When the “classic” line-up of Fleetwood Mac that had produced the wildly successful album Rumours reunited on stage for the first time in over a decade to play President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, it marked the triumph of a particular kind of musical trans-Atlanticism. While much was made of the return of American guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, it was Christine McVie, the British keyboard player and singer, who was at the heart of the performance. She penned the one song they played that night, Don’t Stop, Clinton’s campaign song, which had been ubiquitous during the election period.
McVie, who died aged 79, exemplified how blues, then rock, became an international musical currency. Born in the Lake District and raised near Birmingham, McVie was classically trained on piano – her father was a concert violinist and music lecturer – before switching her focus aged 15 to the boogie-influenced rock and roll of Fats Domino.
While studying at art college, she became known on Britain’s blues scene, playing in a band called Sounds of Blue and singing with Welsh blues-rock luminary Spencer Davies, who would later enjoy a string of hits with Steve Winwood in the eponymous Spencer Davis Group.
Her first brush with mainstream attention came after joining former members of Sounds of Blue in their new endeavour, Chicken Shack, in 1968. Performing under her maiden name Christine Perfect, she was something of a trailblazer as a female instrumentalist in the male-dominated blues-rock scene of the late 1960s and spoke of being accustomed to being the “only girl, side stage with the piano”.
Although originally a keyboard player and backing singer, it was the clarity and nuance in her vocals that led to the band’s biggest single with a version of Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind. Her voice would also win her Melody Maker awards for best female vocalist in 1969 and 1970.
A musical all-rounder
It was as a member of Fleetwood Mac, though, that her skill as a musical all-rounder would shine.
In 1968, she contributed keyboards as a session player to their second album, Mr. Wonderful. A year later, she married Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie.
Following the departure of founding leader Peter Green in 1970, after a severe deterioration in his mental health, the band entered a period of instability as original members drifted away.
McVie’s status with the band solidified from session player into permanent membership in the early 1970s. While the line-up remained in a state of flux, her growing facility with pop hooks helped Fleetwood Mac to transition from the blues purists of the 1960s into a more forward-facing outfit.
The band’s relocation to the US in 1974 and recruitment of the guitarist and singer couple of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1975 saw their sound crystallise, launching them into the top tier of commercial rock. 1977’s Rumours remains one of the biggest-selling albums in history, having sold 40 million copies by 2019 and still in the UK album charts, on a current run of 968 weeks.
The album’s smooth pop-rock sound belied the turbulence of its creation as affairs and prolific cocaine use strained the personal relationships in the band. Hit singles included McVie’s Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun (written about her affair with the band’s lighting director).
A team player
Bands are an unusual mix of creative, business and personal dynamics. McVie’s understated temperament, in contrast to the more flamboyant (and dysfunctional) personalities in the group, helped to keep them, professionally at least, on an even keel during their transition into global superstars.
Likewise, her musical style was a linchpin for the group. Despite her prowess as a singer, her capacity to harmonise with Buckingham and Nicks – and to share vocal duties on her own compositions – characterised that iteration of the band’s sound. Her keyboard playing also eschewed technical gymnastics in favour of supporting the songs. As she put it:
I am a sensitive keyboardist. I play well within the framework of the band, I listen well to what the others are doing, and I don’t just bash out regardless and soar over everybody. I’m very good at jelling musically.
This musical sensitivity allowed her to provide an accessible anchor for the shifting musical demands of her bandmates. This can be heard on Tusk, the sprawling follow-up to Rumours, on which Lindsay Buckingham wanted a more experimental sound. It also meant that the band was able to weather changes in musical fashion, and even though McVie would take a 16-year break from the band (returning in 2014), she had already helped to create the template for the polished, album-oriented rock which Fleetwood Mac was a leading exponent.
As Clinton’s use of Don’t Stop to reach across generations and political divides demonstrated, McVie’s songs carried the capacity to distil complex emotional material into widely appealing pop gems that fused the personal with the anthemic. Fleetwood Mac’s status as a commercial behemoth assured McVie a place in the rock pantheon, but it was her rare combination of musical subtlety and expressiveness that influenced subsequent generations, and will make her a songbird much missed by musicians and audiences.
Adam Behr has received funding from the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.