When word of Christine McVie’s passing was announced on Wednesday, the first album I reached for was Tusk. Released in the fall of 1979, the double-album opus was a crossroads work for Fleetwood Mac, the vanguard pop brigade McVie had already devoted nearly a decade of service to.
Tusk was to Fleetwood Mac what the famously nicknamed “White Album” was to The Beatles – a scrapbook that revealed a celebrated act in splinters. There were instances where they played like the band that sent its preceding album, Rumours, into the stratosphere two summers earlier. Much of it, though, thanks in large part to Lindsey Buckingham’s stewardship, drew vivid distinction between Fleetwood Mac’s three vocalists. Stevie Nicks’ gossamer songs were draped in layers of melancholy while Buckingham’s own work struck a balance between punkish immediacy and Brian Wilson-esque lushness. And then there was McVie, steadfast as ever, singing the kinds of leisurely love songs just as assuredly as she had long before Buckingham and Nicks joined the band in late 1974, making Fleetwood Mac a global pop juggernaut.
McVie’s songs opened and closed Tusk. Such placement speaks volumes for the respect the rest of Fleetwood Mac must have placed on her kind of level-headed artistic temperament. Sure, McVie’s songs didn’t take many risks. Her more poppish works were sunny and efficient while her quieter entries were elegant and reflective. All were, almost without exception, upbeat love songs. Buckingham may have been the rocker and Nicks the makeshift mystic. McVie, though, stood by with an unwavering sense of pop romanticism colored by a voice that was as warm and calmly expressive as the tunes she wrote.
It’s easy, of course, to view McVie, in retrospect, as a buoy of sorts for Fleetwood Mac, a mark of stability in a band that, prior to the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks, boasted a revolving door personnel of guitarists and singers, and, afterward, often became a warzone of personal and professional extremes.
McVie could rock out when she chose to, which was usually in Buckingham’s company. The Rumours hit “Don’t Stop” (a McVie composition) was indicative of the fun they could cook up. It is perhaps of little surprise that the last studio album released during her lifetime was an untitled 2017 duet project with Buckingham. Of course, come 2018, Buckingham was fired from Fleetwood Mac, earning soap opera-worthy headlines that had become almost routine for the band. McVie soldiered on – a seemingly unshakeable, cordial and inviting pop presence. In short, she was the eye of the Fleetwood Mac hurricane.
McVie released three solo albums, the finest by far being the pre-Fleetwood Mac Christine Perfect (her maiden name before marrying – and later, divorcing – Mac bassist John McVie). Released in 1970, the record is as unassuming a presentation of the singer’s blues roots as the later Fleetwood Mac music was of her pop preferences. There was also a brief period where McVie added largely uncredited keyboard work to the band’s final two blues albums with co-founder Peter Green. But it was from 1971’s Future Games (still one of Fleetwood Mac’s most underrated albums) on that her quiet vocal command and inviting sense of pop appeal took hold and grew.
So what does McVie leave behind? Well, a profile as one of the most respected yet unassuming female co-leaders of a globally championed pop institution, for one thing. McVie never seemed to outwardly call attention to that role. She simply lived it. And when the appeal of such a profile faded, she quietly bowed out, as McVie did for nearly 15 years beginning in 1998.
But there is also a treasury of some of the most modestly constructed pop songs you’re likely to hear from a superstar act, whether it was through the breezy electric piano design of the Future Games gem “Morning Rain,” the late ‘70s mega hits (“Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me” and “Don’t Stop”) or any number of non-single delights that adorned Fleetwood Mac albums both classic and forgotten.
The Rumours requiem “Songbird” is the song many fans re-embraced, with good reason, after McVie’s death at the age of 79 was announced this week. The one that sticks with me, though, was the Tusk finale “Never Forget.” It’s cheery, fun and quietly endearing in a way that so much of McVie’s music and artistic presence was. But the title? Well, it now seems alternately redemptive and ironic.
I mean, really. Forget Christine McVie? Not a chance.