Wednesday, 5 December 2012

FLEETWOOD MAC: Tusk


(#218: 10 November 1979, 1 week)

Track listing: Over & Over/The Ledge/Think About Me/Save Me A Place/Sara/What Makes You Think You’re The One/Storms/That’s All For Everyone/Not That Funny/Sisters Of The Moon/Angel/That’s Enough For Me/Brown Eyes/Never Make Me Cry/I Know I’m Not Wrong/Honey Hi/Beautiful Child/Walk A Thin Line/Tusk/Never Forget

”I dream a highway back to you…”
(Gillian Welch, 2001)

Have I come so far just to find myself staring at this thing again? Is life a matter of progression, or a dastardly, daft circle where no matter what happens to you or what you make happen, the same people, or records, come around again? About a decade ago, Tusk played a big part in my life, and I thought that I tried to get to its bottom – I wrote about it, both online and in print, and in early, snowy 2004 I even talked with Lindsey Buckingham about it; I now realise that I hadn’t really managed to get anywhere near it. Too trusting, yes…? But then music writers usually are.

You look at Tusk as the final part of an FMac/Rumours trilogy and, if you get close enough to it, you understand that it doesn’t even fit into that pattern, if patterns are what the record is about. It doesn’t mesh with the other two, neatly or otherwise.

What is Tusk about, then?

Radio Clyde used to do a series on late Friday nights about new albums, in that the week’s big new release would be played in full, in chronological track order, but with DJ chat and commercials to break the tracks up and dissuade home tapers (the mistake they made with Tusk in the States – one of many - was to have the album played in full, sequentially and uninterrupted, on Westwood One radio; cue armies of home tapers and resultant reduced record sales). I think the DJ was Tom Ferrie. Those were the times when commercial radio in Britain hadn’t yet deregulated/degenerated into robot Top 40-ism.

Still, one Friday in November 1979 the album featured, in full, was Tusk. I lay there in bed, listening; I was a bit baffled and Mr Ferrie, if memory serves, was severely baffled. This is the follow-up to Rumours? It sounded nothing like Rumours, indeed sounded nothing like…anything on which I could readily place a finger.

But nothing sufficiently unusual for me to want to go out and buy the thing. The closing couple of months of the seventies were stuffed with “epic” double albums, as though everyone were rushing to get the final say before the decade, the moment, expired, and there were more than enough with which to keep up. If you were Public Image Ltd. you put out a silver canister containing three tightly-packed 12” discs (which I can tell you from experience were a bugger to get in and out) and a tiny crib sheet offering only the most basic information. Otherwise there was The Wall, there was London Calling, there was even The Long Run, the Eagles’ doomed attempt to “do a Tusk” (and for me, there was the sentimental nostalgia of the RCA double reissue of Mike Westbrook’s Metropolis and Citadel/Room 315, two records which taught me a lot).

And there was the triple album from eight years previously but I haven’t got to that bit yet.

So Tusk was there, in its very odd formica/snarling dog cover – the group biting the foot that feeds it? – but I didn’t pick it up and more or less forgot about it for the next decade-and-a-half until Simon Reynolds said something about it in the Melody Maker’s Unknown Pleasures booklet. His piece was, I now see, incomplete, but very useful, and compelling enough for me to want to go and seek out one of – as he said – the many mint second-hand copies then still in circulation. I noticed the smoke and mirrors tactics of the package itself; you took the records out, only to find them encased in the most horrendously dated post-1968 hippy packaging (with that dog, which belonged to co-producer Ken Calliat, still lurking around the margins), but that wasn’t the end of it: instead of extracting the records from within those inner sleeves, you found yet another set of inner sleeves, this time in colour, depicting the group as a crazy, jerky, New Wave combo, floating around the room free of gravity.

And even then it was clear that one of Fleetwood Mac was not like the others.

I’d heard all the stories about the record, how Mayor Bradley had declared 10 October to be “Fleetwood Mac Day” in Los Angeles, about how much it had cost – the first “million dollar” album, much of which was spent on constructing a new studio to the band’s specifications – and about how comprehensively it had wrongfooted listeners waiting for the next chapter of Rumours, wanting to know how the plot was developing. About how, after going off into parallel solo orbits for a couple of years, the group reconvened, and a glum Buckingham was told that they had to get back to The Formula.

Because there is no realistic comparison to Tusk. An obscurely-packaged double album whose musicians are not really talking to each other? Well, there was the precedent of The White Album - but Fleetwood Mac weren’t the Beatles; they didn’t have that seemingly bottomless reservoir of goodwill. Essentially they were huge on the basis of one record, and there wasn’t sufficient listener-to-artist trust to ensure that Tusk would sell apart from blind instant momentum.

But Buckingham himself told me that he didn’t feel it was enough for the group to stay where they were, even with all the FUCK YOU money they had accumulated from the success of Rumours. As the ghosts of Stanley Kubrick (who coined that phrase) and real savage-like Peter Sellers (who appropriated it) would concur, FUCK YOU money can be a prison as well as a gateway to freedom. Great – you’re never going to starve, now you can do anything.

But what ARE you going to do with all that “freedom”?

New stuff was happening and time was running out and Buckingham knew both. He cut his hair and shaved off his beard. Sometime in early 1978 there was a band meeting. We’re going to go New Wave with the next one, Buckingham told them. Not be punk rock as such but utilise the energy of that music to do something different. Something no one will expect. The Clash! Magazine! PiL! It’s all happening! We have to move ahead. Whaddya think?

It was not a pleasant meeting. Stevie rolled her eyes and rhapsodised over “Quicksilver Girl” and Jackson Browne as she had done since 1971. Christine thought it was bullshit. Mick was quizzical. John stormed off to his yacht. There were raised voices, there were fights, but Buckingham was made of stronger stuff than his hero Brian Wilson and he prevailed, as the “Special Thanks to Lindsey Buckingham” production credit confirms.

Stuff went on in the studios and at home; there were drugs, there was booze and this isn’t the time or place to talk about either. The overriding question was – where were Fleetwood Mac going, and why were they going there? No easy clues in the lead title track single, a bizarre top ten hit even by 1979’s extremely bizarre standards – and the biggest UK hit single the Buckingham/Nicks version of the Mac had in the whole decade (Buckingham was extremely shocked and quite tickled when I told him this); a psychedelic-cum-Burundi marching song about sexual jealousy, sung in clenched teeth voices, most of which appeared to be versions of Lindsey. The marching band themselves, only to be suddenly broken up by a free jazz drumming workshop. And a video featuring a cardboard cutout John (he was still on his yacht) and Stevie as majorette on acid.

“Where are the chambers, Ronnie?” – the shape of eighties America to come?

I mean, who WERE these beings?

The Reynolds piece mainly concentrated on Stevie’s songs, and probably only three of the five she had on the record, and dismissed Christine in one sentence. Probably there was a need for people to remember just how much hidden power and emotion there was in her contributions, and I think when I came to write about them the feeling was still that Stevie hadn’t got her full due (and so my Uncut triple-decker review was mostly on her side; I’m sure Lindsey still hasn’t forgiven me). I got a second-hand vinyl copy for next to nothing – importantly so, since Reynolds advised skipping the CD edition as it only included, for space reasons, the 45 radio edit of “Sara” – and hardly listened to it until it became lost in one of many transits. In the early noughties, alone, lost and needing to listen to it once more, I picked up a cassette copy, including the full-length “Sara,” for an exorbitant £4, and eventually, when Uncut asked me to do a review, I asked for and was sent a copy of the 2004 2CD remastered edition, which remains the definitive version, including not only the complete six-and-a-half minute “Sara” (with the total running time still only going slightly beyond 74 minutes; so what were those “space reasons” then?) but also a second CD of demos and outtakes, including a priceless alternate take of “Sara” which features the following introductory studio chat:

NICKS: I wanna be a STAR!
BUCKINGHAM: (exasperated sigh)
NICKS: I don’t wanna be a CLEANING LADY!!

But what was it all for? Tusk fell on largely unsympathetic ears (was Greil Marcus the only writer to have good things to say about it at the time?) back in 1979, and was generally interpreted as a dreary, unfocused, cocaine-driven indulgence which in itself proved, apparently, why things like, er, London Calling had to happen.

Or you could look at it as the self-constructed maze of five dreadfully lost people (or four lost people plus one who knows the way out but is going to take you all around the houses rather than going straight to the exit).

Because the moment you put Tusk on it doesn’t feel quite right.

There’s Christine, reliable, reassuring Christine, to welcome us in – but how to interpret her welcome? “Don’t waste my time,” “Don’t turn me away/And don’t let me down,” sung over music that’s just a crucial little bit too slow, just that little crucial bit lacking in hooks? It’s like a warning, isn’t it – beware, what you are about to experience isn’t what you think you’re going to experience, including what you believe you are listening to right now. The harmonies are a touch too disturbing and slo-mo, the guitars too keening – it is as though the song has been photographed and come out as overexposed. It doesn’t quite reassure the listener.

Then it’s straight to Lindsey and his home studio with Kleenex boxes for drums – the epileptic two-step Sun-via-Sun Ra boogie of “The Ledge” is a particularly nasty wake-up face-slap (“You can love me baby but you can’t walk out!” – I DARE you to keep listening) with guitars sounding like Pink Floyd’s elastic bands, gurgling 62 rpm “make it babies,” lead vocal that’s hardly keeping up with itself, the whole thing over and atomising out in scarcely two minutes. You weren’t expecting THIS, now WERE you?

Back to Christine for “Think About Me,” a trying-very-hard attempt to reassure doubtful/scared listeners not to worry, this really IS Fleetwood Mac, which doesn’t really convince. The emotional table tennis match continues: Lindsey to serve, and the funereal “Save Me A Place” with its gorgeous forties/kd lang-anticipating chorus harmonies and toy drums sounding like they’re sweeping mud off the bottom of the Mississippi – in the middle you might miss:

“Guess I want to be alone.”

I want to be a rock star, but I want to be lo-fi Brian/Todd too. Can’t I be both?

Oh yes – isn’t there another voice we haven’t heard yet?

“WAIT A MINUTE BABY…”

The voice, lighting up the dark room like a thousand chilling chariots, continues:

“Said you’d give me light/But you never told me about the fire.”

A hymn to her best friend, a word to the formerly wise, and the album’s loveliest “warm” moment (there is an equivalent “cold” one that is still to come); echoes which refract off the Pacific (“Where everyone would like to drown”), a profound yet seemingly minimalist rhythm track (even on stately 4/4, Fleetwood and Mac know intuitively how and where to swing), over which are laid endless guitars, kissing each other’s lights like pregnant Catherine wheels (with heartbreaking arcs of sevenths), and harmonies plentiful and indistinct enough to power the listener to Venus.

The sun of another, better world, or is it just the North Sea coming out of the bay at St Andrews, the buoy on the perimeter fence, the shadowy figure looking at the supreme nothingness of dunes?

Words, thoughts, flying into the mind like unexpected confetti…”A great dark wing,” “Undoing the laces,” “The starling flew for days”…the profundity? “When you build your house/Call me home.”

Over garden walls, certain melodies, the love that loves to love the love that…

The way the sun shone on the northwest perimeter of the Sloane Pizza shop sign in Knightsbridge at a certain time on Sunday in July.

(Bill Pritchard’s Jolie, a forgotten classic, with blue sky and sand dunes; what the hell was he doing on the same label as the Young Gods?)

Osney Island, you had to have been there.

“There’s a heartbeat AND IT NEVER REALLY DIED.”

Lindsey belches, barks like Calliat’s dog (or maybe even like Caliban). “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU’RE THE ONE?” against slippery Quality Street tin lid snare drumming.

Where is “home”?

What is “home”?

Because you can be stubbornly out there as much or as long as you like, what happens when you want to get back in and you find there’s no re-entry, or everyone has forgotten you?

If she finds and revels in love on “Sara,” then “Storms” sees Stevie slowly slipping away from love, and knowing that she is doing so. “She said: every night he will break your heart,” and so he does, and so does she leave him softly, but there’s nothing left there. Little things that call for a drink?

“I’d like to leave you with something warm/But never have I been a blue calm sea/I have always been a storm.”

The music gets quieter and quieter until there is perceived a prayer:

“Save us…and not all the prayers in the world…could save us.”

Lindsey responds with the aching (as in bleeding) anti-beauty of “That’s All For Everyone,” walking down the dying sunset-lit street where everything is different shades of yellow, a street down which he knows only he can walk. He is saying his own, warming goodbye, and it is curiously heartening that right in the middle of post-punk he is retreating back to 1966 and Pet Sounds (with the marimba from “Surf’s Up”) – hi, Dennis, is that you (the VERY low, throaty “That’s all”s)? Walking into the blue Pacific because he knows that’s the only way he’ll find…peace?

But he doesn’t like it. “Not That Funny” is more barked than sung, and is a different route to suicide, with its slam-dunk percussion and its jaunty keyboard melody, halfway between Trumpton and OMD’s “Genetic Engineering”; by its end, Buckingham has become David Thomas, the aggrieved suicide pilot at the end of “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” “Waiting on the right time/Somebody outside the door” – is this a “friend”?

Then back to Stevie two times: “Sisters Of The Moon” is obviously set up as this record’s big “Rhiannon” scarf-twirling moment, but it doesn’t have a real hook (although Buckingham’s guitar riff is deceptively powerful and alluring). On “Angel” she is so far off the beam (her voice breaks in the line “When you walk in the room” – a reminder of younger and better times?) that by song’s end she sounds exactly like…Lindsey Buckingham.

It’s getting creepy, this game where everyone is there but pretending that everyone else isn’t, and where are the big communal sing-alongs, the easygoing tunes?

Is this really a Fleetwood Mac album?

No solution in Buckingham’s “That’s Enough For Me” which goes back to post-punk rockabilly, Billy Lee Riley out of Beckett:

“Every night that sleep don’t come it’s the same old pain it used to be”

Christine, from whom we haven’t heard for a good long while, returns for a rather disquieting triptych of songs (broken only by “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” the nearest thing on this record to a “conventional” Lindsey Buckingham song). “Brown Eyes” is maybe the most disquieting of the three; it hardly exists as a song, more as a clenched-fist tick-tock funk timebomb (and sonically the closest the record comes to Sly’s Riot). “Are you just another liar?” she asks, as sinisterly familiar guitars draw their birdlike shapes in the sky above her. “Will you take me all the way?” – and it is with no small shiver that one realises that the guitarist here is, by and large, not Lindsey Buckingham…

…but Peter Green.

No, he can’t remember whether or not he played on it, and if he did it was maybe just eight notes near the end, or did he do more than that? He had his troubles at the time, as he had done for most of the rest of that decade.

But this was the man behind Then Play On.

The man behind two of the most disturbing number two singles the British charts have ever known.

A man without whom…well, listen to Lindsey essaying “Oh Well” on FMac’s 1980 Live double album and decide for yourself.

And then “Never Make Me Cry,” a would-be “Songbird” but far more intimidating than reassuring, sung against a musical backdrop which sounds as though it is drowning in the ocean.

And “Honey Hi,” the only song on the record to feature harmonies from all three of the main voices; percussion-heavy, and still those strange, untraceable echoes, the feeling that they are still not all there at the same time.

But Peter Green

I’ve recently been looking at online fan fiction to do with The Prisoner. No mucky or dodgy stuff, just well-written stories, or in some cases novellas, which try to take the story forward. All of them centre around the question: now that he is free, what does Number 6 do with the rest of his life?

And the overwhelming answer is: he doesn’t really know.

What happens when you cut loose, or are cut loose, from what you once thought yourself to be and how you related to society in any form?

You lose a year, maybe two years, of your life; what now? Can’t go back to spying, and you might have a million (a million what?)’s worth of traveller’s cheques but where are you going to spend them?

Morecambe and Wise’s agent upon their return from an extended, not too successful stay in the USA sometime in the late fifties or early sixties: “I’m sorry, lads – I’ve got nothing for you. You’ve been away so long you’re forgotten.”

You look at everyone, every thing, with suspicion. Is it all a plant, is this freedom fake? Am I going to be taken back?

After a while of this you can feel as if you want to go back to the Village. Just to cut out this paralysing doubt. Just so you know where you are.

But what if (as in one story I read) you go back to the Village, only to find there is no Village there, but a bustling tourist resort which looks and feels nothing like the Village?

Suppose you imagined the whole thing. Two whole lost years. It happens. Everyone has their own wilderness.

It can really mess you up.

What is this – school?

“I’m not a child anymore.”

“Beautiful Child” is the key song on the record because it is the only one where Buckingham and Nicks sing together, in perfect Everly harmonies. At least, for a while. But then the voices begin to multiply, retrace the song’s various observations and the group are in danger of evaporating into nothing.

It is Stevie’s best performance on Tusk - love having been gained and lost, she realises that the past – what “they” once were, perhaps even what “rock” or “the sixties” used to be – can’t be recaptured. A fly-by-night meeting with somebody she used to know…and it’s just not there any more (note the subtle couplet of “You say it will be harder in the morning/I wait for you to say: just go” and the less subtle one of “Your eyes say yes/But you don’t say YES”).

Moreover:

“You fell in love when I was ten/The years disappeared/Much has gone by since then.”

Couple that with the “I will do as I’m told” that the voices glumly refract against each other, and we might be approaching an uncomfortable truth at the heart – if heart there be – of this history. But put this against Nicks’ increasingly hurt and agonised cries of “I wish that you were mine” and it is less the response from the “object” of “Young Girl” or “Does Your Mother Know?” than a deeper lament for something that was and…just isn’t now. Sorry, people, we didn’t come through for ourselves, we never really got back home, we missed our big chance, we got waylaid by trivia.

Or maybe it is the birthing cry of the kind of voice that is going to become dominant in the next decade; the female voice singing of and for itself, the end of this masculine-heavy girth that rock is still dragging around as the seventies lope to their finish.

Lindsey offers, in response, a gospelly chain gang chant in “Walk A Thin Line” which never seems as if it is ever going to finish.

“But no one was listening”

So now all that is left is hissing and sniping, and the dread-filled nightmare of “Tusk” (which, as Marcus correctly observed, borrows from, but does not mimic, Dub), a scarlet and yellow kaleidoscope of illusion, a crowd rumbling in the background like the San Andreas Fault, another ghost running across the screen, or the speakers, a grim, grotesque distortion of everything Fleetwood Mac in the late seventies appeared to represent (but a pain Peter Green would instantly have understood).

The nightmare fades…and Christine is back to bookend the record. “Ooh, ooh…we will never forget tonight,” she sings as brightly as she can manage, but Buckingham’s ghost has invaded the machine; we are awakening from what has been a gruesome dream – or are we? Those odd streaks of electronica in the background, the slowly dawning realisation that the tick-tock drums here are, again, Kleenex boxes. The door opens and shuts automatically, life isn’t what you thought it was and neither were Fleetwood Mac; destroying the system, from within the system. You complete the circle only to find that you’re not quite joined up with where you started.

There are only two more albums to go before we leave the seventies, and Tusk is probably the last “major” one this decade will see. It sits more uncomfortably in a seventies setting than any other seventies number one album I can think of. I don’t know whether I’ve penetrated its heart at all, or whether I’m better off tackling Bish Bosch. Perhaps I could live out the rest of my life without really knowing what the record is about. Or I could understand that, like Beverly Moss or John Drake or Lindsey Buckingham, life doesn’t end with the relief from any obligation to do something (else) with it. Or maybe Tusk is a flag of reassurance; written on the day she would have been forty-eight, it reminds me that, despite all odds and appearances, I managed to make it through the last decade, still tall enough (metaphorically) to reach for at least some stars in life’s limitless sky.

3 comments:

Mark G said...

Well, this was an expensive album.

For it's participants.

Those participants being the people in the band, the record company that issued it, and the people who bought it.

The NME gave it a good review, or was it a 'good review for a punk/new-wave newspaper tasked with understanding this album that follows another one of those albums/groups that punk was supposed to replace" ?

Anyways, I loved the title track as a-side single, never actually bought one as I was a poor 6th former and there were Lurkers singles to buy in the 50p box, etc.

When Fopp became the place to buy cheap CDs of those albums you always meant to get but never did, I thought about "Tusk" but then I saw the "Sara (edit)" and it looked wrong. I got a cheap mint copy at Oxfam, but never had the time to sit with it. Eventually, I did get the 2CD definitive version for a fiver, hray. But my car journeys were never quite long enough to give it the attention it seemed to deserve.

So there it is, it's always lurking and teasing me as if to say "Am I the most fantastic album you never listened to yet? Or am i due to be the biggest disappointment when you do?"

Anyways, one day I will need some sort of fillip during some long expedition, and it will happen.

"Don't say that you love me" indeed...

David Belbin said...

Fleetwood Mac are threatening to play several Tusk tracks on their next reunion tour, but I can't get too excited by this. Having liked 'Fleetwood Mac', I heard 'Rumours' so many times during my uni years that it left me completely cold so when the word came that 'Tusk' was a clunker, I was happy to ignore it. When REM covered the title track I became mildly curious but it was only last year that I finally got round to getting the 74 minute plus cd remaster (in the early days of cds I think 74 mins was the max length, hence the shortened 'Sara'). Played it two or three times, including a complete run through in the car, just after christmas. Still does very little for me. It's just not that good. But another fine essay, which will make me give it another go, I suppose...

Richard said...

I've only in the last few weeks been obsessed with Tusk, after having owned the album for ages. Played it the two or three or even more times David admits to, but with not the right attention. Never though much of it, a few songs here or there. But in fact, it is that good. (Just this morning I feel like I really heard "Brown Eyes" for the first time.) A great, wondrous album.

Great post, Marcello. Sorry to read today that you're likely shuttering the blog. I've gotten a lot out of it.