In Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac Has Lost Its Songbird

McVie was quietly crucial to the band’s decades of success, as both a musician and a human being

December 1, 2022 11:08 am
Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, in a recording studio in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, October 1975.
Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, in a recording studio in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, October 1975.

When Christine McVie joined her Fleetwood Mac bandmates onstage at Wembley Stadium in 2013, completing their classic lineup for the first time in 15 years, it was a small miracle — just months earlier, Stevie Nicks had said, “There’s no more a chance of that happening than an asteroid hitting the earth.” Instead, that audience got to see a shooting star, and the cosmic gift of McVie’s appearance was not lost on the band she helped make a household name. “This precious lady, whose songs echo through this band’s history … England’s own, our songbird,” gushed Mick Fleetwood, piling on the descriptors as if aware none of them could quite do her justice. “With no more ado … give it up, London. Welcome Christine McVie!” (The crowd, of course, went wild.)

It’s easy to see — and to hear — why the band so cherished McVie, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 79 after “a short illness.” The singer, songwriter and keyboardist often referred to as Fleetwood Mac’s secret weapon was not only the mind behind some of their most enduring hits, including “Don’t Stop,” “Little Lies” and “Everywhere,” but also the peacemaker at the center of a band known for their personal tumult. It’s telling that even after five decades in Fleetwood Mac, McVie’s memories of those years were only rosy: “Even though I am quite a peaceful person, I did enjoy that storm,” she told Rolling Stone in the summer of 2022. “Although it’s said that we fought a lot, we actually did spend a lot of our time laughing.” Asked when she was happiest with the band, she said, “I think I was happy pretty much all the time.”

Before McVie was an integral member of Fleetwood Mac, she was a fan of the band. Born Christine Anne Perfect (no pressure!) in the small English village of Bouth, daughter to a faith healer mother and a concert violinist and music professor father, she was a classically trained musician who played the piano and cello from a young age. But her older brother introduced her to jazz, and then to ​​Fats Domino, and that was that: “Goodbye Schubert — hello rock ‘n’ roll,” she later remembered thinking. Her pivot away from classical music and towards the blues led her to art school, London and her first bands, including Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack, whose biggest hit would be a 1969 McVie-led rendition of Etta James’ “​​I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Chicken Shack shared stages with a then-nascent Fleetwood Mac, whom McVie praised as playing “some beautiful and, to my mind, very authentic blues.” Her and Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie’s mutual admiration turned to romance — they married in 1970, with Christine taking John’s last name, and “honeymooned” in Birmingham. McVie, ever the good sport, didn’t mind sharing the occasion with Joe Cocker, who “was staying at the same hotel and he got plastered with us, on our wedding night! Until we kicked him out,” she told The Guardian with a laugh. Her first formal contributions to Fleetwood Mac came that same year: “They came out of the rehearsal room and said: ‘Hey Chris, do you want to join?’ I couldn’t believe my luck. I said: ‘Are you serious?! I’m just a girl who plays piano,’” she recalled. “The style had to change because I was a keyboard player, and it developed a more commercial bent. It was thrilling, and I have to say to this day it still kind of is, knowing that I did that. Then it just got better.”

McVie played piano and sang on 1970’s Kiln House, and even painted the album cover. The following year’s Future Games was the first Fleetwood Mac record to feature her as a full-time member, and the band would continue to build momentum — and churn through members — throughout the early ‘70s, transitioning from an English blues outfit to the U.S.-based, Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham-led juggernaut they’re best-known as now. McVie’s “Say You Love Me” and “Over My Head” charted as top-20 singles, heralding the band’s 1975 self-titled album, and the beginning of what would be their golden age. We can see what made McVie so special in these tracks. Her keyboard playing is steady and rhythmic, unshowy and unerring in its service of the songs, and her hypnotically smooth contralto reflects the brave vulnerability of her lyricism, swept up and tossed around by love, yet unafraid: “I’m over my head / But it sure feels nice.”

Even then, Nicks and Buckingham’s contributions to the band were the flashiest — Nicks’ “Rhiannon” and “Landslide” would become Fleetwood Mac’s biggest tracks. Yet McVie was content on the edges of the limelight, surrounded by her instruments: “I was in essence boxed in completely by keyboards,” she told Contemporary Keyboard with a laugh in 1980. “People would look and say, ‘Christine is back in her cave.’ Mick and I would laugh about it, because he had the same sensation, being stuck behind his drums all night.” The band’s mid-’70s successes strained their internal relationships, the much-scrutinized strife that was central to their landmark hit record Rumours. McVie wrote “Don’t Stop” about the dissolution of her and John’s marriage and “You Make Loving Fun” about either her lover — and the band’s lighting director — Curry Grant, or her dog Duster, depending on who you ask. Both tracks were top-10 hits, and the album remains the band’s biggest to this day.

If there’s one song on ​​Rumours that tells us who McVie was, it’s “Songbird,” a serene piano ballad tucked into the tracklist between two mega-hits, Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” and full-band co-write “The Chain.” Asked by RS earlier this year which song of hers she was most proud of, McVie said, “I’ve got to say ‘Songbird.’ I couldn’t sleep, started to get a song rolling around in my head and I wrote it in half an hour. ‘For you there’d be no more crying … ’ It’s sort of like a little prayer for everybody. We went into Zellerbach Hall studios, they got me a bunch of red roses and I sang it alone on the stage.” It must have been another shooting-star moment to hear McVie, alone at the piano during the band’s most tumultuous time, singing, “For you, there’ll be no more crying / For you, the sun will be shining / And I feel that when I’m with you / It’s alright, I know it’s right.” 

Steadfast, McVie would remain the band’s songbird through her divorce from John and a relationship with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, the 1984 release of her self-titled solo album and her marriage to keyboardist Eddy Quintela. She contributed more of their most enduring pop hits, including “Everywhere” and “Little Lies,” to 1987’s Tango in the Night. And she remained a member of Fleetwood Mac even after her beloved father Cyril Perfect’s death and her subsequent retirement from touring. It wasn’t until 1998, the same year the band (including McVie) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that she finally stepped away from music, returning to England in search of a quieter life. For 15 years, she did little songwriting, save contributing two tracks to Fleetwood Mac’s 2003 album Say You Will and releasing 2004 solo album In the Meantime. When she did appear at a 2000s Fleetwood Mac show, it was only as a spectator.

Though better times were coming — McVie officially rejoined the band in 2014, and “fucking wrote up a storm” in spearheading 2017’s Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, a Fleetwood Mac comeback album in everything but name (and Nicks) — her hiatus from the band resonates in a new way in light of her passing. It was in McVie’s absence, seemingly, that her bandmates could most clearly see how key she had been to the decades they spent atop rock ‘n’ roll, together. Asked by RS if McVie would make an appearance during the band’s 2012 reunion tour, Nicks gave her “asteroid” answer, concluding, “When [McVie] left, she left. She sold her house, her piano, her car. She went to England and she has never been back since 1998, so it’s not really feasible, as much as we would all like to think that she’ll just change her mind one day. I don’t think it’ll happen. We love her, so we had to let her go.”

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