Mac in the Saddle
Well, all those Rumours were true: After going their own way for more than a decade, Fleetwood Mac have reunited. Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham recounts the glory days, the breakup, and the return of one of the greatest pop bands of all time.
by Alan di Perna
Photography by Pamela Springsteen
ADULT ROCK. THOSE two words might never have been used together had it not been for Fleetwood Mac. Or at least they wouldn't have sounded as convincing together as they did in the mid to late Seventies, when Fleetwood Mac were piling up the platinum with hits like "Over My Head," "Rhiannon," "Say You Love Me," "Dreams," "Don't Stop," "Go Your Own Way," "The Chain" and "You Make Loving Fun."
Adult rock was a historical inevitability as baby boomers moved beyond college and into the slower-moving but potentially more treacherous waters of marriage and career. Fleetwood Mac were wired into that passage in an uncanny way. Their 1977 album Rumours (25 times Platinum and counting) is a landmark, not only for its well-crafted songs but for the way it reflected the very public break-ups of the band's two couples that took place during recording sessions for the album.
Bassist John McVie and keyboardist Christine McVie divorced, and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham split up with singer Stevie Nicks. The creative processes of the album got all mixed up with the disintegration of the musicians' romantic relationships. With Rumours, Fleetwood Mac blurred the distinction between art and life-not only their own lives, but also the lives of countless listeners embroiled in those dysfunctional Seventies relationships that would go on to give birth to rootless, disgruntled Generation X.
"That was part of the appeal of the album for the audience at the time," says Lindsey Buckingham, relaxing over coffee at a Beverly Hills hotel between mixdown sessions for Fleetwood Mac's televised reunion on MTV. "It was clear that there was something going on beyond the music: the theater of interaction between these people making the record. Probably nine out of the11 songs on that album were written specifically about other members of the band. It was a musical soap opera, if you will."
Fleetwood Mac's close link with the aging Sixties generation was reinforced at the start of this decade when Bill Clinton used the band's hit "Don't Stop" to cinch the boomer vote. But shake the songs free of all that cultural baggage and you just might find that they stand on their own merits as elegantly spare, pop rock gems.
Other Seventies artists tried to make rock for adults by defecting to more "grownup" genres. Steely Dan went for overcooked jazz chords. The Eagles forged a self-conscious style of country rock. But Fleetwood Mac remained faithful to the pop idiom that they and their audience had grown up on. Their streamlined song structures and effortless vocal harmonies flowed from the same timeless pop sources that had nurtured everyone from the Shirelles to the Beatles to Todd Rundgren.
Lyrically, Fleetwood Mac's straightforward approach connected with audiences on a more immediate level than the abstruse verbal self-indulgences of Donald Fagen or Don Henley. Much of the Mac's knack for classic pop understatement is attributable to Buckingham, who was not only the group's guitarist, but also a key songwriting voice and a major production force within the band.
"I grew up listening to pop in general," he says simply. "And pop always tries to economize. I've always loved that about it."
BEFORE LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM and Stevie Nicks came along, Fleetwood Mac were pretty much a rhythm section in search of an identity. They'd started off as a blues rock band in 1967 when John McVie, drummer Mick Fleetwood and guitar legend Peter Green broke off from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. By the Seventies, McVie and Fleetwood were the only original members left, and the band had undergone numerous personnel changes, eventually morphing into a mildly successful soft-rock outfit with Christine McVie on keyboards and vocals and guitarist/singer Bob Welch as front man.
But things didn't really crystallize for the band until Buckingham and Nicks were drafted to replace the departing Welch in 1974. A Northern California duo who'd only just begun their recording career, the couple brought fresh young blood and new life to Fleetwood Mac.
As a guitarist, Buckingham's craftsmanship served to support and subtly enhance Fleetwood Mac's songs. His compact, ethereal acoustic tones added shimmer to the group's trademark vocal trio harmonies, and his electric playing injected a shot of grit into a sonic recipe that might otherwise have amounted to mere ABBAesque candyfloss. Buckingham has never been a showoff on guitar, but six-string aficionados have come to value the seeming effortlessness with which he can move from intricate fingerstyle playing to incandescent flashes of rock solo brilliance.
Complementing Buckingham's guitar, vocal, songwriting and production skills, Stevie Nicks swelled the ranks of Fleetwood Mac with still another distinctive songwriting and singing voice. She also brought Fleetwood Mac something it had always lacked: a captivating frontperson.
Nicks' hippie/gypsy/sorceress style and Lady of Shalott ringlets bewitched pop culture bigtime. She was the first siren of adult rock. Throughout the Eighties, her image telegraphed the message that a mature woman could be just as hot as some sweet young thing bursting out of a halter top. Visit any shopping mall today and you'll see that the "Stevie Nicks look" never really died out.
Fleetwood Mac had that ability to be all shines to all people. They struck an ideal balance: comprised of three English rockers (Fleetwood and the McVies) and two Yanks (Buckingham and Nicks), they were also a "mixed gender" band that had blues roots and pop savvy. It was a magic combination that held together for 12 years and four studio albums, despite internal conflicts, drug excesses and all the other pressures that go with life at the top of rock's game. These problems eventually led Buckingham, and later Nicks, to tender their resignations.
Two Fleetwood Mac albums were released after Buckingham's 1987 departure: 1990's Behind the Mask (with Nicks on vocals) and 1995's Time (with Bekka Bramlett on vocals). Both met with fairly indifferent responses from public and press. Meanwhile, Buckingham consolidated a solid critical reputation with his 1991 solo album Out of the Cradle and his two Mac-era solo discs, Law and Order and Go Insane. It was actually work on Buckingham's forthcoming new solo album that led to this year's Fleetwood Mac reunion.
"I happened to cross paths with Mick, who had gone through a lot of changes since the last time I'd seen him," Buckingham reports. "We got together and had breakfast, and we were getting along so well that I said, 'Mick, would you like to come in and play drums on some tracks on my solo album?' He did, and we got some great tracks.
"From there, since I still didn't have a bass player, we thought, 'Let's get John in.' We did that, and I found my take on John was totally different than it had been when I was in Fleetwood Mac, because I had learned a lot in those 10 years away from the band. I was able to appreciate John a little more. Then we said, 'Well, now we need some keyboards,' and we obviously thought of Christine.
"So suddenly, there were the four of us sitting in the control room one day, going 'hmmmm.' It felt really good to be together. And that sort of switched the light bulb on in our heads."
Stevie Nicks, who'd been pretty much out of the public eye since her 1994 solo album, Street Angel, also assented to a Fleetwood Mac reunion. So the group went into rehearsal and did two days of taping for MTV. The performances will also be released on a live album, all coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Rumours' release. The reunited quintet also plans to play 40 live dates in the States and possibly some shows in Europe. Besides revisiting their old hits, the band tried out four new numbers for the MTV show and live album.
"Stevie wrote a sort of country ballad called 'Sweet Girl,' " says Buckingham. "Christine brought in an uptempo song with a pop feel called 'Temporary One.' Mine is a real barn burner called 'My Little Demon.' We also did a song from my new solo album, but I'm not sure if it'll make it onto this live album or not. It's called 'Bleed to Love Her.' There's some imagery for you."
In all, Buckingham seems pleased with the way things have turned out: "When I left Fleetwood in '87, it really was as a physical and emotional survival move. The situation then was not a very kind one for creativity, not a very nurturing one. But during the 10 years since then, I've been able to re-focus my energy and idealism. To bring that back into the chemistry of the group now, and to have the support of the other four people, has just been tremendous."
GUITAR WORLD: When did you first meet Stevie Nicks? LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM: In high school. She's a year older than me-I graduated in '67 and she was in the class of '66. She first arrived at my school when I was a junior, and she just kind of flew in somewhat flamboyantly and became popular at school. I think she was working on being a bohemian type even then, with the poetry and all of that. I had met her briefly at some social occasions. She was aware that I played guitar, and I was aware that she played guitar and sang. We had some rapport, but that was about it. Then she went on to junior college, I stayed on in high school, and we didn't really hook up again until the next year. We got together in a band called Fritz; I played bass and she sang.
But it wasn't until that band broke up in 1971 that Stevie and I became romantically involved. That's also when we began doing music as a duo. We moved down to L.A. in '72. We got a record deal and put out an album the following year [Buckingham Nicks, Polydor, 19731. We were trying to make a second record when the offer to join Fleetwood Mac came along.
GW: The story goes that Mick Fleetwood "discovered" you and Stevie at Sound City [recording studio] in Van Nuys, California. BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. Mick was looking for a place to record the next Fleetwood Mac album, and heard good things about Sound City from a friend. The studio was owned by an engineer named Keith Olsen, who demonstrated the sound of the facility by playing Mick "Frozen Love" from Buckingham Nicks, which had been recorded there.
My guitar playing must have made an impression on him, because when Bob Welch quit Fleetwood Mac in late 1974, Mick called Sound City and told them he wanted the guitar player he'd heard.
But I said, "Well, Stevie and I are a package deal." He took that information back to Christine, who, I'm sure, had to think about that a bit.
GW: Had you been a Fleetwood Mac fan prior to being asked to join the band in 1975? BUCKINGHAM: There were so many incarnations of Fleetwood Mac. I was not aware of many of them. When I was still living up in Northern California, I was aware of Then Play On [1969, Reprise] because the album's single, "Oh Well," was maybe the only thing by Fleetwood Mac that had made it onto the radio back then. So I'd heard that whole album and obviously loved it, but that was it, really. So when Stevie and I were asked to join Fleetwood Mac in 1975, we actually had to go out and buy all the Fleetwood Mac albums to get a sense of how the band had evolved since the '69 lineup with Peter Green.
GW: Was that whole blues guitar idiom that Fleetwood Mac came out of an important part of your development as a guitarist? BUCKINGHAM: Not at all, really. Which was one of the reasons why, at first, I wasn't sure if I was going to fit in. I was more interested in songs. A 12-bar gets boring for me after the first couple of choruses. I can appreciate that there's a lot going on within that structure, but that wasn't my thing. I grew up listening to Elvis and the way Scotty Moore played, who used a pick but also used his fingers. Then I got into a lot of folk things after that and picked up the bluegrass banjo. So there's a finger style that runs through all of what I've done. I've always appreciated people who were able to incorporate the guitar into good record making; Like Chet Atkins' playing on the Everly Brothers' records. You don't really notice what he's doing, but if his guitar wasn't there, it wouldn't be a record. It's just an understated thing that comes in and goes out: a lyrical, rhythmic way of filling a hole and then receding into the background. That's something that I have always aspired to. And the blues, to me, was not that kind of craft, not that kind of mentality.
GW: Was that trademark Fleetwood Mac vocal harmony blend there right from the start? BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, right from the start. I mean Stevie and I had this great two-part thing going-kind of an Ian and Sylvia tension [Ian and Sylvia Tyson were a husband-and-wife folk duo who recorded in the Sixties-GW Ed.] As singers, Stevie and I both are on the nasal side, which works really well in a two-part Appalachian kind of harmony style. And Christine has this very round, flutey voice that warmed up the whole thing. It's probably even a voicing that you could put down to some theory. It was just apparent right away that it was something that really worked.
A lot of things were apparent early on. Going into the rehearsals, Stevie and I had a backlog of material, so there was enough quantity for the rest of the band to be able to look at what we had to offer them, songwise, and feel comfortable in choosing what would work with what Christine had to offer. There were no problems going in. That itself was almost a little unsettling.
GW Did any songs from the Buckingham Nicks-era make it onto the Fleetwood Mac [Reprise, 1975] album? BUCKINGHAM: Yes, a song of Stevie's called "Crystal"; that was the only thing. But on the Fleetwood Mac Live album in the early Eighties, we did a Buckingham Nicks song called "Don't Let Me Down Again."
GW: What were the politics of songwriting like in Fleetwood Mac, as far as whose songs got used? Was it strictly a "one of mine, one of yours and one of yours" type of arrangement? BUCKINGHAM: To some degree. We tried to make it as democratic as possible. You want to have the band as a whole giving thumbs up or thumbs down to any particular offering. That's always a good filtering system. Because I tend to write more uptempo material, there would usually be a song or two more of mine in the live set, just for the momentum of the show. But on record we tried to make it as even as possible. Although sometimes that didn't work.
GW: How did playing with the legendary Fleetwood and McVie rhythm section affect your guitar style? BUCKINGHAM:I don't think it affected my playing in too many ways, except that I had to leave more holes and there was less for me to do sometimes. John is an aggressive bass player. It took me a long time to appreciate that. When he and I first were in the studio, I was always saying, "make it simpler, make it simpler." Sometimes there was a "this town ain't big enough for both of us" kind of vibe. But somehow we made it work. I had to back off. And sometimes he backed off if I hounded him. It's not so much of a problem now- I appreciate his artistry a lot more. He's a very sophisticated bass player, somewhere between McCartney and Mingus.
GW: What are your memories of making Rumours ? BUCKINGHAM: Christine and John were breaking up. Stevie and I were breaking up, although in a more drawn-out, ambiguous way than Christine and John. With Christine and John it was over really quick. Whereas Stevie and I were more like, "Well I don't know..." There were times when we were sleeping together and times when we were officially something else. But there was definitely a moving apart.
GW: And all of this was happening while you were in the studio, working on the album? BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. So then you start writing songs about what's happening to you. You've got these dialogues that are directed at other members of the band and that are about what's going on while you are recording the songs. It was just such a crazy time. We started up in Sausalito [at what was then the Northern California Record Plant-GW Ed.]. I don't know why Mick wanted to do it there, but Sausalito was filled with freaks back then and is probably still pretty crazy. And there was a lot of pressure. "Over My Head," off the Fleetwood Mac album, had become a hit. And then when 'Rhiannon' kicked in, it really raised the stakes for us. But we didn't want to repeat the previous album's formulas. We wanted to break away and find the unexpected through chaos a little more. And clearly there was chaos. That's the way the album felt. After Sausalito, we worked in Florida for a while because we were still touring and working on the album between legs of the tour. Then we came back and worked at Wally Heider's in Los Angeles. It was a long haul. And I don't think we necessarily realized how close to the bone the music was until we started assembling it. The whole process had been a challenge. Like with Stevie's music. I'd always been this kind of soulmate who always somehow knew what to do with her music-how to complement it and bring out its best. But there were times when I really had the urge not to do that, you know? So I had to keep checking myself-keep challenging myself to be a better person than I felt like being at times.
GW: Guitarwise, what do you remember about making Rumours? BUCKINGHAM: I think we were interested in getting a little closer to the approach that we had on stage. The first album was a little Iighter. Some of that was Keith 0lsen's approach to getting guitar sounds. On Rumours we got a little bit of a ballsier thing going on guitars.
GW: Is the song "Gold Dust Woman" an early comment on drug excess in Fleetwood Mac? BUCKINGHAM: I believe so. You'd have to ask Stevie [who wrote the song-GW Ed.]. I think it's a song about keeping going and trying to maintain [yourself] under bad circumstances. But it is a drug song, though. No doubt about it.
GW: Had that situation reached critical mass as early as Rumours? BUCKINGHAM: No, not with Rumours. As far as I'm concerned, it reached critical mass sometime in the mid Eighties. It was a factor in why I left the band after Tango in the Night in 1987. But not the only factor. I felt as if I'd been treading creative water ever since Tusk. GW: Tusk  was, for you, an album made very much in the shadow of punk rock. BUCKINGHAM: Not "in the shadow of." It was more that punk rock was a motivator. It encouraged me to see that there were other things going on that resonated with ideas that I'd been having.
GW: You were one of the few established rockers back then who really acknowledged punk's existence. For the most part, the attitude was, "That doesn't exist." BUCKINGHAM: Right. That was the feeling within the rest of the band. I'd bring in a record by the Clash, or even something like Talking Heads, and the others were just turned off by it. I guess because it was young and enthusiastic, and maybe not at as high a level of musicianship. It wasn't as mature as the rest of the band saw themselves. But that music was so open to new ideas, and that's what got me.
GW: There's a real sense on Tusk that you're in one place, and everyone else in the band is somewhere else entirely. BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. I always felt it was my first solo record. It's too bad it couldn't have been more of a synthesis between what the band felt comfortable with on Rumours and some of the new places where I wanted to go. It's said that when Warner Brothers, sitting in the board room, heard Tusk for the first time, they "all saw their Christmas bonuses flying out the window." There was a lot of political backlash when Tusk ended up selling on y five million, or whatever it sold, rather than the 16 million that Rumours sold at the time.
GW: Is Tusk the first album in the Fleetwood Mac canon that you started to record at home? BUCKINGHAM: Yes. And that was not an easy thing to pull off. I remember going up to Mick's and having a band meeting. I said, "Look, there's some areas I want to grow into, and maybe initially to do that I need to futz around at my house and experiment-have some psychic space to myself." That was not a good meeting. I understand: in everybody else's eyes, I was being a troublemaker. I wasn't playing ball. It was just one of those things that was nobody's fault. There was no one right point of view. In retrospect, I've heard everyone in the band say, "Gee, Tusk was a really cool album. But it took a long time."
GW: A lot of the guitar tones on Tusk are dry, strange and wonderfully peculiar. BUCKINGHAM: Yes, they were. A lot of that was because I was working at home and didn't have any outboard gear at all. I had a 24-track tape machine, a small microphone preamp and a tiny little monitoring console. And I had a great-sounding bathroom right across the hall. I used that for ambience. So it was all very much "on the natch."
GW: How did the others in the band react to ideas like using the USC marching band on the record? BUCKINGHAM: Well, that was Mick's idea. It was a stroke of genius. I had the song 'Tusk,' and we had it all done. I don't know how he came up with the idea of adding a marching band to it, but it was brilliant. The challenge of that was getting the marching band on the existing track, in sync with the other instruments. Mick had this whole idea where he wanted to film it. We went to Dodger Stadium and got the band out on the infield. They had a remote truck there. Needless to say, it took a while.
GW: What was life on the road with Fleetwood Mac like? BUCKINGHAM: Some people lived life to the hilt more than others. I was never a big party guy. I had an eight-track recorder in a case that I'd take into my hotel room. And on days off, I'd try to work on stuff.
But we all had our moments. The craziest times for me personally-as far as fun times with women and that kind of stuff-were during the early days, right after Stevie and I had broken up. By the time we got into touring, after Rumours and after Mirage, I was living with someone, so that kind of thing didn't really come into play. And, you know, drugs were more a part of life for some than for others. That's all I can say. I was never a big druggie. I mean I'll smoke pot and do...l never bought cocaine, really. Too expensive.
GW: Were Fleetwood Mac part of the much vaunted decadent, L.A.-in-the-Seventies, hot tub, Steely-Dan kind of lifestyle? BUCKINGHAM: You mean the social scene? It's possible. I wasn't. I never went anywhere, really. Mick had a scene going up at his house in Malibu. Richard Dashut [Fleetwood Mac/Lindsey Buckingham co-producer and co-writer] was right down the street. You know, Malibu is and was a magnet for all sorts of strange types. But I hardly ever went out there. They were there, and I was in Bel Air just trying to work and carry on a relationship. I border on being...not antisocial, but I'm just not a party person. A lot of times I'll say, "Yeah, I'll be there!" And at the 11th hour I'll chicken out and stay home.
GW: Mirage  has such a classic American pop sensibility to it: Brill Building, Brian Wilson... BUCKINGHAM: It does, yeah. I think that happened almost by default. Those pop aspects were always there, even on Tusk and certainly on Rumours and Fleetwood Mac. But there were other things going on to maybe mask those elements a little more. This is just a theory of mine, but I think that whatever was missing by the time of Mirage in terms of unity within the band-made the constructions underlying the songs a little more apparent. The spontaneity had gone out of our playing, so the artifice began to show through a little more. In the beginning, we'd had this great sixth sense of interlocking as four musicians. But by that point the musicianship had gone down a couple of notches. It was almost more of an overdubby kind of thing. And to some degree, even the writing had become less tied to the spontaneity of a process or an idea which was in that moment. With those elements missing by the time we got to Mirage, what was left was sort of a classic American... I don't want to say cliche, but a thing that's more identifiable with something you've heard before.
GW: The other thing is that Mirage marks the advent of compositional collaboration in Fleetwood Mac. You started writing with Richard Dashut, and Christine began working with a few different co-writers. BUCKINGHAM: That's right. And again-not taking away from Richard, who has a lot of great raw ideas-I think that came about through the absence of my own resolve. I'd been feeling a little weak and was looking for a shepherd of sorts. But having said all that, I do think there are some really good things on Mirage. I think "Gypsy" was one of my best collaborations ever with Stevie. Not that I co-wrote it with her, but in terms of what I do for Stevie as far as arrangement and things go. I think that was one of the most effective pieces we've ever done.
GW: Her country rock songwriting direction on that brought out a high lonesome kind of guitar style in you. BUCKINGHAM: [reluctantly] Yeah...we bring out the corn in each other.
GW: Your production role grew steadily within Fleetwood Mac, to the point where you get the "lead" production credits on Mirage and Tango in the Night . BUCKINGHAM: Actually, no. My production role didn't grow steadily. The style of production just became more visible. I mean, if you were to ask Richard or any of those guys, "Who produced Rumours?", they'd all say, "Lindsey was the guy with the vision." I didn't ask for a production credit on Rumours and I didn't get it. Richard feels bad about that. There were band politics involved in that. Even on Tusk, you may notice, it says like "special thanks for..." Come on! I don't think I had any less of a hand in what you'd could call production on Rumours than I did on Tango. It was just a different thing. By the time we got to Tango, the constructions are more obvious than they are on Mirage. Because there was less of a band presence to work with. So it became more adorned. You had to make up for a natural interplay of musicians that wasn't really there.
GW: Now, you worked on that one at your house in Bel Air. BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, everyone was up at the house. We had a Winnebago parked in the driveway. It was a major scene up there.
GW: You've said that Tango is the album where the drugs really took their toll. BUCKINGHAM: That album took close to a year to make, and I think we saw Stevie for about three weeks out of that time. And these weeks weren't the greatest three weeks. Nobody was in a good place, really.
GW: That's also the album where you began using the Fairlight [an early digital keyboard workstation-GW Ed.]. BUCKINGHAM: A little bit. We just did whatever we could, really. We had to take little bits of Stevie just singing off the cuff and make a whole vocal track out of that, because that's all we'd get out of her. I played a lot of the bass parts on that.
GW: Did your flirtation with the Fairlight affect your approach to guitar in any way? BUCKINGHAM: Only in that it made me play guitar less. For a while, I'd turn to that rather than pick up a guitar when I had an idea in my head. So it took me away from my center-my guitar playing. There are two songs in this new live show, "Big Love" and "Go Insane," where I'm just playing guitar and singing by myself. And that's when I feel I'm really at my best.
GW: How did it feel to get together with Fleetwood Mac and play all those old songs? BUCKINGHAM: It was a little weird the first couple of days, I have to say. I was sitting there redoing. "Now, what was it I used to do on this song?"
GW: Can you remember the first one you tried? BUCKINGHAM: I think it was "You Make Loving Fun," and "The Chain." A lot of it was like getting back on a bicycle after you haven't ridden for years. You never really forget. Maybe 80 percent of it was like that. It's the other 20 percent where you feel the pressure, like being on a putting green. There was a week or two of panic; we'd only given ourselves six or seven weeks for rehearsal. I think we were lucky that it was for TV. Because if you blow a part, you can start over again and the audience digs being involved in the process. In the end, though, I think we managed to pull it off.
GW: Are there plans to do other projects as Fleetwood Mac, beyond this? BUCKINGHAM: That depends on whom you ask. If you ask Mick, he'll say, "Oh, we'll probably go in and do a studio album." If you ask me, my first priority really is finishing this solo album that I'm working on. I think it's the best thing I've ever done. Hopefully, it will come out in the spring. Beyond that, I can't really say. I'm not discounting the possibility of going in the studio with Fleetwood Mac again. We're all having a good time. It is a nice family feeling, to have all these people you care about around you and not have all the emotional baggage that used to be there. So we'll see what happens.
Thanks to AV for submitting this to the newsgroup.