Remembering Christine McVie: Hiding in Plain Sight

Music Features Fleetwood Mac
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Remembering Christine McVie: Hiding in Plain Sight

In the world of Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie was the normal one. She didn’t present herself as the white witch of Wales. She didn’t hire a college marching band to become the rhythm section for an experimental rock single. She didn’t attach electric drum pads to various parts of her six-foot-six frame to become a dancing percussion kit. She never left the band in the middle of a tour to join a religious commune.

McVie just sat there at the keyboards—dressed in sensible clothes, her blonde sheepdog bangs hanging over her girl-next-door face—and sang some of the catchiest pop-rock songs ever written. Sometimes she supplied the cushiony harmony to a song written by one of her bandmates, but the best songs were often those she wrote and sang herself, her alto somehow sumptuous and off-handedly friendly at the same time.

Now she’s gone. She died Wednesday at age 79 from an undisclosed illness. “I didn’t even know she was ill until late Saturday night,” bandmate Stevie Nicks wrote on Instagram. “I wanted to get to London, but we were told to wait.”

She died as one of her compositions was proving the enduring appeal of her music. A current TV commercial for an electric car shows friends in that vehicle singing along to “Everywhere,” a song that’s hard not to join in on. The verse gently swings over a thumping rock beat, as McVie’s unhurried vocal confesses her love.

But when the chorus comes along with that “Oh, I…,” the melody suddenly leaps an octave, uncannily reflecting the lift of the heart during the early stage of any infatuation. The rest of the lyric, “I want to be with you everywhere,” merely makes explicit what the music has already told us. The song’s inherent drama, boosted by the ad, returned “Everywhere” to the charts this fall: #3 on iTunes.

McVie created such musical echoes of universal emotions again and again from her early days with the British rock’n’soul band Chicken Shack and the early, British-based version of Fleetwood Mac through the multiple-platinum glory days of the American-based version of the Mac. McVie made three solo albums, one of them under her maiden name of Christine Perfect, but her best vehicle was always Fleetwood Mace—even her enjoyable 2017 duo album with Lindsey Buckingham was meant to a Fleetwood Mac album until Nicks declined to participate.

When that band released its Greatest Hits album in 1988, eight of the 16 songs were written by McVie, while Nicks had five and Buckingham three. McVie was the more reliable songwriter, but her bandmates got more media attention. This was inevitable. Nicks and Buckingham, a romantic couple who joined Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and broke up a year later, brought the kind of flamboyant drama journalists can’t resist. But McVie was the band’s secret weapon, the glue that held things together when they were threatening to fly apart, the melodic genius hiding in plain sight.

“Christine’s a great songwriter with a great pop voice,” Buckingham told me last year. “She’s the middle ground between Stevie and me, because she’s grounded in her musicianship while Stevie’s more ethereal. If you take Christine out of the equation, you get a stylistic polarity between Stevie and me. When she’s there, she provides a middle that holds the band together.”

Melody remains the most mysterious element in popular music. Why does one sequence of notes grab our attention as a similar sequence doesn’t? And yet some songwriters have a knack for coming up with such sequences repeatedly: Richard Rodgers, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Billy Strayhorn, Carole King and Christine McVie. It’s a gift that’s hard to explain but impossible to deny.

But there’s more than melody going on in McVie’s songs. Beneath the exhilarating rise and fall of the vocal line, beneath the gushing of emotion, there’s a toughness, a no-nonsense push that she’s had since her early days in the world of the British blues revival. Her first chart success, after all, was her vocal on Chicken Shack’s 1969 cover of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” recorded two years earlier by soul legend Etta James for Chess Records. It was Fats Domino who lured her away from her classical piano lessons as a girl in England’s Lake District.

It was in that early London scene that she met John “Mac” McVie, the bass player who had formed the British blues revival band Fleetwood Mac with drummer Mick Fleetwood. Christine Perfect married McVie and took his name, and when virtuoso guitarist Peter Green took too much LSD and ran off to a religious commune, the newlywed keyboardist was invited to take his place.

When American singer-guitarist Bob Welch replaced another AWOL guitarist (Jeremy Spencer) in 1970, it shifted the band away from its bluesy, London origins towards a breezier California pop. Welch wasn’t the songwriter that Buckingham and Nicks would be, but this transition to pop encouraged Christine McVie’s melodic and harmonic instincts and made possible the glories to come.

When Welch resigned in 1974, the remaining three members, Fleetwood and the two McVies, went looking for replacements. Fleetwood remembered that while checking out the Sound City recording studio, he had by chance heard a track by a duo called Buckingham Nicks, who were recording at the facility. An invitation was extended, and the band’s classic line-up was assembled.

As the new line-up recorded its first album, eventually released as Fleetwood Mac, they realized that Buckingham was more than just another hot-shot guitarist in the lineage of Green, Spencer and Danny Kirwan. Buckingham also had a knack for massaging promising but unfocused songs into pop gems.

“It became apparent to me that one of my jobs was to be producer/musical director,” he told me. “You had these three different writers who were each very different in their style. You had Christine and Stevie, whose songs needed some augmentation from me as a producer to reach their potential. John McVie was so versed in the blues, he was a bit ambivalent about this California thing. But somehow all these pieces jelled into one thing.”

McVie benefitted from Buckingham’s help. Her songs on Fleetwood Mac had a snap and clarity they’d never had before. Three of her songs on the album were released as singles, the non-charting “Warm Ways,” the #20 “Over My Head” and the #11 “Say You Love Me.” These slowly improving chart figures reflected the slow build of the band from blues-rock footnote to pop juggernaut. It took a while, but the album eventually sold four million copies and prepared the way for Rumours.

By the time they recorded that follow-up record, however, the band had turned into a soap opera. Nicks had left Buckingham and was having an affair with Fleetwood. The McVies had split up, and Christine was having an affair with the band’s lighting director Curry Grant. Christine wrote the song “You Make Loving Fun” about Grant but told her ex that it was about her dog. She wrote “Don’t Stop” for John McVie to encourage him to overcome his drinking problems.

All this backstage drama helped to hype the album, but it really had little to do with the quality of the songs. “You Make Loving Fun” would be as joyfully romantic whether it was about a dog or a lighting director. It’s the tension between McVie’s held-out vocal syllables and her funky clavinet riff, between the push-and-pull verse and the chorus reverie that make it so effective. “Don’t Stop” is such a contagious anthem that its punchy advice worked as sobriety advice or as a campaign theme song for Bill Clinton in 1992.

Rumours has reportedly sold 40 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling recordings of all time. It was so successful, in fact, that it follow-up Tusk seemed a disappointment when it sold only four million copies. Many critics admired Buckingham’s leaner, more jagged production, but several label executives and band members were less happy with the sales results. McVie, however, proved as reliable as ever, adapting to the new sound effectively on “Think About Me” and contributing another old-fashioned, mesmerizing ballad in the form of “Never Make Me Cry.”

The band had one more triumph up its sleeve. Tango in the Night, released in 1987, sold 15 million copies and yielded four top-20 singles, including two written and sung by McVie: “Little Lies” and “Everywhere.” It would be the last studio album to feature the classic line-up, for Buckingham quit the band soon after. Nicks left in 1991, and McVie left in 1998, retiring to rural England to get away from the touring life. She would return in 2014 for a live album and subsequent tours, but there would never be another studio album.

Christine McVie didn’t have the witchy charisma of Nicks nor the experimental edginess of Buckingham and Fleetwood, but when we’re humming a Fleetwood Mac song, it’s more than likely that McVie wrote it.

Listen to an exclusive Fleetwood Mac performance at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., from Oct. 17, 1975.