She’s the longest-serving female member of Fleetwood Mac, and the group’s most successful singer-songwriter, but Christine McVie has always been overshadowed. But in a BBC documentary profile, Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird, the unsung hero of one of the world’s biggest bands finally gets to take the spotlight
There is one quiet moment of reflection in the BBC documentary, Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird, that perhaps sums up its subject more than anything else in the 90-minute retrospective of rock music history. It comes when Christine McVie, the longest-serving female member of Fleetwood Mac, and the group’s most successful singer-songwriter, speaks affectionately about her longtime friend, Stevie Nicks: “I could no more do twirls in chiffon than Stevie could do blues on the piano.” As she acknowledges her friend’s affinity for the spotlight, she showcases her brilliant talent for saying so much with so few words. It was this gift, we discover, that was intrinsic to the band’s success, and one that has ultimately allowed Fleetwood Mac to connect with people all around the world for over five decades.
How and why the driving force behind one of the world’s best-selling bands was overlooked for so long is a question that is slowly unravelled in this fascinating profile of the legendary singer-songwriter, which traces McVie’s early beginnings in Birmingham, the British blues explosion in 1960s London, and her first foray into music. We learn that McVie was working as a window dresser in the department store Dickins & Jones, until she moved back to Birmingham to join her old friends Andy Silvester and Stan Webb in a blues band called Chicken Shack. Although she was initially tasked with playing keys and singing background vocals, when the band scored a hit with a cover of Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind with McVie on lead vocals, it quickly became evident that she was destined for greater things.
We then meet John McVie, the bassist of Fleetwood Mac, who recalls spotting McVie playing the piano at a jazz festival and subsequently asks her out. Six weeks later the pair were married, and the merging of the two chart-topping bands began. Things went awry, however, after Peter Green, the guitarist and original creator of Fleetwood Mac decided to leave in 1969. At this point, Mick Fleetwood claims that the band were lost “babes in the wood”; another wannabe British rock band with no direction. All that changed when the band asked McVie, who was touring with her husband, to come on board. McVie, of course, knew all the songs, and with her creative input, the band began to reclaim its identity.
In 1974, the band metamorphosed once again when Mick Fleetwood invited folk-rock duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to join the band. It was here that Fleetwood Mac became the iconic lineup that we’re most familiar today, and the passionate yet turbulent relationship between Buckingham and Nicks began to dominate the spotlight. As Nicks cast a spell over the audience with her raw, husky vocals and bewitching stage performances, McVie retreated into the shadows. Sexism, of course, plays a part here; Nicks explains how, at the time, the world of rock and roll was firmly a boys’ club, and having not one but two talented women in a band was considered radical. Not that both could be in the spotlight, of course, however talented. At one point, McVie confesses that she did become momentarily envious of the constant attention Nicks received; yet at the same time, she also recognises that she could make better use of her songwriting abilities behind the keyboard. “My role was not being a frontliner,” she demures, and Nicks confirms that if McVie was ever hungry for centre stage, she never let it be known.
With McVie’s songwriting talent, the band finally began to score both commercial and critical success. We get a glimpse into the production of Rumours, the enormously successful breakup album, complete with McVie’s bittersweet ode to her ex-partner, Don’t Stop, as well as You Make Loving Fun, a song written for her new lover, Curry Grant. This is where we get an insight into how McVie shaped the distinctive sound of Fleetwood Mac with her British blues sensibility, universally accessible lyrics, and catchy pop choruses. They were “simple, you-and-me songs”, her bandmates point out, and she had a “great instinct for what’s going to keep people’s attention”. No song encapsulates this more than the spine-tingling Songbird, an idea that came to McVie in the middle of the night, and which she had to play over and over again until dawn broke and she could perform to the rest of the band. “She wrote it for the band,” Mick Fleetwood observes, “but as far as I’m concerned, she wrote it for the world.”
During the later years of Fleetwood Mac, the documentary explores the growing tensions between the band members, and how, by 1982, when the album Mirage was released, the band started to record individually. Still, when the band came back together in 1986 to record Tango in the Night, McVie was once again creating hits with songs like Isn’t It Midnight, Little Lies, and the yearning, romantic love song Everywhere, that went on to become a dancefloor anthem in the 90s. “I don’t really write singles, so thank god for Chris”, Nicks says generously of McVie’s chart-topping songs. “It’s an art for sure.” McVie’s observation of her significant contributions to the album, meanwhile, is characteristically more understated. “I’m a hook queen,” she says simply.
After five decades of hit records, epic feuds and constant evolution, the last part of the documentary chronicles McVie’s exit from the band in 1998 into semi-retirement, which was characterised by a dark period of divorce, drinking, and isolation. In 2013, after a visit to her therapist, however, McVie explains how she resolved to cure her agoraphobia by booking a plane ticket to see her old bandmate Mick Fleetwood in Hawaii. There in the sunshine, away from her demons, she joined Fleetwood on stage with his blues band for an impromptu gig, the first time she had performed for nearly 15 years. It’s an emotional sight watching the crowd’s raucous welcome, not least when she settles into her seat behind the keyboard once more to do what she does best: perform.
One year later, and McVie has rejoined Fleetwood Mac, bringing her down-to-earth attitude, blues-infused musicality and feminine energy back to the group. It is here that realises that she is finally at peace. “I’m where I belong now,” she smiles. “It took me 15 years of not being with them to realise it.”