Christine McVie used to play at our Cambridge blues night. We were all besotted | Stephen Burgen

We’d book Chicken Shack in a room above a pub for £30. And in a male-dominated scene, the shy singer proved her worth with a magical voice

When I met Christine McVie she was still Christine Perfect, the singer and piano player in the band Chicken Shack. I say “met” – this amounted to me plugging in her microphone, bringing her a glass of water and shyly thanking her at the end of the gig at the Juniper Blossom blues club that I helped run when I was 15 and still at school.

The blues boom was in full swing and Chicken Shack, led by guitarist Stan Webb, had a big following at the time: along with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, they were one of the top UK blues bands. The club was in a room above the Red Cow pub in Cambridge and its driving force was Jack Monck, who was older than me but also still at school. It was a small room with a low stage against one wall, and because of the size we could never afford any bands that charged more than £30. One thing we liked about Chicken Shack was that they charged £30, so we booked them several times. (Jack also tried to book what was then Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac but as I recall they wanted £50, which was out of our price range.)

Chicken Shack were a solid blues band, nothing very original. In fact, Christine was quoted later as saying they were “a not very good blues band”. But they had her, a rarity in a very male scene. While the guys would lean back grimacing like wounded warriors as they hit the top frets, she sat at the piano, often with her eyes closed and let that beautiful voice of hers fly. For a while Christine had a massive bubble perm. She looked fabulous and I was besotted. We all were. She was obviously shy and each time we booked the band I vowed to talk to her, but I was even shyer, and besides, I was just a kid.

Chicken Shack: I’d Rather Go Blind – video

The music scene back then was very primitive and chaotic and we were no exception. There were no sound desks and it was a case of plug in the amps and hope for the best, which often wasn’t very good at all. As complete amateurs, we had constant problems with feedback and blown fuses, which annoyed the bands and the punters. There was no money in it and we only did it out of love for the music.

There was a whole music and creative culture in Cambridge then that had no connection with the university. Some of it, such as Pink Floyd and the Hipgnosis design collective, came out of Cambridge’s art scene. Others, like our little club, worked the blues and psychedelic fringe. There was a lot of inter-connection between the bands on that circuit, or at least the ones we could afford to book. One regular was Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, so called because he’d been sacked as John Mayall’s drummer. Mayall replaced him with Mick Fleetwood. Dunbar also played with the American blues singer and pianist Eddie Boyd, who also did a gig at the Juniper Blossom.

It seems hard to believe that a couple of kids were allowed to run a blues club in a pub when neither of us was even 18. Sometimes, I wonder if I imagined it all. What did the bands and the booking agents think about being booked by teenagers? I hadn’t even started to shave.

It was a magical time and yet it was over in a moment. Chicken Shack and Fleetwood Mac both recorded on the Blue Horizon label and toured together and in 1968, Christine married Fleetwood Mac’s bassist, John McVie. Two years later, she left Chicken Shack to join Fleetwood Mac. I dropped out of school and went to live in Montreal. Jack married Jenny Spires, my sister’s best friend, who used to be the girlfriend of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett: they started dating when she was 15, and Barrett’s song Bike is about Jenny.

And Christine became a megastar. Did I see that coming? I probably didn’t think about it. I just loved to see her at the piano in a haze of tobacco and weed smoke, head thrown back, singing: “I would rather go blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me.”

• Stephen Burgen is a Guardian reporter based in Spain.


Stephen Burgen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mother Earth, musical prodigy or steely powerhouse? The enigma of Christine McVie
Through Fleetwood Mac’s most turbulent times, she held the line – and wrote some of their most beautiful, bittersweet songs. We pay tribute to Christine McVie

Alexis Petridis

01, Dec, 2022 @3:51 PM

Article image
Christine McVie: her 10 greatest recordings with Fleetwood Mac and solo
Don’t Stop, Everywhere, Little Lies – the late singer-songwriter, who has died aged 79, was responsible for some of the soft-rock canon’s greatest hits

Annie Zaleski

01, Dec, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie: ‘Cocaine and champagne made me perform better’
As she releases a compilation of her solo work, the writer and singer of some of Fleetwood Mac’s biggest hits answers your questions on excess, infighting and Joe Cocker joining her wedding night

As told to Dave Simpson

09, Jun, 2022 @1:30 PM

Article image
More memories of Christine McVie and the Juniper Blossom blues club | Letters
Letter: On one of the several occasions that we booked them, the whole band came to stay at my mother’s house after the gig, writes Jack Monck

06, Dec, 2022 @6:36 PM

Article image
‘I would probably be delighted’ – how Christine McVie opened up about wanting to rejoin Fleetwood Mac
For a fan, interviewing the late musician was like a surreal dream. Better still was the privilege of hearing about her lifelong friendship with Stevie Nicks

Tim Jonze

02, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Christine McVie obituary
Fleetwood Mac singer and keyboardist who wrote many of the band’s canonical tunes, including Say You Love Me, Songbird and Don’t Stop

Caroline Sullivan

01, Dec, 2022 @11:47 AM

Article image
Farewell to Christine McVie, who gave us music for all time
The Fleetwood Mac singer songwriter, who died last week, is among a select group whose music is culturally indelible

Barbara Ellen

04, Dec, 2022 @7:30 AM

Article image
Hipgnosis buys rights to songs of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie
Move means company owns the rights to 48 of the 68 songs on the group’s most successful albums

Mark Sweney

09, Aug, 2021 @12:54 PM

Article image
‘See you on the other side’: musicians pay tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie
Neil Finn, Haim, Questlove, the Doors and Fleetwood Mac bandmates Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood among those to remember a ‘beautiful presence’

Laura Snapes and Sian Cain

01, Dec, 2022 @12:40 AM

Article image
Post your questions for Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie
As her solo material is compiled, the singer and writer of hits including Little Lies and Everywhere will take on your queries

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

01, Jun, 2022 @12:50 PM