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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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