Exactly how Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks survived the golden years of Fleetwood Mac is something of a mystery.
The period between 1975, which marked the release of the eponymous Fleetwood Mac, and 1987, which saw Tango in the Night solidify its place in musical history, saw the band stretch the definition of excess to its mind-bending limit. Long nights in the recording studio were often facilitated by enough drug and alcohol abuse to make Ozzy Osbourne look like a Jehovah’s Witness, and the extent of their cocaine consumption became so notorious it is now a staple of their popular image. Iconoclastic writer and ‘Beat Generation’ ringleader Jack Kerouac once described the personality traits of those he admired: the “mad ones”, those who “…burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” He would have felt at home in Fleetwood Mac.
Kerouac’s lifestyle ultimately cost him his life; he died in 1969, aged just 47. Inexplicably, the canonical five members of Fleetwood Mac continue to walk the earth, each member now in their 70’s and still going strong. In many ways their unrelenting persistence mirrors that of the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X Files – they keep coming back, regardless of how many times life pushes them down the stairs or blows them up with rocket launchers.
Looking back at the path towards global stardom their 1975 album would take them, it’s easy to forget that the band had been in existence for almost a decade. The name ‘Fleetwood Mac’ is an amalgamation of the names of the two longest serving members – drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. But in the early days there was another member: Peter Green, a blues guitarist who composed many of the band’s early singles. Green left the band shortly after the release of their third album and the following years saw a succession of new members – each one, with the exception of keyboardist Christine McVie, leaving the group shortly after joining. Between 1968 and 1975, Fleetwood Mac actually released nine albums, although none are particularly remembered by modern listeners.
By 1974 Fleetwood Mac was at a crossroads. Bob Welch, who had served as the band’s creative lifeblood for the last three years, resigned from the group shortly after the release of the Heroes Are Hard to Find album. This left Fleetwood and the two McVie’s – (John and Christine had married in 1968) – as the only remaining members. A routine visit to a recording studio turned their luck around. In a chance encounter, Fleetwood heard ‘Frozen Love’ – a track from an overlooked and discarded album called Buckingham Nicks – play over the sound monitors. Hooked by the song’s intoxicating guitar solo, he invited the songwriter, a struggling musician called Lindsey Buckingham, to fill the vacant slot left by Welch. Buckingham agreed on the condition that his girlfriend, a then-waitress by the name of Stevie Nicks, be allowed to join the band alongside him.
Buckingham and Nicks would rescue Fleetwood Mac from their cycle of ever-changing line-ups and monotonous records. Within six months they had written, recorded and released their first album with the group: the self-titled Fleetwood Mac. The critical response was unlike anything the band had previously experienced; the mystical aura of Nicks’ ‘Rhiannon’ and ‘Landslide’, coupled with Buckingham’s guitar-based tracks and Christine McVie’s pop-inspired contributions, turned them into musical superstars. But if they wanted this status to be cemented, one thing was clear: a strong follow-up record was needed.
Much has been written about the making of 1977’s Rumours. Less than two years into the new line-up, the band found themselves on the verge of collapse: Nicks and Buckingham had broken up, John and Christine divorced after eight years of marriage, and even Mick Fleetwood was experiencing a relationship breakdown outside of the band. Tensions were so high between the band members it was impossible to stop the turmoil from bleeding into their song lyrics. (Buckingham’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ serves as a particularly scathing indictment of his relationship with Nicks.) The recording process did little to heal the wounds; extravagant parties and a level of cocaine consumption that would have put John Belushi to shame defined the making of the album. Despite the chaos – they all probably would have strangled each other if given the opportunity – the final product was a stunning commentary on love, heartbreak and the nature of troubled relationships. Awarded a Grammy in 1978, it currently stands as one of the best-selling and most highly acclaimed albums of all time.
The band’s next project could not have been a more radical departure from Rumours. Tusk, released in 1979, was an ambitious double album that steered clear of the pop-inspired glamour that had brought the group so much success. Nicks continued to provide dreamy tracks drenched in mystique (my favourites being ‘Storms’ and ‘Sisters of the Moon’), while McVie’s soft-rock melodies generally adhered to the same formula they did on Rumours. But Buckingham’s eccentric and often bizarre contributions serve as the defining staple of the album. Obsessed with the new-age punk bands that had stormed their way into mainstream culture, he was constantly experimenting with different sounds, sometimes installing microphones in echoey bathrooms and other times taping them to the studio floor – a move which required him to sing in a push-up position. The results sound fractured, incomplete – sometimes barely fleshed out. Whether you view this LP as a complex masterpiece or a smorgasbord of pure, unconstrained weirdness, one thing is clear: Fleetwood Mac were prepared to take risks, regardless of the critical and commercial consequences.
1982’s Mirage was a return to the soft rock sound of Rumours and Fleetwood Mac. The year before, both Nicks and Buckingham had released their debut solo albums: Nicks garnered acclaim for the brilliant Bella Donna while Buckingham fell flat on his face with a mediocre offering called Law and Order. Personally, I consider Mirage to be the weakest album of the Nicks/Buckingham era; the tracks are admirable efforts but struggle to reach the exhilarating heights of some of the band’s previous accomplishments.
Not much happened over the next few years. Four of the five band members pursued their solo careers while John McVie, going in the opposite direction, immersed himself in his passion for sailing and almost got lost at sea during the process. Fans would have to wait until 1987 to see the release of a new album – but it was certainly worth the wait. Tango in the Night became their best-selling album since Rumours and continues to be held in high regard as one of the quintessential albums of the decade. I’ve always considered Nicks to be the strongest songwriter of the trio, but Tango stands as the glaring exception to this rule: McVie’s ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Little Lies’ are among the best songs she wrote for the group while Buckingham’s ‘Caroline’ stands as one of the most criminally underrated tracks in the band’s repertoire.
As history would play out, Tango in the Night marked the end of an era for Fleetwood Mac. Exhausted by the thought of another world tour, Buckingham announced his departure shortly after the album’s release, bringing an unexpected end to the band’s most successful incarnation.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re either a fanatical Fleetwood Mac fan, bored to death in isolation, or my mum. Either way, I plan on wrapping this up shortly, so here’s a quick overview of the last thirty years:
Buckingham was replaced by Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, two virtually unknown guitarists who had collaborated with some of the band members on their solo work, and the new line-up recorded one album together: 1990’s Behind the Mask. Reviews were poor and the band was thrown into further disarray when Nicks decided to quit in 1991, with Vito following close behind. Some extra musicians were quickly cobbled together during the early 1990’s to form a line-up that was unique even by Fleetwood Mac standards. Together they limped feet-first into a new album: Time, released in 1995, that most agree should never have even been attempted. But in the rollercoaster history of Fleetwood Mac, it’s always darkest before the dawn: Buckingham and Nicks re-joined the band in 1996, marking a return to the original Rumours-era line-up. The reformed group produced The Dance the following year, a live compilation of their previous work that went on to become their most successful release since Tango in the Night.
You know how I said “it’s always darkest before the dawn” about ten seconds ago? That was a lie. Christine McVie left the group in 1998, shortly after they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fleetwood Mac’s seventeenth (and, to date, most recent) studio album, Say You Will, hit the shelves in 2003. McVie ultimately re-joined the band in 2014, only for Buckingham to be unexpectedly fired four years later and replaced by Neil Finn of Crowded House and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Like I said, it’s a rollercoaster.
Fleetwood Mac are still touring today, despite the fact at least half of them are essentially walking corpses and Buckingham’s abrupt firing seems to have alienated a significant portion of their fanbase. Whether the band will release another album, more than fifty years after it was first founded, remains to be seen. Only one thing is clear: this article may be over, but the drama within Fleetwood Mac will almost certainly continue.