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IF YOU THOUGHT that Fleetwood Mac was forever relegated to the bargain bins, dusty garage-bound depositories of vinyl and the tedium of classic-rock radio, wake up and smell the '70s. The Big Mac is back, looking and sounding improbably vital on "The Dance" -- a live recording assembled from three L.A. sound-studio concerts that the band performed earlier in the summer.

It's been 20 years since Fleetwood Mac's commercial pinnacle, the multiplatinum rumination on failed romance, "Rumours." The onetime British blues band, first assembled by singer-guitarist Peter Green, bass-player John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, has gone through many different incarnations. The only continuity from lineup to lineup was the ever-present rhythm section of McVie and Fleetwood. But the Anglo-American version that recorded "Rumours" was the most successful Fleetwood Mac of all.

This particular Fleetwood Mac -- spotlighting the vocals and songwriting of pop-wise guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, blues keyboardist Christine McVie and ethereal folkie Stevie Nicks -- has reunited for "The Dance." It's an unlikely reunion, especially when you consider how, even at their apex, the band thrived on turbulence. Buckingham and Nicks were ex-lovers; John and Christine McVie's marriage fell apart. Today, the gossip-hungry watch "Entertainment Tonight," but in the '70s, you could just watch Fleetwood Mac.

When Buckingham left the band in the mid-'80s, after a run of more than a decade, the group went on with reshuffled personnel but never came close to the tumultuous magic generated with Buckingham at the helm. Now, circumstances have brought them back together. It smacks of expedience. In their solo endeavors, Nicks and Buckingham haven't matched the commercial wallop of their tenure with Fleetwood Mac (although Buckingham's brilliant, idiosyncratic albums "Go Insane" and "Out of the Cradle" garnered critical acclaim). That said, "The Dance" is limber and lithe.

"The Dance" is now available as a pristine 17-song CD release. Meanwhile, a video special culled from the same shows has been airing regularly on MTV (with a 22-song home video version due in mid-September). It's a kind of greatest-hits compilation, with a few new songs tossed in. But many of the most familiar numbers are reworked with new arrangements (i.e. Nicks harmonizing with Buckingham on the verses of "Go Your Own Way" and Buckingham performing "Big Love" as a solo) or instrumentation (i.e. a banjo on "Say You Love Me" and the USC Marching Band on "Don't Stop"). Buckingham's near-rockabilly rave-up, "My Little Demon," is the standout of the previously unheard material.

What is most surprising about "The Dance" is the exuberance and warmth of the band after all this time apart. It is particularly evident on video (as in an embrace between Buckingham and Nicks after a tender duet on "Landslide"). In this case, absence has surely generated fondness. And it is remarkable how well the older songs have held up over time. Nicks' "Silver Springs," with exquisite shadings from Buckingham's guitar, is simply lovely. Christine McVie's ballads are uplifting and sung with genuine passion. And Buckingham is a wonder, particularly when attacking his own compositions.

Currently, the quintet is preparing for a fall American concert tour. Buckingham, holed up in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, took some time to chat in frank fashion with Salon about the return of the Big Mac.

You're a decade removed from the band and, reportedly, your departure was not on the best of terms. How did you get back together?

I had been working on another solo record and had tried cutting stuff with the band that I had been using on the road. I wasn't happy with the results and around that time, I ran into Mick, who was in a good place, so I asked him to play drums on my record. By that time I had already done an album that wasn't a sidebar to Fleetwood Mac, and I had a certain amount of confidence. Then I got John in on bass. Christine was giving help on the singing side and had added some keyboard. And it was like a light bulb went off at Warner Brothers. Maybe the time is right for this thing. I guess the big bulb went off with Mick, too. Mick's life is Fleetwood Mac. He's been there through all the different lineups. Having him work on my record was a way to get him off the road after the debacle of the Dave Mason/Becca Bramlett version [of Fleetwood Mac].

What do you think about Fleetwood Mac's longevity and all the different versions of the band? Did it bother you to see them going on after you set a standard and left?

It was really disturbing when they wound up on a nostalgia tour triple-bill package as the middle act between Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon. Mick could rationalize it, because continuing the band was the same thing he had done after Peter Green had left. That's when Christine joined. Then, Stevie and I joined.

So now you're back with the quintessential version of the band. What made you think this would be a good idea?

For my part, I had made a lot of changes in my life. I was done with my girlfriend after 12 years, the last few being especially difficult. I had new management and new lawyers. And I had gotten past all the things I'd seen as baggage with Fleetwood Mac. So there was this pitch to do the band again. I went from being this solo artist, struggling to get an album out there every four or five years, to starting over with the monolith. "Fleetwood Mac" -- they're the magic words that just open doors. As soon as the word gets out that this Fleetwood Mac is back, MTV wants to do a special, the Hollywood Bowl is calling for a concert date, and so on. I'm interested in perpetuating a career on my own, but for this, I don't have to do a lot or commit a lot. And it could open doors for my stuff down the road. It'll remind people what I do. My album can wait a year.

You seem somewhat ambivalent about postponing your solo album. Why?

If I wanted to keep making the albums that I wanted to make, I had to keep the machine stoked. I think the new album I'm working on is the best thing I've ever done, and I'm gonna take some recording equipment with me on the road. But when you sell "only" 300,000 copies an album, the company starts to apply a little pressure. There have been moments when it's felt a little overwhelming.

When I'm making a record, it's usually done bit by bit, by me, like the way Beck works. You can't listen to Beck and say, "What musicianship!" But it's still great. It's like painting -- painting the corners of the canvas, letting the painting lead you. But it can lead you to some second-guessing. There's not a lot of people giving you feedback or constructive criticism, which can be an obstacle. But if you have a vision, you try to realize it. For instance, I have a version of "My Little Demon" that I recorded at home that's much rawer and more surreal than what it became when I turned it over to the band.

With Fleetwood Mac, it blows my mind how easily things can get done. It was eye-opening when I did my own tour and the brown-nosing radio junket for "Out of the Cradle." You have to marvel at the lack of interest in anything that isn't already a big radio success. Even someone with a good track record can come up against indifference. It's a lesson in appreciating aspects of what you had. I was watching the actress Holly Hunter on television the other day. She said that you can't always make the movies you wanna make if you want a long-term career. You have to compromise.

How do you and the rest of the band members feel about this project?

There's a whole element of buoyancy in what we're doing now. We're seeing through all of the history and getting to the basic chemistry we have together. There's something intuitively musical, without that baggage. It's been sweet instead of bittersweet. I'm having a better time now than I did for the entire 12 years we were together. And they know I've only committed to only 40-odd dates in the U.S. They can't make me the bad guy if they wanna go to Europe.

What's the reaction been so far?

After viewing the concert video, an MTV executive wrote a really nice letter. And he was surprisingly honest. He said something like, "We didn't think you could play anymore. It blew our minds." There's been a lot of good feedback.

What makes this any different, or less crass, than other reunion tours, such as those by the Eagles, Kiss or Styx?

You expect that people will be cynical. At least, there's going to be a faction that is cynical. I was cynical myself about the Eagles reunion, much less the Kiss reunion. Watching the Eagles, I don't sense that Don [Henley] and Glenn [Frey] are enjoying themselves, nor is there a sense of closure. I'm not saying that our reunion doesn't follow a formula. I'm surprised I'm doing it. A year ago, I would've said, "What? Are you crazy?" I had to weigh the pros and cons of doing this. But the amount of cynicism around this is much less than I would have thought. I'm surprised we are enjoying it as much as we are. But there seems to be a truth to what we're doing.
Aug. 29, 1997