Fleetwood Mac: Happy at the Top - Rolling Stone
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Fleetwood Mac: Happy at the Top

Band not bothered by rumors of a split

Fleetwood Mac

FLEETWOOD MAC, John McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks performing live onstage at Wembley Arena, UK, June 25th, 1980.

Peter Still/Redferns/Getty

Mick Fleetwood was amused. He’d just heard a radio report that Fleetwood Mac – the group in which he’s played drums for fifteen years – was breaking in a new singer. This, he thought, was funny. The band was rehearsing for its first tour in more than two years, but a new singer? “They literally thought it was true,” he said, grinning.

“I wonder where they get that stuff,” puzzled singer and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. He looked at Fleetwood. “Or is this your way of telling me I’m fired?”

The mood of the band members as they sat by the pool at the Hollywood Hills home of their publicist was light and relaxed. After all, what’s a little talk when your latest album is Mirage, and it is the country’s Number One LP?

Sure, the stories are still told: like the rumors that singer Stevie Nicks tried to buy her way out of the band after the huge success of her solo album, Bella Donna. But Nicks wasn’t around to comment; on the advice of her manager, Irving Azoff, she was the only group member who declined to speak to Rolling Stone.

But the four other band members remained unconcerned. “I’m not saying that we might not hate each other by the time we get off this tour,” said the lean, high-voiced Buckingham. “But right at this time, everyone is having a good time.” Yes, they admit, it’s possible that Nicks will leave; it’s also possible— though less so– that Buckingham or singer-keyboardist Christine McVie might leave. But so what? Since 1967, Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie have lost Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green and Bob Welch, and if this tour turns into the swan song for this lineup—always a possibility—then they’ll probably go out and find somebody else.

“We must sound like a band of nutters,” said John McVie, usually the quietest and most distracted member, but also the bluntest and most outspoken when he decides to speak.

“People wonder how we can possibly get along,” said Christine McVie, laughing. “We are five very different individuals, I’ll say that. Also very strong-minded. That’s the nature of the beast. But this is a good combination of musicians.”

“I think there’s a lot of tolerance in this band,” added John McVie, quietly.

His ex-wife laughed. “Yeah, there is that, John.”

“That’s why I said it, dear.” He looked down. “Enough said.”

Lindsey Buckingham knows all about tolerance. Two weeks later, he sat in the back of a limousine that was taking him and his bodyguard——one of the band’s five——to New Jersey’s Meadowlands for the group’s New York-area appearance; while the other members each took individual limos to the show, Buckingham talked about the work habits that separate him from the rest of the band.

“I’m not trying to be reactionary or anything,” said the man who recorded part of the band’s quirky 1979 Tusk album on his hands and knees, singing into a microphone on his bathroom floor. “But when you have limitations on your tools, it opens things up. They become more honest, more interesting.”

Once the obvious questions about Fleetwood Mac – “Are they breaking up?” and its corollary, “Is Stevie leaving?” –are deflected, the story of this band is one of a dedicated eccentric trying to fit his idiosyncrasies into a sleek, hit-making machine. Buckingham is almost single-handedly responsible for the brave, audacious Tusk; he’s the one member dedicated to flailing away at the constraints of Big Rock & Roll.

Things came to a head for Buckingham four years ago, on the heels of the polished Rumours, a 16 million seller Mick Fleetwood describes as “a freak.” Typecast as the shaggy Northern California hippie, Buckingham found himself fascinated by the New Wave music he began hearing. “That stuff really gave me a kick in the ass,” he said. “Maybe it was something I had wanted to do but didn’t know how. Or maybe I just didn’t want to make waves – I don’t know. But it was exciting.”

Buckingham, though, was stuck in Fleetwood Mac. “I think he was seeing this big shadow over him,” said Mick Fleetwood. “Like he thought Fleetwood Mac was gonna potentially stop him. So he came over, and we spent three days sitting on my front lawn wondering what the fuck we were gonna do.

“Mainly, Lindsey was saying, ‘I don’t know how to ask you or John— what if I want to play drums or do something on my own?’ I had to say, ‘Well, if it sounds good, who gives a shit?’ It doesn’t say much for this situation if after fifteen years it can’t take care of everyone within it.”

“It’s always hard for me to ask for something,” said Buckingham. “It was real hard to work up the courage to say, ‘Listen, guys, this is something I have to do. It’s not gonna make it easier for you if I’m home doing my own song in my bathroom or my garage, but I have to.’ Mick understood, but John and Chris really didn’t, and it did cause problems during the making of the album. Maybe I was being selfish—I don’t know.”

The result was what Fleetwood calls “the most important album Fleetwood Mac will ever make,” the record that kept Buckingham happy and paved the way for Law and Order, his nervy, quietly subversive solo pop LP. Other Macs also found outside work: Nicks recorded Bella Donna, Fleetwood went to Africa to make the percussion-oriented The Visitor, and John McVie toured with John Mayall and Mick Taylor in a reunited Bluesbreakers.

Mirage is more of a group effort than anything since Rumours. “Tusk was great, but it had no sense of community to it,” admitted Buckingham. “It didn’t seem fair or right to do that again.” So they decided to play as a band on every song on the new album, which was not an easy decision, since Nicks and John McVie——the latter a necessary part of every track—hate recording studios.

First, they spent eight weeks recording in France. For most of that time, and during the subsequent sessions in three stateside studios, they worked in typical Fleetwood Mac fashion: Christine, Mick and Lindsey in the studio, lots of painstaking overdubs with Buckingham in charge (though he doesn’t like to talk about it, he adds his touch to just about all of the band’s compositions), and through it all, in Christine’s words, “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

Though Mirage, the end product of those sessions, is commercial and accessible enough to garner frequent comparisons to Rumours, the band members strongly deny any such calculation. “People say this is Rumours II. I don’t see it that way,” said Buckingham. “I certainly see it as a more conservative album, but there are a lot of albums coming out by artists who are sounding a little more pop and a little softer—Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson.”

Onstage later that night, the band played it relatively safe with an effective, powerful set that varied little from the ones they had played the past couple of tours. (“It’s not too clever to get fancy ideas when you’ve only got eighteen shows,” said Fleetwood of the band’s shortest tour ever – partly because Christine has her own record scheduled, partly because Stevie didn’t want to tour at all.)

Fleetwood and John McVie were the rock-solid rhythm section Buckingham played the edgy, intense ringmaster; Christine McVie, the soothing professional. As usual, Nicks got the lion’s share of applause for her swirling veils and mystical anthems to sisters of the moon. Afterward, though, an astonished Christine McVie held up a teddy bear. “Somebody actually handed this to me,” she said. “Usually Stevie gets all that kind of stuff.”

Calculated or not, Mirage worked: in a few weeks, it hit Number One, a position Tusk never reached. Christine said she expected the showing and was surprised only by how fast the record hit the top slot. John McVie agreed, adding that he always expects to sell millions of copies. And if not? “I think we’d disband,” said Christine.

To most of this band, chart position and sales figures mean a lot. “The only yardsticks you have are Billboard, Cashbox and Radio & Records,” said John McVie firmly.

“You also have what’s in here as a yardstick,” said Buckingham, slapping his chest. “You can’t let that other stuff be your motivation for making albums.” He was adamant; just because Mirage hit Number One doesn’t make it any more of a success in his book: “No, no, no. Not to me. You’ve got reviews, you’ve got other things.”

Even so, it doesn’t seem that Fleetwood Mac has to worry. Even the expensive, confusing Tusk was a financial success, suggesting that it is possible to challenge pop audiences without losing them if you have the right name and track record. But if you want to shake things up, Buckingham has learned, you’ve got to be ready to take some abuse. “Even in the band, I remember getting flak afterward for having done Tusk,” he said. “I remember Mick saying, ‘I think you went too far.’ “

“Well, I think you did,” said Fleetwood. “As far as the presentation of your songs, a lot of them never got played on the radio.”

“Well, but so what?”

Mick sighed. “Yeah, I know, but….”

“My songs aren’t getting played on this album either!”

As John and Christine laughed uproariously, Fleetwood protested. “You know what I meant.”

Lindsey forged on. “You can’t put the Clash up against Olivia Newton-John and expect the Clash to get the airplay.”

“I know, but….” Mick trailed off.

“I know,” muttered Lindsey. He then stopped himself short. “My God, what is this—a therapy session?”

John McVie laughed heartily. “Sounds good to me.”


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