Christine McVie, 1943-2022: an eternal songbird

Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie

The songbird keeps singing. In the immortal grooves of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’, one of the best-selling and best-respected albums of all time, the immaculate songwriting and crystalline voice of Christine McVie, who died yesterday (November 30) aged 79, is a thread of purity and stability cutting through the album’s emotional maelstrom and set to endure for generations. And woven deep into the fabric of modern pop and electronica are the sublime textures of her 1980s masterpieces ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Little Lies’, effectively the bedrocks of the ‘80s revivalism which has set the tone for so much 21st century music.

What’s more, having risen through the ‘60s and ‘70s blues scene to become one of Fleetwood Mac’s main songwriters during their post-Peter Green era, and then the calming core of one of rock history’s greatest success stories in ‘Rumours’, McVie has stood as an icon of pioneering female songwriting for decades, held dear by music lovers even through a 16-year reclusive period from 1998 to 2014.

Born Christine Anne Perfect on July 12, 1943 in the Lake District village of Bouth in Lancashire, A certain spiritual musicality was built into McVie’s psyche from the off. Her grandfather was organist at Westminster Abbey and her father a concert violinist and music lecturer, while her mother was a psychic medium and faith healer. Her classical training began at the age of eleven, and gave way to a love for the blues when she hit fifteen, when she flipped open the sheet music of a Fats Domino song her elder brother had left on the family piano. “My writing ability all stems from the blues,” she told The Guardian in 2013. “’Don’t Stop’, ‘Say You Love Me’ … they all have that boogie bass, lefthand thing. Even the more recent things, like ‘Little Lies’ and ‘Everywhere’, they’re all blues based.”

Fleetwood Mac
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While studying sculpture at the Mosely School Of Art in Birmingham, McVie fell in with local blues musicians and began playing with Sound Of Blue and singing with Spencer Davis. Moving to London, in 1967 she joined her ex-Sound Of Blue bandmates Andy Silvester and Stan Webb as pianist in Chicken Shack, who became a name on the British blues circuit over the course of their first two albums, thanks to a hit with a cover of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, a McVie vocal for which she won the Melody Maker’s Female Vocalist Of The Year in both 1969 and ’70.

On the circuit she met Blue Horizon labelmates Fleetwood Mac – then fronted by the legendary Peter Green – and married their bassist John McVie in 1968. The following year she quit Chicken Shack, recorded a debut solo album entitled ‘Christine Perfect’ and then joined Fleetwood Mac in 1970, in the wake of Green’s departure. “They were rehearsing at Kiln House [Hampshire],” she told The Guardian in June this year, “and I was down there with all the wives. They came out of the rehearsal room and said: ‘Hey Chris, do you want to join?’…The style had to change because I was a keyboard player, and it developed a more commercial bent.”

McVie became a key songwriter and vocalist for the band, helping to steer their sound in a pop-rock direction over the course of five early ‘70s albums, as the band struggled to find a unified direction amid shifting line-ups following the loss of Green. With the band beginning to find their feet in the US charts by the time of 1974’s ‘Heroes Are Hard To Find’ – their first Billboard Top 40 hit – McVie decamped to the States with the core remaining members John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. Within a year they had recruited struggling songwriting duo Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to replace departing guitarist Bob Welch. While the band’s subsequent success is often attributed to the incoming couple’s country pop influence, it was McVie’s composition ‘Over My Head’ that first made Fleetwood Mac a US Top 20 proposition, and her ‘Say You Love Me’ that is considered – alongside Nicks’ ‘Rhiannon’ – one of the major highlights of their seven-million-selling self-titled 1975 breakthrough album.

Amid the emotional and relationship turmoil which enveloped the early years of the Buckingham-Nicks era Mac, McVie emerged with the most optimistic musical outlook. Her affair with the band’s lighting engineer in the midst of her 1976 divorce from John inspired ‘You Make Loving Fun’, while ‘Don’t Stop’ espoused the positives of moving on from the past. Both would become celebrated tracks on the 40-million-selling ‘Rumours’, alongside McVie’s signature tune ‘Songbird’, which would often finish shows on their turbulent late-‘70s tours. “I couldn’t sleep, started to get a song rolling around in my head and I wrote it in half an hour,” she told The Guardian of the song’s genesis. “For you there’d be no more crying…” It’s sort of like a little prayer for everybody.”

Ten years later – following the continued success of the more experimental ‘Tusk’ (1979) and consolidatory ‘Mirage’ (1982), a troubled relationship with The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson from 1979-82 (which inspired the top-5 hit ‘Hold Me’) and another self-titled McVie solo album in 1984 – it was again McVie’s songs which would epitomise the synthetic pop sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s second biggest record ‘Tango In The Night’ in 1987, and which would make the most lasting mark. ‘Everywhere’, particularly, became a DJ staple as the 1980s revival kicked off in earnest in the mid- to late-‘00s and would be covered by Paramore, Vampire Weekend and Niall Horan with Anne-Marie in recent years. Its amorphous, misty pop feel is still being emulated at music’s cutting edge today.

Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks
Credit: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

By then, though, McVie was “music’d out”. Tiring of touring having developed a fear of flying which saw her tour only sporadically with Fleetwood Mac in the ‘90s, she semi-retired from music in 1998, leaving both the band and America to enter a reclusive period at her home in Kent. Over the next sixteen years she would release just one solo album, 2004’s ‘In The Meantime’, but eventually came to miss the rock’n’roll life. “I suffered from some kind of delusion that I wanted to be an English country girl, a Sloane Ranger or something,” she told The Guardian, “and it took me 15 years to realise that it’s not really what I wanted at all.”

It was watching the reformed Fleetwood Mac play live, enjoying Mick’s mania and Stevie’s songcraft, which inspired her to call Fleetwood and ask to rejoin. She made a guest appearance at their 2013 show at the London O2 to play ‘Don’t Stop’ then, her flying phobia conquered, she returned to the band full-time the following year. Her songwriting muse returned too; much of the material McVie penned for a mooted new Fleetwood Mac album ended up on her 2017 Buckingham collaboration ‘Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie’, featuring all of the Mac’s classic line-up bar Nicks. It would be the final album she would record.

Despite her long absence, McVie was always held dear by Fleetwood Mac fans, both for her immense creative contribution and her eye-of-the-storm role in the band. Amid the hedonistic rush of Fleetwood Mac’s breakthrough years, she was able to quit drugs in the early 1980s, and in describing the band’s individual characters to The Guardian, McVie herself summed up her endearing appeal. “Stevie was the Welsh witch,” she said, “Mick was the raving lunatic. I was mother nature.”

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