The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talks about reuniting with the iconic band, Fleetwood Mac, for its “On With The Show” concert tour.
Guitarist-singer-songwriter Lindsey Buckingham
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Lindsey Buckingham, guitarist, with one of the most critically acclaimed and successful rock bands of all time. That would be Fleetwood Mac, of course. The group, including Christine McVie, is now on tour after a hiatus of 16 years.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Hall of Fame inductee, Lindsey Buckingham, coming up right now.
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Tavis: Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham is, of course, one of the reasons for the phenomenal success of Fleetwood Mac. He’s been a part of that band for some 40 years now with only a slight break to focus, of course, on his highly successful solo career. Fleetwood Mac with all the band mates is now back on tour for the first time in 16 years.
Before we start our conversation, a look at Lindsey performing “Big Love” at the Saban Theater here in Los Angeles.
Tavis: We’ll come back to the solo stuff in just a bit. So let me start, though, by asking how it feels to be back onstage with everybody in Fleetwood Mac, Christine included.
Lindsey Buckingham: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really nice moment for the band. It somehow seems quite appropriate to the history, the kind of convoluted politics that have been out there and all the change-ups, and quite circular, you know.
I mean, if you want to think of this as the beginning of a last act, that’s how it feels, you know. Christine really does fill in a gap in some of the polarity that might exist otherwise and helps things breath, you know.
Tavis: How is looking at Fleetwood Mac, to your words, a study in chemistry? How does that…
Buckingham: Well, you know, if you look at the five people in the band, they are quite disparate in terms of their sensibilities. And it’s not a group of people that you would look at necessarily on paper and say, well, these guys belong in a band together.
And yet you put it all together and it makes something greater than the sum of the parts and that was really, I mean, very clear to me right off when we first started rehearsing before we made the first album. There was something going on that was beyond any of our control and it was really kind of magical.
Tavis: If I put you on the spot and say, okay, since you’re suggesting that this is a study in chemistry and, based on the prodigious and wonderful work that you all have done, I wouldn’t disagree with that. But what did the five members, to your mind, bring uniquely to the chemistry?
Buckingham: Well, I…
Tavis: Let’s start with Lindsey.
Buckingham: Okay. I think that right away it was clear to me that what the other people in the band needed, the other three people, you know, that we were joining that Stevie and I were – they needed someone who had a vision for how to process the music, how to produce the music, how to – you know, a mind to filter everything and organize it and interpret it.
And that’s something they hadn’t really had in full force since maybe the Peter Green days, the very early days, and I think I continued the tradition of good guitar playing and that helped as well, and writing.
I think Stevie brought an element of the ethereal to it and perhaps brought a focal point to the group that it hadn’t had in terms of theatrics and in terms of just one person that could sort of be a front person and a beautiful voice and great writing.
Christine brought the other side of that which was feet on the ground and that’s what’s been missing for a while [laugh]. And John and Mick are just simply the greatest rhythm section in rock, as far as I’m concerned.
Tavis: When you’ve been apart, all of you, for 16 years and you come back together as you are now on this tour, what gives you the confidence, the faith, to believe that it will work again as it once did?
Buckingham: Well, that’s a really prime question because, you know, we got this call from Christine saying she wanted to come back. We were in the middle of touring last year with the four of us and my initial reaction was, okay, well, we kind of have to take this with baby steps because exactly what you’re saying might have been the case.
The want to return to the fold doesn’t mean you can repeat history. It doesn’t mean that all the tools, all the reference points, are still there for it all to work. Having said that, though, Christine is and always was a working musician. She was someone who had a great discipline and was very, very grounded in her craft, in her art.
So, you know, confidence was pretty high that all of that would come back, but, yes, it was a little daunting in the early days to see if we had the tools to put it all together.
Tavis: You guys were already obviously a huge hit internationally before this guy, Bill Clinton, decided to use [laugh]…
Buckingham: This guy, yeah [laugh].
Tavis: This guy, Clinton, decided to use one of your tracks as his campaign theme song. But as you look back on that now, I mean, you were talking earlier about how these things come full circle.
Tavis: And I’m thinking now about the fact that there is another Clinton now who is on the horizon who may run for president and she will have to pick her campaign theme song. But her husband back in ’93 chose this beautiful track from Fleetwood Mac.
When you look back on that era now and you – I mean, it’s hard for me now to think about Bill Clinton and his campaign without thinking about “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”. What do you think about when you look back on that connection?
Buckingham: Well, for me, it was a kind of a catalyst to kind of re-enter the fold because I had produced the album in 1987, “Tango in the Night”, and things had gotten so kind of crazy within the inner workings of the band and the way we were all leading our lives that I felt it was really time for me to take a break. You know, if things are crazy in the studio, usually the road is times 10.
So I had been gone and pursuing solo work for a number of years and that call from Bill Clinton, which obviously we weren’t going to say no to, was kind of my re-introduction back in and it kind of led to everything that happened after that. That’s the way I think about it. But having said that, it was really an exciting moment to be there at the inaugural and just be a part of something that felt like history, you know.
Tavis: What fascinates me about these candidates who choose these songs is that there’s always the possibility – and there are examples of this – there are always the possibility, I think. Bruce Springsteen comes to mind where he had to send somebody a letter one time saying, no, I don’t want you using my song.
I mean, obviously, you guys didn’t have a problem with Clinton using your song. But like what does a band do when they get a phone call from a candidate who wants to use your song or they just start using it and you’re like you know what? I don’t agree with anything you believe, but they love your song.
Buckingham: Well, you know, you look at Washington today versus the idealism that seemed to exist, you know, right at the time Clinton was poised to go into office, and it’s kind of two different mindsets, shall we say.
You know, were that to occur today, if you assume that Bill Clinton had not used that and perhaps Hillary did want to use “Don’t Stop”, we might very well say you know what? You know, it’s just business as usual and maybe we don’t want to lend the spirit of that.
I don’t really know. It’s not my song, you know. I mean, I helped write it, but it’s really Christine’s song. Yeah, I mean, I would imagine that would be a tad awkward, you know [laugh].
Tavis: But it raises this question for me which is that the reason why Clinton – it’s so obvious when you hear the song and we all know it and love it. But it’s so obvious why a candidate would choose a song with that lyric, don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.
Buckingham: Oh, yeah. It was ready-made.
Buckingham: It was a brilliant co-opting of something which was meant to be addressed to a single person, you know, in a break-up which was the context on “Rumours” for sure. But it also is a testament to how wonderful the song is, that it could be used in any different way.
Tavis: And I raise that only because I want to ask, Lindsey – put you on the spot here for a second. As you look back on the career, ongoing, thankfully, of Fleetwood Mac, are there a couple of songs that come to mind beyond the one that everybody knows, thanks to Clinton, where the lyrical content speaks to you in a powerful way?
Buckingham: Well, you know, I mean, there are things that stand out for any number of reasons. Lyrically, you know, most of the things on “Rumours” were very autobiographical and very much conversations the three writers were having with other members of the band.
And in a way, that’s kind of what made – I think there was a point at which the success of “Rumours” kind of detached from the music and became about that and became about the musical soap opera.
I always think about that album and the lyrics of the songs in a sort of – I think there was a certain heroism going on there that we were able to sort of realize that we needed to get from here to here and we had to do whatever we could in order to do that, and it was not easy, you know. We had to live in denial. You had to kind of compartmentalize things, but the art rose up.
Tavis: Everybody in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is there because they uniquely brought something to the genre that has earned them their space in that hall. You ask five members of this band this question, I suspect you’d probably get five different answers.
Buckingham: Oh, yeah, you would.
Tavis: You ask 50 million fans, you’d get 50 million different answers. But since you’re here, let me ask you.
Tavis: To your mind, what is it that you think Fleetwood Mac brought to the party uniquely?
Buckingham: Wow. It’s a little hard to be objective about that. But I think we brought…
Tavis: I didn’t say you had to be objective, by the way [laugh]. Don’t put that pressure on yourself. I just asked the question [laugh].
Buckingham: You know, I think that we kind of were there to kind of pick up where pop had left off from a time before and to sort of reinvigorate it. I think that we, again, were three writers with three distinctive styles that were able to come together and really in a very musicianly way.
You know, the albums really have a lot of great musicianship on them from everyone. And, you know, I think there was a kind of, again, a chemistry that added up to something that people just found irresistible.
You know, it’s funny. When you make music and even if it’s commercially successful, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to hold up. It takes time to sort of take stock of what you’ve done and whether it’s got legs and whether it’s going to really have a place.
And one of the things that we’re finding now at these shows is that you’ve got the people who may have been listening to “Rumours” and to “Tusk” and all these albums in the day, but you’ve also got 20-year-olds there.
And there are a lot of young artists who seem to have picked up the mantle of what we were doing and it makes sense to them. So it’s really just in the last few years where I think we’ve been able to realize that indeed what we did, did make a difference, and it’s a nice place to be.
Tavis: And you attribute that staying power, that relevancy, all these years later to what?
Buckingham: Again, I would have to say there’s a kind of an obstinacy to this group because we don’t always get along. We don’t always agree on what we should be doing and when we should be doing it.
There’s a lot of collective ego that tends to make the politics quite a wild animal and yet we somehow have managed to keep going. And I think that it’s the resolve that has kept us here all this time and it’s that same resolve that allowed us stay together to make these albums under really conditions of duress, I think.
I mean, Stevie and I had broken up, never gotten closure with her, you know. Had to see her every day, had to make the decision to do the right thing for her every day as a producer and a musician, you know, when I could have said no. You know, all of that, you put it all together and it just adds up to something pretty good.
Tavis: My grandmother said to me all the time that, with everything we endure in life, “Tavis”, she said, “Baby, there’s a lesson and a blessing in everything you go through.” There’s a lesson and a blessing in everything. So you’ve referenced a few times now the duress and the difficulty, a band that doesn’t always get along sees things differently, you know, wants to do things at different times.
I get all that because, I mean, you’re five people, so you’re individual. So there’s no law that says you all have to, you know, group think. And I can see the difficulty that comes along with that.
What’s the blessing in that, though? I mean, is there something good that comes out of having that kind of tension and that kind of friction? Because, to your point, you guys obviously had the resolve to get through it. So if you had to put your finger on it, if I’ve made you tell me something good that comes out of that dysfunction, what is it?
Buckingham: Well, I think, you know, on the one hand, you have to go back to the saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So I think we’ve all gained a certain amount of fortitude and inner strength from having gotten from point A to point B under those conditions. That’s part of it, and that is certainly a blessing.
I think that there’s a sense of possibly having a bit of a wider look at the world because of that. Because, you know, a lot of times people who are in a band and all are seeing it the same way, you know, it can be a bit insular. So there’s that, you know. I mean, there was a great deal of dysfunction in personal lives, you know.
I think even to some degree for me personally, a gift that came out of that was that I was so well-defended emotionally and, you know, just in all ways for so long, focused on the music, had a lot of girlfriends, but never let them get beyond a certain point, you know, I didn’t get married and have my first child until I was in my mid-forties.
And the gift of that was that I was ready. I’d seen what the world was like without that. I’d gotten a lot of that other garbage out of the way, you know, and I saw a lot of my friends and even people in the band who maybe were trying to be family members and band members the way that we were living our lives back then and it just was at odds with itself, you know.
So I think the struggle kept me, you know, insulated from certain parts of myself until I was ready. And now I think the beauty is that that still exists over here, but there’s a balance with family life.
Tavis: You made reference earlier in this conversation, Lindsey, to the fact that this band may be – and it wouldn’t be the only band – that when it comes together is greater even than the sum of its parts.
Buckingham: I would say so, yeah.
Tavis: So I heard you say that and I take that. The flip side of that or what goes along with that is that, when you are a piece of the whole, not always are you recognized for everything that you bring individually to that band. That’s a long way of saying I have a friend who thinks, with all due respect to Rolling Stone having listed you as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time…
Buckingham: Yeah, it’s like down at the bottom [laugh].
Tavis: But you made the list, though. You’re in the 100. You made the list [laugh]. But I have a friend of mine who loves you and swears that you have never gotten the respect that he thinks you deserve for being as good – I only raise that because I see you brought your guitar there.
Buckingham: I did.
Tavis: But when you’re one of the 100 greatest, you gotta take your acts everywhere you go. But how do you respond to my friend who thinks that you have not gotten the respect that you deserve for being as good a guitarist as you are? Or does that not even occur to you?
Buckingham: Well, no. It occurs to me and I think that part of it is, if you come and see the show, you get one take on what I do. Again, I’ve been able to take what I would call the big machine of Fleetwood Mac and sort of walk away from that for a couple of years and do what I’d call the small machine, which is the solo work. And that’s really at this point where you keep pushing the envelope and where you keep growing.
Then you can bring that back into the larger thing. So I think that even the Fleetwood Mac show, even though we’re kind of at a point where we’re kind of restating a body of work, that what I’m doing is representative of someone who’s at the top of their game as a guitarist.
Tavis: Are you better now than you were when Fleetwood Mac was at its height?
Buckingham: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: You’re better now?
Buckingham: Oh, yeah.
Buckingham: Without question. But to answer that point, I think that, again, you get back to what my contributions were in the band. One of those was to produce; one of those was to be the kind of guitarist who would work in the fabric of the song. So in other words, I wasn’t out there trying to be flashy.
I was saying this is what the song needs; this is what I’m going to do. A lot of people don’t quite pick up on what that is, so there’s that. I think, you know, you’re also talking about just someone who hits the level that maybe your friend appreciates only onstage. You know, it’s not something that’s that apparent.
And, again, then you go back to the solo work where maybe I’m able to do more of that and it reaches fewer people. That’s why it’s the small machine. You know, if I sell a couple hundred thousand albums, I’m quite happy, especially in this environment.
Tavis: I shall put you on the spot one more time before this conversation ends.
Buckingham: Okay [laugh].
Tavis: Because I am tired of you playing air guitar where there is a real guitar [laugh] sitting next to you. So you were talking a moment ago, as I put you on the spot, about the fact that we come see the big show, we hear one sound of Lindsey Buckingham. So if I were to come see Lindsey Buckingham solo – hint, hint – what might he sound like?
Tavis: See, I take Lindsey Buckingham in the big machine or the small machine [laugh]. I think it works either way, which leads me to offer this as the exit question. So since Fleetwood Mac’s on the big tour now – everybody knows that, so get your tickets if you can get in. They’re out there now. What happens after the big tour? You going back to more solo stuff?
Buckingham: Eventually. But, you know, one of the really exciting things that happened before we started rehearsing the show with Christine is she came over and said, “Lindsey, I’ve got some rough ideas for new songs.” She came over and we went in the studio, the two of us, with John and Mick.
Again, you ask, well, is that still going to work? That was my thought. Oh, my God, you know, am I still going to be able to do what I used to do for her? Or is what she’s going to bring me – she gave me a bunch of stuff to take home after we saw her in England when we played there. And I worked on it at home, took lots of liberties, came back. She loved it.
We went in the studio for two months and came up with probably the best group of songs that were co-written that we’ve done in years. So we are going to continue working on a new album and the solo stuff will probably take a back seat for another year or so.
Tavis: You know what? Nobody’s complaining about that.
Buckingham: No, least of all me.
Tavis: People would love to hear another Fleetwood Mac album.
Buckingham: Oh, I’m telling you. A beautiful way to kind of wrap up this last act, you know.
Tavis: Well, I suspect when that happens, you and maybe somebody else will come back and see us.
Buckingham: I certainly hope so.
Tavis: Good to see you, Lindsey.
Buckingham: Good to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: Lindsey Buckingham, Hall of Famer, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the 100 greatest of all time. That’s our show tonight. Thanks for watching us and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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