To be John McVie is to be Fleetwood Mac’s That Guy. Not the instantly recognisable 7-foot-tall drummer who’s on the record covers, bald on top, long at the back, with the nose. Not one of the two crazy, glamorous American singer-songwriters. Not the other singer-songwriter who gets her turn alone at the piano. The other one.
To be John McVie is to have an unerring sense of the right thing to play, all the time. To be able to take a two-note heartbeat pattern and make an instantly recognisable signature out of it.
To be John McVie is to be a yeoman, whose qualities are possibly only properly realised by that lanky drummer, the guy who’s been with you through good times and bad for 48 years now.
The sweetest moment in the excellent Classic Albums documentary on Rumours is when Mick Fleetwood is sitting next to the album’s producer Ken Caillat while the latter picks apart the mix of Go Your Own Way to highlight Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing. Fleetwood suddenly hears McVie’s bass as if with fresh ears.
“Listen to John! Listen! It’s like a whole orchestra going on. He’s creating the whole counter—”
“It’s that magic,” says Caillat, shrugging.
Fleetwood then does what I can only assume is a McVie impression, sort of singing along with his bass line before adding his final word on the subject.
“You’re a monster, John!”
Monster or yeoman, McVie is crucial to the band’s sound and no bass pattern is more synonymous with John McVie than the heartbeat pattern he plays on crucial Mac track Dreams from Rumours (as well as Sara from Tusk, Say You Love Me from Fleetwood Mac, and Gypsy and Hold Me from Mirage and probably more that I’m not thinking of right now). Locked in tight with Fleetwood’s bass drum, the string is picked on the one and the three, and on the quaver before the three and before the next one, like this:
It’s undemonstrative, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it supports the vocal while giving the song a subtle internal push, and at some point most bassists have found themselves playing this pattern along with the drummer. Yet when Fleetwood and McVie do it, it just cooks. These guys could never do anything else and I’d still want to hear them do it.
A new song!