West-side story: Fleetwood Mac
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Excess all areas: the pageantry and farce of the Fleetwood Mac story

If you ever thought the laid-back vocals of “Dreams” sounded as if they had been recorded by a naked woman lying between satin sheets, then it’s entirely possible you were right.

Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac 
Mick Fleetwood and Anthony Bozza
Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £20

There’s a moment that perfectly captures the soft-centred and supine mid-1970s that Fleetwood Mac came to epitomise – more than the “love pentagon” of their ­affairs, more than their gossamer stage garb or exotic parties or therapists. It’s the time they roll up at a studio in Sausalito, California, to assemble the all-conquering Rumours.

The idea is that the five members should live together communally in the way the original line-up did seven years earlier and they choose the Record Plant because it has a house attached, overlooking San Francisco Bay. This comes with two limousines and a speedboat. There is also a conference room with a waterbed and tanks of nitrous oxide for those requiring a mood change. The
entire place – walls, ceilings, floors and stairs – is coated with a maroon shagpile carpet. There is even a loft, accessible through a pair of giant red lips, where another capacious bed is available, with audio jacks in its headboard: if you ever thought the laid-back vocals of “Dreams” sounded as if they had been recorded by a naked woman lying between satin sheets, then it’s entirely possible you were right.

The group’s first crack at communal living in the late 1960s had held a mirror to the era in much the same way: the members of what was then a blues band at the peak of their success (“Albatross”, “Black Magic Woman”) had moved into a 20-room mansion with a tennis court in seven acres of forest, a sumptuous Victorian pile they had bought for £23,000 in 1969. Rest and recreation in those days centred around getting “gassed” on booze and smoking hash in the billiard room. In the 1970s, the template is much the same, only times have changed.

And here lies the core fascination of this long-awaited and colourful book. Fleetwood Mac managed something that only the Rolling Stones have also achieved: they produced two distinct types of music that caught the essence of two very different decades, while supplying a living soap opera as an illustration of both. Sometimes there is a rich pageantry about the story, a poise and dignity, but mostly the whole thing feels like a farce: a collection of highly driven eccentrics pursuing their musical vision with a barrelling, single-minded dedication who leave a string of casualties in their wake, the author and his old friend John McVie being the only real constants in the narrative (the enduring “Fleetwood” and “Mac” rhythm section that gave the band its name).

Fleetwood paints himself as the ship’s captain, steering the tattered barque through the tempests of the music business and the band’s supposedly creative but slightly poisonous internal relations, as if constantly assuring himself that he’s the figurehead and not just the rarely composing drummer. And, for the most part, he is attractively self-aware. “Look at me,” he hoots as he reclines in yet another presidential hotel suite. “I’ve got all this money because I can hit things with two bits of wood!”

Entertaining though it all is, some baffled and responsible part of you wonders why the band seemed to learn precisely nothing from the traumas of their early years when a large slice of their woes were amplified by drugs. The lead guitarist and godhead ­Peter Green takes a ton of acid, starts wearing robes and a huge wooden crucifix and has a breakdown and complete personality change, from which he has never fully recovered. He threatens to shoot his manager for sending him royalty cheques. The band’s second guitarist, Jeremy Spencer, flips out and joins a cult called the Children of God, among whom he will “only answer to the name Jonathan”. Its third guitarist, Danny Kirwan, falls for the bottle and ends up “living in a shelter, scratching himself”.

When the reborn, US-based version of the band takes off in 1975 – with Mick, John and his wife, Christine McVie, forming a two-nation alliance with the Americans Stevie Nicks and her boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham – they run into what Fleetwood calls “a tsunami of white powder”, the quintet embarking on trysts so tangled that you get a headache just thinking about them. Buckingham and Nicks split up, Nicks having a love affair with Fleetwood (whose wife, Jenny Boyd, bunks up with the new guitarist Bob Weston, whom Mick immediately sacks); the McVies split up, Christine going off with the lighting engineer. By the end of the book, Fleetwood and Boyd have married and divorced twice, the long-suffering Boyd’s patience once so sorely tried that she threw several “ramekins of chocolate mousse” at him, making a terrible mess of his Porsche.

Fleetwood’s eye for this level of detail is what sustains the whole enterprise, not least when he attends a fairly typical west coast party to find his ex-wife’s sister, Pattie Boyd, “dressed as Minnie Mouse” and Eric Clapton “in one of Pattie’s see-through dresses with his Y-fronts showing underneath and a sponge on his head”. If this volume occasionally loses focus, it is because the author forgets that he is writing for the people who helped to fund his trajectory and starts publishing a series of apologies – to his three wives for being an arse, to his four daughters for his absence, to luckless band members whose predicaments he might have modified if he hadn’t been so self-absorbed.

At one stage, you feel the book is a love letter to Stevie Nicks, who seems to obsess him in the same way that she has captivated great swaths of the general public. She is like a “living sculpture you couldn’t take your eyes off”, he thinks on meeting her – “otherworldly and in possession of a vibrato as haunting as Edith Piaf filtered through the lens of a cowgirl beatnik poet”. Months later, she is “a seductive songstress in wispy, witchy black dresses”. He affects great embarrassment that their love affair ruffles so many feathers but, boy, does his inner teenager want you to know it happened.

His whole world seems like an endless extension of adolescence: his penchant for pantomime stage wear; his deathless fondness for the early song “Rattlesnake Shake” because it is “an ode to masturbation”; his habit of stopping off at magic shops to buy “fake blood and joke cigars” when band morale is low; his wistful estimation that the cocaine he’s consumed in his lifetime would amount to a single line “seven miles long”. He comes across like some roguish aristocrat capering through a series of stately homes in pursuit of creative new ways to spend his mountain of cash.

So it is fitting that when Fleetwood commissions a 60ft inflatable penguin to float above the band’s stadium shows and it never gets off the ground that it should be his father who takes him aside for some words of wisdom. “Mick,” he says softly, “you do know that penguins don’t fly, don’t you?” 

“Rock Stars Stole My Life!” by Mark Ellen is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue