Music

Remembering Fleetwood Mac’s Last Live Run Without Lindsey Buckingham On The ‘Shake The Cage’ Tour

Getty Image

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

You know that old saying, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” Yeah, maybe someone should let the members of Fleetwood Mac in on that bit of sage wisdom. This year, Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, and John McVie will hit the road once again to delight basketball arenas full of fans around the country with a bevy of the biggest hits that FM radio has ever spawned. Not included among the lineup is the band’s longtime musical director, singer-guitarist extraordinaire Lindsey Buckingham, who was given his walking paper by the rest of Fleetwood Mac a few months back for reportedly wanting to delay the run by half a year. If that seems petty, you certainly aren’t attuned to the drama-filled history of this legendary band.

“We were supposed to go into rehearsal in June and he wanted to put it off until November [2019],” Nicks told Rolling Stone. “We arrived at the impasse of hitting a brick wall,” Fleetwood added. “This was not a happy situation for us in terms of the logistics of a functioning band. To that purpose, we made a decision that we could not go on with him. Majority rules in term of what we need to do as a band and go forward.”

The interesting thing is that Fleetwood Mac’s Buckingham-less run in 2018 draws an extraordinary amount of parallels between the last time the group chose to soldier on and hit the road without him 30 years ago for their Shake The Cage tour. By the spring of 1987, the guitarist was bone-tired having spent the last 18 months of his life re-working what was supposed to have been his next solo record into a full-on, Fleetwood Mac album titled Tango In The Night. It was a massive struggle just to get the thing put to bed, thanks in large part to the non-interest of his one-time paramour Stevie Nicks, who only showed up on rare occasions, seemingly far more concerned with promoting her own solo album at the time Rock A Little. Even when she as available, the results were not encouraging.

“They were recording at Lindsey’s house up on Mulholland somewhere,” Nicks remembered. “He lived there with his girlfriend Cheri and this record was being recorded at his house and I didn’t find that to be a great situation for me. Especially coming out of rehab. I guess I didn’t go very often and when I did go I would get like, ‘Give me a shot of brandy and let me sing on four or five songs off the top of my head.’”

“It was a very difficult record to make,” Buckingham told Uncut. “Half the time Mick was falling asleep. We spent a year on the record but we only saw Stevie for a few weeks. I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.” It’s true, for the song “When I See You Again,” for example, Buckingham had to finish out the vocal himself after the bridge when Nicks wasn’t able.

Despite the fractured recording process, the fatigue, addictions and demons that dogged the band throughout this period, Tango In The Night was a huge, commercial success. With fifteen million copies sold, it ranks second only to Rumours as Fleetwood Mac’s best-selling album while also spawning two, top ten singles, “Big Love,” and “Little Lies.” Given how succesful the record turned out to be, the next logical step, of course, would be to book a tour, but Lindsey had had enough and told the group as much.

“That was the worst recording experience of my life,” he recalled. “And compared to making an album, in my experience, going on the road will multiply the craziness by times five. I just wasn’t up for that. I needed to pull out of the machine and try to maintain a level of integrity for the work that wasn’t about the scale or the sales.”

Needless to say, the rest of Fleetwood Mac did not take Buckingham’s decision well and tried for months to change his mind with various accommodations, including acquiescing to his request to beef up the live lineup with a variety of studio players to really bring the Tango songs to life. In the end, all the effort was for naught. The band held a meeting at Christine McVie’s house in August to plot their upcoming tour, which is where the guitarist hit them with the news. “I flew off of the couch and across the room to seriously attack him,” Nicks told Classic Rock. “And I did. I’m not real scary but I grabbed him which almost got me killed.” A chase through McVie’s house ensued that eventually made its way out into the streets, before Buckingham finally left for good; for now.

It was Fleetwood, who’d navigated his namesake band through a multitude of different lineup changes far before Buckingham and Nicks entered the scene, that decided that they should proceed without him. “I went: ‘We’re not stopping,’” he recalled. “And literally within a week, I convinced everyone that we should not stop and have this be a catastrophic non-event and have no promotion for the album.”

The Shake The Cage tour was already on the books with the first date scheduled to go down in Kansas City on September 30, 1987. Fleetwood and company acted fast to search for a replacement who could handle all of Buckingham’s complicated parts. When they couldn’t find one man for the job, they instead decided to pull in two, rockabilly singer Billy Burnette to handle the vocals and Rick Vito, a session musicians who’d worked with Fleetwood on the drummer’s album I’m Not Me to take care of the lead guitar parts. As it happens, they pulled the same move in 2018, enlisting Tom Petty’s right-hand man Mike Campbell to play guitar and Crowded House’s Neil Finn to sing. Whether Buckingham feels any ill-will toward his former band members for kicking him out (and honestly, he probably does), there’s got to be at least a small bit of satisfaction knowing that it took two guys to do the job he’d done all by himself for the past 40 years.

Despite Lindsey’s absence, fans still came out in droves to see Fleetwood Mac and paid top dollar for the privilege, a fact that no doubt stuck in the back of the group’s mind as they plotted their upcoming tour in the present. In addition to Burnette and Vito, the band also brought along Nicks’ backup singers, Lori Nicks and Sharon Celani as well as a Ghanian percussionist Isaac Asante, who’d just come off the road backing Paul Simon on his Graceland tour, to help fill out and diversify the sound. They played over forty shows throughout North America in 1987, including two nights at the Cow Palace in San Francisco that were filmed, edited, and released on a cheesy VHS titled Fleetwood Mac: Tango in the Night. Even more impressively, the band sold out Wembley Arena in London a staggering nine times during the European leg in May and June of 1988. At the Rock am Ring Festival in Nürburg, Germany, a mind-boggling 80,000 people showed up to watch the group bring to life their set of old favorites and new hits.

As much as the band and their fans tried to put Buckingham in the back of their minds, his distinctive playing style, unique voice and the not-so-subtle psychodrama that normally played out onstage between him and Nicks were missed. As Rolling Stone critic David Wild wrote in his review of the band’s show at the Capital Centre in Maryland on October 8, 1987: “There were moments when Burnette’s and Vito’s attempts to re-create Buckingham’s idiosyncratic vocals and guitar flourishes became a bit annoying.” Even Fleetwood had to admit in his memoir Play On that something was missing. “Rick doesn’t play anything like Lindsey,” he wrote. “But he and Billy together found a style that worked very well without stomping on Lindsey’s toes.” Then, he added a telling piece of advice that Campbell and Finn would be wise to heed: “No one should try to pull off what Lindsey does; it’s forbidden territory.”

Based on the revenue they’d drawn in from the tour, Fleetwood, the two McVies, and Nicks could almost be forgiven for thinking there was a future for Fleetwood Mac with Burnette’s and Vito in the fold as permanent members. There wasn’t. While the subsequent album, Behind The Mask, that particular collection of musicians created together and released in 1990 wasn’t a flop, it failed to reach the lofty commercial and critical heights the band had been used to receiving up to that point, even with Buckingham contributing some acoustic guitar on the title track. After a tour supporting that particular record was over, both Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Vito decided they wanted out.

At the same time, Lindsey channeled most of his own hurt feelings about his time in Fleetwood Mac into a solo album titled Out Of The Cradle, that took him roughly five years to complete. Unlike Fleetwood Mac, who fans were modestly interested in hearing without Lindsey Buckingham, it turns out practically no one was interested in hearing Lindsey Buckingham without Fleetwood Mac. Out Of The Cradle topped out at No. 128 on the Billboard album charts before disappearing completely. Nevertheless, the singer described the process of creating the album as a cathartic one, and when the opportunity came up to perform alongside his old bandmates for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1992, he decided to take part. Five years later, and after few more bumps in the road, he was officially back in, taking part in a widely successful full-scale tour, just like the one he’d spurned a decade earlier.

Looking back on the entire affair that led to Lindsey’s departure years later, Fleetwood took ownership for maybe asking too much from the guitarist while failing to appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears he was pouring into the music. “I can’t speak for him but Lindsey must have felt like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, sitting at home while the great album he’d made was out there, being performed by the rest of his band,” he wrote in Play On. “I expected Lindsey to view [Tango In The Night] as his baby, so I never imagined that he would walk away without taking his work on the road.”

×