A Songbird Silenced: Remembering Christine McVie

The legendary Fleetwood Mac singer and pianist has passed away at 79

Christine McVie (Image: Facebook)

The warm voice is silent. The glue of Fleetwood Mac is gone.

Christine McVie’s passing Wednesday at the age of 79 came at the end of a brief illness. Stevie Nicks, in a post expressing her grief, said that she only found out late the previous Saturday that McVie was ill.

This is one of those musician deaths that, I have to be honest, stings personally, as much as the passing someone who I never met and didn’t know, can.

With the daytime drama on cocaine, only with more cocaine, that was Fleetwood Mac in its most successful period, McVie was the soothing presence. Not that she didn’t have her own storylines, mind you, but her soothing pop was the bridge between Nicks’ ethereal tales plucked from legend and her own exploding creativity and pointed view and Lindsey Buckingham’s slightly askew vision and general air of prickly intensity.

Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were Fleetwood Mac’s only constant members in its existence, but it almost felt like Christine was there the whole time, too.

The band had its fair share of turnover. How much? A few years back, I was at a music trivia fundraiser night and one of the questions gave teams points for each Fleetwood Mac member they could name, up to 10. That left a number of names off the list.

Peter Green had departed thanks to the bad combination of acid and his particular mental illness. Jeremy Spencer went AWOL during a tour and fell into the arms of a church and/or cult (depending on one’s perspective, never to return. Danny Kirwan’s instability, exacerbated by substance abuse, got him fired and things got worse for him from there. Bob Welch, dealing with the combination of a failing marriage and creative differences, left (and unlike Spencer and Kirwan, was unjustifiably snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when the band was inducted in 1998). Buckingham quit after Tango In the Night was recorded, then years after rejoining was fired before the 2018-19 tour.

Names like Dave Mason, Neil Finn and Mike Campbell were briefly on their roster.

McVie became an oasis of relative calm in all of that, even with her 15 years in semi-retirement away from music.

Her first hit predated the band, as she sang lead on Chicken Shack’s 1969 cover of the Etta James’ 1967 standard “I’d Rather Go Blind”, which reached No. 14 on the U.K. charts.

 

AUDIO: Chicken Shack “I’d Rather Go Blind”

Chicken Shack brought her into Fleetwood Mac’s orbit, as the two bands were both part of the British blues rock scene of the late ’60s in the same clubs and at times on the same bills.

Christine Perfect (not a stage name) hit it off with Mac bassist John McVie and the two quickly married. She was invited to do session work on piano and backing vocals with Fleetwood Mac on the band’s second album, Mr. Wonderful. She’d do it again on their next two albums before officially joining them after Green’s departure for their 1971 album Future Games.

“I couldn’t believe my luck,” McVie told the Guardian in a fan Q&A earlier this year. “I said, ‘Are you serious?! I’m just a girl who plays piano.'”

The move opened the door for McVie as a songwriter, something that she hadn’t had much chance to do in Chicken Shack or as a housewife doing backing work for Fleetwood Mac.

There was Christine Perfect, an eponymous solo album in 1970, but she didn’t feel the best about her songwriting contributions to it.

Christine Perfect Christine Perfect, Blue Horizon 1970

She didn’t operate from a position of confidence when she started writing for Fleetwood Mac. “I was reticent about writing. It was Mick that really encouraged me, because I didn’t think I was any good,”  she said on a 2017 episode of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4.

Fleetwood Mac’s run between 1971 and 1974 is its most underrated. Commercial success eluded them (although Welch’s “Hypnotized” became a FM rock staple). They had multiple talented writers and players, but it never quite clicked in terms of greater recognition.

Much has been made of how the additions of Buckingham and Nicks both revitalized Fleetwood Mac, leading to unparalleled success and creative high points. That’s only part of the story, though.

In listening to the band’s work over the first half of the ’70s, McVie was starting to come into her own as a writer.

“Spare a Little of Your Love”, off 1972’s Bare Trees, is soulful pop gem that would have been a chart hit if it had been on an album in the Buckingham/Nicks era. “Remember Me” off 1973’s Penguin is sort of a teaser for how she and Buckingham would play off each other in the way Bob Weston’s slide guitar accompanies the song’s piano-and-organ driven pop. 1974’s Heroes Are Hard to Find contained “Come a Little Bit Closer” offers more of the loveliness that was about to find the wider audience that the song itself should have.

Buckingham and Nicks certainly deserve their share of credit for what was about to happen, but it’s clear McVie was ready for her closeup.

Start with the first hit single off the 1975 self-titled album, the debut of the soon-to-be-famous newcomers. It was McVie’s “Over My Head”, which could have easily fit on Bare Trees.

It wasn’t the last McVie hit during Fleetwood Mac’s commercial peak on five albums over five years. No doubt a lot of fans listening to her music after Wednesday’s news went back to her hits in this run– “Say You Love Me”, “Don’t Stop”, “You Make Loving Fun”,”Think About Me”, “Hold Me”, “Love In Store”, “Little Lies” and “Everywhere” (which recently gained new life through its placement in a seemingly ubiquitous car commercial).

There was also a self-titled solo album in 1984 containing the pleasant hits “Got a Hold On Me” and “Love Will Show Us How”.

But there was much more to her during this period. Tusk’s “Over & Over”, with its harmonies that float in and out like traveling through patchy fog, was easy to get lost in. That album’s finale, “Never Forget” picks up the tempo while remaining lovely.

 

AUDIO: Fleetwood Mac “Songbird”

Rumours’ “Songbird” might be the quintessential McVie song (and her personal favorite), mostly just her soothing contralto and elegant piano. Unable to sleep after a night of cocaine and champagne, the song came to her at 3 a.m., taking just 30 minutes to write. Without any recording equipment accessible, she had to stay up until the morning. She got a hold of one of the tape operators at 9:00 so she could get into the studio to record a demo. Recorded in an all-night session, it’s a matter-of-fact acceptance of the end of her marriage, which had been coming for a while.

Buckingham and McVie, if not quite foils, meshed in interesting ways. While the newcomers were joining an established band, McVie had to adjust to singing with a duo who had their vocal chemistry worked out. If McVie could be comforting like the best hot chocolate, Buckingham could be the spice or libation to kick it up a bit. He could mesh seamlessly into one of her catchy pop ditties, as he did with his recognizable backing vocals and stinging guitar on “Think About Me.” She could stand toe to toe with his intensity, swapping lead and backing vocals with him on his stomper “World Turning”, another highlight of that incarnation of the band.

More of a singer than a musician, Nicks had fewer ways to play off McVie musically, but their friendship during their years together in Fleetwood Mac was an obvious bond that helped hold the band together as long as it did.

Over 30 years since they’d last recorded in a studio together, Nicks turned to Haim’s 2020 song “Hallelujah”, a song about sisterhood. She quoted the song’s third verse, written by Alana Haim about the passing of her best friend– actress Sammi Kane Kraft — before quoting the last chorus. “It’s all I can do now…/I had a best friend/But she has come to pass/One I wish I could see now/You always remind me/That memories will last/These arms reach out/You were there to protect me like a shield/Long hair running with me/Through the field…/Everywhere, you’ve been with me all along/Why me?/How’d I get this hallelujah/Why me?/How’d I get this hallelujah/Why me?/How’d I get this hallelujah.”

Fleetwood Mac attempted to go on without Buckingham and Nicks for the first time in over 20 years with 1995’s Time. The album underperformed critically commercially. Rather than get back into another grind, McVie mostly walked away from the business, not setting foot on stage for 15 years.

“I just wanted to embrace being in the English countryside and not have to troop around on the road. I moved to Kent, and I loved being able to walk around the streets, nobody knowing who I was,” McVie told the Guardian.

She returned in 2014, rejoining the band for live shows through their likely final gig in San Francisco November 2019.

There was talk of a Fleetwood Mac album in that period, but Nicks was concentrating on solo endeavors, which led the other two writers to release the album as a duet — 2017’s Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie — with Fleetwood and John McVie providing rhythm section backing. McVie’s final album of new material, it contained a couple more worthy additions to her canon– “Red Sun”, which married joyfully harmonious music with a wistful mindset, and “Carnival Begin”, which sounds like her writing taken back to 1972-73 Fleetwood Mac in the best way.

 

 

As much as McVie enjoyed a quiet life at home in England for 15 years for a while, that didn’t last. She developed agoraphobia, which she overcame with therapy. Getting out led to reconnecting with the band. When she rejoined, she said she quickly felt the years away from the band melt away. 

That enjoyment would show as she got to make new music and play live in the last decade, although the latter became increasingly difficult because of the physical toll of touring. Post-pandemic, Fleetwood had been open about a final farewell tour with all the key players, but McVie was doubtful.

“I don’t feel physically up for it,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year while promoting Songbird, an album mostly made up of reworked solo material. “I’m in quite bad health. I’ve got a chronic back problem which debilitates me. I stand up to play the piano, so I don’t know if I could actually physically do it. What’s that saying? ‘The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak’.”

When I said this McVie’s passing stings, it does for a lot of people beyond the circle of her family and friends. Her music was “our song” for couples, part of a soundtrack to many people’s joyous youth or their adulthood figuring things out. Or in yours truly’s case, figuring things out in childhood.

When I was a kid, I never really fit in, but couldn’t put my finger on why. But then I would hear their voices, their songs, on the radio and on record. It was a period where I can say their names and you’ll know who they are — Debbie, Ann & Nancy, Chrissie and, of course, Christine and Stevie. And these were the women whose music opened the door for me to realize why I felt out of place and who I really was.

McVie, in that group of artists, was the inviting, reassuring feminine voice. It was like having an English aunt or older sister, if I had a family that could sing.

All these decades later, hearing those women can take me back to those days. And hearing McVie’s voice, I can hear the hope she offered, without realizing it, to a lost young girl halfway across the world.

McVie always projected an air of grounded assurance. Writing hit pop songs isn’t easy, but she was skilled enough that she could make it seem so. She was, in sports parlance, an all-star with the adaptability of a utility player. For all of the talent around her through the decades, she was ultimately, the soul and heart of Fleetwood Mac.

Pretty impressive for a woman who turned out to be more than just “a girl who plays piano.”

 

 

VIDEO: Christine McVie “Got A Hold Of Me”

 

 

 

 

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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