"Quit snibbling. You’re doing the job!"
You never know when you’re going to be a part of history.
It was Tuesday, January 27, 1976, the midst of one of the wettest winters in Northern California’s history. After five years in Los Angeles, I had upgraded my VW bus to a ’72 Audi 100, and now I was driving it up Interstate 101, heading four hundred miles north with my best friend, Scooter, who was riding beside me in the passenger seat. Scooter was a brown-and-white beagle mix, and he was very, very smart.
We were going to Sausalito to record Fleetwood Mac’s new album, Rumours. Amazingly, twelve days earlier, I had never heard of the band. I know how crazy that sounds in retrospect, especially considering that I was already something of a music industry insider. But Fleetwood Mac had yet to have a hit song in America. By the end of my journey making Rumours, though, I knew that my life would never be the same.
As I headed north, I could see dark clouds roiling on the horizon. These storm clouds are typical of Northern California’s winters, bringing heavy rain and a cold chill that goes right through you. Scooter and I were driving straight toward the storm. I’d grown up in San Jose, about fifty miles or so from my destination, so the clouds didn’t portend anything dark or ominous to me. They just made me feel like I was heading home. Scooter sat on the passenger seat looking ahead, ears up and alert in typical beagle fashion.
I had just taken a leave of absence from Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood, where I had been working as a recording engineer. Five years earlier, I had left a law internship in San Jose to follow my dream of becoming a successful songwriter in Southern California. I had taken a job with Wally at his recording studio shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, hoping to advance my songwriting career. While I hadn’t exactly blown the doors off the songwriting world, I had become, all things considered, a fairly successful up-and-coming recording engineer.
Now I was leaving a job with security to engineer the new Fleetwood Mac album at the famous Record Plant studios up in Sausalito, right on the edge of San Francisco Bay. As I was driving back up to the Bay Area, I realized how much I had grown accustomed to the nearly year-round warm Southern California climate.
Rumours would be Fleetwood Mac’s second record since the band had brought Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham on board, and it was slated to follow the release of their self-titled album—often referred to as the White Album, the one with the hit singles “Over My Head” and “Rhiannon.” These songs weren’t hits yet, but they would be soon. That’s where my good luck comes into play. I can’t say I have always counted on good luck, but I’m never surprised when it happens.
Fleetwood Mac itself was already an unlikely mix of opposites: old and new, English and American, male and female. What was to come were even more dichotomies: the contrasts between being unknown and famous; blues and rock; alcohol and pot. All of these contradictions were wrapped up in each of the band members and their relationships with the others. The one constant from every member of the band was each individual’s relentless talent.
The core of the band was drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. These two had met in 1966 when they were playing backup in John Mayall’s band, the Bluesbreakers. Guitarist Peter Green also played in that band. He’d replaced Eric Clapton when Clapton left to found Cream.
Back then, Peter had been called the “Green God.” He dubbed Mick and John “Fleetwood Mac,” and soon the three of them were recording together. A few years later, songs such as “Albatross,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Oh, Well,” and “Green Manalishi” established Fleetwood Mac as a premier blues act in England. Yet they still hadn’t really gained much traction in America.
In making the move to Sausalito, I had some apprehension. I was twenty-nine, single, and not as outgoing as I wanted to be, and I would be living with rock musicians for the next several months. I would have to share a large two-story house with all of the guys in the band. I didn’t know what to expect from living with a bunch of musicians, but I suspected things might get pretty crazy.
During the previous week and a half, I had spent two full studio days mixing two versions of “Rhiannon” with the band. Even though I didn’t know the band members very well, I had already learned that they could really play and write songs.
The band had gone through some ups and downs since their time with Peter Green. John’s wife, Christine, had joined the group in 1970. They had gained and lost Bob Welch, their guitarist and lead singer, and, finally, they had recently hooked up with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. So, the current five members of the band were all still getting used to one another, too.
Stevie and Lindsey were virtual unknowns, despite the fact that they’d put out their debut record, Buckingham Nicks, and they’d recorded the White Album with the current Fleetwood Mac lineup. Stevie and Lindsey had grown up in the Bay Area, in Palo Alto, close to where I had lived, in San Jose. After a promising start in the Haight-Ashbury scene, they were discovered and encouraged to move to L.A., where they landed a record deal with Polydor. Stevie and Lindsey cut a brilliant debut album that had only one problem: it flopped. Because of this, Polydor dropped them as recording artists. Undeterred, the duo continued to pursue their dreams. With no money and no record deal, Stevie and Lindsey went right back into the studio, working after hours with their good friend and sound engineer Richard Dashut.
At that time, their studio had been the same one—Sound City in Van Nuys, California—where Fleetwood Mac was looking to cut its next album. A producer there, Keith Olsen, the guy who had brought Stevie and Lindsey down to L.A. and produced the Buckingham Nicks album, played Mick Fleetwood some of his handiwork. But it wasn’t Keith’s engineering that caught Mick’s ear, it was Lindsey’s brilliant guitar playing.
When it came to music, Mick had superb intuition and a flair for taking risks. So, when Bob Welch announced his intention to leave Fleetwood Mac, Mick made a phone call that would change the lives of all of the current members of the band. He asked Lindsey and Stevie to join Fleetwood Mac.
With the offer already on the table, Lindsey and Stevie didn’t even have to audition. Suddenly, Fleetwood Mac had something more than a new lineup; they had a new sound. Fleetwood Mac now had that indefinable combustion of elements that separates a truly great band from a thousand pretenders. They cut the White Album in just three months, took to the road, and played the hell out of every cow town and college campus in America, introducing the current version of the band to a new generation of fans. On that tour, in the summer and fall of 1975, the musical chemistry of this new Fleetwood Mac lineup started to come together, but the bonds between the band’s couples began to fall apart. This was when I met the band.
Back on the road with Scooter, as we headed toward the storm clouds, I said, “Geez, Scooter, what have I gotten us into?” Scooter wagged his tail. “Maybe we’ll both meet some hot babes!”
Scooter didn’t care where we were going. He was just happy to be along for the ride. He stepped onto my lap and licked my face as if to say, “Everything will be okay.” Scooter was definitely a smart dog.
I nearly didn’t get the job. On Thursday, January 15, 1976, twelve days before I headed up to Sausalito, I got a call from Gail, my studio-booking manager at Wally Heider’s in L.A. She told me that Fleetwood Mac had booked Studio 1 to mix a one-hour show they’d recorded for the syndicated King Biscuit Flour Hour radio show.
Later that day I was standing with two of my co-engineer friends from Heider’s, Biff Dawes and Dennis Mays.
The Biffer worked with me at Wally Heider’s
Dennis Mays, “the hit man,” was another of my Heider’s buddies
Biff asked, “You’re gonna do it, right?”
“Do what?” I asked back.
“You’re going to do the Fleetwood session?”
“I’m not sure,” I said and shrugged. “I don’t know their music. Are they any good?”
“These guys are great. Have you heard ‘Rhiannon’?” Biff asked.
I shrugged again. “Eh, maybe.”
“Ken, go buy their album,” Dennis said. “You’re an idiot if you don’t take this job.”
So I bought the White Album. I liked it, and I took the gig.
On the day of the mix down for the King Biscuit show, Saturday, January 17, 1976, I was feeling really good. It was one of those sunny Saturday mornings in Los Angeles when you know that everything is going to go great.