Return of the Native
By Mark Ellen
Word Magazine
July 2003

Christine McVie was hoovered up by a "band of gypsies" in 1970, saw the best and very worst of what success could bring, and retired from the Fleetwood Mac gilded cage 27 years later to live in some splendour by The Thames. Mark Ellen helps her reminisce

What a strange little slideshow we’re getting this afternoon, image after image of madness and tensions and glory: Here’s just a few of them--Christine McVie living at John Mayall’s house in L.A. where the “Brain Damage Club” held its regular meetings; successful members were those who jumped off the third-floor balcony into the pool below without sustaining a head injury. McVie stuffed full of drugs in a tiny studio recording Rumours with the husband she was divorcing--along with a guitarist and singer who were divorcing each other, and a drummer who was getting divorced. McVie, with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty behind her, inviting the new President to step onstage from behind his bullet-proof screen at Clinton’s Inauguration Ball before leading the band into Don’t Stop (which she now reflects should have been Little Lies). McVie being called the night before her wedding by Peter Green, with whom she was infatuated, to be told that it wasn’t too late to think again. McVie as the stabilizing girlfriend through the spiralling decline of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. “My secretary called me up and said ‘Dennis has drowned’, “ she remembers, “and I said, Ooh God, is he alright? Shock, I suppose.”

All of these stories have one thing in common: you can’t imagine them happening to Christine McVie. She may come across as The Groovy Aunt at the family gathering, but the only real clues as to her last 40 years’ employment are this unimaginably costly box-of-glass apartment on the south bank of the Thames -- its gold-leafed books and rolled hand-towels suggesting hotel suite more than home -- and her rock’n’roll shoes, shiny silver and purple trainers with those little plastic toggles. She’s that rare breed of musician who can enter a room without you noticing. She’s not a member of the frontline, the preserve of attention-seeking singers and garrulous guitarists, nor really a member of the backline, characterised by I’ve-had-a-drink-me drummers. She occupied a dimly-lit middle ground, stationary, almost anonymous, just the way she liked it. And how perfectly the five members of Fleetwood Mac would blend on stage, the American starchildren (Buckingham and Nicks) riding the well-oiled chassis of the English rhythm section, the two-metre bearded loon Mick Fleetwood on drums, the cap-sporting manual labourer John McVie on bass, and this dark-eyed and dependable Brummie stoking the engine from the keyboard.

The long-running “band of gypsies” that hoovered her up in 1970 seems to have left her virtually unscathed. She pads silently across the plump carpets talking about the 16th century house she’s restoring in Canterbury -- “beams akimbo” -- and its 2- acres of farmland, an operation still funded by the endless thud of royalty checques through her probably rather ornate letterbox (any variations on the theme ‘how much do you earn/’ are met with same unanswering mantra: “I do very well, thank you”). She bowed out of Fleetwood back after their BRIT Awards performance in 1997 and effectively retired from the business. She never really meant to make the new solo album she’s now releasing seven years later, it’s just the inevitable result of installing a Pro Tools home studio and having a neighbouring nephew who plays the guitar.

I can still see her now on the back of the first long-playing record I ever bought, Forty Blue Fingers Freshly Packed And Ready To Serve by Chicken Shack. There she was--tough, unsmiling, immensely cool and fanciable--alongside the leering Gollum-like countenance of Stan Webb and two other seedy-looking beatniks. As ever, the charts at the time were knee-deep in female stars - Lulu, Cilla, Dusty, Pet Clark - but in the British rock underground there were only two girls: Julie Driscoll and Christine Perfect. You wondered how she survived in this man-made world, the 24 year-old daughter of a faith-healer and college professor stuck in some rank old transit van with Chicken Shack, yet 30 years later the unsung story of this brilliant blues torch-singer was only just winding down. In fact it’s just come back for an encore.

“You did have to be tough,” she reflects. “A Transit on the M1 on the way home with five fellas after a couple of eggburgers, not too much fun I can tell you, but in a sense it was quite nice. They spoilt me. They took care of me. If you’re the only girl in a band, humping your own equipment around, trying to make ends meet, you do tend to get pampered.:

She first came down to London aged 15 with a schoolfriend, a textbook romantic picture of how musicians could get a break in the late ‘50s. They sold their parents some old yard about staying at each others’ houses, took the train out of Birmingham, arrived at the zi’s coffee bar in Soho, changed into their uniforms -- little red sweaters and matching black skirts--and managed to get put on before The Shadows, playing their Everly Brothers songs on acoustic guitars. She began copying the trademarks of Freddie King’s keyboard wizard Sonny Thompson and soon joined Sounds Of Blue on piano, along with the future Traffic sax player Chris Wood. Chicken Shack offered her a free transfer and, inevitably, they soon found themselves supporting the fast-rising and uniquely imaginative British blues pioneers Fleetwood Mac.

“Funny guys,” she remembers fondly, “really great and funny guys. Peter Green was a cocky bugger and disarmingly charming. He was the one that really attracted me first. Jeremy Spencer was vulgar and rude but funny. Used to come onstage and do things with a...well, you know,” she wrinkles her nose leaving me to supply the missing word ‘dildo’. “He used to do impersonations of Cliff and Elvis, Viva Las Vegas in a gold suit. Mick Fleetwood I was terrified of, so tall and thin and imposing. He gave the impression of being quite haughty but he’s just a puppy really, and I liked John [McVie]. But it was Peter I really liked in the beginning. When John and I decided to get married Peter rang me the night before and said ‘Don’t do it, you hardly know the guy’. I never told him I fancied him, I’m not that kind of girl! And he never said if he fancied me. You’d have to ask him.”

For the underground, as she still calls it, there was only one way to bring your music to the people. Scarcely a single radio programme would touch you, you only appeared on TV if you had a hit, and you only got a hit by playing any-fog-filled barroom where a load of heads in trenchcoats were prepared to stump up two-and-six to support you. She remembers Freddie King helping change a tyre on their old Commer van as they trundled round the club circuit, a silk bandana round his head to keep his hair looking sharp. There was a magical moment when a record would get airplay and the act would suddenly appear on Top Of The Pops, often without you having the faintest clue as to what they actually looked like. Such was the fate of Fleetwood Mac. “People had heard Albatross and just naturally imagined they were going to look like The Shadows, and then were astonished to turn on the television and find these long-haired beatnik types.”

Peter Green, of course, left the group soon after, one of the saddest and most mythologised exits in living memory, a symbol of the collision between the naive and idealistic young evangelists and an industry sensing no limit to the profit margins rock music could offer. Green told me once, in agonising detail, the story of the acid trip in Germany that caused him permanent mental damage, to the extent that he used a pistol to try and persuade his accountant not to send him any more money after receiving a royalty checque for a then-staggering 30,000. Contracted to record and tour regardless, Fleetwood Mac asked McVie to join them and they started back in New Orleans only nine days later.

The group lumbered on from pillar to post before Fleetwood was offered studio time by a producer who’d just finished recording the duo Buckingham Nicks. In a brilliant manoeuvre part strategy, part sheer good fortune on both sides -- they asked their guitarist Lindsey Buckingham to join them, who insisted his girlfriend came as part of the package. McVie still finds it hard to explain the degree of victory they achieved, Rumours alone selling 20,000 copies a week, for months on end with its world total currently standing at some 26 million. It’s partly she believes because, even pre-iPod, few people could take a whole album by one act, but they liked the diversity of three completely different songwriters and singers all framed in the comforting soundbed of the same rhythm section. When I ask her why she always kept refining the same type of song, her answer is so honest it ought to be carved on tablets of stone and extended any one of a hundred pop songwriters operating beyond their capabilities, starting with George Michael. “I can’t write about racial prejudice and, you know, Ban The Bomb,” she shrugs. “I can’t do heavy messages in music. I’ve tried and never even recorded them. I sound like a pretentious twot. I write relationship songs. I just don’t know how to write anything else.”

The years that followed have merged into one huge psychedelic haze. What did it look like, I wonder, success on such a monumental scale? she narrows her eyes and peers out across the river, eventually downloading a picture of the group in the late ‘70s playing with Peter Frampton at some gigantic San Francisco open-air festival. “So many people,” she says squinting into the light, “probably a hundred thousand of them, incredible pixilated images of little tiny dots of colour.” Fleetwood Mac’s saga came to embody both the best and the very worst of what success could deliver you, a long sleek limousine ride plagued with engine trouble and the occasional head-on collision.

The death of her boyfriend Dennis Wilson was a case in point. Having invited the illiterate ex-con pimp and burglar Charles Manson and his tribe to live in his empty house and to leech off his bank account, the boorish Beach Boys drug-hoover began orchestrating group sex soirees and taking every narcotic then available on the planet. This is how the died in 1983: swimming off his yacht moored at Marina Del Rey, Wilson drank the best part of a bottle of vodka to try and insulate himself against the 58 degree tide. As he dived he realised the seabed was littered with his own possessions, thrown from this very mooring during a domestic with his second wife some years before. He appeared out of the swell clutching a cracked and mud-stained framed photograph of himself with the girl in question, plunged back down, reappeared briefly as a ghostly figure swimming two feet below the surface, and was never seen alive again. His body was found on the ocean floor 45 minutes later. It’s pretty hard for an outsider to see why this man was so attractive.

“Well we’d split up before all that but yes, obviously, I’ve had to ask myself the same question. Why do people stay with people? ‘Cos they love them, I guess. And I loved him for a while. he was very charismatic, great looking, very charming, very cute -- if you can call a guy with a beard and voice like Satan’cute’. He used to draw people into his life, strangers off planes and off the streets, and they’d become his best friends. I think I mothered him, to be honest. He used to go off and I wouldn’t see him for days, and days, and then he’d come back and I’d mother him and get him all nice and sober and then he’d go off and go crazy again. It’s one of those things. Opposites attract.”

You can imagine why she felt like coming home to rural Canterbury in the end, but the drug musicians claim is the hardest to forsake is the soul-feeding sound of applause. How much do you have to hate the life around the music to give up the music itself?

“For some people that is their life, to get on those boards and have the light shining on them, and some people never even reach that point. But for me the day had come. I hated the L.A. earthquake, I hated living out of a suitcase, I hated flying -- I mean how many paranoias do you want? There were tiny moments onstage when you’d get that feeling of magic but otherwise you were just going through the motions. I just started to feel a little dizzy under the lights, to be honest. The vibration of the boards, the volume and the heat, they started to make me feel a little unwell. I’d just had enough. I just didn’t want to have any of that noise any more.”