Surviving the Fleetwoods
The Guardian Newspaper
Friday June 18, 2004
According to one of its most long-standing members, the career of
Fleetwood Mac has been something of a prolonged accident.
Christine McVie had retired from music when she joined them in 1970
after founder member Peter Green left because the rest of the band
refused to give all their money to charity. McVie, who was married
to the band's bassist John McVie, did not intend to stay for long.
Twenty-seven years later, she finally called it a day.
Then there was the recording of Rumours, Fleetwood Mac's 1977 album
that, until Michael Jackson's Thriller, was the best-selling record
of all time. Rumours is loaded with significance for large amounts
of people, either as a soundtrack to love and youth or as the symbol
of all that had gone wrong with music by the late 70s, but Fleetwood
Mac made the album that documented their fragmenting relationships
in chaotic circumstances.
McVie wrote Songbird and Don't Stop on her way to studio, while most
of the songs were created over extended jams with the help of a
crate of champagne and a bottle of Chivas Regal. Through this
disorderly process, one of the most significant records in the
history of pop music was created.
"A duck walked into my kitchen this morning," says McVie, who now
spends most of her days cooking and gardening at her house in Kent.
She recently recorded In the Meantime, her third solo album in 30
years, at a converted barn at the end of the garden. "It reminded me
that I was pleased to put the lid on the life I was leading in Los
Angeles and return to England. I have a lot to be grateful to LA
for, but I overstayed my welcome by 28 years. I was only meant to be
there for six months."
McVie seems far too normal to be the pianist, singer and songwriter
of a multi-platinum selling band, and it's probably this deep-rooted
normality that helped her survive some extremely turbulent times.
Peter Green was Fleetwood Mac's first victim. He took large amounts
of LSD in the late 60s, and by 1970 he was appearing on stage in
robes and crucifixes. "All that was missing was the crown of
thorns," says McVie. "It was such a shame because he was a musical
genius. The rose was starting to open with [1969's] Then Play On,
when he created a style of blues music that was uniquely British,
but what he began with that album never got completed."
The next to go was fellow guitarist Jeremy Spencer, another founder
member. Soon after the band arrived in Los Angeles in 1970, Spencer
went for a walk along Sunset Strip to buy a newspaper and never came
back. He had been co-opted by a religious cult called The Children
of God, with which he has remained ever since.
"Who could have predicted that?" says McVie. "I do remember that
when we touched down on the plane, Jeremy said, 'I shouldn't be
here.' He was always a bit loopy, though. I don't think he was sure
of his own identity. Jeremy was fine when he was pretending to be
Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard, but the moment he tried to be Jeremy
he was lost."
The good and bad times continued in Los Angeles for the rest of the
70s and much of the 80s, when most of the band took to using large
amounts of cocaine. One of their drug buddies was Dennis Wilson, the
drummer of the Beach Boys who drowned in 1983. In 1977, when Wilson
and McVie were an item, he made a beautiful album called Pacific
Ocean Blue that has become something of a lost classic. It remains
one of McVie's favourite records, and not just because she sang on
"He was brilliant, but the problem was that he was just so helpless.
He would get a big, litre bottle of orange juice, tip half of it
out, and fill it up with rum. Then he would put in a few ice cubes
and carry it around with him all day, and by the evening it would be
acrid and he would still be drinking it. The smell was vile. He
vanished for days on end, he wouldn't go to bed, and yet when he was
straight he was the most charming guy. He was very funny as well,
although that was unintentional."
Another favourite album of McVie's is Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys'
orchestral pop masterpiece that was made by Brian Wilson while the
rest of the band was on tour. Dennis was the only Beach Boy to
applaud Brian's great work. "Dennis loved Pet Sounds because he had
an undercurrent of genius himself, but he couldn't control it."
An early sign of Wilson's lack of control came when, as a token of
his love for McVie, he hired a team of people to dig up her back
garden into a giant heart shape. He was intending to fill the
heart-shaped hole with roses, but he never got round to it. "My lawn
was now just a big pile of dirt. He had all these people holding a
candle around the edge of it, slowly sinking into the mud. Then he
got up on the balcony and proposed to me. Then he sent me the bill
for the work. I suppose his heart was in the right place."
McVie runs through a few more of her favourite albums - Revolver by
the Beatles, anything by the American blues singer Freddie King,
with whom she once played, Raspberry Beret by Prince - before
confessing that she hardly ever listens to pop music these days.
Classic FM is on the radio when she's cooking.
One album that has stayed with her, though, is Gaucho by Steely Dan.
"It sounds like very sexy music to me, much more so than their
earlier albums, and every time I listen to it I hear something else
in there. Since then they have been plagiarising themselves. But
that's OK; I think they've earned the right. If you can't plagiarise
yourself, who can you plagiarise?"