BIG MAC IS BACK : Together Again for an Album, but for How Long?
Leave Mick Fleetwood’s cliffside home in Malibu at 11:30 most mornings and you can make it to the driveway of Lindsey Buckingham’s modern, single-story house in Bel-Air by noon. Travel east on Sunset Boulevard--past the Beverly Hills Hotel and the lavishly landscaped estates of Coldwater Canyon--until you’re at Christine McVie’s two-story English manor. Figure 10 minutes.
Head east again on Sunset, beyond the Roxy and Tower Records, and a turn up the hill puts you at Stevie Nicks’ split-level pad with its post-card view of the city. Fifteen minutes tops. Then it’s just a quick trip across Laurel Canyon to John McVie’s modest Spanish-style dwelling in North Hollywood. The whole trip: well under 90 minutes.
It sounds like it would be easy to get the five members of Fleetwood Mac together to make a record--but for most of the last five years, Warner Bros. Records execs wished that it were only that simple.
As time dragged on, there was widespread speculation throughout the record industry that the Big Mac (Over 40 Million Albums Sold) had finally disintegrated amid personal problems and conflicting career objectives. And there were tensions, band members acknowledged in separate interviews.
But Fleetwood Mac proved the skeptics wrong, rebounding in April with “Tango in the Night,” an album that was greeted with strong reviews and encouraging sales. It’s already in the Top 10 in the United States, Canada, England, Australia and West Germany. Promoters around the country are eager for a tour.
Yet “Tango in the Night” may be the Big Mac’s last hurrah.
Buckingham, acknowledged by all parties to be the chief architect of the band’s highly seductive sound, has been thinking for years about stepping out of Fleetwood Mac to concentrate on his promising solo career. The timing may finally be right.
“I would not have wanted to leave the group on the ambiguous note that (the 1982 album) ‘Mirage’ sounded,” Buckingham said. “There were lots of things left hanging out on limbs . . . finances, emotions. I think there was also some pride at stake.
“This band has done some remarkable things and ‘Mirage’ was no way for it to say goodby. I think we had something to prove and we did it in the new album. So, it now feels like the time.”
You could have got some handsome odds around town in recent years if you were willing to bet Fleetwood Mac would never see the Top 10 again.
After its “Rumours” album in 1977 established the band as one of the most successful rock acts ever, the quintet has had its share of lumps in the ‘80s.
Mick Fleetwood, “fired” as the group’s manager after the 1979 “Tusk” tour, declared bankruptcy. John McVie spent two years drinking his boredom away on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. Nicks’ hectic schedule led to a chemical dependency that resulted in a visit last year to the Betty Ford Center. Lindsey Buckingham agonized over his role in the band.
But Fleetwood rejects the idea that these problems were major. He points to the earlier trials of the Big Mac, including the tempestuous “Rumours” recording sessions.
John and Christine McVie, longtime members of the band, as well as Buckingham and Nicks, who had joined just before the “Fleetwood Mac” album in 1975, both ended long-term relationships. The McVies were married and Buckingham and Nicks had lived together for four years. That resulted in extraordinary tensions in the studio.
Looking back on the months of “Rumours” recording, Fleetwood said: “That was an amazing time for all of us. I was going through a hell, too (a divorce), but I was spared the studio thing. . . . So, I have to be a little amused now when all our managers get together and act like there’s some really difficult problem. If you want to talk about problems, we are the masters of it.
“Comparing most of the things that come up now to what we’ve gone through over the years is like telling a war veteran that you just broke your ankle crossing the street. That’s no big deal to the war veteran. He’s seen people’s heads flying off.”
With most bands, there is a single spokesperson who conveys an idyllic picture of life within the group. With Fleetwood Mac, however, there are five distinct personalities who often see things differently.
Each has enjoyed the spoils of success long enough to acquire the independence to speak his and her mind freely. This spirit is also reflected in their interaction. Each member has a separate manager and a separate set of priorities--one reason it took five years to get “Tango in the Night” on the shelves.
Drummer Fleetwood, an imposing 6-foot-6 Englishman with shoulder-length hair, co-founded the group in England in 1967 as a blues-accented unit and, with soft-spoken bassist John McVie, has kept it afloat all these years. He comes across as the elder statesman of the band, one who sees occasional skirmishes within the group as the normal actions of any “family.” Of the five, he appears to worry most about the group’s long-range plans.
Buckingham, a Californian whose brother won a silver medal in swimming during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, has evolved into the band’s musical leader. The guitarist agonizes the most--at least publicly--over the quality and freshness of the band’s work, but seems to subscribe least to the idea of keeping the “family” together at all costs. The reason the group isn’t already on tour to promote the LP is that Buckingham insists on completing his solo album. Indeed, he’s not sold on the idea of touring again at all.
“It’s hard to explain our relationship sometimes,” Buckingham said. “There is a strong, almost psychic bond, but we are not even really friends (in the sense) that we spend a lot of time together. Mostly, we are a group of individuals who happen to sort of play well together. We aren’t even all in the studio at the same time. The only time we are a real band is on stage.”
John McVie and Christine McVie, the band’s two other English members, tend to be less outspoken than the others. They enjoy their lives away from the band and seem generally content to allow others--namely Fleetwood and Buckingham--to be the catalysts.
About the members’ relationship, John McVie said: “It’s true we don’t spend a lot of time together, but I do think of us as a family. It’s like two brothers and two sisters grow up and live in the same town, but that doesn’t mean you have to be in everybody’s front room. You still love them. You feel connected .”
Stevie Nicks, a Phoenix native who was raised in Southern California, tends to be the most passionate during interviews. Though heavily involved in her own solo career (which severely limited her ability to participate in the album), she feels a deep commitment to Fleetwood Mac and is quick to scold outsiders who suggest that the group had fallen apart in recent years.
“I think our real fans pretty much understand what is going on,” she said. “It’s the industry that gets confused. . . . All that talk about ‘Fleetwood Mac is going to break up or has broken up.’ I think they said a lot of crappy things that certainly could have helped it to break up . . . a lot of bad vibes. Sometimes I wish the industry would just go away and leave us alone. We haven’t broken up yet. Our worst album (‘Mirage’) wasn’t exactly a complete bomb. It still sold millions of records.”
How long does it take five musicians to make an album?
That may sound like the outline of a new joke, but the answer is part of the frustrating story behind “Tango in the Night.”
No one in the band meant it to take that long but, then, no one apparently seemed too troubled as the months dragged on.
Interviewed separately, all five members agreed that the group never came close to calling it quits. They simply felt a long break was in order after the “Mirage” tour in 1982--at least a year. This would give the members time to relax and, if they wanted, to do solo albums. Everyone except John McVie, it turned out, did make a solo LP.
“We all expected to get back together, but no one ever set a date when we would get back together and the time just slipped by,” explained Christine McVie. “I was busy redecorating my house, fixing up the garden, being around my dogs. It was the first time I ever had to (indulge) the domestic side of me.
“During that time, I was also writing songs with different people and doing odd things here and there. After a couple of years, I started wondering about the next album, but everyone else seemed busy, so I did a solo album of my own and fell in love. . . .”
Buckingham was working on his third solo LP in the fall of 1985 when pressures began to mount for another Fleetwood Mac album. At first, he planned to continue working on his solo album with co-producer Richard Dashut and let an outside engineer-producer oversee the Fleetwood Mac sessions.
But that plan didn’t last long. After a few weeks, Buckingham put aside the solo project and began producing (with Dashut) the Fleetwood Mac album. They set up shop in Buckingham’s garage studio and began looking for a focus for the album--sometimes joined by one or two members of the band, often by themselves.
Buckingham’s promise to himself: no repeat of the poorly focused “Mirage.”
Buckingham, 37, loves making records, so it’s only natural that he built a studio at his house--and that he suggests the interview be conducted there. This is the same studio where he and Dashut spent hundreds of hours honing “Tango in the Night.”
The boyish singer-guitarist is more comfortable making records than talking about them, and he sits in a straight-back chair like a man preparing to give a deposition. He knows there are lots of touchy areas in the Fleetwood Mac story and he wants to be diplomatic.
Buckingham and Nicks--who made a promising 1973 album together on Polydor Records--didn’t leap at the invitation to join the group 12 years ago. Buckingham has strong musical views and he knew that joining any band would mean a certain compromise.
Fleetwood Mac had enjoyed only modest commercial and critical success in this country, but the first album after the Buckingham/Nicks addition scored highly on both counts. “Fleetwood Mac” sold more than 4 million copies in 1975, soaring to No. 3 on the charts.
Though the pretty, prolific Nicks attracted the most attention as the band moved to stardom, Buckingham was more instrumental in defining the group’s new pop-rock style--a role that increased with each record.
“Rumours” was the blockbuster, a marvelously seductive record about the disintegration of relationships that sold an amazing 12 million copies in the U.S. alone--one of the half-dozen biggest sellers ever.
Despite the success, Buckingham felt uneasy.
“I liked ‘Rumours,’ but to me there was some point where the focus became the sales, not the music,” he said during the interview. “There is a lot of pressure to top yourself . . . to come up with a ‘Rumours II,’ and that seemed like a trap.
“So I went to Mick and said we’ve got to break out of this mold that is slowly closing in on us . . . and that’s what the ‘Tusk’ album was about. I set up a little studio in the maid’s quarters at my old house and began experimenting.”
“Tusk,” released in 1979, was highlighted by all sorts of quirky, unexpected rhythms that gained rave reviews for daring by a mainstream band--and the double-album sold well: more than 4 million copies. Still, it wasn’t “Rumours II” and some in the industry looked on it as a disappointment.
“It was a rebellious thing to do in retrospect,” Buckingham said. “I wasn’t being a team player and you can hear that on the record. If you pull my songs off, they sound like a first solo album. You’ve got these tracks by various members, which run toward the more conservative side, and you’ve got all (my) stuff that sounds real abrasive.
“The drag was I would bring that stuff in and people would really take to it and then a year later, when it turned out it wasn’t going to be ‘Rumours II’ in terms of sales, I think Mick and people started saying, ‘Well, you blew it.’ ”
Going back into the studio to make the next album, “Mirage,” Buckingham felt a lot of pressure--from within and outside the group--to try to regain the commercial magic. He likes some of the songs from the LP, but not the overall work.
“I did that album with resignation and that’s what it sounds like . . . an unfocused album . . . a reactionary piece of work. I was trying to play by the rules, but I didn’t really know what the rules were at that time. It was kinda confusing. I just set my own rules for (“Tango”) and that’s one reason it took a long time.”
No one else in the band used the word fired in connection with the decision to replace Fleetwood as manager aftr the “Tusk” tour, but Fleetwood said it’s an accurate description of what happened--and he admits he was hurt by the action.
The group felt Fleetwood should have curtailed expenses on the “Tusk” tour better so they wouldn’t have come back with little money to show for the dozens of shows, he said.
Fleetwood--who declared bankruptcy in 1984 after some ill-advised real estate investments--said he did point out that the band was living it up too much, but acknowledges he didn’t put his foot down and tell them to stop.
But that’s old news.
Fleetwood, sitting in a conference room at his manager’s office in West Los Angeles, is concerned as a reporter outlines Buckingham’s feelings about the “Tusk” affair.
“You know, I think ‘Tusk’ was the most important album Fleetwood Mac ever made because it was a stepping stone to where the band is now,” Fleetwood said, always eager to put the group’s actions in perspective.
It was Fleetwood--along with John McVie--who joined singer-guitarist Peter Green and guitarist Jeremy Spencer in forming Fleetwood Mac 20 years ago in their native England as a blues-accented band.
He also invited Buckingham and Nicks to join the group.
“Lindsey is far more involved in going through the agonies of (second-guessing) stuff,” Fleetwood said. “It’s just the nature of his personality . . . worrying and questioning. . . . If we had the five of us doing what Lindsey does, the tension would be so great that it would be like an H-bomb.
“I did talk to him about how I thought his tracks could have gotten more (radio exposure) if he had made a few changes in them, but I was never trying to (scold) him. I was just trying to help him. When I went to Africa (to record a solo album) I did one of Lindsay’s songs because I thought they were great songs.”
Fleetwood paused, seeming perplexed.
“Look,” he finally says, “if you do one thing in this article, explain to him that is how I felt about it.”
Stevie Nicks agrees with Fleetwood that no one “blamed” Buckingham for the failure of “Tusk” to keep pace commercially with “Rumours.”
On a couch in the living room of her West Hollywood house, she said: “We all knew in our hearts we were going to get a lot of flak, but it wasn’t Lindsey pulling us somewhere we didn’t want to go. If anybody had hated it that much, somebody would have stood up and said, ‘Stop.’ ”
The band’s best-known member, Nicks has--in her own words--a certain “airy-fairy” image brought about by her sometimes mystical themes and a tendency on stage to twirl around in trance-like fashion.
Surprisingly, then, she is extremely straightforward in person--ready to tackle any question, including her own image.
“I am about as fragile as a bull,” she said forcefully. “That (person you see on stage) is my character . . . something that grew out of my chiffon dresses and my love of Isadora Duncan and free-form dancing. I have been dancing like that since I was 2.
“I wish more people knew that I haven’t lived this delicate little life . . . that I worked hard. I cleaned houses and was a waitress . . . the things that normal women do. I still work harder than almost anybody I know. I’m not some spoiled rock ‘n’ roll princess.”
Nicks, 39, blames her active pace--she has been on the road and/or in the studio almost nonstop for years--for the chemical dependency that led her to check in last spring to the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs.
“I figured that if I wanted to continue going like an absolute maniac that I wouldn’t be able to do that for a whole lot longer . . . that it would eventually hurt my music. I had planned to do it for a long time, but I wanted to wait until I’d have a break from touring and recording.
“I didn’t feel I was strong enough to go to Betty Ford for a month in the middle of a tour because anybody in the world will tell you that if you are going to do something that serious you shouldn’t be stupid and turn around and go right back on stage in front of 75,000 people, where you are going to be terribly nervous and probably want to go back to whatever it was you gave up.”
About the experience at the center, she said: “There were parts of it that I really loved because I love people. Everybody there is trying to be better and in three or four days you made very good friends . . . friends I will have forever.”
“Welcome to the Room . . . Sara,” a song on the new album, was written and recorded after the Betty Ford clinic period--and seems to reflect on her struggle; “You say everything’s fine, baby/But sometimes at night . . . .” Nicks said she felt uncomfortable talking about the chemical dependency because of all the rock confessions airing these days. “The one thing I said to myself when I entered was, ‘Please God, don’t let this be a joke.’ I didn’t want to ever have to do it again.”
Christine McVie comes across like the calm in the Big Mac storm. Recently married (husband Eddy Quintela co-wrote two songs on the “Tango” album) and comfortable in her peaceful Coldwater Canyon home, she seems totally relaxed when being interviewed. To her, there are no troublesome issues or crises. Yes, she is looking forward to more albums with Fleetwood Mac. Yes, she wants to get back on the road with the band. Yes, she expects to make another solo album. Indeed, McVie was the one who, almost accidentally, got the band back into the studio for “Tango.”
She was asked in 1985 to record a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love”--the old Elvis Presley hit--for a Blake Edwards film. Knowing that Buckingham is a Presley fanatic, she asked him if he wanted to play on it. When John McVie and Fleetwood also stepped in, it was the first time the four of them had been in a studio together since 1982.
“We picked up our instruments and played as if we had never stopped,” she recalled. “We didn’t just record that song, but we also kind of jammed around and played some of the old hit songs. It was a good-time, no-pressure situation. We decided that the chemistry we had was still there--even stronger since we had this little hiatus, the freedom to expand a bit on our own.”
About Buckingham’s emergence as the musical quarterback, she said, matter of factly: “It’s just sort of a natural leadership. He spends all his time in the studio--and frankly, someone has to do it. It’s not like we all sit around and say, ‘Yes Lindsey, no Lindsey.’ We have input. I could (veto) things he does to my songs, but he is very good at his craft. I think he and Richard (Dashut) did a remarkable job producing this album.”
The only thing that gives her pause is the thought of what would happen if Buckingham did step away from the group.
“I know that Fleetwood Mac has gone through all sorts of changes, but this configuration has been together for 12 years now . . . by far the longest run of the same five people,” she said. “Although Peter Green left us a great legacy, I still regard Stevie and Lindsey to be primary band members. I don’t think there are replacements for any of us.
“If Stevie were to leave or Lindsey were to leave, I wouldn’t say to the others that we couldn’t write songs together anymore, but it wouldn’t be Fleetwood Mac. I think that’s something we would have to sit and talk about as a band.”
Nicks wasn’t the only member of Fleetwood Mac to have a substance-abuse problem. John McVie was always part of the English musicians’ tradition of hard drinking, but it had grown to where he was drinking up to two fifths of vodka a day in recent years. It took a seizure earlier this year to convince him to lay off the alcohol.
McVie never used to have much interest in interviews and he would probably still prefer to be out sailing, but he did become involved when the drinking problem was raised.
“We sold the house here and moved to St. Thomas (after the) ‘Mirage’ tour,” he said, sitting in the West Hollywood office of the band’s publicist. “It was very pleasant at the beginning, but then I started to climb the walls because it is very difficult to do anything down there except sailing and swimming.
“I ended up drinking myself into the ground out of boredom. I cut down a bit when we moved back here, but it was still pretty bad. And one day I had a seizure. . . . I just collapsed. It scared me, scared my wife, scared everyone.
“I was in the hospital for three days of tests and they said I was healthy as a horse . . . that the alcohol just triggered some reaction. It was a warning system, like someone tapping me on the shoulder with a hammer.”
McVie, who quit on his own, says he feels better than he has in years and is looking forward to touring.
“I love to tour,” he said. “Mick and myself and Christine pretty much grew up on the road. I think once Lindsey is finished with his album and gets out on the road, he’ll love it again, too. People can’t believe we aren’t on the road already promoting the album.
“But that’s the way Fleetwood Mac has always worked. When it is right it will happen, rather than trying to pin someone to the wall and say, ‘ Now. ‘ Everyone has got to want to do it and have the time.”
So what about the future?
The odds are Buckingham will join the group for a tour early next year, but what about another album?
Nicks doesn’t think Buckingham will say goodby.
“When Lindsey says, ‘I think this will be the last record,’ Mick and I and John kind of look at each other and go, ‘Right, we have heard this before.’ It is kind of like a love relationship when someone is constantly saying, ‘I am going to leave you’ and never does.’ ”
It’s hard, too, for Fleetwood to picture an end to the group. Recalling all the personnel changes over the past two decades, he quipped, “The only way you could stop this band is with a firing squad.”
Ultimately, however, the answer appears to rest with Buckingham. He’s already written more than four dozen songs for his third solo album. When it’s through--and that’ll take months--he’ll compare what is lost and what is gained by working apart from the band. Buckingham’s reaction will determine whether “Tango” is his last hurrah with Fleetwood Mac.
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