The Times, February 7, 1998

Rockers of ages

Nigel Williamson

Twenty years ago, Fleetwood Mac fell apart. Reunited and (almost) reformed, they hit town this week to collect a lifetime's achievement award at the Brits. Nigel Williamson reports.

"There are always going to be cynics saying we are doing it for the money but it had to work musically, not just as a business"

Flash back more than 20 years to rock'n'roll's best-loved soap opera. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham's torrid romance has just ended in bitterness and rancour. John and Christine McVie are going through an equally messy divorce. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood conducts an on-off affair with Nicks, having just divorced his own wife, Jenny Boyd (who he will later remarry, only to divorce her again).

Being Fleetwood Mac, they cannot avoid each other as sensible people would do, but are forced to come face to face over breakfast every morning in whichever hotel the rock'n'roll touring circus has stopped the night before. As an emotional outlet they write and record a bunch of songs detailing every betrayal and jealousy in this traumatically tangled web. Rumours, the resulting behemoth of an album, goes on to become one of the best sellers of all time, shifting 25 million voyeuristic copies.

With more money sloshing around than Dallas and Dynasty put together, our famous five sink collectively into a drink and drugs hell and the plot gets even messier. Christine falls for an alcoholic Beach Boy. Nicks has an affair with one of the Eagles. Then, when her best friend dies of leukaemia, she immediately marries the grieving husband. Fleetwood bursts into tears at the news.

John McVie has an alcohol-induced seizure. Nicks falls off stage and checks into America's Betty Ford Clinic to be treated for chemical dependency. Psychiatrists and therapists are recruited to the band's payroll. Finally, a stressed-out Buckingham attacks Nicks, screaming, "Get that woman out of my life, the schizophrenic bitch". He tells the rest of the band they are "a bunch of selfish bastards" and quits, vowing never more to speak to any of them.

Yet now, here they are again, having just spent three months playing to almost one million people in 40 American cities. And on Monday, in Britain, they are due to receive an Outstanding Contribution to British Music gong at the Brit awards.

What on earth possessed them to make a comeback? The answer is complicated. Certainly the amounts of money involved are as huge as the private planes, stretch limousines and lavish hotel suites testify. In America, musical fashions may come and go but nostalgia is always big business. The reunion album The Dance , with four new songs and 13 re-recorded old favourites, went straight into the Billboard chart at No 1 last summer and has sold 2.3 million copies in America (British sales, unsupported by a tour, have, so far, been more modest).

There is more to it, though, says Christine McVie, now 54 and with the air of an English country lady. "I don't think there is any amount of money that would bring us together if it wasn't working on another level. None of us needs the money enough to go through the hell we went through 20 years ago again. If we weren't getting on really well we couldn't do it."

Lindsey Buckingham, whose biography says he is 50 but who insists he is really only 48, admits that there were pressures to get back together. "I was the last to roll off the log and agree to this because I wasn't sure about it. For me it is a strategic move which will hopefully help the profile of my solo career. But it is honest, it isn't just some cynical exercise." Since leaving Fleetwood Mac, he has developed a reputation as a recluse, preferring to work in solitary fashion in his own studio. "Being on the road is not exactly spiritually nourishing but my shrink told me to get out and be more sociable," he confesses. "If you had asked me a year ago I would have said it could never happen. But when we started I found I really liked the feel of the chemistry of the band without the baggage. We can acknowledge what happened but we are different people now."

For Mick Fleetwood, 55, it was simply about keeping going the band which, in its different incarnations, has been his life for 30 years. "This band has obsessively been my baby and I fought to keep it alive. There are always going to be the cynics saying we are doing it for the money but it had to work musically, not just as a business venture. I've been doing this since I was 18 and me and John (McVie) were trained for this madness."

We are riding in a convoy of limousines with police outriders to one of those cavernous sports halls outside Detroit. It holds 16,000 people, double the capacity of Wembley Arena, and the band will gross almost $ 1 million for walking on stage. But the venue is numbingly soulless and backstage is mayhem.

The Fleetwood Mac travelling show features some 150 people. It is as if an entire village is on the move. It includes eight managers between the band's five members, rendering decision-making a long and sometimes fraught process. There is a tedious and pointless argument about where the band will pose for photographs.

Further down the corridor is Fleetwood Mac Catering, an entire mobile restaurant with printed menus and four different choices of entree. There is also a travelling pharmacy. Twenty years ago Fleetwood Mac's cocaine consumption was legendary: these days the chemist's table groans under the weight of ginseng root and homeopathic remedies.

They may be veterans but there is an undeniable tension in the air. Buckingham's eyes blaze, while Nicks totters unsteadily on a pair of ludicrously high platform shoes. Fleetwood is bouncing about with excitement and John McVie shuffles around looking more like a refugee from cardboard city than a millionaire rock star. Only Christine McVie appears calm.

Finally Fleetwood Mac hit the stage and the capacity crowd goes predictably wild. These reunions can be rather like Dr Johnson's dog - what impresses is that the beast can walk on two legs at all, not how elegantly it performs the trick. Yet the opening number The Chain is brilliant and there is one blistering moment when Buckingham and Nicks exchange meaningful looks while singing: "And if you don't love me now/you will never love me again/I can still hear you saying/we will never break the chain." For the next two hours they sail through their back catalogue of sublime pop songs, given added piquancy by the band's extraordinary personal history. Nicks looks Buckingham straight in the eye again as she sings: "You never get away from the woman who loves you"; the entire show is full of such moments of delicious irony.

These days she doesn't go for all of the high notes but her trademark black chiffon, velvet shawls and gypsy scarves are present and she can still thrill on Rhiannon and on Landslide, its Seventies lyric more pertinent than ever: "Time makes you bolder/Children get older, I'm getting older, too."

Yet it is the reluctant Buckingham who is the band's engine. Never one to understate a musical point, his guitar-playing is incendiary and there is a shrieking drama in his voice that is at times cathartic. "The demon inside sometimes gets the better of us but we learn from the experience," he tells the crowd. He reappears for the encore holding Nicks's hand. The following night, in Indianapolis, the two embraced on stage.

After the show there is little hanging around other than a cursory meet-and-greet session in which the band has seven minutes to sign autographs and shake hands with 20 people who have won free tickets in a local radio station phone-in. The chore is completed graciously but with stop-watch precision: no one gets more than their allotted 20 seconds. As we drive away again in a convoy with police sirens blaring and lights flashing, a group of female fans flash their breasts at faces they cannot see behind the limousine's darkened glass.

Back at the hotel the band unwinds. John McVie heads straight for the bar like a man on a mission. He is soon joined by Fleetwood, a gregarious fellow who wants to hear all the news from Britain. (All the band now live in Los Angeles.) Upstairs Christine McVie holds court over bottles of red wine in her suite. Buckingham and Nicks, both Americans who share a certain intensity typical of their nation, disappear immediately into separate elevators. Buckingham is up and about the next morning but Nicks doesn't re-emerge until mid-afternoon to take the band's plane to the next gig.

The former lovers insist they are good friends once again. "When I left in 1987 there was a lot of stuff still unresolved between Stevie and me," says Buckingham candidly. "That sounds strange when we had split up ten years earlier but most couples in that position don't carry on seeing each other all the time. Being in a band is almost like living with someone. Stevie hit a wall in her personal life but she came through it and I've grown, too. Maybe there are things that still aren't resolved but when I'm singing to her there's now someone real there."

Nicks agrees but doesn't think the band's story resembles a soap opera - she calls it a Gothic romance. "It's been a healing process for a lot of things between us that we still needed to work out."

Buckingham admits that it is strange to relive such intensely personal songs so many years later. "It sometimes feels like a time warp. I don't think we realized back then quite how raw the songs were emotionally, how they really were very direct messages to each other." Yet there will be no fairytale ending to their renewed relationship. "There are some sweet moments and when we go back on it seems natural to hold hands but there are parameters as to how far that can go," Buckingham says. Nicks adds: "It can happen on stage but there are moments we can't share off stage, things we still can't say." There are other elements that have been consigned to the past, too. "The drugs made it wild and exciting but it was very detrimental. Coke made you feel like everything was wonderful but it also made you see things that weren't happening," she says.

Only Christine McVie says she has had enough of rock'n'roll, although she has been saying such things for years since she announced her first "retirement" back in 1970. This year, after 28 years in Hollywood, she plans to move back to Britain with her Portugese husband.

She has enjoyed the reunion but is reluctant to pursue it further, although "there's not the same baggage and the discomfort one used to feel and it seems that everyone has grown up a lot. When you've got a past like ours it's fine to celebrate it but I want to do something other than standing on stage and glooping make-up all over myself every night. I don't know how wise it is to retread the past."

She admits that the Mac story makes compulsive viewing. "Of course if we'd all been getting on like a house on fire the songs on Rumours wouldn't have been nearly as good. We weren't just singing to each other but screaming and everything was enlarged by the intake of illegal substances." For her former husband John, 52, and for Mick Fleetwood, the band means something different. The legal owners of the name Fleetwood Mac, both have been professional musicians since their mid-teens and they literally don't know how to do anything else.

"Looking back it is like listening to war stories," says Fleetwood. "It gets romanticized but you have to remember people yelling in pain with their legs shot away. You don't have to be tortured to make great music but high emotional peaks make you dig deep." He is putting together a Rumours tribute album, featuring the likes of Sir Elton John and the Cranberries. Despite the madness of the rock'n'roll lifestyle, he seems level-headed. "Even in the perfect bubble of rock stardom you still have to get up in the morning and go to the toilet," he says.

Yet although all of the band talks about having matured, with the possible exception of Christine McVie you get the feeling that Fleetwood Mac haven't really grown up at all. They don't do drugs any more but in some indefinable way it is as though the past 20 years did not happen. Stevie Nicks recognizes it: "There's a little bit that didn't grow up and that's the important part because that is what makes Fleetwood Mac rare. When you're in a rock band there's a little bit of you that stays forever young." Even when receiving an award for a lifetime's achievement.

Thanks to Anusha for posting this to The Ledge and for sending it to us.