Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – 1979

        I find myself being hypercritical of current popular music – there’s a lot not to like, it seems. But there was a time when a new, hyped-up record not only appealed to me on a mainstream level, but could also present something unexpected – even possibly avant-garde. For those of us who grew up in the 70’s, some music was unavoidable – especially in the era of the home stereo that was in some cases a status-symbol the way flat-screen TVs are today. And the most common "software" on those home stereos were LPs -  vinyl records. Rock music particularly evolved into a big business in the 70’s – all that advertising paid off.  Records went “platinum” overnight for the first time – sales were at a peak for music products (even in the inflation-plagued late 70’s).

        One of the most ubiquitous slabs of vinyl in the late 70’s was Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” LP. It was like the theory about spiders – no matter where you are there’s one somewhere near you. Rumours was THE record of 1977 – it had everything going for it – several hit singles, some ballads, some edgy material. Certainly helped to define that smooth-rock, California slick sound. The kind of success that any musician/band/whatever dreams of and, in some strange way, can come to dread. Why dread? Because success brings pressure to continue or top what you’ve just done. Where do you go when you’ve reached the top? After two years of riding Rumours for all it was worth – Fleetwood Mac had two choices, essentially:  either produce Rumours II or……..something else. Fortunately, they chose the something else – success can also bring a little slack from the record company, a willingness to follow the instincts of the artists. Although the next record was not going to be a carbon-copy of the blockbuster, it had to be something BIG. To this end Fleetwood Mac spent thousands (supposedly constructing a new studio designed especially for this record) and, ultimately, produced – a sizable end product. The status symbol among status symbols of 70’s rock and roll success and excess – THE DOUBLE ALBUM. Funny to think that double albums in those days would later fit on one compact disc (as Tusk indeed does). But a double album was a STATEMENT in those days – like, “We’re so awesome and brimming over with fabulous ideas and creative juice – we’ve got to whip it on you big time!”

            Based on the insane success of Rumours, the record label – Warner Brothers – was ready to mass-produce trainloads of the new record. When the finished products hit the stores it was a massive symbol of 70’s excess gone wild. A double album with each record housed in not one, but TWO custom inner-sleeves (one inside the other – what a pain in the ass to get to each record!). Each copy of the record carried the premium price tag of $15.98! In 1979 dollars, that was some coin – even for a new double record. But, hey – this is Fleetwood Mac and those units were expected to fly off the shelves. At least one hit single helped to push sales along – Stevie Nicks’ “Sara”. But, as 1979 wore on – and the economy skittered along towards the recession that would characterize the early 80’s – it seems that the record company had overestimated demand and oversupplied the market with these darned albums. Within a short space of time – that same $15 double album could be seen in record shops with a $2.99 price tag (!) and a saw-cut made in the cover (what were known as cut-outs – purposely damaged units that could be sold at a bargain price – the records inside the sleeve were fine, just the covers were clipped). Seems that more than one record company pulled the same bone-headed move and there was indeed a glut of LPs in the market with not enough buyers. Tusk, as a result, would carry a bit of a stigma – it sold respectably, but seeing that thing in the cut-out bins didn’t look too impressive.

              My family eventually wound up with a copy – aside from “Sara” the only other high-profile song was the title track which was an unlikely choice for a single since it was a weird chant-piece/drum solo thing augmented by the UCLA Marching Band – not exactly the stuff of mainstream pop. The programming – the flow of songs from one to the other – would prove to polarize listeners. In between tracks that had that identifiable, slick Fleetwood Mac vibe (mostly the work of the two female vocalists) were these quirky, weird sounding Lindsey Buckingham songs – kinda herky-jerky, almost PUNK-like ditties. The resulting listening experience was such a schizoid affair – most folks would complain that’s what killed any momentum that might have rocketed the album into the stratosphere of rock magnificence. Nowadays I really like the quirky stuff, but that’s not where the meat of this record really is. Tusk – as a single release – strikes me as what could be considered Stevie Nicks’ finest moment on record. “Sara” in fact is her weakest contribution to the album. And I’m not exactly a big Stevie Nicks fan, but her delivery on the songs she brings to this record is perpetually captivating – if I’m playing the record straight through I usually have to stop whatever I’m doing just to pay attention to her songs. There’s some struggle going on in her voice – some aching, intangible dread – some cutting psychological anguish that undermines the whole slick/success/California façade. Much more so than Buckingham’s wacko-paranoia-sound collages (as fun as those are). Listen to her performance on the track “Storms” – its goosebump inducing – at least for me!

            I also have to make mention about the first song on the record – song one, side one – Christine McVie’s “Over and Over”. It’s a pretty slow, ballad-y song. I LOVE records that start with a slow groove like this. So many albums take the (well planned, but now overdone) George Martin approach of starting off with the “potboiler” – a real up-tempo rocker. It’s a cool curveball to get a slow-paced track as the leadoff on an  album – check the first Band album (Music from Big Pink) and Badfinger’s LP “Straight Up” for similar approaches (both predating Tusk). It was a classy move on Fleetwood Mac’s part and I just eat stuff like this up!

          Tusk had a sneaky moment stuck in as well. For those of you who know about the origins of the band - Fleetwood Mac started in England as a blues band by a frightfully gifted guitarist named Peter Green. Lots can be found on the internet about Peter Green (after a pretty successful run - especially in Europe - Green left the band he founded under an avalanche of personal problems in 1971). Peter Green would periodically make music when he felt like it, but would never regain the momentum he had going when he was in charge of Fleetwood Mac. In the late 70's, during the recording of Tusk, the band managed to entice Green to play - uncredited, no less - on one track - a brooding song called "Brown Eyes". If you listen to that song there's a distinctly different guitar tone featured that tries to break into a solo as the song fades (they should have included more of that solo!). So if this record isn't cool enough - the inclusion of Peter Green seals its awesomeness. (I'll write another post on the great Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac in the near future. BB King went on record saying that Peter Green was the BEST of the English blues guitarists. I won't argue with BB).

          The vinyl records also reveal an exquisitely produced record – yes, some slick stuff, but listen to how those cymbals were recorded for example. They just jump out of the grooves in a life-like way. Tusk is a sonic carnival – a real analog showcase. Records would start to sound cold and two-dimensional after this. It’s like the last great hurrah for this kind of recording. Compared to today’s popular sounds – it’s like an audiophile feast for the ears. I don’t know what the CDs sound like – I usually play my LPs. But I’ll bet even common CD copies of this thing would sound really bloody amazing to the average listener today. It isn’t often that I play this record – but I do try to at least once a year. There were risks taken here that I don’t think were ever repeated by Fleetwood Mac again. The pressure to produce hits became too great to indulge in excessive creativity – song or sound wise – ever again. Big-budget blockbuster LPs would go the way of the big, gas-guzzling Lincoln Continentals of the 70’s. But the ride would never be anywhere near as smooth………………….


  1. The cutout bins were the first place I visited in my favorite department stores.. LLoyds had the ultimate! This is a strange album compared to the previous one, but I think they were trying to imitate Todd Rundgren when he went from Something/Anything to A Wizard/A True Star! just sayin....by the way.. who produced that Badfinger album you mentioned..hmmmm?

  2. Interesting to note that Todd's commercial success came with a double LP where his more adventurous era started with the single-LP! I also have to fess up to not knowing that part of the Tusk recording process involved early digital recording technology - so it can't be considered a "true" analog LP all the way through. That said, it still rocks!