Album A&E is a new series in which we revisit underrated or misunderstood albums and give them some much-needed rehabilitation. Here’s a look at Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’.
It’s an oft re-told story but it’s a goodie, so I’ll repeat it here. According to Fletwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, when Warner Brothers first heard ‘Tusk’, the follow up to the massive selling ‘Rumours’, they “saw their Christmas bonuses going out the window.”
Remember this was the higher echelons of the record ‘biz’ as it was in 1979; spoilt, self-satisfied, basking in the glow of a year that had seen disco take hold of charts (and with unlikely four-to-the-floor hits from Blondie and ABBA) and the soft rock of ELO and Supertramp dominate.
In this context, it’s no surprise that on hearing the abrasive, lo-fi tones contained within the four sides of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ that Warner Brothers top brass thought twice about those skiing holidays in Aspen.
Buckingham saw that as soon as ‘Rumours’ (in its role as pop culture phenomenon) became brain meltingly big, the actual music being made became less important, fading into the background.
He said: “The whole idea of refuting the machinery can be viewed as more than a little awkward. You sell 16 million albums, like we did, and you’ve set that machinery in motion for next time.” And while the machinery was ready for a ‘Rumours’ sequel, he was not.
Along with his usual diet of Beach Boys and The Kingston Trio, unofficial “musical director” of the band Buckingham was listening to The Clash and Talking Heads. Taking the DIY ethos of punk and new wave to heart, he found himself delivering a vocal take from the comfort of his bathroom floor and banging away on empty Kleenex boxes to get the drum sound he wanted.
You can hear these effects on the scraggy cowpunk of ‘The Ledge’ and the mutant beast that is the title track. The brilliance of ‘Tusk’ is that although it cost over a $1 million to make (unheard of at the time), it sounds like it was recorded on an old tape. An old tape which got left out in the rain, got run over by a bus and then lovingly pieced back together by elves.
But Buckingham wasn’t the only one who’d had an extreme reaction to the massive fame ‘Rumours’ brought. Stevie Nicks was penning tracks like the schizoid double of ‘Sisters Of The Moon’ and ‘Sara’ (at one point 15 minutes long). Meanwhile Christine McVie’s ghostly ‘Brown Eyes’ (which appropriately enough contained a cameo from former Mac legend Peter Green) and the stark ‘Never Make Me Cry’ felt like something which was almost too revealing to be committed to tape.
When it was released in October the press reaction was muted. Creem called it “dull” and compared it to a “white elephant” while the Los Angeles Times mistook its wonderful eclecticism for confusion, complaining that it sounded like “a random collection of tunes.”
Although misunderstood at the time, the album’s cobweb-filled sound later found fans in Air, The Strokes and Vetiver. Today, the influence of ‘Tusk’ extends from chillwave to freak folk. And the subversion of what was expected after ‘Rumours’ and the creative space it created also gave the band (and primarily Buckingham) reason to continue making music in Fleetwood Mac for the next decade.
Only Greil Marcus saw it for what it really was; a total mindfuck. He wrote: “Fleetwood Mac is subverting the music from the inside out, very much like one of John LeCarre’s moles – who, planted in the heart of the establishment, does not begin his secret campaign of sabotage and betrayal until everyone has gotten used to him, and takes him for granted.”
But then, is ‘Tusk’ really as subversive, as ‘difficult’, as critics have always made out? Sure, it’s long and druggy and sprawling – and named after Mick Fleetwood’s nickname for his own penis. But take away Buckingham’s scuffed, home-made sonic experiments and this is an album that’s just as lush and melodic as ‘Rumours’.
It opens with a classic Christine McVie lullaby, ‘Over And Over’ – nobody’s idea of an abrasive ‘fuck you’ to the major label system – and contains Stevie Nicks’ most simple and affecting ballad (‘Beautiful Child’). It’s an astonishing album, featuring some frankly miraculous songwriting. Listening to it now, you rather wonder what everyone’s problem was at the time.
OK, it’s no ‘Rumours’ part two. But neither is it a reckless act of commercial suicide. It’s time we stopped regarding ‘Tusk’ as a grand folly, one of the great ‘post-fame comedown’ albums. Could it be quite simply, Fleetwood Mac’s best album?