Blissful escapism? No, Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams is one of the bitterest break-up songs ever written

Fleetwood Mac, circa 1982 - Getty
Fleetwood Mac, circa 1982 - Getty

The room where it all began had a velvet-lined bed, Victorian drapes and a riotously naff red and black colour scheme. In the middle, in a sunken pit, stood a piano. Here, in the spring of 1976, a one-time folk singer and former aspiring high school teacher sat down and poured out her feelings in a deluge of storm-wracked imagery.

“Now here you go again/ you say you want your freedom…” sang 28 year-old Stephanie Lynn Nicks in the converted studio space, tricked out to the specifications of funk eccentric Sly Stone.

She was lying on the bed as she crooned, playing the electric keyboard she had brought with her. Immediately afterwards she took the tape and handed it to her former lover, Lindsey Buckingham.

He was just down the hallway at the Record Plant, an opulent hit-factory just north of San Francisco. As the newest recruits to Fleetwood Mac Nicks and Buckingham had, along with their bandmates, been toiling on what would become their Rumours album. And Nicks had just given the group what would prove one of their biggest ever hits, the eternally ethereal Dreams.

“It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano,” Nicks later remembered. “Even though he was mad with me at the time, Lindsey played it and then looked up at me and smiled. What was going on between us was sad – we were couples who couldn’t make it through. But, as musicians, we still respected each other.”

There are songs that live forever. And then there are songs that, a bit like the reincarnated Doctor Who or the shape-shifting James Bond, take on new guises over time. Dreams is very much in the latter category, as demonstrated by the extraordinary response to a recent Mac-themed TikTok video by Idaho labourer Nathan Apodaca.

Apodaca conquered the internet when he filmed himself skateboarding down a highway drinking cranberry juice and mouthing Nicks’s lyrics to Dreams (after his truck broke down and he needed to get to work). The clip quickly notched up over 20 million views, giving Dreams a new lease of relevancy. This 44-year old power-pop dirge about a long-dead romance was streamed nine million times in the US last week. It has also re-entered the top 100 in both the UK and America and now sits on top of the iTunes chart.

The video is silly in that TikTok way. But, coming at a dark, claustrophobic time, it also offers an irresistible infusion of bliss and escapism. It helps that Apodaca (38) is decades older than the average TikTok user. He really should be too wrinkly and sensible for this sort of thing. Yet, such is the power of Dreams, the video implies, he can’t resist bawling along to Nick’s words.

The magic of the moment was recognised instantly with dozens of tribute and copycats videos popping up. These included a homage by none other than Fleetwood Mac founder and drummer Mick Fleetwood. He joined TikTok and uploaded his own Dreams video. He said Apodaca “had it right... Dreams and cranberry just hits different”.

Fleetwood Mac - Getty
Fleetwood Mac - Getty

Pop is always at its most thrilling when there’s some irony poured in. And there’s a whole lot swirling around Dreams on TikTok. The escapist melodies which have set social media ablaze are, after all, in stark contrast to the bleak sentiments underpinning them.

Buckingham, Nicks’ by then former-boyfriend, was first to recognise the tension driving the lyrics. He and Nicks had broken up going into the Rumours sessions. But she had done most of the breaking and had already embarked on a relationship with Don Henley of the Eagles.

Dreams wasn’t a breakup song then. It was a post-breakup song, in which Nicks pleaded with her ex to get out there and start over. She imagined him washing away the heartache and finding love elsewhere. She says as much in the chorus, part of which goes “Women, they will come and they will go…When the rain washes you clean, you'll know”.

Amidst the tie-dye positivity lurked a grain of anger, however. Buckingham had already presented Fleetwood Mac with a tune dissecting his relationship with Nicks. Go Your Own Way was vehement and dark, heartache with a bonus two-fingered salute.

Nicks, who never hid her hippyish tendencies, was stung by its unflinching qualities and vindictive sourness. So much so that, possibly without intending it, she had written Dreams as a way of showing Buckingham it was possible to be graceful about their separation.

“I told him that, in my heart, Dreams was open and hopeful but in Go Your Own Way, his heart was closed,” she said. “That’s how I felt. That line, when the rain washes you clean, to me that was like being able to start again and that’s what I wanted for Lindsey. I wanted him to be happy. “

“We had to go through this elaborate exercise in denial,” was Buckingham’s take. “Keeping our personal feelings in one corner of the room while trying to be professional in the other.”

“Even though Go Your Own Way was a little angry, it was also honest,” Nicks elaborated in the liner notes to the Rumours reissue in 2013. “So then I wrote Dreams, and because I’m the chiffony chick who believes in fairies and angels, and Lindsey is a hardcore guy, it comes out differently. Lindsey is saying go ahead and date other men and go live your crappy life, and [I’m] singing about the rain washing you clean. We were coming at it from opposite angles, but we were really saying the same exact thing.”

Fleetwood Mac: Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, John Mcvie, Christine Mcvie and Lindsey Buckingham - Rex
Fleetwood Mac: Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, John Mcvie, Christine Mcvie and Lindsey Buckingham - Rex

Dreams floored Buckingham for obvious reasons. However the rest of Fleetwood Mac were initially not quite blown away. “When Stevie first played it for me on the piano it was just three chords and one note in the left hand. I thought, this is really boring,” said the Mac’s Christine McVie (who had plenty on her mind as she was in the process of splitting from bassist John).

“But the Lindsey genius came into play and he fashioned three sections of identical chords, making each section sound completely different. He created the impression that there’s a thread running through the whole thing."

Rumours was an immediate sensation and Dreams its highest charting single. In one final wrenching of the knife it outperformed Buckingham’s Go Your Own Way which stalled at number 10 in the US. Dreams, by contrast, went all the way to number one, selling over a million copies. Nicks had broken Buckingham’s heart. And now she had claimed ultimate bragging rights as a songwriter too.

The success of Dreams made Fleetwood Mac an easy target for musical elitists in the late Seventies. In the decades since, however, the band have been belatedly acknowledged as one of the greatest rock groups ever. The twist here is that their rehabilitation has been led by Millennials and Gen Z-ers, who cannot get enough of the Mac’s lissom melodies and over-sharing lyrics.

One of their biggest latter-day champions is, of all people, Harry Styles. He and Nicks have struck up a firm friendship ever since he invited her to duet with him on a promotional tour for his first post-One Direction album.

The cover of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours
The cover of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours

“I’m pretty sure that this was going to be up there with one of the best nights of my life,” he said before she came on to sing Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide and her solo hit Leather and Lace. “If there was any doubt, I’m pretty sure I’d like to confirm, in my entire life, I never thought I’d be able to say this. Please welcome to the stage, Stevie Nicks.”

Of course, it would be absurd to claim Fleetwood Mac owe their present popularity to Harry Styles. As far back as the mid 2000s, hipster-beloved groups such as Rilo Kiley and, later, Best Coast were wearing their debt to Nicks, in particular, like the world’s sparkliest elbow patches.

Her scented candles sensibility has, meanwhile, been appropriated unashamedly by Florence and the Machine, Bat For Lashes and others. And the cred factor was off the scale when in 2012 artists such as Lykke Li, MGMT and Haim came together to record a Mac tribute album, Just Tell Me That You Want Me.

One of the most striking covers was of Gold Dust Woman by gothic folkie Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Will Oldham. You know you’ve hit the multi-generational motherlode when Harry Styles and Will Oldham are united in their enthusiasm.

Nicks has responded with generosity to the devotion which Dreams has attracted. Some artists resent it when they become synonymous with a particular song. She’s at peace, however, with her story becoming bound up with that of Dreams. “Sometimes you can get tired of singing a certain song over and over again,” she once said. “But I have never gone onstage, either with Fleetwood Mac or in my solo shows, without singing Dreams. I don’t think I could.”