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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump