On the eve of Fleetwood Mac’s UK tour to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their astonishing 40-million-selling album Rumours, we catch up with drummer Mick Fleetwood to find out how the band survived drink, drugs and affairs to record it. “We were all fucked up,” he says.
By Max Bell
First impressions of Mick Fleetwood are usually something like (to paraphrase the Harry Nilsson song): “Jesus Christ, you’re tall.” Fleetwood doesn’t so much inhabit his swanky Berkeley Hotel suite as loom across the available space. From head toe, he’s immaculately groomed: the silver hair, the Maui suntan, the crisp striped shirt and hand-stitched brown brogues are evidence of his post-psychedelic dandyism. His socks are box fresh and match his scarf. His trademark headwear — today it’s a burnt orange cap — lies on the table underneath a CD copy of his band Fleetwood Mac’s reissued Rumours — the elephant in the room. His ponytail, a reminder of longer-haired days, is constantly teased, as are the opulent Native American bangles on his wrists. He offers water. “Usually I’d have got through half a bottle of good wine by now, but since we’re about to go on tour I’m trying to stay fit.”
Mick Fleetwood has been an American citizen since 2006. He’s lived in California and Hawaii for 40 years, and understandably speaks with a transatlantic accent. Pleasingly, there’s a detectable trace of West Country burr. He was born in Cornwall in 1947 and educated at a public school in Gloucestershire, at one of those institutions where six-of-the-best corporal punishment was the norm — the bat and the cane. No wonder he became a drummer — taken out on those tom-toms.
Suggestions of a whistle-stop tour his life are met with: “Go ahead. I’ll talk about anything. As long as I can get through the jet-lag.”
Does he still see the old gang?
“Peter Green? Once in a while I’ll ring him. I may do once you’ve left. He doesn’t know it and won’t be expecting it.”
Fleetwood smiles as if to imply that maybe it won’t be a pleasant surprise for Green. Mick once tried to manage his old Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac bandmate in 1977, but was flummoxed by the guitarist’s insistence that both his past and the music business in general had destroyed his life and sent him to psychiatric hell.
“It was hard to convince him he wasn’t dealing with the devil.”
Fleetwood Mac’s second guitarist from their early days, Jeremy Spencer, the joker in the pack who used to decorate the band’s equipment with sex toys, remains in touch. “He lives in Ireland and he’s making music again. His journey is well known. He’s not with the Children Of God anymore but some other sect [The Family International]. He’s in good humour, much like the old Jeremy before he got very strange.”
One-time teenage whizz-kid slide guitarist Danny Kirwan also fell off the rails. Just as Spencer flipped after taking mescaline in Los Angeles in 1971, Kirwan and Green are said to have taken dodgy acid at a commune in Munich a year earlier, although Danny’s problems lay in the bottle.
“I have no contact with Danny. I’m supposed to have fired him in 1972 [after Kirwan smashed his guitar in the dressing room and refused to perform], but I just told him: ‘Enough is enough. You can’t keep on destroying the soundboard and then watch your fellow band members dying the death.’ We didn’t realise Danny wasn’t suited to this business. That wasn’t obvious in the late-60s when he recorded with us but he became very unpredictable. We should have said no to him joining, because he was already an alcoholic. I don’t know if that’s ever been fixed. I hear from his ex-wife, and it’s not good.”
Kirwan ended up thing in the St Mungo’s hostel for homeless men in Endell Street in Central London. He wasn’t the only casualty. Kirwan’s replacement, Bob Weston, who played on the Mac albums Penguin and Mystery To Me, was famously sacked by Fleetwood in Nebraska after the drummer’s discovery that Bob was having an affair with his then wife Jenny Boyd. He was found dead in a grubby flat in Brent Cross in January 2012.
Mac’s American guitarist Bob Welch whose resignation in 1984 facilitated the arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, committed suicide six months later, shooting himself through the chest.
Viewed in black and white, all of this makes the relationship break-up saga of Rumours seem pretty tepid. It’s a depressing past punctuated with sublime moments like Man Of The World, Albatross and the classic albums — Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Mr Wonderful and Then Play On. Mick prefers to accentuate the positive.
“That old band came out of the hatch and we were immediately successful. We were very diverse, playing all that Elmore James blues and having hit singles. John McVie and me always welcomed the new people. We never told that they had to conform to any formula. It was amazing that we kept our audience. Peter was generous too. Even on his last album with us [Then Play On] he gave Danny half the album to write. He didn’t need to do that.”
The original Fleetwood Mac severed ties with Britain when they decamped to the USA in the early 70s. “In England we fell off the map, and a few years on we lost our identity with the massive mismanagement fiasco.”
He’s referring to the bogus Fleetwood Mac of 1974, put together by then-manager Clifford Davis when the band were at an all-time low. Fleetwood has always denied any involvement with this outfit formed from the blues hand Stretch. “We suddenly found we were no longer in our own band!”
The faux Fleetwoods didn’t survive a lawsuit, however, and Mick was amazed that “Warner’s didn’t drop us. There were lots of ifs-and-buts. If Peter hadn’t left and he’d been emotionally on track. I honestly believe we’d have been up there with Led Zeppelin and that thing that happened in America at the time. We were a funny-looking bunch of guys, but we were a phenomenally fucking good band.”
Lovers of the old Mac might say that here was the real tragedy — if that’s not too strong a word.
“They were tough times. It’s funny how things happen. If Bob Welch hadn’t left, we’d never have made the next jump. But Danny was influential too; before him there was no melody and no harmony. And then there’s this…” Mick gestures to the Rumours package, the 40-million-selling gift that just keeps on giving. Now available in various permutations of CD, DVD and vinyl, the recorded stop opera that accompanied the splits between John and Christine McVie and Buckingham-Nicks refuses to go away. Here it is again, shipping 40,000 copies in the UK and forming the basis for a 50-date tour of America, followed by an autumn visit to European stages that will see an estimated box office and merchandise revenue pumping well in excess of $70 million into the group. Where did it all go wrong?
“It’s part of our legacy. We’ve nurtured talent and they’ve all left their mark, some more important than others. It’s a big story, should you delve into how we got here. This album is interesting for us, if not a little frightening. How did we survive making it with all these ex-lovers blowing up in each other’s faces? It was emotionally charged — cause and effect. We don’t complain any more, and shouldn’t, but dreadful things were happening. There were tragedies everywhere, with Peter and Danny, and then this album, where everyone is miserable.”
A band waging war with itself may be deemed a vicarious pleasure, although the often physical nature of Lindsey and Stevie’s disagreements were hard for Fleetwood to witness. During early rehearsals for Rumours at the Producer’s Workshop in LA, Mick saw his band disintegrating. Christine McVie was having an affair with the band’s lighting director, Curry Grant. John McVie was perma-sozzle, and everyone was imbibing vast amounts of pharmaceutical cocaine dished out by the mirror-load. Meanwhile, Mick recited the lines of poet Robert Frost: “The woods are dark and deep… And miles to go before we sleep.”
The drummer still felt impelled to rally the troops, and was heard to implore: “Hey, guys, why don’t we chill out here and do some transcending and just write music about all this hassle.”
These days Mick takes a more sanguine view.
“We were only like every other band of that era. I’ve given up all that now. John and Christine were… hmmm. Well, the whole band was at it. We weren’t misjudged; we were in with the worst of them. But when I talk war stories with other bands, I think we weren’t so bad. ‘You did what?’ We were lightweights compared to many. Look at the Stones or Johnny Cash, the stuff they took. We didn’t do that, we were just boozers and mounds of cocaine. I thank God we didn’t go to the opiate place. Cocaine eventually is bad, but we were still young kids. It didn’t hamper us, it just meant we stayed up for three or four days and did some good music.”
The lingering aftermath saw them all go their own way into rehab and therapy, because there’s no such thing as an ex-alcoholic or ex-drug addict. McVie eventually gave up drinking in the 1990s. Mick and Stevie Nicks both faced other battles. “Fifteen years after Rumours, we were still going strong. And that wasn’t fun. It turned out boring, and impossible for health reasons.”
Mick developed diabetes and thought he was dying of a brain tumour. Despite the apparent wealth generated by Rumours,” Tusk et al, he declared himself bankrupt thanks to some disastrous property deals and failed restaurant endeavours.
“Did all that affect me? Yes it did. Stevie says she doesn’t remember a whole 10 years of her life because she was doing weird stuff — she battled with tranquilliser dependency — but us rock’n’rollers have strong constitutions. We were lucky. Enough was enough.”
From a position of great health and wealth, Fleetwood is prepared to be candid. “The romance of it all is voyeuristic. People want to hear it, and I can talk about it. But looking back? No, it wasn’t a great thing to have done. I’m torn between not talking about it, which is defensive and stupid, or do I answer? We could cope because we were young. Is that the reason why we spent over a year making Rumours? No, it wasn’t. People said, ‘Oh you’re so indulgent.’ But it was our money, our waste, and our drugs.”
“On a creative level we were thrilled because we were blessed to pay for studio time. We could have made a quick album — get the fuck out and hope they buy it anyway. People assume we were a depraved, drug-crazed group pissing money down the studio sink. No. We worked hard. The money was our advance — which we never saw again.”
In Mac’s defence, it wasn’t their fault Rumours became a behemoth. “We had no idea. We lived in a focused world of five individuals. We weren’t super-unique, but we were fairly unique because we forced ourselves into a one-on-one, 24/7, pressing creative world. That’s a lot to ask when every time you look at someone your heart is in your mouth, or you’re feeling so hurt you just want to get a dagger and stick it in his or her back. That’s what we were doing.”
Though often cast as the calming influence, Fleetwood felt as rotten as everyone else.
“I was miserable because my wife left me for my best friend [Weston] but I had to be the piggy in the middle. We were all fucked up. But you know my history: got to keep this band going at all costs. Someone had to do it, and it’s in my nature. Maybe I’m insecure. I get that from my dad.”
Fleetwood Mac isn’t Mick’s only family. He’s the father of four daughters, two of them grown-up children from his 1970 marriage to Jenny Boyd, sister of Pattie Boyd, who was married to George Harrison and later Eric Clapton. Being George Harrison’s brother-in-law gave him a unique insight into the extraordinary world of The Beatles circa 1969. He knew the Dutch hippie designers The Fool, who designed The Beatles’ Apple shop and decorated stage sets for The Move, Cream and Procol Harum, and he’d hear about the Beatles’ trip to Rishikesh first-hand from Jenny, since she’d sat at the Maharishi’s feet with John, Paul, George and Ringo when she was with Donovan, who wrote Jennifer Juniper in her honour.
“I had a vicarious window into the greatest talent pool I’ll ever know. I went to the Abbey Road album sessions. I saw them doing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, using the anvil and the horseshoes, and I spent a lot of time hanging by default in their Rolls-Royces or sitting down at tables in the Scotch Of St James. London was cooking then. I was just a little blues musician. To this day, Paul McCartney always calls me ‘young Michael’, and to George I was ‘little Mick’. Just before I got on the plane to come here, Jenny sent me a note George once gave her which had his Indian squiggle on it and a P.S: ‘Don’t forget to tell Mick that I love him.”
Given the overarching success of Rumours, it’s sometimes hard to remember that beneath the trappings, cosmic minstrel Mick Fleetwood is but a humble drummer, mentioned in dispatches rather than at the front line.
“My reputation? I get checked a lot by fellow players. John Bonham’s sister [Deborah] told me I was one of his favourite drummers. I thought he’d think I was a piece of shit! Apparently not. The Fleetwood Mac rhythm section is better than we think, so I get kudos. I’m a feel-meister, like Charlie Watts; I’m not a technician. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. But without puffing up, I’m not an unknown personality. I’m not the world’s forgotten drummer. John McVie couldn’t give a shit whether anyone likes him. He doesn’t care about me as Mick the drama queen or Mick the flag-waver. His attitude is: ‘How do you do all that? I couldn’t give a shit. Phone me when they’ve all stopped crying. It’s pissing me off.’”
McVie lives near Fleetwood on Maui and remains his friend and ally. They don’t socialise that much, but the bass player will order him to take it easy, “Why are you operating another restaurant? Stop stressing out. Stop selling your soul for this thing.”
“I tell him: ‘Why should you complain? I’ve kept you in a band for 45years!’” Fleetwood says. “He appreciates that. My main function is creating the stage for me and John, so he’d better.”
If Fleetwood Mac are now a nostalgia act, at least they didn’t end up in Las Vegas. Christine McVic says she’ll never come back, but there are three new tracks in the pipeline created by Fleetwood, Buckingham and Nicks — the latter pair being permanent road fixtures thanks to Stevie’s touring schedule and Lindsey’s One Man Show. Making a band album is probably a thing of the past.
“It’s all about the tour — a humongous tour that’s gone ballistic. We’re in good fettle. Stevie’s in voice. Lindsey’s fighting fit. I play a lot on Maui but I need to step it up. John only has to move his fingers.”
Ask him what his favorite Mac albums are and the man whose name is on the tin cites Tusk — “More ground-breaking than Rumours, and I know because I was managing the band at the time — and 1969’s Then Play On. I came up with the title, and it was a lovely creative mix. That album is the signpost of what could have been; a vision of the band if Peter hadn’t been ill.”
He owns the original of the artwork used for the album. The painting, which features a naked man on a horse, is called Domesticated Mural Painting and is by the artist Maxwell Armfield. It was originally designed for a London mansion. Fleetwood admits that he misses the old days. “They were good times. Playing the Nag’s Head in Battersea or out-of-town pubs in High Wycombe was like a fantastic boot camp. There’s something about the slog that helps the creative ethic. Doing this tour is only plugging into a muscle memory; it’s a psychic recollection of what I’ve done my whole fucking life. Too many bands come out of nowhere and become rich and famous and unpleasant. They buy into the bullshit. I say: ‘You need to go and set up an amplifier, jacko! Then drive to fucking Scotland and back for five quid.’ I sound like an old fuddy duddy.”
While he’s dishing out advice, Fleetwood mentions something that keeps him going. “In 1971, Tom Johnston, from the Doobie Brothers, and Steve Miller both told me: ‘Play the colleges, whatever you do. Even if it’s for peanuts.’ That’s what kept the band afloat in America in the early ‘70s. If we didn’t draw a great crowd, I’d pay the money back. Before that, in England, I learnt from Peter Green. He had Jewish blood so he knew how to tell people to fuck off — and give me the fucking money, you fucking liar. I went with him to die counting house after the gig, so I knew how tough he could be. But on a bad night Peter would give the guarantee back.
“A lot of my shit about running Fleetwood Mac comes from Peter Green. He taught how to recognise talent. He was the king of that band. All these individuals who turned up along the way were welcomed because Peter let me into the secret. Welcome to the realms of madness.’
And then play on.
Rumours: The 35th Anniversary Edition it out now via Warner Bros.