The Chain: the story of a beloved Fleetwood Mac song built from spare parts

Fleetwood Mac publicity shot from 1977
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Warner Reprise / Getty Images)

“I think anyone who creates will tell you that it's very difficult to work completely linearly to get what you're after,” Lindsey Buckingham said of The Chain.

And indeed, the song that has come to represent the forged strength of Fleetwood Mac's five members was assembled with disparate links and spare parts.  

In 1976, during the sessions for Rumours, Christine McVie brought in a song-in-progress called Butter Cookie (Keep Me There). On the Super Deluxe Edition of the classic record, you can hear the song evolve through early demos and instrumentals. A feathery Van Morrison-like groove gives way to a swampier chug, as the band search for the right feel and McVie experiments with words. But it never quite rises above what might've been a solid album track. Then in the last minute, it suddenly roars to life, powered by the entrance of John McVie's memorable bass riff. 

Drummer Mick Fleetwood called that riff “a major contribution.” He said, “The Chain basically came out of a jam. It was put together as distinct from someone literally sitting down and writing a song. It was very much collectively a band composition.”

Counting backwards from the entrance of McVie's bass riff, the band mapped out a new front section, with Fleetwood's kick drum acting as metronome. Buckingham then recycled a finger-picked riff from Lola (My Love), a song from 1973's Buckingham-Nicks album. It bounced perfectly against the four-on-the-floor pulse, clearing a dramatic space for the harmony vocals.  

Christine McVie said, “But it really only became a song when Stevie wrote some words. Lindsey arranged and made a song out of all the bits and pieces. And then once it was arranged and we knew what we were doing, we went in and recorded it. But it ultimately becomes a band thing anyway, because we all have so much of our own individual style, our own stamp that makes the sound of Fleetwood Mac.”

Because this is the Mac we're talking about, naturally, there is a conflicting account of the song's construction. In a 2020 interview with Variety, Stevie Nicks said it wasn't just “words,” but a completed song that she brought to the table. “Lindsey asked me, 'You know that song that you wrote about ‘If you don’t love me now, you will never love me again’ – can we have that?'”

Nicks continued, “And I thought, wow, I had full-on plans for the original Chain song before I gave it to Fleetwood Mac. I mean, I'm really glad that I gave it to them because it turned into one of the best songs. But it was holding its own before they recorded it.”

While the original recording of The Chain wasn't a hit, twenty years later, a live version from The Dance, made it to #30. Meanwhile, the song attained a separate kind of fame in the UK in 2009 as the BBC television theme for Formula 1 racing. On the 2019 Fleetwood Mac world tour, with Neil Finn and Mike Campbell in the band, they opened every show with The Chain. But it only accentuated the missing link (“Never break the chain”) of Lindsey Buckingham's unexpected dismissal from the band. 

So will the original chain be restored for one last tour with Buckingham? When I interviewed Lindsey for Classic Rock last year, he said, “We had this legacy that was all about rising above our difficulties. Who knows, maybe we'll manage to see clear to have one more nice run out there. That would be the proper way to go."

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.