Fleetwood Mac is perhaps the only group in existence that started out as a man’s band, one that played raw, Chicago-styled blues from the heart of London, but peaked with a rare but phenomenally successful transatlantic pop-rock gender parity. Unusually named after its rhythm section, drummer Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the only two constants in an ever-evolving ensemble that has included 16 current and former members over the last 45 years, Fleetwood Mac began with blistering instrumental chops but negligible songwriting and studio ability. Yet, after several personnel changes, the group created oft-covered recordings of exceptional emotional and sonic clarity.
Held together by male-female bonds that became stronger and more fascinating on the outside as they frayed from within, the Fleetwood Mac that most know and love is the one that substitutes rock’s implicit bromance for an explicit heterosexuality that is both rich and mutually destructive.
Nearly all of Mac’s greatest records — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, Tango in the Night, and parts of Nicks and Buckingham’s solo discs — are those where there were multiple battles raging between men and women, love and hate, self-expression and commerciality, drugs and sobriety, darkness and light. In Mac’s prismatic world, those things weren’t black-and-white opposites, nor did they yield numerous shades of gray. But they did generate a tension that complicated their luxuriously smooth studio-honed surfaces, and brought out the best in their highly individual blend of British vigor for American styles and sunny Southern California mysticism. Mac were soft-rockers who could groove, smoothies who shook their complacency, crafty types who bared their souls. Like the Beatles, Motown, and Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac were truly popular art — instruments and embodiments of cultural change who at their apex created something that will outlast us all. They called it “The Chain.” Here are some of its most significant links.
In Chronological Order
Although they were nearly a decade away from their American commercial breakthrough, Fleetwood Mac were, in the late '60s, an overnight UK success. They had a pedigree: Guitarist Peter Green, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood were all veterans of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, a London hardcore blues band akin to the Rolling Stones before Mick and Keith wrote hits. With the addition of slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who also traded vocals with Green, the foursome became Fleetwood Mac. Unlike Eric Clapton, whom Green had replaced in the Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac initially resisted the temptation to psychedelicize: Their two 1968 albums are thoroughly traditional blues, and have little in common with the studio-finessed pop-rock for which they'd become famous.
These records are so traditional that four Mr. Wonderful cuts — a cover of the Elmore James/Robert Johnson standard "Dust My Broom," "Doctor Brown," "Need Your Love Tonight" and "Coming Home" — begin with the same James riff, and are more or less the same song. The notable addition to this second album is that Christine Perfect played piano on the songs Green led; she soon married McVie, and after Green left, officially joined the band. Years later, her smooth, mellow style formed a template for the band's more familiar future.
Many things changed for Fleetwood Mac right before and after the early 1969 sessions that created these albums, split into two volumes. Because slide guitarist Jeremy Spence didn't want to participate in tracks written and/or sung by guitarist Peter Green, the latter drafted 18-year-old guitarist Danny Kirwan, and the band decamped to Chess Records' Ter-Mar Studio for what would be their last purely bluesy blast. Joined by such famed Chicago players as pianist Otis Spann, guitarist Buddy Guy, harmonica player Big Walter Horton, and songwriter Willie Dixon on acoustic bass, the augmented quintet play hard and loose on blues oldies and songs of their own that are so influenced by their masters that the distinctions are nearly as minimal as the differences between the multiple takes included here. Then "Albatross," a nearly ambient instrumental recorded just before this session, topped the charts back home. Green dropped lots of acid, freaked out, and aimed to give all of the band's money to charity before he quit. Soon after, Spencer fled for the notorious Children of God cult. Now married to John McVie, Christine McVie contributed to more Mac albums and became a fully-fledged member around the same time American singer-guitarist Bob Welch joined in 1971. Kirwan left the next year, finalizing Fleetwood Mac's transition from blues purists to transatlantic FM-rock space cadets.
From the late '60s to the mid '70s, Fleetwood Mac changed members so many times that nearly every album features different musicians. So it wasn't that much of a switch when in 1975 this album featured two singer-songwriters based in Mac's adopted Los Angeles, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. The difference, though, was profound: Now there were pristine harmonies, a consistent emphasis on voices and rhythm, far tighter arrangements, cleaner production and, most surprisingly, a newly interactive band dynamic that complemented disparate writing and singing styles. This lineup meshed like crazy; old-timers Mick Fleetwood and John McVie now played telepathically, keyboardist/singer Christine McVie wrote and sang far more pointedly, and the newbies each had a presence far more individual than any of their accomplished predecessors: Almost overnight, Fleetwood Mac morphed from troupers to superstars.
Hitting that sweet spot between AM catchiness and FM creativity, the new Mac began generating classic singles that defined their era: "Over My Head," "Rhiannon" and "Say You Love Me" pushed this album to the top of Billboard's chart more than a year after its release. More importantly, Fleetwood Mac gels as a coherent statement; its sequencing accentuates the band's varying attributes by playing up its contrasts: Buckingham's galloping "Monday Morning" announces a rocking new beginning, then McVie's "Warm Ways" maintains Mac's post-blues mellow center. Her jaunty piano is front and center in "Sugar Daddy," then Buckingham's haunted, multi-tracked guitars take over on the culminating "I'm So Afraid." Throughout, the band achieves a rare balance of feminine and masculine attributes. Fleetwood Mac now personified the liberation of '70s-style gender equality, one that would heat up even hotter on Rumours.
Fleetwood Mac is perhaps the only group in existence that started out as a man's band, one that played raw, Chicago-styled blues from the heart of London, but peaked with a rare but phenomenally successful transatlantic pop-rock gender parity. Unusually named after its rhythm section, drummer Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the only two constants in an ever-evolving ensemble that has included 16 current and former members over the last 45 years, Fleetwood Mac began with blistering instrumental chops but negligible songwriting and studio ability. Yet, after several personnel changes, the group created oft-covered recordings of exceptional emotional and sonic clarity.
Held together by male-female bonds that became stronger and more fascinating on the outside as they frayed from within, the Fleetwood Mac that most know and love is the one that substitutes rock's implicit bromance for an explicit heterosexuality that is both rich and mutually destructive.
Nearly all of Mac's greatest records — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, Tango in the Night, and parts of Nicks and Buckingham's solo discs — are those where there were multiple battles raging between men and women, love and hate, self-expression and commerciality, drugs and sobriety, darkness and light. In Mac's prismatic world, those things weren't black-and-white opposites, nor did they yield numerous shades of gray. But they did generate a tension that complicated their luxuriously smooth studio-honed surfaces, and brought out the best in their highly individual blend of British vigor for American styles and sunny Southern California mysticism. Mac were soft-rockers who could groove, smoothies who shook their complacency, crafty types who bared their souls. Like the Beatles, Motown, and Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac were truly popular art — instruments and embodiments of cultural change who at their apex created something that will outlast us all. They called it "The Chain." Here are some of its most significant links.
Whereas '77's Rumours captured the reconfigured Buckingham/Nicks-era band cohering even tighter while personally unraveling, '79's Tusk defined the quintet's discordance in musical terms. Christine McVie's opening "Over & Over" couldn't be more serene, but Lindsey Buckingham's demo-quality "The Ledge" is rattled and rough, the sound of chart-topping smoothies thwarting expectations by embracing a New Wave eager to dethrone them. Featuring 20 songs across two vinyl discs, Tusk was created much like the Beatles' similarly eclectic yet often raw White Album – in fragmented combinations of players overseen by largely autonomous songwriters who independently pursued widely divergent ends. It famously cost a million dollars, which made it the most expensive album of the '70s, and so it still represented the old guard at a time when upstarts like Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and the Clash were hitting their confrontational and far more economical stride. Heard, today, though, it still sounds like a radical, willfully anti-categorical album. Mick Fleetwood thinks it's his band's best. It's certainly their most diverse.
Listen to his exuberant drumming on "What Make You Think You're the One" – there's nary a predictable beat. Stevie Nicks's "Sisters of the Moon" pushes the singer's spacey remoteness as far as it'll go until Buckingham finishes with one of his most extreme solos ever; he may be a quintessential studio rat, but here he wails on his instrument with an intensity that rivals rock's most lauded guitarists. The arrangements are typically more concise than what this lineup achieves elsewhere, and not just on the Buckingham-led cuts; McVie's "Honey Hi" and Nicks's "Beautiful Child" take a semi-acoustic approach that's as musically naked as Rumours was lyrically intimate, one that points in the direction of what would decades later be known as "unplugged." But still there's "Sara," as lush as most everything else is lean, and the tooting title track, one of the most singular songs ever to crash the U.S. Top 10. Like Peter Gabriel, Buckingham absorbed the freedom of New Wave without pillaging its sounds: The total absence of click-y, clack-y Cars guitars – which some old-timers of the era embraced in a half-hearted attempt to be hip – helps Tusk stand the test of time. So does the fact that what's here is so fearless.
Blatantly commercial, glossy, and booming, Stevie Nicks's 1981 solo debut was everything Tusk was not. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Eagles' Don Henley and Don Felder, Roy Bittan of the E-Street Band, Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. & the M.G.'s, top session guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and future Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine are among the rock royalty employed on a record diametrically opposed to then-cresting New Wave; where there would ordinarily be one or two guitars, there's seemingly a half a dozen. The opulence is almost operatic; recalling Bob Ezrin's work with Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, Iovine's production offers the femme-fronted leather and lace answer to glam rock's sequins and glitter, one that would no doubt inspire Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Although Iovine, then her paramour, lacks Buckingham's thorough synergy with Nicks, this nevertheless remains her most consistent solo album; the ornate title track, the rumbling "Edge of Seventeen," and Petty's pained "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" are nearly as flattering as her Mac best.
1981's Law and Order is truly a solo album: Lindsey Buckingham plays and sings nearly every part on it. The production is meticulously super-tweaked: Every guitar and vocal overdub glistens as though it was recorded with the best of microphones in rooms with impeccable acoustics; there are times when everything is so bright and shiny that the effect is Disney surreal, as if Buckingham and his Mac studio collaborator Richard Dashut had sped up the tapes or at least sprinkled them with pixie dust. The fluidity of his guitar runs in "Trouble" is amazing, but it's part of a bigger, twinkly picture full of tinkling triangles, cracking castanets, and cooing background cries. This song and most others here revisit the innocence of late-'50s/early-'60s pop, but the ultra-vividness of Buckingham's technique estranges his output from his models, just as lounge lizards like Les Baxter distilled bachelor pad exotica from world music.
1982's Mirage is as much a response to the inevitable drop-off in sales for 1979's Tusk as the daredevil art of that album was a reaction to Rumours' astronomical success. It continues in the Brill Building vein of Lindsey Buckingham's then-recent solo disc Law and Order; his "Oh Diane" could've begun as an outtake from that album, and even Stevie Nicks's "That's Alright" sports a retro country vibe. But beyond the hits "Hold Me" and "Gypsy," the songwriting isn't as impactful as Mac's mid-to-late '70s output, and the arrangements are similarly restrained. Ordinarily far more driving than the soft-rock norm, the John McVie/Mick Fleetwood rhythm section here dials down the band's R&B foundation – the one constant in its many permutations – on several tracks. Fortunately it's still there in Nicks's "Straight Back" and in Buckingham's "Eyes of the World," and it helps the lesser material gain traction. "Empire State" is a welcome Tusk throwback and a continuing New Wave acknowledgement. But elsewhere there's the strong suggestion that Buckingham is withholding both his studio magic and his ability to twist West Coast adult pop conventions into something intrinsic to this unusual band's idiosyncratic chemistry. Mirage's best still works, but the rest is lighter and more ordinary.
Following Fleetwood Mac's 1982 Mirage and brief U.S.-only tour to promote it, the band went on hiatus, and this was its first fruit. Whereas Stevie Nicks's 1981 solo debut surrounds the singer in dense rock, her 1983 follow-up balances the guitars with keyboards, more propulsive drums, and a welcome feminine touch. The lineup is the largely the same; even Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers drop by again for a second duet, "I Will Run to You," but the addition of new collaborator Sandy Stewart, who sings, plays keys and co-writes a couple of tracks, helps contemporize the star. Nicks gives her strongest performances where the melodies require the least embellishment, like on the Stewart co-written "Nightbird." Several tracks, particularly the opening "Wild Heart" and "Beauty and the Beast," give her too much room to pile on the raspy vibrato that's just beginning to generate self-parody. But then there's "Stand Back," a synth-led dance track inspired by Prince's "Little Red Corvette," one that fires on every cylinder and features Prince himself. It's so powerful and so far away from Nicks's SoCal comfort zone that she'd never recapture its magic.
Having written and sung many of Fleetwood Mac's smashes, including "Over My Head," "Say That You Love Me," "Don't Stop," "You Make Loving Fun" and "Hold Me," Christine McVie could do this kind of thing in her sleep, and that's essentially what the keyboardist does here. Although it made Billboard's Top 30 album chart and produced a Top 10 single, McVie's 1984 solo album – the only one recorded while she was a full-fledged Mac-er – has faded from both popular and critical consciousness for good reason. She teams with Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone, former Hall & Oates guitarist Todd Sharp, Kenny Loggins bassist George Hawkins, and famous friends like Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Winwood, and Eric Clapton to merge the Mac's pop-rock with boilerplate '80s MTV clatter; check those pseudo-Police riffs in "Keeping Secrets." There are ample chops, but little swing and even less intimacy; stiff drums, brittle guitars, and harsh sonics abound. Most tempos are sprightly, but at no point does anyone seem to break a sweat: McVie strikes her hit-making marks so easily and so squarely that the abundant hooks, even on the actual hit, "Got a Hold on Me," rarely grab.
Whereas 1981's Law and Order often evoked rock's pre-Beatles past, this 1984 disc was distinctly of the moment: Featuring such quintessential '80s toys as the LinnDrum and the Fairlight CMI, Lindsey Buckingham's second solo album shares more in common with New Wave Brits than any earlier record by his band. His guitars evoke the choppy buzz of the Psychedelic Furs, while his keyboards echo Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark; "Bang the Drum" blatantly apes their "Souvenir," and he samples himself throughout. That's pretty radical for a L.A singer-songwriter of his vintage.
Although his musical style may sometimes be second hand, the material that Buckingham draws from lyrically is not: At the time of its release, he revealed that the first eight songs deal with the breakup of a relationship that began at the height of Mac's popularity, and the final one, "D.W. Suite," celebrates the Beach Boys' late Dennis Wilson, the former lover of his bandmate Christine McVie. Both Buckingham's ex and Wilson struggled with addiction; in "I Must Go," he goes so far as to sing, "Hey little girl, leave the little drug alone." Although the singer's own substance abuse is well-documented elsewhere, he doesn't cop to that here; for such personal subject matter, the singer remains fairly remote throughout. But the sharply laconic title track, which Of Montreal has deftly covered in concert, yields a blueprint for the dark yet snappy pop of Fleetwood Mac's final commercial and artistic triumph, 1987's Tango in the Night.
What began as Lindsey Buckingham's third solo disc morphed into one of Fleetwood Mac's biggest and best albums because the guitarist wasn't happy with the idea that 1982's Mirage, an effort he considered substandard, might otherwise be their last. Like that record, this 1987 smash is blatantly commercial: It spawned four Top 20 singles in the U.S. and went triple-platinum; in the UK, it was the seventh-best-selling album of the '80s. But unlike Mirage, it doesn't feel like a compromise: Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie all contribute forceful material and performances, and John McVie and Mick Fleetwood's rhythmic interplay may be at its all-time tightest: The pounding opening cut, Buckingham's "Big Love," rightly remains a club favorite. Despite whatever discord that might've taken place behind the scenes (Buckingham exited shortly before the Tango tour), Mac's chemistry is once again palpable.
Nowhere is that synchronicity more compelling – and more telling – than on what became the band's final American smash, McVie's "Little Lies." All three songwriters contribute their own distinctive vocal styles, and still manage to harmonize as one. Yet the song describes how a lover would rather be deceived than hurt by the truth, which might as well be a mantra for the band: Both it and the rest of this distinctly nocturnal Tango is full of tingly pop touches offset by chords that are just slightly discordant, sounds both meticulously gentle and subtly unsettling. Like the synth line that snakes through "Little Lies," there's something beautifully off about the whole album, a haunting quality that not only complements the soft rock on display but also threatens to dislodge it completely.
The only Fleetwood Mac album to feature Stevie Nicks without Lindsey Buckingham, 1990's Behind the Mask, starts with unreasonable optimism, and goes downhill from there. Christine McVie singing "The sky is the limit now/ We could hit it on the nail" in the absence of the member most responsible for their studio magic is patently delusional, even if opening track "Skies the Limit" provides one of two musical highlights. Rolling Stone's claim that "the addition of Rick Vito and Billy Burnette is the best thing to ever happen to Fleetwood Mac" is similarly absurd. Guitarists Vito (a Bob Seger sideman) and Burnette (a country singer-songwriter) steer the Mac into unflattering heartland rock territory: The feisty pop of "Save Me" – the other worthy cut written by McVie and her then-husband, "Little Lies" co-author Eddy Quintela – is undercut by a double dose of Vito's wank-y soloing. The rest is also highly polished, but far less memorable, a combo that yields an even worse outcome on the band's next album, 1995's Time.
Capturing yet another short-lived phase in this ever-changing ensemble, 1995's Time is notable for the absence of both Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. In their place is ex-Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, a solo star during the '70s, and singer Bekka Bramlett, daughter of rock duo Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Mac producer extraordinaire Richard Dashut returns, but with little effect: Time lacks the fleeting highlights of 1990's Behind the Mask. Even Christine McVie falters in the songwriting department, and most everyone performs like dispassionate session players, not a coherent band. Despite Fleetwood Mac's longtime reputation as a reliable brand, Time thoroughly – and justifiably – flopped.