Lindsey Buckingham, coming to Track 29 for a solo show on Wednesday November 7th, ranked #99 on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 guitarists. That dismal showing while disappointing isn’t really surprising. Buckingham’s eccentricities as a player and a writer have routinely caused him to be underrated even when his band was at its height.
He was the architect behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the third best selling album of the rock ‘n’ roll era -- 30 million copies worldwide. For a time Buckingham was celebrated as a master hit maker and given carte blanche (and a budget to match) to craft a follow-up. He spent the next two years, and a reported million dollars, making Tusk. A sprawling double album that reflected the deep divisions within the band much like The Beatles’ White Album, it’s the sound of a band splintering. As was Rumours. But by then Buckingham had lost interest in crafting the kind of ethereal pop pioneered by his hero, Brian Wilson. He’d been listening to the punks.
“I would have much rather been in The Clash than Fleetwood Mac at that point,” he told an interviewer for Guitar World Acoustic in 1998. The rest of the band weren’t happy. They reacted much the same way that The Beach Boys had reacted to Brian Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds work. “Lindsey,” they said, “we still want you to produce, but you can’t do this, and you can’t do this anymore.” It was at that point that he began concentrating on making music for himself.
When an interviewer asked him for his three favorite songs, his answer was telling. One, not surprisingly, was “God Only Knows” –widely regarded as Wilson’s masterpiece, and yet, like Tusk, it was a commercial disappointment. Second was The Kingsmen’s garage-punk classic, “Louie Louie.” The other one was Frank Sinatra’s recording of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” produced and arranged by Nelson Riddle. Together they help explain Buckingham’s idiosyncratic mix of careful craft and carefree abandon.
Take “Tusk,” an unholy mix of Beelzebub and the heavenly choir, it was the more successful of the two singles from the very expensive double album. But with its thundering bass drum tattoo, marching band horns and soaring yet sighing harmonies it’s an eccentric mash-up of “Louie Louie” and “God Only Knows.” The album was a relative flop – selling five million copies – compared to its mega-selling predecessor, and Buckingham took all the heat.
But Buckingham remains unmoved. Since Tusk he’s bounced back and forth between the band and his own solo projects. Fleetwood Mac has never equaled their late 70’s success either musically or monetarily, but they’ve retained a huge and loyal following. Buckingham slowly slipped away from the band in the 80’s to concentrate on his own albums. Listening to them is like listening to Lennon’s post – Beatles work. The sensibility that added some necessary acid to his partners’ sugar is readily apparent. His guitar playing – a mix of rapid-fire fingerpicking and frailing like the banjo players he loved in his youth – is non-pareil. But he continued to funnel many of his best songs onto albums by Fleetwood Mac, who have managed to lure him back into the fold whenever they have re-united.
Listening again to the three albums he worked on with the band in the 70’s, it’s apparent that without his guiding hand the band wouldn’t have been nearly so successful. Christine McVie’s limpidly romantic ballads and soft rock singalongs, and Stevie Nicks’ witchy woman reveries were hugely popular back in the day, but while they gained some heft from Buckingham’s production, they seem wan when paired with his edgy, off-kilter melodicism. But like his guitar playing, Buckingham’s production skills remain relatively unheralded.
For Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac is the “big machine,” while his solo shows are the “small machine.” Fleetwood Mac is reportedly making plans for a reunion tour next year. They will almost certainly play the big halls and the arenas. His solo shows are much more intimate (as evidenced in numerous YouTube clips), and this tour is particularly so – back to his folky roots, just him, his guitar, and his voice still strong after all these years.
Richard Winham is the host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed Chattanooga’s music scene for over 25 years.