A graduate of Birmingham’s blues clubs, her songwriting and harmonic joy helped make Fleetwood Mac one of the biggest acts in the world. Then, she withdrew. “I just shut myself off,” admits a fully returned Christine McVie.
Interview by ANDREW MALE
Portrait by TOM SHEEHAN
June 2017, MOJO Magazine
I’M SORRY,” SHOUTS CHRISTINE McVIE FROM the kitchen, as she rummages for mugs under the I sink, “it’s a rented flat, and everything’s still in storage.” They’re words that conjure up a cheerless one-bedroom studio with wipe-clean beige walls and collapsed sofa bed, but for Christine McVie, 73-year-old singer-songwriter and on-off veteran of Fleetwood Mac, one of the biggest-selling bands of all time, the flat is a penthouse in Belgravia, decorated with antique Turkish carpets, giant African drums and, hanging in the drawing room, Edward Reginald Frampton’s 1898 Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, – Saint Cecilia With Angels. “It looks like she’s playing a Hammond B3, doesn’t it?” smiles McVie, pointing at the spinet in the painting, a nod to her own early years, when as art student Christine Perfect she played keyboards in late-’60s Brummie blues outfits Sounds Of Blue and Chicken Shack.
Today, McVie’s look is a designer variant on Brumbeat beatnik; grown-out blonde bob, blue jeans, white T-shirt and black leather jacket, and her Smethwick drawl is still audible beneath a warm, measured voice with the same low blue tones that have coloured such soulful Mac belters down the years as Say You Love Me, Don’t Stop and Little Lies.
Indeed, Mac history is all around us, McVie’s walls bedecked with early photos of herself with band founder and drummer Mick Fleetwood, and bassist and one-time husband John McVie. There’s tour posters from the early-’70s Bob Welch years, and a plethora of platinum record updates on the 30-million-plus sales of the band’s 1977 LP Rumours. Recorded with LA conscripts Lindsey Bucking-ham and Stevie Nicks, the album set in motion 20 years of infra-band dance, dalliance and excess, and finally ended for McVie when she walked away from the group in 1998, exhausted and disillusioned, with a dream of living quietly in the Kent countryside.
Today she positively beams when discussing the band, especially her surprise return to the fold at the 02 Arena in September 2013 that led to the On With The Show world tour (“There was nothing bad about that tour. Everything was a joy!”) and the resultant reunion sessions with Buckingham, Fleetwood and McVie that have resulted in a buoyant new “duets” album, Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, recorded in Studio D at Village Recorders in Los Angeles, the same custom-designed annex the Mac had built, at ludicrous expense, for the recording of Tusk, some 39 years ago. “Lindsey gets me,” says McVie, happily, “and I love working with him. As with everything in Fleetwood Mac, it’s chemistry. I feel like I’ve come home. The prodigal daughter returns.”
So, how did Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie come about?
I’d rejoined the band, after being retired for 16 years, and I had a phone call from Lindsey saying, “If you’re going to do that Chris you gotta commit.” He’s very hardline. I said, “I’m committing!” And I did. I worked out, I started writing songs, I sent Lindsey some demos, and he did his magic on them. It never occurred to us anything would happen in terms of an album. Then we thought it was a good way of getting me back into the swing of things for the upcoming Fleetwood Mac tour. We got some studio time, Lindsey brought in some songs he’d recorded with John and Mick a few years back, and before we knew it we had, like, six or seven songs. We shelved them, because we had to rehearse to go on the road, then we just pulled them back out a few months ago and decided to make it a proper duets album.
Had those original six or seven tracks been intended for the next Fleetwood Mac album? That might have been how the press were presenting it, but we really had no project in mind at that time. The songs were sounding great, so we just kept on going.
You’ve got John on there, Mick on there… There’ll be people asking why Stevie isn’t present? Couldn’t this have easily been the next Fleetwood Mac album?
We just decided this was a finite project, not a career move. It was a wise move, from that point of view, because Stevie was busy anyway, and we were happy with what we were doing. I’m thinking, “Why on earth did we never do this before?” We’ve all done solo projects, but we’ve never done a duets album like this.
It’s not a normal duets album though. As ever with Christine McVie, it’s all about harmonies, and pathos.
We definitely love harmonies, and, yeah, I’m good at pathos. I write about romantic despair a lot. That’s my thing, but with a positive spin.
Going back to your musical education, your dad was a violinist and a music teacher. What was the first music you remember in the house?
Classical. My dad aspired to be first violinist in the orchestra. His dad played the pipe organ in Westminster Abbey, pre-World War One, and when he died, dad had to pick up the mantle of earning money for the family. He got a job as a teacher but always wanted to be a solo violinist. I’d hear him rehearsing in the front room, playing Brahms, Schubert, Handel, in order to play in the orchestra. He never reached the pinnacle of his dreams.
What was the first piece of music you felt was yours?
My brother, who was four years older than me, was into jazz. He had a saxophone at an early age. I had piano lessons. Well, I was playing piano one day and I looked in the piano stool and there was a music book of Fats Domino. Because I could sight-read I started playing the boogie bass. I got hooked on it, then 1 just got hooked on the blues. Even today, the songs I write use that left hand, it’s rooted in the blues.
Your family wanted you to be an art teacher. Was that ever an option?
No. My heart wasn’t in it. I had a propensity for it, though. I got a scholarship to Moseley Art School, where we did three academic lessons a week. The rest was silverwork, dress design and needlecraft. Perfect for a future career in Fleetwood Mac. That got me to art college, where I chose sculpture, took my National Diploma in Design and ended up being a window dresser in London, at Dickins And Jones. A pal of mine from art school, Andy Sylvester, was walking past their window one day, recognised me and said, “Hey, we’re trying to form this blues band, Chicken Shack. Are you interested in playing piano?”
You’d already been in a band with Andy at art college, Sounds Of Blue. What were they like?
Strict blues, no songwriting. Andy was a blues came back and very shortly after that he proposed to me. All the girls loved Peter Green, but I got to talk to John in a bar somewhere and he charmed me. I thought he was just wonderful — shy, but funny as well — and I fell madly in love with him. But we found that we were meeting on the doorstep, him coming home, me going out with Chicken Shack. So I said, “The marriage is more important.” I took time off until I was asked to join Fleetwood Mac. It was fantastic. It was only really when the bottle reared its ugly head that John and I started to drift away from each other.
When you first saw Fleetwood Mac on-stage, what did they have that you found so attractive?
Chemistry. Kick-ass chemistry. It was phenomenal. Andy and I, any time we had a night off, we’d make a beeline to Fleetwood Mac. These small, sweaty clubs. Mick and John were a force to be reckoned with, and you had little Jeremy Spencer playing slide, doing lots of Elmore James stuff, Peter Green who was like Jesus, playing out-of-this-world guitar, and then [later, guitarist] Danny Kirwan, who played brilliantly technical blues. It was just killer to watch them. Killer.
When Peter Green had his breakdown, was it a surprise?
I was shocked, but I think Mick and John had sensed something when they were recording [1969’s] Then Play On. He was starting to shift. His songs became very dark, very morose and introverted. That was the beginning of both his genius and the path towards his demise, although that wasn’t his fault, when he was spiked by those rich kids in that German schloss. He literally never came back. They were under contract to make another record, so Mick decided they should rent a place in the country and work on songs for the album that became Kiln House, which I did the cover for. By then, I was married to John, Mick was married to Jenny [Boyd], Jeremy was married, Danny was married, and we all moved into this rustic oast house in Kent and they started working on the album. I was there, just drawing, doodling, cooking, smoking a lot of pot. One day Mick and John came up and said, “We think we need another musician. How would you feel about joining the band?” That was like 10 days before they went on the road. I knew the songs so I just came chiming in with my piano, did a couple of harmonies with Danny and Jeremy, that was it.
“I’m good at pathos. I write about romantic despair a lot. That’s my thing, but with a positive spin.”
The first album where you’re credited as a proper band member was Future Games in 1971. Did it feel like you were moving away from the blues into a different new sound?
Yeah, I think so. We started being a bit more adventurous. Trying different things. Then Bob [Welch] joined [on guitar in 1971]. He had a West Coast, Wes Montgomery jazz sound that had a really great feel to it, and I just started harmonising with him.
Which became the root of what people now call “the classic Fleetwood Mac sound”…
Well, yes, because in the past no one did harmonies. I remember saying to Danny Kirwan, “Harmonies?” And he’d be, “Ooh no no! I don’t want harmonies!” So it was only really with Bob that we started to develop a three-part harmony vibe. Mick was very supportive, and it worked. Bob had this honey voice, and so did I. We sounded great together and worked well in the studio, me at the piano and him on guitar. Mick would make sure Bob stayed within the boundaries of a commercial song, because, given the chance, Bob could just take off into space.
1974 sounds like tumultuous year. Your manager Clifford Davis claimed he owned the name and recruited a new band, the “other Fleetwood Mac”…
Eurgh! Nobody knew what was going on. I just drifted with the strongest wind. My marriage to John was kaput by then. We were living together but no… because of (mimes drinking). There was also that tawdry affair where [guitarist] Bob Weston slept with Mick’s wife. That was very acrimonious and obviously Bob had to be sacked. Then [short-lived vocalist] Dave Walker was asked to leave. We’d done one album together, Penguin [in 1973], and Remember Me was a great song, but I can’t quite remember how it all happened. That was the point where we all decided to move to America. We were only planning to go there for three months, get a record deal, get on the road and make some money. Then Bob Welch decided he couldn’t see any future in Fleetwood Mac, so left to go solo.
And Mick started hunting around for new band members…
He went to the Valley, the studio where he heard Lindsey, and thought, “Fuck who is this brilliant guitar player?” The engineer said, “Oh, it’s this couple who’ve just finished this duet album.” So Mick got the number of Lindsey and said, “How would you feel about maybe joining Fleetwood Mac?” and Lindsey says, “We come as a couple.” So, some-how, we meet up in this Mexican restaurant and… it was that chemistry, and it started round that table. Then we had another meeting at Mick’s house, then we went into rehearsals. I started playing them Say You Love Me on the piano, and we got to the chorus and the two of them just chirped into the perfect three-part harmony. I just remember thinking, “This is it!” Then Lindsey picked up his guitar, Mick his drumsticks, John his bass and it happened like that (clicks fingers).
“As with everything in Fleetwood Mac, it’s chemistry. I feel like I’ve come home. Prodigal daughter returns.”
You never wanted to move to America. How was the shift?
It was to save the band, and once there I didn’t mind it much. We were living in relative pauper-ville in Laurel Canyon, in John Mayall’s house for two months, then we found an apartment down the hill and gradually started to make a bit of money and then moved to Malibu where we started recording ‘The White Album’ [1975’s Fleetwood Mac], driving to the valley every day from the beach. We were in a real bubble then. I was so overawed by these guys as writers that I stepped my game up. I wanted to impress them.
Did your songwriting change at this time?
I’ve always written about me but I’ve always written about other people as well; when you hear a couple going through trauma, you try and step into their shoes. So, some songs would be about me, and some really weren’t about me, but Rumours, that album is all about us. The whole band. That’s how we were. Something that isn’t tangible drove us on to do it. We wrote those songs despite ourselves, because that was the only way we could describe what we were going through.
I’m guessing none of you were in therapy at that time?
No, no. We all are now. You’ve hit the nail on the head. It was a therapeutic move. The only way we could get this stuff out was to say it, and it came out in a way that was difficult. Imagine trying to sing those songs on-stage with the people you’re singing them about. It was difficult for Stevie to sing Dreams, difficult for Lindsey to sing Go Your Own Way, difficult for me to sing Don’t Stop, about John. Oh Daddy was about Mick and Jenny. We just gave each other goosebumps, and it was definitely a trial, and of course you’ve also got to remember we were all very high. I mean, I don’t think there was a sober day.
A different kind of logic applies, doesn’t it?
No logic. We just ploughed forth into it. A lot of cocaine, a lot of alcohol, a lot of marijuana. I don’t know how that record came to be as good as it is. All of us were there, every day, for almost a year. Me and John didn’t get on. Stevie and Lindsey didn’t get on, but they still had to go into the studio and do vocals together. And always there, Mick, the rock, even though he was a mess as well.
It’s been well documented what effect the excess had on you, but what effect did success have on you?
We were in suspended disbelief. We knew the album was good the moment it was mastered, but we were going through hell ourselves. ‘The White Album’ had done really well, so we knew we’d have some success, but it just went berserk. It took over our lives. We were dumbfounded. The chemistry between the five of us was the only thing that held it together: “This is Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac doesn’t break up.” We can sort of see the funny side now, but it was hell. We got through it and, thankfully, we’re all intact. It seems unreal to me now, sitting here, sane, relatively. But I wouldn’t change a day of it.
Tusk, which followed in ’79, is generally regarded as Lindsey’s album…
Well, I think Mick was worried Lindsey might leave if we didn’t give him leeway to be more… experimental, so that’s what we did. We didn’t realise it would end up being a double album, but I look back on it with great affection. We were still pretty stoned then. Walking back into the Village to do this new album was great. It was great to be there sober.
Coming to Mirage three years after Tusk, it felt like you’d purposefully created this safe space for the band…
That was Mick’s idea, so we could get back to that bubble idea again, something like we did in Sausalito with Rumours: see what would come out from a confined space, pull the reins in and do something more commercial. I’m not sure it worked. Strange record. I don’t have many memories of it, although the room I was in was meant to have been haunted by [author] George Sand. Me and [producer] Ken Caillat would sit in the studio in the night with a bottle of Courvoisier waiting to see if there were any noises. Nothing came.
After your marriage to Eddy Quintela in ’86 you started writing songs together.
(Grimaces) Yeah. That’s… not an area I want to talk about. Let’s just say that (laughs)… I wrote most of the songs. Little Lies was very much my song, and it’s not about me, and it’s not about Eddy. It’s just a song I wrote, lying out by my pool with a pad and paper and that’s what I came up with. Counter-vocals written across Lindsey’s tune and… I just H° kind of made it up.
There’s a track called Liar on your 2004 solo album, In The Meantime. Any relation?
Well, that is about somebody, but I don’t want to talk about them, either. Another failed relationship. Not to worry, these things are better in than out. Bad Journey, off the same album, was another song about this other man. I’d rather not name names but if it makes a good song, great. Then it’s not inside you any more.
What was the trigger for leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1998?
Did it have anything to do with the Mac albums that preceded it, Behind The Mask (1990) and Time (’95)? I don’t think anyone likes those albums. They’re terrible. They’re scrubbed under the carpet. Did they have anything to do with it? Yeah, very possibly. Dave Mason [ex Traffic guitarist/ vocalist, who joined the Mac from 1993 to ’95] and I did not get along, and I thought the music was suffering. I think Mick thought it was the end of the road as well, for the first time. Also, I was more gone than them during the making of Time. Emotionally not there, physically not here. I just didn’t show up. I left Mick and John holding the baby. I couldn’t bear watching it all fall apart. And I couldn’t keep peace with Dave Mason, I’m afraid. It was very acrimonious with him and I just bailed. Mick and John were OK. Also, I was tired of living out of a suitcase, tired of travel, plus I had a fear of flying. I’d been doing it longer than Stevie and Lindsey and I’d just had enough. Plus, my father was really sick and I wanted to come back to England and rediscover my roots and I was quite adamant that this was what I wanted to do.
It was a total severing of the ties. You sold all your publishing and moved to a 16th century manor house in Kent.
I did sell my publishing, but I made a lot of money from that. That was a deal I’d never get again. Living in Kent was great for the first couple of years, then it drove me mad. I spent three years restoring that house but my marriage ended up not working, so we got divorced and I just found myself on my own, bouncing off the walls in this huge, great big house with two dogs. I became very isolated, very withdrawn, didn’t even look at a piano. I just shut myself off. My friends were worried about me. Also, the longer I left the fear of flying, the worse it got. In the end, I completely withdrew, and got myself into some trouble, drinking, not seeing anyone. At that point I thought I’ve got to do some-thing. So, I found a psychiatrist. He said, “If you could get on a plane, where would you go?” I said, “I’d go to Maui to see Mick.” He said, “Book a ticket, first class, for six months’ time and let’s get you there.” Also, he said, “If you don’t want to drive your car, just walk over to it, sit in it, say hello to it, get out, go back in.” So I did that for a period of two months. Turn the ignition on, another step further, drive round the courtyard… next thing I know, I’m driving again. Then Mick happened to come back to London, so we flew back to Maui together.
What was the flight like?
We spent the whole time talking. I don’t even remember the plane taking off. I played in his little blues band over there in Maui, found my feet on stage again. I had retreated completely from society. I got back and I’m better than I ever was. It’s rehabilitation, in the best way. The circle is complete.
What would you say to shy window dresser Christine Perfect if you met her now?
I would say, “You’re Christine fucking McVie, and don’t you forget it!”
Everything has come right?
Everything has come right. But, don’t forget, this is Fleetwood Mac. Hey, we should put that on the T-shirts for the next tour: “Everything has come right” on the front and, on the back, “But don’t forget, this is Fleetwood Mac!”
Buckingham/McVie’s album is released on May 27 (correction: June 9th) and is reviewed here
Christine McVie, in and out of the Mac.
By Andrew Male.
Christine Perfect – Christine Perfect (BLUE HORIZON, 1970) ***
“A half-hearted project,” says McVie. “I didn’t feel confident in a solo world.” Despite her harsh judgement, there’s a desolate beauty to much of this first solo effort, especially the Nico-esque chill of When You Say and a lovely cover of Ike & Tina Turner’s Crazy ‘Bout You Baby. “That’s my favourite track,” admits McVie, “I heard that recently and thought, Little Hohner transistor piano, under-pro-duced, that sounds so good!”
Fleetwood Mac – Mystery To Me (REPRISE 1973) ****
Still underrated, the Mac LPs McVie and Bob Welch made together – of which this is the undoubted standout – have a mellow West Coast jazz dreaminess and hazy harmonic beauty that points towards Mac’s future reinvention and sounds eerily akin to proto-Steely Dan. “I love Steely Dan,” says McVie. “Of course, we were doing that sound before them. I wonder if we were an influence?”
Fleetwood Mac – Tango In The Night (WARNER BROS, 1987) ****
“I’m very good at coming up with lyrics, songs and hooks, and Lindsey is very good at making it 3D,” says McVie. As Mark Blake astutely pointed out in MOJO 282, Tango In The Night is a perfect Mac showcase for McVie and Buckingham’s musical partnership, the album’s two real pop highlights – Everywhere and Little Lies – both written by her and given that added extra dimension by his studio magic.
Christine McVie – In The Meantime (SANCTUARY, 2004) ****
“That was therapy,” says McVie, of this deeply personal solo LP Pro-Tooled with her nephew Dan, as she languished in the English countryside. “I was coming out of a relationship and just got it all off my chest. It’s about the darkest thing I’ve ever written… I was completely paranoid and uncomfortable doing it.I don’t think it sold anything but the point was to prove I could still write, still play, still sing.”
WE’RE NOT WORTHY
Field Music’s Peter Brewis on Christine McVie’s “disguised drama”. “My favourite Christine McVie song is Think About Me from Tusk. It’s just full of dignified emotion and disguised drama. Her love songs are never trite. A song like Everywhere is so beautiful and yet really simple. It’s that deceptive simplicity that we all aspire to.”