(Rex Features)
Home » ‘We were never too stoned to play’ Fleetwood Mac: the comeback interview

‘We were never too stoned to play’ Fleetwood Mac: the comeback interview

(Rex Features)
(Rex Features)

The Mac are back, with live shows, songs and a re-release. Will Hodgkinson meets Mick Fleetwood and Christine McVie

It is 36 years since Rumours, the soft-rock masterpiece by Fleetwood Mac, became the soundtrack to separation. Songs such as Go Your Own Way, The Chain and You Make Loving Fun articulated the new rules of relationships for the baby boom generation, capturing the reality of affairs, tensions, betrayals and break-ups and selling more than 40 million copies in the process. For much of the 1980s, arguing over who got the copy of Rumours was as much a part of divorce as lawyer’s fees and pretending to like each other in front of the kids.

Rumours hit a nerve because it came from a place of truth. Fleetwood Mac’s keyboardist Christine McVie was divorcing its bassist John McVie. The singer Stevie Nicks was splitting with her childhood sweetheart, the band’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. Stuck somewhere in the middle was the drummer Mick Fleetwood, who was recently divorced from his wife. Everyone dealt with the situation in the only way rock stars in the 1970s knew how: by taking huge amounts of cocaine.

It should have ended there, but as Fleetwood says, “Rumours is the thing that would not go away.” While the album has just gone back into the Top Three, four of the band members are putting aside the pain of the past and, in one of the biggest break up and make up stories of all time, getting ready to go out on the road again for a world tour. Only Christine McVie, who left the band in 1998, is staying away. She’s been leading a reclusive, distinctly non-rock’n’roll life in a Kent farmhouse ever since, having no involvement with Fleetwood Mac and never giving interviews — until now.

“We were very hedonistic,” says McVie, recalling the band’s reputation for excess in the fond manner of someone remembering high jinks at school. “But it was always fun because we never got into heroin or anything like that. If you got too high you had a drink, and if you got too drunk you had another line of coke. We did that every night until three or four in the morning. It was different back then. Once you made it you were completely nurtured in this little world.”

Why did she leave the band? “After I took my 95,000th flight something snapped. I became terrified of flying and I couldn’t face living out of a suitcase any more.”

So it comes as a further surprise to hear that, two days after our interview, she’s flying to Fleetwood’s house in Maui, Hawaii, before traveling to Los Angeles to meet the rest of the band as they rehearse for a world tour.

“No, no, no,” says Mick Fleetwood, the band’s genial, pony-tailed giant of a drummer, when I ask him if McVie will actually return to complete Rumour’s two-warring-couples dynamic that, in Buckingham’s words, “brought out the voyeur in everyone.” “We love her, we miss her, but no. She’s left. Still, she’s a huge part of our story and I certainly hope that when we tour in September and October she makes one little excursion to a gig.”

The fact that Rumours continues to fascinate is not simply down to the quality of the music, although the clean-cut sonic perfection and lyrical seduction of songs such as The Chain and Don’t Stop is too tasty to resist. It’s also because this is a story yet to be completed. And what a story it is.

The Fleetwood Mac of Rumours began in 1974, when, having been hugely successful figures in the late Sixties British blues boom, the band were in trouble. Founder Peter Green, briefly mooted as the greatest guitarist of his generation, developed schizophrenia and left in 1970 after saying he wanted to give all the band’s money to charity. The following year the Mac’s second guitarist Jeremy Spencer popped out before a gig in Los Angeles to buy a magazine and never came back. His band members later discovered he had joined the Children Of God cult. There was even a fake Fleetwood Mac out on the road, put together by the band’s manager. Fleetwood suggested to the McVies that they take a drastic step to cure their ills: move to California.

“We had been successful and now we weren’t,” Fleetwood says. “Nothing was happening. But Peter Green had an incredibly generous principle, which was that you could bring new people into the band and allow them to be themselves rather than tell them what to do. That saved Fleetwood Mac.”

Fleetwood was in the Laurel Canyon Country Store in the Hollywood Hills, doing his weekly shopping, when he bumped into an LA scenester he vaguely knew. “This guy had a job hustling people to work in a studio called Sound City, so I put the groceries in the back of my beat-up old Cadillac and drove down there with him. The producer Keith Olsen played me two tracks from an album he had recorded by a duo called Buckingham Nicks, just to demonstrate the [studio’s recording quality]. Next day I called Keith and said: ‘You know that tape you played?’ ”

Buckingham was a broodingly handsome, intensely creative guitarist and songwriter from Palo Alto, California. Nicks, his girlfriend since high school, was a strikingly beautiful singer with a gypsy glamour and a drawled, girlish vocal style. Together they captured a very Californian take on the hippy dream: narcissistic, slightly cosmic, but sophisticated. The album, Buckingham Nicks, bombed, making Fleetwood’s offer of joining Fleetwood Mac at a wage of £300 a week particularly appealing for Nicks, who was supporting the couple by working as a waitress and cleaner.

“Lindsey didn’t actually want to join,” Fleetwood says. “He was on his own creative quest with Buckingham Nicks, he’s never been commercially minded, and while Stevie has always been a great band member Lindsey struggles with it. She convinced him that they should dump what they were doing and put all their ideas into Fleetwood Mac, that it was a way to make a bit of money, and if they didn’t like it they could always leave. I didn’t know that at the time.”

“Mick was wise,” Christine McVie says. “He told me that if I didn’t like Stevie we wouldn’t get them in the band because he knew that having two women that didn’t get along would be a nightmare. We all met at Mick’s flat, and Stevie and I were so completely different from each other that we got along fine. I was intimidated by the quality of the songs on Buckingham Nicks. It made me get my skates on.”

What followed was not just huge success, but the beginning of the most compelling soap opera in the history of pop. The new line-up had a major hit with Fleetwood Mac in 1975, but by the following year, when Fleetwood Mac went into the studio to record what would become Rumours, the couples in the band were in trouble. Nicks addressed her situation in the reflective, affectionate Dreams, which suggests that Buckingham will come back to her when loneliness hits. Buckingham responded with the dismissive Go Your Own Way, the inference being that Nicks should suit action to the title.

“The atmosphere in the studio was … charged,” says Fleetwood, an understatement that speaks volumes. “Here were people who loved each other but couldn’t be together, and it translated into a mutant form of fear and loathing. It was awkward, because you don’t normally spend time with someone at the beginning of a break-up. Recording the album was like divorced parents trying to do the right thing for their children, and our child was Fleetwood Mac. We put in a heroic effort to keep it together.”

“All of these great songs were coming out of a very trying period and none of us wanted to ruin that,” adds Christine McVie, who wrote You Make Loving Fun, Songbird and Don’t Stop at the height of the turmoil. “John and I would create an icy silence that everyone was aware of, Stevie and Lindsey would be screaming at each other on the other side of the room. Even when the nightmarish hell of the two couples was at its absolute worst we knew we were capturing what we were all thinking about. It’s why the truth of the emotions on Rumours jumps out of the grooves.”

Then there was the cocaine. “I didn’t even know what cocaine was until I went to Los Angeles,” says Fleetwood who, according to other band members, made up for lost time with astonishing enthusiasm. “Yes, we were wild and crazy, but we worked incredibly hard, which is always the case with the bands that have survived. We were never too stoned to play.”

Fleetwood Mac survived in spite of all the things — success, excess, money, broken romances, affairs — usually guaranteed to pull a band apart. Fleetwood puts it down to the fact that they made their biggest album without a manager. “A manager would have taken one look at Stevie and said: ‘What are you doing with these guys?’ You’re the star.”

Now the band has recorded eight new Buckingham songs — there are suggestions of an album release for 2014 — and are gearing up for their world tour. This is in spite of Buckingham still being reticent about giving up his solo career for the band, almost 40 years after Nicks first convinced him to do it. “When I spoke to Lindsey about getting the band together last year he said: ‘Don’t give me that Mick push, that guilt thing you do,’ ” Fleetwood says. “Stevie was off on her never-ending solo tour and I was coming to terms with the fact that it might be time to let go. Then Lindsey called up. Now concerts are selling out, people are excited and something is happening. We’d better get our shit together.”

It doesn’t take a relationships expert to work out that some issues remain unresolved. In 2009 Nicks told an interviewer from MTV “that electric crazy attraction between Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks never dies, never will die, never will go away”. Whether Buckingham, now married with three children, agrees with her is debatable, but the emotional high point of a Fleetwood Mac concert is when Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham walk to the front of the stage with hands clasped together. So what if they disappear into separate limousines afterwards? The drama and intrigue behind those perfectly formed songs of love and heartbreak on Rumours is far from over. Perhaps it never will be.

Fleetwood Mac play Dublin, London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow in September and October. Presale tickets for the gig at the O2 Arena, London, go on sale today through ticketmaster.co.uk

Will Hodgkinson / The Times (UK) / Thursday, February 7, 2013

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