Of course her birth name was Christine Perfect — did you expect Christine Average?
To write about Fleetwood Mac is to write about the story of Fleetwood Mac: the drugs, the sex, the drudgery of staying together with people you’ve long since stopped having feelings about. Yet! A beneficiary and victim of received thinking, Christine McVie — who died on Wednesday (Nov. 30) at age 79 — projected not groundedness so much as buoyancy. Whether a misplaced crush had devastated her or an unexpected one made loving fun, she created an impression of focus so intense that it shamed the guy who had his way with her. She was the mid-1970s’ best chronicler of sensual bliss and erotic loss.
Approached by two mates who heard a midnight-blue melancholy in her flexible husk, the Lancashire-born singer-songwriter-keyboardist joined Chicken Shack and established herself as a vocalist of unusual empathetic gusto with a U.K. top 15 cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” in 1969.
White Britishers covering blues standards was a thing, and Perfect might’ve continued agreeably belting them on the small club circuit for decent annuities. Instead, she dumped Chicken Shack, married and took the name (and never dropped it) of bassist John McVie, and, besotted with the material by blues wunderkind Peter Green, joined the band — named after McVie and his best friend, drummer Mick Fleetwood.
Unheralded because these albums barely broke even, the period between Green’s 1970 departure and Buckingham-Nicks’ arrival in 1975 tested McVie’s ability to write tunes tasty enough for a theoretical mass audience whose palates might’ve adjusted given time. Call them Fleetwood Mac’s Hidden Years. Bare Trees’ “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” gleams. Its one incongruity is McVie’s early tendency to sing whole melodic lines instead of abbreviating them: she wrote verse when a little later she would turn into a short story writer. She had a talent for friendship, in this case with guitarists Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch — her keyboards embellished without overwhelming, and her harmonies deepened Welch’s often glib curiosity, as on the snaky, sensuous FM radio semi-hit “Hypnotized.” On Mystery to Me’s “Why,” the band eases into the track: in its opening minutes, Welch and Bob Weston toss lines at her, to which she responds with clusters of tentative notes.
By the time Nicks and Buckingham impressed Fleetwood with a harmonically adult but a larval stage of an eponymous album, McVie had found the ideal partners. Nicks’ erratic melodic sense needed McVie’s harmonies; Buckingham’s flights of fancy soared when they realized someone on Earth looked up to them. In a band where Nicks’ fantastical narratives and Buckingham’s verbal tags for the sake of production gewgaws dominated critical responses, McVie quietly wrote piano-based songs whose consistency honored Tin Pan Alley craft while channeling the fervor of her blues roots. With the obliging rhythm section of Fleetwood and now ex-husband John, McVie could depend on a granitic foundation for her reveries.
As crisp as new money, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac at last gave McVie’s material a sheen, hence a new, impressive urgency; no one relevant during the Ford administration purred with such feline complacency as McVie did on “Over My Head” or, in the case of the Buckingham collab “World Turning,” suggested that life could change after a night of spooning. Greater even than these showhorse moments is “Warm Ways,” where her electric piano and Buckingham’s high, plaintive sustained notes evoke a tangle of sheets, a warmth of mattress. Christine McVie was the poet laureate of the Morning After.
Like that other singles-heavy blockbuster Thriller, Rumours (1977) finds new listeners every day. Blame the psychodrama, sure — or credit the impeccable craft of McVie songs like “You Make Loving Fun.” Her Clavinet clomps along and the way her choral vocal seems to dangle in the air, secure in the knowledge that Nicks and Buckingham will catch her. Stripped of its rueful innards by the Clinton-Gore campaign, “Don’t Stop” nevertheless remains less an anthem than a prayer, a last attempt to cheer herself up.
Preceded by stories about its extravagance – every band in the late ‘70s should’ve decorated studios with shrunken heads and leis – Tusk (1979) on first listen sounds as if it would beach a writer with McVie’s superficially superficial chipperness. Yet, instead of isolating her, Buckingham’s manipulation of echo and delay, functioned as the equivalent of a spotlight. The band opened their follow-up to one of the biggest-selling albums in history with… a McVie ballad called “Over and Over.” That Fleetwood drum roll in the last 30 seconds is an instinct that bands spend thousands paying for.
Later, McVie would balk, like a mother embarrassingly coughing into a handkerchief about a profligate son, over Tusk’s indulgences, but Buckingham coaxed several career-best performances out of her. Keyed to his liquidy guitar lines, Fleetwood’s metronomic tapping, and among the saddest sha-la-la’s in pop, “Brown Eyes” paints a groggy hopelessness over an object of desire more f–ked up than her. If “Eyes” is the intro, then the echo-laden “Never Make Me Cry” completes this tear-stained diptych; when McVie sings the title refrain she fools nobody. Finally, as if to spite listeners who thought she specialized in red wine ballads, Fleetwood Mac released the trebly wonder “Think About Me” as the third single, on which McVie and Buckingham meshed into a bilious soulsonic force, a sardonic mode she tended to avoid: “I don’t hold you down/ Maybe that’s why you’re around” could’ve come from Nicks’ lyrics notebook.
An underperformer compared to Rumours’ chart dominance, Tusk pleased none of Buckingham’s bandmates. The chastened new wave fellow traveler joined the group in France in 1981 to record Mirage, the most soft rock of the five Buckingham-Nicks albums, but one with strange, often dangerous eddies. The lead single “Hold Me” held the No. 4 position for weeks in the late summer of 1982, a rebuke to the Kleenex softness of its chart brethren. Dueting with Buckingham, McVie is barely in sync, like being on the phone with a boyfriend who talks past her. Buckingham woos her with sundry twinkling guitar parts that adduce his intuition about what love songs require: crosstalk, tension, release.
Broken into their constituent parts, as they were in the early ‘80s, Fleetwood Mac’s songwriters retreated into their corners: Buckingham into studio-bound hermeticism, Nicks into AOR with gothic overtones, and, as on her 1984 solo album, McVie into head-nodding pop with not a hint of subversion. Although she scored a hit with the uptempo “Got a Hold on Me,” Christine McVie’s most sublime moment is “The Smile I Live For,” a ballad graced with a rare piano solo and her rather frightening concentration; she rhapsodizes about that smile as if it were as necessary as Lipitor.
The Fleetwood Mac that recorded Tango in the Night depended on Buckingham’s mixing board sorcery more than ever – only XTC’s Skylarking in 1987 sported more whirrs and electronic chimes – but McVie contributed two of her best pure pop hits. Keyed to a hook that could be a guitar or synth, “Little Lies” brings the three singers together for a chorus in which Buckingham’s boyish yawp and Nicks’ punkish nasality rally around McVie’s full-throated commitment to useful fictions. And only she could’ve written the album’s fourth Hot 100 top 20 hit with a hook like “I wanna be with you everywhere” and not sound like a simp. Thanks to a Chevrolet EV commercial, “Everywhere” is everywhere again, and still a charmer.
Having given Fleetwood Mac its biggest-selling album since Rumours, Buckingham skedaddled; he would return a decade later to a band closer to an Ltd. than a coven. Eventually McVie left too, coaxed back in 2014 after a period of patrician ease. “Being busy walking my dogs — actually not doing anything very constructive,” she told The L.A. Times in 2017 about her sabbatical. She had a detachment from her own achievements; being The Sane One in Fleetwood Mac was like a cabaret act. The person who wrote and sang “Remember Me,” “Say You Love Me,” “Songbird,” and “Love in Store” ignored the plaudits, treating her legacy as casually as a roadside f–k.
She could still write a great song. On the quasi-Mac reunion album with Buckingham (and without Nicks) released in 2017, she contributed “Carnival Begin,” her organ murmuring with portent. “I want it all, the colors and swings,” she pleads, the decades falling like scales. For five minutes she’s the art school girl in Chicken Shack, entranced by Etta James.
If there’s a track of hers to play — to inhabit — try “Mystified,” buried on Tango in the Night. Was there a better title for a Christine McVie song? It’s a study in stasis. Few singer-songwriters appreciated the minutiae of rapture—about meeting a guy’s gaze and realizing, oh dear. In a way, Christine was the youngest Fleetwood Mac member. She stood up for adult euphoria.