Rock biopic movies are having a new lease of life. After Queen and Elton John, Fleetwood Mac must be next.
Here’s a tip for nothing for Hollywood: If you reckon Freddie Mercury and Elton John led dramatic lives, you might want to think about getting the Fleetwood Mac story onto the big screen.
“The story of this band,” Mac’s bassist John McVie once told me, “is like Woman’s Day, mate.” It was April 1980, and for two fascinating days I’d been shadowing the band for the NZ Listener.
McVie, now sober for years but then casually downing triple vodka and tonics as if they were soft drinks, was unusually friendly and open for a rock musician in a band that still sells out venues all over the world.
This September, they’re playing four nights at Auckland’s Spark Arena and one at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin as part of a massive, 86-date tour that began last October in Tulsa, Oklahoma and ends in Canada in November.
Our own Neil Finn has joined the front line, a position that for a while seemed as volatile as holding the drummer’s seat in Spinal Tap. (If you’ve never seen the brilliant satirical movie This Is Spinal Tap, the drummers keep disappearing, due to everything from “a bizarre gardening accident” to spontaneous combustion on stage.)
Fleetwood Mac formed in 1967, and by 1968 there were three frontmen/guitarists: Jeremy Spencer, Peter Green and Danny Kirwan. In McVie’s words, “One got religion, one got acid and one got nerves.”
The band had almost instant success in England, but it was, in hindsight, on a small and manageable scale. In 1969, when they played a pub in Sevenoaks in Kent, I was in the crowd of a couple of hundred who watched as the five band members – including Christine Perfect, who was still a few months away from joining the group and marrying John McVie – packed into a Ford Zephyr to drive themselves back to London.
The US and arena shows decimated the first edition of the band. Spencer disappeared in 1971, to resurface as a devoted member of the Children of God; he’s lived in California ever since. Kirwan’s life spiralled into homelessness and alcoholism. “I can’t settle,” he told a reporter in 1993. He died last year. And Peter Green, a guitarist so talented that B.B. King would say, “just to listen to him makes me sweat”, plunged into psychedelic drugs, gave away all his money and left the band in 1970 to work as a gravedigger, before gradually easing his way back into blues music a long way from the Fleetwood Mac spotlight.
The original Mac was a 12-bar blues band whose time in the sun seemed over in the early 70s when their former manager put together a group of anonymous American musicians and tried to tour them as Fleetwood Mac. Who would have guessed that the addition in 1974 of a largely unknown duo, Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, would soon turn them into limo-riding, private jet-flying, cocaine-snorting superstars?
The contrasts between Buckingham (dark, intense, and skinny as a rail), Nicks (glamorous and New Age to the tips of her tawny-blonde mane), and Christine McVie (soulful and grounded) were marketing gold.
Best of all, the personas weren’t the invention of a clever promoter. A kindly media woman arranged half an hour for me with Nicks at a Moët-adorned table in 1980. Nicks was sincere, helpful and barely of this planet. She told me she was careful not to fling her head too far back on stage while she swirled around performing “Rhiannon”, because in a past life she had been either beheaded or hanged. The name Michael meant a lot to her because in yet another past life, that was her name. She knew another album was on the way because a psychic in Los Angeles had spelled out the good news with taps on a table.
On a 20-track “best of” album to go with the world tour, 50 Years – Don’t Stop (Warners), there are 17 prime examples of how the band produced songs that embedded themselves into the musical DNA of at least two generations of listeners from the mid-70s.
Buckingham could write a catchy pop song (“Go Your Own Way”) with the best of them, but his taste could also run to the experimental, and “Tusk”, where the group is joined by the USC Trojan marching band expanding on a riff played by Fleetwood, is still as weirdly compelling as it was when released as the title track of a double album in 1979.
But it was Nicks and Christine McVie who were the hit machines. They wrote songs that are now rock standards: Nicks’ “Sara” and “Rhiannon”, and McVie’s “Don’t Stop” and “Hold Me”.
So far, so hugely well known. What lifts 50 Years are the last three songs, all from 1969 and all written by Peter Green: “Albatross”, “Man of the World”, and “Oh Well – Pt.1”. “Albatross” is simply as beautiful an instrumental as has ever been made in pop music; “Man of the World” effortlessly segues from wistful to potent in a way fans of Jimmy Page’s guitar playing in “Stairway to Heaven” would recognise; while “Oh Well” is a thundering rock take on the blues.
Fleetwood tried to get Green back on stage with the band about 15 years ago, booking the Albert Hall in London for a reunion concert. At the last minute, Green pulled out and the show was cancelled. In 1979, Fleetwood offered a contract to Green that would give him money to take the time to write new songs. “He was about to sign the bit of paper,” Fleetwood told me, “but then he suddenly thought it was evil and backed out.”
Having been lucky enough to see a healthy Green on stage in 1969, where he was a strangely compelling if slightly awkward presence, I find it fascinating (if futile) to wonder what direction Fleetwood Mac might have taken if Green had stayed well enough to front with Christine McVie.
Mick Fleetwood, always forgiving about Green, may not brood too much about that. Last year, he told an interviewer from the Irish Times that “perhaps because I’m not a writer or lead player myself, I’ve always believed you should accept musicians for what they are. That’s why Fleetwood Mac became so many different things over the years.”
This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.