Happy 40th Anniversary to Fleetwood Mac’s twelfth studio album Tusk, originally released October 12, 1979.
I can’t say that I have particularly vivid memories of those halcyon days back in October of 1979. I celebrated my 2nd birthday early that month, so my memory is understandably scattershot at best. But among the few remnant recollections I do have of my first few years of life are three singular voices that have stayed top of mind—and close to my heart—across four decades now. Stevie Nicks. Christine McVie. Lindsey Buckingham.
Released eight months before I was born, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) was spun religiously in my home and it’s unequivocally the album I most closely associate with my early childhood. Call it the soundtrack of my subconscious, as while my brain was far from being fully formed when I first heard it, Rumours nevertheless left a permanent, immovable imprint within my neural makeup.
I initially fell in love with Rumours because, well, quite simply, it sounded great to my fledgling ears. But as I grew older and wiser, I came to recognize that this blessing of an album represents that perfect, all-too-rare coalescence of musical, lyrical and thematic intrigue that makes for a ceaselessly gratifying listen from track one (“Second Hand News”) through track eleven (“Gold Dust Woman”).
Rumours’ massive success has been extensively documented and most of us are well aware of how it spawned countless critical and commercial plaudits, chart peaks, millions upon millions of units shifted, sold-out tours, and the coveted Album of the Year prize at the 1978 GRAMMY Awards. Indeed, Rumours ensured that Mick Fleetwood, Nicks, Buckingham, and the McVies were firmly entrenched in the rock & roll high life.
With the band’s newfound global superstardom came substantial freedom, influence and power. Which was invariably followed by exorbitance in its various forms. Much has been made of the drugs, financial recklessness, and romantic shenanigans that plagued the band during and after the recording of Rumours. But this penchant for excess would also manifest creatively, as the band embarked upon the harrowing task of recording the follow-up to their landmark LP.
More accurately, this penchant for creative excess was fueled by Buckingham’s obsessive ambition in conceiving of and executing the vision for Tusk. Stubbornly determined to differentiate Tusk’s musical identity and resist the temptation of a Rumours rehash, Buckingham’s adventurousness was not well-received by his bandmates initially. As a result, he became more protective and territorial about the album’s gestation. “When it came time to go into the studio, I just had to stick my neck out,” he recalled to Rolling Stone in 1980. “I told Mick that I wanted to put a machine in my house, to work on my things there. I had to pursue things that were in my head, and not be intimidated into thinking they were the wrong things to do.”
Morphing into a 20-song double-album with a recording budget that exceeded one million dollars (a huge sum four decades ago, equal to three-point-five million dollars in 2019 when adjusted for inflation), Tusk took thirteen months to complete. With a more expansive track listing than perhaps originally envisioned, Buckingham, Christine McVie and Nicks were all empowered to shine, as they penned nine, six and five of the album’s compositions, respectively and democratically. “Making a double album is something that I wanted very much to do,” the band’s patriarch Mick Fleetwood explained to Rolling Stone. “We have three songwriters, and it is hard for them to develop their different aspects without room…they’re artistically stifled. That’s why people leave bands, you know.” A prescient comment, considering Buckingham’s departure from the band following 1987’s Tango In The Night and his more recent exit from the group last year.
While McVie and Nicks stuck closer to their signature songwriting approach, Buckingham boldly branched out in various ways, experimenting with leftfield sounds, non-sequitur lyrics, and varied vocal approaches. Unveiled in September 1979 as the lead single and title track from the then-forthcoming album, and featuring unconventional instrumental contributions courtesy of Buckingham banging on a Kleenex box and Fleetwood slapping lamb chops (yes, you read that right), “Tusk” represents “the embodiment of the spirit of the album,” according to Buckingham, as quoted in Tusk’s deluxe edition liner notes. Sounding far removed from any song that the group had recorded up to that point, “Tusk” is driven by Fleetwood’s pounding percussion juxtaposed with Buckingham’s monotone, séance-like refrains which ultimately segue into a manic frenzy of a war-like chant punctuated by the big, boisterous brass of the USC marching band recorded at Dodger Stadium. It’s a hefty hodge-podge of a song, but it’s also instantly memorable.
Perhaps not surprisingly, amongst the four official A-sides that Warner Bros. released from the album in the US, “Tusk” was the lone Buckingham-led entry. Granted, his endearing ode to romantic innocence “Save a Place for Me, his self-proclaimed “rockabilly on acid” trip “That’s Enough For Me,” and the Charlie Watts influenced “Walk A Thin Line” were all designated as B-sides stateside, while his Fred Schneider inspired new wave funk foray “Not That Funny” surfaced abroad in the UK.
Buckingham’s songs unabashedly defied the convention of radio-friendly construction. Securing airplay was never the goal for him here, which freed him up to focus his energy toward stretching his sound in newfound ways. His liberated approach was evidenced early in the album’s sequencing with the idiosyncratic instrumentation of the second track, the two-minute stomper “The Ledge,” which he confessed was driven by his interest in “trying to find things that were off the radar” and intentionally playing notes that were “a little incorrect.”
But don’t mistake the lack of suitable radio fare for the absence of standout tracks, as Buckingham offers a handful of notable moments that rank among his finest compositions to date. My personal favorite is “That’s All For Everyone,” an atmospheric, harmony-laced examination of the conflict between public and private personas. Elsewhere, the buoyant “I Know I’m Not Wrong” and exuberant jam session “What Makes You Think You’re the One” suggest that if any of the group members were having indulgent fun during the making of Tusk, it was unquestionably Lindsey Buckingham.
“We didn't really like [Tusk],” McVie confided to The Guardian in 2013. “We just kind of went ‘okaaay.’ [Eyeroll] Because it was so different from Rumours. Deliberately so. In hindsight, I do like that record, but at the time me and Stevie would be like, ‘What the hell is he doing in the toilet playing an empty Kleenex box for a drum?’”
Suffice to say that while her bandmate was fixated on pushing the sonic envelope with Tusk, McVie was just fine with sticking to her tried and true script of crafting emotive, unembellished songs of love and longing. A somewhat stark contrast to the noticeably more uptempo opening tracks of its two precursors (Buckingham’s “Monday Morning” from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and “Second Hand News” from Rumours), Tusk opens with McVie’s laid-back, countrified torch song “Over & Over,” as she summons her lover—presumably her then-boyfriend Dennis Wilson—to do right by her fragile heart. A sleeper highlight for me, the multi-layered “Brown Eyes” features an airy groove with intricate vocal dubbing, not to mention uncredited guitarwork from Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green. Amidst her other subdued offerings (“Never Forget,” “Never Make Me Cry,” “Honey Hi”), McVie recaptures the pep in her sonic step, harking back to her Rumours gem “You Make Loving Fun” with the groove-laden love song and third single “Think About Me.”
With the lone exception of the enigmatic, sonically sublime “Sisters of the Moon” for which the meaning is more opaque (“I honestly don’t know what the hell this song is about,” she conceded to Rolling Stone), Nicks draws deep from her well of personal turmoil in the years preceding Tusk for her handful of songs.
Though I’ve played it hundreds of times, the emotionally devastating “Sara”—my all-time favorite Fleetwood Mac song, hands down—still induces goosebumps each time I hear it. With its six-and-a-half minute run time, which was pared down from the original demo’s sixteen-minute duration, it’s Tusk’s most expansive and enduring song. It’s also arguably the most fully realized coalescence of Nicks’ vulnerability and confidence on record, as she attempts to reconcile the inevitable vicissitudes of love, lust, loss, life and everything in between, as encapsulated in the evocative first chorus: “Drowning in the sea of love / Where everyone would love to drown / But now it's gone / It doesn't matter what for / When you build your house / Then call me home.” Inspired by her doomed affair with Mick Fleetwood (a.k.a. the “great dark wing within the wings of a storm”), her best friend Sara Recor, who began dating (and ultimately married) Fleetwood not long thereafter, and reportedly informed, in part, by her failed pregnancy with Don Henley, the song’s subtext is rich, to say the least.
Her complicated history with Fleetwood would resurface two songs later on “Storms,” a sparse, somber examination of loneliness and loss that finds her voice audibly breaking in parts. “It was really about Mick,” Nicks has confirmed. “That’s [me] not happy with the way that relationship ended. That relationship destroyed Mick’s marriage to Jenny, who was the sweetest person in the world. So did we really think that we were going to come out of it unscathed? So then what happened to me, my best friend falling in love with him and moving into his house and neither of them telling me? It could not have been worse. Payback is a bitch. Bad karma all around. Here’s that song in a nutshell: Don’t break up other people’s marriages. It will never work and will haunt you for the rest of your miserable days.” Nicks’ final two entries are “Angel,” in which she declares her infatuation with Fleetwood over a rollicking, bass-heavy groove, and “Beautiful Child,” written about her ephemeral affair with Beatles road manager Derek Taylor.
Released on October 12, 1979, two days after the band were awarded a coveted star on Hollywood’s hallowed Walk of Fame, Tusk’s subsequent story reinforced the extent to which Rumours proved to be both a blessing for the band (not to mention a financial windfall for Warner Bros.) and a curse due to the sky-high expectations that it set for repeated success. In discussing the marketing campaign that Warner Bros. set in motion to support the album, Shelly Cooper, then the label’s director of advertising, once remarked, “I wouldn't hesitate to say that we'll be spending considerable amounts for a long time to come.”
Tusk went on to sell four million copies, an impressive amount by today’s standards (or any standards for that matter), but fell well short of Rumours’ eight-figure haul, leading Warner Bros. executives and industry pundits to deem it a disappointment. A few valid theories might help to explain why Tusk undersold relative to expectations, including its higher price point as a double-album, its dearth of radio-ready fare, and the mixed critical reception that greeted it due to its perceived lack of cohesion. Fleetwood has even posited that sales were undermined from the get-go when radio stations affiliated with the long-since-defunct broadcasting conglomerate RKO “leaked” Tusk by playing it in its entirety prior to its official release, offering listeners the opportunity to record the album for free.
Despite the initial (and largely misguided) scrutiny by various parties, Tusk has thankfully weathered the criticism rather well in the 40 years since its arrival. “I think everyone was looking for Rumours 2 … So yes, it did have an alienating quality to it in the moment,” Buckingham admitted during a 2011 Gothamist interview. “But then, you cut to a few years later when you could be more objective about it, and as tastes change and evolve and as a younger generation gets a hold of things, they see them not only for what they are musically but possibly for why they were made in context. They can even appreciate the fact that there was someone out there who was trying to undermine the idea of repeating the formula of the brand. There’s a certain kind of idealism attached to Tusk as a subtext to the music, and I think people now can respond not only to how colorful and experimental it is, but also why it was made.”
Critical over-analysis be damned, Tusk remains an immersive and fascinating listen, imperative for an expanded understanding and appreciation of the band’s musical history. “We'll never forget tonight / It will be alright,” McVie sings in the album’s concluding lines, and the unforgettable Tusk certainly sounds quite alright four decades on.