In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna, which went to No. 1 on September 5, 1981, where it stayed for one week.
“Thank you, Snoopy,” says Stevie Nicks, swallowing tears and clutching a stuffed toy of the Peanuts character that a fan had just handed her. It’s December 13, 1981—the last date of her triumphant first solo tour—and the Fleetwood Mac singer is standing on the stage of the Fox Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. Her closing song is “Edge Of Seventeen.” Three months earlier, Nicks’ solo debut, Bella Donna, had reached the top slot of the Billboard chart; “Edge Of Seventeen” was destined to become not only the album’s biggest hit, but the song with which Nicks would end every solo concert from that night forward.
The seed of Bella Donna had been planted four years before the album’s release in July of 1981. While making its epochal 1977 album, Rumours, Fleetwood Mac had run out of room for “Silver Springs,” a gorgeous song penned and sung by Nicks that wound up relegated to the B-side of the single for “Go Your Own Way.” “Silver Springs” is equal to anything on Rumours, but there was no avoiding the fact that Fleetwood Mac had to juggle three strong singer-songwriters: Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine McVie. It was inevitable that they would go solo at some point, especially considering the infamous interpersonal strife the group had been suffering.
Nicks was the first to go her own way. Bella Donna beat Buckingham’s solo debut, Law And Order, to the shelves by three months—and it beat its pants off on the charts. Nicks and Buckingham had been a recording duo before joining Fleetwood Mac, and their romantic relationship disintegrated during the arduous production of Rumours. To say they felt some competition might be an understatement. That strain had already shown itself on Rumours’ troubled 1979 follow-up, Tusk, which might as well have been an anthology of three isolated solo artists. The drugs and booze didn’t help. Nor did Nicks’ new relationship—working and otherwise—with ace producer Jimmy Iovine, who had a vested interest in seeing Bella Donna trounce the debut by Nicks’ ex.
Bella Donna spun that acrimony into platinum. “What I seem to touch these days / Has turned to gold,” Nicks twangs bittersweetly on “After The Glitter Fades,” one of the album’s four hit singles. Country-rock was no longer in vogue in 1981, but Nicks cut her teeth on country music as a little girl singing duets with her grandfather, an aspiring country artist. That rootsy, nostalgic ache grounds “After The Glitter Fades”—whose name evokes Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush”—in a vintage tone that feels sepia-tinted rather than outdated. The album’s deeper cuts are less memorable, but none is a throwaway. The gothic waltz of “Think About It” and the drizzly atmosphere of “Outside The Rain” are contemplative and ethereal, while “The Highwayman” is a laidback ballad that closes Bella Donna with the downbeat sentiment, “Is this the end of the dream?” The only times the album sounds like Fleetwood Mac are on its brooding title track—as well “How Still My Love,” which sounds eerily similar to Rumours’ “Dreams” with its pulsing rhythm and Buckingham-esque guitar swells. But neither does Nicks stray far from the expectations of her fans. If anything, Iovine’s production distills the same gravelly majesty that made Nicks the breakout star of Fleetwood Mac in the first place.
Seeing as how Nicks learned to sing via country duets, it’s no surprise that “Leather And Lace” works so well. An inspired matchup with Don Henley of The Eagles—himself no stranger to country-rock—the song’s shivering tenderness is testament to the unlikely chemistry between Nicks’ feminine grittiness and Henley’s masculine softness. Vocally, she’s the leather and he’s the lace. And it works beautifully. It doesn’t hold a candle, though, to Bella Donna’s other duet. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was the album’s first and most successful single, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard chart in 1981, thanks to the synergy between Nicks and guest Tom Petty, who brings along the rest of The Heartbreakers as the backing band. Petty was Iovine’s latest success story at the time, and the song uncannily taps into the overlap of Petty’s simmering anger and Nicks’ smoldering angst.
“Edge Of Seventeen,” though, remains the high point of Bella Donna—and Nicks’ solo career as a whole. Not only is it the album’s hardest song by a mile, it’s its catchiest. Slinky and spectral, it’s filled to overflowing with Nicks’ evocative imagery and over-the-top symbolism—up to and including the “white wing dove” that not only graces the song but Bella Donna’s cover art. On the DVD from 2008’s Crystal Visions—The Very Best Of Stevie Nicks, the singer offers commentary on the song’s creation and meaning. Written as a reaction to two recent deaths—John Lennon’s and her uncle’s—it’s aggressive instead of mournful, a tombstone cut from black glass.
“It became a song about violent death,” Nicks says of “Edge Of Seventeen” on her Crystal Visions commentary. “To me, the white wing dove was for John Lennon, the dove of peace. And the white wing dove for my uncle was the white wing dove that lives in the saguaro cactus. The white wing dove actually does make a sound that is like, ‘Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!’” She’s referring to the haunting refrain she sings in the song, a sound that might as easily come from a ghost as a dove. Soon after the release of Bella Donna, Nicks reluctantly reconvened with Fleetwood Mac to record 1982’s Mirage—which resulted in Nicks’ signature anthem, the sublime “Gypsy.” It, too, is requiem for one of Nicks’ loved ones, who died of cancer. But “Edge Of Seventeen” pits Nicks’ corroded voice against harrowing hard rock, and that alchemical reaction becomes heavier than metal.
In 2001, Nicks good-naturedly (and perhaps a little shrewdly) appeared in the video for Destiny’s Child’s megahit “Bootylicious,” which samples the ominous, unmistakable guitar riff from “Edge Of Seventeen.” Then again, Nicks would have had no grounds to protest the sample. Her guitarist, Waddy Wachtel, shamelessly borrowed the riff himself, from The Police’s 1979 song “Bring On The Night.” Rather than being some stale argument against cultural appropriation, it’s a prime example of how a great hook can echo throughout eras—and how Nicks has stitched her mystique into the fabric of pop while maintaining a cuddly vulnerability. In Nicks’ voice there’s swagger and strength, but there’s also a weary erosion of the soul that humbles her.
In addition to launching “Edge Of Seventeen” as her permanent closing song, Nicks’ concert on December 13, 1981 started another tradition: “the edge walk.” After seeing the gifts the audience was handing Nicks in her 1982 HBO film, Stevie Nicks In Concert, her fans made it a ritual. To this day, when the epic, nine-minute live version of “Edge Of Seventeen” begins to wind down in a flutter of moody darkness and swirled-cape melodrama, Nicks stalks the front of the stage like a pagan goddess being offered sacrificial doves. Even if they do have floppy black ears instead of white wings.