Before she married John McVie, the onetime bassist for Fleetwood Mac and her husband of eight years, Christine McVie went by her birth name: Christine Perfect. That was an appropriate name for someone who seemed to pull immaculately crafted pop and rock classics out of thin, divine air. “I don’t struggle over my songs,” she once said in a Rolling Stone interview. “I write them quickly.” Imagine quickly writing and recording through a divorce from your husband, who, again, is in your band. Then imagine making an entire album that, in part, documents that divorce from your husband, who is in your band. Then take a galactic leap and imagine, under all these circumstances, coming up with what is arguably the most beautiful song on your band’s biggest album, “Songbird,” in a half-hour in the middle of the night and refusing to sleep until the track gets recorded. Christine Perfect did all that.
When asked to identify the voice of Fleetwood Mac, the answer most people reflexively give is Stevie Nicks or Lindsey Buckingham, since the duo’s arrival in the band played a role in catapulting it to superstardom. But a very strong argument can be made that the real voice of Fleetwood Mac was McVie, the grounded yet ethereal singer-songwriter and keyboardist who died unexpectedly on Wednesday at the age of 79 after what her family described as a short illness. Over the years, the band, one of the most successful and famously fractious in rock history, propelled nine songs into the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Of those nine, four — “Little Lies,” “Don’t Stop,” “Hold Me,” and “You Make Loving Fun” — were written or co-written by McVie and feature her on lead vocals. (Buckingham wrote three of the others, and Nicks can take credit for two.) The most successful and defining album of Fleetwood Mac’s career, 1977’s Rumours, contained 11 tracks in its original form. Four of those were written by McVie, and a fifth, more collaborative effort, “The Chain,” gave her a co-writing credit. Ultimately, half of Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 Greatest Hits album is credited to McVie’s songwriting.
Multiple members cycled through Fleetwood Mac in its more than five-decade existence as a recording and touring group. But without any one of its most enduring four pillars — Mick Fleetwood, who co-founded the band in 1967 and has remained with it for the duration; McVie, who officially joined in 1970; and the duo of Nicks/Buckingham, who came onboard in 1975 — Fleetwood Mac would never have become the chart-topping powerhouse whose sound reverberated through the 1970s and ’80s. Take away any one of these people during that crucial period and the whole thing crumbles, particularly — with all due respect to Mr. Fleetwood — Buckingham, Nicks, or McVie. The trio were like vocal Neapolitan ice cream, each a distinct and delicious flavor on their own, but something richer when intertwined. With his elastic and insistent style, Buckingham served as the ideal complement to Nicks’s husky expressiveness, and both of them blended beautifully with McVie’s gently piercing alto.
For all the famous drama over romantic couples and breakups in the group’s history, though, the most fascinating pair in Fleetwood Mac may have been Nicks and McVie, the only two women in the band and its true yin and yang. If Nicks represented, and still represents, some combination of leather and lace, McVie was silk and suede. While Stevie, who called McVie her best friend in her own remembrance, played the role of witchy woman, Christine summoned the angels. Together they represent the two sides of Fleetwood Mac’s mysticism, a spirituality that leaned toward the gothic and dark when Nicks had the mic (see: “Rhiannon”) and turned something close to holy when McVie sang “Oh, Daddy” or “Songbird.” But McVie wasn’t simply the softer, soulful side of Fleetwood Mac. Her range was wider than that. In concert with Buckingham on “Don’t Stop,” she sounded defiant. On the semi-forgotten Tusk hit “Think About Me,” she was sexy and cheeky. On 1984’s “Got a Hold on Me,” her biggest solo hit, she was buoyant and a little bit country. On “Everywhere,” she slid comfortably into catchy, gauzy pop.
Most importantly, in every song she sang, McVie sounded like she was telling an emotional truth. Her voice was an ache in auditory form, a melodic prayer of hope and hurt. Whether on her own, with the band that made her famous, or cutting through the mix of a yacht-rock hit — listen closely to “Sentimental Lady,” by onetime Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch, and you can hear the unmistakeable McVie simultaneously harmonizing and standing out — Christine McVie sounded fully present in everything she touched. This is one of the reasons so much of her work became instantly meaningful when it was first recorded and remains meaningful no matter how many times you hear it. McVie — Christine Perfect — left a piece of herself in every note she wrote, and you can feel that no matter how many times you’ve heard them.