The story of Fleetwood Mac is the greatest rock’n’roll soap opera ever told. After a fragmented run of 36 years, enlivened by drink, drugs, sex and insanity, the plot has taken a new twist with a return to the group’s most feted line-up and an album hailed as their best for decades.
The band not only wrote the book on excess but bound it in hand-tooled sequins. Floating on clouds of white powder, lashing out £2m a year on parties and competing with each other in ostentatious consumption, Fleetwood Mac at full throttle could give those hotel trashers Led Zeppelin a run for their money.
The attrition rate has been harsh: two previous members became delusional and a third pursued his accountant with an air rifle for having the gall to offer him a royalty cheque. Amid serial infidelities, two relationships shattered within the tightly knit group.
Despite these distractions, Fleetwood Mac produced sublime music, notably their 1977 album Rumours, which sold 25m copies and became the highest selling album of all time, later surpassed only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
After Rumours, which chronicled their emotional traumas, the band soldiered on in various permutations, but their glory days seemed gone. They revived in 1987, when the band reassembled for the first time in five years. It is the prospect of that line-up, with their new album Say You Will, that is now exciting critics and fans.
Although they acquired a polished California pop veneer, Fleetwood Mac began as a British blues-rock band that rocketed to the top of the British charts with the ethereal instrumental Albatross in 1969.
Throughout their many incarnations, the only consistent members of the band were drummer Mick Fleetwood from Redruth, Cornwall, and bassist John McVie from London — the rhythm section that provided the group with its name. Their hard-edged sound was fused with the soft rock of an American couple, lead guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend, the singer Stevie Nicks.
It is these four survivors who have settled their differences to bring out their first studio album in 16 years. The band is now a monument to disintegrated relationships. The married Fleetwood fell briefly in love with Nicks, to Buckingham’s distress. Six months after divorcing his wife, Fleetwood remarried her, only to separate from her again. McVie divorced his wife, the group’s keyboard player, after she left him to live with a lighting technician.
Fleetwood recalled: “We had two lead singers at each other’s throats and everyone was splitting up from their partners. Every person in that band was emotionally bankrupt. But out of the chaos came the biggest rock’n’roll of all time.”
There were other wounds. McVie had an alcohol-induced brain seizure. Nicks’s 20-year addiction to cocaine reportedly burnt a hole in her septum the size of a 10p coin.
Nicks claimed that she had undergone four abortions during her stage career. “I’ve sacrificed my whole life to Fleetwood Mac,” she said. “A point comes when you have to quit or die.”
Fleetwood woke up to perform only between bouts of coke and bottles of brandy. “It was a wild trip that didn’t stop for nine years,” he said. “I tried very hard to leave the planet and I nearly did. It was fun, but it was a bloody nightmare and I would never do it again.”
The roots of Fleetwood Mac lie in a legendary blues band called the Bluesbreakers, which won a huge following in the early 1960s with talents such as guitarist Eric Clapton. Other members were McVie, Fleetwood and a guitar virtuoso named Peter Green. Inspired by the success of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, this trio decided to break away in 1967 and the embryonic Fleetwood Mac had its first outing at the British Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor that August.
The 6ft 6in Fleetwood was described thus by the Los Angeles Times in 1970: “With abdomen-length stringy hair and comic-strip features that are perpetually frozen into a gape of unspeakable horror, this gangling chap is certainly one of modern rock’n’roll’s truly unforgettable characters.”
In fact, he was the antithesis of a rock freak. The son of an RAF officer, he spent his early childhood in Egypt and Norway. At Sherborne school in Dorset he distinguished himself in acting and fencing before leaving to play drums in a nightclub for £7 a week and a nightly plate of spaghetti.
Neither he nor McVie, who had been a member of a semi-professional band, were ranked among the best instrumentalists, but they drew inspiration from the genius of Green. The band was an immediate success on the British club and college circuit and their 1968 debut album, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, topped the UK charts.
Most observers agreed that 1970 would be the group’s finest year. However, the year was only half over when it was shaken by Green’s bizarre departure to a religious commune. There had been clues when he appeared on stage in white robes and wearing a huge crucifix. (In 1977 he was committed to a psychiatric hospital after he admitted having a .22 pump-action rifle at his accountant’s house. He said he did not want a penny of the £30,000 annual royalties owed him.)
Seven months later the band received another jolt when Jeremy Spencer, their slide guitarist from West Hartlepool, quit hours before a concert to join the Children of God cult. Then guitarist Danny Kirwan, afflicted with acute stage fright, ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
Matters improved with the arrival of Christine Perfect, an exceptional singer and pianist from Birmingham, who married McVie after a courtship of two weeks.
It was Fleetwood who persuaded the group to leave England and resettle in America in 1973. The two final components in the band’s winning formula were added when Fleetwood happened to hear an album recorded by the American boy-girl songwriting partnership of Buckingham and Nicks.
Both were fugitives from rich families: Nicks’s father had been vice-president of the Greyhound Bus Company and Buckingham’s father was president of a coffee company.
Within a year the album Fleetwood Mac had sold more than 3m copies in America alone. Beneath the surface, however, loathing and distrust over sexual misdemeanours were abrading the group’s unity. It spoke volumes for their professionalism that it did not affect their performance.
“I think we all felt ‘this is hell’, but there was nothing else to do but make the best of it,” said Christine McVie. “It was a question of having to get on, even if we felt like tearing each other’s hair out.”
Seriously rich from the Rumours album’s £80m proceeds, they spent with abandon. Fleetwood, who admitted blowing £8m on drugs, drink and failed property deals, bought a clifftop home in Malibu and a fleet of vintage cars. Christine McVie purchased a mansion and a pair of Mercedes cars bearing licence plates named after her two dogs. Her former husband settled for a schooner at Marina del Rey and a house in Beverly Hills, while Nicks settled into a mock-Tudor residence above Sunset Boulevard.
Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 album Tusk topped the UK charts but it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold the band together. Solo projects became a simpler alternative to walking the collective tightrope.
Buckingham, who had withstood the torment of being in the same band with his former lover for years, finally walked out on the group as a “survival move” after the band’s successful Tango in the Night album in 1987. “Back then, we had to go through this elaborate exercise of denial, keeping our personal feelings in one corner of the room while trying to be professional in the other,” he explained.
The classic line-up of Fleetwood, the McVies, Buckingham and Nicks reunited to play President Bill Clinton’s inauguration gala in 1993 (he appropriated their hit Don’t Stop as his campaign theme song) but it led to nothing. Commercial success eluded a new version of the band.
The soap opera is now wending towards a happy reprise. The reassembled group say they are not on a nostalgia trip and they certainly do not need the money. The music of Say You Will is said to be searing and intense, so perhaps there is an element of therapy in this get-together. “Some of it is retrospective catharsis,” Fleetwood admitted last week.
Or is it an excuse for another bacchanal? “Absolutely, 100% not,” he averred. “I can say categorically there is not one element of this band that is attracted to going back to the oh-so-great days of the 1970s when we used to get stoned out of our heads all the time.” Shame.