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Fleetwood Mac: Dirty dancing

Fleetwood Mac swap partners for tango tour. It has been twenty years since Fleetwood Mac formed as a blues quartet, and long-time member Lindsey Buckingham celebrated the anniversary by leaving the group. As the group begins a new tour with two new members, Stevie Nicks is still fuming.

Fleetwood Mac swap partners for tango tour.

Newest members Billy Burnette and Rick Vito rehearse for Fleetwood Mac’s Shake the Cage tour. (Corbis)

IT HAS been twenty years since Fleetwood Mac formed as a blues quartet, and long-time member Lindsey Buckingham celebrated the anniversary by leaving the group. As the group begins a new tour with two new members, Stevie Nicks is still fuming.

When Lindsey Buckingham announced his departure from Fleetwood Mac in mid-August, he threw the band’s future into doubt. “A lot of people probably expected us to do the old roll over on your back trick,” recalls Mick Fleetwood.

“What were we supposed to do?” asks Stevie Nicks, “Lindsey left. So did that mean we were done? No. Why should the rest of us quit just because of him?”

Mick adds, “Rather than shut down, we decided to press on and get out on the road.”

Tango in the Night, their first album in five years, was selling briskly; it recently passed the one million mark. There was every indication, then, that a Fleetwood Mac audience still existed. But who was going to fill Buckingham’s shoes on stage? “We did not hold auditions or anything,” answers Fleetwood. “I have been working with Billy [Brunette] – he played guitar with my [solo] group Zoo and had done some writing with Christine [McVie]. But he is not a lead guitar player, he is a great rhythm player and singer and writer, but he is not a lead man. So I also rung up Rick [Vito, who had previously played lead guitar with John McVie and John Mayall, as well as Jackson Browne and Bob Segar].”

Vito remembers, “I devoted a couple of days to learning the material. After I played with the band for a few hours, I think it was obvious it was gelling. I realized this could be fun and pretty great. But this chance…it was not something I would have sat down and thought about as being in my future.”

But both Vito and Burnette, introduced as permanent members at an August 18 press conference, are very much a part of Fleetwood Mac’s future. “The group will be my first priority,” says Burnette, who released an engaging solo album last year and is the son of 50’s rocker Dorsey Burnette. “I will continue to write on my own, but how much will depend on what they want to do.” After a brief pause he corrects himself: “I mean what we want to do.”

“Good answer,” snickers Stevie Nicks, seated next to him at a large conference table. The other members of Fleetwood Mac are there too. Seeing them all together in one room — an extremely rare occurrence away from the studio or concert halls — it is hard to ignore the magical aura they still project. They look like stars.

There is Stevie’s charming, impish smile, Mick’s rolling, Marty Feldman-eyes, Christine’s glimmering sapphire eyes, and John’s distinguished-looking salt and pepper stubble. Even Burnette and Vito could pass for daytime soap opera actors. Yet it is easy to understand how the guitarists, having only rehearsed with the band for a couple of weeks, could still feel like outsiders. But Nicks stresses, “They are not just fill-in guys. They are in the group. And everybody is playing as one unit now. Neither Billy nor Rick are freaking out on stage trying to get all their licks in.”

While it might seem odd that Buckingham was replaced by two guitarists, this move actually brings Fleetwood Mac closer to its original instrumental format. When the group was formed in England back in 1967, guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer worked in tandem with the enduring Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass) rhythm section. A year later, Danny Kirwan was brought on board as a third guitarist.

This process shaped the bluesy sound of Fleetwood Mac, says singer/keyboardist Christine McVie, who officially joined the group in 1971. “When Californians Bob Welch, Bob Weston, then Buckingham eventually filled the guitarists spot, the groups sound, not surprisingly, shifted into more of a pop direction.” Christine believes, “I can now see us getting back to more of a blues thing. Rick…I do not want to say he is like Peter Green, but he plays wonderful blues a la Peter. And Billy’s got this great hard, driving voice. So we have definitely got a whole new can of beans here.”

This represents the first personnel change in Fleetwood Mac since 1975 when Buckingham and Nicks (formerly a duo act) joined up and helped catapult the band into American superstar territory. The albums Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, featuring such songs as “Rhiannon,” “Say You Love Me” and “Dreams” (the group’s first number one single), topped Billboard charts. And Rumours, which has now sold over 20 million copies worldwide, held the number one spot for 31 weeks (a record surpassed only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller) in 1977.

Mick reflects, “We had already been a highly successful band in England. In 1969, you could not get any bigger than we were over there. We did not reach that level in America until eight years later. But we could see it coming. It is not like we were a bunch of 18-year-old kids that had just put a band together and boom! and we have an album go through the ceiling. We were prepared and could deal with the inevitable comments like, Ah, look at you now, you have gone commercial on us.”

“When Lindsey and Stevie joined up,” says Christine, “we did not consciously alter our sound, but at the same time, I thought, Hmmm. I think this is something special we have got here.”

Stevie says, “The very first big concert I played with Fleetwood Mac, at the Oakland Coliseum with Peter Frampton [in 1976], I couldn’t believe all those people were out there. We were not famous. The record [Fleetwood Mac] had just come out. We hit the road. Then, within three months, we were all famous and on our way with the hits.”

Rather than follow up this commercial well-spring with similar material, the band unveiled an ambitious double-record set called Tusk in 1979. Filled with both conventional pop and adventurous percussion-dominated tracks, it cemented Lindsey Buckingham’s role as the group’s arranger/producer/musical director. He continued in this capacity for Fleetwood Mac Live (released in December 1980), Mirage (June 1982) and Tango in the Night (April, 1987).

Christine admits, “Lindsey and [co-producer] Richard [Dashut] were at the fore, without question, when it came to the ideas and the sound and the production. And they were very good at it. Of course, one has to say, nothing went on the albums that the rest of us did not like. If anything got a bit too left wing, which it might have in certain cases, I definitely would have put my foot down and said, Wait a minute lads.”

1987 Fleetwood Mac Tango in the Night
Press photo of Fleetwood Mac just prior to guitarist Lindsey Buckingham’s (middle) departure from the band in August 1987.

Stevie Nicks, whose stormy relationship with Buckingham has been well-documented, offers a different viewpoint. “In the studio, if Lindsey said the wall was gray, I will be absolutely sure it was pink. In order to get one of my songs on a record I will have to say, OK, the wall is gray, Lindsey. Otherwise, it was the back of the bus. Now this has nothing to do with the other members of Fleetwood Mac, who, from the beginning, have always been lovely to me, have always known how important my songs are to me, whereas, with Lindsey, he would rather I just stayed at home doing laundry. We are talking about a man who was in love with a woman and would just as soon she had faded out and just been his old lady or wife. Period.”

“Whooo,” sighs Christine after a full five seconds of silence. Mick interjects, “That situation changed somewhat, in my opinion.”

Stevie narrows her eyes and says, “Not when it came down to the real thing. Uh uh. Never changed.” When she launched her solo career in 1981 with the release of Bella Donna, Stevie admits, “There was a part of me that was saying, ‘See, I can do it myself. I do not need you every second to do everything for me.’”

On her first solo tour, however, she remembers, “In Houston, in front of 12,000 people, when they said, “Welcome, Stevie Nicks; I turned around and looked for Mick and Chris and John and could not believe I was walking out there by myself. I will do a song, then instead of being able to saunter off, have a touch-up done on my make-up, have my hair fluffed, and put on a different jacket, then saunter back on, I will hear, Hey, this ship is gonna sink if you go in there for five minutes! So I ran around on stage in circles for a couple of weeks.” Stevie adds, “I would just as soon not be the captain. I never liked being responsible for everything. Too much time is wasted handling problems that have nothing to do with music. Basically, I do not like being a businesswoman, which is what I have to be when I am on my own. Again, the only reason I started a solo career is because I wanted to do more of my songs. I will much rather work within Fleetwood Mac.”

Christine McVie echoes this sentiment, “I was never too keen on the idea of a solo thing,” she says. “I do not enjoy the pressure of being the only one up there who everybody looks to for leadership. I like being part of a group. But the time was trickling on by and [in 1983] I could see Fleetwood Mac was not going to be happening for a while, so I did an album [Christine McVie] and a tour [in 1984]. That was hard work. I had to do my own make-up and the whole bit. My make-up used to run down my face and by the end of the night, it was horrific. So no, I would not want to tour [solo] again. My life, musically speaking, has always been Fleetwood Mac — at least for the last 20 years — and I have enjoyed it thoroughly.”

It is doubtful anyone could have been happier to return to the Mac family than Mick Fleetwood. While he kept busy working with his side band, Zoo, and gave acting a shot, Fleetwood also ran into financial difficulties and had to file for bankruptcy. but the even-tempered drummer managed to keep his life together. Says Christine: “Mick is like the daddy for us all and he always sort of has been.” John McVie adds, “Musically, Mick is my first lock in.” “John and Mick,” Christine concludes, “they are the old backbone of the group.”

By his own admission, John needed a little support himself earlier this decade. Before the Tango in the Night sessions began in 1985, John’s life was dominated by a drinking problem — which he has since recovered from. Christine says, “He is really doing wonderfully now. But he is not the type of person who enjoys talking about himself. Like a great many rock bass players, he prefers to remain in the background. By nature,” says Christine, “John’s a very quiet, private person. He likes to read and keep to himself. On stage and in the studio, he is always so steady, he never loses the groove. On the last record, he played amazingly.”

Listening to Tango, the entire band appeared to be reaching frequent musical peaks. Stevie has never sounded better. (During “When I See You Again,” she sings the word baby about ten different ways). Christine’s “Little Lies,” the current Top 20 single, is poetic whimsy at its best. As for Lindsey Buckingham, he not only arranged and produced the record, but had a hand in writing seven of its 12 tracks. He sings so forcefully (particularly throughout Tango in the Night), plays guitar with such vigor and assurance, and seems to bring out the strengths of everyone around him, it is tough to figure how he could just walk away.

“During the sessions,” recalls Christine, “we sensed this was probably the last thing Lindsey would do with us. It was sort of said, but not said, you know? He admitted his solo career was becoming his priority. But by the end of the album, he did sort of agree to tour, then at the eleventh hour, he just pulled out, saying that he simply could not cope with it.”

Here is Lindsey’s statement, issued through his manager. “In 1985, I was working on my third solo album when the band came to me and asked me to produce the next Fleetwood Mac project. At that point, I put aside my solo work, which was half-finished, and committed myself for the next 17 months to produce Tango in the Night. It was always our understanding that upon completion of the Tango album I would return to my solo work. Of course I wish them all the success in the world on the road.”

Christine reveals, “Whenever we played live, Lindsey always did it sort of under sufferance. He simply does not like touring. He would just as soon stay in the studio. And that just is not the case with the rest of us.”

Buckingham chose not to respond further on his departure from Fleetwood Mac, and is now in the process of finishing up a solo project. He has also been in the studio as a producer for the Dream Academy and Brian Wilson.

“I have nothing but respect for Lindsey and what he is doing,” says Christine. “He was never less than honest with us. And after 12 years in the band, it must have been something of a wrench for him [to leave]. But if someone is not happy, then nobody is happy. I think his decision was best for everyone who is concerned.”

During rehearsals for the current Shake The Cage Tour, Mick says, “It felt good to be playing again and the songs came together rather fast. Before out last tour [the three-month Mirage Tour in ‘82] a lot of time was spent cogitating, then we will creep up onstage and play a bit. Now we seem to be much more focused, there are no distractions and the onus is on the band vs. the individual. I am all for solo projects, but when they create these long time lapses, everyone gets jittery. I mean, Fleetwood Mac used to be road dogs. So when we have a gap like this last one….over five years…”

“It makes you feel like you do not have a job,” says Stevie. With Fleetwood Mac touring schedule set to cover America this fall and include dates in Australia and Europe next year, she should not have to worry about checking the classifieds for a while. And she can put her solo career on hold indefinitely. That is not a problem Stevie says. “I can not think of nicer, more talented people to work with. I look forward to seeing them. I really do. For me, this is a pleasure thing. It makes everything else all right.”

1987 marks Fleetwood Mac’s 20th Anniversary, so it is surprising that the band (or their record company, Warner Bros.) has not made a bigger deal over the milestone. But as Mick points out, “Besides me and John, there have been so many different players.”

Stevie admits, “I have never met half the people who used to be in the band.”

“But the odds of seeing a grand anniversary celebration on stage is highly unlikely,” says Mick. “It might be fairly bizarre, though. I guess we could have then called this The Rolex Tour. but we have got enough going on without taking time out to look back. We are touring to establish the band as it is now.”

In the wake of Fleetwood Mac’s personnel shuffle, one has to wonder how it affected the balance of power within the band.

“What power?” asks Christine. “No one is coming out as a kind of boss. I guess you could say Lindsey used to fill that role in the studio, and at some point I am sure someone else will emerge. Right now, I seem to be the one who is taking care of the primary business. And Mick, like I said, is the group’s daddy. But we really do not have one person who acts as boss. We all just sit around and mutually agree on things. It is hard to say what will happen in the studio. We will just have to wait and see.”

© Dave Zimmer / BAM / October 23, 1987



Stevie Nicks

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