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Monday, April 19th, 2010

Popdose Flashback ‘90: Fleetwood Mac, “Behind the Mask”
by Matthew Bolin

As Popdose’s editor in chief Jeff Giles (y’all) would probably agree, Lindsey Buckingham is still probably one of the most overlooked and underrated of the significant figures in rock music history. And yet, without him, it is likely Fleetwood Mac would not have held the title of the “Biggest Band in the World” for most of the second half of the 1970s. As a songwriter, singer, lead guitarist, arranger, and producer, Buckingham quickly helped reshape what was left of the original British blues band and turn it into a stadium pop-rock act in the greatest sense of the phrase. With a gift for being able to combine the mainstream and the experimental, it was Buckingham more than any other member of the group who was able to turn Rumours into a juggernaut, Tusk into a respected classic, and even a lesser work like Tango in the Night into a highly listenable collection.

Thus, when Buckingham quit Fleetwood Mac a few months after the release of Tango in 1987, the band was left with a serious hole to fill, one which they tried to cover by adding not one, but two guitarists: accomplished session musician and slide guitarist Rick Vito on lead and singer-songwriter Billy Burnette on backup. Both friends of Mick Fleetwood, Vito and Burnette were good choices for a one-two punch of professional rock and roll. But, simply put, they were neither writers nor arrangers in Buckingham’s league.

That gap is evident in the album this new lineup produced, Behind the Mask (original release date: April 10, 1990). A slickly produced collection of mostly lite-FM-ready pseudo rockers, Mask is a rather tepid affair, both in terms of quality and chart performance. Whereas every album dating back to their self-titled 1975 set sent at least two tracks to the top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100, with many of them hitting the Top 10, Behind the Mask’s first single — the Christine McVie sung “Save Me” — peaked at an underwhelming #33.


It should be noted, however, that this chart result was actually an improvement over the first single released by this new lineup. In November 1988, “As Long As You Follow” (another McVie tune) was released ahead of Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits album. It was one of two new songs on the disc, and was expected to help propel the set to the top of the charts for the year-end holiday run. Instead, the single stalled at #43, and the album itself failed to reach the Top 10. This was a bit of a shame, really, since “As Long As You Follow” is easily better than anything on Behind the Mask.

The two McVie singles (the second being the album opener “Skies the Limit,” which failed to chart on the Hot 100) are the best of the bunch by far. Most of the other tracks range from somewhat cute (the zydeco-influenced “When the Sun Goes Down”) to inoffensive (“Do You Know”) to straight-out embarrassing (the seven-minute “In the Back of My Mind,” which can best be described as an inverted, prog-ed up remake of “Tusk”).

But what suffered the most on this album — and the from this lineup change — was the quality of Stevie Nicks’ work. While on all of her previous Fleetwood Mac albums she had at least one song end up a hit single, and in a couple of cases part of the classic rock canon (“Rhiannon”, “Dreams”, “Sara”, “Gypsy”, “Seven Wonders”), there were no Stevie singles released from Behind the Mask. And really, there wasn’t much to choose from: “Love Is Dangerous” is a pleasant MOR rocker of no great note, and the vocal chemistry between Nicks and Vito is nonexistent compared to what Nicks regularly pulled off with Buckingham; “Affair of the Heart” is virtually tuneless, and the few parts where a melody nearly pokes through get drowned out by a wall of mushy background vocals, while the instrumental break throws in a country hoedown arrangement out of left field; and “The Second Time” is a short, mostly acoustic song with a sleepy vocal from Nicks and unremarkable lyrics. “Freedom,” co-written by Nicks with Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, is probably the best of her four tracks, but even it suffers from a lack of focus: the best part the track is actually the guitar solo, which Nicks likely had little to do with (or even Rick Vito: he seems to be doing a copycat version of Campbell’s own style, probably straight off the song’s demo).

Simply put, the absence of Buckingham exposed his importance as an arranger and producer for Fleetwood Mac, and especially for Stevie Nicks in her context within the group. Without Buckingham in the Mac, Nicks’ own contributions to the group couldn’t approach her highest levels. Thus, it is no surprise that she too ditched the band after this album, only rejoining the group at the same time Buckingham did for the 1997 reunion concert and live album The Dance. Vito and Burnette, meanwhile, went back to their careers as sidemen in demand, and Vito, in fact, still plays in Mick Fleetwood’s other group, the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, proving both that cats and able guitarists always land on their feet, and you can never have enough bands with Fleetwood in their names.