How do you solve a problem like Lindsey?
The show must go on. And Fleetwood Mac were already no strangers to having to find a way to continue after key members jumping ship, disappearing and/or losing their minds. What we now think of as the “classic” Mac line-up, the one which recorded Rumours, was itself just another seat-of-the-pants lurch into unknown territory when Mick Fleetwood was exposed to the sound of Lindsey Buckingham during a studio playback to test its equipment and got two new band members for the price of one.
The establishing of the Fleetwood/McVie/McVie/Buckingham/Nicks incarnation would see an end to years of the Mac staggering around in the wilderness, despite some great albums made with Danny Kirwan and then Bob Welch. From around 1969 until the self-titled 1975 LP’s singles Say You Love Me and Rhiannon, Fleetwood Mac just couldn’t buy a hit in Britain (a re-issued Albatross being the sole exception, going all the way to #1 in 1973!).
Yet, just as the recruitment of Lindsey Buckingham signalled a dramatic change in fortunes, so his abrupt and ill-tempered departure in August 1987 would eventually trigger a period of upheaval and commercial decline that only a few years later, culminated in an album – Time – which spent just a fortnight on the UK chart (peaking at #47), and didn’t feature either Buckingham or Stevie Nicks (who had bailed in 1991 amid clashes with Mick Fleetwood over various things, including the refusal to allow Silver Springs to be on her Best Of collection Timespace).
Tango In The Night was barely 4 months old when the man pretty much responsible for putting it together and giving it that luxurious, contemporary, magical sheen refused to agree on touring commitments and made his angry exit (though Buckingham disputes Fleetwood’s explosive take on the actual details). Two singles had been lifted from the album (Big Love and Seven Wonders), and a third (Little Lies) was about to be launched. Sales had been decent but not exceptional (its UK peak at that time remained the #7 of its debut week and it was already in the lower half of the Top 100). The whole edifice could easily have crumbled within a matter of weeks, had Little Lies not become a surprise Top 5 smash.
Instead, somehow the campaign took on a new life, driven by Christine McVie’s sweet pop hooks and a clever TV advertising push for the album. Little Lies was followed by the even-more-successful Everywhere in early 1988, and Tango In The Night went to the top of the UK chart and went six-times platinum. As late as June 1988, the album was still making one of its regular returns to #1.
Thanks to Christine McVie, things were looking up again…
The tour to support Tango was now also on the road, with two guitarists recruited to replace Buckingham. Rick Vito and Billy Burnette had been around the block a time or two, and their experience undoubtedly helped this new, makeshift 6-piece Fleetwood Mac weather the initial storm and complete the Tango In The Night era on something of a high.
It was an odd situation, and an unexpected shift in band dynamics. What began with Lindsey very much in control (everything from production to the majority of songs, to the sleeve design and concept), had culminated with Christine the de facto leader, thanks to her songs elevating the record’s profile (three of the last four singles were hers), and a pair of new hired hands absorbed into the group.
Fortunately, the need for this latest line-up to make a whole studio album any time soon was sidestepped by Warner Brothers’ decision to release a Greatest Hits set covering 1975-1987. Tracklistings differed between the UK and US, but Greatest Hits arrived in late November 1988, ready to jostle for prominence in the lucrative pre-Christmas market.
With 15 singles (4 of them unsurprisingly from Tango In The Night), an already inviting selection also added a pair of brand new recordings – Christine’s lilting As Long As You Follow and a rocker from Stevie called No Questions Asked. The sound was a far cry from the processed, intricately layered style we’d grown accustomed to, replaced by a more orthodox sound that, thanks to the extra guitarist and more keyboards from McVie, was now “fatter” (to quote her from an interview shortly before the 1988 tour began). The compilation spent a respectable 30 weeks on the chart, reaching #3.
Roughly 18 months later, came the first new Fleetwood Mac album since 1987, and the first post-Lindsey. Behind The Mask was released in the UK without a lead single; either a show of absolute confidence in the b(r)and’s profile, or a risky strategy given this was still a fledging version of the group. It (sort of) worked; the album debuted at #1, but sales quickly dropped off. Save Me, one of the most hook-laden tunes, was chosen as the first 45 but stalled at #53. Would it have fared any better if released prior to the album? Hard to say, since As Long You Follow had suffered the same fate ahead of the Greatest Hits in 1988. Lovely, tuneful Christine McVie songs, from the creator of those hits which saved the Tango era and secured the future of the band in the immediate aftermath of Lindsey’s departure, weren’t enjoying the same chart action as Little Lies and Everywhere.
Fleetwood Mac, 1990.
If a possible reason for their failure was due to missing the Buckingham touch, it wouldn’t explain why one of their biggest US hits – Hold Me, from 1982’s Mirage – missed the UK Top 75 not once but twice (Warners tried again as part of the Greatest Hits campaign, reissuing it in January 1989). The British public’s tastes can be so baffling!
To tie in with the UK leg of the 1990 tour, In The Back Of My Mind was selected as the most suitable follow-up to Save Me. A complete change of tack, away from the Christine-centric selections since late 1987 (Family Man, bizarrely issued a few months after Buckingham quit, being the only exception), and a much darker, heavier style; there are echoes of The Chain with John McVie’s terrific rumbling bass, male/female chanted backing vocals and some expressive axework from Rick Vito. The radio edit sadly trimmed most of the lengthy, mysterious intro, but it suggested there really could be life after Lindsey.
Inevitably, it wasn’t a Top 40 hit and the label soon lost faith. Skies The Limit – the album’s perky opener and another fine Christine effort – was a low-key 3rd single (so low-key in fact that I don’t even remember its release), but aside from a promo-only Hard Feelings in the US, that was it for the Behind The Mask era.
Was the album just too polite, too nice…too….bland? With half-a-dozen members to please, and showcase with some degree of equality, Behind The Mask was always liable to fall victim to bloat and filler. Without the guiding hand of studio obsessive Lindsey and his box of tricks, the material was also given more orthodox arrangements. There are some very nice touches, but the “fatter” keyboard-driven feel of the band’s new sound was often verging on beige.
Stevie’s contributions were a mixed bag, too; Affairs Of The Heart is like a solo album track, Nicks on autopilot, albeit in a pleasing fashion. The Second Time was more plaintive and free of studio trickery, but Freedom lacked subtlety; you doubt Buckingham would have tolerated such ordinariness on a Mac album. Love Is Dangerous paired her with the new boys, and it’s the most animated and urgent she’s sounded in years.
Wait a second…the band aren’t even on the album cover…? It’s so confusing.
So, what of Vito and Burnett’s effect on the group, and the mark they leave on the record? By no means a disaster, they acquit themselves with the professionalism you would expect. They blend well with Christine on the pretty ballad Do You Know, and come to the fore on the second half of the album, with Hard Feelings, Stand On The Rock and their own two-hander When The Sun Goes Down. Trouble is, the latter in particular sounds like nondescript country-pop (someone even mentioned a likeness to the Traveling Wilburys, and it wasn’t meant as an insult). Fleetwood Mac with Vito and Burnette was certainly a more varied and interesting proposition than the Christine-less Say You Will line-up and album from 2003.
Therein lies the conundrum; is there a member of the “classic” line-up whose absence robs the band of that certain magical chemistry? And if so, who is it? No Lindsey, and the band can still serve up Behind The Mask, as well as everything pre-1975. No Stevie, and we got 1995’s unloved Time (the worst-selling Mac album since the early 70s). No Christine, and it’s the relentless back-and-forth between Stevie and Lindsey songs on the marathon Say You Will project with nothing to ease the tension. Everyone has their favourites, and it’s no secret I’m a bit of a Buckingham fanboy, yet Stevie is also one of my top 5 all-time solo artists, and I’ve long since suspected that Christine was the glue which held the fractious band together for over 20 years.
(In short, then…don’t ask me because I prefer to sit on the fence with this one!).
Fleetwood Mac: the singles, 1988 to 1990. Four of the five featured Christine McVie on lead vocals.
Warner Brothers could be forgiven for chasing the next Little Lies or Everywhere with their sequence of McVie-centric choices. Perhaps it blinded them to the merits of other options. Perhaps those simply were the best available. If they did want to concentrate on the band member still firing on all cylinders, then her title cut from Behind The Mask was arguably the finest example of all. It’s no coincidence, too, that it’s the closest relation to the intoxicating soundscapes of Tango In The Night (even down to featuring Lindsey Buckingham on guitar and possibly backing vocals) and really the one song on Behind The Mask that could stand toe-to-toe with anything on its predecessor.
1991 came and went with only a Stevie Nicks solo retrospective (the collection which partly led to her cutting ties with the band for several years), and June 1992 brought joy to all those longing for a sort-of Tango In The Night II, when Lindsey’s third album under his own name – Out Of The Cradle – was unleashed upon the world. Needless to say, what it lacked was the presence of his erstwhile colleagues…
1992 also happened to be the 25th anniversary of Fleetwood Mac, when two ex-Blues Breakers put their own combo together with guitarist/vocalist Peter Green. This milestone was celebrated with yet another compilation, just 4 years after Greatest Hits, but this time covering the entire history of the band’s recorded output.
25 Years: The Chain was a luxuriously-packaged 4-disc anthology, but it failed to chart upon release. The high price (around £50) possibly conspired against it, yet even the condensed 2-disc version drew a blank in the ultra-competitive Christmas market. The fashion for expensive multi-disc sets was still very much a niche thing in 1992, with even Led Zeppelin’s equivalent Remasters box barely denting the Top 50 two years earlier.
A couple of decades on, and 25 Years did finally make the UK best-sellers list, charting as high as #9 in a newly repackaged version selling for a quarter of the 1992 price; the content was identical to the original 4CD incarnation, including the lavish booklet.
The sheer scope of 25 Years meant the early blues stuff was as much a part of the package as the golden era of Rumours and Tusk, while fans were enticed by a number of alternate mixes/takes/edits and a quartet of “new” songs. One of these was an unreleased solo track by Lindsey (the spectral Make Me A Mask), another was Paper Doll (first earmarked for possible inclusion on the 1988 Greatest Hits, then again for Behind The Mask). Given that Stevie Nicks was no longer an official member of the Mac, it meant that only the brace of Christine McVie numbers were by someone still in the band! Love Shines and Heart Of Stone were typically solid AOR workouts, taking the sound of their most recent studio set and honing it further.
Love Shines was actually glorious; underpinned by some neat guitar picking, fleshed out with chiming synths and topped off with a strong chorus. It was the UK choice for a single in early 1993. All too predictably, it bombed. If even your best efforts are shunned by the public, what can you do?
Even the marketing department lost interest….the sleeves for 25 Years’ two singles both used the same artwork as the boxset.
Thus the Fleetwood Mac of summer 1988, top of the album charts and going multi-platinum with Tango In The Night, were now reduced to the Fleetwood Mac of 1993…Lindsey-less, Stevie-less, and not one Top 40 hit in 8 attempts since Everywhere reached #4.
For the first time since 1974, the band were back to a core of Mick, John and Christine. Things would get worse before they got better again…