Even die-hard Fleetwood Mac fans forget (or never knew) that English-born Christine McVie was part of the band’s first incarnation as a British blues act whose intermittent success and ever-changing lineup prevented them from widespread success. The Fleetwood Mac that people (especially Americans) tend to think of is the band’s California reinvention of the mid-‘70s, a reinvention that brought Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks on board and eventually resulted in the band’s permanent pop canonization. The chemistry between Buckingham and Nicks, both on-record and off as writers, performers, and lovers, tended to throw a long shadow over the decades, perhaps unfairly obscuring the very real, very substantial contributions that Christine McVie made to the group’s success.
It’s usually obvious when a Fleetwood Mac track that belongs to McVie begins playing. Her upbeat grooves are deceptively lighthearted, painting a contrast with the plainspoken but often emotionally raw content of her lyrics. Said contrast seemed to speak to listeners; if you look at any breakdown of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits, nearly half are written and sung by McVie. Her songs showcase a sunny exuberance that, taken in context of a full Fleetwood Mac record, build a perfect contrast to the band’s darker tracks. She’s also underrated as a vocalist; her deep, bluesy voice works wonders in a pop-rock context, bringing a gravitas to her own straightforward but heartfelt songs and giving them cunning little dimensions that aren’t always immediately apparent.
In early 2014, Fleetwood Mac announced that McVie would be rejoining the band after a long hiatus. There are plans to tour; some are even hoping for a new record. In the spirit of McVie’s return, let’s revisit fifteen of her most accomplished, most enduring contributions to Fleetwood Mac, and remind ourselves of what an integral strand she is in the band’s superstar DNA.
This slice of soul comes from one of Fleetwood Mac’s early records recorded in England, some time before they became a household name in America. “Spare Me” sports a midtempo Motown vibe at first, complete with shimmering Hammond organs and swoon-worthy backup harmonies in the chorus, before wrapping things up with a more rock-flavored, upbeat outro. Lyrically, McVie dips her toe in thematic waters that pop up again and again in her later compositions for the band; in “Spare Me,” she sings of craving a lover’s affection, while also acknowledging that she may want more than said lover is prepared to give.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fleetwood Mac pre-Buckingham/Nicks, “Believe Me,” a McVie cut from 1973’s Mystery to Me, is something of a surprise. The song’s opening bars feature McVie’s crystalline piano work, seeming to set up for a plaintive ballad like “Songbird”. However, in a move you don’t often see in McVie’s other compositions, this turns out to be a ruse. Within a minute, the beautiful piano gives way to a rollicking, Southern-style rocker. It’s a cheeky move on McVie’s part, but once you get over the brief shock of the transition, the groove takes over; McVie sings again about desiring the attention of a lover while wishing that she could break free, but here she sounds defiant, on the verge of triumph. The style and arrangement of “Believe Me” can also be taken as an indicator of the broader pop and rock influences that McVie (and others) would bring to the band in the coming years.
This cut from Fleetwood Mac’s first record after their California reorganization gave new listeners a first taste of what Christine McVie was capable of from a songwriting standpoint. The rhythm section is almost “island” it’s so chillaxed, which is odd but effective considering this is a song that expresses misgivings about a capricious lover. And then there’s always McVie’s distinctive, glassine voice, which belongs to the same stylistic family as the nuanced lower registers of her contemporaries Annie Lennox and Joni Mitchell but always with that slight grace note of the blues retained from her early career in England.
This second McVie cut from FM’s self-titled 1975 record also takes on the subject of inconstancy in love, but with slightly less ambivalence. A jaunty piano line from McVie gives way into a somewhat fatigued plea to her romantic partner to leave her alone, as she’s too dependent on his “come here, go away” affections to give him up on her own. This tune, along with previous list entry “Over My Head”, were both hit singles from the record, proving that even from the start, McVie was a major force to be reckoned with when it came to the band’s sudden, stratospheric mainstream success.
Speaking of jaunty opening piano lines, there are few more famous examples than the riff that kicks off “Don’t Stop”, one of Fleetwood Mac’s most recognizable smashes and one of McVie’s most stirring, lyrically optimistic songs. In fact, it’s one of her few Fleetwood Mac songs whose bubbly veneer matches its content. This songwriting gambit works with particular effectiveness due to Buckingham’s guest vocals. His up-front, urgent rasp takes on the spirit of the song’s forward-looking insistence, leaving the song’s more wistful lines to McVie. The contrast heightens what is already a finely-crafted pop song at its most basic level. Not only a quintessential McVie tune, but a quintessential FM tune overall.
This underrated little slice of melancholy inverts what one might think of as the usual Christine McVie “formula” when it comes to her Fleetwood Mac compositions. The lyrics make a strong statement of love and support for an unnamed person, but it’s paired with a melodic line and a piano arrangment that can only be described as “haunting.” A soft acoustic guitar accompaniment from Buckingham adds a dash of flavor to this sadly beautiful track.
This deep cut from Rumours was the fourth single from that record, peaking at #9 on the Billboard charts (all four official singles from Rumours charted in the top ten). It’s a bit of an anomaly for a McVie composition. The verses pulse with sultry energy before launching into the pensive “I never did believe in miracles” chorus, backed by the band’s lilting harmonies.
“Think About Me” is the second McVie composition you come across if you sit down and listen to Fleetwood Mac’s seminal, divisive, beloved 1979 masterpiece, Tusk (the first, “Over and Over”, opens the record). Much like her song “Brown Eyes” later in the track list, “Think About Me” moves away from McVie’s standard point-of-view when singing and writing about relationships. Here, instead of singing about her misgivings from within the depths of an established relationship, she turns her attention to a new potential love interest, wishing and hoping that he “thinks about” her even though they have not yet gotten together. On paper, it’s the stuff of a teen pop song, but trust Christine McVie to take a songwriting subject as run-into-the-ground as having a crush and turn out a vivacious, vaguely tongue-in-cheek rocker.
While McVie’s other, straightforward contributions to Tusk helped balance out the record’s more experimental compositions by Buckingham and Nicks, “Brown Eyes” embraces the moody darkness often tapped into by her bandmates. On the surface, the song encapsulates that thrilling moment before attraction is acted on, but the melodies and the shadowy, unsettling production make for a track that feels less romantic than obsessive.
Tusk’s McVie-penned closer is often overlooked in an assessment of that mammoth (pun intended) record. “Never Forget” glides along in the insistent, thrilling wake of the title track, picking up its toe-tapping momentum but trading the tribal drums, shouts, and brass-band euphoria for bright, jangling guitars that recall the band’s first record together. It is a perfect closer in that sense, picking up the mood of the record but hearkening back to the sounds that made the band what they were. McVie’s vocal here blends warmly with the country-tinged arrangement. Worth revisiting if you haven’t listened to it in a while (or if, like some FM fans, you sometimes forget that “Tusk” isn’t the last track on the record).
McVie also closes out 1982’s Mirage with this track that was co-penned with Colin Allen. It’s one of the few Fleetwood Mac moments that approximate what would later become the style of the ‘80s power ballad, but it retains enough of a glam sensibility between the drum work and the power harmonies in the background that it stands on its own as a sweet if straightforward ditty. McVie’s keyboard work is front and center here, her piano playing becoming slowly more intense and passionate as the song soars to its conclusion.
McVie not only closes Mirage but also opens it with this bass-heavy thumper that charted as the record’s third single. “Love in Store” is certainly one of McVie’s less complicated songs, but her earnest and nuanced delivery elevates the song’s standard lyrical content. She sounds less like a lovelorn girl and more like a woman, with all of a woman’s emotional scars and baggage, both weary and wary but also optimistic about the possibility of a new love.
Even though their pop culture capital was declining at the time, Fleetwood Mac released two of their most recognizable singles from 1987’s Tango in the Night, both written and performed by McVie. “Little Lies” sees McVie’s songwriting draped in slick synths and big drums; it’s a departure from the way the band arranged her songs in the past, but her songwriting proves strong enough to hold up under thicker layers of production.
The production is also glossier than ever before on Tango’s fifth single, “Everywhere”, but in this case it accentuates and gives a necessary flavor to McVie’s hooks. The result is that McVie occasionally sounds lost among the sounds, but she shines through in that dreamy, instantly recognizable chorus. Though purists might argue that the the band’s embrace of contemporary, electronic production tricks pointed towards the imminent decline in the quality of their output, “Everywhere” itself still stands as an example of the kind of power pop the band (and McVie herself) was capable of when on top of their game.
Live album The Dance was McVie’s final outing with Fleetwood Mac (until the recent reunion announcement, that is), and “Temporary One”, a new song that had not previously appeared elsewhere, was ostensibly the last song that McVie wrote for the band. Fitting, then, that its primary charm is the singalong chorus, rife with the hair-raising harmonies that are part of the band’s stock-in-trade. It’s perhaps even more fitting, though, that this last FM songwriting sally from McVie distinguishes itself lyrically and thematically. So many of McVie’s excellent songs see her singing from a perspective that is almost trapped, twisting reluctantly against a lover she can’t seem to break away from, but “Temporary One” brims with a different sort of wistfulness; McVie, separated by distance from her lover, wonders what he is doing at that moment, while also reassuring him that this divide is truly “temporary” and they will be together again soon. In light of McVie’s recent decision to rejoin Fleetwood Mac, the song and its context seem almost prophetic.