Bitter personal milestones: FleetwoodMac’s Rumours and Socialism in Sri Lanka

“Damn you love! Damn you lies!” Stevie Nicks and her former lover Lindsey Buckingham sang, about heartbreak and regret in the single The Chain in 1977. For Fleetwood Mac it was an emotional year when the moral burden of personal failure was overwhelming. Previously restrained passions were bubbling forth by 1977; the regret, bitterness, rage and regret needing an outlet, and found it in the recording of the wildly successful album Rumours. Failure hung thickly against reminiscence, ‘in the stillness of remembering what you had… and what you lost… and what you had …’ the young Ms Nicks sang in the single Dreams, in the album. Fleetwood Mac was in a precarious emotional state when they set out to record Rumours in San Francisco. Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac’s lead vocalist had broken up with the band’s firebrand guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. Its drummer Mick Fleetwood’s marriage was on the rocks as was John McVie’s, whose wife Christine McVie was also in the band. The bitterness about failed romances and feuds and narcotic excesses were the band’s main influences by 1976. Though it was doing wonders for the music, the longer they spent in each other’s company, the more unstable inter-band relationships became.

On fourth February 1977 Warner Bothers released Fleetwood Mac’s eleventh album Rumours, which remains one of the best selling albums, ever. Every song in Rumours deals with some aspect of heartbreak, although at first the album may sound much prettier than the heartache and disappointment forming the song lyrics themes. The ultimate breakup album wasn’t a parody for the social change of that era; however the sentiments astonishingly relate to the crumbling of wealth-redistribution and self-reliance dogma in Sri Lanka at the same time: the mid seventies. The seventies were a tough decade to be clear sighted about social justice. Capitalism was seen as impervious to equality. It was a decade when human emancipation, fashionable to assume especially in South Asia, was only possible through a socialist economic model.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s SLFP led coalition swept to power in 1970 with 49% of the popular vote winning 116 of the 151 seats in parliament, promising social justice. But Bandaranaike’s experiment soon started to go horribly wrong. In the years under socialism the government went on a nationalisation spree, seizing everything from farms, factories and schools, with disastrous consequences on quality and productivity.

Self reliance can be a myth unless a nation has access to enough of the world’s resources and human capital, with which it can then expect to be more productive than everyone else with access to the rest of the resources. In reality each economy has to decide for itself how self-reliant it can be. Many economies will find they can only be globally competitive in a few industries or services. This truth was lost to economic policy setters who somehow thought Sri Lanka could produce everything it needed. Despite tariff protection uncompetitive industries collapsed and with them even ones that could have worked suffered because the entire system was inefficient and short of investment. There were shortages of everything.

Sri Lanka’s circumstances, with few natural resources and a relatively uneducated population in the nineteen seventies, meant the ambition of self reliance was mere dogma. Creating wealth required investment and to attract that a country has to have the rule of law, strong institutions, well functioning markets and good infrastructure, none of which it then had. That governments can somehow magically make the rest of the world go away and create wealth through state intervention was a popular South Asian hallucination in the seventies.

By mid decade the great socialist ride had stalled. Elections due in 1975, five years after the government took office, were delayed another two years after Bandaranaike used a clause in the 1972 constitution to her government’s advantage. By this time Bandaranaike were also intolerant of dissent, forcing the shutdown of the Independent newspapers group whose publications were her fiercest critics. Earlier she had nationalized Lake House, the island’s then largest newspaper publisher. In the recording studios in San Francisco inter-band relationships were crumbling and in the corridors of power in Colombo the dominant socialist dogma was looking like a clowning. Searing anger was denied an outlet when elections were delayed.

1977 numbersMeanwhile Sri Lanka’s population continued to pay the price for its government’s folly. Anemic Investment, low productivity growth and stifled markets were the hallmarks of the economy. Swathes of the population went hungry, forced to eat yams and queue for hours to buy, on ration, any other more nutritious food. In the period 1971 to 1975 GDP growth averaged a mere 1.6% a year. Although the Sirimavo Bandaranaike led government had to contend with an oil shock, after producers cartelized under OPEC cutting enough supply to boost prices, it’s ultimately the state’s inapt economic management that put the country on a no growth path leaving citizens jobless, hungry and worse; without hope. “The truth has come down now … Take a listen to your spirit … It’s crying out loud…” Fleetwood Mac sang in a passive aggressive ‘I don’t want to know’, capturing the disappointment. Ms Nicks had an affair with Mick Fleetwood while collaborating with her ex-lover as principal song writers in the band. And as her marriage to band mate John McVie crumbled, Christine McVie fell for the band’s lighting director. Fleetwood Mac somehow found inspiration in this emotionally dysfunctional state.

Rumours, while being mostly about regret, also had a tragicomic feel allowing at a few points a light to shine through. At the end it allowed a flicker of hope in songs like Don’t Stop, “It’ll be better than before,…Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”.

By the 1977 general election the comforting but illusory promise of social justice had evaporated. For years a regretful population had patiently waited. Bandaranaike’s SLFP won only eight of 168 in the new parliament. She was defeated by the UNP which promised extra rations and to lift government controls on the economy.