Phil Smith on the exquisite Christine McVie, who sensationally returned to play with her old band Fleetwood Mac on the last night of their recent world tour.
Fleetwood Mac’s live performances have always been the stuff of legend, and none more so than the deranged but brilliant productions of ‘Rhiannon’ during the tours of 1976. Watching these clips back now, the road that they would soon head down becomes so clear. The passion of the performance is one that could not be matched by any of their contemporaries, borne out of the irreversibly intertwined lives the band were now leading. As Stevie Nicks follows solos from drummer Mick Fleetwood and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham with a performance of mesmerising stagecraft and impressive vocal range, it seems obvious that this was a band on the cusp of both stratospheric success and personal despair. Indeed, the intensity in Mick Fleetwood’s eyes make it clear that the first would inevitably lead to the latter.
However, hidden away in the back corner, Christine McVie seems thoroughly detached from the drama of the performance, gently providing backing vocals and keyboard accompaniment. Though her personal strife was central to the Fleetwood Mac narrative, it is always striking to note how little impact it had on her music. For this remarkable songwriter, music was not a forum in which to release the inner angst that being part of music’s greatest soap opera inevitably brought, but a platform to write songs that quietly but joyously affirmed her faith in the human spirit.
Nowhere is this more obvious than on the iconic album Rumours, and in particular the sumptuous ‘Songbird,’ which exists as an island of calm and hope on a record that was epitomised by anger and despair. Rumours in an album about love, but almost exclusively the bitterness and negativity of lost dreams. ‘Songbird,’ however, is a track of grace and endearing simplicity, one of the most touching love songs ever penned. That it was written as her marriage with bassist John disintegrated makes it all the more remarkable. Though it did not reach the popularity of her other classic ‘Don’t Stop’ among the general public, it instantly became a fan favourite. That it would become an almost permanent feature of live encore’s highlights the importance of Christine McVie. Though the conflict within the band was enthralling and intoxicating, no one wanted to go home thinking its members were doomed. McVie’s subdued positivity was the lifeline for bandmates and fans alike, particularly for her troubled ‘little sister’ Stevie Nicks.
Of course, it helped the popularity of McVie’s tracks that she possessed not just lyrical excellence but also the talent for producing some of the biggest and best hooks pop music has ever seen. Fleetwood Mac was always a fusion and eclectic mix of sounds; it was this that enabled their music to transcend the era in which it was written. Their greatest albums played out more like novels than records, in which differing chapters of styles and stories developed in tandem. Their most famous tracks were the ones in which the musical and personal connections met together, turning ‘The Chain’ and ‘Tusk’ into true juggernauts of emotion and music. It was McVie’s hooks, however, that became most distinctive and proved to be the most enduringly evocative.
It is of no surprise, then, that my first memory of really noticing a song should be one written by McVie. About 7 years old, sitting in the back of the car with my Mam, noticing her singing along to the chorus of ‘Little Lies.’ The most fleeting of moments, it would be years until I heard the track again and took an active interest in who had come up with it, but that hook was as irresistible as it had been the first time round. Her spectacular return to form on 1987 album Tango in the Night revived the flagging band, resulting in some of the best known hits of the Fleetwood Mac songbook.
Though McVie’s personal marriage to bassist John collapsed, their musical marriage remained strong, with his blues and funk inspired playing adding new dimensions to her classic hits, coming full circle from the heady days of the late 1960’s when McVie would regularly watch her bands forerunners lead by Peter Green weave their way through the ‘blues boom.’
Thanks to tracks such as ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Seven Wonders,’ Christine McVie would establish herself as one of pop’s leading figures of the 21st century, even if it brought little personal public attention or ceremony. The ease with which she communicated emotion and allied it to her instruments could not be matched by any around her. Not unlike Messrs Lennon and McCartney, the enduring accessibility of what she produced allowed her to flutter constantly in and out of peoples lives, her hooks leaving traces all across popular culture. She fluttered into our cars, our offices, our homes.
It was this unique knack McVie possessed that allowed Fleetwood Mac to become the most popular band of their era. Their worldwide fan base was and remains colossal, encompassing millions who have been engrossed by the tale and the music of the entire band. More importantly, however, it is almost impossible to find someone who will not instantly recognise a Fleetwood Mac hook. Though Fleetwood Mac brought little personal fulfilment to Christine McVie or her bandmates, it brought immense fulfilment to a generation, and a recent revival suggests it may continue to do so.
At the heart of this was the musical genius of all the group, but the scale of the success would be inconceivable without McVie. Like the songbirds of which he she once wrote, it only ever takes one call, and you are forever hooked.