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The True Life Confessions of Fleetwood Mac

The long hard drive from British blues to California gold

March 24, 1977
fleetwood mac rolling stone
Fleetwood Mac on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

Fuck it . . . Peter Green didn't want his £30,000 a year. The money was royalties from his work with his old blues band, Fleetwood Mac. He'd quit the band in 1970, saying he wanted to live a Christian life. He gave his money away and eventually took various menial jobs, including one as a gravedigger.

 

But now, as more and more people acquaint themselves with Fleetwood Mac and dig back to old reissues, this money keeps arriving. He tries to get rid of it, but it's all just such a bother. "I want to lead a new life," he would say. "I don't want to be followed around by the past."

 

When Green could tolerate it no longer, he paid his accountant a visit, brandishing a pump-action .22 shotgun. He wanted the money stopped.

 

Soon Green was standing in Marlebone Court in London, listening calmly as the judge read his verdict. Peter Green, blues-guitar-star-turned-ascetic, was ordered committed to a mental institution.

After ten years and a particularly lean time just before the group's 1975 smash, Fleetwood Mac, broke loose, everybody loves this quiet little British-American band that could.

Fleetwood Mac's music has evolved into a sophisticated pop and rock sound that's just right for the Seventies, thanks primarily to two women, old-timer Christine McVie and newcomer Stevie Nicks. The group's latest album is being shipped out in greater quantities than any other record in the history of Warner Bros. There are, of course, reasons for Warners' optimism: Fleetwood Mac produced three hit singles ("Over My Head" and "Say You Love Me" by McVie; "Rhiannon" by Nicks), sold 4 million units, has danced around the top half of the album charts for over 80 weeks and is Warner's all-time best seller.

And adding to everyone's enthusiasm were shows like the one at L. A.'s Universal Amphitheater last fall. There, in front of an adoring crowd that included Elton John and two princesses of Iran, Fleetwood Mac looked like they were feeling good. New energy was being supplied by Stevie Nicks and the other most recent addition, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. What with Buckingham prowling around the stage, dropping feisty lead runs into all the right places, and singer Nicks playing the whirling dervish Welsh witch Rhiannon, the group's dignified reserve was clearly a thing of the past.

Even drummer Mick Fleetwood finally ventured out from behind his drum kit to play the African talking drum on "World Turning." And Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac's brandy-voiced keyboardist of six years, recently overcame a phobia against talking with the audience. Only John McVie, perhaps in the grand tradition of bassists, remains impassive and faultlessly proficient.

But one would soon learn that their minds were elsewhere – namely, in the tiny studio across town from the Amphitheater, where they were still struggling to finish their very late followup LP, a trouble-child called Rumours.

Work on the album began in February '76, immediately after the group had introduced their new lineup on a marathon six-month cross-country tour. Traveling to the Record Plant Studios in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, Fleetwood Mac had walked straight into an emotional holocaust. Christine and John McVie, married for almost eight years, had recently split up and weren't speaking to each other. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were about to do likewise. And Mick Fleetwood certainly wasn't talking to anybody. The father of two children, he and his wife Jenny were in the midst of divorce proceedings.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

"Everybody was pretty weirded out," Christine McVie explained. "Somehow Mick was there, the figurehead: 'We must carry on . . . let's be mature about this, sort it out.' Somehow we waded through it."

They returned to Los Angeles, but the tapes from their nine weeks in the Sausalito studio – many of them mangled by a "recording machine" that earned the nickname "Jaws" – sounded strange wherever they played them. They were almost resigned to starting all over when one of their crew found a cramped dubbing room in the porno district of Hollywood Boulevard, a studio that perfectly accommodated what they had recorded. A fully booked fall tour was canceled, and there, while films like Squirm and Dick City played next door, Fleetwood Mac started the mixing process. As the songs took shape, the album began to sound like True Confessions: the band's three writers – Christine McVie, Nicks and Buckingham – were all writing about their crumbled relationships.

As they added finishing touches to an album more intimate than they had ever anticipated, the band firmly closed their studio doors. "It was clumsy sometimes," said John McVie. "I'm sitting there in the studio and I get a little lump in my throat – especially when you turn around and the writer's sitting right there." So they asked that interviews be done with each member separately.

I always did have a kind of candle shining for Peter Green. I mean, he was my god. I thought, 'Give me one chance at him . . .'"

Christine McVie, who looks considerably younger than her 33 years, grew up alongside Fleetwood Mac on the British blues circuit.

Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are loath to dwell on Fleetwood Mac's many past lives, but sitting in this cluttered office adjoining the studio where she has just finished mixing "Songbird" for Rumours, Christine is happy to play the keeper of the Fleetwood Mac legacy.

She pours a tall glass of white wine and surprises even herself with a fan's diary that is by turns melancholy and passionate. "I dearly remember the old days . . . Fleetwood Mac had this one-of-a-kind charm. They were gregarious, charming and cheeky onstage. Very cheeky. They'd have a good time. Peter Green just made the audience laugh at this funny little cocky Jewboy. Jeremy Spencer was really dirty onstage. At the Marquee one night he put a dildo in his trousers, came out and did an impersonation of Cliff Richard. Half the women left, escorted out by their boyfriends." Green had also created a dark, mystical aura about the band. "They had this tremendous, subtle power," says Christine.

By the time she made friends with the group, Christine Perfect was already a journeywoman blues-circuit rocker herself. As a "real tubby" teenager – she weighed 160 pounds at 16 – Christine and a girlfriend/singing partner snuck away from their strict parents in Birmingham and visited every talent agency they could find in London. Their act consisted of strumming guitars and warbling Everly Brothers hits. Their career, which was highlighted by a one-song pub appearance backed by the Shadows, was cut short when their parents found them out. Christine was sent to art college in Birmingham where she joined a folk club. "We'd meet every Tuesday night, above a pub somewhere, and drink cheap beer. Whoever could, would play a folk song or violin, whatever they could do. Anyway, one night in strolls this devastatingly handsome man, who was from Birmingham University. It was Spencer Davis. I just fell in love with Spence. I swore I would get thin and go out with him.

"And I did."

Christine and Spencer began singing together, fronting the university's jazz band, but, she says, their relationship proved "more musical than illicit."

"Stevie Winwood was about 14, still in school and playing at a jazz club called the Chappel Pub at lunch-time," Christine says. "He met Spencer and they formed the Spencer Davis Group.

"I used to trail around religiously. Boy, they were so hot. Nothing was like that. Stevie Winwood played like I'd never heard anybody play before. It just gave me goose bumps. They were just a blues band, but a really, really great blues band. He [Winwood] could yell the blues. A 15-year-old boy. No one could believe it. The 19-20-year-old girls would have the hots for him."

Christine joined another blues band called Chicken Shack. The gruesome cover photo, showing severed fingers in a can, won an art award for their first album, Forty Blue Fingers Packed and Ready to Serve. "We had an underground following," Christine deadpans.

Chicken Shack did occasional gigs with Fleetwood Mac, and Christine, now playing piano, was invited to guest on some of Fleetwood's early sessions because she "played the blues the way Peter liked." She never had designs on any of the band, she says. Besides, both Green and McVie already had girlfriends.

Christine stops and slaps her forehead. "I'm forgetting a whole two-year episode with a Swedish guy I was engaged to. Ended up totally traumatizing my kitten who hated me evermore 'cause I just ran around the house screaming when he left me. I scared the shit out of it."

Caught up in her storytelling, Christine is not the same woman Stevie Nicks has characterized as "very private, very much to herself." She shakes her head, as if she's been talking too much. "I can't believe I'm remembering all these things." But, she continues, "I went to see Fleetwood Mac one night. John didn't have his girlfriend . . . He asked me if I wanted to have a drink and we sat down, had a few laughs, then they had to go onstage. All the time I was kind of eyeballing ol' Greenie. After the concert was over, John came over and said, 'Shall I take you out to dinner sometime?' I went, 'Whoa . . . I thought you were engaged or something.' He said, 'Nah, 'sail over.' I thought he was devastatingly attractive but it had never occurred to me to look at him."

They went out for a time, then John McVie disappeared overseas for Fleetwood Mac's first American tour. "By this time I was really, really crazy about him," Christine recalls, "but I didn't know what was happening with him. Chicken Shack did a ten-day stint at the Blow-Up Club in Munich and I had this strange relationship with a crazy German DJ who wanted to whisk me off and marry me. I turned him down . . . and wrote John a big letter."

Fleetwood Mac returned from America and McVie proposed. They were married ten days later, mostly to please Christine's dying mother. But John and Christine didn't see much of each other. Both bands toured often and when she left Chicken Shack, she tried a disastrously unprepared solo tour and LP. Christine gladly retired to be John McVie's old lady.

"I thought it was extremely romantic," she says. "Obviously a little bit of the glamour of what Fleetwood Mac was in those days rubbed off. It was almost like someone marrying a Beatle. You married one of the links in the chain and you were part of them.

"We were very happy. Very happy for probably three years and then the strain of me being in the same band as him started to take its toll. When you're in the same band as somebody, you're seeing them almost more than 24 hours a day. You start to see an awful lot of the bad side 'cause touring is no easy thing. There's a lot of drinking . . . John is not the most pleasant of people when he's drunk. Very belligerent. I was seeing more Hyde than Jekyll."

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