Newsweek -- August 25, 1997

Fleetwood Mac: Choice of a New Generation

by Karen Schoemer

Apparently the members of Fleetwood Mac are a little confused as to what decade they're in. Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Lindsey Buckingham are humming around an L.A. rehearsal space, not at all behaving like a bunch of reunited, fiftyish rock stars who secretly hate each other. Nicks, sweetly schoolmarmish in a long salmon-pink dress, platform tennis shoes, reading glasses and waist-length, deep-pile blond hair, placidly signs a sheath of posters. Christine, trim and pretty in a brown embroidered sweater and blue jeans, chats about the English countryside. McVie, her ex-husband, leans against a bass amplifier in his baseball cap and white polo shirt, relishing a cigarette. Ponytailed drummer Fleetwood bounds about, greeting everyone who comes through the door. Buckingham bows adoringly over one of his guitars, coaxing it into tune. A wisp of incense smoke licks the air. A peace-lovey vibe is palpable. No one's competing or acting cooler-than-thou. Re-formed in the '90s, the biggest band of the '70s has reinvented itself--for the '60s.

Today's task--not that they're in any hurry to get to it--is to run through the set list for their upcoming reunion tour, beginning in mid-September. It ties in with their terrific new retrospective album "The Dance," out this week, which itself supports an MTV special of the same name, which received the kind of promo hype usually reserved for bands a fraction of Fleetwood Mac's age. Christine offers up a game plan. "We'll start with "The Chain" and see how far we get," she says cheerfully, referring to a cut on the band's landmark 1977 album "Rumours." Fleetwood eyeballs a bulletin board on the wall, where song titles are arranged in tentative working order. He seems downright pleased by the set's nostalgia-heavy bias. "I remember we played a show when "Rumours" came out, opening for that band--what's their name?" He misremembers a lyric: "Ghosts in the wind--right, Kansas!" It was one of the biggest gigs we'd done at that point. We thought we'd created the perfect set list. Did almost all new material. Well, it was noticeably a disaster. The audience didn't know the songs. We never did that again."

Still, when Fleetwood Mac starts to play those dusty old songs, something quite wonderful happens. That contented, peace-lovey vibe crystallizes--if we may use a Nicksian verb--into powerful, propulsive, eloquent rock and roll. In "The Chain," Lindsey, Christine and Stevie's voices lock into three-part harmony; McVie's sinewy bass bridge leads into a rackety jam, with Buckingham flailing on his guitar and pounding the heel of his boot into the nice gray carpet. Christine's "Say You Love Me" gets country treatment, with Buckingham switching to banjo and Fleetwood trading in his monster sticks for brushes; two beats into the song, he's whacked his drums so hard the metal bristle casing disintegrates. "I've never had that happen in my life," he says, aghast. In "Gold Dust Woman," Nicks wails with a white-hot anger completely at odds with her pouffy-witchy-chiffony image. And this is just a rehearsal. When the songs end, there's no applause. But as each members turns away from his or her microphone to prepare for the next onslaught, you can read a forceful dignity in their movements. Fleetwood Mac is not just a tired old bunch of geezers trying to milk a reputation one last time. These musicians want audience worship now. When they get it, they're going to savor every second.

Somehow, when success came the first time around, Fleetwood Mac didn't quite enjoy it enough. The tale is legendary. Fleetwood and McVie formed the band in 1967 with blues guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. Within a few years, Green flipped out after an acid trip and became a religious zealot; Spencer joined a cult. McVie's wife, Christine Perfect, checked in circa 1970. More guitarists came and went before Fleetwood, having relocated the band to L.A., discovered folkie couple Buckingham and Nicks. Their first album together, 1975's "Fleetwood Mac," sold a few million; their next, "Rumours," became one of he biggest-selling albums ever--more than 25 million to date--and defined an era of mellow, studio-sculpted rock. But all was not well. During the making of "Rumours," Buckingham and Nicks broke up, the McVies divorced, Fleetwood separated from his wife and drug use escalated. Soon it was the band's excess that symbolized a bloated decade. "We made a lot of money, we flew in fabulous planes," shrugs Nicks. "We were very elegant and fabulous in our jet-setterness."

In 1977, the same year as "Rumours," punk rock took off, that do-it-yourself, anti-establishment ethic gradually eroded Fleetwood Mac's prestige. By 1987's "Tango in the Night," the band was half-baked. Buckingham quit. Nick's gypsy-waif, victim-of-love image, once the bedrock of the band's appeal, was out of touch. Not that Nicks noticed. "I put that whole image together," she says. "From the raggy chiffon skirts and the high suede boots, to the long drapey sleeves, to being only 5 foot 1 onstage and wanting to look like a bigger person. My outfit was basically a ballerina outfit. I picked out every fabric. And it worked." She pauses. "And now, as you know, I'm stuck with it. I would never be comfortable in a skinny Armani pantsuit kind of thing. And I don't think anybody would really want to see me in that." "Mend the Vase"-- Nicks toured with Fleetwood Mac through 1990. More new members came and went. Christine made yet another album in 1995, "Time," before quitting. "You can only mend the vase so many times before you have to chuck it away," she says, as if she left just in time. Alternative rock, punk's tame offspring, had taken charge of the charts. Fleetwood Mac reached the epitome of uncoolness--not helped frankly, by the spectacle of boomer President Bill Clinton lurching to re-election to the strains of McVie's "Don't Stop." But lately something funny has happened. Everyone's lives are settled: Christine, John and Mick are all remarried, and Nicks and Buckingham have solo projects in the works. (Nicks went through rehab in 1987.) Meanwhile, alternative rockers have been coming around to embrace them. Hole tore open "Gold Dust Woman;" Smashing Pumpkins lilted through Nicks' "Landslide." What this shows is that the best alternative rock has a respect for solid songcraft--and that maybe Fleetwood Mac aren't as soft and square as they seemed. "There's a cyclical thing happening," says Buckingham. "A couple of artists who are very MTV have said, "Fleetwood Mac's not the enemy." We took a lot of classic elements of rock and made them sunny and bright and crisp--on the surface. But the underpinnings were really dark. I think that's one of the reasons it holds up."

A little smooshy love doesn't hurt, either. Breezing through the rehearsal, the band hits an unexpected high point: "Landslide" from 1975. As Buckingham finger-picks a folk melody, and as the rest of the band members drift out of the way, Nicks begins to sing in a voice that's rougher and more ragged than the petite quaver of yore, but still wrenchingly vulnerable. She sings lyrics that should sound like girl-journal poetry: "If you see my reflection in the snow covered hills/Well, the landslide will bring it down." Yet her voice has such character and conviction, the words feel almost epic. She's a revelation. As she sings she turns and face Buckingham, and they lock gazes. Decades break down, and good music is timeless.