33 1/3 Series: Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk
Fleetwood Mac made an appearance on Synconation once before, and at the time I promised you more on their 1979 double-album Tusk. So here it is.
Tusk is the most important thing, on some level, that I ever was involved with … It was a line I drew in the sand.
– Lindsey Buckingham
Anyone who knows Fleetwood Mac knows something about the tumultuous excesses and love affairs that shaped its biography, albums and, to some degree, commercial success. It’s not unusual—Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal built some of No Doubt’s draw on their own failed relationship, and even folksy duo Mitch and Mickey made for high tension in A Mighty Wind. Granted, that second example is from a movie, but you get my drift. The delicious facts of an artist’s life and love can make their work more interesting. It can be used to sell an album, an idea, a band. But both the band and the album in question aren’t all about bad breakups, which is why they both endure.
Author Rob Trucks opens his book about Tusk with a preemptive attack on anyone who may criticize the insertion of his own life into it, saying, “critics, both latent and active, professional and self-appointed, will likely be stirred to render comments, published and/or unpublished, akin to, ‘I could do better than that.’” But just because someone heads off the criticism before it’s made doesn’t invalidate that criticism. Though Trucks’ biography doesn’t saturate the book, it makes some awkward appearances throughout. Sometimes it makes sense–other times it seems like a self-indulgent segue from the meat of the story. But when he relates how his experiences were shaped by Fleetwood Mac (specifically Lindsey Buckingham), the personal becomes relevant and interesting.
And with Fleetwood Mac, really it’s all personal. Trucks lays out how the band’s narrative is both a random collision of circumstances, lusts and excess and a well-crafted myth of that collision. These parts are insightful and flat-out fun to read. I love knowing that Buckingham consistently describes that band’s “complex and convoluted history,” in just those terms, throughout their North American tour—feeding the fires of Fleetwood Mac’s history.
Trucks knows that history, from lineup changes to the roots of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham–two young lovers who made their own album and then agreed to join Fleetwood Mac so Nicks could stop waiting tables. He also puts the album in context, citing the wild success of Rumours, which sold more than 20 million copies, and the follow-up Tusk, which sold about 4 million copies. That’s the most precipitous drop in sales for a band from one release to the next, ever. Trucks points out that, since no one really buys whole albums anymore (and one album rarely sells 20 million copies these days), that it’s likely no other band will break this record.
But Tusk was an interesting failed experiment for a lot of reasons, including, as Trucks notes, baffling errors left in the album post-production—why leave them in? Was it to escape the slick success of Rumours? Fleetwood Mac had asked Warner Bros. to buy them a studio to make the album, figuring they had some leverage. But when Warner Bros. refused, the band built its own studio, at great cost. Buckingham was at the helm—it was his vision. And he seemed to be figuring out that vision even as he executed it. It was the most expensive album produced at the time.
One assertion of the book (which I agree with) is that the band was brave to take a chance, to depart from the sure formula that rocketed Rumours to the stuff of legend. Buckingham was greatly influenced by Brian Wilson, whose groundbreaking work on Pet Sounds also veered off the path of musical convention. For a musician to depart completely from a sure formula is also an artistic choice to push things out—some might call it an indulgence, but it was one the band had earned. And the fact is that many songs on the album have survived the test of time, including the eponymous track, which FM performed with the USC Trojans Marching Band on Solid Gold in 1980. You can see the marching band play it again, sans Fleetwood Mac, in a more modern version below.
For my money, Sara is one of the best songs the band ever made. It’s melodic, surprising and sweet. It doesn’t end up where you expect it when it begins. The fact that every song on the double-album wasn’t a hit doesn’t matter—Buckingham wanted to absolutely NOT do Rumours II, but depart into something new. And that was the line he drew in the sand with Tusk. In that sense, they accomplished exactly what they set out to do, and with a very popular tour just a couple of years ago, it’s certain that time and subsequent albums have been good to Fleetwood Mac.
Trucks, in addition to cataloging the band’s rise and the album’s creation, also speaks with several musicians in some way connected to Tusk, including Camper van Beethoven, who did a (not too successful) cover of the entire album, and a Fleetwood Mac tribute band named Tusk. The interviews are interesting in that they offer different threads of influence connecting the album to a range of bands. And it’s not always about the music itself, but what the music symbolized—a departure; the beginnings of New Wave along the margins of larger-than-life rock; an attempt to reconcile both the band and its members following a success that was enjoyable but built on personal angst; an attempt by Buckingham to recapture some of his musical sensibility as a solo artist, which he had to lose in order to meld into Fleetwood Mac; a willful and brave attempt to do something else. And so, when Trucks repeatedly says “Music is personal. Tusk is a symbol,” I get it. They are all intertwined for Fleetwood Mac, the personal and the professional, the mythical and the musical, and that is part of why they are so successful. And not in a manufactured way.
And though it may be silly to admit it, it’s also the people in the band, their personas, and their stories (both real and constructed) that make the band even more appealing.
The 1980s Solid Gold version
A more recent performance by the USC Trojans Marching Band
About This Series: 33 1/3 is a series for serious music nerds, edited by David Barker and published by Continuum Books. Each book features one author focusing on one album, using any form they choose. The result is essays, short stories, memoirs, and critiques on a wide range of genres. For more, check out www.33third.blogspot.com.