Often, it’s the quiet ones. During her first 28 years in Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie was the band’s reticent member, anchoring their flashier flights with her bluesy alto voice and unruffled love songs. Her return to the group this year after a 16-year semi-retirement was characteristically understated – after testing the water in September 2013 by joining the band for one song at their O2 Arena gigs in London, she phoned them four months later to ask whether they’d mind her rejoining. The welcome she’s received from fans and press has been clamorous; with McVie back in the fold, Fleetwood Mac are finally whole again.
|The Guardian Newspaper Oct 11, 2014|
McVie and the group – Hollywood-mystic frontwoman Stevie Nicks, singer/guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (her ex-husband) – are on a 33-date tour of North American arenas. Reviews of their 150-minute show have foregrounded one thing: her return. This paper said of their Minneapolis gig: “The 71-year-old McVie was in excellent form, her keyboard playing gently rumbling or subtly expressive, her singing graceful,” while another reported that her entrance at Madison Square Garden moved Fleetwood to shout: “Amen!” Buckingham, meanwhile, has called the reunion “a beautiful, profound and poetic new chapter”.
Her return underscores her importance to a band marked by internecine squabbling and self-destructive behaviour. Every member has left and rejoined along the way, and there have been periods when nobody has been quite sure whether the group still existed.
McVie, whose improbable birth name was Christine Perfect, is the least controversial of the five; although she used drugs and alcohol during the highrolling 1970s and 80s, it was the other four who hit the headlines for it. While Nicks was writing the cocaine hymn Gold Dust Woman, McVie’s rock-starrish behaviour was confined to buying a pair of Mercedes with her dogs’ names on the licence plates.
She’s reminisced about “staying up for three days with the white powder, liberally washed down by Dom Pérignon”, but that’s junior-league debauchery compared with some of her bandmates’ reputed drug excesses. And, onstage, she was always the serene force, seemingly calm amid the chaos of a group that thought nothing of hiring a 112-piece marching band for one track on the 1978 album Tusk. Fleetwood Mac were in the near unique position of having two female songwriters (Buckingham was the third main writer), each with an instantly identifiable style; the hits McVie sang and wrote, including Over My Head, Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun, were marked by warmth and optimism.
“I don’t think anyone would say she was mainstay of the band,” says her manager, Martin Wyatt. “Chris is behind the keyboards as the quiet one. She would never be a person to exert herself in those days. She’s always been like this – she sees herself as one-fifth of the band. When we needed decisions, she would say: ‘Well what’s the majority vote?’”
That’s not to downplay her own problematic relationship with fame. When Mac were at the peak of their monstrous mid-1970s success (their 45m-selling signature LP, Rumours, is one of the biggest albums of all time), she was hardly in a good way. Her marriage was crumbling, as was Buckingham and Nicks’ relationship, and the atmosphere was toxic.
“We weren’t just singing to each other but screaming, and everything was enlarged by the intake of illegal substances,” she remembered in 1997. By the time they set off on a mammoth tour to promote Tusk, she was self-medicating every night.
“I used to go onstage and drink a bottle of Dom Pérignon, and drink one offstage afterwards. It’s not the kind of party I’d like to go to now.”
She hadn’t expected to attend that party in the first place. Born in the Lake District and raised in the Birmingham suburb of Smethwick, she trained as an art teacher, and sang and played keyboards only for fun. Once she joined the Brit-blues band Chicken Shack as keyboardist/ backing vocalist, however, she became a serious student of the blues.
Music critic Ken Hunt, who saw her play a south London pub with them in 1968, remembers: “I stood about two yards from Christine, who was playing the piano and singing into the microphone. She was some sort of divine. I was too shy to talk to her. When [debut album] 40 Blue Fingers, Freshly Packed and Ready to Serve came out soon afterwards, she was the main reason to buy the album.”
Her experience of being the only woman both in that band and her next one, Fleetwood Mac (Nicks didn’t join until 1975), seems to have been a positive one. The casual sexism doled out to female musicians apparently didn’t affect her much; she had a one-of-the-boys relationship with her male colleagues – including John McVie, whom she married in 1969 – and a rapport with fans, who voted her best female vocalist of 1969 in the Melody Maker poll.
From her first album with Mac, 1971’s Future Games, she assumed a major performing and songwriting role, and while the dynamic eventually changed to accommodate Nicks’ ethereal style, this served only to emphasise McVie’s importance as the band’s grounding force.
Once fame hit, the group went into an emotional tailspin that continued for the next couple of decades. The McVies separated in 1976, and Christine had relationships with the band’s lighting director, and then Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. She married, and later divorced, keyboardist Eddy Quintela, saying in 2004: “I’ve been very unlucky in love. It’s been a real drag.”
Her eventual departure from Fleetwood Mac, after a long tour supporting the 1997 US No 1 album The Dance, was precipitated by exhaustion and fear of flying. She sold her house in Los Angeles, a city she’d never wanted to live in – when they moved there in the mid-70s to try to break America, she’d been told it would only be for six months – and returned to England. She spent the next 16 years living a reclusive rural life in a village near Canterbury.
“I suffered from some delusion that I wanted to be an English country girl, a Sloane Ranger donning the old Hunter boots and Barbour jacket to slosh around in mud with the Range Rover,” she told the Guardian last year. In 2004 she made a relaxed, intimate solo album called In the Meantime, but did so little promotion for it that it didn’t chart. It was well over a decade before she decided she rather missed Fleetwood Mac.
“She remembers the big Mac days fondly,” says Wyatt. “There were some crazy times, but these kind of things are your life, 24/7.” In 2012, she began to contemplate rejoining the group, who had always made it clear she would be welcome.
“She got over her fear of flying by deciding to book a holiday to Maui,” says Wyatt. “Mick [who lived in Hawaii] was in England, and he said: ‘Let’s fly to Maui together.’ Once she got there, she was thrilled to bits that she’d achieved it. She jammed with Mick’s little band in Maui and that was the beginning of a lot of this.”
If the rumours that they will headline Glastonbury in 2015 are true, next June will find McVie facing one of the largest audiences of her life. (It should be noted that internet rumblings of a headlining appearance in 2013 came to nothing.) Many in the crowd will have discovered her through their parents’ record collections, but few will be unfamiliar with her elegantly husky lead vocals.
In the nearly four decades since their release, they’ve never dropped off America’s “classic rock” radio playlists, and have since been discovered by the Spotify generation.
Thus, Fleetwood Mac and by extension McVie are far more fashionable now than they were during their commercial peak. Though critically appreciated at the time (Rolling Stone’s 1977 review of Rumours praised her ability to “move easily into the thematic trappings of the California rock myth”), they were written off by some as mere easy-listening hitmakers.
Today, they’re revered, and much imitated, as soft-rock touchstones. With McVie back, there’s a completeness.
“She’s wholehearted about performing again, and she’s made a major commitment,” Wyatt says. “She’s making major sacrifices to do this. The biggest wrench for her will be her dogs – she’s got two that she adores in Kent. She was saying yesterday: ‘I miss my dogs.’ ”