Fleetwood Mac

Stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to describe drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. They’re the most persistent, tireless, roll-with-the-punches rhythm section in rock history. Since original (and long-gone) bandleader Peter Green founded Fleetwood Mac in 1967 — named for his bandmates, with the “Mac” added to entice McVie to join — the pair saw lineups disintegrate in every way imaginable. One guitarist fled mid-tour to join a Christian cult. Two frontmen fell victim to mental illness brought on by LSD. Inter-band love (and sex) famously tore the band apart while massive success brought in a mountain of cash and an avalanche of powdered distraction. But these two soldiered on, keeping the band active throughout 17 albums, 70-plus singles, and five decades — forever locked in.

While Fleetwood and McVie formed the backbone, it was the revolving sea of faces that churned out the hits and lent the band its shifting identity. Starting with Peter Green’s blues era, up through the restless soft-rock explorations of Bob Welch, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks, over a dozen songwriters have done time in the Mac. With the band set to reunite in 2013, and just about everyone paying their respects on an upcoming all-star indie tribute album, let’s look back at the long line of personalities that make up one of the greatest, and strangest, rock bands of all time.

Peter Green Blues (1967-1970)

In its earliest form, Fleetwood Mac came to fame playing straight British blues better than anyone. Splintering directly out of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers at their peak, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie came to their new band with a pedigree. Green led most of the early albums and generally gets more credit as a brilliant improvisational guitarist, but early addition second guitarist Jeremy Spencer had an equally deft hand when it came to blues composition. Spencer wrote several of the earliest songs, including “My Heart Beats Like a Hammer,” the first song off their first album, which shows the band in classic form.

After the second all-blues album (Mr. Wonderful), 17-year-old Danny Kirwan was brought on as third guitarist, due to Jeremy Spencer’s refusal to play on Green’s songs. Even at this early stage, inter-band dynamics were … complex. Kirwan’s first recorded output was the non-album instrumental single “Albatross,” one of Green’s songs that would usher in a newly delicate approach. The song points to the softer sounds of Fleetwood Mac in the following decade, and left a particular mark on everyone from The Beatles (who straight up lifted the riff for “Sun King“) to David Gilmour. For an instrumental, it was a massive hit.

Like so many bands of the ’60s (every band?), Fleetwood Mac eventually discovered LSD. According to legend, while crashing at a Munich commune, Green dropped acid and lost his shit. In later years he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, likely triggered by the drug. After the rest of the band refused to donate all their earnings to charity (they were doing quite well), he wrote his final Fleetwood Mac song, “The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Prong Crown)”, which is arguably about money, or Green’s retreating sanity, or both. With screeching guitars and creepy “oohs” and “ahhs”, the song was heavy enough to work its way into the Judas Priest repertoire a decade later, but the original still kills.

Transitions (1970-1975)

After Peter Green slid out of sight, things took a turn. 1970′s Kiln House saw Jeremy Spencer writing odd parodies of ’50s rock before vanishing mid-tour, never to return. Meanwhile, Danny Kirwan was mining folk and progressive rock to come up with something new and gorgeous. “Sands of Time,” an ill-fated single off 1971′s Future Games, saw Kirwan trading electric leads with new guitarist Bob Welch in an extended, haunting jam. It’s very … 1971.

New addition Bob Welch was brilliant in his own right. If Kirwan led Fleetwood Mac away from the blues, Welch followed his lead and pushed even further toward melodic experimentation, guiding the band through this period more than any other member. Even though it would be his signature solo hit in later years, Welch originally recorded “Sentimental Lady” on 1972′s Bare Trees. The de-glossed original comes up less sappy but just as sincere, an early example of F-Mac’s gift for pop arrangements.

The early ’70s brought constant turmoil while the band struggled to assert its identity — hits were few and far between. Danny Kirwan was deteriorating due to alcohol and drug use; Mick Fleetwood eventually sacked him in ’72. Guitarist Bob Weston and singer Dave Walker were brought in for 1973′s Penguin, but they wouldn’t last. Walker was out after Penguin, where the band found him a poor fit; Weston was fired when his affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife came to light, setting the stage for the bed-hopping to come in later years. Bob Welch held on longer than most, all the way through 1974′s Heroes Are Hard To Find, though he never saw the commercial success that the next lineup would enjoy. When the band was eventually inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Welch got the shaft and was unfairly snubbed. This past June, Bob Welch was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

Of all the members to join during the transitional years, Christine McVie was the most vital. While initially married to John McVie, she joined in 1970 as keyboardist, singer, and songwriter, bolstering the core lineup of Fleetwood and McVie for the next 28 years, and raking in just as many hits as Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. “Come a Little Bit Closer” is one of her best lesser-known songs: an earnest ballad from Heroes Are Hard To Find, set to strings and pedal steel.

Stars Align (1975-1987)

Disillusioned after a long, horrible lawsuit relating to a “fake Fleetwood Mac” who toured the US in their name, Bob Welch quit shortly after the tour for Heroes Are Hard To Find. The surviving members found themselves in California in search of replacements. By chance more than anything, Mick stumbled across Lindsey Buckingham recording demos at Sound City Studios. Lindsey had been recording as a folk pop duo with then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks; the two were quickly drafted, and the “classic” Fleetwood Mac lineup was in place. Adapting several existing Buckingham Nicks songs, along with new songs from Nicks, Buckingham, and Christine McVie, 1975′s Fleetwood Mac was the colossal hit the band had been chasing for years. Money rained from the heavens. All was right in the world.

Stevie Nicks burst forth fully formed and roaring with quiet ambition with her first single, “Rhiannon,” immediately marking a change in direction for the band. A haunting melody, Nicks’ witchy mysticism, and a tight band arrangement took a mellow song and made it an instant FM classic. Pretend you never heard the Best Coast rendition — the original is brilliant.

The pressure of success was immediate after Fleetwood Mac. The two couples in the band — Lindsey and Stevie, John and Christine — were both struggling, while Mick Fleetwood was pulling himself out of a messy divorce. Stress, paired with newfound piles of money and drugs, led to the infamous tension surrounding the recording of Rumours. Somehow, despite a history of losing members and changing lineups on just about every record, Fleetwood Mac held it all together to record their very best album. Numerous hit singles conquered the pop radio charts — the band had successfully channeled their collective pain into a polished but unflinching record, and it took the world by storm. “The Chain” was the only song co-written by all five of the “classic” Mac lineup. John McVie’s back-half bass line highlights the rhythm section at their best while Lindsey gets maximum mileage out of a one-note guitar solo, and the incessant vocal harmonies combine for one of the finest moments in F-Mac history.

More success meant more money, more drugs, and more commercial pressure to turn out a similar hit in the vein of Rumours, which would end up selling 40 million copies. Lindsey Buckingham took the production reins for the 1979 follow-up and set the controls for somewhere strange, leading to one of the most expensive experimental records of all time (probably topped only by Chinese Democracy). Listening to Tusk, you can practically hear the cocaine. Fueled by drugs, paranoia, and an unlimited budget, Buckingham churned out nine of the album’s 19 songs on his own, with production ranging from straight-to-the-board guitar noise to gorgeous multi-tracked harmonic experiments. Equally fascinating and frustrating, it’s a sprawling double LP with one of the most nonsensical top-10 hits of all time (next to “Batdance“): Buckingham’s twitchy, tribal title track.

After the relative failure of Tusk — only 4 million copies sold — Lindsey and Stevie released solo records, and Stevie’s career took off. The band reassembled in 1982 to try and recapture the magic of Rumours, leading to the release of their next album, Mirage. There were a few hits, but much of the fire was gone, mostly replaced with generic soft rock. It wasn’t until five years later that the Mac would properly return with Tango In The Night, though it would be their last release with the classic lineup intact. Tango added synthesizers, programmed drums, and an all-around updated sound. The retooled approach led to another pile of hits, including “Big Love,” with its ridiculous his-n-hers sex noises (all provided by Lindsey) building to a climactic finish.

Time Apart (1987-1997)

Lindsey jumped ship just before the tour for Tango In The Night, ending the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup, and forcing the remaining members to find a quick replacement. Two new guitarists were brought in to fill the void left by Lindsey, Rick Vito and Billy Burnette. Behind The Mask was released in 1990, which saw the band awkwardly reaching back to the blues and consciously embracing adult-contemporary production. It’s pretty weak. Without Buckingham’s domineering presence, most songs lacked focus. Stevie Nicks teamed up with old buddy Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers for one of the few standouts tracks, “Freedom.” Check out that bridge.

Back to their member-shedding ways, the Mac would undergo all sorts of lineup turnover before coming up for air in 1995 with the worst album of their career. Rick Vito and Billy Burnette were gone, replaced by Bekka Bramlett and Dave Mason of Traffic. If Behind The Mask was weak, Time was comatose. No Lindsey, no Stevie, no bueno. About the only thing of interest was the album-closing spoken-word piece written and performed by Mick Fleetwood himself. Mick, an old British dude who makes for a naturally silly narrator, waxed nostalgic on Peter Green, the departures of Lindsey and Stevie, and bemoaned the absence of God, only to find Him somewhere in the final verse. All the talking was understandably set to a backdrop of rainforest drums, sad strings, and awful female whisper vocals. It’s amazing, and terrible, and hilarious.

Almost Whole – (1997 – Present)

After the disaster that was Time, the classic lineup reunited for a one-off live album, The Dance, followed by one last tour. Christine McVie promptly retired after the tour. 2003 saw the release of Say You Will, which was an improvement on the last couple records, despite the absence of Christine McVie. Buckingham’s material had only grown stranger in later years, but the Mac are no stranger to strange, and it brought a necessary spark to the album. “Murrow Turning Over In His Grave” featured Lindsey lamenting the current state of media while tearing through the most aggressive guitar solo of his career.

Stevie Nicks recently announced the reformation of Fleetwood Mac for a tour and possible album in 2013… exactly who will appear on the tour and album is unclear. With Fleetwood Mac, anything — and everyone — goes.

Comments (8)
  1. i love mid-80′s Mac…Little Lies, Gypsy, Hold Me

  2. Great summary.

    I really like the format of this article. It definitely filled in a few gaps in my Mac knowledge. I was aware of the ‘fake mac’ that went on your, but I wasn’t aware how multi-layered the conflicts between the band members were in the early days.

    I’m gonna give the pre-Nicks/Buckingham catalog another listen.

  3. Throughout the 90s I kept my Fleetwood Mac love a secret, since it definitely wasn’t cool during the grunge days to be a fan. If I was ever caught listening to their music, I’d pass it off as nostalgia for my parents and the music they raised me on. I’m so relieved that people are getting excited about this music. Now I’m out and proud Fleetwood Mac fan!

  4. This article inspired me to listen to about 25 Fleetwood Mac songs. So, thanks for that. I never got the hate for the Mac. I always listened to them and always enjoyed them, no matter what other types of music I was into at the time. It wasn’t until very, VERY late in their career – like, post-Christine McVie – that I realized a lot of people really hate them.

  5. Still a criminally underappreciated band by listeners, even though it is much admired by musicians. For whatever reason, people still associate Fleetwood Mac to Stevie Nick’s solo career in the 80s and 90s. Fleetwood Mac is awesome.

  6. Last year I discovered some of the Bob Welch stuff – Mystery to Me is a really good album, and “Hypnotized” is a fucking amazing song. Here’s a link:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3SqYMgKhsk

    Also, I was obsessed with Tusk a few years ago (and still am). There are a few clunkers but the Nicks and Buckingham songs are ridiculously good.

  7. DJing at the Benicassim International Festival in Spain, most of the requests were Fleetwood Mac… by UKers in their 20s!

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