Fleetwood Mac's 'Tusk,' 40 Years Later: What The Hell Were They Thinking?
Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 double LP Tusk was called ambitious, ragged, “gleeful and elusive,” fragmented, sprawling, “over-egged pudding,” and worse. Conceived as a kind of “anti-Rumours” the album is chaotic and disjointed, finding its band members working in the familiar territory of chaotic heartbreak but without the need for success.
There was no thought of recreating the success of Rumours, the 1977 diamond selling album that bonds generations, but why go into the studio if you’re not going to create something meaningful? At the helm of the album guitarist, producer, and head agitator Lindsay Buckingham led the band to stretch themselves musically, sometimes for the best, but often in ways that only serve as experiments for sake of going to the lab.
The fractured and often confounding Tusk has aged better than records by the band’s contemporaries who played it safe (throw a dart at the ‘70s to find one of these bands), but even 40 years later it’s not a record that makes for an easy first listen.
The album cost over a million dollars
Some time near the conclusion of the band’s never-ending tour in support of “Rumours” Lindsay Buckingham had an idea for the album follow up, his grand artistic statement, but he needed a big budget to match the sounds in his head and the band’s hedonistic appetite. Enter: Mick Fleetwood, famous gadabout, de facto band manager, and the one person who shouldn’t be in charge of a band’s finances.
Fleetwood suggested to Warner Bros. that they front the band the money to buy their own studio; that didn’t happen. However, the label did pay to refit Studio D at The Village Recorder to the band’s specifications in exchange for the “Tusk” master tapes. Once the deal was made, that was the last time anyone from Fleetwood Mac spoke to a label representative for a year.
With an ever-inflating budget, the band paid for a 112-piece marching band, food, champagne, and enough cocaine to cover the North Pole. Christine McVie later said of the band’s expenditures:
Recording Tusk was quite absurd, The studio contract rider for refreshments was like a telephone directory. Exotic food delivered to the studio, crates of champagne. And it had to be the best, with no thought of what it cost. Stupid. Really stupid. Somebody once said that with the money we spent on champagne on one night, they could have made an entire album. And it’s probably true.
"Tusk" was soft rock meets post-punk
At the heart of Fleetwood Mac is the discord of the band’s three principal songwriters - Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks. On Rumours, their songwriting differences told a story of polyamorous heartbreak from different points of view, on Tusk the songs are akin to channel surfing with only three channels.
The songs from McVie and Nicks have the same timeless qualities of their earlier work, which makes Buckingham’s lo-fi, spiteful tracks stick out like a sore thumb - something that was likely Buckingham’s intention.
At the end of the tour in support of Rumours, Buckingham found himself the old man in the room. By the late ‘70s, bands like the Talking Heads and Kraftwerk were taking up space in record stores, David Bowie was no longer writing space-age stadium rock, and dum-dum goofballs like The Ramones were turning their guitars up and cutting the run times of their songs in half. Buckingham, tapping the competitive spirit of his silver medalist brother, saw these groups as competition and started writing raw, simplistic, groovy songs that were less reliant on the yacht rock production of his earlier work. He later explained:
Coming off an album as successful as that, we were being asked to get on this treadmill of clichéd thought and hash out the same thing again. Punk and new wave had kicked in during the meantime and, although I wasn’t directly influenced by that music, it gave me a kick in the pants in terms of having the courage to try to shake things up a little bit. I wanted something that had a little more depth.
Buckingham says that he wrote most of the songs without the band
Like many of the stories surrounding Fleetwood Mac, it’s hard to parse fact from fiction, and what the five members can remember through the cocaine haze of the 1970s. Buckingham claims that most of the 20 tracks on the double LP were written and demoed at his home before he brought them to the band for each member to build upon.
On tracks like “Not That Funny” and “What Makes You Think You’re The One” Buckingham’s newfound punk ethos is obvious in its stripped acoustic guitars and shoebox drums, but a song like “Sisters of the Moon” could have just as easily appeared on Rumours or Mirage. The mixup of who did what on the album only adds to the sonic whiplash that strikes while listening to Tusk.
There’s a good record inside of “Tusk”
There are Mac fans who can listen to all 20 songs on Tusk back to back to back and see a work of complete genius, but for the casual listener the record is impenetrable - a work of hubris created by drugged out millionaires with a lot of time on their hands. But is that so wrong? There are great songs on Tusk that are born from the group’s desperate search for something new.
Songs like “Sisters of the Moon,” “Storms,” and "What Makes You Think You’re The One” are full of the Fleetwood Mac magic that cast a spell on fans a few years prior. Unfortunately, the band (read: Lindsay Buckingham) insisted that the album’s title track, a rambling jam that’s held down by the USC marching band playing a tribal rhythm, go out as the first single. The song cracked the top 10, proving more than anything that fans just wanted to hear anything by Fleetwood Mac regardless of what it was. Had a better single been released the album may have fared better with listeners, or maybe fans just would have felt suckered the moment the opening notes of “The Ledge” kicked in.
The album helped the band get out of a creative slump
For all the debate that Tusk created, in the end, it did more good than bad. Patient listeners will find a record waiting to be dug into and parsed, and casual fans will find at least a few tracks that capture the sound of Rumours. In spite of their fussing with the album, decades after the release of the record the band members who weren’t so keen on the album have come to regard it as a palate cleanser. In his 1990 biography, Mick Fleetwood said that the band needed to record Tusk to keep them from disintegrating:
It's a great album and probably the only reason Fleetwood Mac is still together today... it released a lot of creative frustrations.
“Tusk” is one of the best selling “failures” ever
Tusk is a lot of things: a financial boondoggle, a creative yelp by a guitarist who felt overshadowed, the sound of a band falling apart, the one thing it’s not is a failure. The record met with mixed reactions when it was released in November 1979; some critics were excited that band like the Mac were flexing their creative muscles, while more conservative listeners just wanted Rumours Pt. II.
Even though the critical reaction to the album was all over the place the album eventually sold eight million copies. However, when you compare that to the monumental, 20 million albums sold of Rumours, it’s hard to say Tusk was a worthy follow-up.
The band was over “Tusk” as soon as they recorded it
By the time Fleetwood Mac recorded the final notes on Tusk, they were burnt to a crisp. After a year of recording a post-punk inspired soft rock album, the band wanted to go their separate ways; instead, they went on a hundred-plus date world tour to support the record, which included recording most of the dates for a follow up live album. Buckingham felt the acrimony towards Tusk as soon as it was released, and he says that the hurt feelings from that time still exist to this day:
The rest of the band had a cynical view towards the way Tusk was made and the reasons why I thought it was important to move into new territory. It wasn’t just negativity. There was open hostility. Then I got a certain amount of flak because it didn’t sell as many as Rumours. Mick would say to me, ‘Well, you went too far, you blew it.’ That hurt. And so it’s gratifying now to hear Mick tell anyone who asks that it’s his favorite Fleetwood Mac album.
The most disappointing thing to me after ‘Tusk’ was the politics in the band, They said, ‘We’re not going to do that again.’ I felt dead in the water from that. On Mirage, I was treading water, saying, ‘Okay, whatever,’ and taking a passive role. For me, none of the albums after Tusk quite had it. I think we lost something after that.
Despite its missteps “Tusk” endures
Tusk may not be your go-to Fleetwood Mac album, maybe you gravitate towards Rumours or Tango in the Night, but you avoid Tusk like an ex at a birthday party. For many younger people coming to Fleetwood Mac Tusk exists without context, it’s simply a part of the rambling band's timeline. Artists as varied as Kurt Vile and Joanna Newsom sing its praises, and viewers of British comedy weirdoes The Mighty Boosh know the group’s love for Buckingham’s work specifically.
Time has been kind to this album that is truly psychotic at different moments, whether it’s Buckingham’s Talking Heads fetishism, or doubling down of the witchiness by Stevie Nicks, this record separated Fleetwood Mac from the rest of their Southern California peers and vaulted them into a creative atmosphere all their own.