For a band for whom instability was almost a watchword for so much of their career up until 1975, the history of Fleetwood Mac since then has been relatively stable. Sure, there have been personnel changes, mostly temporary in nature, although Christine McVie did retire permanently from the band in 1998 and seems to have no inclination to return to the fold. However, in 2010, with every remaining member of the ‘Rumours‘-era band into their sixties, Fleetwood Mac have abandoned the headstrong passions of youth and the follies of middle age to become an institution, much like The Rolling Stones. Like the Stones, little attention is paid by the wider public to their newer songs, but large audiences will turn out every few years and fill anonymous arenas to hear them crank out ‘The Chain’ and ‘Rhiannon’ and all those mid-seventies radio favourites. Hardcore fans will doubtless disagree, but they have in effect become their own tribute band. The company may be spiky and the egos fragile, but the money is good. Makes you wonder what Peter Green thinks about it all.
Which is not to say that Messrs Fleetwood, McVie, Buckingham & Nicks are without talent. After all, ‘Rumours‘ remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time and though there’s always the odd exception like ‘Frampton comes alive’, mega-selling albums are usually popular for good reason. In America, 1976/7 was the last gleaming of the Woodstock era before the twin blights of punk and corporate sponsorship brought a plague of serpents into the garden and the two big sellers of that era were ‘Rumours’ and The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’. I was involved in record retailing in Manchester at this time and I can still remember the local Warners rep talking with disbelief about the ‘Rumours’ phenomenon. He cut us a great deal; we took 500 copies of ‘Rumours’ at a hugely undercut price but one of the partners in the shops was less than enthused and said so in words of one syllable. However, he was the one left with egg on his face when we cleared all 500 in the space of a fortnight and went back for more. ‘Rumours’ was like that; just when you thought that everyone in Manchester must own at least 2 copies, there would be another surge.
Mick Fleetwood’s fateful visit to Sound City Studios in late 1974 was the start of the most successful era in Fleetwood Mac’s tortuous history. Keith Olsen reputedly played Fleetwood a tape of ‘Frozen Love’, as recorded by Buckingham Nicks to demonstrate the sound of the ‘room’ at Sound City. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had been an item since 1966 or so and had been the leading lights in a northern Californian band called Fritz. Olsen had persuaded them to leave the band behind and make a record themselves. They signed to Polydor and recorded ‘Buckingham Nicks’ in 1973. The label, however, offered them little in the way of support and things were looking somewhat bleak until Mick Fleetwood decided that Lindsey Buckingham would be the ideal guy to replace Bob Welch in Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham made it clear that, although interested, he wouldn’t join unless Stevie Nicks came with him as part of the deal. Perhaps appropriately, the deal was sealed over margaritas in a Mexican restaurant, following which Buckingham and Nicks went out on the road to fulfil their remaining commitments as BN before becoming members of Fleetwood Mac in January of 1975. The ‘Buckingham Nicks’ album, extraordinarily, is still unavailable on CD.
Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, circa 1974
‘Fleetwood Mac’ was recorded over three months at Sound City and released in July of 1975. By that juncture, the revamped band were already out on the road playing support to people like Loggins & Messina and creating a genuine buzz with their new personnel and repertoire. Lindsey Buckingham had a powerful voice and a guitar style that was every bit as distinctive as any of his predecessors , whilst Stevie Nicks twirled and pranced and sang like the ultimate hippie dream-girl. They brought some pretty good pop songs with them, too; songs that had originally been slated for a second Buckingham Nicks album. Early sales and airplay for the album were promising; typically pre-1975 Mac would sell about 300,000 copies of each album, but ‘Fleetwood Mac’ was a slow-burning hit, aided by a succession of chart singles and sales quickly headed for the million mark and beyond. It was only the start….
Much has been made of what was happening to the band behind the scenes. The McVie marriage had broken down, Buckingham & Nicks were on the way out as a couple and Fleetwood & Nicks even contrived a clandestine dalliance at some point further down the road. Christine McVie took up with the band’s lighting director…it was all heady stuff. Unusually for a successful band, Fleetwood Mac seemed almost to revel in the public washing of dirty laundry. Somehow they took the tension and used it to fuel their performances. Their next album, ‘Rumours’ was aptly named and as mentioned previously, it became an absolute monster. The old codgers of the band, Fleetwood and John McVie, emerged into the sunlit uplands of their late-blossoming careers and who can deny them their houses in Hawaii and their opulent lifestyles? After all, they are great survivors, living through the drugs and the breakdowns and the religious cults and the affairs. They’ve become the Statler & Waldorf of rock’n'roll in many ways.
The classic late 70′s line-up
Having nailed their place in history with ‘Rumours‘ and its attendant string of hit singles, Fleetwood Mac followed the well-trodden path of excess. We had to wait until 1979 before the hopelessly overblown double-album ‘Tusk’ came out, which featured some strong songs by Nicks, cementing her gypsy princess persona, but not much else of note. Then there was a monstrous tour of the entire universe, which revealed the band to be an impressively coherent unit on stage. I caught the show in 1980 at Stafford’s Bingley Hall, usually a cattle-market, travelling down to the gig with a girl I’d been trying to win over for 12 months or more, with only intermittent success. Afterwards, it took us nearly 2 hours to escape from the car park, during which time I managed to let her know that since the tickets were bought some months beforehand, I’d now actually met someone else who was travelling up from Devon to move in with me the following weekend. An appropriate scenario for the aftermath of a Fleetwood Mac gig, I thought…more rumours…
As far as the band were concerned, they no doubt made and squandered a fortune on that tour. Subsequently there was a halfway decent live double album, followed by the inevitable rifts, break-ups and tiffs. In time, there would be new players to replace Buckingham (including, at one point, Dave Mason, of all people) and more hit albums and singles. Somehow, though, it had all become a tad predictable and music had moved on. After the excesses of ‘Tusk’ came the modest ‘Mirage’ and the inevitable rash of solo albums. Only Nicks has really had much success here, although Lindsey Buckingham’s reinvention of himself as a family man has brought a maturity to his songwriting and some excellent solo albums; in particular ‘Under the Skin’ (2006). I don’t really feel the need to chart all the band’s splits and reunions over the years; let’s just say that they’ve happened and no-one has been terribly surprised. Christine McVie’s decision to relocate to Kent in 1998 and prop up the bar in the village pub is a rare example of a band-member showing good sense and judgement. As rare as snow in the Sahara where this lot are concerned.
Fleetwood Mac started out as a blues band playing grubby little pubs and colleges. These days, they are up there in the ranks of the megabands who tour once every five years or so and charge a small fortune for the seats at their arena gigs. Where they began was undoubtedly a lot more interesting than where they’ve ended up, but for the first 10 years or so, the journey was rarely anything less than astonishing. If they hadn’t met up with Buckingham & Nicks, Fleetwood Mac would probably have eventually gone back to the blues, turning up on the bill at revivalist events that are often staged at off-season holiday camps and suchlike. Whilst they never exceeded the creative peak they reached around the time of ‘Then Play On’, their reinvention of themselves as the perfect late 70′s Californian pop band is as remarkable as it was unlikely.