Stevie Nicks Wrote “Dreams” in 10 Minutes Over a Drum Loop
Looking back at the failed relationships, all-night benders, innovative recording techniques, and drum loop demo that led to Fleetwood Mac’s chart-topping single.
|Gino Sorcinelli||Mar 23|
The recording sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 masterpiece Rumours began when the band member’s personal and romantic lives were in a state of freefall. Keyboard player/vocalist Christine McVie and bass guitarist John McVie had recently divorced after an eight-year marriage, in part because of the strain caused by a grueling tour schedule. Lead guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks ended their long-standing romantic relationship despite complicated feelings that continue to cause tension today. And drummer Mick Fleetwood was in the middle of his own divorce after fathering two children with his wife Jenny Boyd.
Putting personal tensions aside as best they could, the band reported to the famous Sausalito Record Plant in early 1976 to make their much-anticipated Fleetwood Mac follow-up. Their collective heartbreak seemed to heavily influence the tenor of the Rumours sessions, with eating, drinking, and drug use at the Record Plant often reaching a fever pitch. “The band would come in at 7 at night, have a big feast, party till 1 or 2 in the morning, and then when they were so whacked-out they couldn’t do anything, they’d start recording,” Record Plant co-founder Chris Stone told Paul Verna in a 1997 Billboard interview. “They finally had to straighten out, but they spent so much money it was probably the biggest album we had done to date.”
Twenty years after the release of Rumours, Mick Fleetwood confirmed the levels of debauchery reported by Stone with some rather dark remembrances of his experiences. “We went four or five weeks without sleep, doing a lot of drugs,” he told Johnny Black in a 1997 Q magazine feature. “I’m talking about cocaine in such quantities that, at one point, I thought I was really going insane.”
Despite the insanity, Fleetwood Mac somehow found a way to weave together a remarkable album with some very successful singles.
As they found their collective groove during late night and early AM recording sessions, there were long stretches where Stevie Nicks had hours to kill in between tedious post-production work. A fit of inspiration struck during one of these lulls and she decided to isolate herself with a keyboard and a tape recorder.
This serendipitous decision wound up yielding the album’s biggest hit and Fleetwood Mac’s most successful single of all time. “I took a Fender Rhodes piano and went into another studio that was said to belong to Sly of Sly and the Family Stone,” Nicks told Johnny Black in a 2005 Blender feature. “It was a black-and-red room, with a sunken pit in the middle where there was a piano, and a big black-velvet bed with Victorian drapes.”
Once Nicks made herself comfortable in Sly’s special studio, she created a skeletal version of “Dreams” in record time. “I sat down on the bed with my keyboard in front of me,” she told Blender. “I found a drum pattern, switched my little cassette player on and wrote ‘Dreams’ in about 10 minutes.”
Micro-Chop reader CHAFOMON pointed out on Twitter that the Fender Rhodes had no drum patterns, so Nicks must have used an additional drum machine or keyboard during this particular session.
Impressed that she was able to capture a perfect musical moment to an upbeat drum loop, Nicks thought the uniqueness of the song had the potential to make it a winner. Upon rejoining the others in the main studio, Caillat remembered her telling them, “I’ve just written the most amazing song.”
Then, in a moment straight out of a tragic Hollywood love story, Nicks gave the “Dreams” demo tape to Lindsey Buckingham—her estranged romantic partner and collaborator who she had written the song about. “It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano,” she told Adrian Thrills in a 2009 Daily Mail interview. “Even though he was mad with me at the time, Lindsey played it and then looked up at me and smiled.”
Buckingham may have been able to put his complicated feelings aside and see “Dreams” for the #1 Billboard record that it would eventually become, but other members of the band weren’t quite so keen on it at first. “It was just three chords and one note in the left hand,” Christine McVie told Blender. “I thought ‘This is really boring.’”
Thankfully, Buckingham and the rest of the group weren’t dissuaded by any initial reservations McVie had about “Dreams.” Instead, they tried to recreate what they’d just heard on the demo tape. As luck would have it, their first attempt at capturing a studio version of the song gave them the vocals they would use for the final cut. “She [Nicks] walked over to the Rhodes—which, like everything else, was always mic’d up and ready to go—and she played ‘Dreams.’ Everyone else joined in, she did a guide vocal, and that was the keeper,” Rumours engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat told Richard Buskin Sound On Sound in a 2007 Sound On Sound interview. “It’s the only time that ever happened.”
According to Caillat, the original recording of Nicks’ voice was flawed in several parts due to uneven volume and interfering instruments, but something about the power and energy of the original recording couldn’t be replicated no matter how hard they tried.
Further enhancing the raw beauty of Nicks’ haunting voice was Caillat’s carefully trained ear as an engineer. Utilizing a variety of techniques and tricks during the making of Rumours, he employed an interesting bit of studio ingenuity on “Dreams” to make sure the vocal track sounded just right. Using a Sennheiser 441 microphone that he thought best matched Nicks’ voice, Caillat further altered his recording apparatus by placing a rubber band around a wind-screen and making “sure the wind-screen was about a half-inch from the front of the mic,” as he explained to Sound on Sound.
In addition to the rubber band maneuver, careful attention was paid to the exact placement of Nicks’ mouth as she sang. Instead of adding distance between her mouth and the mic, Caillat instructed her to keep her lips right up against the wind-screen.
Noting that the song was originally born out of a preset percussion pattern, Caillat and the band wanted “Dreams” to have the same kind of lock-step consistency offered by an unalterable drum loop. Despite being an extremely talented drummer and musician, Mick Fleetwood wasn’t quite able to nail the exact sound they were looking for by playing the song straight through. “Things felt fine, but they had to be perfect—the rhythm had to be rock solid,” Caillat told Joe Bosso in a 2012 MusicRadar interview. “Mick Fleetwood is a great drummer, one of the best, but he’d shift his parts and dynamics around—every drummer does.”
Using additional crafty production techniques to give the song just the right texture, they edited Mick Fleetwood’s drums to match the desired groove. “We made an eight-bar loop of Mick’s playing, which created this fantastic, deep hypnotic effect,” Caillat told MusicRadar. “It’s funny, but when people talk about the classic rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and they point to this one song, I’m always amused that they’re talking about a drum loop.”
Caillat’s ability to provide a steady hand behind the boards while the rest of the band built around Nicks’ initial vision demonstrates the collective effort needed to achieve songs like “Dreams.” Everyone’s talents worked in perfect tandem despite the long nights, neverending parties, and lovelorn feelings.
Many years later, Christine McVie credited Buckingham for being especially instrumental in taking Nicks’ stripped-down demo and turning it into something magical. “The Lindsey genius came into play and he fashioned three sections out of identical chords, making each section sound completely different,” she told Blender.
This mutual respect Fleetwood Mac members had for each other’s musical gifts ultimately helped them complete “Dreams” and the rest of Rumours without interpersonal issues derailing the project. “What was going on between us was sad,” Nicks told The Daily Mail. “We were couples who couldn’t make it through. But, as musicians, we still respected each other—and we got some brilliant songs out of it.”
“Dreams” continues to demonstrate remarkable staying power by resonating with modern listeners 43 years later—a viral video helped the song chart in 2018 and it currently has over 362 million plays on Spotify. It would be poor form to reduce a musical triumph like “Dreams” to mere metrics as a way of assessing its worth, but the song’s ability to endure over four decades of changing musical tastes and trends speaks to the remarkable musicianship and vision of Fleetwood Mac.
The fact that Stevie Nicks composed a rough draft of the song in a matter of minutes amidst personal heartbreak and strife makes it all the more incredible.
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!