The Way We Were
Dallas and Dynasty - is the world ready for
It is deja vu of the very strangest sort on this May night in Burbank, California. Thrilled to be at this invitation-only event, each and every one of us crane our necks at the five, well, geezers on the stage who have chosen to open their first full-length concert together in 15 years with a song called The Chain. Yes, Fleetwood Mac: ex-British blues sensations, former middling rock 'n' roll band with an ever-shifting line-up, and one-time makers of Rumours, the extraordinary pop record which, since its 1977 release, has shifted more units than nearly any other album in the history of popular music.
It is a glorious rock 'n' roll event. It is an unbelievable reunion. It is the sort of thing big bands do when the aroma of money is in the air. And this cavernous structure on the Warner Brothers lot is reeking of the stuff tonight. Sniffing the scent are record company label executives looking for an early answer to that annual question regarding the probability of a Christmas bonus. Then there are radio contest winners who've been shipped in to see history in the making. All of us are the sort of people who really don't feel the need to go to concerts any more, frankly, but what the hell - this beats seeing U2 as four pinpoints on the horizon any day. And our number includes lanky journalists scratching heads and wondering what Don Henley and his overstuffed wallet spawned when this reunion business started three years ago.
We are witnessing an MTV Event, one of two consecutively filmed reunion shows featuring the five members of the most popular Fleetwood Mac ever - Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood - with not one, but five intended purposes. An MTV special. A VH-1 special. A new live album. A teaser for the upcoming 40-date North American concert tour. And a commercial home video release? Would you bet against it? So a lot is riding on the performance Fleetwood Mac are giving tonight. MTV know it, Reprise Records know it, the audience know it, and the band - oh yes, the band - they know it too. And what is strangest of all at this most artificial of events is how good Fleetwood Mac sound and look.
When The Chain is finished and the audience whoop, a familiar opening riff begins, and all eyes turn to Stevie Nicks, dressed in her trademark black chiffon. For one who has in recent years waxed matronly, she looks oddly like, well, Stevie Nicks. And then it happens. Stevie sings the opening line to Dreams...and forgets the words. It is the only Number 1 single in her life - maybe her most important song ever - and she flubs it. She stops - this is TV, remember - and starts over. And then she flubs it again.
It is a tense moment. Some in the audience giggle, nervously. Others silently speculate on whether a refresher visit to the Betty Ford Clinic might be in order. But the moment passes. Stevie finally nails it, and Fleetwood Mac, as the saying goes, Then Play On.
"You know what?" Stevie Nicks asks me later. "I wasn't pissed off at myself, I was scared - the words went out of my head. The first time it was like, OK, this is all right. The second time I started to get a sick feeling. And then the third time I thought, Somebody, Lindsey, come over here and tell me these words, because we're not gonna get through this thing."
We are sitting in a small waiting room at Conway Studios in Hollywood, and Nicks is addressing the press. She is charming, reassuringly chiffon-clad, and surprisingly lucid for someone who has spent thousands collecting stuffed animals, you know.
"But," she adds, "also I'm thinking, the audience is gonna really enjoy this - they're gonna see that I too am stupid and an airhead, and things go wrong for me too, and everything isn't perfect. And they're gonna not have a problem with it."
That, ultimately, is what caps the concept of a Fleetwood Mac 'reunion' in 1997: no-one is really going to have a problem with it. Not the pop audience, who bought this quintet's six albums from 1975's Fleetwood Mac to 1987's Tango in the Night by the squillion and heard their music blaring on their radios for more than a decade. And not even most critics, who have for the most part come to regard the Lindsey Buckingham 'version' of Fleetwood Mac especially highly. And certainly not the executives at Warner Brothers and Reprise Records (their current label), who saw Fleetwood Mac's enormous multi-platinum sales figures plummet with the group's first post-Buckingham album, 1990's Behind The Mask. US sales statistics alone: Fleetwood Mac (1975), five times platinum (over five million albums sold); Rumours (1977), 17 times platinum; the two-disc Tusk (1979), double platinum; Fleetwood Mac Live (1980), platinum; Mirage (1982), double platinum; Tango in the Night (1987), double platinum; and Greatest Hits (1988), four times platinum.
No. As always, the only party likely to have a problem with a Fleetwood Mac reunion in 1997 would be Fleetwood Mac themselves. Fleetwood Mac: the band, the often prone-to-excess individuals within it, the money-making entity they were and perhaps still are, and, of course, the soap opera.
"...Suddenly Dennis Dunstan and Stevie's manager Tony Dimitriades pulled Lindsey off her and told him that was enough. Lindsey then came back into my house, very distraught. He shouted, 'Get that woman out of my life - that schizophrenic bitch!'
"Christine was furious. 'Lindsey, look at yourself, screaming like a madman.' There was a silence. And John McVie quietly said to Lindsey Buckingham, 'I think you'd better leave now.' 'You're a bunch of selfish bastards,' Lindsey said, and walked out. he sat in his car in the driveway for 15 minutes, obviously distraught, but nobody wanted to go to him. Eventually, we heard him start is motor and leave." (From Fleetwood Mac: My Life And Adventures In Fleetwood Mac by Mick Fleetwood with Stephen Davis, William Morrow & Company, 1990)
Mick Fleetwood's memorable account of Lindsey Buckingham's departure from Fleetwood Mac often inclines toward the melodrama of TV soaps like Dynasty and Dallas - also icons of '80s pop culture in their day - but in 1997 is a damn fun read. "We decided to be comfortable and lost control," Fleetwood confides in its pages. "If Stevie wanted a hotel suite painted pink with a white piano in it, what are you gonna do? Say no?"
Indeed, the tales of conspicuous excess, hyperinflated egos - and humungous quantities of Peruvian flake - are what you'd expect from a phenomenally successful band comprising ex-lovers at the very height of their fame. For it was during the making of Rumours when Christine and John McVie, married in 1968, effectively split, when Fleetwood divorced his wife Jenny Boyd (sister of Patti), and when newcomers Buckingham and Nicks ended their tumultuous four-year romance. That Fleetwood Mac lasted as long as they did thereafter is a fitting testimonial to the power of music, money, or both.
When Lindsey Buckingham left Fleetwood Mac in 1987, his two replacements - guitarist Rick Vito and singer/guitarist Billy Burnette, initially hired for touring purposes - joined the four remaining Macs for 1990's Behind The Mask. Disappointingly, the album peaked at Number 18 on the Billboard charts, though it did manage gold status (over 500,000 copies sold) before completing its run. Nicks and Christine McVie both quit touring with the band at the end of that year, guitarist Vito split the next year, and by '93 Nicks and Burnette officially opted out. When their replacements were announced by the year's end, it was something of a head-scratcher: Bekka Bramlett, daughter of Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett and singer in Fleetwood's side-project The Zoo, and the man who wrote Hole In My Shoe, Mr Dave Mason of Traffic fame. Suffice it to say, their sole LP, 1995's Time, failed even to enter the American charts.
"It was fine," says drummer Mick Fleetwood. The beanpole who once seriously considered giving his coke dealer a sleeve credit on Rumours ("unfortunately, he got snuffed - executed! Before the thing came out," his book wryly recalls) is talking about the last days of the Bramlett/Mason Mac. "It was an experiment in true Fleetwood Mac tradition, that me and John have always kept going. The reason Stevie and Lindsey were in Fleetwood Mac is because we kept going and didn't say, Oh, it's over now that Bob Welch has left the band. What'll we do? We haven't got a lead guitar player and a songwriter...
"It's what I've done for 30 years, so it was very normal behaviour. And we made a really good album that didn't do diddleyshit. We went out on the road, and we did OK. But without a hit album, and a reaffirmation with new members on radio, we didn't stand a chance. It was a good band, with the wrong damn name."
"I was sad to see it go," agrees grizzled penguin-lover John McVie. "But it was necessary. It started getting financially tough to run. You couldn't support yourself on the gigs; basically you were going out and playing for nothing." And when it ended? "I said, OK, I'll sit on a boat for a while. Which I did."
Also appearing on Time was one Christine McVie, who politely notes that her appearance, "was something that I had not volunteered to do; it was contractual. I don't like to harp on it very much, but I thought the music was starting to get a little strange, the choices a little funny. I wasn't really enjoying that particular incarnation of the band, and I left." At that point, the former Miss Perfect's plans included moving back to England - she's had a home in Kent for five years - and pursuing the hobbies one would expect of a former member of Chicken Shack: "Painting, illustration, I'd like to write a book, I'd like to go to cooking school. I know it sounds utterly absurd, but I really love cooking and I take it very seriously." Plus a solo album "sometime before the next millennium".
Meanwhile, Out of the Cradle, Lindsey Buckingham's first album as a fully-fledged solo artist soared all the way to Number 128 on the Billboard charts in 1992: an undeservedly poor showing for a fine album. The brand name, it seemed, was everything.
And Stevie Nicks, by far the most saleable solo Mac artist, seemed to be stumbling badly too. Most troubling were the two new tracks featured upon her otherwise solid 1991 greatest hits collection, Timespace: Sometimes It's A Bitch, penned by Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Falcon, and Love's A Hard Game To Play, co-written with Bret Michaels of poodle-metal band Poison. Two words: clowns all. With 1994's Street Angel, which peaked at Number 45 and became her poorest-selling solo album ever, failing even to go gold, her stint with longtime label Modern Records ended. She is now signed to Reprise, as are both Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac proper.
Which brings us back to Lindsey Buckingham, who, like everyone else today, is at Conway Studios dealing with the mix of select live tracks and determining which will make the final cut for the album. We are talking about the bands that played under the name Fleetwood Mac following his departure. "I did sit in once when Stevie was touring with Rick and Billy, at the end of the show," notes Buckingham, his Eraserhead hairdo mercifully long-gone, and the words "that schizophrenic bitch" likewise conspicuous by their absence. Though he maintains a house in plush Bel Air, it is currently being renovated; the man who gets royalty cheques larger than those of Sebadoh and Savoy Brown combined is now slumming it in the Beverly Hills - adjacent (as we say in the real estate business) to the Four Seasons hotel. Surprisingly chipper, he chooses his words carefully. "The shows that they did with Rick and Billy when Stevie was still in the band were fine. But I think when you cut to Fleetwood Mac being middle-billed in a nostalgia package with Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon - that hurt me a little bit.
"But in Mick's defence - Mick and John own the name - the very thing that Mick did after Peter Green, this constant process of opening up the band to various incarnations, a lot of which were kind of non sequiturs, that was the very process which led him to us. And I think in his mind he was just doing the same thing he always did. And maybe the difference is that after a big success, that idea doesn't work so well."
Oddly, it turns out, Buckingham himself is most responsible - albeit indirectly - for the current Mac reunion. While recording the follow-up to Out of the Cradle last year, he began using drummer Fleetwood, and before long, both John and Christine McVie came on board for the sessions as well. Additionally, the Buckingham/Nicks team was reunited for Twisted, a cut on the Twister soundtrack, a track also featuring Fleetwood. "Basically the whole band had made music during the course of that year," the drummer notes. "And at that point there was no mention from within the ranks that it was all leading to something."
"When I left in '87, it really was a survival move," recalls Lindsey Buckingham from his studio chair. "Emotionally and physically. The atmosphere was not very conducive to being creative. A lot of the people had personal problems. It was just in order to regroup and get back on a track where I felt I was really grounded in the process again. And was sort of, in theory, doing it for the right reasons "gain.
"So, cut to nine years later - last year - and I run into Mick and we go out and have breakfast, and he's a totally different person. He's changed a few things about his life, and I realise that we have an awful lot to talk about. And the chemistry was just very present - as it had always been, but without the baggage. I'd done some healing and some refocusing and hopefully some growing, and so had he."
As the former members of Fleetwood Mac gathered together, whether in Buckingham's studio or at dinner, "suddenly there was this implication," Buckingham remembers. "and at some point I'm sure a light bulb went off over in Burbank at Warner Brothers - and I think probably for Mick, too. Because as much as he loved working on my stuff, Fleetwood Mac is a priority for him." There stood Buckingham, with a new solo album "nine-tenths done", and suddenly Russ Thyret, the chairman of Warner Brothers Records, was calling, asking "Do you want to do this?"
"I had cut loose of all of the things that were baggage in my life. I had new lawyers, a new girlfriend, a shrink for the first time, and these lawyers were saying, 'Look, this could be a good thing to roll over into the visibility of your solo album.' But is it the type of visibility you want? At the time you just don't know. Fleetwood Mac had come off that last incarnation of Dave Mason and Bekka Bramlett - there was some damage control to be done, right? I thought, OK, I know these people care - it's not just a money thing for them, although of course bottom line is always that. I asked Russ Thyret on the phone, I know you haven't heard my album yet - if you had it in your hands, and were just totally convinced it was a smash, would you still be telling me to do this? Would you be giving me the advice? And he said, 'Absolutely.'
"So I said OK."
There is, of course, the matter of money. Word has it that concert promoters will be guaranteeing the band $400,000 per show, and it estimates Fleetwood Mac's potential gross via ticket, album and merchandising sales could reach half that of The Eagles' 1994-96 world trek - which some contend exceeded $500 million.
"I hope people turn up," smiles an affable John McVie sheepishly. "They might think it's just a bunch of old farts out to make a buck."
"It'll be surprising if someone doesn't think that. There have been a lot of people who shall remain nameless who did that. I don't think any of us are that financially strapped that you have to go and sell your soul to do this." "Once we get on the road we'll take a few hits," Buckingham notes. "But in the same way, maybe people can sense Don [Henley] and Glenn [Frey] maybe aren't that crazy about being up on-stage with each other, they can sense that we are really digging it. Even more, I think that we are actually playing better than ever." These bothersome Eagles comparisons keep arising. Among the biggest-selling recording groups ever, both acts opted to reunite on an MTV stage set up within precisely the same building on the Warner Brothers studio lot. Indeed, it is difficult to pretend that reunions of this sort are about anything - anything at all - other than power, prestige and money. But there is indeed an important difference here, and it isn't only musical. Stevie Nicks - whose 1981 solo hit Leather and Lace featured a duet vocal by Eagle Don Henley - puts her bejewelled finger precisely on it. "You're never going to take away the fact that there's two ex-couples on that stage, you know. And you're never gonna take back the fact that a lot of those songs were written about each other. So no matter how cool anybody is, when you get up and sing them to each other...We can't ever look at each other as if we hadn't been totally involved. Especially when you get up there on the stage, and you're all wearing black, and I'm in black chiffon, and there's beautiful lights, and...you know, it's rock 'n' roll and everybody's in love again."
Rock's greatest soap opera: to be continued.