What can a band do when its last album is still in the charts selling millions of copies? Make another, of course. Bank accounts, record company, management, everybody’s happy. Right?
To Lindsey Buckingham, things weren’t that simple. That’s not what he was aiming for. A story about innovation after Rumours, the bestselling album at the end of the 1970s. Tusk was the successor, a double album no less.
The Fleetwood Mac line-up consisting of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood had released two albums since 1975. The first, titled Fleetwood Mac served as a template for what was about to come in 1977. The divorce record of the 1970s, soft-rock, that sold over 10 million copies with a year in the US alone. Rumours smashed every record and catapulted Fleetwood Mac straight into the heart of the pop music landscape. The album was immensely beautiful, immaculately produced and filled with beautiful, moving and real songs about the loss of a partner, relationship and solid ground. Sorrow packaged in FM radio perfection.
With success came money, money and more money, immediately followed by (it was the 1970s after all) drugs and booze. The band dove right in. Maybe more importantly, the band had earned their freedom. Warner Bros., the company the band had signed a deal with, was okay with everything, as long as money kept rolling in, which it did, truckload after truckload.
In the studio
So when the band went to work on the successor in the beginning of 1978, the band could do whatever they wanted. Well everything, Warner Bros. refused to pay for a Fleetwood Mac owned (new) studio, but gave the go-ahead for rebuilding/remodeling Studio D at the The Village Recorder in Los Angeles. The band would practically live there for 14 months. During that time no-one in the band had any contact whatsoever with Warner Bros. and costs escalated to over $ 1 Million, which made it the most expensive record of all time (according to Buckingham because “we happened to be in a studio that was charging a fuck of a lot of money”).
Relationship antics, again
Rumours had been a record with the troubling story of the collapse of the couples Christine McVie/John McVie and Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks, played out in public. However, little had changed surrounding the recordings of Tusk: Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood had a secret relationship, Mick Fleetwood’s wife had an affair with former band member Bob Weston, Christine McVie with a lighting designer followed by Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and Mick Fleetwood hooked up with Stevie Nicks’ best friend (who happened to be married at the time). Meanwhile, cocaine and booze were available (and in use) in obscene quantities. To cut it short, one big happy dysfunctional family.
Early on it was decided that Rumours‘ successor would be a double album. In the meantime, Buckingham wasn’t merely influenced by the workings of new bands like Talking Heads, he was obsessed. He wanted desperately to steer away from making Rumours II. However, he nearly lost his mind in doing so. Buckingham:
I was losing a great deal of myself. My thought was, let’s subvert the norm. Let’s slow the tape machine down, or speed it up, or put the mike on the bathroom floor and sing and beat on, uh, a Kleenex box! My mind was racing.
Producer Ken Caillat said:
He was a maniac. The first day, I set the studio up as usual. Then he said, ‘Turn every knob 180 degrees from where it is now and see what happens.’ He’d tape microphones to the studio floor and get into a sort of push-up position to sing. Early on, he came in and he’d freaked out in the shower and cut off all his hair with nail scissors. He was stressed.
The other band members weren’t too happy about it and were genuinely concerned for Buckingham’s mental health, who seemed to use Tusk to fight his demons. He cradled it like it was his own child (to be honest, so did the band). That’s probably one of the reasons the band were completely done with Tusk when it was finally finished. The sessions that went for hours and hours on end where Buckingham as looking for a sound that he couldn’t quite reach, were finally over.
On October 12th, 1979, the 12th studio album by Fleetwood Mac was released, the 3rd album by the most successful line-up of the band. I read somewhere that John McVie thought the album sounded like one album by 3 solo artists. He is not wrong, 5 songs are by Stevie Nicks, 6 by Christine McVie and 9 by Lindsey Buckingham. The Stevie Nicks songs are typically Stevie Nicks: dreamy, elf-like and from another, rather timeless, world. The Christine McVie songs resemble the ones on Rumours the most and are a bit predictable. The reputation the album holds is primarily attributed to the Lindsey Buckingham songs, which sound harsh and at time even angry and/or bitter.
Going by the songs on the album it turned into a post-punk, soft East coast rock album. It’s the problem and the beauty of it, all at once. A number of songs are tear inducing good, but unfortunately the album also contains songs that shouldn’t have made the cut, even though they are only a few.
The album starts off with Over & Over, that fits the Rumours path like a glove. However, the next song, the jagged, fast The Ledge proves this is not that album. The better songs on the album would have made one killer-album, almost the standard issue when it comes to double albums. There are only a few double albums that are of a constant level from start to finish (The Clash’s London Calling and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times are exceptions).
For me, the problem lies with the Christine McVie songs, that don’t add too much to the band’s body of work and fit the Rumours mold too much. When half of the songs are omitted, a truly perfect album remains, arguably even better than Rumours. Make a playlist in Spotify (or some other streaming service) containing The Ledge , Save Me A Place, Sara, That’s All For Everyone, Not That Funny, That’s Enough for Me, I Know I’m Not Wrong, Beautiful Child, Walk A Thin Line and Tusk and experience the definite Tusk tracklist.
No less than 6 singles were culled from the album:
(released: September 1979)
(released: December 1979)
- Not That Funny
(released: February 1980)
- Think About Me
(released: March 1980)
- Sisters of the Moon
(released: June 1980)
(released: July 1980)
Sara in particular was a global hit, which more or less had the potential of selling a large quantity of albums as well.
- Over & Over *
- The Ledge ^
- Think About Me *
- Save Me A Place ^
- Sara #
- What Makes You Think You’re The One ^
- Storms #
- That’s All For Everyone ^
- Not That Funny ^
- Sisters Of the Moon #
- Angel #
- That’s Enough For Me ^
- Brown Eyes *
- Never Make Me Cry *
- I Know I’m Not Wrong ^
- Honey Hi *
- Beautiful Child #
- Walk A Thin Line ^
- Tusk ^
- Never Forget *
* Christine McVie
^ Lindsey Buckingham
# Stevie Nicks
Tusk fared rather poorly when compared to Rumours, and didn’t reach the number 1 position in the (American) charts. Many reviewers subscribed to John McVie’s view that it resembled an album by three solo artists. The reception of the Lindsey Buckingham songs versus the Stevie Nicks/Christine McVie songs was a tie at 50-50 preference amongst reviewed. The album’s production received many accolades.
DECEMBER 13, 1979
By Stephen Holden
At a cost of two years and well over a million dollars, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk represents both the last word in lavish California studio pop and a brave but tentative lurch forward by the one Seventies group that can claim a musical chemistry as mysteriously right — though not as potent — as the Beatles’. In its fits and starts and restless changes of pace, Tusk inevitably recalls the Beatles’ “White Album” (1968), the quirky rock jigsaw puzzle that showed the Fab Four at their artiest and most indecisive.
Like “The White Album,” Tusk is less a collection of finished songs than a mosaic of pop-rock fragments by individual performers. Tusk‘s twenty tunes — nine by Lindsey Buckingham, six by Christine McVie, five by Stevie Nicks — constitute a two-record “trip” that covers a lot of ground, from rock & roll basics to a shivery psychedelia reminiscent of the band’s earlier Bare Trees and Future Games to the opulent extremes of folk-rock arcana given the full Hollywood treatment. “The White Album” was also a trip, but one that reflected the furious social banging around at the end of the Sixties. Tusk is much vaguer. Semiprogrammatic and nonliterary, it ushers out the Seventies with a long, melancholy sigh.
On a song-by-song basis, Tusk‘s material lacks the structural concision of the finest cuts on Fleetwood Mac and Rumours. Though there are no compositions with the streamlined homogeneity of “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun” or “Go Your Own Way,” there are many fragments as striking as the best moments in any of these numbers.
If Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks were the most memorable voices on Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, Lindsey Buckingham is Tusk‘s artistic linchpin. The special thanks to him on the back of the LP indicates that he was more involved with Tusk‘s production than any other group member. Buckingham’s audacious addition of a gleeful and allusive slapstick rock & roll style — practically the antithesis of Fleetwood Mac’s Top Forty image — holds this mosaic together, because it provides the crucial changes of pace without which Tusk would sound bland.
“Not That Funny,” “What Makes You Think You’re the One,” “That’s Enough for Me” and “The Ledge” affect a rock & roll simplicity and directness that are strongly indebted to Buddy Holly, an obvious idol of Buckingham’s. These songs have the sound and spontaneity of beautifully engineered basement tapes. A bit more sophisticated yet still relatively spare, “Save Me a Place” boasts closely harmonized, un-gimmicky ensemble voices and acoustic textures that underline the tune’s British folk flavor. But Buckingham’s most intriguing contribution is Tusk‘s title track, an aural collage that pits African tribal drums, the USC Trojan Marching Band and some incantatory group vocals against a backdrop of what sounds like thousands of wild dogs barking. “Tusk” is Fleetwood Mac’s “Revolution 9.”
The calculated crudeness of Buckingham’s rock & roll forays both undercuts and improves Tusk‘s elaborately produced segments. And several of these segments demonstrate that the limits of the California studio sound, developed in the Sixties by Lou Adler and Brian Wilson for the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys, have at last been reached. Fleetwood Mac has arrived at the point where technologically inspired filigree begins to break down rather than enhance music, where expensive playback equipment is not only desirable for appreciation but necessary for comprehension. In McVie’s “Over & Over” and Nicks’ “Storms,” the production goes too far, and the tracks quiver with an eerie electronic vibrato.
The basic style of Tusk‘s “produced” cuts is a luxuriant choral folk-rock — as spacious as it is subtle — whose misty swirls are organized around incredibly precise yet delicate rhythm tracks. Instead of using the standard pop embellishments (strings, synthesizers, horns, etc.), the bulk of the sweetening consists of hovering instrumentation and background vocals massively layered to approximate strings. This gorgeous, hushed, ethereal sound was introduced to pop with 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” and Fleetwood Mac first used it in Rumours’ “You Make Loving Fun.” On Tusk, it’s the band’s signature. Buckingham’s most commercial efforts — the chiming folk ballads, “That’s All for Everyone” and “Walk a Thin Line” — deploy a choir in great dreamy waves. In McVie’s “Brown Eyes,” the blending of voices, guitars and keyboards into a plaintive “sha-la-la” bridge builds a mere scrap of a song into a magnificent castle in the air. “Brown Eyes” sounds as it if were invented for the production, rather than nice versa.
About the only quality that Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie share is a die-hard romanticism. On Tusk, Nicks sounds more than ever like a West Coast Patti Smith. Her singing is noticeably hoarser than on Rumours, though she makes up some of what she’s lost in control with a newfound histrionic urgency: “Angel” is an especially risky flirtation with hard rock. Nicks’ finest compositions here are two lovely ballads, “Beautiful Child” and “Storms.” Her other contributions, “Sara” and “Sisters of the Moon,” weave personal symbolism and offbeat mythology into a near-impenetrable murk. There’s a fine line between the exotic and the bizarre, and this would-be hippie sorceress skirts it perilously.
McVie is as dour and terse as Nicks is excitable and verbose. Her two best songs — “Never Forget,” a folk-style march, and “Never Make Me Cry,” a mournful lullaby — are lovely little gems of romantic ambiance. With a pure, dusky alto that’s reminiscent of Sandy Denny, this woeful woman-child who’s in perpetual pursuit of “daddy” evokes a timeless sadness.
The wonder of Fleetwood Mac’s chemistry is that the casting of these two less-than-major talents in pop music’s answer to Gone with the Wind elevates them to the stature of stormy rock & roll heroines — one compelled to reach for the stars, the other condemned to wander the earth. Within the context of the group, we not only accept these women’s excesses and limitations, we cherish them as indispensable ingredients of their characters.
The aura of romance is finally the real substance of Fleetwood Mac’s music. If the band has an image, it’s one of wealthy, talented, bohemian cosmopolites futilely toying with shopworn romantic notions in the face of the void. Such an elegant gossamer lilt is also synonymous with the champagne buzz of late-Seventies amour. But perhaps, as Tusk‘s ominous title cut and other songs suggest, in today’s climate of material depletion and lurking disorder, the center of things — including Fleetwood Mac themselves — cannot hold. Plagued by internal conflicts and challenged by New Wave rock, this psychedelically tinted folk-rock tribe might well be the last and most refined of a breed of giddy celebrants who, from the early Sixties on, prospered on the far shore of the promised land as they toasted the pure splendor of a beautiful and possibly frivolous pop dream.
Can this dream survive the economic chill of the Eighties? How far can Lindsey Buckingham’s rock & roll primitivism carry Fleetwood Mac when folk music, not rock, is really the basis of their style, and when erotic fluctuation remains their central preoccupation?
Tusk finds Fleetwood Mac slightly tipsy from jet lag and fine wine, teetering about in the late-afternoon sun and making exquisite small talk. Surely, they must all be aware of the evanescence of the golden moment that this album has captured so majestically.
Apart from the fact that Tusk didn’t cut it commercially the way Warner Bros. had hoped, the music industry as a whole had reached an impasse. Sales number were declining and hopes for better times (or less worse times) for the new Fleetwood Mac were imminent. So when the band presented Tusk, Warner Bros.’ president Mo Ostin told Mick Fleetwood:
You’re insane doing a double album at this time. The business is fucked, we’re dying the death, we can’t sell records, and this will have to retail at twice the normal price. It’s suicide.
I remember reading that the downfall of the music industry at the end of the 1970s was partly blamed on Fleetwood Mac, and Lindsey Buckingham in particular.
So, how bad was Tusk? Well, not at all. It did sell millions of copies and earned the band some hits. And most importantly, half of the songs were magnificent and about 5 songs were instant classics and highlights within the band’s body of work. Not bad for a band that was high on cocaine, filled with in-between relationship turmoil and faced an impossible task upon starting the Tusk project: make the world forget about Rumours.
With songs like Sara and Save Me A Place this album deserves all the praise it can get. Both songs are beautiful and moving and will stay with me forever.
Even though the band had had enough of each other when recordings for Tusk were done, the band went on a 9 month trek all over the world. While on tour, shows were recorded and parts were released on the Fleetwood Mac album Live, which was released on December 8th, 1980.
What do you think of Tusk? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Fleetwood Mac after Rumours, the only way is Tusk?. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk Tour image: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours image: nme.com
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – Ad image: kqed.org
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk & Fleetwood Mac – Live images: amazon.com
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – Singles image: dutchcharts.nl/apoplife.nl
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – Press kit image: glidemagazine.com
Rolling Stone Magazine Logo image: srds.com