During Fleetwood Mac’s transitional period Christine McVie wrote and recorded fifteen songs with the band. Hear all of them and read about the group’s changes.
Publication of the first volume of Mick Fleetwood’s memoir Love That Burns has led to a series of articles discussing the book and the pre-1974 versions of Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood’s first volume ends at the end of 1974, as he introduces new band members Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to the group’s keyboard player, Christine McVie. McVie was a Mac veteran already, having joined unofficially with Kiln House in 1970. McVie had proven to be. a strong band member, writing some good songs, becoming the group’s only female vocalist, and adding musically with her keyboard work.
Most articles I’ve seen discuss the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac in great detail, centering on Green’s outstanding guitar playing as well as his songwriting and singing and his eventual crash and burn. But for me, the period of greatest fascination and least attention is from 1971-1974 when Fleetwood Mac was neither fish nor fowl.
They were no longer a British blues band, but neither were they an arena rock act. They produced great pop material, but with some amazing shading and color that belied the fact that they were still a rock band. Their sound began to skew much more to the American side of the Atlantic, as did their personnel. Most of the records they produced in this time period are flawed but contain a lot of deep musical moments that make it worth sifting through some less than stellar tracks.
During this time period, Christine McVie contributed 15 songs to the Fleetwood Mac catalog. While many have not been part of the group’s set lists for many years, they form a solid body of work that shows she was writing great material long before Buckingham and Nicks joined the band.
Kiln House & Future Games
McVie played as a session pianist on some Mac songs from the Peter Green era. She was a member of another blues group, The Chicken Shack, and a fan of Fleetwood Mac. When Green left the group she played piano and sang backup vocals, uncredited, on the group’s 1970 album Kiln House; she also drew the album cover. Kiln House is a transformational record, with Jeremy Spencer writing mostly ’50s rockabilly and Nashville rock songs, while Danny Kirwan helps move the band further into the rock vibe they had sparked on the last Green album, Then Play On.
Original guitarist Jeremy Spencer left the band after Kiln House, so new blood was needed, especially when it came to songwriting. American guitarist Bob Welch fit the bill, bringing in a breezy, jazzy feel that cemented the band’s move away from being a blues outfit. Christine, now married to bassist John McVie, also joined the group in an official capacity for the recording of 1971’s Future Games.
Christine contributes two songs to the album. The opener “Morning Rain” establishes that mid-tempo groove that she works with so well. While there is a mellow vibe overall in the harmonized vocals, the song has drive. It doesn’t take too much imagination to hear the nascent sounds of post-75 Mac, as Welch and Kirwan spiral their guitars around each other and McVie offers bluesy piano detailing.
McVie’s other track, “Show Me a Smile” closes the album and is a typical McVie ballad, which is to say melodic and delicate. Welch and Kirwan bring a lot of new sounds to the band, with McVie playing organ on the title track. At times the band even heads into California territory with a sound that evokes the Grateful Dead.
Bare Trees & Penguin
Fleetwood Mac’s 1972 album, Bare Trees, sounds like they are knocking on the door of mainstream success, and if the band had continued in its current state, it seems pretty likely they would have been successful on some level, though probably not as successful as the post-75 group.
Welch and Kirwan continue to offer new sounds and the songwriting is good: “Sunny Side of Heaven” and “The Ghost” are excellent, and the title track, as well as Welch’s “Sentimental Lady”, are both classic rock FM staples. “Homeward Bound” isn’t one of McVie’s better songs, but it is more uptempo than a lot of her work and she does some good piano playing. Her other song “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” is also a Mac radio classic as well as part of their set list from 1972-1977, bridging the gap between the middle period Mac and the classic lineup. The song was also covered by Johnny Rivers and Jackie Deshannon.
Unfortunately, Kirwan was fired mid-tour, making this his last Mac album. While Welch and McVie were excellent songwriters, Kirwan contributed a lot of unique songs and he also had a great ear, layering guitars and voices in much the way that Lindsey Buckingham did in the post-’75 lineup. He was replaced by guitarist Bob Weston and vocalist Dave Walker, who had been in the group Savoy Brown. While the resulting album, Penguin, was the group’s best-selling album to date in the US (making it into the top 50), it’s overall sound is less textured and doesn’t hold together as well as Bare Trees.
McVie acquits herself well, but even her contributions aren’t at the level of the previous album. The opener, “Remember Me” is unmistakably Christine McVie and remained on the group’s set list for some time. “Dissatisfied” is a mid-tempo bluesy romp; pleasant enough but not particularly memorable. She also co-wrote the track “Did You Ever Love Me” with Bob Welch, and again it’s not a song you’d be singing on your way out of a concert.
Mystery to Me
In 1973 the band recorded Mystery to Me, the last album that would be recorded in England. It was also the last to feature two guitarists, even though the layering guitars of the Danny Kirwan-era band were already gone. Dave Walker was let go during sessions for the album and is not heard here at all. Bob Weston plays guitar and went out on tour with the band afterward but was fired during the tour for sleeping with Mick Fleetwood’s wife.
McVie and Welch wrote the material for the album, with McVie contributing four tracks. “Believe Me” is a solid track that settles into the California-esque groove that the band was already approaching. It’s followed immediately (McVie’s first back to back album numbers) by “Just Crazy Love” on which Fleetwood, John McVie, and Christine McVie lock into the same groove that the rhythm section plays on “Say That You Love Me” from Rumors.
Her other contributions, “The Way I Feel” and “Why” are ballads that foreshadow her soulful singing and piano work on later tracks like “Oh Daddy” and “Songbird.” While Mac was faltering as a band (although I’d say that Mystery To Me was their strongest album since Bare Trees), Christine McVie was coming into her own.
Heroes Are Hard To Find
Heroes Are Hard To Find was released in 1974 and marked the end of this period of constant, heavy transition within the band. Welch, who would leave at the end of the year after touring with the group, wrote seven of the album’s twelve tunes, while Christine McVie wrote the remaining four: “Heroes Are Hard To Find”, “Come A Little Bit Closer,” “Bad Loser,” and “Prove Your Love.”
These songs find her stretching out a bit in terms of style. The title track is a catchy blues pop number with nice background vocals and a punchy horn chart. “Bad Loser” has a rhythmic feel and sound that is a different flavor for McVie, while the other two tracks are ballads that get the full widescreen treatment, complete with a string section.
Buckingham and Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac on New Year’s Eve, 1974. When the new group got down to recording their first album together, McVie contributed four strong songs as well as co-writing “World Turnin” with Buckingham. Besides her songwriting, she offered great keyboard work that supported having only one guitarist and her voice fit with Buckingham and Nicks like a glove.
The new group would go on to the greatest success that the band had ever achieved, yet the transitional 1971-’74 records still stand as a record of a band that found its way from British blues breakers to American rock superstars and made some pretty good music along the way. And even if the group had ended with Heroes Are Hard to Find, Christine McVie’s place in rock music would still be assured.