If you are interested in how music is put together in a recording studio, you will love the podcast "Song Exploder." I have to admit that I find it so-so interesting when they explode a song that I never heard of, but I perk up when it's an artist I know, and I get obsessed (listening multiple times) when it's a song I know.
What does it mean to "explode" a song? Well they get the individual tracks from the artists' recording sessions, and demos. Like, just the isolated bass line. Or just the bongos.
So Liz Phair might share the home recording of "Divorce Song" that she recorded in her bedroom, quietly so as not to disturb her roommates. Then the engineer who added a bass line to the song will explain what he heard in her demo that made him want to play with a certain feel (should it be funky? Slinky? Minimal? Maximal?).
Another of my favorite episodes explodes the 2006 earworm "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John (you know, the one with that whistle hook and the "idiot drumming"?). They drop lots of weird trivia: They didn't have a female singer in the band, so when they asked a guest to sing on their track, they had to change the key. One of the strings on their bass wouldn't stay in tune, so that dictated what string to play the bass line on.
See, I told you, you know the song. (BTW, while you're here, look at how close they hold the mics to their mouths.)
Of particular relevance to us is an episode featuring Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. He explains how he wrote the song "Go Your Own Way." Buckingham is a great guitarist but the bare bones of the song starts with a very plain, dare I say, uninteresting guitar pattern. But he sings the first phrase, "Loving you, isn't the right thing to do" and explains how the conversational tone of those words led him to pursue the idea farther.
Once the song is written, Buckingham presented it to his bandmates, and asked them for specific ways of playing. He tells Mick Fleetwood to play the drum pattern from a Rolling Stones record but Fleetwood can't quite do it without adding his own particular style. As for bassist John McVie, Buckingham explains why a certain part has to be very boring and the thing McVie hates the most. But then he lets him add a melodic line elsewhere.
And then there's the guitars. Buckingham explains how he creates a guitar sound by layering two instruments over one another. And then, as a finishing touch, he overlays that "uninteresting guitar pattern" with an acoustic strum that is really weird. It's sort of famously weird and he's told the story before about how a DJ on the radio said he couldn't figure out the beat of the song until the chorus came in. On Song Exploder, Buckingham retells the story but in a slightly different way.
One more thing: Buckingham is a great singer, but his isolated vocals are not anywhere "musically" perfect. They are full of emotion, though, and you realize that singing doesn't have to be perfect, but the best singers convey the emotional story of the tune.
Anyway, check out Song Exploder, especially the episode:
"Go Your Own Way" Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac
(But really, look in the archives to see if there are other songs you know.)
(Also, if you're aware of the Universal Music Archive fire, you realize that one of the big issues will be fewer episodes of Song Exploder that deal with "classic rock".)
Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac have a history, that's for sure. A lot of it is based on the fact that Stevie Nicks is a Tom Petty superfan.
When Stevie Nicks decided to pursue a solo career, she decided to work with Jimmy Iovine, a music producer who worked on the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album "Damn the Torpedoes." Nicks has gone on record saying that the Heartbreakers were the only band she would want to join (but wait, Stevie, what about Fleetwood Mac--?).
Petty, who considered Fleetwood Mac corporate rock at the time (he later admitted he was wrong and they were good artists), had one message for Nicks: "No girls allowed" in the Heartbreakers.
But Petty and Nicks were both working on albums at the same time, with the same producer. She got into the studio with him.
Nicks ended up singing on a Tom Petty track, "Insider," and it might have been on her record but she saw how much Petty liked the song so she backed off and insisted he take it for his own.
That was probably a good idea, not because "Insider" was bad, but because the song that she got instead was a HUGE hit.
"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (written by Petty and Mike Campbell) peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a bad second choice. (Apparently it wasn't written as a duet -- Nicks just took the finished Petty song and sang the verses she wanted and sang a harmony over Petty's chorus melody because his parts were already recorded.)
And Nicks got her wish, sort of -- the rest of the Heartbreakers ended up playing on a number of tracks on Bella Donna, her debut solo record.
Of course, Nicks is a great songwriter herself. At one point, Nicks asked Petty's first wife, Jane, how she met her husband. Jane, in her thick Southern accent, said they met at the "age of seventeen." Nicks misheard the phrase and ended up with a pretty good song title.
"Edge of Seventeen" is not about the Pettys, but the title came from Jane.
Petty and Nicks collaborated on a couple of more duets, including "I Will Run to You":
And a cover of "Needles and Pins":
"Needles and Pins" wasn't written by Nicks, nor Petty but was co-written by Jack Nitzche, a Phil Spector protege, and... anyone? anyone? Bueller?... Sonny Bono!
Okay, one last story of Nicks and Petty (from Ultimate Classic Rock). Nicks had become friends with all the Heartbreakers including guitarist Mike Campbell, who collaborated with Petty on a lot of the songwriting. Apparently Campbell would jam in his home studio and make recordings that he passed along to Petty. If anything caught Petty's ear, he would work on it, add a melody and lyrics.
Nicks was satisfied with Petty's discards. Once, she took home a tape labeled "24 demos from Mike Campbell." She found a track she liked a wrote a song around it. She even started recording her song with Fleetwood Mac.
But it was a mistake -- that tape was still Petty's and he had written a song using the same track. When Nicks proudly played her song to Tom over the phone, he was livid. She, in turn, was embarrassed and folded quickly (and had to go back to Fleetwood Mac to tell them that the song they recorded was not going to happen).
The coveted Campbell track became "Runaway Train":
Nicks, for her part, kept the lyrics she wrote and eventually found a new tune to sing them over. Her song became "Ooh My Love":
Okay, we can't end on that. We need a happy ending.
The pair got over the issue of "Runaway Train"/"Ooh My Love." Nicks even joined Petty and the Heartbreakers for part of their 2006 tour.
And in 2017, in London's Hyde Park, she joined them for a song or two.
Petty introduced her this way: "In 1978, we had just put out our second record, and I began to get calls from someone I never met before, but she was really nice. And over the years, we've become very close and she is the honorary girl in our band—Stevie!" (Ultimate Classic Rock)
So she did it. Stevie Nicks had finally joined Heartbreakers.
For a few years, Cameron Crowe was on top of the world. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Say Anything" were respectable teen comedies. Then "Singles," "Jerry Maguire," and "Almost Famous."
A particular skill Crowe had was in finding the right song for the right moment. Before the Eltonnaissance, in "Almost Famouse" Crowe pulled a great song for a quiet scene on a bus of touring rock musicians. This Led Zeppelin-like hard rock band had just crashed a suburban party. For all the hedonistic excitement, they also just seemed like a-holes. I didn't want to hang out with them any more. Did they even really like music? This scene on the tour bus wins back the audience and established that the relationships between the characters are all founded on a mutual love of music.
Similarly, there's a scene in "Jerry Maguire" where Tom Cruise's eponymous character finally scores his first victory, signing a high school football phenom. And then he's looking for a song on the radio. The lyrics don't really matter, what he needs is an anthem, something he can feel good belting out. He finds Tom Petty.
Who cares what the song is about? It's got that relaxed beat, the phrase that ends in a long ee sound and it's the perfect range for a tenor to belt. When I hear the chorus to "Free Fallin'" I think of this scene.
In this scene, Crowe is saying a lot about the character Jerry Maguire and his circumstances, but I feel like he also captures something about Tom Petty's songwriting. It's power is in a particular kind of accessibility. You don't need a crazy sense of rhythm, or an opera star's range. He's writing for an ordinary voice, but giving it an extraordinary place to go. At the risk of plagiarism and/or sounding overly lofty, Tom Petty's greatest hits could be called Fanfare for the Common Man.
Fleetwood Mac is a crazy cast of characters and I tried to figure them out. Following the individual members is like a tour of 20th century rock. You could play the Kevin Bacon game with Fleetwood Mac and you wouldn’t need to go more than 2-3 degrees to anyone in popular music.
Jon Mayall. Jon Mayall is not, and has never been, a member of Fleetwood Mac. What he is, is the namesake of Jon Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a seminal 1960s and 1970s English blues band. Mayall employed a number of musicians in his bands who went on to great acclaim, including Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor (of the Rolling Stones), Jack Bruce (of Cream), and others. At one point his band consisted of a guitarist named Peter Green and a rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass.
Peter Green. Mayall gave Peter Green some studio recording time and Green brought McVie and Fleetwood with him to record a few songs. One of them was an instrumental named after the drummer and bass player, “Fleetwood Mac.” Soon after, Green and Fleetwood wanted to form their own band and named the band Fleetwood Mac in part to entice McVie to join them, which he eventually did. Green took a bit too much LSD and ended up in a sanitarium. Before he left the band, Peter Green wrote a little ditty called “Black Magic Woman” (you’re probably more familiar with the Santana version).
Mick Fleetwood. Mick Fleetwood is the drummer, original member and by all accounts, the glue that has held the band together. His first wife was Jenny Boyd (whose sister, Pattie, married two famous best friends: George Harrison and Eric Clapton and inspired the songs "Something," "Wonderful Tonight" and "Layla"). Fleetwood cheated on Jenny with Stevie Nicks.
John McVie. John McVie is a bassist, apparently relatively shy. He’s one of the founders of Fleetwood Mac. On early tours with Fleetwood Mac, they had opening act called Chicken Shack that featured a singer and keyboardist named Christine Perfect, whom he married.
Christine McVie. Christine McVie was a guest musician on the second Fleetwood Mac album, and then joined the band officially. She is one of the main songwriters and vocalists for the group. After divorcing John McVie, she had a relationship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and then married Eddy Quintela, a keyboardist which whom she wrote “Little Lies.” In 2017, she released an album with Lindsey Buckingham, which featured the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section; in other words, everyone but Stevie Nicks, who was on a solo tour.
Random musicians. For a while, after Peter Green left, Fleetwood Mac continued on with various guitarists and vocalists. At some point, the band’s manager even took the band's name and toured a completely different group as Fleetwood Mac (he told them Mick Fleetwood would join them on the tour). The real band’s touring manager hid the equipment from Alt Fleetwood and the tour was shortened and abandoned. Members of "the other" Fleetwood Mac ended up playing with Alan Parsons Project, a Deep Purple offshoot and Robert Plant.
Two of the members of Alt Fleetwood Mac ended up in a band called Stretch and wrote a song about their experience about the tour SNAFU:
Lindsey Buckingham. Lindsey Buckingham is a particular kind of guitar hero. He can shred, yes, but his skills are perhaps best realized in the recording studio with crazy layering of instruments. When Mick Fleetwood heard his playing, Buckingham was invited to join Fleetwood Mac as a singer-songwriter guitarist. Buckingham had one condition: they let his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks, join, too. If you listen to Buckingham talk about Stevie Nicks, and their eventual break-up, he’s a pretty sympathetic character. If you listen to the rest of the band talk about him mucking around in the studio without their input, he seems… less sympathetic. He released an album with Christine McVie that was pretty much a Nicks-less Fleetwood Mac album in 2017. On their most recent tour, Buckingham was fired from the band and replaced by Neil Finn and Mike Campbell (it says something about his contributions that it takes two guys to replace him).
Stevie Nicks. Stevie Nicks was the bonus that Fleetwood Mac got when they recruited American musicians to the previously British band. Her distinctive vocals, songwriting and fashion sense made her an instant standout. She broke up with Buckingham and they both wrote songs about it. She has had the most successful solo career of anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac and is cited by musicians like Courtney Love as an icon and role model. In the Tom Petty documentary “Running Down a Dream” Nicks says the only band she wanted to join was Petty's Heartbreakers.
Jimmy Iovine. Stevie Nicks recorded her first solo album with Jimmy Iovine who arranged for her to record the duet “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with Petty. Iovine has worked in the studio with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf, U2, The Pretenders and Dire Straits. He’s also the founder of Interscope records and recorded hip hop stars like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent and Eminem. Plus, he created Beats headphones with Dr Dre.
Neil Finn. Neil Finn is the main songwriter and leader of Crowded House. His brother Tim founded Split Enz which Neil co-led for a while before they broke up.
Mike Campbell. Mike Campbell was the lead guitarist of the Heartbreakers and co-wrote many of Tom Petty’s most memorable hits. The Heartbreakers were the backing band for a Bob Dylan world tour, and for Johnny Cash’s late albums. Campbell has also played with everyone from Bad Religion to Tracy Chapman to the Dandy Warhols to Warren Zevon.
I skipped a lot, including the breakups in the 1990s. Rolling Stone has their own Fleetwood Mac member breakdown.