"I'm sure I was appreciated, but it wasn’t hero worship or anything like that": Christine McVie, the calm eye of the Fleetwood Mac storm

Christine McVie smiling
(Image credit: Evening Standard)

Mick Fleetwood once called her “the steadying presence” of Fleetwood Mac. And in the days following her death a year ago, tributes to Christine McVie often reached for similar phrases – the hidden strength, the cornerstone, the heart and soul – to describe the role she played for more than 50 years in rock’s most tempestuous soap opera. 

“I don’t like being centre stage, I never have,” she told Uncut in 2022. “I like to be part of a group.” 

Watching her in concert, whether during the band’s heady late-70s era or what would be their final tour, in 2019, she was all business, more serious musician than rock star. Blue-grey eyes peering out from behind blonde fringe, swaying and singing confidently at her keyboards, aligning herself with the rhythm section of Fleetwood and ex-husband John McVie, while Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham basked in the spotlight. 

But that cool reserve couldn’t alter the fact that Christine was the group’s most dependable and successful songwriter. When you look at their worldconquering statistics – eight multi-platinum albums, more than 130 million copies sold (the perennial Rumours alone responsible for 40 million) – at the centre are her evergreen hits like Over My Head, You Make Loving Fun, Don’t Stop, Little Lies and Everywhere

“I suppose I must be good with hooks,” she once reasoned modestly.

Lightning bolt page divider

For all her success, it was always art and music that drove McVie. Born Christine Perfect in Bouth, a Lake District village, in 1943, she was the younger of two children. Her father was a violinist and college music professor, her mother a psychic healer. She began classical piano lessons at 11. 

A few years later she discovered her elder brother’s Fats Domino songbook inside the piano seat. “It was goodbye Chopin,” she said. She got hooked on the New Orleans-style boogie-woogie blues, and at 16 wrote her first song. That rolling-river left-hand feel would stay with her, lending a funky current to many of her best songs in the years ahead. “It always comes back to the blues,” she would often say of her writing style. 

On a scholarship, she studied sculpture, needlecraft and dress design in art college. “Perfect for a future career in Fleetwood Mac,” she joked. But her heart wasn’t in it. Meanwhile, she was playing first gigs around Birmingham, becoming part of what she called the city’s “punchy, kick-ass” blues scene, alongside people such as Spencer Davis, Steve Winwood and Savoy Brown. She moved to London in 1966, and after working briefly as a department store window dresser, was asked to join Chicken Shack. 

Although they didn’t rise to the heights of their British blues-boom contemporaries, the group gave McVie a professional entry point. Twice voted best female vocalist in Melody Maker readers’ polls, she sang on the band’s only major hit, a version of Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind – an understated, simmering performance that foreshadowed the maturity of her work in her next band. 

In the late 60s, Chicken Shack often opened for Fleetwood Mac. And even when they didn’t, Christine was often at their shows, eyeing their “shy, but funny” bass player John McVie. She soon fell in love and left Chicken Shack, with the intention of just being a wife. But then guitarist-vocalist Peter Green suddenly quit Fleetwood Mac, after a mind-wrecking acid trip. 

“It was heartbreaking for them when Peter left,” Christine told The Guardian in 2022. “They were rehearsing at Kiln House, and I was down there with all the wives. They came out of the rehearsal room and said: ‘Hey Chris, do you want to join?’ I couldn’t believe my luck. ‘Are you serious? I’m just a girl who plays piano.’” 

Ten days later, the new line-up was on the road in America. “In those days, there were very few women, especially playing the blues, but I never felt singled out,” she said. “It just all came very naturally to me. Not too many women have said, ‘Thanks for ground-breaking,’ to be honest. I’m sure I was appreciated, but it wasn’t hero worship or anything like that."

Chicken Shack posing on some graffiti-covered steps

Christine McVie (then Christine Perfect) with Chicken Shack (Image credit: Bob Baker)

With the five albums released between ’71 and ’74, Fleetwood Mac began to evolve away from their strict blues pedigree. 

“The style had to change because I was a keyboard player,” McVie told the Sunday Express in 2004. “And it developed a more commercial bent. It was thrilling, and I have to say to this day, it still kind of is, knowing I did that.” 

Mick Fleetwood recognised McVie’s gifts, and encouraged her to “launch out and do something a bit commercial” with her songwriting. On her early compositions like Morning Rain, Remember Me and the shoulda-been-a-hit Just Crazy Love, she kept one foot – or hand – in her formative boogie blues and let her inherent feel for pop melody bloom.

McVie also credited guitarist Bob Welch’s time in the band for inspiring the vocal harmonies that became a signature part of their classic sound. 

In 1975, after Welch quit, that harmony found its full expression when Mick Fleetwood invited musical couple Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks into the fold. The chemistry was there from the start. When they layered their voices with McVie’s, it created a profound fourth thing all its own – a thrilling blend that rivals The Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. In the 2019 BBC documentary Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird, McVie recalled the moment of discovery: “We all got into this little rehearsal room and it just shot off like firecrackers. I started playing a song I’d just written, Say You Love Me, and when the chorus came they came in immediately with this incredible three-part harmony. We all got goose bumps.” 

Along with that harmonic convergence came a new songwriting gauntlet for McVie. She said: “I remember hearing their Buckingham Nicks album and thinking: ‘Right, I better pull something out of the bag here and write some songs. I wanted to impress them!’” 

That three-way creative competition was at its most fertile on 1975’s self-titled ‘White’ album and the landmark Rumours (1977), with McVie conjuring up Say You Love Me, Over My Head, Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun. While you got the sense that Nicks and Buckingham depended on melodrama and painstaking process to unearth their best songs, McVie always seemed to pluck hers out of the ether, fully formed. “I don’t struggle over my songs, I write them quickly,” she told Rolling Stone in 1977. It’s a testament to her melodic prowess and the power of her dusky, piercing voice that she could make a potentially trite couplet like ‘Sweet wonderful you, you make me happy with the things that you do’ sound like it was a freshly minted sentiment. 

And then of course there was Songbird. McVie’s graceful, for-the-ages ballad fell like a well-placed balm in Rumours’ couples therapy sequence. She dashed it off in 30 minutes, then recorded it live the same night in the small hours in an empty auditorium. An ethereal flash of lightning in a bottle, it had the power to reduce grown men to tears, not the least John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. “I think it was about nobody and everybody,” she said in the Classic Albums documentary series. “In retrospect, it seemed to me more like a little anthem than anything else. It was for everybody. It was like a little prayer almost.”

Through the late 70s into the 80s, that prayer would close the band’s shows each night, with McVie again providing a guiding hand during their worst days of drugs and drink excess. “I always took fairly good care of myself, but I was no angel,” she told The Guardian, adding: “But I think it made me perform better.” 

It’s worth noting that on stage, Fleetwood Mac was a different animal – a lot more aggressive and primal than on their pristine recordings. “The albums are a lot cleaner in general, they’re well thought out,” McVie told Sounds in ’82. “I figure there’s definitely two sides to Fleetwood Mac; the live side is a lot more rock’n’roll than people think we are. We’re not so clean-cut.” 

In 1979, Lindsey Buckingham steered the band away from a Rumours redux with the fractured, cubist pop of Tusk. But their biggest-selling album still loomed large, continuing to cast a long shadow through the 80s. That could be what drove Nicks, Buckingham and McVie to make their first solo albums. 

The two Fleetwood Mac records from that decade – Mirage (1982) and Tango In The Night (1987) – received mixed reviews at the time but have improved with age. It was the harrowing sessions for the latter, with Nicks, Fleetwood and John McVie all spiralling in their addictions, that finally splintered the band. Amid the chaos, Christine delivered two of her brightest singles – Little Lies and Everywhere – but it would be the last studio album with the line-up she called “the Rumours five”. 

Buckingham quit shortly after. Both Nicks and McVie departed after 1990’s Behind The Mask. McVie would later dismiss that album and its follow-up, 1995’s Time, as “terrible”.

Meanwhile, Presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s use of her Don’t Stop in the early 90s prompted a one-off reunion of the classic line-up at his inaugural ball. And that paved the way for their 1997 world tour, which produced the multi-platinum live album The Dance. But Christine decided that after 28 years of “living out of a suitcase” she’d had enough. She told the Sunday Express: “Towards the end of that tour I found it very overwhelming being on stage. The lights were hot and it was deafening. I was getting disoriented."

Talking to Classic Rock about her post-Mac retirement in Canterbury, she sounded like she was enjoying an idyllic existence – taking long walks with her Lhasa Apsos, restoring her 17th-century red-brick house, watching cooking shows and ER, and always in bed by nine. “When I still drank, I’d wind down at the end of the day with a glass of good champagne, but now I find that a cup of tea and a chocolate Hobnob does the trick,” she said. 

In 2004, McVie released In The Meantime, an overlooked solo album, made at home with her musician nephew Dan. It was mostly therapeutic, to get over the end of her second marriage, to Portuguese musician Eddy Quintela. Each time Fleetwood Mac would come through for a London date, she’d attend, watching from the wings, thinking: “Thank god, I made the right decision.” 

But then in 2013, she changed her mind, and hopped on stage for a version of Don’t Stop at London’s O2. She told The Guardian: “After, I called Mick and asked: ‘How would you feel about me coming back to the band?’ He got in touch with everybody and we had a band meeting over the phone and they all went: ‘Come baaaack!’ I felt regenerated, and I felt like writing again.” 

In 2014-15, the On With The Show tour took the reunited Mac around the world for 78 sold-out shows. With that momentum, the plan was to make a new studio album. In a Classic Rock interview in 2021, Lindsey Buckingham told me: “Christine had a bunch of song ideas and I helped her with those. We eventually went in the studio with John and Mick. And we were still hoping to make that a Fleetwood Mac album, but Stevie wouldn’t do it. That became the duets album that Christine and I did in 2017.”

And then 2018 delivered one of the most shocking twists in the Fleetwood Mac saga, when Buckingham was fired, without a clear explanation. Nicks gave her bandmates a “him or me” ultimatum. Later that year, on what would be their final world tour, Buckingham was replaced by Mike Campbell and Neil Finn. 

In 2021, as Mick Fleetwood was pushing for the classic line-up to reunite for a farewell tour, McVie revealed that her ongoing back problems, caused by scoliosis, had worsened. It had become difficult for her to stand, much less sit, over a piano for any length of time. “Some days are better than others, but it’s not much fun,” she told Rolling Stone some time later. “I’ll be eighty next year. So I’m just hoping for a few more years.” 

On November 30 2022, McVie died “peacefully” in hospital, surrounded by family. Her death certificate, obtained by US media months later, stated that she'd suffered a stroke, with a cancer of unknown origin a secondary cause. 

On social media, Buckingham called her death “profoundly heartbreaking,” describing her as “a musical comrade, a soul mate, a sister”. Nicks said: “A few hours ago I was told that my best friend in the whole world since 1975 had passed away. See you on the other side, my love. Don’t forget me.” 

The band’s official statement, which described Christine McVie as “truly one of a kind, special and talented beyond measure,” went on to say: “We were so lucky to have a life with her.” 

Grief for our rock stars is difficult to measure. Popularity doesn’t always mean that a passing will feel personal. It comes down to connection. And the outpouring of love and memories on social media for Christine McVie shows how deeply her voice, her songs and “that steadying presence” connected with so many. 

"I wanna be with you everywhere," she sang on one of her best-loved hits. She will be for a long time to come.

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.