26th May 2017
Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie have got back together to sing duets, they tell Will Hodgkinson
Just when you have a handle on the Fleetwood Mac drama, the principal characters go way off script and do something nobody could have predicted. First, the songwriter and pianist Christine McVie makes a surprise return in 2013 after a 15-year absence. Now McVie has recorded a duets album with Lindsey Buckingham, the guitarist associated, through good and bad times, with the other woman in the group: one Stevie Nicks.
“This is a band where nothing fits into any formula,” says Buckingham, on an atypically stormy afternoon in Los Angeles. He is at the Beverly Hills office of Fleetwood Mac’s manager, Irving Azoff, where I have just heard a handful of songs from the forthcoming duets album. From Buckingham’s sweet, fairytale-like In My World to McVie’s breezily romantic Feel About You, the album features classic Fleetwood Mac-style soft rock, which isn’t surprising given that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie form the rhythm section. The only Maccer missing, in fact, is Nicks.
“Oh, she’s fine about it,” insists Buckingham, on what Nicks makes of her old boyfriend recording an album with her one-time ally in the male-dominated world of 1970s rock. “She was off on her own thing [a solo tour], she knew what we were doing, and it was clear early on that this wouldn’t be Fleetwood Mac. You can look at it cosmically. The universe was speaking to Christine and me, even to Stevie, for this to be a duets album.
“Doing a duets album with Lindsey was the last thing I expected,” says McVie. “We don’t hang out in the way Stevie and I do, but we do work well together, and we ended up with all this material while Stevie was off doing other things. It started when I was in LA to rehearse for the tour and it developed from there. It’s just another splinter off the tree.”
Ever since 1977’s Rumours — 45 million albums sold and counting — the world’s leading purveyors of break-up rock have turned personal turmoil into musical gold. Buckingham and Nicks, the Americans of the group, teenage sweethearts who wrote the classic kiss-offs Go Your Own Way and Dreams about each other respectively, have maintained some sort of affection amid the mutual friction. To this day they hold hands while performing Landslide, written by Nicks when they were still in love. Christine McVie wrote Don’t Stop as a way of telling her ex-husband, the bassist John, to get over their marriage and move on. And throughout it all Mick Fleetwood kept the show on the road, turning Fleetwood Mac into one of the world’s biggest live acts. Their 2014-15 tour, which featured the return of Christine McVie, grossed $200 million.
“When Christine returned I thought, ‘OK, here comes the next chapter’,” says Buckingham, who looks much the same as he always did. The mass of black curls may have given way to cropped grey hair, but he’s still slim and somewhat intense, with piercing blues eyes suggesting a steeliness beneath the friendly exterior. “Christine burnt all her bridges in LA and made a new start in the UK, so when she said she wanted to join I told her, ‘If you do come back, you can’t just leave again. It can’t be this year’s lark.’ And then she started talking about these songs she had.”
Rejoining the band at the end of 2013 saved McVie from a downward spiral. After her marriage to the Portuguese musician Eddy Quintela came to an end in 2003 she became something of a recluse, living alone in a big house near Canterbury and becoming increasingly isolated from the world.
“I said I left because of a fear of flying, but it went deeper than that,” says McVie, who now lives in a high-ceilinged flat, filled with Mac memorabilia, opposite Hyde Park. “My father was dying, I realised I had spent most of my life in Fleetwood Mac, and I made the unwise decision to return to England and live like a retired person. At first I thought I was happy, and I loved the countryside. Then my marriage broke up, he left, I got very depressed, and my two dogs became my excuse for living. Nobody would call me prolific, but I wasn’t writing anything at all. Eventually I went to a therapist, who said I had to get on a plane or I would never go anywhere.That led to visiting Mick in Maui, where I asked him what it would be like if I joined the band again.”
The history of Fleetwood Mac is so full of tragedy, intrigue and surprise that McVie’s shock decision not only to return, but also to make an album with Buckingham, is almost par for the course. Take the former guitarists. Peter Green gave away all his money before being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Danny Kirwan was homeless for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Jeremy Spencer joined the LA cult the Children of God. Bob Welch killed himself.
“It’s a grim story, isn’t it?” says McVie, who has a no-nonsense way of talking about the band’s history, a product, perhaps, of her Birmingham upbringing. “Mick started wondering if he was the Devil incarnate. The rest of us survived because we have a great capacity to laugh at ourselves, which goes a long way to solving uncomfortable issues. It could be tricky singing Don’t Stop in front of John, and You Make Loving Fun was rubbing his face in it [McVie wrote the song about the lighting engineer she was having an affair with], but you exorcise those demons through song and feel better for it.”
“Animosity has been fodder for the songs, and Stevie and I have problems to this day,” says Buckingham. “But you have to acknowledge that underneath it all is a great deal of love. It is the glue that keeps this band together, against the odds.”
Buckingham left the band for a while too, after substance abuse by his fellow members reached an apotheosis during the recording of Tango in the Night in 1987. Fleetwood, having filed for bankruptcy, was living in a trailer in Buckingham’s front yard in LA. Nicks had checked into the Betty Ford clinic to quit cocaine, while embarking on a debilitating addiction to the painkiller Klonopin.
“It was the 1960s and 1970s reaching its ugly conclusion,” says Buckingham about that era. “Mick was transcending, shall we say. Stevie was a non-presence. For an album that took ten months to a year to make, she was in the studio for a couple of weeks. But back during Tusk , Mick and Stevie were setting examples I wanted to reject. We recorded it at Village studio in Santa Monica and it would be one in the morning, I would go out to my car to drive home and Mick would drag me back into the studio. It got to the point where I’d say, ‘I’m just going to the bathroom,’ and then I’d run to the car and drive away. And they would stay up well into the next day.”
“Me and Lindsey . . . we’re not exactly the best of friends,” confirmed Nicks, when I spoke to her this year. That lack of amiability has curtailed plans to reissue Buckingham Nicks, the 1973 album the couple (and they were a couple back then) made before joining Fleetwood Mac. It is something of a buried treasure, long revered among fans of heartfelt 1970s Californian rock.
“The problem is, a reissue would require Stevie and myself to carve out time to do something together,” says Buckingham. “And there is never a meeting of the minds on when that would be a good thing to do . . . Go figure.” He raises his eyebrows meaningfully.
The universe was speaking to Christine and me
In their separate interviews, Buckingham and McVie reach the same conclusion: Fleetwood Mac should, by the standard laws of physics and divorce, have split up decades ago.
“We’ve never had a fantastic time,” says McVie when I ask if she has memories of a golden period for the band she has been in, apart from that 15-year break, since 1970. “All of the albums have been strewn with angst. Making Mirage in 1982 was particularly weird. We decided we needed a bubble to work in so we rented the Honky Château [a recording studio in D’Hérouville, France]. Lindsey and Stevie did not like that one bit, partly because Lindsey does not care for Europe in any big way. God knows how we survived.”
As Buckingham points out, there is no precedent for Fleetwood Mac. No other band has featured the same five wildly different, frequently warring people for so long.
“Stevie is very ethereal while also enjoying the trimmings of being a singer,” says Buckingham, describing his fellow band members. “She’s concerned with how things are perceived from the outside. I’m the opposite. I have a good time on stage, but I could be just fine never going on the road again, and I’m most grounded when working. Mick is the guy that keeps it all together, and it’s a comment on his tenacity that people have floated in and out and still Fleetwood Mac has continued. John is more like me, except without the drive. He plays his bass and chills out on his boat. It’s a healthy way to be.”
How about McVie? “When Christine came back, it was so clear she was the middle ground of this band. She’s a woman who has a lot of things she can share with Stevie, but she’s also a musician grounded in her craft, which falls on my side. It’s why she can get on with both of us.”
Buckingham and McVie are doing a handful of dates to support the album. Nicks has been carrying on with a solo tour, and joined her mega-fan Harry Styles on stage at a recent LA date. Then it is back to Fleetwood Mac for all. American summer dates lead to a world tour planned for next year, but not a much-rumoured Glastonbury festival appearance (“I’m a bit suspicious of the mud,” explains McVie). Against all odds, Fleetwood Mac is the thing that endures. Go to one of their concerts today and the audience is multi-generational, a far cry from the early 1980s when, according to Buckingham, “we were the enemy for not being the Ramones. Or even the Police”.
“I never thought we would still be doing this,” Buckingham concludes, as our interview winds up. “When I met my wife, and had my first son at 48, it changed everything because you can’t live a crazy rock’n’roll life and be a spouse and a parent at the same time. Yet these five disparate people create something intangible, something other people can see so much better than us. Despite all the animosity and chaos, there is a shared destiny.”
Or, as McVie states in her unflappable way about a life in Fleetwood Mac: “I’m up for it if they are.”
Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Rhino) is out on June 9