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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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