Homeward Bound: Christine McVie (July 12, 1943 — November 30, 2022)

I don’t normally post twice in one day here, but after completing this morning’s offering, I feel compelled to quickly return to my keyboard, having just learned of the sudden death of the great Christine McVie, at the age of 79.

Born Christine Perfect, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist made her first public musical splash in 1967 with the bluesy Chicken Shack, formed by a pair of her college musician friends, Stan Webb and Andy Sylvester. By the late 1960s, Christine was winning regular accolades in the English music press as one of that country’s greatest singers, deservedly so. (If you’ve never heard this early phase of her career, the group’s sole chart hit, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” is worth a spin, for sure). Christine left Chicken Shack in 1969 after marrying (and taking the surname of) John McVie, bassist of the then-equally-bluesy Fleetwood Mac. After guesting on the Mac’s Mr Wonderful (1968) and Kiln House (1970) albums, the latter of which featured her cover art, Christine McVie joined Fleetwood Mac as a full-time member in 1970. Her first album as a contributing vocalist, songwriter, and keyboard player was 1971’s Future Games, which also introduced Bob Welch into the Mac fold, alongside John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Danny Kirwan.

On the list of my Top 200 Albums Ever, there are three Fleetwood Mac albums cited: the legendary Rumours (1977, more about that one later), Future Games, and its 1972 follow-up release, Bare Trees. After Danny Kirwan abruptly left the Mac following Bare Trees, McVie and Welch essentially carried Fleetwood Mac over the ensuing three studio albums, through to the point in 1975 where Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined, and the group re-tooled itself for superstardom. (Welch left just before Buckingham-Nicks joined; he’s gotten a raw deal in the historical telling of his important role in Fleetwood Mac, which I’ve previously written at length about here).

Between 1975 and 1987, the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie-McVie-Fleetwood incarnation of Fleetwood Mac released five epic studio albums, which have collectively sold over 35 million copies in the American market alone. The biggest of them all, and one of the biggest albums ever, was Rumours, which documented the real-time dissolutions of the Buckingham-Nicks and McVie-McVie relationships amidst a monsoon of cocaine and alcohol abuse and marital infidelities. It’s perhaps the rawest popular album ever to hit so big, and it’s a testament to its greatness that the group was able to endure for so many years in its aftermath, the strength of its songs and performances transcending the circumstances surrounding their creation.

During that amazing dozen-year run, Fleetwood Mac put 17 singles into the American Top 40 Charts. For reasons I can’t quite explain, Buckingham and Nicks often seem to be perceived as the “lead” voices (writing and singing) in the group, but the numbers tell a different tale: Buckingham penned three of Fleetwood Mac’s Top 40 cuts during that time, Nicks penned four, and Christine McVie penned an even ten. Her keys, her words, her deft pop chops, and her smooth contralto voice were truly the secret sauce that bound the disparate elements of Fleetwood Mac’s glory years together somehow, even if she was less a visual element onstage behind her keyboards, while Nicks swirled in her scarves and Buckingham attacked his guitar on the front-line. She just wrote the songs that sold the albums, over and over and over again. The lack of commensurate single songwriting success within Fleetwood Mac eventually contributed to Buckingham’s (first) departure from the Mac in 1987. Nicks lasted through one more Fleetwood Mac album after her former partner’s exit, and the McVies and Mick Fleetwood made it through one more yet after that, at which point it seemed the long-running, multi-headed group was finally spent, its members seemingly scattered to the winds by 1995.

But behind the scenes, various projects involving various members of the Classic Mac quickly rekindled the sparks between the quintet, who announced a reunion tour in 1997. Marcia and I went to see them, our first time in their live presence, on November 26, 1997, at the venue then known as Pepsi Arena, in Albany, New York. It was one of the final dates on the tour, and I have to say . . . it was problematic. Nicks’ voice was completely shot at this point, the band was supported by a far-too-large and far-too-busy set of backing musicians, and Buckingham seemed openly, actively annoyed with everyone and everything in the arena. The one thing that was perfect about that flawed night? Christine McVie. Holy Moly, was she good, and it was a relief every time when the set list worked its way around to one of her spotlight numbers. The most memorable moment in the set was without doubt her solo piano performance of “Songbird,” her signature tune from Rumours.  What a voice. What a song. What a performance. Days later, as the tour wound to a close, Christine McVie announced her permanent retirement from Fleetwood Mac.

The other four issued another studio album, Say You Will, in 2003, and it was notable to these ears for what it missed: the aural glue and centering that Christine McVie added to the group dynamic. It felt less like a Fleetwood Mac album, and more like a collection of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham solo songs, put together somewhat willy-nilly style. Which isn’t awful, mind, but it’s just not magical, the way things were when McVie was in the mix, with any of the various members of the various Macs that she spearheaded. Marcia and I saw Fleetwood Mac for the second time live during this four-piece era, during a trip to Las Vegas in 2013. It was a much better show than the Albany one we’d caught, despite Christine McVie’s absence, in large part because Stevie Nicks’ voice was in good form, which made a huge difference, given the number and prominence of her spotlight songs. We also caught Lindsey Buckingham solo for the first time in this period, and he was superb.

In 2014, Christine McVie announced her un-retirement from Fleetwood Mac, rejoining her crew for another string of tours. We caught the reunited five-piece in Des Moines in 2015, and it was a grand show. Things fragmented again for the Mac after that tour, and in a surprise twist, McVie and Buckingham (with John McVie and Fleetwood onboard) released a duo album in 2017 called, easily enough, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. I rated that record in my Top Five Albums of 2017 report, summarizing how and why I felt about it and them in my blurb review, which I quote below:

I neither understand nor approve of the legal and music industry conventions that allow Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to record and tour together as “Fleetwood Mac,” while Buckingham, McVie and Fleetwood playing with Christine McVie may not do so . . . but be that as it may, and whatever this record is called, this is the best music anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac have issued since Rumours to Tusk days, no kidding. Buckingham and McVie write and sing gloriously together, and the arrangements and production are as sparkling and meticulous as you’d expect with Lindsey in the producer’s chair. The venerable J. McVie-Fleetwood rhythm section helps out with their customary skill (you don’t necessarily pay active attention to them, but they make everything atop their base sound better, always), and Mitchell Froom is along for the ride to provide supplementary keyboard and occasional production flourish. Buckingham remains one of the greatest guitarists of his era, and his finger-picking leads and swirls are just magical, as is the opportunity to hear him and Christine singing together, his piercing tenor and her dusky alto just as sublime together as they’ve always been. For all of the attention focused on Buckingham and Nicks over the decades, it’s worth noting that Christine McVie actually wrote more Mac hits than the two of them combined, and her melodic sense and skill is in ample force throughout this disc. Just a lovely record, all around, from the real Fleetwood Mac, whether they can say so or not.

With word of her death reaching us today, that duo disc is now destined to be her final one. Marcia and I saw the tour supporting its release in Chicago, and it was a great evening out, with great songs, and great voices, and the great Christine McVie in fine form, indeed. We’ve since seen Lindsey Buckingham yet again in Phoenix, and that was also wonderful, in its own way. I’m saddened to reflect that the long and tortured Fleetwood Mac story isn’t going to feature one final twist where Christine McVie emerges from the wings unexpectedly to deliver one more sublime “Songbird” for her adoring fans (me among them), but all good things must come to an end, I suppose.

In closing, while I know that the next few weeks are going to be rife with Rumours references as Christine’s passing is memorialized, I would just like to recommend that you give her earlier work with the Mac a spin, especially Future Games and Bare Trees. The other two songwriters on those albums (Welch and Kirwan) are also both dead, both in somewhat tragic circumstances, but the material they left behind is sublime, and you can now lift a toast to the three great songwriters in the band, all flown away from us for good. I picked the title for this post (“Homeward Bound”) from a Bare Trees track by Christine McVie, within which she discusses her dismay at the travails of rock and roll travel, longing instead for a drink and a cigarette in her old rocking chair at home. I’m hoping that she was still enjoying those things, right up until the end.

Finally, one more thing must be said: John McVie and Mick Fleetwood live on, and as long as they’re still kicking, there’s still the chance for more Mac magic down the line. It won’t be the same without Christine McVie, at all, but the various permutations of Fleetwood Mac have often been better than a lot of other things one can choose to experience in this big world of ours. I’ll continue to keep my eyes and ears open, in case they want to surprise us, one more time.

My favorite Fleetwood Mac album. Go give it a spin, right now. Shoo! Shoo!!!

14 thoughts on “Homeward Bound: Christine McVie (July 12, 1943 — November 30, 2022)

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  2. I THINK that Buckingham/Nicks were perceived to be more “important” than Perfect is that it was their addition that made FM a commercial supergroup. (Think Ringo Starr with the Beatles – though not really the same.) But I was ALWAYS a Christine Perfect McVie fan. In those albums sans LB and SN, it was her songs that made some mediocre albums tolerable. (No knock on Billy Burdette, et al. but the non- Christine songs just didn’t hit the FORMULA correctly.)

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    • Agreed. I know I’m in a minority in thinking that the Kirwan-Welch-McVie songwriting troika was as strong as the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie one was . . . but in both cases, there was a definite THERE there that lacked in the post-Lindsey days. And Green-Kirwan was a great team too, earlier . . .

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  4. After hearing the news, I came here to see your thoughts (as a fellow McVie fan) and was not disappointed. Insightful, as always.

    I have always wondered if Buckingham/Nicks often get perceived as the leads because people love drama and — when it comes to their once romantic and longtime professional relationship — there is always Drama with a capital D. Whereas, with McVie’s songs, they were often sonically (if not always lyrically) bright, warm and cozy; they invited you to lean in versus stepping back to see the hurricane of Buckingham/Nicks in action.

    And — not for nothing — the dramatic rockers always get more ink than their quieter peers, anyways (even the critics love some capital-D drama). Also, I wonder if any of it was the era of transition from AM to FM — I remember her songs featuring more prominently on top-40 AM in my childhood, versus B/N’s songs seeming to get the AOR FM treatment (which always got more props from the rock critics of the day).

    She was always the most hopeful/romantic of the band members and undoubtedly their “secret” weapon (despite being the real workhorse, as you noted). What an amazing catalog of artistry she has left behind.

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    • Good to see you here, as always. And good to hear from another fan of Miz McV. Very good point about the AM/FM dichotomy, I had not thought about that angle, but share similar memories of experiencing their music. I think it manifests itself all these years in Christine’s songs also being the ones that turn up in film soundtracks and commercials. Unless, of course, you are parodying a marching band, in which case Lindsey’s “Tusk” is mandatory.

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      • Ha ha ha … yes, you have to have “Tusk” in there for a solid marching band parody. A vivid memory from my childhood (I would’ve been 8 or so) was seeing the video for that song on TV, back in an era before MTV and Night Flight and all that.

        It had to been prime time, so who knows why or where music videos were airing (we didn’t even have cable, so it had to be one of the three major networks), but I saw “Tusk,” M’s “Pop Musik,” and Gary Numan’s “Cars.” My young, music-loving mind was BLOWN! Especially the latter two songs, with their layers of synths — wowee wow wow!!

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        • Did you have any UHF stations around then? I know of lot of them were nabbing music videos and airing them as filler on local origination broadcasts in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A friend of mine had HBO in early days when that was A THING, and I’d go over there to watch “Video Jukebox,” certainly seeing the same videos you mention, many, many times.

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          • That’s a possibility … my dad was stationed at Plattsburgh AFB at the time, so it could have been that, or maybe even something coming over from Canada. I remember AFN Pacific had music videos during our time in Hawaii, but I don’t think AFN ever broadcast domestically …

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