Stevie Nicks Wrote “Dreams” in 10 Minutes Over a Drum Loop
Looking back at the failed relationships, all night benders, innovate recording techniques, and drum loop demo that led to Fleetwood Mac’s chart-topping single.
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, partially due to the strain caused by a grueling tour schedule. Lead guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks ended their longstanding 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. “Everybody was pretty weirded out,” Christine McVie told former Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe in a 1977 feature article. “Somehow Mick was there, the figurehead: ‘We must carry on . . . let’s be mature about this, sort it out.’ Somehow we waded through it.”
Putting personal tensions aside as best they, the band reported to the famous Sausalito Record Plant in early 1976 to make their much-anticipated Fleetwood Mac followup despite the emotionally raw aftermath of their respective breakups. The collective heartbreak seemed to heavily influence the tenor of the Rumours sessions, with time spent at the Record Plant often reaching a fever pitch of eating, drinking, and drug use. “That was excess at its most excessive,” Record Plant co-founder Chris Stone told Billboard in a 1997 interview. “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. 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. “It was the craziest period of our lives,” he told Q magazine in a 1997 feature. “We went four or five weeks without sleep, doing a lot of drugs. I’m talking about cocaine in such quantities that, at one point, I thought I was really going insane.”
“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.” — Chris Stone
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. This often left her restless and searching for activities to occupy her downtime. “Most of the material for the album was composed in the studio,” Rumours engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat told Sound On Sound in a 2007 interview. “But Stevie used to get bored, sitting around while all the technical stuff was going on.”
During one such period of downtime, inspiration struck and Nicks decided to spend some time in the isolation with nothing but 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. “One day when I wasn’t required in the main studio, 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 Blender in a 2005 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.” It should be noted that it’s unclear what piece of equipment produced the drum pattern used on the “Dreams” demo. As a Micro-Chop reader CHAFOMON pointed out on Twitter, The Fender Rhodes had no drums, so Nicks must have used an additional drum machine or keyboard during this particular session.
“It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano. Even though he was mad with me at the time, Lindsey played it and then looked up at me and smiled.”
— Stevie Nicks
Impressed that she was able to capture a perfect musical moment to an upbeat drum loop — an uncommon element in Fleetwood Mac compositions at the time — Nicks thought the uniqueness of the song had the potential to make it a winner. “Right away I liked the fact that I was doing something with a dance beat because that made it a little unusual for me,” she told Blender.
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. “I walked in and handed a cassette of the song to Lindsey,” she told The Daily Mail in a 2009 interview. “It was a rough take, just me singing solo and playing piano. Even though he was mad with me at the time, Lindsey played it and then looked up at me and smiled.”
“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.” — Stevie Nicks
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,” Caillat told Sound On Sound. “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. “She tried to redo the vocal again and again, but she could never beat the original,” he told Sound On Sound. “I actually wanted her to beat it, because it had the drums leaking into her vocal mic and, in a couple of spots where she sang softly, I had to ride it up and you could hear even more of the snare.”
“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.”
— Ken Caillat
Further adding to 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 windscreen and making “sure the windscreen 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 windscreen. “That way I got a lot of bottom, to which I could then add to if I wanted to,” he told Sound on Sound.
Noting that the song had been born out of a keyboard percussion pattern, Caillat and the band wanted “Dreams” to have the same kind of lock-step consistency offered by an unalterable drum loop. Mick Fleetwood was unable to nail the exact sound they were looking for by playing the song straight through despite being an extremely talented drummer and musician. “Things felt fine, but they had to be perfect — the rhythm had to be rock solid,” Caillat told MusicRadar in a 2012 interview. “Mick Fleetwood is a great drummer, one of the best, but he’d shift his parts and dynamics around — every drummer does.”
“I sat down on the bed with my keyboard in front of me. I found a drum pattern, switched my little cassette player on and wrote ‘Dreams’ in about 10 minutes.” — Stevie Nicks
Using some more 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 helped them navigate a delicate situation and complete “Dreams” and the rest of Rumours. “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.”
40 years later, the group’s music still has a strong resonance with music fans of the modern era — a recent viral video helped “Dreams” re-enter the Billboard charts in 2018 while it currently has over 200 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 four decades of changing musical tastes and trends speaks to the remarkable 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.