Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild reflects on Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage and gets the band members to share memories of the classic 1982 recording at a ‘haunted’ French chateau
Listen closely now to Mirage — the lovely album Fleetwood Mac first released in the summer of 1982 — and you can still hear the gorgeous sound of one of the greatest bands in all of rock history making the group decision to move forward by willfully and artfully retracing its own steps.
For some, Mirage may have looked like a step in the wrong direction — a big yet graceful move backwards. For others, the album seemed more like Fleetwood Mac’s beautiful return to Rumours form. In truth, Mirage appears to have been the conscious and, in many ways, successful effort of the band to look back to the future after taking the brilliant and brave left turn that was the group’s previous studio effort — 1979’s then-controversial, but now acclaimed Tusk.
Yet by any fair standard the group’s collective decision to change course back in the early Eighties was an understandable and, perhaps, commercially advisable move. And taken on its own slightly more conservative terms Mirage remains an impressive and often stunning piece of work reflecting many of the strengths that we have come to know and love from Fleetwood Mac. Take another listen and look back at Mirage today and you will find that, despite its hazy title, this album was not some grand illusion that eventually disappeared into thin air. Instead, Mirage is a well crafted and, at times, truly-inspired song cycle that only appears to grow more vivid all these years later.
As the great scientist, mathematician and very early rock critic Sir Isaac Newton once famously explained; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And in the ongoing successful musical experiment known as Fleetwood Mac, the action of creating the more experimental and expansive 1979 album Tusk ultimately led to the equal and opposition reaction of this next studio album, Mirage. On the double album Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham had rather daringly led Fleetwood Mac in a series of intriguing and fresh new directions with some of the album’s twists and turns reflecting the many changes that were then afoot in music work back in the wake of the Punk and New Wave movements. Though now widely considered an influential rock masterpiece, Tusk was in many ways ahead of its time, especially for a much-anticipated album by a group of mainstream Seventies rock superstars. Perhaps as a result, Tusk was — if only in relative terms compared to the historic runaway success of Rumours — considered a significant commercial disappointment.
Mirage remains an impressive and often stunning piece of work reflecting many of the strengths that we have come to know and love from Fleetwood Mac.
And so it came to pass that after the band’s worldwide tour in support of Tusk concluded on September 1, 1980 at the Hollywood Bowl and some of the group members took some time off to start their solo careers, Fleetwood Mac ultimately reconvened outside Paris to record its next studio effort at Chateau d’Heroville, an estate and recording facility perhaps made most famous by Elton John, who famously dubbed the 1972 album he recorded there Honky Chateau. By the time the band began to gather at the Chateau in late 1981, the prime directive had become clear. In an effort to recapture a little of the magic of Rumours, founding member Mick Fleetwood in his managerial capacity strongly suggested the band get away from all distractions in Los Angeles — something the group had done back when they had recorded Rumours in Sausalito in an effort to create more of a group effort that played to some of the group’s more obvious strengths.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group’s resident studio genius Lindsey Buckingham felt considerable ambivalence about being asked to take a step in what felt like the wrong — or at least more predictable — direction. Revealingly, Buckingham’s first composition on the album — and the second track following Christine’s McVie’s lovely and buoyant “Love in Store” — would be a haunting little gem entitled “Can’t Go Back,” in which Buckingham seems to express some of his decidedly mixed emotions.
“Standin’ in the shadows,” Buckingham sings at the beginning of the song. “The man I used to be. I want to go back” before being answered by a multi-tracked chorus of male and females voices declaring, “Can’t go back.”
Yet in a way going back to the formula that had made Fleetwood Mac such a tremendous success story was the mission statement for Mirage — which perhaps helps explain the many references to both going and looking back spread throughout the album, including in Stevie Nicks’ song called “Straight Back” as well as her characteristically poetic references to going “back to the Velvet Underground” and “back to the Gypsy” in the towering Fleetwood Mac song on Mirage, “Gypsy.”
Even Christine McVie’s big first hit single from the album “Hold Me” includes the memorable lines, “there’s no one in the future / So why don’t you let me hand you my love?” It was as if by looking back and holding on close to each other in close quarters might be the only way for Fleetwood Mac to keep their famous chain together as they continued to figure out their place in the “Eyes of the World,” to borrow another phrase from the Buckingham song that closed the album. (Editor’s note: “Wish You Were Here” actually closes the album.)
Looking back today Lindsey Buckingham recalls, “It was hard to know where to go at that moment when you had just gone somewhere in one direction that felt right — then to have to sort of reel it back in a more forced way felt difficult. But I understood that I was the only one member of the group so what was I going to do? And back then Mick used to have these broad-strokes ideas and I think that going to France was an attempt to recreate an environment that was exotic and away from home as we had with Rumours in Sausalito. I think Mick’s idea was to get us out of our particular ruts we might have been in to create something people might like. The attempt to create that kind of spontaneity, to me, spoke of the fact that he was trying to create a moment in time that had come and gone, but I tried to do what I could.”
Looking back now, Mick Fleetwood says that he understands more deeply Buckingham’s concerns. ” I think Mirage was more preconceived as a kind of band record organically representing where we left off with Rumours,” Fleetwood explains. “So in retrospect, it wasn’t as daring an album as Tusk which understandably would leave Lindsey with some trepidation. Tusk has become a much more iconic album as the years trickle by and that is a testament to where Lindsey led us. But Tusk also became a sort of cross to bear. It sort of confused some listeners which in a way was exactly what Lindsey was intending to do.”
“But Mirage has its own merits artistically. And in truth, part of the notion of doing Mirage in France came from the band helping me out by being there. I sort of managed to convince everyone, and in my mind, it was about the fact that when we made Rumours the sessions had the feeling of the band getting together away from home. I am sure I was trying to get that same sort of drama and sense of theater that had worked for us before. To me, it was a way to get the band away from the distractions of Los Angeles and have us make music with some sense of community because — whether we liked it or not — we were all in the same place again. That was how we made Rumours in Sausalito and I figured that had worked out pretty well.”
For Stevie Nicks, her memories of recording Mirage in France are mostly pleasant and picturesque ones. “When I think of Mirage now I think of living in a castle and visiting Paris,” Nicks says. “I think of white fishnet stockings, red high heels, and going to get my hair done and having five different hair dressers working on me. It’s like, who does that? Well, the French do thankfully. I also remember living in the Chateau, which was romantic, though I remember for some reason there was no ice. And they thought it might be haunted because there were strange sounds in there. So to me, the Mirage sessions were beautiful and insane. The place felt like the setting for an old-movie murder mystery and I do seem to remember there was one day when Jimmy Iovine — who I had been dating and came to visit me — did want to kill Lindsey, but somehow we all survived and the music lives on very nicely.”
Mick Fleetwood too arrived at the Chateau from work far, far away. “I came back from having made my first solo album The Visitor in Ghana, Africa, then spending some time working with the London Philharmonic to complete it. So me and our co-producer, Richard Dashut, turned up the night before recording Mirage high on that whole adventure. I remember the first thing I did was play Lindsey our version of “Walk a Thin Line” — which he had written and recorded for Tusk that I loved and re-recorded in Africa. Lindsey had made his own solo album Law and Order then and I remember sitting Lindsey down and playing him that song and that he was really moved hearing our crazy band from Africa doing one of his tracks.”
Fleetwood confesses that for him at least the craziness was not over. “I’m a nutcase so I love the drama, the theater, the sense of being in a place of such beauty and history. There was supposedly a ghost and I was of course a sucker for the company. And because I was a supernut in those days, I had my own automobile shipped out there and I would drive into Paris on the weekends and disappear and rave on so that no one had to witness my misbehavior.”
Thankfully, there were some stabilizing influences at the Chateau including the calming presence of Christine McVie. Nicks notes, “When Christine is around, the atmosphere is much better. Lindsey likes her a lot and recognizes her talent and doesn’t have any baggage with her. She’s sort of the Earth Mother who can speak truth to anybody. That’s always been her role. She’s not just a great voice — she’s the great voice of reason. She is able to make everyone come to their senses and get back to work. And she’s the kind of person who will say, ‘We’re not getting anywhere, I’m going to go home and cook.’ She doesn’t put up with much — and never has. She’s no nonsense — and we always have a lot of nonsense going on. But looking back it’s a beautiful piece of work with some songs I love. I do notice Lindsey has five songs, Christine has four and I have three. For me, “Gypsy” was my standout. Chris’s songs are always so great — she’s always been our true hitmaker as “Hold Me” proved again. I remember “Oh Diane” was a huge hit in Europe too — though we never do it [in concert]. On the other hand, “Eyes of the World” is a really choice song, and it’s one we have done onstage, like, every other tour.”
Buckingham agrees that “Gypsy” is a high water mark for his longstanding, if sometimes tense, collaboration with Stevie Nicks. “In spite of any reservations I might have about that time in our recording, “Gypsy” is and always has been one of my favorite things ever from Stevie. And for me, it is also the best thing I ever did for Stevie all in all in terms of helping her create the right musical landscape to frame a song. That song really speaks to her strengths — and to my strengths in terms of showcasing her strengths. And to me, like a lot of the best work of the band, the result is something greater than the sum of our parts.”
Exactly how much of the work on Mirage was ultimately done in France — and how much was recorded once the band returned to Los Angeles — remains a bit of a mystery to me, even after taking with the band at some length. “I don’t remember the lionshare of the work going on in France, but I’m not quite sure. So there’s the funny irony there. As a manager, Mick was worried about the economics of the business, yet he was willing to be extravagant. The man has style. But the truth is I’m not sure how much was impacted by us being there at the Chateau particularly. But the mood was cordial enough. You have to remember, so much other stuff had gone down within the band by then. I mean, the Fleetwood Mac album and Rumours were both done under a certain amount of duress just because of what was going on personally within the band, especially the two couples who were, shall we say, in transit. At least all of that had been resolved by the time of Mirage. For me, the only frustration was the sense that in some way feeling like I had been slightly put in the artistic penalty box.”
As Mick Fleetwood sees it now, “It’s fair to say that the push from me was getting more of a representation of the whole band — and perhaps more of what people who loved the band wanted. And I think we got that with Mirage and the album’s success suggests that too. But that said, Tusk is a my favorite Fleetwood Mac album along with Then Play On. Coming off Tusk, Mirage was a somewhat more conscious effort to return to that place we left after making Rumours. And in the end, however, we got there and wherever we did it, we got to a very good place with Mirage.”
Finally, Stevie Nicks wonders, “Did Lindsey remember how much we did when we left France and went back to L.A. because I sure don’t. My memory is that in L.A. we were in every single studio trying to get Mirage done. I can just tell you about our time in that castle and I was even a little late getting there. But I will never forget walking amid all the ghosts of all the famous people who had been there before us, and I remember there were no ice cubes — because it was hot and I needed ice. Other than that, it’s all a bit of a blur — a big beautiful blur.
In other words, a Mirage, one that has never really gone away.
David Wild / September 2016