45 Years Ago: How Stevie Nicks’ Three-Chord ‘Dreams’ Turned Into a No. 1 Hit
Songwriter Harlan Howard once described country music as "three chords and the truth." Stevie Nicks embraced this ideology to create one of Fleetwood Mac's best-known songs, even if it didn't initially dazzle her fellow bandmates.
She often had spare time on her hands at the Record Plant in Sausalito, Calif., where sessions were underway for Rumours, the follow-up to their astonishingly successful 1975 self-titled LP. The band was hitting a new career high, but Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham had hit a new low in their romantic relationship — a breakup. That prompted Nicks to wrestle with her feelings within her songwriting, and "Dreams" followed in a creative lightning strike.
She hid out from the rest of the band down the hall in a studio that had been built specifically for Sly Stone. It featured a sunken pit, luxurious Victorian drapes and a black velvet bed. Here, Nicks set up a portable electric piano, selected a drumbeat to work with and, as she told Blender in 2005, scrawled out "Dreams" in "about 10 minutes."
"Dreams," of course, addressed the convoluted aftermath of Nicks' relationship with Buckingham. "Now there you go again, you say you want your freedom," the opening line contends. "Well, who am I to keep you down?"
There was a warning directed at Buckingham, too, advising him to "listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness" and that whoever filled Nicks' shoes next wouldn't necessarily stick around either: "Women, they will come, they will go."
It was an acutely personal song to present to her band, much less a band that included the very lover she was singing to, but Nicks felt she had at least the beginnings of a song worthy of inclusion on Rumours.
It didn't impress bandmate Christine McVie. “When Stevie first played it for me on the piano,” McVie told Blender, “it was just three chords and one note in the left hand. I thought 'This is really boring.'"
Listen to Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams'
"Dreams" wasn't off to a great start, since McVie's presence in the band played a huge role in the band's overall dynamics. Her support could make or break a session.
"Without Christine, the band is more of a boys' club," Nicks told the Daily Mail in 2009. "When there were two women, we had a certain feminine power. Christine was brilliant at standing up to the boys — she'd march across the floor and tell them when she was unhappy with their playing. I'm more of a mediator. I'll sometimes go along with things to keep the peace."
Peace was more or less what Nicks was seeking when she handed over the cassette tape to Buckingham.
"It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano," she recalled. "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 — and we got some brilliant songs out of it."
As Nicks saw it, what may have been perceived by others as bitter resistance to one another was she and Buckingham seeing the same thing in different lights.
"I’m the chiffon-y chick who believes in fairies and angels, and Lindsey is a hardcore guy. It comes out differently," Nicks wrote in the liner notes to the 2013 reissue of Rumours. "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.”
In the midst of it all, Buckingham could see the bones of the song were solid and he dutifully worked to flesh the tune out.
“Once Stevie and Lindsey figured the song out, we had some tempo and groove problems," producer Ken Caillat told Music Radar in 2012. "Things felt fine, but they had to be perfect — the rhythm had to be rock solid. Mick Fleetwood is a great drummer, one of the best, but he’d shift his parts and dynamics around — every drummer does. We made an eight-bar loop of Mick's playing, which created this fantastic, deep hypnotic effect."
Watch Fleetwood Mac Perform 'Dreams'
As things came together, McVie came back on board. "The Lindsey genius came into play and he fashioned three sections out of identical chords, making each section sound completely different," McVie recalled. "He created the impression that there’s a thread running through the whole thing.”
Their collective diligence — and willingness to take a risk — paid off exponentially. Released on March 24, 1977, as the second U.S. single from Rumours, "Dreams" shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – their only single in America to do so.
It would continue to surface on charts for decades to come, notably gaining another surge of popularity in 2020 when "Dreams" was used in a viral TikTok posted by an Idaho man nonchalantly skateboarding to the song whilst sipping cranberry juice. The song also kept a prominent place in set lists for both Nicks and Fleetwood Mac.
Where ever it appeared, however, "Dreams" remained a tangible representation of the triumphant art even a quarreling band can produce.
“Most people, when they break up, they don’t see each other for a long time or maybe ever again," Buckingham told NME in 2021. But you’re not constantly having to not only see someone but, in my case, make the choice to do right for someone when I didn’t always feel that I wanted to, you know?
“In order to take a song of hers like ‘Dreams,’ which needed so much construction around it to take those same two chords and make them evolve from section A to section B to section C, and the love and the choice to do the right thing and to have the integrity to do that – it comes at a price sometimes, you know?" Buckingham added. "It comes at the price of having your defenses come up, and sometimes over a period of time, it’s hard to get those down."
Nicks relayed a similar sentiment in 2009 while emphasizing that the mythology of Rumours doesn't necessarily align with reality. "There were angry moments and sarcastic ones too, but it wasn't always like that," she said. "If we came up with a great piece of music, we'd all be friends."
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