Few people in the modern era have created music as popular as songs and albums made by Lindsey Buckingham. As the musical director of Fleetwood Mac during their most successful era in the 1970s and ’80s — which includes blockbuster albums like 1977’s Rumours and 1987’s Tango In The Night — he had a hand in writing, arranging, and producing dozens of hit songs. But he also indulged an experimental, anti-commercial side on LPs like 1979’s Tusk that has proven to be surprisingly influential for several generations of indie rockers.
During the recent publicity run for his latest solo record, Lindsey Buckingham, the spry 72-year-old guitarist generated headlines after making some disparaging comments about his one-time lover and eternal foil, Stevie Nicks. But when I caught up with Buckingham last week, I was more interested in discussing his distinguished catalog spanning nearly 50 years. How easy it is to forget amid the never-ending Fleetwood Mac soap opera that this is, after all, one of the most esteemed pop-rock songwriters and musicians on the planet.
Buckingham gamely agreed to share his thoughts on 10 of his albums, spanning his life’s work both inside and outside one of the famous bands in rock history.
Buckingham Nicks (1973)
Before Stevie and I moved down to Los Angeles to get a record deal, I acquired an old Ampex AG440 4-track, which is what The Beatles used for Sgt. Pepper. I had gotten into this less formal approach to recording, where the idea is setting the architecture down on tape and playing it all yourself and sort of discovering it as you go along. That process was already fairly well fleshed out, even before we went into the studio to cut the Buckingham Nicks album. All those songs had been demoed out by me, and the lion’s share of the musical approach that you hear on the record was taken from the demos.
I think there was a very early point where I arrived at just something stylistically I could call my own. And it certainly does run through the entire body of work. You could say the same thing about the very first Fleetwood Mac album. All those songs — Stevie’s and mine at least — were demoed out in the same way. It all comes from that process of working with a tape machine, and having the writing and the recording and the architecture all sort of become one larger thing.
A song like “Frozen Love” is probably quintessential of my style — there’s a well-played acoustic part, as well as a well-played electric part. I grew up with the acoustic guitar. When I was six years old, I started teaching myself, first on a ukulele and then my parents finally got me a 3/4-sized six string. Once the first wave of rock started to ebb a little bit, folk music came in and was a natural place to pick up, in terms of the finger style and an orchestra style of playing. Sort of marrying aspects of folk guitar and perhaps a little bit of classical in there.
In the later ’60s, after I graduated from high school and got in a band, I wasn’t playing guitar. I was playing bass, but a lot of the music that was coming out was acoustic bass, such as Cat Stevens, who was a big influence on me. The electric certainly comes in — someone like Jimmy Page did so well marrying his acoustic and electric sensibilities in Led Zeppelin. But blues was never something that I gravitated to.
I didn’t play lead until much later. I’m always trying to think melodically. Even though I use distortion and delay and get a metal kind of sound, my sensibilities still harken to guitar players like Chet Atkins, who were always playing in service of the track and never were playing over it. Half the time you didn’t even notice the parts, because they became part of the architecture of the track. That was a value that I always admired. I thought it was far more difficult than someone who was just noodling over a track.
[Laughs.] You can’t get away from it. But that’s okay.
We were somewhat blown away by the success that the self-titled album had. It was our first shot out of the box, and here was a band with chemistry and synergy among the three writers. For Rumours, I had not wanted to work with Keith Olsen again because I wanted to take over more of the production duties myself. Not that I wasn’t in full force on the first album, but there were certain parameters that Keith had that I wanted to go outside of and just try to be a little bit more experimental.
I think we did know when we got done with Rumours that we had something special. We felt we had achieved not only a worthy follow-up to that first album, but also represented what we’d gone through personally. But no one could have foreseen the scale that it got to. It happened so incrementally that you’re watching it go by with a sense of amazement.
There was a period of time where we were dealing with the mega, mega success that Rumours had become. At some point, the album became more about the success than it did about the music or about the band. It was this whole phenomenon. We were really poised to fall into the trap of succumbing to external expectations, and to begin to define ourselves through a set of formulas and labels. That’s something that I think happens to a lot of bands over time. I’d always tried to think about myself as someone who wanted to be an artist in the long term. In order to do that, you’ve got to keep your sense of self, and not be influenced by what’s going on externally. That’s what made The Beatles so great. And that led, obviously, to the making of Tusk, which was a line in the sand I drew.
But if you cut to 20 years later, you begin to reclaim an album like Rumours. Maybe you’re still doing the same songs on stage, but you see three generations of people out in the audience. And you realize that maybe you did your job right.
The people who love Tusk love it for the music, but I think people probably also appreciate it for why we did it, and how it does pit itself, in a way, against Rumours. And that was intentional for me. I was ambivalent about us being poised to fall into the trap of trying to make Rumours II. Those first few albums had been all from the center out — they were driven by our own impulses and our own sense of what was right and what needed to be done. And I didn’t want to suddenly start to follow the corporate formula: “If it works, run it into the ground.” There was a lot of great music coming from the U.K. and Europe at that time, which reinforced that sense that you didn’t want to make yourself the establishment. You wanted to try to confound people’s expectations.
I took a 24 track, put it in a spare bedroom, and went back to what I was doing on my Ampex 4-track back in 1972 in order to reclaim some of the process. I started by myself in the studio and had the other members augment the tracks. So, in that context, it very much became a Lindsay Buckingham album within a Fleetwood Mac album.
After we did Tusk there was a backlash — because it didn’t sell 16 million albums — from inside the band. I realized the only way I was going to continue to follow the more left side of my palate was going to be in solo work. And it did tend to make me a bit schizoid, in terms of an identity, because you had this big machine of Fleetwood Mac, which was more to the right and drew a whole bunch more people. And then the solo work, which was where I lived and where I grew and how I wanted to keep moving forward. But you lose nine out of 10 people in the process, though the one person you don’t lose is the person you’re making it for.
Mick said, “We’re not going to do the process we did on Tusk. We’re going to go back to a more traditional thing where we all come in and we all present our songs and we all play them.” And that’s fine. Working on my own is like painting — it’s one on one. Working in the band is more like movie-making.
There was a conscious effort to try to backtrack a little bit, I think. Not for me so much, but it did leave me treading water. It’s one thing to go from the self-titled album into Rumours, because you’re just going from your gut and that’s where you are at that point. But once you take a step like Tusk, to go back to something that’s a little bit more to the right, it left me feeling like it wasn’t quite as real. Not that it isn’t a nice album. I mean, there’s so many nice things on there. But I felt a little bit disconnected during the process of making it. I let Richard Dashut, my friend and one of the co-producers, have a little more input, and I probably was less worried if something tended to become slightly more generic.
Go Insane (1984)
When I did the first solo record, Law And Order, I was still dealing with a certain level of — not necessarily disappointment — but acceptance, perhaps. I was still trying to program in the acceptance that the process that I had been employing on Tusk was now not going to be used in the band anymore. So, I think Law And Order became a little more ironic, almost more of a parody of certain things. But when you get to Go Insane, it seems to me to be a much more grounded place that I’m at. And that just comes from having gotten from point A to point B as a solo artist.
A lot of technology had emerged in the interim since the first album. Drum machines were not really around when I was making Law And Order. The original 8-bit Fairlight, which was one of the first sampled keyboards that you could get with a computer, was something that I got before I began Go Insane. That made the whole texture of the architecture on the tracks completely different. You had a million different sounds, from drums to horns to strings to voices. It wasn’t synthesized. It was all sampled. For someone who defined their creative process through this painting process, at least for solo work, that was a natural progression.
Tango In The Night (1987)
A lot of what I learned making Go Insane crossed over into Tango In The Night. But it was challenging, because everyone was starting to hit the wall with their substance and alcohol use. Everyone was pretty dysfunctional, so it was a chaotic environment. The upside to that was I was able to employ a lot of things that were just straight from me — it was recorded completely at my house — that otherwise would have had to be navigated more on a political level. But everyone was just kind of up for whatever at that point. And that was actually a help, in terms of me connecting the dots between Go Insane and Tango In The Night.
I didn’t want to do the tour, because it had been, like I said, very chaotic. It had been a big party for the year or whatever it had taken us to do that album. Mick, for most of the time, was living in a trailer in my front yard. Out of close to the year that it took us to make the album, I think we saw Stevie a handful of weeks. I was afraid to put myself in the middle of that on the road, because the road tends to be 10 times the party that the studio is.
I was happy that we had triumphed with the album and had seen it through, under what could certainly be called adverse conditions. I just felt it was time to take a little breather for me.
Out Of The Cradle (1992)
The record that was the most cathartic for me to make, because it was the product of having decided to leave the band. I wasn’t pitting it against Fleetwood Mac, but I did try to cover the ground that existed in both the solo and Fleetwood Mac worlds. It just was a little bit more all-encompassing, I think.
I played most of it, but there are a lot of bass parts by Larry Klein and some keyboards by Mitchell Froom. It gave it a slightly more refined quality. I was interested in trying to tap into that side of myself, the pop side of things, where some of my emotions were living at that time. Songs like “Soul Drifter,” which feel like little pieces of Americana to me now. The closest thing I’ll ever get to “Moon River” or something.
Under The Skin (2006)
The first solo album that I had made since Out Of The Cradle. I had tried to make a solo album somewhere in the interim. First I tried to make one not too long after Out Of The Cradle. I went in the studio with Rob Cavallo, a producer who was working at Warners at that time, and Mick Fleetwood. And that led to this whole instigation by the rest of the band of trying to get me back in Fleetwood Mac. So, we made The Dance, that live album, and did that tour. So that whole idea of a follow-up to Out Of The Cradle got put on the shelf. The band wanted to go in and make another studio album. So, much of what would have been another solo album got put on Say You Will.
I guess by the time you get to Under the Skin — 2006 or whatever it was — that had been a long gap. I had left the band and had grown a great deal in the meantime and then rejoined. And I had met my wife and gotten married and had kids. All of that was so life-changing. I felt like I had a whole new landscape to write about that wasn’t really Fleetwood Mac-based.
I really wanted to make something that felt a little more acoustic, a little more folk-based, and was a little more about letting that single guitar part do the work. “Big Love” was sort of the harbinger, the first one of those kinds of songs to transform into something quintessentially better on stage than it had been on record. “Never Going Back Again” was another. There were just a lot of reference points that had changed for me by the time I had got to Under The Skin.
Buckingham McVie (2017)
That was a long, drawn-out effort. After doing The Dance album, Christine had left the band and moved back to England. And so, at that point, it was just the four of us, and our managers all felt it would be great to do another Fleetwood Mac album. I had all this material sitting around and we got together with Mitchell Froom and he and I brainstormed on arranging. And then we cut all these tracks of mine over at his house in Santa Monica.
We cut those and in the hopes of drawing Stevie into doing a new Fleetwood Mac album. But Stevie did not want to do another Fleetwood Mac album. And I can only assume, to this day, that it’s because she didn’t have any material. Had she had songs she was happy about, why wouldn’t she have wanted to do another Fleetwood Mac album? I don’t know. But she refused to participate. So we put that on the shelf and we went ahead and toured. And then at the end of the tour in 2013, Christine reached out to Mick and asked if she could rejoin the band. And of course, we welcomed her back with open arms.
At that point, we thought we would revisit the idea of a new Fleetwood Mac album, because now Christine was sending me, from across the pond, these very rough demo ideas. And I was working them out and refining them and adding to them at my house. She only had a few, like two or three. The rest of her material on the Buckingham McVie album were basic melody ideas that I gave to her, and she wrote lyrics and refined the melodies over them. But the point is, we had round two of trying to orchestrate a new Fleetwood Mac album, and it seemed even more appropriate now that Christine was back. We were in the studio with Christine and with John and Mick again, and cut a new batch of tracks and they all sounded great. And once again, we tried to engage Stevie and Stevie still would not participate. So, Christine and I just put it out as a duet album.
I always did the same thing for Christine that I did for Stevie, in terms of her arrangements and in terms of the architecture around her songs. I mean, not quite as much as a song like “Gypsy” or a song like “Dreams” for Stevie. But still, to a very, very great degree. It was just great. She and I have always had a chemistry. We’ve always had a mutual respect and a mutual rapport.
Lindsey Buckingham (2021)
This is an album that’s been trying to see the light of day for a while. We had several false starts. Events seemed to keep conspiring against it coming out. Twice we were right at the top of rehearsals for a tour and we had to cancel. Once was when I had a health issue with the bypass. And the second time was the pandemic.
In a strange way, it seems like the subject matter on the album has taken on a slightly more visceral meaning, given what’s transpired over the last three years or so. And maybe it being self-titled actually makes a little more sense than it would have three years ago.
There are many things that are addressed having to do with the challenges of being married for a really long time or the challenges of being in a band like Fleetwood Mac, the disappointments and disillusionment side of being in a band like Fleetwood Mac. I mean, the whole album was written before all the stuff went down with Fleetwood Mac. So, all of that seems prescient now.
The idea of pitting the solo work against the Fleetwood Mac work, at this point, it’s become less of a consideration. When I started making this new album, I thought it would be appropriate to keep the experimentalism, but also to circle back around on the more accessible elements that have represented me to a broader number of people. And I think you can hear it on some songs. Like “On The Wrong Side” is certainly a nod in some way to “Go Your Own Way.” And it seems to be getting through, I mean, when people like Trent Reznor tell me they really love my new album, I’m like, “Okay, well, somehow it’s making sense.”
You’ve got to not worry about certain considerations and just try to follow your artistic heart. It’s not about what you’re going to sell, because you’re not going to sell anything. And it’s not a measure that I’ve ever wanted or been able to define myself with. Maybe because we had such an overage of it in the early days. But you have to think about filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, who’s doing exactly what he wants to do, and knows he’s not going to ever make a huge amount of money. Or even fucking Orson Welles, I mean, Citizen Kane was a flop, right?
Lindsey Buckingham is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.