internecine warfare into pure pop gold. It’s also the culmination of one of the more interesting careers in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Way back in the mid-1960s, Eric Clapton left John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and he was replaced by Peter Green, who was one hell of a blues guitarist. After some lineup shuffles, the Bluesbreakers would be John Mayall, Peter Green, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood. After Green left the band in mid-1967, he and Fleetwood formed a band with slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and named it after an instrumental the Bluesbreakers had recorded, “Fleetwood Mac”. Once John McVie joined they recorded an album, Fleetwood Mac, and it achieved quite a bit of success in their native Britain. By 1969, however, Green was developing symptoms of schizophrenia and he would end up leaving the group; in 1971 Spencer would disappear on tour and turn up living with the infamous California cult Children Of God. John McVie’s wife Christine joined the band as keyboardist and vocalist, and a number of other musicians were tried out in the early 1970s. Around 1974-75 the group of Fleetwood and the McVies merged with a group calling themselves Buckingham Nicks, consisting of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. This iteration of Fleetwood Mac was not a blues group; 1975’s Fleetwood Mac was very much a pop record, a complete 180 from 1968’s Fleetwood Mac.
By 1977, though, the group was tearing itself apart. The McVies broke up, and remained only on speaking terms while in the studio discussing music. Buckingham and Nicks were in a convulsive on-again-off-again relationship that only ever seemed to mend itself when they were writing songs together. Mick Fleetwood found out that his wife and his best friend were having an affair behind his back. To deal with all of this heartache and bitterness and recrimination, the band did an astounding amount of drugs, even by the standards of the late Seventies. Studio sessions would begin around 7 in the evening and around 2 AM, when the band was finally so coked-out that they could only pick up instruments and play, they would begin to actually record. Albums recorded in this fashion tend to be somewhat hit and miss. Station To Station and Hotel California were both recorded in the midst of blizzards, so to speak, but then again so were Vol. 4 and Be Here Now. Rumours falls squarely in the first category and in a very real sense defines it. There is no reason that an album recorded through a lens of residual anger and strong stimulants should sound so goddamn breezy, but here we are. It is the purest expression of Seventies AM pop ever committed to tape, and as such it is little wonder that virtually every single track on the album has ended up enshrined forever on the radio to a greater or lesser degree.
Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, when the entire album is scratched into your soul how do you pick out any particular tracks as being superior to the others? Which is the best? Is it the finger-popping Cali-country melody of “Second Hand News”? Is it the moody Nicks compositions, “Dreams”, “I Don’t Want To Know”, or the harrowing “Gold Dust Woman”? Is it the hopeful freedom of Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop” or “You Make Loving Fun”, or perhaps the sorrowful state of her relationship with her ex-husband, encapsulated on “Oh, Daddy”? Is it the come-together moment of the entire group on “The Chain”, a song that seems to air all of their grievances at once in a moment of partial exorcism? Picking is impossible, and the 39 minute runtime seems all too short to have appreciated the entirety; whenever I listen to Rumours, I find myself needing to listen to it twice just to appreciate all the subtleties the group worked into the songs. Chuck Klosterman might not think there’s any approach to greatness in these songs, but I don’t think that Klosterman has ever listened to them on a fragrant summer night when the wind is in your hair and the girl beside you is holding your hand in just the right fashion.
Legacies are tricky things for bands to maintain. Styles change, viewpoints go in and out of fashion, and there are bands (like The Who) that seem to swing on a continuous pendulum between being cool and being what my mother once called “fogey rock”. Some groups, like the Stones or the Boss, avoid having to keep up with their legacies simply by never stopping the active musical phase of their career. Some groups, however, cast such a wide net of influence that their presence can be felt in a distributed network of power, divided out over a legion of bands who reinforce and reproduce their sound. If Foucault had ever written about rock ‘n’ roll bands, he would have been fascinated with the legacy of Black Sabbath.
There are whole genres of music dedicated to the output of the Birmingham hard rock pioneers. “Doom Metal” is just another way of saying “we play the slower Sabbath songs with deeper distortion on the guitars.” “Stoner Rock” is just another way of saying “we play the faster Sabbath songs and you can pry our tube amplifiers away from our cold dead hands.” This is not to say that bands within those genres can transcend their influences and become something greater; Sleep began as a band of blatant Sabbath worshippers and ended up as #2 in the stoner/doom pantheon. Queens Of The Stone Age began with fusing their love of Sabbath riffs with clipped, breezy desert phrasing and ended up being every rockist’s go-to band of choice.
Then there’s The Sword. The Texas band has been blazing a trail of their own for several years now, getting on to most people’s radars with their well-regarded third album Warp Riders and then keeping the Sabbath Dream alive by peaking on the Billboard 200 at #17 with 2012’s Apocryphon. This sort of success tends to bring a band like The Sword to a crossroads: you can either continue to double-down on the Tony Iommi riffs or you can try to diversify. There are problems with both – contempt through familiarity vs. alienating your fanbase for potentially little growth – and that’s probably why the band uses High Country to walk a line between doing both. The album is largely Sabbath-inspired hard rock riffs, but there are moments here and there where different moments of the 1970s surface. It boogies in places. There are flourishes of psychedelic rock. Rather than being a rote re-do of the sludge-metal heroics of Warp Riders, High Country dials up some Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult and proceeds to party. It’s a sunnier and more open album than their previous efforts, and while it’s still indebted to the ghosts of the Seventies, it’s a path for progress that doesn’t require completely reinventing the band from the ground up. Thus, while it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of the past, it’s also much better than it could – should – have been. It sets the band up well to transcend the doomy Sabbath influence and forge something more lasting toward the stoner/doom canon – something like Sleep, or QOTSA, or even something like fellow Texans …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: a mix of discrete influences that becomes something new.
There’s going back and then there’s going back. Vancouver singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso, Jr. is firmly in the latter camp, reaching back four decades into the 1970s to dredge up the ghosts of Harry Nilson, Billy Joel, and Elton John’s less ornate moments. His lyrics are open and honest; there are no layers at work anywhere, no necessary dissection of words to find some kind of hidden snark or metaphor. Look at the simple statements of “Can We Still Be Friends”: “And then one night he arrives to your surprise / Someone let him in and all you can say is / “I know it’s not the same but I’m glad you came / Can we still be friends?”” “Hollywood” comes straight out of the plaintive side of the Seventies piano man spectrum, coming across as a doomed letter home from someone who’d run off to chase their dreams. “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” is about as direct a statement of longing and regret you’re likely to find in 2015.
The plainness and honesty extends to the music, as well. Jesso has spent most of his life on the guitar, and his piano skills are the kind that you develop after only a couple of years of practice. There’s very little that can be considered flashy or ornamental here – some strings here, a couple of vintage studio tricks there – and the starkness feels all the more refreshing in the digital age. Goon is an album for the odd-corner moments in your life – something to belt out while showering, or put on when company’s over, or maybe just to listen to in the dark with a glass of red wine while you wonder what ever happened to that girl that used to love you.