Fleetwood Mac: Carrying the Albatross

FLEETWOOD MAC have returned to Britain, a decade after their song ‘Albatross’ set a new mood and mellow tone for the rock guitar. But that original psychedelic Fleetwood Mac are to the present group like cousins many times removed. The band since its first success has undergone almost a dozen changes of personnel, and a chapter of accidents and ill luck which might have disheartened many a more robust community. Now based in America, they view their current British revival as small recompense for the years of real pain and genuinely broken hearts.

FLEETWOOD MAC have returned to Britain, a decade after their song ‘Albatross’ set a new mood and mellow tone for the rock guitar. But that original psychedelic Fleetwood Mac are to the present group like cousins many times removed.

The band since its first success has undergone almost a dozen changes of personnel, and a chapter of accidents and ill luck which might have disheartened many a more robust community. Now based in America, they view their current British revival as small recompense for the years of real pain and genuinely broken hearts.

Mick Fleetwood, the band’s drummer and co-founder, is the antithesis of a rock freak. Hugely tall and stilt-legged, healthily white, precise of thought and speech, he is betrayed in his vocation only by institutionally long hair.

The son of an RAF officer, he spent his early childhood in Egypt, during the Suez invasion, and then Norway, where his father served with NATO. He attended King’s School, Sherbourne, distinguishing himself in acting and fencing, and privately dreaming over the catalogues issued by drum manufacturers. He remembers standing in the school grounds, vowing to become a drummer, with tears in his eyes.

His first engagement was in a London night club, playing for £7 per week and a nightly plate of spaghetti. From this, in the middle Sixties, he graduated to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, a band famous for the diverse talents whom Mayall, an insecure man, hired and fired. It was in the Bluesbreakers that Fleetwood met two inaugural members of Fleetwood Mac: John McVie, the bass guitarist, and Peter Green, a guitarist of unusual talent who had joined Mayall as replacement for the demigod Eric Clapton.

Their initial phase as Fleetwood Mac was deservedly acclaimed. It produced ‘Albatross’, an experiment with harmonising guitars, and one of the earliest intimations that Rock was capable of melody. There was also ‘Oh Well’, a song containing the first, perhaps the only lyric in which Rock musicians made fun of themselves. “I can’t help about the shape I’m in,” the lyric ran, “I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin.”

In private they remained individualists, shunning offers from management companies who might have tried to influence their output. As a result, they stayed poor and grew accustomed to hardship. Mick Fleetwood remembers the scabies caught from dirty bedclothes; the terrible all-night drives; the agony of coiling his long legs inside a cramped van with condensation grey on the windows. When Christine McVie first met them, they had begun to do a little better. She recalls her envy of their Transit van, fitted with aircraft seats.

Christine McVie, composer, singer and pianist, came to Fleetwood Mac in 1970 with exceptional abilities and fractured self-confidence. She grew up in Birmingham, the daughter of a music professor, and drifted into rock while studying sculpture at art school. In the late Sixties, she joined a band called Chicken Shack playing piano, largely unaware of her soft, low, flawless singing voice. She left Chicken Shack and, some months afterwards, was astonished to find herself named as Top British Female Vocalist in the Melody Maker’s annual polls.

There followed a short, catastrophic career as a solo singer on tour. She got as far as Nottingham, was overcome by her own imagined defects and ran off the stage in tears. She married John McVie, Fleetwood Mac’s bass guitarist, after a courtship of two weeks, and prepared herself for the hectic, uneasy existence of a Rock and Roll wife.

By 1970, the original Fleetwood Mac had all but disintegrated. Peter Green, the ‘Albatross’ guitarist, resigned, and with his departure, the band’s obituaries were as good as written. To add to their demoralisation, an ersatz Fleetwood Mac began touring, until persuaded by legal means to desist. The real Fleetwood Mac, working now mainly in America, were bedevilled by arrivals and desertions. One member went out to buy a newspaper and never returned. They discovered that he had joined a religious sect. Almost by default, Christine became keyboards player in the band. This, as she recalls, did little for her self-confidence.

It was by sheer coincidence, in California, that the present personnel coalesced. Mick Fleetwood happened to hear an album recorded by the American boy-girl songwriting partnership of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. This, as it happened, was Buckingham-Nicks’ only album. Disgusted with their manager, they had virtually given up music. Buckingham rose early in the morning to canvass advertisements by telephone in the different time-zone of New York. Stevie Nicks, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, worked as a waitress to support Buckingham and the sound engineer who lived with them.

In 1975, after a single meeting, Buckingham and Nicks were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. “They didn’t even want us to audition,” says Lindsey Buckingham, a thin youth with the composure of a young Moses. “The only time they ever auditioned anyone, it was absolute disaster.”

Fortunately, Buckingham and Nicks brought with them a quantity of unrecorded material. After only 12 days’ rehearsal, the first album of the new Fleetwood Mac was produced – the one they now call ‘the white album’. It contained ‘Rhiannon’, sung by Stevie Nicks, and ‘Over My Head’ and ‘Warm Ways’, both sung by Christine McVie as if she had never felt a qualm. The album was destined to sell better than any other in the history of Warner Brothers Records. Four million copies have now been sold, a tiny proportion of them in England.

Their alliance proved to be the salvation of more than a musical approach. At that time, Christine had left John McVie to live with a lighting technician. Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had ceased to be lovers. Even Mick Fleetwood had parted from his wife. All were casualties of a life perpetually on tour, lacking any respite from each other, even after the different love affairs had terminated. John McVie, in particular, had to pull himself back from the edge of suicide.

All made a conscious decision to subdue emotions for the sake of the band. In return, McVie thinks, hard work soothed the agony and affront of seeing his wife with another man. He and Buckingham now have new girl friends, happily accepted by Christine and Stevie. And Fleetwood is reunited with his wife.

Their life on tour is civilised, even domestic, with limits. There are two nannies in train, and a quantity of little daughters, peeping through Mick Fleetwood’s long legs. Fleetwood maintains that he dislikes stability – his attitude to money remains the same as when he would use his National Assistance money to fill up his Jaguar XK 120. Yet the prevailing atmosphere on the road seems to be ‘not in front of the children’. If the men wish to misbehave, they go to a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills which never objects when they plaster their food on the walls.

They were in two minds whether to undertake this present tour. To begin with, they stood to make little money from it. And even Mick Fleetwood felt apprehensive about returning to England after so many years of indifference. Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were terrified by what the others told them – how small British audiences were, and how implacably strange.

The first of their concerts was in Birmingham, Christine’s home town, where she and John McVie had spent their honeymoon. They walked onstage, upset by this painful coincidence. The concert, however, proved to be the best one of the week.

“We were very surprised,” Christine said.

“Very relieved,” Mick Fleetwood put in.

“Very exalted,” Christine said.

Philip Norman / Sunday Times (UK) / 1978 (Accessed via Rock’s Backpages)

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