A band is more than the sum of its members
Fleetwood Mac have changed their line-up. Again. The vintage rock band have had 18 members over 51 years, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at their willingness to swap things about even at this late stage. Indeed, the latest twist in their convoluted saga has something of a superstar transfer about it. Last week, it was announced that vocalist and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham had left, with a source close to the band alleging the split was a result of “musical differences regarding the tour”. Two new members, singersongwriter Neil Finn, of Crowded House, and lead guitarist Mike Campbell, of the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, have been brought in to replace his copious talents.
The question fans will be asking is what impact this latest rejig will have on the integrity of the band. The rest of Fleetwood Mac remains familiar, although the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie are the only members who have been there since the beginning (lending the band their name). Vocalist Stevie Nicks joined in 1974, left in 1991 and rejoined in 1996, while singing keyboard player Christine McVie joined in 1970, left in 1998 and rejoined 2014. And who now remembers Dave Walker, vocalist for the Mac in 1972-73, who subsequently replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath for a year in 1977-78? It’s hard to imagine Sabbath and the Mac existing in the same musical universe, let alone sharing members. Perhaps given their revolving door policy, they should form a supergroup: Black Mac. Did you know that Sabbath have had eight singers and 25 members over their own 50-year career?
There is an ideal concept of a pop group as a close-knit, quasi-family unit, a perfect balance of musical personalities. It is impossible to imagine the Beatles with any other configuration than John, Paul, George and Ringo. But they were among a minority of successful bands that kept the same line-up after their first hit, who broke up when they fell out, and never reformed. The reality for most bands has turned out to be far more fluid. From The Rolling Stones to Arctic Monkeys, almost every major group still performing live after 10 years has gone through line-up changes. Indeed, it is easier to identify exceptions: ZZ Top (same line-up for 49 years), U2 (42 years), Radiohead (33 years), Coldplay (20 years) and, er, I think that’s about it.
Some groups manage these transitions more seamlessly than others. Pink Floyd became a supergroup after leader Syd Barrett was replaced by school friend David Gilmour. Genesis promoted drummer Phil Collins to frontman upon the departure of Peter Gabriel, but who now remembers when Stiltskin frontman Ray Wilson took over the microphone in 1997 for a final Genesis album that was such a critical and commercial flop they had to cancel a world tour? Some groups, including Iron Maiden, Metallica and Nirvana only reached their full artistic and commercial potential after line-up changes, so the classic version of the band is not actually the original.
There are groups who have changed their line-ups so often, there are no original members left – including The Hollies and Dr Feelgood – or have gone through so many changes they end up with competing versions arguing about who has the right to the name, including Yes, The Sweet and The Beat. Backline musicians come and go, but a distinctive singing voice and physical presence are harder to replicate, and many bands become little more than interchangeable vehicles for a frontman, including Robert Smith’s The Cure, Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins and Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.
Does that mean a band is really just a brand – a corporate vehicle on which to hang a set of songs? As a fan and regular concertgoer, I have to believe there is something more to it than that. Otherwise we might as well give up on the originals, and just go see tribute bands. In fact, there’s no reason why a reshuffle can’t offer a band a whole new lease of artistic life. That’s what makes Fleetwood Mac’s latest incarnation so intriguing. They have always sought out creative solutions to the problem of musicians departing, and Finn and Campbell are incredibly talented and successful musicians in their own rights. They don’t need to join any band to pay the mortgage; they have presumably been lured in by an opportunity to play fantastic songs and become part of an incredible saga.
I can’t wait to see the results, especially if the Mac are adventurous enough to add Finn’s gorgeous songs to the set. Stevie Nicks duetting on Don’t Dream It’s Over while Campbell rips out a tasty lead: who could resist that? Indeed, given the number of members they have had over their career, Crowded House might actually be a better name for the band.
‘It is impossible to imagine the Beatles with any other configuration than John, Paul, George and Ringo’
Go your own way: Lindsey Buckingham, right, is no longer with Fleetwood Mac