After five decades, upward of 100 million albums sold, and more interpersonal enmity than every other rock band in history combined, Fleetwood Mac have finally reached the litigation stage. Last week, singer-guitarist Lindsey Buckingham sued his longtime bandmates, including his ex-lover and irreplaceable artistic foil Stevie Nicks, in Los Angeles Superior Court for, among other charges, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of oral contract, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. The usual rock ‘n’ roll stuff.
Basically, they kicked him off a yet another arena tour that he says would’ve made him around $14 million. Not that it’s about the money. “The one thing that does bother me and breaks my heart,” Buckingham told Rolling Stone shortly before the lawsuit went public, “is we spent 43 years always finding a way to rise above our personal differences and our difficulties to pursue and articulate a higher truth. That is our legacy. That is what the songs are about. This is not the way you end something like this.”
Counterpoint: Maybe it is? Shouldn’t the crew that made 1977’s mega-selling Rumours, a priceless cocaine snow globe of an album in which world-historically eccentric people sing gorgeous songs of fury and heartbreak at one another, wrap things up in the most Rumours way possible? Is it not the final, purest form of “Go Your Own Way” to force the singer and songwriter to, y’know, do that? For this gala new U.S. tour, the core Rumours-era lineup of Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, and (the long-divorced) Christine and John McVie replaced Buckingham with Crowded House frontman Neil Finn and longtime Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers anchor Mike Campbell. In September, the new gang debuted on Ellen with “The Chain,” a moody Rumours jam about ex-lovers who despise each other but remain in thrall to the unbreakable bond between them. So much for that. You can feel bad for Buckingham and still find this all very funny.
Or maybe you don’t feel bad. For a certified rock god, Buckingham has a modest and fraught reputation as a solo artist and lone human: “He’s always been a prickly guy,” his own wife conceded in that Rolling Stone interview. “That’s the truth.” As a showman, as a songwriter, and especially as a classically minded guitar player, his reputation is bulletproof, his talent nigh-overwhelming. (Watching his old band tear it up on Ellen, he might’ve taken solace in the fact that it took two semi-famous guitarists to replace him.) But it’s unclear who he is, and what he has to offer, when there’s nobody else around to rub the wrong way. All this legal drama serves as uneasy promo for Solo Anthology: The Best of Lindsey Buckingham, a recent triple-decker compilation mostly culled from his six solo albums, from 1981’s Law and Order to 2011’s Seeds We Sow, all of which he discreetly released amid various blockbuster Fleetwood Mac albums and reunion tours. At its best, it will remind you of his old band at their very best. And that, eternally, is the problem.
Consider “Big Love,” my personal favorite solo Buckingham moment, despite it not being a solo Buckingham song. It first appeared as the leadoff track on Fleetwood Mac’s humid 1987 synth-pop epic Tango in the Night, an incredible record that proved so difficult to make that the lineup that had already survived both Rumours and the infamous 1979 boondoggle Tusk splintered shortly thereafter. (For the Tango in the Night tour, the hobbled band replaced Buckingham with two other, far less famous guitarists.) The classic FM lineup didn’t reconvene until 1997’s The Dance, a live reunion album with two towering peaks. The first is “Silver Springs,” a Nicks power ballad and Rumours outtake that climaxes with her wailing, “You’ll never get away / Never get away / Never get away” at her prickly ex-lover as he calmly sings and plays along. The other peak is Buckingham doing “Big Love” alone, a maniacal one-man tornado of dexterous fingerpicking and semi-erotic moaning.
The studio version of “Big Love” has a lot of erotic moaning, too, with a climactic duet of sorts between two synthetic voices, one low, one high. “Love grunts,” Buckingham called them. Everyone just assumed Nicks was the high voice, but no, he used studio trickery to sing both parts. “It was odd that so many people wondered if it was Stevie on there with me,” Buckingham mused to Classic Rock magazine several decades later. He was probably joking, but then again, he has an awfully weird sense of humor. And he knows full well that he will never, ever get away.
Solo Anthology peaks early with “Trouble,” the lead single from 1981’s Law and Order and, yes, a gorgeous fusion of two top-tier Fleetwood Mac hits, namely “Dreams” and “Gypsy.” The mesmerizing video is peak early ’80s and a handy summation of the Buckingham experience: the crystalline beauty, the bizarre goofiness, and the fundamental suffocating unease.
By default, Buckingham’s best-known solo hit is “Holiday Road,” a sublimely silly earworm that anchored the soundtrack to 1983’s smash-hit comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation. (Off-topic but very important: The three-second sequence in the Vacation trailer when Chevy Chase yells, “Hey, Underpants!” at a bartender, who grabs a shotgun and shoots him, is the purest distillation of my brain as a 5-year-old that pop culture will ever produce.) But the mood across all three discs of Solo Anthology is remarkably consistent, given that it spans 30 years of output. On his own, Buckingham’s music has a very insular mad-scientist feel, solitary and eerie, concocted from drum machines, endless multi-tracking of his own keening voice, and relentlessly aerobic fingerpicked guitar. Later-period guitar-god workouts, like 2006’s “Not Too Late” and 2008’s “Time Precious Time,” have a wind-sprint intensity, hard to love but quite easy to revere.
“Not Too Late” is a useful summation of both the joys and terrors of Buckingham’s solo career: It is a lovely song plainly stifled and terrorized by the even lovelier songs he made a long time ago with all those other people. “Reading the paper, saw a review,” he sings. “Said I was a visionary, but nobody knew / Now that’s been a problem, feeling unseen / Just like I’m living somebody’s dream.” The song first appeared on his 2006 album Under the Skin, which took him 10-plus years to release thanks to numerous delays triggered by Fleetwood Mac’s glorious 1997 return for The Dance and what is, for now, the band’s last full studio album, 2003’s Say You Will. His own albums have always functioned in the popular imagination as afterthoughts, all labors of love with absurdly protracted labors that hardly seem to justify the effort, if only as graded on the hilariously steep curve Rumours introduced. “That’s the story of my solo work,” Buckingham told Rolling Stone. “You lose nine-tenths of the listeners.”
Granted, one-tenth of Fleetwood Mac’s audience is still a whole lotta people. But that massive disparity still stings, and was bound to doom the band eventually. The catalysts for this recent split—Buckingham’s ouster from the tour and his subsequent lawsuit—are relatively minor and deeply petty in a way that feels appropriate. When a long-secluded Christine McVie rejoined the band in 2014 for yet another epic reunion tour, Buckingham wanted the revitalized lineup to record another studio album, but Nicks refused, confiding to Rolling Stone that “making a record isn’t all that much fun.” (The amiable 2017 duo record Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie served as a consolation prize.) When it came time to plot another blockbuster tour this year, Buckingham asked for a few months’ delay to play some solo shows, but his bandmates got antsy. Finally, in New York City in January, the Rumours lineup unknowingly played their final show together (for now), a MusiCares benefit concert honoring the band, during which Buckingham apparently smirked while Nicks was giving a slightly long-winded speech. Nicks then decided she’d never share the stage with him again.
That’s the short version, and, notably, Buckingham’s version—the rest of the band hasn’t said much about the lawsuit beyond a “Fleetwood Mac looks forward to their day in court” statement. But the broad parameters here—never-ending and ungodly lucrative nostalgia tours versus laborious new albums likely to recoup neither the effort nor the expense—are familiar. The very existence of Solo Anthology is admirable, the weight and breadth of it, the dogged refusal of a super-rich classic rocker to confine himself to the same beloved 25 songs for the rest of his life. Presumably, though, he’s looking for something beyond admirable. His solo work is rarely out-and-out experimental, save the odd duck like “D.W. Suite,” an eight-minute, multiphase Dennis Wilson tribute from 1984’s Go Insane. But his best moments tend to be his weirdest, like “Street of Dreams,” an unsettling noir lullaby from 1992’s Out of the Cradle that sounds the way the album cover looks.
Lindsey Buckingham is on tour right now, and early set lists suggest that after serving up a dozen or so solo cuts, he will grudgingly dip into Fleetwood Mac’s back catalog. Solo Anthology follows a similar trajectory: The third disc is all live versions, among them a 2011 spin on the Rumours classic “Never Going Back Again.” You know, the one where he howls, “Been down one time / Been down two times / I’m never going back again.” He sounds as ferocious and defiant and alone as he’s ever sounded. You can almost believe he isn’t lying.