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Re:Masters: Fleetwood Mac

After a five-year break, 'rock-'n'-roll's greatest soap opera' hits the road and remembers the turmoil behind 'Rumours'

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Posted March 1, 2009

A few weeks ago in Los Angeles, the members of Fleetwood Mac -- Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Stevie Nicks -- gathered to run through songs in preparation for their Unleashed Tour. "We did the entire set, totally unplugged," says Stevie Nicks. "We laughed about the songs, about what was going on when we wrote each one -- what we thought it was about, and what it was really about. One of our backup singers was asking all these questions like she was interviewing us. It's such a shame we didn't film all the little stories, because it was really all coming out."

If this band was truly revealing old secrets to each other, it's a bit of a miracle they walked out of there alive. There is simply no other group that can match the offstage drama of Fleetwood Mac.

Fleetwood and McVie -- the rhythm section that gave the band its name -- are the only members who have stuck it out through multiple lineups since the Mac's early days as a British blues-based band in the '60s. In 1975, the Bay Area duo of Buckingham and Nicks joined the fold, and all the parts fell into place. The resulting "Fleetwood Mac" album sold five million copies and spun off three hit singles.

But that was just a warm-up for 1977's "Rumours." Recorded while Buckingham and Nicks were breaking up romantically; McVie's marriage to the group's third songwriter/vocalist, Christine, was disintegrating; and Fleetwood and his wife were divorcing -- played out amid numerous affairs and copious amounts of drugs -- the album became a perfect chronicle of the promise, excess and chaos of the late '70s. It spent 31 weeks at No. 1 on the charts and has sold, to date, a staggering 19 million copies. (A new CD/DVD box-set reissue of "Rumours," with previously unreleased demos, outtakes, live recordings and video footage, was to be released in conjunction with the new tour, but is delayed while some clearance issues are being resolved.)

For the past few decades, Buckingham and Nicks have bounced between solo careers and Fleetwood Mac reunions; his sixth solo album, "Gift of Screws," was released in September, and she has a live album and DVD coming out later this month. The Unleashed Tour, which kicked off March 1 in Pittsburgh, is the band's first outing in five years. Unfortunately, this time around, Christine McVie -- an often-overlooked secret weapon in the Mac arsenal -- opted not to participate (there was talk of Sheryl Crow filling her chair, but the idea fizzled out), and there is no new music attached.

Instead, there is an unprecedented sense of loyalty and camaraderie between the band members, as Buckingham and Nicks both expressed during separate telephone conversations on break from rehearsal. For a band whose music is forever linked to its personal relationships, its high-wire act of romance and heartbreak, Fleetwood Mac has even started to fully embrace maturity.

"I'm a first-time parent in the last 10 years -- at age 59, with three kids under 10," says Buckingham. "That transforms your life, that sensibility and stability, and it informs everything I do. Being adult carries over into the group setting."

MSN Music: Do you find it difficult to connect to the old songs? Especially because you don't have a new album for this tour, is there any extra challenge in relating to that material again?

Stevie Nicks: The way we always start is that we go back to the original. We listen to the record once or twice, all of us together -- and then we don't listen too much more after that. So every time we play a song, of course, there's a lot of the original in there, but it also tends to morph a little bit, depending on our mood and what's going on in the world. After 9/11, everything took on a different meaning. For this show, a song like "World Turning" is such a premonition of our world in chaos, spinning out of control.

Lindsey Buckingham: I was definitely a little ambivalent about the mentality going in to this. We knew that we wanted to get out and do something, and there was talk of making an album, but it didn't work out. But the last album we made [2003's "Say You Will"], we worked for almost a year, in the same house, and by the end, there was a lot of tension that carried into rehearsals and the shows that followed.

Getting back into the big machine could be seen as resting on our laurels. So the mantra has had to be not what new statement we are making, but how we have moved along as people trying to become adults, who were admittedly living in a state of arrested development, without ever getting closure and never really working our problems out fully.

What becomes meaningful to me is that we've got this body of work, so let's relax into that and enjoy it and see what comes, rather than go through the pressure cooker again. And, as a result, these are probably the smoothest rehearsals I've ever been involved in.

So much of your writing, particularly on "Rumours," grew out of your personal relationships. How do those songs evolve as your own lives change?

Buckingham: It becomes easier to look back and appreciate the struggles we went through. I think that, especially with "Rumours," there really was a transformative, redemptive purpose in that music. We somehow survived all of our personal difficulties because of the music. On that album, I think there's a staying power that comes from being very authentic in terms of what we were going through. I can hear these opposite emotions going on in those songs that really lend themselves to a very timeless quality. But it takes time to be able to appreciate that.

Nicks: When you're singing, you definitely throw yourself back into that time. You can't sing "The Chain" without throwing yourself into it. You can't sing "Damn your love/Damn your lies" without becoming those people again. Lindsey and I haven't been in a relationship for 20 years, but you go right back to that -- I mean, if we didn't, it would be pretty stupid to even do those songs.

Lindsey and I will never be pals, never just hang out. We will always be that ex-couple where it all blew up in the middle of being so rich and so famous and so indulgent. But we're still able to be a power couple onstage. We can be nothing to each other when we don't see each other for three years, but when we come back together, we can have that relationship, and we're still working out our problems onstage.

We never found the peace that we'd like to find. We've known each other since we were 16 or 17, and I think we'd like to know before we die that we finally found a peaceful place together.

The reputation of "Rumours" is that it's the greatest rock-'n'-roll soap opera of all time. Do you think the focus on its history distracts from the music?

Buckingham: I think you have to be realistic about the fact that "Rumours" was a success for reasons other than the music. There got to be a point where it did clearly detach from the music and bring out the voyeur in listeners. We put ourselves out there, and people started to invest in us more emotionally. And that was part and parcel of the phenomenon -- it had to do with the mythology around the record, and it would be unrealistic to not acknowledge that. I don't think that it diminishes the appreciation of the music in any way; it was just a scope that went beyond the music.

I will say I'm glad it didn't happen in 2008 or 2009. I think the way the tabloids work today, it would have been exploited in such a different way. At the time, though some of it was reported, it really was more word of mouth, and there was an authentic sense of a lore that grew up around it.

Nicks: It is inextricably part of it, and you have to embrace that. And when you hear it, it's like being back there -- even for me. It puts me right back there, and it makes me understand why I'm going out on the road with Fleetwood Mac again, because it is that good.

Right now, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen are all on the road -- it could be the touring calendar for 1979, not 2009. Does it surprise you that you're all still standing and still out playing?

Nicks: If you'd asked me 25 years ago, I would have said that I think we would all still be going, but that I also hope there are some great new bands who are firmly established by the time I'm 60. And there are a few, but it's not what I expected, and I really fault the music business for that. Artist development really died about 15 years ago, and it's killing the ability of talented kids who are just as good as Fleetwood Mac, just as good as Led Zeppelin -- and I know they're out there -- from ever seeing the light of day.

Buckingham: We obviously had a lot of commercial success at that time, but they weren't the happiest days for me personally, or the most artistically satisfying. And in those days, the studio was crazy and the road was five times crazier. People always ask now, isn't it tiring being on the road? It used to be, when we were doing all that nonsense, but now with everyone behaving, the whole day is really geared around having the energy for those two hours onstage. It's very Zen, a very pared-down environment, if that's what you choose for it to be.

Any time there's a band with a male and female singer -- from a rock band like Rilo Kiley to a country group like Little Big Town -- they get compared to Fleetwood Mac. Do you think that kind of harmony singing is your most defining legacy?

Buckingham: It's hard to analyze your own work. You concentrate on the process and not the impact that it's having. So it's hard to know what's passed on. I mean, I can tell that Death Cab for Cutie has listened to Fleetwood Mac, I can hear the chordal structure. But I think about the construction, the complexity that makes up Fleetwood Mac; I don't necessarily think about the most obvious things. You just have to let it go, out into the ether.

Nicks: I think two girls and a guy really worked. It adds that spark of romance, no matter what. I mean, the Eagles have romantic songs and they're all guys, but having a woman in a band of great guys is a big selling point. And if she's as good as the guys, it's a huge selling point. So if I were a kid, I'd definitely be looking to make that next Fleetwood Mac.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. He is the author of "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" (Three Rivers Press, 2006) and is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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