This fall marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s defiantly offbeat opus that was underappreciated in its time, even as it presaged trends in music.
After the unprecedented success of 1977’s Rumours, the Mick Fleetwood/John McVie/Christine McVie/Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham incarnation of Fleetwood Mac pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever the band wanted. A situation like that gives an artist several avenues for their potential next act.
Many acts have followed up a landmark album with “Part 2.” Think of Adele’s 25 or Michael Jackson’s Bad. The artist delivers a follow-up that’s very much in the vein of their big last album. Reviewers will tend to be less enthused, but it will sell well and produce more hit singles, usually pleasing most fans and the record label. It’s a good career move, even if the follow-up can’t help but be overshadowed by its celebrated predecessor.
Other artists respond to a significant breakthrough album by, essentially, not following it up. Perhaps a live set might emerge or some earlier recordings are repackaged for the new mass audience that came aboard for the big hit. There could be live shows. But in essence, the artist just chooses, for any of a variety of reasons, to sit it out. Look no further than the trajectory of Lauryn Hill after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Fans usually never understand it, even if it makes sense to the artist.
And then there’s the path that Fleetwood Mac took with their follow-up to Rumours. As has been pointed out many times, there is no topping an album like Rumours, a collection that earned strong critical accolades, major sales and cross-genre airplay dominance. It’s one of those albums that, even decades later, remains a strong seller, as new generations discover it (and often access it in new ways, thanks to media evolution). Warner Bros. would certainly have been thrilled if the band had delivered Rumours II. That would have played well with fans, as well.
But that ignores the fact that Rumours was a “lightning in a bottle” moment, the kind of personal/professional alchemy that a band can’t plan. And in the case of this group, likely would not have wanted to re-live even if they could have.
Instead, the band followed the third path that acts sometimes embrace after a major success: go in an unexpected direction. No description drives record company execs to the antacid bottle more than “experimental.” Especially when its affixed to the new album of a key act. But that’s what Fleetwood Mac did with Tusk.
Buckingham is widely acknowledged as one of the guitar virtuosos of the rock world. He’s also recognized for his love of studiocraft and production experimentation. So with a blank check, the band essentially handed the wheel to their resident mad genius and let him steer them into waters that took a different path from the era-defining sound of their recent hit. The result was Tusk, a double album misunderstood at its time, that only years later would be embraced as a lunatic masterpiece.
While Buckingham was thoroughly grounded in the classic rock idiom, he listened to, and was inspired by, everything that was going on in the industry at the time. The restless energy of post-punk and the trashy electro-sheen of new wave. The fearless disregard of tradition of art rock and the sonic collage experiments of industrial music. He was inspired to go beyond what a band could produce using instruments and voices, using production not just as a facilitator, but as a sonic medium in its own right. He wrote numerous songs that sounded little like what he’d produced before and then wrapped his feverish sonic ideas around Christine and Stevie’s more traditional compositions, pushing them to unexpected places. At its core, Tusk was a major, mainstream classic rock band charting the future of alternative music.
As has been pointed out many times, Tusk often feels like the mash-up of two different albums: Buckingham’s paranoid opus, full of sharp edges and nervous tics, contrasted with the more conventional songs produced by his partners. It’s not an unfair paradigm, but even though Tusk has Buckingham’s imprimatur firmly stamped on it, it’s still definitively the work of a band. Drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie follow their guitarist’s lead and achieve the kinds of beats and rhythms necessary to execute Buckingham’s ideas, while the layers of harmonies he envisioned wouldn’t have hit with the impact they did without the unique interplay of his voice with Christine’s and Stevie’s.
Still, Buckingham did go in some startling directions. Bits of everything from rockabilly and the Beach Boys to punk and World Beat are evident in the mix, the album often presaging trends that would dominate the music scene in the decade that followed. The title track is a prime example of Buckingham’s ideas coming together in a striking manner. It boasts the sinister paranoia of many of Buckingham’s contributions, using almost tribal rhythms that referenced African sonic traditions half a decade before Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland. Married with layered harmonies, distorted guitars and an actual marching band, it was like nothing else on the charts in 1979.
“What Makes You Think You’re the One” was another moment where Buckingham managed to translate his impulses into something with commercial appeal, working nervous energy, edgy rhythms and echoes of doo wop harmonies and instrumental flourishes into an engaging stew. Throughout, Buckingham’s songs were filled with off-kilter melodies, production tricks and distortions, layers of harmonies that pushed song structures that could have been familiar into some places listeners hadn’t been before. He borrowed the economy of punk, with most of his compositions clocking in within the range of two to three minutes, often ending abruptly or on an unexpected moment of dissonance. He surrounded the songs with spacey, detached qualities, adding propulsion even to quieter moments. With titles like “The Ledge,” “Walk A Thin Line,” “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” “That’s Enough for Me” and “Not That Funny,” with unsettled lyrics and performances that communicated a certain alienation, Buckingham’s songs more dared listeners to engage with them than invited them in. It’s not what you might expect from a superstar release, but it was brave and creative.
While some critics were inclined to dismiss the more conventional tunes that Christine and Stevie composed, one of the more fascinating aspects of Tusk was seeing how Buckingham co-opted those songs to fit his vision for the album. You got Christine’s sunny SoCal pop and Stevie’s mystical rock and folk run through Buckingham’s offbeat paranoia, for some often interesting results.
Take Christine’s “Think About Me,” a charming Top 30 hit that’s often overlooked today. Buckingham’s production is drenched in the surf pop of the Beach Boys, but spikes it with fuzzy edges, jittery harmonies and wailed vocal counterpoints. Deceptively simple songs like “Over & Over,” “Brown Eyes” and “Honey Hi” took on more complex structures as Buckingham injected the emerging New Wave ethos into them, giving them layers and textures that pushed them out of Christine’s usual comfort zone, adding tension and friction that provided contrast to her cool, clean vocals. Even a gentle ballad like “Never Make Me Cry” got a jolt from the subtle pulse of a strummed electric guitar that Buckingham ran throughout.
Unsurprisingly, Stevie’s songs provided a robust canvas for Buckingham’s production work. Tusk is best remembered for hit single “Sara,” one of Stevie’s more engaging poetic explorations. Even in the edited version (which chops off nearly two minutes, including the entire second verse), it’s a beguiling mix, with Buckingham using a complex layering of harmonies that builds slowly to surround Stevie’s lead, giving an exotic charm to the mix, while he adds fuzzy touches to the edges to give the song an insistent energy. He transformed “Angel” into a harbinger of the country-pop that would come to dominate Nashville a decade later and gave a jittering, unsettling edge to the gentle “Storms” that set out a roadmap for the contemporary folk sound that was right around the corner. Most daringly, Buckingham used Stevie’s mystic rock opus “Sisters of the Moon” to pioneer the template for the dance rock that would become a staple of alternative radio.
Fans and critics didn’t know what to make of Tusk. The title track became a hit because anything that Fleetwood Mac released after Rumours would have made the Top 10. “Sara” and “Think About Me” succeeded with radio as the best examples of the band’s traditional sound melding seamlessly with Buckingham’s futurist production. But many critics at the time didn’t get the album and fans who had bought Rumours in droves didn’t embrace Tusk. It was seen as a failure and would set the stage for a retrenchment (the far more conventional Mirage (1982) and Tango in the Night (1987) would bring this chapter of the band to a close on a more commercial, mainstream note).
But Tusk has had a healthy afterlife. While it hasn’t enjoyed the long-term sales power of Rumours or the group’s eponymous 1975 album, it has remained available consistently and won over new converts over the years. Critical re-evaluations of the album, especially in the context of the ’80s alternative revolution that followed, came to appreciate how ahead of its time Tusk was and what a crucial touchstone it became for the development of modern rock music. It grew into an “artists’ album,” one of those works cited by other musicians as one of their influences. Both “Tusk” and “Sara” have remained in regular rotation on classic rock and soft rock radio formats, while “Sisters of the Moon” developed into a cult favorite among Stevie’s loyal fans. The band included several cuts from Tusk on their various “best of” collections and incorporated them into their latter day tours to strong effect.
Tusk makes almost perfect sense when viewed from a remove of forty years. Fleetwood Mac took advantage of the opportunity that success afforded them to go out on a creative limb. And in the process, thanks to Buckingham’s feverish creativity and work ethic, helped advance the evolution of rock and alternative music.