Tuesday 17 September 2019

From Fleetwood Mac to The Leisure Society - the best break-up albums have been made by people who were in the same group together


But now it's gone: Fleetwood Mac's 'Sara' is said to be about Mick
Fleetwood's brief affair with Stevie Nicks
But now it's gone: Fleetwood Mac's 'Sara' is said to be about Mick Fleetwood's brief affair with Stevie Nicks
Break-up tracks: the divorces within Abba were behind some of their best songs
John Meagher

John Meagher

There are few double-albums released nowadays and certainly not from bands that are largely unknown, but one of the best such albums that you're likely to hear this year is by the English group The Leisure Society.

Arrivals & Departures is an absorbing work and much of it centres on the breakdown of the relationship between frontman Nick Hemming and the band's flautist, Helen Whitaker.

And there's real pain in the first half of the double, even when the songs are sugar-coated by arrangements of swooning beauty. "Seven years without a warning," Hemming sings. "Our branches were made to break too soon." 

And the final song on the second album is a forlorn look-back to what might have been. "No more shall I remain, no more shall you be home... there are ways to be saved but I don't see them lasting."

Break-up tracks: the divorces within Abba were behind some of their best songs
Break-up tracks: the divorces within Abba were behind some of their best songs

What gives Arrivals & Departures a special frisson is the knowledge that Whitaker is still part of the band, and her flute adds texture to some of Hemming's most pained and personal songs.

It's a reminder that some of the very best break-up albums have been made by people who were in the same group together. And it's especially irresistible when said band stays intact even when the romantic aspect has died. It invites us to imagine what it must have been like in the recording studio as people who had once been intimately entangled put the detritus of their relationships into their art - and out into the world.

If any band managed to use its members' heartbreak, resentment and anger - and all of the other myriad emotions that trash about during and after a break-up - it's Fleetwood Mac. And the pain that they captured on tape was so raw and relatable - and the songs so compelling to a mainstream audience - that it's hardly a surprise that 1977's Rumours has become one of the all-time bestsellers.

One of its standouts, 'Go Your Own Way', was written by Lindsey Buckingham for former lover Stevie Nicks and it is, of course, she who sings the lyrics. Its B-Side was the heartrending 'Silver Springs' - written and sung by Nicks, and focusing on her take on the demise of the relationship. "Was I just a fool?" she sings. It's a fantastic song - regarded by some as a response to 'Go Your Own Way' - and it really should have been on Rumours. Its exclusion was said to be among the reasons why tensions in the band became so pronounced.

If Rumours is seen today as the quintessential break-up album, Tusk, its follow-up two years later, is also rooted in the the embers of relationships. And not just that of Nicks and Buckingham, but Christine and John McVie, too - their marriage had ended by the time they went into the studio and began work on what would become the costliest album ever made up to that point.

Several of the songs capture the tensions and insecurities, not least the title track: "Why don't you tell me what's going on?" Buckingham and Nicks both chant. "Why don't you tell me who's on the phone?"

And its emotional centrepiece, 'Sara', was Nicks' heartstrings-tugging look at her brief affair with bandmate Mick Fleetwood after the end of her relationship with Buckingham. Let's just say there were complex love lives at play in the Fleetwood Mac of the late 1970s. The song also alluded to the aborted child she had with then boyfriend Don Henley of the Eagles. Years later, she confirmed a long-standing suggestion that had she decided to keep the child, and if it was a girl, she would have called her Sara.

Around the same time as Fleetwood Mac were delivering sophisticated songs about broken love stories, Abba were also releasing their most enduring tracks thanks to the breakdown of the marriages of Benny Andersson and Anni-Frida Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog.

The fruits of their broken unions were apparent on their final two albums, Super Trouper and The Visitors. The former featured 'The Winner Takes it All', with lyrics written by Ulvaeus and sung by his ex-wife. It's one of Fältskog's great vocal performances, not least when she sings "Somewhere deep inside/ You must know I miss you/ But what can I say/ Rules must be obeyed."

It's long been seen as cruel considering its writer - 'the winner' - was making his ex-spouse sing in grovelling sadness about their relationship's demise but both Ulvaeus and Fältskog have denied that the song is about their marriage.

The Visitors, meanwhile, has several songs that will register with anyone who has emerged, scathed, from a long-term relationship. "One of us is lying, one of us is crying," Fältskog sings on the stark, plaintive 'One of Us'. The single's B-side, 'Should I Laugh or Cry', is an even more embittered take on the damage fractious relationships can do, even when both parties have gone their separate ways.

Fast-forward 20-odd years, and one of the great break-up albums of the 1990s was centred on the bitter end of a relationship between two people still in the band.

Jason 'J Spaceman' Pierce and Kate Radley had combined being members of Spirtualized with the business of being in a relationship together, but by the mid-90s they had separated. She married the Verve's Richard Ashcroft in secret in 1995 and two years later she helped Pierce record Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.

The bulk of the songs were written by Pierce in a drug-fuelled frenzy in the summer he lost her to Ashcroft - and they come from a dark place. Even today, 22 years after its release, songs like 'Broken Heart' are difficult to listen to, so wracked with grief is Pierce. "I'm wasted all the time/ I've got to drink you right off of my mind/ And I'm crying all the time/ I have to keep the cover up with a smile."

Pierce later claimed the song was written while he and Radley were still together. "If you write a song like ['Broken Heart'], you have to make it feel like what it's like to have a broken heart," he said. "That's what making albums is all about. Otherwise it's just field recordings."

It's one of the most compelling British albums of the 1990s and might have cast a longer shadow had it not been released on the same day as Radiohead's OK Computer.

There was even more prurient scrutiny placed on another of British music's great 1990s exports, Elastica's Justine Frischmann. She had been a member of the embryonic Suede and in a relationship with frontman Brett Anderson - before she left him for Blur's Damon Albarn.

Anderson documented the heartbreak of losing her in his acclaimed memoir last year, Coal Black Mornings.

"A lot of Suede songs wouldn't exist," he told me in an interview late last year, "if I didn't have that relationship with her and, more specifically, if we hadn't have split up because the split was the motor for me to get off my arse. It gave me material to write about, a drive and rage, and let me dig down into myself and find those very primal feelings of jealousy and pain.

"Before that event, we would have trickled along writing nice little songs about nothing really. [The break-up] gave me drama in my life - and my work."

And, years later, when Frischmann and Albarn went their separate ways, he was inspired to write one of Blur's most beguiling songs, 'Tender', in her honour. It referenced the drug-taking that had become a feature of her life during the final days of Elastica, and she said she cried when she first heard it, before getting angry.

For a couple who had been forced to conduct their relationship in the public eye, it was perhaps fitting that its end should be documented too, albeit far more elegantly.

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