- 26 May 21
Happy 73rd Birthday, Stevie Nicks! To mark the occasion, we're revisiting the story behind Fleetwood Mac's classic 1977 album Rumours – originally published in Hot Press in 2004.
Did you ever want to go back?
Back to those moments that changed your life forever. And have the opportunity of asking that question – ‘how did I get here, from there’? Mick Fleetwood did.
On my TV screen he’s at Gloucester Station, long coat drifting as he paces the length of Platform 4, long scarf pulled in against the wind, his once-long shaggy hair now scratched back into a pony-tail. It’s a platform full of ghosts. In his eyes there’s ‘a boy with a dream to conquer the world with two sticks and a drum’. Then it was a ‘wet and dreary’ 1963, his parents last goodbye, ‘the umbilical broken’ as the train pulls away, and he sets off for a new life in London...
“Yes. Putting that film (The Mick Fleetwood Story) together was great to do,” he admits to me now. “We spent the better part of two years doing it. And it was very therapeutic once we started. Because it’s setting down stuff you don’t normally get a chance to do, in terms of reflecting ‘how did I get to what I’m doing?’ It’s an attempt to capture an over-view of my journey from childhood, through my dreams and aspirations of becoming a musician, with all the ups and downs, the faults, the good things and the bad... so, going back and doing it was actually therapeutic in many ways.”
But it’s also an opportunity to take stock and ask, what would that young Mick Fleetwood think of the international megastar he was to become?
“I think, generally, he’d be pretty pleased.”
A moment’s careful consideration.
“Yes. He started out with such a desire, just to be around music and to be in music. And all the trappings, pitfalls, distractions, and the ups and downs that came with it, they didn’t destroy any part of that original dream. My first love is my music, and to be around music. Luckily, I was able to do that, and I’m still doing that. So I think he’d be happy. I have no real ultimate complaints.”
And this year, there’s been new product to promote. A new album and a revitalised tour-schedule to boot. Forget the line-up changes and solo ventures that filled the intervening years. This is the real deal – Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham – but alas, no Christine ‘Perfect’ McVie.
“Yes, it’s an album we’d been working on for over a year,” he resumes. “And we’re all really excited about it. It’s everything that we like about playing our music, and we’ve done it together. Lindsey produced the album, and engineered a lot of it too, so it’s been very much a home ‘in-house’ no-outside-interference album. It’s all about what we want to do, and what we feel creatively is exciting. And we are really excited about making new music together.”
But no Christine McVie?
“No. Correct. She’s living in England. And she’s retired from showbiz, in this context. Y’know – we miss her, but she didn’t want to tour, and she didn’t want to be part of the whole thing. We talked to her a lot. She’s actually been writing some music and doing some recording which is exciting for her. But I don’t think she’ll ever get out on the road and really do anything. Because she doesn’t want to travel anymore. She’s had it with touring. So sadly, we parted company. We go on, and she’s doing what she needs to do, and hopefully enjoying her life. That’s part and parcel of her choice. And we’re comfortable with it. We know that she’s happy. And there’s nothing much one can do about it.”
When you think Mick Fleetwood – if you think of him at all, you might think of the unfeasibly tall guy beside the diminutive Samantha Fox at the Brits, or perhaps the incredibly lanky guy with the ludicrously dangling balls positioned between his splayed legs, beside the petite Stevie Nicks on the iconic cover of Rumours – the biggest selling album of all time, until Thriller came along.
But right now he’s looking at his life with strange amazement. Saying that to stay “in the trenches” for as long as he has – as part of an on-going ‘showbizzy and glitzy rock’n’roll story of blood and guts, booze and drugs’, is to be “incredibly blessed.”
His voice is smoothly accentless. He spent his first twenty years in England. Then America. But there’s no trace of either. Not even mid-Atlantic. And he’s well-used to this interview situation. He does the false-modesty thing to perfection. It comes easy. He’s practised in the art of technique so there’s few awkward silences, and no unplanned gaffes. Just the correct spice of excess and rock’n’roll weirdness as required. Stories full of sex, glamour, drugs, ambition – and all of them true.
He was born on June 24, 1942, to an RAF service family. So just how does a gangly guy from Redruth, Cornwall come to be an integral part of the US West Coast’s most defining Soft-Rock Mega-Band? The autobiographical DVD/film follows Mick through his nomadic childhood – following his father’s postings to Egypt and Norway, to a spell at King’s School Sherbourne, ‘the first of two boarding schools, a gorgeous place’, from which he persistently ran away. Through to his move to London at the age of sixteen – ‘a spunky thing to do’, and into his early career in the Blues Clubs of the Mod R&B underground, and thence into superstardom with Fleetwood Mac playing to gross-out audiences across the world, while travelling in a self-contained ‘bubble’ of narcotic and life-style excess.
But first, both the DVD, and his autobiographical book Two Sticks And A Drum, emphasise the point that he’s a self-taught drummer.
“Absolutely,” he confirms. “I was self-taught. I just taught myself in my attic, playing along to records (on the radiogram). I can’t always remember the names of the drummers I used to listen to, because I’m not great at remembering names. But they must have been the people who played with Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. While the first drummer I really listened to a hell of a lot, and learned from, was the English drummer who used to play with the Shadows – Tony Meehan. He would basically be the first guy that I listened to, the stuff he did. And the Shadows were such a great band. Later on, I found that I enjoyed listening to a drummer called Sonny Freeman who played with B.B. King. ‘Blues Shuffles’ is something that I’m seemingly fairly good at. And I get that from him. That’s his influence.”
Shadows-influenced guitarists may have been ten-a-penny in 1963, but good sticksmen were a more rare breed, vexingly few-and-far-between. So the mere ownership of a kit proved sufficient to attract overtures for your services. So much so that on his arrival in London, with a copy of Playboy under his arm and his precious drums stashed in the Guards’ Van – to stay with older sister Sally in bohemian Notting Hill Gate – Fleetwood was almost immediately recruited by Peter ‘B’ Bardens, a keyboardist in an Italian-style mohair suit, for the upwardly-mobile Cheynes.
Their most visible moment will come with their cover of Bill Wyman’s song “Stop Running Around”, but in the meantime they play the sleazy West End Mandrake Club, frequented by prostitutes and GI’s, despite being underage.
And fab it is to be young and alive, with London rapidly tripping and Swinging into its ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ phase as centre of the style-world. Sister Sally was making silk ties for David Hockney. Mick was meeting, and wooing, fashion-model Jenny Boyd-Levitt – sister to Patti Boyd who just happens to be married to Beatle George. “I was around all that, and yet I hadn’t made it myself, but I was able to see what it was like to make it,” he recalls.
After the demise of The Cheynes Mick stuck with Bardens for its successor group, the Peter B’s, long enough to record one further single (with a young Peter Green guesting on guitar).
So he was moving in the right circles, albeit stuck at 45rpm. There was ‘a very brief year’s tenure’ playing alongside John McVie and Peter Green with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – ‘the beginning of a relationship that later on would become Fleetwood Mac’. For John McVie would become the other essential ingredient in the Fleetwood Mac equation. Its only other constant point.
“Me and John have always been there, the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ through all of that history” enthuses Mick. “And he’s every bit as great a bass-player as he always was. In fact, he’s a better bass player now – and a dear dear friend. We’ve been playing together for so long we’ve developed this amazing unspoken thing, we don’t have to speak about it. You don’t have to think about it. It just exists. It’s pretty cool.”
But the rock-steady toms on ‘Albatross’ come from Mick Fleetwood, as does the sharp drum-snaps of ‘Go Your Own Way’.
Then play on…
The heavily TV-advertised compilation The Very Best Of Fleetwood Mac went Top Three in the immediate run-up to Christmas 2002, and it tells the most complete story so far. Starting with hits from the Peter Green era, most obviously the shimmering ‘Albatross’, moving through the big American break-through with ‘Rhiannon’ from Fleetwood Mac into ‘Dreams’ and ‘Don’t Stop’ from Rumours – into the controversial aftermath with the Tusk double-set, plus tracks from their massive re-emergence in 1987 with the Tango In The Night tracks ‘Seven Wonders’ and ‘Big Love’.
But right from the start – from the spine-tingling authenticity of the Blues soloing at their live debut on the 13th August 1967 at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival – Fleetwood Mac were a surprisingly strange band. They consisted of nominal leader Peter Green (guitar), John McVie (drums), Jeremy Spencer (guitar), and Mick on drums. Danny Kirwan was later recruited on additional guitar. Spencer was ‘totally outrageous’, but Peter Green’s instabilities – brought to breaking point by bad encounters with LSD – were even more extreme. His song ‘Man Of The World’ is ‘like saying ‘please help me’ recalls Mick, and his leaving the band was ‘the most threatening thing that I can relate to in the ranks of Fleetwood Mac’. Inevitably, with the onslaught of the 1970s, a ‘very disorganised survival period’ followed, with Spencer also abruptly disappearing (to join the religious cult The Children of God), Christine, by then married to John, joined on keyboards in time for the Kiln House album, and then came the addition of ex-jazzer Bob Welch which helped carve them out a niche on the US touring circuit. Almost by default, but with a ruthlessly single-visioned focus on ensuring the group’s survival, Mick became even more of a motivating force. Until the break-up of his marriage to Jenny– who had been alienated by his total dedication to keeping Mac touring – resulted in a more full-time shift to America, with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham coming into the band just as Bob Welch was phased out.
This was the band behind the phenomenal Rumours, a record notorious for coming out of a period of personal stress and group disruptions, recorded ‘through various forms of emotional hell’ according to Mick. A soap-opera drama involving relationship make-ups and break-ups, with those ups-and-downs, those chaotic periods he talks about, presumably fuelling its edgy creativity. So were the downer-periods an essential part of the process that made the highs possible?
“I think they have been known to do that,” he reflects. “There’s no doubt that that sick equation can exist, from my own memories of – ‘oh my god, I’ve been up for five days’ – yeah! I don’t feel horribly comfortable applauding the fact. But it would be less than honest if I said that we – or I, didn’t, er... have moments of what I think were fairly creative moments, that came out of some lunatic situation that I was in.”
But then there’s also the element of happy accident. For example ‘The Chain’, Mick explains, “basically came out of a jam. That song was ‘put together’ as distinct from someone literally sitting down and writing ‘a song’. It was very much collectively a band composition. The riff is John McVie’s contribution – a major contribution. Because that bassline is still being played on British TV in the car-racing series to this day. The Grand Prix thing. But it was really something that just came out of us playing in the studio.
“Originally we had no words to it. And it really only became a song when Stevie wrote some. She walked in one day and said ‘I’ve written some words that might be good for that thing you were doing in the studio the other day’. So it was ‘put together’. Lindsey arranged and made a song out of all the bits and pieces that we were putting down onto tape. And then once it was arranged and we knew what we were doing, we went in and recorded it. But it ultimately becomes a ‘band’ thing anyway, because we all have so much of our own individual style, our own stamp that makes the sound of Fleetwood Mac. So it’s not like you feel disconnected from the fact that maybe you haven’t written one of the songs. Because what you do, and what you feel when we’re all making music together, is what Fleetwood Mac ends up being, and that’s the stuff you hear on the albums. Whether one likes it or not, this is, after all, a combined effort from different people playing music together.”
Listen to Rumours now, and it hardly sounds like one of the Top Five biggest-selling albums of all time. On vinyl or CD. Thirty-million-plus copies so far, and counting. You know the tracks. They’re all familiar, of course. It couldn’t really be any other way. They’ve been wall-to-wall on daytime radio ever since their first release, playlisted relentlessly between phone-ins, traffic reports and polite banter.
Here be pleasant folky non-intrusive guitar riffs and cleanly urgent harmonies, usually from Stevie Nicks or Christine McVie. But none of the characteristics we associate with Rock Greatness. No bombastic ambition. No searing angsty solos. That’s not what it’s about. This is where AOR begins. This is music for grown-ups. For expensive sound-systems and settled double-income young partners. It was Rumours which first defined this lucrative market, this demographic. And it sounds so effortless. It demands only to be listened to. But that’s Mick’s drumming on the original of Stevie Nicks’ ‘Dreams’ (‘I keep my visions to myself’) and Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Second-Hand News’, and those are his ‘Ticket To Ride’-snap-drums on Buckingham’s ‘Go Your Own Way’. You know these songs. You grew up listening to them, consciously or not...
Stupid questions sometimes have to be asked. Impossible, sure, but did Mick have any premonitions when it was first released (in August 1975) of just how big Rumours would be?
“No. I thought it would do well. ’Cos we’d just had Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac which was the first album that sold, like, about four-million copies in the United States alone. So, unless we really fucked it up, we knew we had a shot of at least doing fairly well with the next album. But no, we had no clue that that album was going to blow up, and – it’s like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, it still keeps going. To this day it’s still one of those classic albums. So no, we could have no concept of what was about to happen to us...”
Man of the world
Did you ever want to go back?
Back to those moments that changed your life forever. Mick Fleetwood did. The film closes with him today, sitting on the beach, staring into the Hawaiian sunset.
“Now, it’s just a different time, a different space,” he tells me. “We all take care of ourselves, and we wanna be healthy and well when we’re 75 years old. And there’s only one way of doing that. You have to take notice of your body and respect it, and do the right thing. And certainly, in my opinion, the music we’re playing now proves that the creative juices are still present and still very much intact.”
It wasn’t always so. There are life-changing moments. One occurred as he stood on Platform Four of Gloucester Station, on a ‘wet and dreary’ 1963, as the train pulled away, and he set off for a new life in London... and another happened in 1989, in Maui, with his third wife, Lynn.
“My life was increasingly controlled – as years went on, by my use of cocaine, and I was a heavy drinker,” Mick admits.
Sometimes stress and creative chaos can be a stimulant, I say.
“But it happens the other way too,” he replies. “’Cos sometimes people can lose confidence and say ‘well, if I’m not drunk I don’t think that I can play’ – or ‘I don’t think that I can have a good time on stage etc., etc., etc.’. It’s a bit of everything.” Finally, “in a wretched condition from alcohol abuse, drug abuse, a wretched lifestyle, and not a happy one, it was no longer a laugh, it was no longer funny, it was sad.”
And so he turned his life around…
“If that young Mick Fleetwood knew what the ‘Mick-Fleetwood-now’ had gone through, I think he’d say ‘you’re pretty lucky to have survived. And I’m glad you’ve survived!’ he reflects. “But my first love is my music, and to be around music. Luckily, I was able to do that, and I’m still doing that. So more than anything else it would be – ‘I’m really happy that you took my dream of being a musician, and you stayed true to that original dream. You didn’t waver.’ I never have – and I don’t think I ever will.”
On my TV screen Mick Fleetwood is sitting on a beach full of ghosts. And in his eyes there’s ‘a boy with a dream and eyes full of fun, ready to conquer the world with two sticks and a drum’. And he’s asking that question – ‘how did I get here, from there’?