From the Archive: Christine McVie

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[This interview originally appeared in the October 1980 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

FINALLY THE DUST has settled, but it took a long time. Already it's hard to believe that there was such a stir a year ago, when what many had hoped to see as the musical millennium of Top Fortydom was ushered in with the release of Tusk.

The balloon-budgeted double album that Fleetwood Mac fans had been anticipating for nearly three years set off a field day for rock critics. Words like "daring," "eccentric," "svelte," "compelling," "adventurous," even "a safe, enjoyable buy," were bandied across newspaper and music magazine pages for a couple of weeks. Interviews were granted, press conferences staged, concerts announced. The City of Los Angeles joined in the fun, proclaiming October 10, 1979 — the day of the LP's unveiling — Fleetwood Mac Day, and immortalizing the event with a gold star in front of Frederick's on Hollywood Boulevard.

Expectations were running high. After all, the band's previous, and much less expensive, endeavor, Rumours, had jarred the industry by appropriating the Number One slot in the charts for six months back in '77, selling well over 12 million copies, chalking up a Grammy award, and finally catapulting the long-lived group into the semi-legendary status reserved for those select few in rock who can captivate the public imagination without resorting to martyrdom.

But the peculiar thing was that, for all of its polish and craftsmanship, Rumours was hardly a musical milestone. It was no Sgt. Pepper, no Highway 61, no Tommy. Lyrically, it made no profound statements. If it blazed any new trails, they were mellow, placid pathways rather than exciting new avenues. With Rumours, the era of the armchair rocker seemed at hand.

In truth, the essence of the FM legend lay more in the whispered stories of Fleetwood Mac's private lives — the rumours — than in the music. For some reason, gossip about who was married to whom among the band's personnel and alumni, who had split up, who had lost his mind, who had become a religious cult zombie, seemed to intrigue many people more than the music. Clearly, if they were to build artistic reputations equal in magnitude to their commercial success, they had to come out with a killer album. And so came Tusk, elaborately packaged, digitally mixed, augmented by the 112-piece USC Trojan Marching Band, all to the tune of more than a million dollars.

We can look back on all the hooplah now, one year later, and the judgment from this longer perspective must be mixed. On the one hand, the album was undoubtedly a hit; within four weeks of its appearance it had clambered up to Number Two on the Cashbox list, and to date it has sold more than four million copies. But when measured against the long shadow of Rumours, these figures pale a bit. By June 1980, Tusk was off the Top 200 tabulations in Billboard, but only two months earlier, more than two years after its release, Rumours was still being listed. Indeed, nearly a year after Rumours hit the stores; it was still selling about 200,000 copies each week.

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If there are any morals to be drawn from this, one might be: You Can't Win 'Em All, At Least With Equal Impact. But perhaps the grander lesson is: You Can't Measure The Stature Of The Band By Sales Alone, or maybe even by the music it makes. If drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, singer Stevie Nicks, and keyboardist/singer Christine McVie are massive figures on the rock horizon, there is a reason for it, and at least in the case of Fleetwood Mac, it doesn't boil down to mere hype. There is a chemistry, a sense of history and dedication, and a complicated intermingling of talents that helped make this band the great success it is today.

Christine McVie has not been with the group from the beginning but, along with Fleetwood and ex-husband John McVie, she is an important part of the foundation from which the present character of the quintet has grown. She penned many of their most popular tunes — "Over My Head," "Say You Love Me," "Don't Stop" and "You Make Loving Fun," among others — and established herself as one of the most distinctive singers on the scene; her milky smooth style, reminiscent of neither the harsh Janis Joplin school nor the folky Joni Mitchell approach, gave her an instantly identifiable sound.

In addition to all this, though, she plays all the band's keyboard parts, a role that is often overshadowed by her singing and composing. Never a flashy soloist, she nevertheless has developed a repertoire of tonal shadings on organ and electric piano, and is one of the more tasteful accompanists in the world of concert rock. Occasionally a perceptive reviewer may get past clichéd commentaries on her image as "this woeful woman-child who's in perpetual pursuit of 'daddy'," and notice that her keyboard playing can have substance. "Even Christine McVie's rhythmical electric keyboard chords add a throbbing pulse to the proceedings," one apparently surprised critic wrote.

The three senior members of Fleetwood Mac have a common background in the British blues underground of the '60s, a heritage that is obscured by the group's current sound, but which shaped its early style and continues to affect McVie today. Her family's musical tastes were somewhat more formal, however. Born in Birmingham with the unlikely surname of Perfect, Christine could trace her talent back to her grandfather, an organist who had performed at Westminster Abbey, and her father, a classical violinist on the faculty of the local university.

In the living room of her Beverly Hills home, McVie talked with CK about those early years. "I was trained classically. I started taking piano lessons when I was about that big," she indicates with her hand a few feet above the floor. "I played the 'cello for a while too, in the school orchestra. But then my brother, who was four years older than I, got into traditional jazz. He brought home some music by Fats Domino, and one day I found some of it lying around the piano stool, so I started reading it and playing it. I just developed a liking for it, and soon I was getting records by Fats Domino, Otis Spann, [guitarist] Freddie King, and people like that. I guess you could say that a lot of my training has been pretty much in the experience of playing this kind of music."

By age 12 young Christine had lost most of her interest in formal piano studies, so she embarked on a five-year program at art school, where she specialized in sculpting. She never lost her interest in the blues, though, and this led to her involvement with Chicken Shack, one of the pioneering English blues bands.

"When I was at college working on my degree I got to know several members of this band called the Sounds Of Blue," she recalls. "The bass player was Andy Sylvester, and after the Sounds Of Blue dissolved he became the bass player for Chicken Shack. Well, Mike Vernon, who worked for CBS in London, was interested in having Chicken Shack make a record, but he suggested that they needed a keyboard player, so they got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to do it.”

By this time, Christine had left school in search of a more satisfying routine. "I went to London, where I became a window dresser for an exclusive store," she explains. "I was actually qualified to be an art teacher, but I didn't want to teach. Anyway, when Chicken Shack called me up I was so bored with being around the store that I said, 'Yeah, I'll join.' We made our debut at the Windsor Jazz Festival, which was this massive series of concerts. There were bands playing on different stages all over the place.

"That was also the place where Fleetwood Mac made their debut," McVie adds. "They were on the bigger stages, and our gig was to support them; we were like their opening act. That's how I got to know John."

The magnitude of the Windsor Festival reflected the interest in blues that was growing among young Britons. T.S. McPhee And The Groundhogs, John Mayall's Blues breakers, singer JoAnn Kelly, and the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac were among those who generated this interest, but there were also a number of American expatriate blues artists in England, and they found many eager listeners, including McVie. "They were coming in by the truckload, because the kids in England just couldn't get enough," she notes. "They opened my ears to lots of different blues piano styles. I wasn't a wild, honky-tonk piano player by any means. That's why I used to like listening to people like Freddie King, who was pretty restrained, and [guitarist] B. B. King, who played a very sophisticated blues. It wasn't the Champion Jack Dupree barrelhouse stuff that I was so influenced by."

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The main focus of Chicken Shack was guitarist Stan Webb; Christine concentrated on backing him up on vocals and keyboard, although even then she was attracting attention from such notables as Peter Green, the highly-regarded lead guitarist in the original Fleetwood Mac. In his Authorized Biography Of Fleetwood Mac [now out of print], Samuel Graham assessed her impact with Chicken Shack: "They were not much of an outfit. Webb was no Peter Green, and the torpid Chicken Shack records were unfortunately much more typical of British blues than early Fleetwood Mac had been. Nevertheless, it was with that band that McVie earned the respect of the likes of Peter Green as a player of taste and integrity."

Christine did take the spotlight on the band's most popular record, "I'd Rather Be Blind," a cover of an earlier single by singer Etta James. Released during the summer of 1969, this performance earned McVie the Best Vocalist award from Melody Maker magazine that year. "That was our one big hit, I think," she muses. "We were fairly authentic for a mediocre sort of white blues band. The old Fleetwood Mac was much better; they did some beautiful and, to my mind, very authentic blues. Chicken Shack did pretty well in Europe, but after I left, it was over."

The Best Vocalist award naturally gave Christine's career a sudden boost, and the immediate result was a project that now, looking back, she regrets. "After I'd won the Melody Maker award, things were sort of confused," she states. "I was already with John, he was with Fleetwood Mac, and I was with Chicken Shack. We never saw anything of one another, so I left the band. Then one day my manager called me up and said to me, rather frantically, 'You've got to do a solo!' And so I made my big solo album, which I'm very embarrassed about."

She stops and, with a slight tinge of sarcasm, remembers the name of the LP: "The Legendary Christine Perfect Album. I think they re-released it around the time that Rumours was out. It had a big sticker on the front saying, 'Featuring Fleetwood Mac's Superstar Vocalist,' capitalizing on the fact that Fleetwood Mac had become so successful." A laugh, and then a resigned shrug: "Well, at least it sold me a few more copies."

Her reservations about that record are based on a feeling that she was still far from the artistic maturity she has come to display in recent years. When first released in England, the solo disc was respected enough to chalk up a second Melody Maker Best Vocalist prize in 1970, but in retrospect it does display McVie in a much more rudimentary stage of development than her audiences are used to today.

"When I made that record, I wasn't really sure about my talent, or about what direction I wanted to go in musically," she points out.

"There were people all around who were trying to make me into this kind of a singer or that kind of a singer. Mike Vernon [who co-produced the album with her] was a great help in many ways — I'm playing music now partly because of what he did to get me started — but even he was pushing me into becoming sort of a black-style English singer.

I didn't really feel artistically together until I joined Fleetwood Mac."

Christine's formal association with FM began in 1970, when she contributed background piano and vocals to their LP Kiln House and painted the picture that adorns its cover. This record and the subsequent one, Future Games (1971), which featured her for the first time as a full member, both sold respectably, making it into the lower levels of the American Top 100. Two later albums, Bare Trees (1972) and Mystery To Me (1973), were able to reach the gold record status with more than 250,000 sales, but with the release of Fleetwood Mac in 1975, the pace picked up to platinum. Buoyed by a $25,000 AM radio campaign that used McVie's song "Over My Head" as a signature theme, Fleet-wood Mac lodged itself in the charts for more than 70 weeks and set the stage for Rumours.

There are now four keyboards in Christine's setup: a Hammond B-3 organ, a Yamaha CP-30 electronic piano, and two acoustic Yamaha pianos, a console and a grand. Various other instruments have passed through her collection over the last few years, however. "I was in essence boxed in completely by keyboards," she laughs. "That's what was wrong; I was so stacked in with keyboards I never used that no one could ever see me. It was like being in a prison. People would look and say, 'Christine is back in her cave.' Mick and I would laugh about it, because he had the same sensation, being stuck behind his drums all night."

Among the instruments that were cut as McVie streamlined her setup were a Rhodes electric piano and an ARP String Ensemble. "The ARP was taking up space on the stage, and anyway I hardly ever used it," she explains. "In the old days we mainly used it to do 'Sunny Side Of Heaven' [from Bare Trees]. I only used the Rhodes on one song too. But it was too soft. The Rhodes was great to play on something like `Rhiannon' [from Fleetwood Mac] because it's so bell-like, but on anything else it would kind of get lost among the electric guitars."

When looking for a harder sound, McVie used to rely on a Hohner Pianet. "I liked the old Hohners, but they don't make them anymore," she sighs. "Before they went off the market I bought about six of them to use for replacement parts, but now that a transistor blew out of one of them, I'm down to my last one. They would break down a lot onstage too, I'm telling you. It would make the most awful, atrocious noise, this crackling hiss and farting all over. It would sound like some sort of alien parrot trying to get through to you. I never used a Wurlitzer instead, though, because in essence the Wurlitzer was like the Rhodes. I never much liked its sound — too soft for me."

The Yamaha CP-30 now satisfies McVie as a replacement for the Pianet. She recorded with it for the first time on Tusk, and approximates the Pianet sound live by engaging the first three stops on both groups of stops and using more bass than treble. Her model was modified to eliminate a loud hum that occurred when the volume pedal was opened all the way, but otherwise she has had no complaints about it.

"It can sound a lot like the Hohner," she says, "and it can sound like a Rhodes, really pretty and clean. It has great variety, a volume pedal, a nice sustain, and a dual pitch control where you can tune it just a little out of phase with itself to get a fatter sound, which I like to do. You can use it for so many things I used to have; where I needed three keyboards in the past, I only need this one now. Besides, I think it would be pretentious of me to have a huge stack of keyboards, since I'm not a brilliant keyboard player. I get by, but I'm by no means a genius, and I don't pretend to be. I don't want to come off like Keith Emerson. So long as I can get the sound I need, I'm happy to just stay with the keyboards I have onstage now."

The B-3, the instrument she most frequently plays, has been parabolized by Keyboard Products. Christine has no settings that she regularly favors. "I use the drawbars a lot; in fact, I don't think I've ever used anything else but the drawbars," she admits. "Sometimes I perk it up with a bit of percussion too. But I don't think there's any particular sound I go for every night. I try to get whatever sound suits the track best when we're recording, and I just look for something that sounds good when we're playing live."

The group has used synthesizers onstage and in the studio, but Christine prefers to work without them whenever possible, or even to leave the synth lines to someone else. "Dennis [Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys and McVie's fiancé] tried to get me interested in the Moogs, but I'm just not interested in electronics. Obviously I'm more fascinated by organic-sounding things, like plain ordinary pianos.

"But we have recorded with some synthesizers — we've used a Minimoog and an Oberheim. And I remember using a Multimoog on 'Crystal' [from Fleetwood Mac]. It wasn't even mine, though. There was some mad little professor guy running around, twiddling all the knobs for me while I played it. I think he slept with the damn thing," she adds with a laugh. "But we don't really need them too much. I cover most of the sound that we use on records with what I have. And people tell us that we still sound pretty big for a band with four instrumentalists."

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A synthesizer can nonetheless be heard at a Fleetwood Mac concert, being played off-stage during the song “Tusk” by Jeff Soya, the band's keyboard roadie. At one point, Jeff relates in a telephone conversation with CK, the group was thinking of expanding his per-forming role even more: "We had some rehearsals where I was playing on four songs—one of them was 'Not That Funny' [from Tusk] — but we dropped them from the set because it was interfering with my stage work, and I guess it wasn't that necessary. But on “Tusk” I'm using an old Oberheim Four-Voice to play the part of the USC Marching Band. That's the only synthesizer you'll hear in the show now." In case the Four-Voice breaks down, the band keeps an OB-X, with a cassette interface to duplicate the programs, standing by.

During one earlier tour, Fleetwood Mac did carry an additional keyboardist, Doug Graves, but that idea was soon abandoned. "He was there to back me up," McVie says, "but I think it was decided after the first two or three concerts that I was better off without him. The band wanted me to expand my role and have a little more freedom, so he played some organ behind me, but he didn't play the same way I did. I may not play very well, but I play it the way it suits the band."

Perhaps the most unusual feature of Christine's instrumental array is her pair of acoustic pianos. The console, a Yamaha, is used during two songs in the concert set, "Sara" and "Not That Funny " (both from Tusk). During the former tune, a metal bar on a rail is moved against the strings to produce a honky-tonk effect. The console is set on a stand that raises it a foot and a half above the platform so Christine can stand while playing. A microphone has also been mounted on it to allow Lindsey Buckingham to sing harmony by her side on "Sara."

Grand pianos have been used by Fleetwood Mac in past live shows. Several years ago they took a 4'6" Hamilton on tour, but because the sound never satisfied them, the instrument was replaced by their current stage piano, a six-foot Yamaha C-3. The grand is also used on only two tunes, "Song-bird" and "Don't Stop" (both from Rumours). After being played, it is removed from the stage by a scissors lift on a dolly. "When the piano disappears, it's kind of a nice effect," Jeff observes. "The kids in the front row get a kick out of it. All of a sudden, this big piano is gone and they're saying, 'What happened?' But it's showbiz."

"I've had a Steinway in my home for about three years now," Christine reveals, "but I suppose the Yamahas have always been my favorites. We had a huge one when we did Tusk. We even had the boss of Yamaha — I forgot his name, but it was like Mr. Yamaha himself — come by to tune it up and adjust the sound for me. It sounded like a Bösendorfer. It was just incredible. I'm still trying to wangle a deal to get that piano over to the studio once a month for me to play on."

Once upon a time, though, Fleetwood Mac travelled without the luxury of having its own grand piano in tow. "That's why I started carrying mine around," McVie affirms. "The instruments we were given to use were all so unpredictable. Most of them were bad, and since we didn't carry a piano tuner around with us either, we had to rely on the tuner they provided us while our equipment was being set up or during the sound check. Often we found broken hammers or twangy strings, and even if there were good pianos available they wouldn't let us use them most of the time because we were a rock and roll band. I guess they thought we were going to start jumping up and down on the keys or setting fire to them."

Both the grand and the console are amplified through Helpinstill pickups. On the grand the pickup has been modified by replacing the passive preamplifier with a Claire Brothers AC power preamp; a Sennheiser 451 mike is also used with the larger piano. The upright pickup was also augmented once by a microphone, a Sony ECM-50, and the feed from it and the Helpinstill were blended by the engineer, Trip Khalef, at his Claire Brothers board.

The organ signal is sent through three Leslie speakers, one positioned near Chris-tine, one near John McVie, and the third near Lindsey Buckingham. Each one has been boosted to 180 watts by Keyboard Products and fitted with JBL speakers. Three amp racks, each with two Yamaha TM-2200s at 250 watts and a Yamaha F1030 crossover unit, amplify the CP-30 via three Mitchell cabinets. The bottom cabinet contains a 15" JBL speaker, and there are two 12s in the middle cabinet and four 10s on top.

There are no effects pedals in the McVie setup, but there is one other keyboard — an accordion. She comes out to the front of the stage when the band performs the song "Tusk" and lends a hand on the instrument. "I never planned on learning accordion," she insists. "I didn't even intend to play it. It was just laying around the stage one day. I wasn't sure what I was going to play on `Tusk.' I thought I might wind up playing some kind of percussion, but I just picked it up and started doing the riff. It's very easy to play if you can play the piano. Coordinating the bellows can get dodgy sometimes; you just have to get one end in and the other end out, then bring the bottom out and the top in. It's kind of like a stomach action. I'm still learning about the chord buttons, though. I've figured out the theory of them, but I'm still practicing; I don't use them onstage yet."

Away from the stage and the studio, Christine uses her various keyboards to help her in writing new material. She has no set formula for composing — sometimes the words come first, sometimes the music; often the lyrics are written at the keyboard, but occasionally not. She acknowledges that the instrument she happens to be writing at can have an effect on how the song evolves. "If you're playing on a soft-sounding instrument like a Rhodes," she states, "you're not going to write honky-tonk raucous rock and roll. The character of the instrument will be imbedded in whatever you write."

Despite the fact that she has authored a number of hit tunes, Christine avers that she has never geared her material toward a pre-conceived commercial idea. "I've never written with the intention of writing hits," she says. "I guess I'm a commercial writer, though. My songs do tend to come out two verses, bridge, guitar solo, last verse, and tag. When I've finished a piece I do have my opinion about whether it will sell, of course, but I'm not always right. 'Over My Head' was a very unpredictable hit, as far as I'm concerned. The fact that it was bigger than 'Say You Love Me' [from Fleetwood Mac] surprised everyone."

(Note to Fleetwood Mac fans: "Over My Head" was originally recorded with only vocals, dobro, and drums. The decision was made later to augment the basic tracks with, among other features, Christine on Vox Continental organ, but even so it was literally considered the least likely track on Fleetwood Mac to be released as a single.)

Songs are learned on an informal basis in Fleetwood Mac. There are no charts, not even organized head arrangements. "They come together pretty easily, since we spend X number of months together in the studio, either listening to each other or jamming," Christine says. "We know pretty much how they all go after a while, what kind of guitar Lindsey should play and what kind of keyboard I should play to get the full effect of the song."

Much of Christine's work involves figuring out keyboard parts for tunes written by other members of the band. Her experience at devising arrangements has made her aware of certain qualities that characterize their work. "Well, normally there's a characteristic, isn't there, in each song, either a riff or an underlying musical theme, that makes the keyboard part clear if you look for it," she notes. "Take 'Dreams' or 'Sara' [both written by Stevie Nicks], for example. There's a particular piano part in both songs beneath the basic structure, and it stems from the way Stevie approaches the piano itself. She isn't a great player, but what she plays you can elaborate on. Still, I think she should play onstage. She's getting better all the time, and if she would play piano on one song, it'd be fuckin' great! Then she'd be known as a musician as well as just a singer."

The songs of Lindsey Buckingham make different demands, especially since his recent explorations of the harder new wave style. "'What Makes You Think You're The One,' from Tusk, is especially tough to play," Christine admits. "You have to keep crashing away at chords through the whole thing. By the time it's finished my wrists are like spaghetti. I really have to hammer the acoustic piano on some of his songs. That's one reason why I like a light touch, a sensitive piano. My wrists aren't that strong, and if I have to hack too hard they start breaking down. Fortunately, after playing something like that I take a break and have a drink, or move over to the accordion, or just stagger off the stage until my arms recover."

This unusual gathering of songwriters and singers, with diverse ranges and styles, may also occasionally force McVie to play in unusual keys, but transposition is usually not a problem for her. As a keyboardist, she finds it easiest to play in D, Bb, A, and F. Once in a while a key has to be changed as a result of someone's shifting vocal range. "My range seems to have been getting higher," Christine observes. "I just can't sing as low as I used to. I don't know how I ever recorded some of the old songs in such low keys. Lindsey often changes his songs too. He records a song in E, then changes it to F. That can affect the vocal blend a lot."

In concert most of Christine's work involves background playing; she takes relatively few solos. She has discussed expanding her role as a soloist with the rest of the band, and would welcome some more opportunities for taking leads on the piano. One thing she isn't interested in doing is hiring another keyboardist to play impressive display solos. "I'd never want a studio guy," she declares. "I wouldn't mind working with another keyboard player, but not a studio guy. It sounds very odd, but we're really snobbish about doing everything ourselves whenever possible, so I'd rather just play the piano lines myself."

Even with more time in the keyboard spotlight, McVie doesn't harbor illusions about her performance. The success of the band hasn't altered her perspective on her own playing. At heart, Christine still sees herself as the same pianist who looked through her brother's Fats Domino books for inspiration.

"I'm not a connoisseur of great keyboard ideas," she laughs. "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, and I think I'm using more chords than I used to, but I'm not adventurous enough. Let's face it; I'm an adequate amateur at best. At heart, I still like to play the blues more than anything else.”