It’s July 16, 1992, and there he is. Bill Clinton, Slick Willie, the Man From Hope, the Comeback Kid, the governor of Arkansas and the future president of the United States, standing on stage at Madison Square Garden. He’s just accepted the nomination at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, flashing that mile-wide grin that has gotten him into trouble a thousand times over. He’s just assured us, again, that our pain is felt, that the days of trickle-down economics are over and better times are on the horizon. And the capper to this coronation is the most infamous needle drop in political history, the Clinton-Gore ticket’s official theme song, which was, somehow, bizarrely, wonderfully, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”
If you haven’t seen this bizarre moment ever, or in a while, well, you really owe it to yourself, especially now. Just skip right to the end, why don’t ya?
Thirty years and countless arguments about baby boomers, neoliberalism, triangulation, ’90s nostalgia, and abuses of power aside, it’s still a jarring, singular moment in American history. Presidential candidates were and are usually situated on a sliding scale of squareness. But the choice of “Don’t Stop” served as a sign of a changing of the guard, a signal of Clinton’s relative cool factor, and marked the ascendancy of the boomer generation. (It didn’t work out so well in the end, but this coronation wasn’t widely seen as ominous then.)
But more than anything, Clinton’s choice served as a sign of the sheer cultural dominance of Fleetwood Mac, and the genius of Christine McVie, who wrote “Don’t Stop,” a song that would change the career trajectory of her band, the ’70s as a whole, and the face of American political campaigns. It’s also very arguable that “Don’t Stop” isn’t even her greatest song, but that’s McVie for you.
Christine McVie passed away Wednesday, of an undisclosed illness. The outpouring of grief has been tremendous. Everyone loved Fleetwood Mac, one of the most enduring rock bands to ever exist, and everyone loved Fleetwood Mac in large part because of Christine McVie. Maybe she wrote your favorite Fleetwood Mac song, and maybe she didn’t. But she was the center that held together a band that was ever imploding in one way or another.
From the day one fans, to the people for whom the mega-selling Rumours soundtracked their Rick Moody–esque key parties, to the children conceived at said key parties, to the contrarians who insist (possibly correctly) that Tusk is the real masterpiece, to the punks and hipsters that eventually admitted to themselves that Fleetwood Mac is as great as their parents said, to the casual music fans whose record collection can be counted on one hand, Fleetwood Mac’s reach was as wide as that of any artist you could possibly name. But that sheer ubiquity wouldn’t have happened without McVie.
In addition to “Don’t Stop,” McVie wrote, well, half of the songs on Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, and had more singles credited solely to her than any other member of the band. This includes the 1987 hit “Everywhere,” a luscious ball of harmonies that always seems to pop out of nowhere and that is currently soundtracking a commercial for Chevrolet’s electric vehicles. She also wrote “You Make Loving Fun,” a song whose backstory is endlessly mythologized. McVie’s expert deployment of electric piano, organ, and clavinet still sounds futuristic, while also nailing the classy yet groovy spirits of the ’70s.
She cowrote “Little Lies,” a silky bath of cocaine and sneer that inspired possibly the best Fleetwood Mac video and look, and which definitely featured their best synthesizer deployment and the best back-and-forth vocal ping-pong between McVie and her best friend and musical foil Stevie Nicks. With a band this popular, there’s not really such a thing as a deep cut, but McVie’s admirers are known to cherish the Tusk closer “Never Forget,” a wistful last sigh at the end of an angry, paranoid album in which a hard-strumming McVie sweetly reminds us love is still worth it, kindly throwing in an extended, lilting woo as an added balm.
Christine Anne Perfect was born in 1943 in the village of Bouth, Lancashire, in England. Her father was violinist and music educator, her mother was psychic and a faith healer. In her own way, she took after both parents.
While attending school in Birmingham, she joined the local blues band Sounds of Blue, which broke up before she graduated. Her former bandmates Stan Webb and Andy Silvester later formed the blues band Chicken Shack. She wrote them a letter asking to join, and they brought her on as pianist and backing vocals, but you couldn’t keep a presence like her in the back for long. Chicken Shack’s biggest hit was a 1967 cover of the Ellington Jordan blues song “I’d Rather Go Blind” (which is commonly associated with Etta James). She left the band shortly afterward and recorded her debut solo album, Christine Perfect, an early document of her crystalline voice and skill for blending soft rock with the blues to make the heartache go down smooth without losing the rough edges.
Chicken Shack often toured with an earlier, bluesier version of Fleetwood Mac, and she later married bassist and founding member John McVie, and joined the band officially for 1971’s Future Games, becoming a key singer, songwriter, and keyboard ace. The fluctuations of Fleetwood Mac has inspired one of the most confounding band member graphic explainers to be found on Wikipedia. But after frontman Peter Green left in 1970, the version of Fleetwood Mac that everyone knows and loves—the one with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks—clicked into place for 1975’s Fleetwood Mac.
McVie wasn’t one to be lost in the shuffle, as her song “Over My Head,” in which she admits that she enjoys experiencing romantic confusion as much as we love to hear her sing about it, showed just how in control of her craft she’d become, ending the band’s six-year absence from the Billboard singles charts, rehabilitating their commercial prospects, and demonstrating just how powerful a McVie and Nicks harmony can be.
Fleetwood Mac has been a band, more or less, for six decades. But it always comes back to Rumours, doesn’t it? As has been endlessly documented, Fleetwood Mac became a breakup machine, and Christine and John McVie’s marriage imploded during the making of the album, for reasons we don’t need to get into here. (No need to get tawdry, even if you suspect she wouldn’t mind.) The album was famously born in a cauldron of resentment, infidelity, cocaine, overdubs, and what one imagines were fraught arguments over song arrangements that took the place of the fraught arguments over personal matters they no longer had the energy to have.
Rumours became gigantically popular—it’s sold an estimated 40 million copies worldwide and may as well have been mailed to everyone in the suburbs, and as long as people continue to break each other’s hearts, its myth and power will endure. But if the masses came for eye-boiling vision quests into romantic anger such as “Dreams” and “The Chain,” they stayed for McVie. Yes, there’s “Don’t Stop,” a paean to the very concept of optimism, but also “Songbird,” perhaps her most elegant piano performance and a moment of grace amid some very ugly feelings.
Rumours captured the loose, druggy, ambiently horny, shag carpet, “we’re all getting divorced now but it’s OK” vibe of the ’70s. But McVie often sounded like the she was the only person in the band who still enjoyed being a rock star, as “You Make Loving Fun” was a stealth bomb of sultry purrs, allegedly inspired by her affair with the band’s lighting director, Curry Grant. (OK, fine, we can get a little tawdry.) But while she could bring balance and joy to the group, McVie could dish out heartbreak with the best of them, as “Oh Daddy” might be the saddest song on a very polished and very sad album, an ode to feeling defeated by love, with McVie’s deflated sigh indicating that it’s not really a good thing, sometimes, to be soothed by the smile of someone you know you need to leave.
(Also, side note: When was the last time you watched that scene from The Americans when Philip and Elizabeth Jennings murder a guy and do all kinds of dirt, all soundtracked by the eternally rising action of “The Chain”? Well, if it’s been a while, you owe it yourself to rewatch. That song goes hard as hell.)
Fleetwood Mac followed Rumours up with 1979’s Tusk, an art-damaged album inspired partly by Buckingham’s fears that people thought Talking Heads were cooler than his band, which was either a wise acknowledgement that they couldn’t replicate lighting-in-a-bottle success or an act of commercial suicide. But Fleetwood Mac carried on, as no one can walk away from a disaster quite like this band, rebounding with the more straight ahead Mirage in 1982 and then Tango in the Night in 1987, the band’s second-biggest-selling album, and the sneaky favorite of many fans, if my social media feed is to be believed, as many believe the lush, romantic gauze of the album is the purest distillation of what McVie brought to the band.
McVie stopped touring with the group after 1990’s Behind the Mask, and in 1998, she formally retired from the band … only to return to active duty in 2014; Buckingham was then fired four years later, because it’s always something with this band.
It can’t truly be argued with a straight face that a songwriter with multiple hit songs to her credit and who wrote or cowrote several songs on one of the most popular and beloved albums ever made is underrated in any real way. You can’t be a secret weapon if everyone agrees you are the secret weapon.
But still, Christine McVie has seemed to live in the shadow of the story of Nicks and Buckingham, pop music’s most star-crossed romance, and her steady confidence was often overshadowed by the outsize charisma of Mick Fleetwood. Her long absence from the band and a tendency to downplay the cultural contributions of women, and for critics to dismiss how hard it can be to make soft rock, likely also helped diminish, to an extent, her stature.
But while her bandmates brought the flash and the tragic backstories, she brought the pop smarts and elegance. But she also provides a necessary counterbalance. She was a sturdy, unpretentious hard worker in a band full of wild animals, a reasonable person in a band of unreasonable people, and ultimately an idealistic and a romantic in a band that specialized in disillusionment. It’s a balance that improbably worked, and because of her steady hand, Fleetwood Mac seemed to be everywhere, and in places you would never have expected to find them. She gave us all the love in the world, and we gave it right back to her.
Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, MEL, Variety, Stereogum, and Playboy. His book Top Eight: How the MySpace Era Changed Music Forever will be published by Chicago Review Press in August 2023.