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Fleetwood Mac’s songbird flies solo

“‘Got a Hold On Me’ is totally fictional, ‘cause at the time I wrote it no one did have a hold on me. If all the songs were autobiographical, I’d probably be 105 years old by now, I would have gone through so many emotions.”

1984 Christine McVieChristine McVie’s Greatest Hits? Yeah, I have a copy on cassette that I play in my car, but don’t go looking for it in the shops. This is a custom job I made up in ‘82, compiling all of Christine’s lead vocals with Fleetwood Mac onto one tape, all the way from “Morning Rain” from Future Games to “Think About Me” from Tusk. Christine is a dusky, sensuous singer and superb keyboardist who’s never received her fair share of the spotlight, and her catalog of love songs, a subject she compulsively returns to time and again, is unmatched. She’s had her share of big hits like “Say You Love Me” and “Don’t Stop,” but tunes like “Prove Your Love,” “Remember Me” and “Songbird” are too often forgotten. Her contribution to Fleetwood Mac albums like Bare Trees and Mystery to Me has been overshadowed by the more flamboyant personalities of the various Fleetwood Mac line-ups. But last month she released her second solo album (the first was done in 1969 before she joined F. Mac and is best forgotten) called, for some reason, Christine McVie, and it’s already yielded the hit “Got A Hold On Me.” It features guests like Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood and Ray Cooper around the core of guitarist Todd Sharp, drummer Steve Ferrone and bassist George Hawkins, with Christine on keyboards and vocals. McVie had a hand in seven of the songs, although she only wrote one, “The Smile I Live For,” by herself. Up until Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage album, she never wrote with anyone else.

Christine was raised in Birmingham, England, and began piano lessons as a child at the insistence of her father, a classical musician who still teaches violin and plays with the Birmingham City Orchestra. She began to hate her lessons at about age eleven, but took them up again in her mid-teens and developed an interest in blues and rock. She also went to art school and studied fabric printing, silkscreen and painting, in between practicing Fats Domino licks. She worked briefly in London as a window-dresser at a department store before joining up with some Birmingham friends in a blues band at first called Sounds of Blue and later Chicken Shack. She met and married John McVie, bass player with another up-and-coming British blues band Fleetwood Mac, and lost her unusual maiden name Perfect. The story of how she eventually joined her husband’s band is told in the following interview.

Christine’s house in Coldwater Canyon was purchased from Anthony Newly, and is the kind of mansion that befits a member of one of the world’s biggest groups. The decor combines oriental designs and art deco in stunning combinations, mother-of-pearl inlaid mirrors, silver cigarette cases and golden screen. There’s a Japanese garden, swimming pool with a view of Beverly Hills, a music room and pub, and the discreet sounds of a maid vacuuming the thick carpets.

I was told that Christine is never seen without a drink in her hand, and sure enough she enters the room holding a tumbler of beer. (“I do like my wine,” she says, laughing, when I bring up her reputation for drinking.) Although she’s hardly glamorous in the usual sense, Christine does have a particular kind of sex appeal; considering I’ve had a crush on her for fifteen years, I managed to restrain myself quite well. “Just the facts, ma’am, only the facts…”

When you started out with Chicken Shack were you already an accomplished singer?

Chicken Shack was as basic as you could get, three chords and twelve-bar shuffles all the time. You can get real tired of that quick. But I didn’t consider myself a blues singer, or a singer particularly at all. I barely played piano even. I had to go out and buy all the Freddie King albums I could find. Everything I know I attribute to Sonny Thompson, who was Freddie’s cousin, producer and manager, I think. I picked up little licks from his playing.

Looking over your songs, it appears you never wrote one that wasn’t about love.

Except for “Don’t Stop,” which isn’t directly connected to love. I write about love, feel comfortable writing about it, but that puts me with many others. I feel pretentious writing about things I don’t really feel. Male-female relationships are better for me to write about. And all the songs are not autobiographical. I might just step into a friend’s shoes for a while. They’re still meant, felt. “Got A Hold On Me” on the new album is totally fictional, ‘cause at the time I wrote it no one did have a hold on me. If all the songs were autobiographical, I’d probably be 105 years old by now, I would have gone through so many different emotions.

Your love songs have certain themes, falling in love as a kind of insanity, foolishness, a total kind of giving. The word “fool” appears in many of your songs describing the lover. “Ask Anybody” on the new record describes being “drive wild” by a man. Is that how love strikes you?

No one’s ever gone to such lengths to analyze it before, to be quite honest. Those words about “He’s a devil and an angel/Ooh the combination’s driving me wild” were written three years ago, when I was with Dennis Wilson. They fit a certain melody that came up. You know, not everything is unhappy about love. This album is a very happy, very “up” album. Maybe I’m trying to retaliate. Maybe I haven’t had a very happy love life. I’ve had wonderful relationships but not always particularly joyous. Maybe I’m an idealist and want to have the perfect love. That’s impossible. I have this “magnificent obsession.” It’s something to do with fantasy, the idea of the unobtainable person. I’ll have to think about it…and I certainly won’t use the word “fool” on my next album, all right?

I only meant to suggest a contrast between the new songs, which sound so happy and fulfilled, to the type of tunes you’re known for in Fleetwood Mac.

It’s refreshing, I think. It’s the way I’ve felt, a little more confident. I didn’t make this album before because I wasn’t sure I was ready for it, didn’t want to take the responsibility, either the let-down or elation, the success or failure. I had a wonderful, enjoyable experience doing this album in Montreux.

Do you feel that you’re less exposed on a Fleetwood Mac album where you might only contribute two or three songs?

That’s a lot to do with it, for Stevie and Lindsey too. This configuration of Fleetwood Mac’s been together ten years, and it’s taken us entire years to make a single record. So if you only have a few songs per record you need an outlet. You have a backlog of songs sometimes, and that can be frustrating for a musician.

A few years ago, everyone started doing their solo albums. Stevie did two, Mick went to Ghana, Lindsey did Law and Order. At that time I just didn’t want to follow suit. I was busy getting the house fixed up, happy being domestic. Inevitably, I woke up one morning bored, started spending more time in the music room. Todd Sharp was coming over a lot, and we spent three months getting this batch of songs together. I was ready for something adventurous, like stepping out the front door.

I had been domestic before, in between Chicken Shack and joining Fleetwood Mac. John and I were married but never saw each other, since we were both in touring bands. When I left Chicken Shack I stayed at home for a while. And I had won ‘best female vocalist’ in a Melody Maker poll. I was dumbfounded, but at that time, Melody Maker was kind of underground, and there was really only Sandy Denny, Julie Driscoll and me around. My single of “I’d Rather Go Blind” was a hit in England — it got to Number Nine I think — and the students thought it was cool or something. I then recorded my, first solo album, which I can’t listen to anymore. I was forced out of my early retirement, pushed into a studio…the songs I wrote on that album are really weak. The Bobby Bland songs are okay, though.

Then Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac, and the four-piece went to rehearse at this place called Kiln House. My solo career had been dumped quickly, and I was housewifing again. I watched the group rehearse every day. After the album Kiln House was released it took off in America, and the four guys were scheduled to tour, and decided they needed another musician. And they all looked at me. And they said, “You know all the songs. You’ve heard us rehearse every day.” And ten days later I was playing my first gig with Fleetwood Mac in America. They’d never had a keyboard before, although I did do some sessions with them on Then Play On and other albums. I’d met them in the first place from always being on the same bills with them. We were like a big family even then. Mick’s like my brother.

Is that how you could stay on in Fleetwood Mac with John after your marriage broke up?

Yeah. At the time, the band was at the pinnacle of their career, and we had a certain responsibility not to break that up for “anything as trivial as a divorce.” For a year or so it was tricky, but we worked it out. Now we’re really good friends. I’m glad we salvaged the friendship instead of letting seven years of marriage just go down. John and I just spent too much time in each other’s pockets. It’s pressure, being in the public eye. When people get married they can live in a house with more than one room. But on tour you’re in a hotel room together, you leave the hotel together, you drive together, eat together, sit on the plane next to each other. You’re like Siamese twins.

Does John still know you the best, of your friends?

No. Not anymore. We’re very good friends, but…he lives in the Virgin Islands now so we spend a lot of time on the phone. I have closer friends, I would say.

Do you think you’re any easy person to get to know?

Well. I have this mask of aloofness, which really isn’t aloofness, but shyness. Once you get over that, I’m easy to know. I have a reputation as the easiest member of Fleetwood Mac to know. But people have told me they thought I was stuck up. It’s a kind of protective shell I have, English reserve or whatever. I was in Tower Records in San Francisco a few weeks ago, buying some cassettes, and a couple of people recognized me and ran up with albums and I just wanted to cover my face and have a seizure or something. I want people to just go away.

Fleetwood Mac doesn’t get much credit as musicians or arrangers, it seems. John and Mick are one of the greatest rhythm sections ever, but they don’t pop up on lists like Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney or Keith Moon do.

John is a classic bass player. He says everyone thinks they can play bass, ‘cause you can pick it up and do something. But the selection of notes, and when not to play, is very important. Lead guitarists pick up bass and are busy busy busy. But to pick the right note to go with a kick drum is difficult.

Mick was interviewed for the MTV special about the recording of my album, and he said he can’t play with any other keyboard player. “Chris presents something of a problem,” he said. I’m not a virtuoso, but I have a style which is rooted through the bass and drums. I leave room for the guitarists. I like that, it’s solid. I don’t solo much, and I don’t do those twiddly bits with my right hand. I’m back there with the rhythm, part of a rich foundation. You need that foundation. If I was to take more solos, stick knives between the keys or something, I’d get more credit, but I’m just not that type of player.

You’ve said you co-wrote material for your solo album, and did other people’s songs, because you felt an album entirely of Christine McVie songs might be boring. I’m not sure what you mean.

Self-indulgent is more correct. A solo album…it was more important to me that the content be exciting and innovative than it just be…mine. There was an injection of freshness because I did allow other songwriters in. I wanted exciting songs.

This isn’t just another way of hiding?

It’s not a question of hiding. I wanted to sing, and I’ve never sung better. I didn’t care who wrote the songs.

When I met Todd Sharp years ago, while he was playing with Bob Welch, he struck me as an incredible perfectionist, doing solos over and over. Is he like that to write with too?

He’s better now than he used to be. He and George Hawkins, my bass player, went to Ghana with Mick, and Mick said, “Todd’s great, but he takes a bloody long time to do anything!” But I found it quite the contrary. We did all the demos and zipped right through. We did a lot of preliminary work before going to Montreux. This album only took three months of studio time to record.

That still seems like an awfully long time.

Not compared to Fleetwood Mac taking a year. We would go in the studio on Tusk five days a week. Sometimes we’d just sit around and chat, waste studio time and lots of money. But there’s a lot that goes into the making of even one cut on one record. You can spend days getting the right drum sound. And vocals take a long time; you can’t just do one take and it’s perfect. I sang well on this album, so we didn’t have to combine various takes as much, like Russ Titelman is known to do.

When did you become a good singer, then?

Well, Mick always believed in my voice and encouraged me to write more, and I just got better over the years. My weak point used to be harmony singing. I just couldn’t keep in tune if someone else was singing. But Lindsey and Stevie really helped me and I find it relatively easy now. I love singing with Lindsey, we get such an interesting tone together.

Did you record anything for this album that didn’t get on?

There was a song that began as a studio jam, called “Too Much Is Not Enough,” a really good and raunchy rock and roll track, but I wasn’t satisfied with the vocal. If I do it over maybe it’ll be released as a B-side. That was the only thing we recorded and didn’t use. We didn’t over-record like some bands do; we were very compact.

I have heard that Stevie Nicks sometimes saves songs for her solo albums and won’t let them appear on Fleetwood Mac albums. Have you ever done that?

No. I write for projects when they come up. I have a thick book of unused lyrics, unfinished melodies. When a project arrives, I begin work. I don’t separate my work with the band from this solo project. I’m sure the group could have recorded any of these, and they would have if the Fleetwood Mac project had come up at this time. I don’t have any finished songs lying around.

Tusk is one of your favorite Mac albums, isn’t it?

Yes. Lindsey really dominates that one. He wanted to do something different, although we all enjoyed the success of Rumours obviously. Lindsey recorded a lot of it at his home studio, without any of us at all on certain tracks. I think if he hadn’t worked on Tusk so hard he would have left the group and gone solo then, the way he was feeling. We kept Lindsey in the band by letting him do his album within ours. He brought a lot to my songs, like the guitar in ‘Never Make Me Cry’. He enjoys working on other people’s songs. He’s a tremendous arranger, got a great imagination. Danny Kirwan was a great arranger too, even if he was King Neurotic. He was crazy for most of the time he was in Fleetwood Mac in the ‘70s. He was really difficult to work with, so paranoid. You constantly felt you had to accommodate him.

Now that you’ve got your own band, will you be touring?

We’ll go on the road with the addition of Billy Burnette and Eddy Qunitela. Mick Fleetwood really put this band together, and it’s a good one. I don’t know if Fleetwood Mac’s going to tour again. We’ll make another record, but we’ll have to see how the five personalities are getting on. The other night Mick and Lindsey were over and we realized that was the highest Mac count in some time. We’ve always done long tours, and personalities clash after such a long time. The Tusk tour was one year long. And it doesn’t matter if you go to exotic places, because Thailand is just like Chicago if the only thing you see is the hotel and the hall. These long tours are like being married to four people at once. I think we’re getting a little old for that. They’ll be carrying us off the planes on stretchers if we’re not careful!

© Mark Leviton / BAM / March 9, 1984



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