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Rhiannon: The Story Behind Stevie Nicks’ Signature Fleetwood Mac Song
In Depth

Rhiannon: The Story Behind Stevie Nicks’ Signature Fleetwood Mac Song

Inspired by a supernatural novel and infused with Welsh folklore, Stevie Nicks’ Rhiannon became a game-changing song for Fleetwood Mac.

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Rhiannon, the classic Stevie Nicks-penned song, was the third single to be taken from Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 album – a record that marked a new dawn for the mega-successful rock band. It also became one of Nicks’ signature tunes, helped along by the singer’s intense and theatrical live performances, in which she seemingly became possessed while singing the song. But Rhiannon may never have been written were it not for Nicks chancing upon an obscure book in 1972. This is the story of how Rhiannon became one of Fleetwood Mac’s spellbinding classics.

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Stevie Nicks could be forgiven for thinking fortune was smiling on her in the early 70s. A chance meeting with Fleetwood Mac’s drummer, Mick Fleetwood, at a recording studio led to her and her then boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham, joining the band at a time when the two singer-songwriters were struggling and directionless. The pair had released an album, Buckingham Nicks, in 1973, but it had made little impact, and their dreams of stardom appeared to be on the wane. Once they became part of Fleetwood Mac, however, things changed – the couple brought Los Angeles’ FM-radio sheen to the band’s sound, and they had the right material to help make the group one of the biggest bands in the world.

What book inspired Rhiannon?

Rhiannon was inspired by Triad: A Novel Of The Supernatural, a 1972 novel by Mary Bartlet Leader. Stevie Nicks has variously said that the book was an impulse buy at an airport, or that she came across it at a friend’s house. Either way, the novel made an impression, and Nicks based a whole new song around one of its central characters.

“I got the name out of a book that I read not the last Halloween but the Halloween before that – which was about two months before we joined Fleetwood Mac,” Nicks told DJ James Ladd during a 1976 radio interview. “And it was just about a lady who lived in Wales that had two personalities. One was called Branwen and this other personality that came in and took over was Rhiannon.”

Amazingly, considering its otherworldly qualities, Nicks wasn’t aware that the novel was rooted in traditional Welsh folklore when she was writing the song, as she told Mojo in 2013: “It wasn’t until 1978 that I found out about [a collection of Welsh medieval prose tales] The Mabinogion and that Branwen and Rhiannon are in there, too, and that Rhiannon wasn’t a witch at all; she was a mythological queen. But my story was definitely written about a celestial being. I didn’t know who Rhiannon was, exactly, but I knew she was not of this world.”

When was Rhiannon released?

It was clear to Nicks and Buckingham that Rhiannon was a special song, and a natural choice to bring to the recording sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 album. But when it was released as a single, in February 1976, Nicks became protective over it. “I didn’t want them to release Rhiannon as a single, because I thought, What if she doesn’t make it?” Nicks admitted in 1989, in discussion on BBC Radio 4’s One To One programme. “Then, it’s not my choice to release her as a single, she is a mythological goddess of horses and steeds and maker of birds, and she’s a brilliant, brilliant character… what if she falls flat on her face?

“I didn’t write Rhiannon for commerciality,” Nicks continued. “I wrote Rhiannon because I loved her name and I loved her story. I didn’t write her to be sold, she simply is not for sale and has never been.”

Nicks needn’t have worried. Peaking at No.11 in the US, and going Top 10 worldwide, Rhiannon became one of her most beloved works – a demonstration of the way the best Stevie Nicks songs can pluck uncanny, mystical-sounding lyrics from the ether and set them to timeless melodies.

Rhiannon came into its own during Fleetwood Mac’s live shows, as Nicks told Crawdaddy magazine in 1976: “Rhiannon is the heavy-duty song to sing every night. On stage it’s really a mind tripper. Everybody, including me, is just blitzed by the end of it. And I put out so much in that song that I’m nearly down. There’s something to that song that touches people. I don’t know what it is but I’m really glad it happened.”

One of the best Fleetwood Mac songs of all time, Rhiannon continues to cast its spell – not only over audiences young and old, but over Nicks herself. Decades on from its release, when performing the song in concert, she still becomes that Welsh witch. And so much of her public persona is tied up in the mystique surrounding her lyrics. “Dreams unwind,” she sings – and Rhiannon is still as dreamy as ever.

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