A certain time, a certain place: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tango in the Night’

A few years ago I found this story about the recording of Tango in the Night, Fleetwood Mac’s fifth with Lindsey Buckingham and first with Stevie Nicks as a triggered Fairlight sample. Press around the album centered on Buckingham’s exit after the band announced its world tour, replaced by the hapless Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. So did Nicks’ stint at Betty Ford. Before the recovery that probably saved her life, however, she had partying to finish:

Fleetwood says that he and Nicks were doing more cocaine during the making of Tango than when they were recording Rumours — an album on which they seriously considered thanking their drug dealer in the credits. “Actually” he admits, “it was way worse on Tango In The Night. For sure.”

Skeptics wary of boomer experiments in eighties technology, rejoice: chimes, voice oscillators, and six-string pizzicatos dominate; Tango is a Swedish cuckoo clock of a record. Even the best tracks betray no sign of five people playing together in the same space. Realizing that Tango is half a Buckingham solo project to which bandmates contribute should reassure Tusk fans who loved his manic tracks on the 1979 recording but recoiled from the women. And Tango has finally proven to be as influential as Tusk. The billowing “Everywhere,”  written and co-written by album MVP Christine McVie, has popped up in Balearic playlists for at least a decade. In 2013 Classixx released “Hanging Gardens,” an elegant dance romp through motifs in “Seven Wonders” (if you haven’t heard the original extended mix, sit down).

The substitution of acoustic instruments for multi-tracked electronic textures and the strategic manipulation of harmonies suggests an album as riven with unresolved romantic discord as Rumours; studio tricks or not, McVie, Buckingham, and Nicks respond to each other’s work more successfully than any recording since 1977. For example, “Little Lies” lives and dies by its three-part call and response vocal in the chorus (for many an eighties kid Nicks’ nasal contribution was introduction and a who-the-hell-IS-that moment); and the way Buckingham gently props up Nicks for the coda he improvised for “When I See You Again” is more poignant than it has any right to be (look, asshole, you didn’t give me much to work with, he might have thought). Meanwhile I’m waiting for The War on Drugs or somebody to reproduce the queasy hybrid called “Isn’t It Midnight,” a McVie-Buckingham collaboration in which metal guitar shredding meets disquieting synthetic ripples.

As usual the size of the deluxe reissue assumes listeners won’t attend Trump rallies, read Edward St. Aubyn, or visit an aunt in her dotage, but I found several pleasures. First, those often astonishing remixes: Arthur Baker makes “Big Love” conversant in Chicago house; Jellybean Benitez adds martial drums and a delightful three-note keyboard hook to “Everywhere”; Stevie Nicks’ unabridged contribution to “Little Lies,” a pinched series of oohs and title embellishments over honking synth. This is reassuring. Nicks is there and not-there on this album in a way that delights me. She’s peculiar: one of the few singer-songwriters who is both the most conventional member, most prone to kitsch (Eagles fetish, New Age crap) yet guided by the weirdest visions. No way in hell would I want a Fleetwood Mac without her. However, “Welcome to the Room…Sara,” the only song she finished on her own, is gilded incoherence. Grant her this: she wrangled a credit on the durable “Seven Wonders” because she misheard a lyric. Star power, friends.

With two exceptions, don’t waste time with the B-sides and outtakes: “Down Endless Street” is a Buckingham bruiser with Fleetwood on drums, but “You and I,” reassembled after almost thirty years of bobbing as two discrete parts, hints at how the anticipated full-scale Buckingham-McVie collaboration might sound. As a chorus of overdubbed Lindseys yaps you-you-you, keyboards and guitars spin a latticework of desire and entrapment. “You/under strange falling skies/You, with a love that would not die,” Buckingham sings, the melody darkening with each word. Translation: What a beautiful spider web, I’m going to get eaten. The morning-after daze is McVie’s; the menace and self-absorption are his. Every time he sings “I” he pops a boner, as he should: it’s Buckingham’s favorite pronoun.

Tango in the Night creates a 1987 that never existed; no other boomer icon album sounded like it. The banality of its surface plays well on CD; its Henri Rousseau print sleeve, after all, has hung in many a pediatrician’s waiting room. I like to imagine how its ominous greens and flat, recessive depiction of an alligator — it only looks unthreatening — shimmered during the Bon Jovi spring. The British seemed to have thought long about it: the album went to #1 three different times. In the States it looked like a bomb after its #7 peak in early summer, but four top twenty singles and a chart span well into 1988 later it got certified triple platinum, Fleetwood Mac’s best-selling album post-Rumours. I hear “Little Lies” on recurrent eighties radio more than “Sara” or Mirage‘s “Hold Me.”

I suppose the band had the last laugh — until I remember that John McVie almost died of an alcoholic seizure and  it took two hacks to to fuck up Buckingham’s solos after he was, quite literally, chased out of the band by an exhausted Nicks, herself about to sink into another addiction, this time to Klonopin. But take “last” literally too. We’re still waiting for an album of new songs from this lineup. Savor Tango in the Night — it might be the epitaph.

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