Just a few months ago the world lost singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, and I took the loss very personally. Her music was an integral part of my teenage years and got me through some difficult times, and I was saddened by the fact that she had lost her decades-long battle with breast cancer. Her loss also made me more aware of my own mortality, since she was only 10 years older than me. Little did I know that I’d soon be saying farewell to another beloved entertainer whose music is so much a part of my identity that when news of her death made headlines this week, I received several messages from friends who were wondering how I was coping with the loss. Yes, this week we lost Christine McVie, keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter for Fleetwood Mac. She was 79 years old, and her death seemed to be sudden and unexpected, reports saying she had passed away after a brief illness.
I’ve written at length about the importance of Fleetwood Mac’s music to me. For almost 50 years, their music has been a part of the soundtrack of my life. The very first song I ever heard by Fleetwood Mac was McVie’s Over My Head in 1975, and it was the band’s first top 20 single with its new line-up when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group. Another McVie composition, Say You Love Me was released in June of 1976, and I remember it being one of those upbeat, “feel good” songs that epitomizes summer. These songs, along with Nicks’ Rhiannon, helped the album, the self-titled Fleetwood Mac, sell about 8 million copies and catapulted the band to a level of fame and success that increased tenfold after the release of their next album, the famous Rumours.
Of course, a huge part of Fleetwood Mac’s success can be attributed to the stage presence of Stevie Nicks, who twirled around the stage in a black top hat and diaphanous gowns, delivering electric performances of her own songs. She also channeled her bitter break-up with fellow bandmate Lindsey Buckingham into a musical lover’s quarrel as the two of them sang songs about one another while exchanging deadly glances across the stage. Given this on-stage drama, it was often easy to forget about Christine, who was always hidden behind her keyboards off to one side of the stage, providing rich backing vocals for Stevie and Lindsey, while effortlessly knocking out her songs without a lot of fanfare. Evidently Christine liked it this way; in countless interviews she spoke about how she was uncomfortable being a frontwoman for the band and that Stevie’s stage presence took the pressure off her.
However, when you consider the totality of the band’s discography, Christine’s songs were the sturdy backbone of their catalog. Her songs comprised the majority of the band’s hits: Say You Love Me, Don’t Stop, You Make Lovin’ Fun, Think About Me, Hold Me, Little Lies, As Long as You Follow, and Everywhere, which has just re-entered the Billboard charts after being featured in a recent Chevrolet commercial. As is true for many artists, some of my very favorite of her songs were not the hits, but the hidden treasures, album cuts that did not get the airplay of the single releases. In particular, these included Warm Ways, Songbird, Wish You Were Here, and probably my very favorite, Over and Over from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album. Also, what more casual fans may not realize is that before Buckingham and Nicks joined the band in 1975, Christine’s songs were some of the best moments from the five previous Fleetwood Mac albums between 1971 and 1974. If you like her familiar and popular Fleetwood Mac hits, you should definitely check out some of her earlier songs from this period: Spare Me A Little, Remember Me, Why, Prove Your Love, and Come a Little Bit Closer.
Christine also released several solo projects: 1984’s Christine McVie, 2004’s In the Meantime, and this year, Songbird which was comprised of remixed versions of some of her earlier solo work and a version of Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird backed by an orchestra. She also released a bluesy solo album under her maiden name, Christine Perfect which featured a beautiful version of the Etta James’ hit, I’d Rather Go Blind. While these albums did not achieve the success of some of Nicks’ solo work, they all contain some memorable songs and are well worth a listen.
Citing a fear or flying and a need to settle down and stop traveling so much, McVie retired from Fleetwood Mac in 1998 and returned to her native England. Fleetwood Mac did not replace her, and the remaining four band members released only one album in her absence, 2003’s Say You Will. While the album had some great moments, I found myself missing McVie’s voice and songwriting style. Fleetwood Mac has always been a volatile group of people, with countless changes in personnel since its earliest inception. When McVie originally joined the band in 1971, she seemed like its most stable component, forging ahead while all hell broke loose around her, and members coming and going with almost every successive album. I’ve seen articles describing her as the “eye of the hurricane,” “the earth mother,” or “the glue holding the group together.” She played this role both in terms of her personality and musically. While Lindsey Buckingham led the band off in sometimes strange experimental directions and Stevie Nicks invited us to join her in her world of fairy tales, ghosts and castles, Christine brought us back to solid ground and churned out straightforward mid-tempo rock songs or melodious ballads, typically on what she good-naturedly admitted was her favorite subject: love. “I try to say I love you in a million different ways. That’s what I aspire to do. That’s what I do best. I don’t sing about politics or anything like that. I sing about love. That’s what I know about.”
And then in 2014, McVie unexpectedly decided to re-join the band and went on tour with them. I remember being thrilled that she was back, and I made a point of attending their concert in Boston during October of that year. It was a nostalgic and touching show, and I’m glad I have that memory of the most popular iteration of Fleetwood Mac performing together after such a long hiatus.
After her return to the band, she and Lindsey Buckingham began working together on some songs that portended an upcoming Fleetwood Mac album, and I was particularly excited about the prospect of new music from the band. Concerts are great, but live performances are rarely as good as studio versions and while a concert is a fleeting thing, an album of new material lives on forever. Unfortunately, while McVie and Buckingham honed their new material, Stevie Nicks refused to join them in the studio, saying something to the effect of, “records don’t make money anymore.” Finally, all four of Nicks’ bandmates went into the studio without her; the result was 2017’s Buckingham McVie, which featured a number of new songs from the duo and a distinctively Fleetwood Mac sound, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better it might have been had Nicks participated as well.
Finally, as the group prepared to tour together in 2018, Lindsey Buckingham was abruptly fired from the band, and though there are always multiple sides to every story, this action was evidently the result of Stevie Nicks saying she never wanted to be on the same stage with him again, giving the band an ultimatum: him or me. They chose her, and went on a tour, replacing Lindsey with Crowded House’s Neil Finn and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell. It sounded like Christine was caught in the middle of this mess, and dutifully participated in the tour despite having not supported Lindsey’s firing. Lindsey subsequently suffered a heart attack and bypass surgery in 2019, and although he seemed to have recovered successfully, releasing a new solo album and starting a solo tour, COVID and perhaps other medical issues recently forced him to cancel much of both his European and American tour dates. Meanwhile, Fleetwood Mac’s tour ended in 2019, and though it will be an unpopular opinion with some diehard fans, the Youtube videos I saw of those performances showed Christine’s voice to be clearly suffering from age. I found it painful to listen to and preferred to return to the vast collection of her studio recordings when her voice was so effortlessly, beautifully clear, strong, and pure.
Some of the last interviews with Christine McVie took place last summer as she promoted the release of her Songbird collection. She inferred that Fleetwood Mac was pretty much over, citing her advanced years and health struggles faced by other band members as the reason, but added optimistically, “but we just don’t know what the future holds.” One interviewer asked what her goals were for the next few years, and her reply is poignant given her passing this week: “(to) Stay alive, hopefully… I’ll be 80 next year. So, I’m just hoping for a few more years, and we’ll see what happens.” When all is said and done, it’s a goal that many of us can relate to.
It must be strange to be a celebrity. You play such an important role in the lives of so many people, people who feel like they know you, but whom you’ve never even met. Olivia Newton-John, now Christine McVie – their passing has left a huge hole in my heart. But what a wonderful legacy they leave behind. Wouldn’t we all like to know that the fruits of our talents, our passions and our life’s work were a gift that meant so much to so many people?