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Why We Love It When Fleetwood Mac Keep Breaking Up

The band’s firing of Lindsey Buckingham might be the most quintessential chapter yet in the band’s epic saga of dysfunction

Fleetwood Mack, Lindsey Buckingham

Rob Sheffield reflects on why Fleetwood Mac's firing of Lindsey Buckingham sums up their wild history of dysfunction and drama.

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Now this is Peak Mac. Could this happen to any other band? Fleetwood Mac, the crew that loves breakup drama more than any other six or seven bands combined, topped their own standards on Monday, with the announcement that they’d fired Lindsey Buckingham. This split is more than one of the year’s strangest headlines – it’s a new dysfunctional chapter for the fivesome who wrote the book on packing up and shacking up. This is the most quintessential Fleetwood Mac move they’ve ever made. Any band can explode a time or three, but only these guys could break up continuously for 40 years, putting each other through untold agonies and then always coming back together for more punishment. The Mac is dead; long live the Mac.

If these were any other rock stars, you’d suspect them of staging a split so they can squeeze in one more tearful reunion tour before they hit their eighties – Coachella 2023, here they come. But if there’s anything we know for sure about Fleetwood Mac, it’s that they have no ability to control the torture they inflict on each other (or on us). They are the band destiny has doomed to suffer for our sins, acting out every couple’s messiest secrets in public, reliving every stage of the pain cycle in a ritual repetition, like five Siddharthas of heartbreak. “Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice”? They should be so lucky. Only these five gypsies could keep getting hit with the same lightning bolt over and over, electroshocking each other into eternity.

In the band’s most recent appearance on January 26th, to accept the award for MusiCares Person of the Year at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, Lindsey Buckingham admitted they thrived on the conflict. “It was much of the attraction and much of the fuel for our material,” he told the crowd, “Not very far below that level of dysfunction is what really exists and what we are feeling even more now in our career, which is love. This has always been a group of chemistry.” They undermined each other’s speeches – Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and Christine McVie all mocked Stevie Nicks as she spoke – before playing a set of five classic breakup songs, ending with (what else?) “Go Your Own Way.” You couldn’t have scripted a better final scene.

As for all that “love” Lindsey mentioned, well, this is a band of players, and they only love you when they’re playing. Barely two months after the MusiCares ceremony, Fleetwood Mac dropped the bombshell that they’re hitting the road with two replacement guitarists: Mike Campbell, from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Neil Finn from Crowded House. “We are thrilled to welcome the musical talents of the caliber of Mike Campbell and Neil Finn into the Mac family,” the statement said. “Fleetwood Mac has always been a creative evolution. We look forward to honoring that spirit on this upcoming tour.” As Mick Fleetwood elaborated to Rolling Stone, “We know we have something new, yet it’s got the unmistakable Mac sound.”

Self-sabotage is a key part of the Mac mythos, so this twist is just kind of perfect. As a great woman once sang, rulers make bad lovers, and the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup is four rulers battling for an extra inch or two of control, always threatening to flounce. And as they’ve documented in their songs, they’ve shared epic badness as lovers. Even John McVie, who has never shown any visible aspiration to rule anything besides his bass and the occasional ballcap, is tangled in the breakup history. Imagine playing that funk bass line on “You Make Loving Fun” – then imagine you’re playing it for a song your ex-wife wrote about her new guy, who is the band’s lighting director. During the making of Rumours, Mick Fleetwood called Stevie Nicks into the studio parking lot to tell her they were cutting “Silver Springs” from the album, for no reason except everybody else was mad at how good it was. 

That’s a key reason why we gravitate to the Mac. Ever since Rumours, this group has symbolized the idea of a broken community forced to keep living and working together, reliving their worst memories. As John once said, “About the only people in the band who haven’t had an affair are me and Lindsey.” Even at their poppiest, the songs are full of pain, which is why they remain so alive, whether it’s Harry Styles covering “The Chain” or Lorde doing “Silver Springs.” That mystique will remain even if Harry replaces Lindsey. Or if Lorde replaces Stevie. Or if Selena and Justin replace both of them. Hell, maybe all five band members can get replaced by Fifth Harmony, so Camila Cabello can sing “Never Going Back Again” until they eject her offstage with a cannon, like they did to her body double at the VMAs. But these five Mac lifers will never be able to escape each other. They are cursed to keep picking up the pieces and going home.

Even before Stevie and Lindsey joined in 1974, the band had a long history of changes. (Original leader Peter Green was a guitar god with his own moody beauty in “Underway,” “Jumping at Shadows” and “Man of the World,” until he sadly disintegrated.) But there was always something especially combustible about the Buckingham/Nicks chemistry – in Stevie’s words, “the five original cast members” – as they poured their trauma into Rumours, Tusk and Mirage. When Lindsey quit on the eve of their 1987 tour, they replaced him with little-known sidemen Billy Burnette and Rick Zito. (This line-up actually released a couple of albums, strange as it seems.) He returned for the 1997 reunion The Dance, the album that defined the Mac legend as we know it today, an album that’s older now than Rumours was at the time.

It was only four years ago that Christine McVie rejoined, bringing the classic lineup back together. Just last year, she and Buckingham released their surprise duet, Buckingham McVie, featuring four fifths of the Mac – it would have been their big reunion album, except Stevie bowed out to do a solo tour. It had a theme song for their On With the Show tour, two years after it ended. Typical for this crew. As Lindsey recalled to Rolling Stone in 1984, around the time of his brilliant and demented solo album Go Insane, “I can remember during Rumours, saying to Mick, ‘Well, things don’t seem to be going exactly the way I would like them to go.’ And he said, ‘Well, maybe you don’t want to be in a group.'” (Mick Fleetwood, unlikely voice of reason.) In the same interview, Lindsey claims his bandmates, none of whom he’s seen in two years, are plotting to replace him with another guitarist – Pete Townshend. Too bad they didn’t call Pete this time.

Lindsey has always been a mystery man – with his eccentric obsessions and solitary work habits, he’s been in the odd position of an underrated weirdo cult genius who happens to lead one of the world’s biggest bands. His songs on Tusk – “Not That Funny,” “What Makes You Think You’re the One,” the peerless “I Know I’m Not Wrong” – are the core of the Lindsey mystique, homemade solo space-case guitar sketches. Not far off from the music Alex Chilton or Mark E. Smith or the Swell Maps were making at the time, or the music Pavement and Sebadoh made a decade later. (It can barely be overstated how bizarre it is that “Tusk” was a Top Ten single. I mean, cocaine was popular in the 1970s, but not that popular.) Lindsey seems like the exact opposite personality type to be in any band – least of all this one. It’s an ironic fate for the guy who wrote “Never Going Back Again” – a song about a man trapped in a cyclical on-and-off affair, vowing that he’ll finally move on this time, until that finger-picking guitar lick loops back around and he’s right where he started. Been down one time, been down two times, keeping going back up and down in perpetuity.

In a way, the quintessential Lindsey moment is his “yeeeaaah” at the end of Christine’s “Say You Love Me,” while the band is chanting the final “falling, falling, falling.” What the hell is that “yeeeaaah” doing there? It’s a solo Lindsey cameo that’s wildly out of place in this song, which isn’t by him, or even about him. Yet his acerbic voice adds the dash of salt that makes the song complete. Everybody’s songs get improved by Lindsey butting in – the best example would be his sneer in the chorus of another Christine song, “Little Lies.” (“Tell me, tell me, tell me liiiies!”) He sounds exasperated and pissed, even though he’s neither the liar nor the lied-to. But without the authentic spite he adds, “Little Lies” would be a fraction as powerful as it is.

Lindsey and Stevie talked to Rolling Stone‘s Andy Greene in 2012, in an astounding he-said she-said interview that reads like couples therapy. “Lindsey and I will always be dramatic,” Stevie confesses, maybe unnecessarily. Lindsey adds, “We’re a group of people who, you could make the argument, don’t belong in the same band together. It’s the synergy of that that makes it work. It also sort of makes us the anti-Eagles in terms of never, ever being on the same page.” Yes, you could make the argument these people don’t belong in the same band – but in a way, Fleetwood Mac’s music is that argument, which is why they resonate on a level the Eagles never could. Their meltdowns are a crucial part of their artistic statement. Lindsey and the band are permanently mismatched, yet permanently linked. And that’s why their latest break-up is just another reason we hear ourselves in their story and their music. May they keep breaking up forever. 

In This Article: Fleetwood Mac, Lindsey Buckingham

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