Rock Express, June-July 1987

Flash Back Mac Attack

In which five very tolerant people pile into the Fleetwood to go cruisin' in the fast lane again

For twenty years, through personnel changes and musical shifts, through religious cults and exploding personal relationships, through phenomenal success and relative failure, there's always been a Fleetwood Mac. Most of the baby boom generation own at least one of their albums (likely 'Rumours'), everyone's heard their music and - love them or loathe them - we all know who they are. Especially since the arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, they've attained almost legendary status.

The titans have come together for the first time in five years to release an album title 'Tango In The Night' and, all rumors aside, there was no clash.

The history of Fleetwood Mac is long and complex but is probably most easily divided into three segments. The first phase, the Peter Green days, spanned roughly 1967 to 1969. At that time, three Bluesbreakers, guitarist Green, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, decided to form a group. With additional help from Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan, they recorded three albums, culminating with the pivotal Then Play On album.

During these years, the band achieved critical success, "musicians' musicians" cred and a devoted largely English following. But it was not to last. Just as speculation was focusing on the heights the band might possibly attain, Peter Green split, desiring concentrate on spiritual awareness rather than pop stardom.

So begins Phase Two (1970-1974). This was a liquid period for the band, adding and losing members at a rather astonishing rate. First addition was John's wife, Christine McVie, who contributed vocals and keyboards to their next album, Kiln House.

Then Jeremy Spencer dropped out - literally. Just as the band prepared for an extended engagement at the Whiskey A Go Go in L.A., Spencer disappeared. When he was finally located three days later, he'd cut his hair, changed his name, and joined the Children of God. Bye bye, Jeremy.

The band quickly added Bob Welch - "From what I understand," notes Lindsey Buckingham, "they never auditioned him. They just liked him so much he was asked to join." With Bob as guitarist/vocalist and Christine and Danny assuming more creative input, the band acquired a less bluesy, more pop-oriented, melodic sound which resulted in a mitt-full of albums like Future Games, Bare Trees, Penguin and Mystery to Me. Danny Kirwan left, leaving Bob and Christine as the major singers, songwriters, and musical idea people.

Coming through a nasty little bout of management problems, the band regrouped (again) to release Heros Are Hard To Find, which sold better than most of their previous albums, thanks to hard touring. Then Bob Welch left.

This brings us to 1975 - the third and ongoing segment of Fleetwood Mac's history. Bob Welch's rapid exit saw the band pared down to just the two McVies and Mick Fleetwood and they needed new blood. Enter Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and the most commercially successful period of the band's already lengthy career.

Lindsey Buckingham remembers, "I hadn't heard a lot of Fleetwood Mac until right when we were getting ready to join the band. That was not a real quick decision on our part. We had done one album for Polydor as Buckingham-Nicks. It wasn't that successful. We were disappointed, we thought it was a good record and I think it holds up pretty well now. But we were having to deal with a manager who wanted us to play steak houses in Los Angeles and record company types who wanted to change our music.

"But we'd picked ourselves up from that situation and regrouped, written new songs when the Fleetwood Mac thing came along. As we were mulling that over, we went out and bought all the Fleetwood Mac albums we hadn't heard. My awareness of the band was just the Peter Green stuff, which I think is still the best, really wonderful."

He stops, looking back over the years and whispers, "A lot of adapting to do... Sometimes I wonder about that. I reflect on what would have happened if we hadn't joined. Because I had to give up a lot of my style at that point, to adapt to what was already there. I had to go out there and play Bob Welch songs, which I hated doing - I felt like part of a lounge act. I had to give up even the kind of guitar I played. I liked to play a Telecaster but I couldn't because it didn't fit in with the piano, bass, drums sound that was already there.

"There were many lessons in adaptation but it worked out. I learned a lot, learned a lot from Mick especially," he concludes gratefully.

Mick Fleetwood agrees that flexibility has been key to the continued unity of the band. "I feel, and I know John does too, as players our job is very much to complement what the front line is doing. But in the same breath, you have to realize that they are confronted with the fact that whatever happens, me and John have a style together that is not going to go away."

He laughs when reminded of Lindsey's instrument switch. Adopting an exaggerated, smarmy accent, he instructs, "Lose the guitar, Lindsey. Lose the amp...

"Lindsey had a Fender and they're great amps you know, but it didn't cut it. It certainly wasn't a big deal, but he's right, your style is dictated by the sound you're meshing into. It's funny he should remember that."

Whatever chemistry clicked into place with the addition of Buckingham and Nicks, it was clearly what the commercial chiropractor ordered. Before they'd ever played together live, the new lineup was in the studio working on another album, simply entitled Fleetwood Mac, which proved outstandingly successful.

The tour, which quickly followed the album's release, saw Lindsey blossom into an assured, dynamic performer and the band jelled in surprisingly little time. Best of all, Stevie Nicks proved a captivating performer and they started winning over audiences at an astonishing rate. Three hit singles emerged from this first album of phase three - Rhiannon, Over My Head and Say You Love Me. While none of the previous albums had attained gold status, this one rapidly smashed the platinum barrier and kept on selling.

"I'll never be in another band like Fleetwood Mac," Stevie Nicks says breathlessly. "I feel lucky to have been found out of all those people, me and Lindsey, to be asked to join what we considered a very big band. We were rich and famous in six months - it was shocking. It was a Cinderella story and it really happened!

"I was really a waitress and cleaned house and did all sorts of things because what was Lindsey going to do? He was a guitarist! So, I did all those things. Then six months later, I had a lot of money, a great apartment, a car - I couldn't believe it!

"It's very surrealistic to stand back and look at it. I think a lot of people would have just gone crazy, 'cause it's really an adjustment. I went from absolute anonymity to the opposite overnight."

Then came Rumours, smashing sales records and selling something like 20 million copies worldwide since its release. Up there with Thriller, Carole King's Tapestry and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, it's among the rock era's biggest sellers. It remained at Number One for 31 weeks, in the last 20 years topped only by Thriller. It also won a Grammy for Album of the Year.

But this record was not merely a collection of songs; it was a diary of the disintegration of the personal lives of four of the five members in the band. Though Christine's songwriting didn't necessarily open a window to the world on her and John's marital troubles, Stevie and Lindsey let their hearts bleed on vinyl.

The public was fascinated - perhaps they bought the album out of morbid curiosity, perhaps they bought it for its palpable honesty. Whatever the reasons, everyone knew the band's personal lives were in trouble. The press picked at it like a scab and all and sundry speculated on their future.

"Both Stevie and myself, and John and Christine were in the process of breaking up while recording Rumours. That was an immediate thing that ended up being translated to vinyl.

"We've now put enough distance between that kind of hurt and those kind of situations now that we can look at it with perspective. We can now say, 'OK, we went through all those traumatic tumultuous trips. But we can see it and appreciate it for what it was and just get on with it.'

"At the time though, it was really difficult. Producing the Rumours album, I had to put all this set of feelings over in one corner of the room and another set in the other corner and it was not that easy."

Confounding speculation, the band did not split up. Instead, they thoroughly baffled everyone (including themselves) by coming back with the experimental double album, Tusk. With the word expecting them to answer the astounding success of Rumours with an album that capitalized on its forerunner's melodic pop sound, Lindsey Buckingham rebelled.

"The Tusk album was a rebellion against the machinery that was created by Rumours," Lindsey admits. "When the phenomenon of sales starts to outweigh the work, it's a danger zone. To me, you've always got to concentrate on the work, you've always got to improve yourself - stardom or no stardom, the craft is what's important.

"I mean, we were in this place - you know, the Michael Jackson zone - where the music was really secondary to being Number One. The Tusk album was a way to break that down. We didn't want to do Rumours II - or I didn't anyway."

Stevie adds, "Lindsey is absolutely against duplicating anything. So if he even thinks that people are gonna think he's trying to duplicate, he will go so far the other way. so the best thing to do with Lindsey is to not even remind him, so that he doesn't get too radical. 'Cause you know, he's just one of those men, he'll get totally radical. 'I'm not going to do anything like the last one, for my own cultural growth and the pursuit of art.'"

Tusk was Lindsey's baby and was, compared to Rumours, a stiff (four million sold to Rumours 20 mil). If anything, this brought the band closer to the precipice of breaking up than the personal problems did. Coming off the record breaking sales of Rumours, the band were disappointed in the public's reaction to the follow-up and blamed Lindsey for going too far in the opposite direction. Though they were behind him during the recording of the project, they made vocal their displeasure as sales reports started to come in.

"Oddly enough, no one in the band really made a judgment about it until it became apparent that it wasn't going to sell 16 million copies," Lindsey notes. "It was a double album, it sold something like five million copies - you can hardly call that unsuccessful. But it certainly confounded everyone's expectations - which is what it was meant to do.

"Once it became apparent that it wasn't going to be a massive commercial success, then the band members...Mick would say to me, 'Well we went too far, you blew it.' And it was very hurtful. We were out on the road and I'm going, 'Oh my god, how am I gonna react to this?' So, the Mirage album...there was a direct correlation between that pressure and that album.

"The one thing I felt bad about was that I had gone home and done all the songs on my own and I think that aspect of the process was a little hurtful to the other members of the group - that I wasn't there, that I was being selfish. So I said to myself, if I'm going to be in this group, I can't do that anymore."

In an attempt to recoup some of their lost commercial momentum, the band then recorded Mirage in 1982. But all are united in their assessment that this was their least impressive outing ever.

Christine notes, "The Mirage album seemed to be something that was expected of us at the time. It was a little superficial. We'd really only made four studio albums with this particular configuration of band members. Of all of them, I think Mirage is probably the weakest. After the huge success of Rumours - the phenomenon actually - and the complete swing to the left with Tusk, the making of Mirage was an effort to get back into the flow tat Rumours had, but we missed a very vital ingredient and that was the passion, the desire to do it."

Which brings us up to Tango In The Night, the first vinyl from Fleetwood Mac in five years. With such a tumultuous past behind them, this prolonged silence was fertile ground for all manner of rumor, speculation and wonder. Have they split up? Are they speaking to each other? What's going on?

But they are here in all their component parts to assure they never broke up, they're friends, they intend to keep making records together - forever, if practical.

More realistically, Stevie, John Mick and Christine say that. Lindsey's not quite so positive. There seems to be a separation between Buckingham and the rest of the band. While they speak of him in nothing but the most admiring, complimentary way, he seems to hold himself aloof.

"There's always been a sense of formality about what we do," he says. "There's always been a sense of go in and do the music but not necessarily hang out all the time. It's been that way since Stevie and I were in the band. You've got three English people and two Americans, so there's a certain cultural gap there anyway.

"It's a strange situation having broken up with someone 11 years ago and still work with them all the time. So I'm not going to be calling Stevie up and saying, 'Hey, how you doing?' so much. It's inherent in the situation.

"It's not like we don't speak with each other, but we never really did. When the work isn't happening, there's less reason."

So you don't consider each other buddies?

"Not so much," Lindsey says sadly. "I hate to say that, but that's accurate."

Perhaps Lindsey's rather remote stance is a product of the fact that he's something of a loner, much preferring the intimacy of working by himself in his garage studio.

But for the rest of the band, they all agree that they're devoted to each other.

Mick Fleetwood says, "I consider myself very close friends with everyone in the band. There have been ups and downs emotionally but when the chips are down, we all love each other very much and that's why I think it's possible to continue."

"I can honestly say that I can't remember a knockdown, drag-out fight or argument in this band, really," says John McVie. "Yes, we are friends."

Stevie Nicks notes, "I don't think this band will ever stop recording. Whatever problems we have are eventually always ironed out over a two year cycle. By the time it's all over, how long can you really stay mad? I stay mad for about five minutes and then I'm not mad anymore. I've learned that's the best way to feel in rock'n'roll, because if you're gonna stay mad at people, it's horrible!"

Christine McVie says of their hiatus, "Yes, we kept in touch. We didn't exactly go and have tea with each other. Mick tends to be the link between us all. I saw quite a bit of John. Lindsey played on my solo album in Montreux and we all live quite close to one another. We were in touch, have been and remain friends throughout the gap between records."

How and why they came to record Tango In The Night at this juncture stems back to Christine's being asked to contribute a song to the A Fine Mess soundtrack. The film people gave her freedom to choose whoever she wanted on the track. Seeing as it was the old Presley classic, I Can't Help Falling In Love With You, and knowing that Lindsey and Richard Dashut (longtime co-producer and friend of Fleetwood Mac) were devoted Presley fans, they seemed the obvious choices as producers.

"We just thought we'd get the rhythm section (Mick and John) in at the same time," Christine continues. "It was actually the first time the band had been in a playing or recording environment for something like five years and the chemistry and atmosphere in the studio was such that we ended up playing a lot of other things. Then we started thinking about getting in the studio again."

"It went really smoothly and everybody had a lot of fun," adds Mick, "so from that point basically we just took the bull by the horns and really actively organized to get back into the studio."

"I was halfway into a third solo album," notes Lindsey, "but at some point it became apparent that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. I think the real need to do a record five years after the last one came from...When we did the Mirage album and tour, a lot of things had been left hanging out on a limb - emotional things and even financial things. This album was a way to bring it back together. I think this album was a very healthy experience. What Rumours was for pain, this album was for healing."

With Tango In The Night riding high on the album charts, and the success of singles Big Love and Seven Wonders, we begin to wonder about the future of Fleetwood Mac. Will there be a tour? Other albums?

Since the other band members seem agreed that a tour will be up to Lindsey (who has a commitment to finish that above mentioned third solo album), we'll let him answer.

"There's been a lot of talk about touring and I would tend to think we probably will. At the same time, as hard as it was to get all five people together in one room, it would probably not be that easy to get all five of us on the road together at the same time. It will probably happen though."

The others point out that as no halls are yet booked and the summer schedule is full to overflowing, it won't be till late in the year before anything is set.

As to the future of Fleetwood Mac, "I really don't know what to say about that," Lindsey hedges. "I will say that the Mirage album would not have been an album that I would have felt comfortable ending the situation with. This album I certainly would feel...I think this is a very much stronger piece of work. If it were to be left at this, if we were to say this is our swansong, I think we'd all be happier than if it had been left with Mirage."

Thanks to Les for posting this to the Ledge and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.