Dissecting Tango in the Night: Fleetwood Mac's pop masterpiece
As the album turns 30, why it's never been bettered
Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham describes the making of Tango in the Night as the “worst recording experience of my life”.
Singer Stevie Nicks was addicted to the tranquilliser Klonopin and spent just two weeks in the studio, drummer Mick Fleetwood had declared bankruptcy a few years prior and was still very much loving his drugs (Buckingham: “half the time Mick was falling asleep”) while none of them could truly claim they weren’t indulging their vices.
“Everyone was at their worst, including myself.” said Buckingham. “We’d made the progression from what could be seen as an acceptable or excusable amount of drug use to a situation where we had all hit the wall. I think of it as our darkest period.”
Ask any serious Mac head and they’ll all agree: Rumours was Fleetwood Mac’s greatest work. And no one can really argue that that collection of songs, from three songwriters firing on all cylinders – and usually firing those cylinders directly at each other – isn’t a complete masterpiece.
But yet, for me, Tango in the Night – remarkably, the last album made by the ‘classic’ lineup – will always be the pinnacle of the band’s output. After celebrating its 30th birthday in 2017, it’s time to give this often-neglected record the attention it truly deserves.
I say neglected – the thing’s sold over 15 million copies and is the band’s second best-selling album after Rumours, housing a host of hit singles – but it’s always felt to me that it’s never been truly respected for what it is: one of the greatest pop records ever made.
Perhaps prevailing anti-pop snobbery is what’s done for it; the record didn’t have the intense, inter-band quarreling and soap opera tendencies of Rumours while, sonically, Tango in the Night was more processed and produced than its ‘earthy’-sounding rival, which usually gets critics’ backs up. Even at the time, Rolling Stoneconfidently declared that “Tango may not be a world-beating 1980s LP”, while subsequent documentaries seem to gloss over the album’s making in favour of an elongated Rumours section. This article perhaps sums it up best, when it describes “critics dismissing it as the final demise of the band into a mushy-adult-contempo-soft-boiled-soft-rock-commercial-radio-mess”. But they are so wrong.
No, the beauty of Tango in the Night is that it is just a no-holds barred collection of utterly banging pop songs. One after the other, like a hammer to the head. It’s the sound of Lindsey Buckingham achieving exactly the right level of production experimentation, Christine McVie providing a barrage of super-sweet melodic hooks (she wrote or co-wrote five of the album’s 12 tracks) and when Stevie turns up, she does what Stevie does brilliantly. Meanwhile, as it’s so commonplace that we’ve all just taken it for granted, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie lay down some of the best rhythm playing you will ever hear in your life.
Despite the always-fascinating stories behind the making of the album, and the particular stage of the Fleetwood Mac soap opera that the members were living through at the time, it’s an album that simply speaks straight to the listener. You don’t really need any context to realise that this is an unbelievably brilliant collection of songs – in my opinion, their best.
And, one-by-one, this is exactly why.
These days it’s Lindsey Buckingham’s party piece live, as he somehow manages to become a ludicrous one-man band and play twenty five guitar parts at once, but the original should not be overlooked. Rhythmic guitar parts tickle both of your ears on the far sides of the mix, Mick and John lay down the groove, while Lindsey alternates between hushed psychopath in the verses and full tilt in the choruses. There are about five different guitar hooks and – this won’t be the last time we say this – there is absolutely no cocking about: the chorus is in by 30 seconds and it’s all done in 3:38. Fun fact: the oohs and aahs (another crucial hook in the song) are all performed by Lindsay – the high ones being his voice pitch-shifted up. Second fun fact: the video reportedly cost $500,000 ($1.1m by today’s standards). This from a band whose drummer had recently declared bankruptcy. Respect. Oh, and they spent $500,000 and nobody can be arsed to upload the actual master to YouTube. Brilliant.
Pop bangingness: 9
Best bit: The opening two seconds. Groove in, guitar hook in. Let’s get this going
Just like Big Love, from second one, you know this is going to be good, with that synth sound swiftly followed by a nonchalantly epoch-defining keyboard hook. In comes big Mick and John to lay down the groove once more, there’s some lovely conga action in your left ear and Stevie gets to work howling away. It’s chorus time at just 40 seconds (you’re slacking guys) and – oh look, it’s an amazing one - as Christine’s vocal sweetens up the sound, while John takes a break from default mode to do some absolutely gorgeous bass runs. Not content with just that epoch-defining keyboard hook in the following instrumental section, Lindsey decides to add a response hook on his guitar. Verse two, chorus two, loads of that keyboard/guitar hook bit, verse three, chorus three. Done by 3:32: NO COCKING ABOUT.
Pop bangingness: 9
Best bit: “you’llneverlivetoseethe beauty, that beauty, that same same beauty again”
The opening sixty eight seconds of this song is, without any question, better than the entire recorded output of Bob Dylan. One of the most iconic opening sections of all time with that keyboard riff, straight into one of the greatest verses of all time (it’s arguably as good as the chorus), followed by the pure ear sugar that is the chorus. It is a joke how good this song is. And it was the fourth single from the album. Just for a change, Mick and John lay down the groove throughout while Lindsey does that percussive guitar thing again – it’s so restrained, it’s so understated, which just makes the chorus such a release of pure joy as the vocals come together. It’s bizarre: Everywhere is a song that has just become more and more popular as time gets on; we can only assume it’s because the human race is evolving and becoming smarter (let’s ignore current world events for the purpose of this theory).
Pop bangingness: 10
Best bit: that extra skip and jump snare and crash pattern from Mick Fleetwood in the second half of verse two. Obviously that’s a ludicrous thing to say when you have the myriad other amazing bits of the song to choose from, but it’s just pure drumming genius to bother putting that in when he clearly didn’t need to
Even if Tango in the Night were only those first three songs followed by 50 minutes of a high-powered drill going through concrete it would be one of the greatest albums ever made, but on we go to track four: Caroline. The clearest indication on the record that Tango in the Night started life as a Lindsey Buckingham solo album, this has all the hallmarks of his more angular work, being not a million miles away from the feel of Tusk - yet it’s still very much a pop song. Opening up with some big Mick drums, we’re still amazed that Warren G and Nate Dogg never got round to sampling the bit before the vocals come in. The lyrics are a bit rubbish, but who cares when you can holler along to the singalong-ready chorus. Throughout, Mick and John lay down the groove.
Pop bangingness: 6
Best bit: the weird middle 8 bit and the outro with the quasi-Eastern female vocals is a lovely change of mood
Tango in the Night
Effectively another Lindsey solo track, again this showcases just what a genius of a performer and producer he is. A mystical verse, all soft and processed vocals, with synth-harps and soft percussion giving way to a big, angry chorus where Mick and John lay down the groove. A favourite trick of Buckingham though; while the song still possesses a banging chorus, it’s really all a set up for the end section where he finally lets rip and shows us what he can do with that old gee-tah.
Pop bangingness: 5
Best bit: the first note of the guitar solo – he’s been waiting three and a half songs to break out a solo and it shows. However, he still has the restraint as producer to limit it so the song still clocks in at a respectable 4:03
After that mid album interlude to allow Lindsey a bit of rock experimentalism, it’s back to pop business, and this is one of the most underrated songs in the Mac canon. Naturally, there is (again) no cocking about, opening up literally immediately with an utterly gorgeous, haunting chorus. There’s an equally gorgeous verse, with a sort of twinkling harpsichord thing going on before it’s back into that chorus again, followed by another piece of restrained playing by Buckingham. Extra marks for the cracking conga work all the way through the song, which plays on top of Mick and John laying down the groove.
Pop bangingness: 8
Best bit: that first, luxurious ‘you’ve got me mystified’, just 12 seconds in
Oh you want a fourth unbelievable song that will still be played, written about, and loved in fifty years’ time on the same album? Fine, fine, here you go. Yet again there’s a truly brilliant keyboard opening, yet again Mick and John lay down the groove, yet again Christine McVie delivers a stunningly simple, yet truly affecting melody in the chorus, yet again Lindsey adds those lovely percussive guitar touches, yet again the haunting reverby vocals whisper to you on either side. And that’s before you’ve even got to the chorus. Which, of course, is utterly brilliant. There are hooks all over the shop. In fact they could open up a shop selling hooks, purely stocking hooks from this song and they’d have a viable and sustainable business model. The video is on a farm for some reason. It could have featured them massacring a load of animals, just for fun, and it would still have been a hit, the song is that good.
Pop bangingness: 9
Best bit: that little growl sound before the chorus kicks in
A strange, yet great song that, again, showcases Buckingham’s production flair with things flying at you on either side of the mix, along with a brilliantly over-the-top flamenco guitar bit between verses. There’s weird pitch-shifted vocal stuff, it’s all quite strange, and yet again Mick and John’s groove-laying holds the entire thing together. In fact, so committed is John to the groove-laying industry, that he only plays 3 notes for the entire song, although he has a sudden rush of blood to the head at 3:07 when he lingers on the lowest note of the three for a tiny bit longer than he does in the rest of the song. Phew John, don’t go too crazy mate.
Pop bangingness: 7
Best bit: the triangle tap on beat 4
Welcome to the Room... Sara
Proof that a drug-addled, part-time Stevie Nicks is still worth about ten of most other artists, this is another brilliant track. Gorgeous production that follows much of the themes of the rest of the record – percussion all over the shop, Mick and John, what’s that? oh yeah, laying down the groove, sparkly keyboard hooks everywhere and that unbeatable trio of Nicks, McVie and Buckingham’s vocals in the chorus. Like most of Nicks’ greatest compositions, this just grooves along at a leisurely pace while Stevie weaves her quasi-mystical lyrics in and out of the track. Fun fact: the track was inspired by her stay at the Betty Ford Center in October the previous year, where she attempted to overcome her cocaine addiction – her pseudonym at the facility was ‘Sara Anderson’. OK, probably not that fun for Stevie but never mind.
Pop bangingness: 7
Best bit: the opening few bars. A glorious sparkling entrance to a magical song
Isn’t It Midnight
The undisputed hidden banger of an album that has so many very-much-unhidden bangers on it that somehow a track that most other bands would give their career for is buried down at track 10. Opening with a big booming tom hit, followed by – yes, don’t worry guys – Mick and John laying down the groove, with Lindsay whacking out some power-chords-with-intent. In comes Christine; her honeyed vocals carrying a little bit more bite than normal, then - boom - in comes yet another absolutely killer keyboard hook, another killer chorus and that shift in tone, with Buckingham’s monotone 'face of a pretty girl’ laced with just the right amount of threat. After banging through another verse and chorus, rarely can a song have begged for a face-melting guitar solo more: Buckingham duly provides, taking a breather for another chorus (no one’s going to complain about that) before really letting rip on the outro. We’re fairly certain that somewhere out there exists the unfaded master tapes with Buckingham continuing for at least another 45 minutes. And count us in for hearing that master tape someday.
Pop bangingness: 9
Best bit: that first chorus keyboard line. If the hairs on the back of your neck aren’t upstanding for that then you’re dead inside
When I See You Again
Continuing in the rich vein of sad-but-beautiful Buckingham/Nicks compositions (cf. Landslide), this is simply gorgeous. Buckingham keeps it simple on nylon-stringed guitar, and on production, with Christine adding just small flashes of keyboard, a few little percussive touches here and there and, of course, a few lovely backing vocals. Not much else to say about this, other than it’s just beautiful.
Pop bangingness: 7
Best bit: strangely, it’s probably the outro when Lindsey’s vocal – exposed and fragile - responds to Stevie’s lines earlier in the song: “If I see you again, will it be over? If I see you again, will it be the same?” Heartbreaking.
You And I, Part II
Let’s be honest here, this is a truly bizarre song. It’s basically like a kids’ TV show theme tune. And yet, somehow, it works. Another Buckingham/McVie co-write, this has all the hallmarks of Christine’s melodic genius, while Lindsey is given free reign on the stereoed-to-the-max production. Appropriately, for an album which was truly unafraid to be completely pop, this is as about as pop as you can get. It should have been a Christmas song, that’s our only criticism. A few sleigh bells and you’d have been there guys.
Pop bangingness: 6
Best bit: Lindsey’s delivery of ‘eyes shut tight’, like he’s trying to soothe a baby off to sleep with a lullaby