The Upshot: Submitted for your expanded/reissued consideration: either a brilliant combination of excess, eccentricity and studio savvy, or a demonstration of artistic hubris and excess.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 opus, was a daring experiment, one that defied commercial possibilities while expanding the band’s musical parameters into areas that were otherwise unimaginable. It was especially daring considering the fact that the band had just come off two LPs that had broken them wide open in the States, Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, albums that would go one to become among the best-selling albums in all of music history. Helmed by the most successful line-up in their lengthy history — that being the front line axis of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie — the band continued to venture even further in from their blues based roots, having been hailed as the champions of soft rock radio in all its endearing essence. In truth, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the band’s namesakes and long-time standard bearers, had become token players in their own outfit, having ceded control to the trio responsible for their hits. Nevertheless, Fleetwood Mac was more potent and impressive commercially than at any time in their storied history, flush with widespread acclaim and ready to take on the world.
While the album was successful by most standards — it reached the top five in the U.S., spent over five months in the top 40, and was certified double platinum by virtue of selling two million copies — it didn’t come close to matching the levels achieved by its two immediate predecessors. Warner Bros. blamed RKO radio for playing the album in its entirety prior to release, encouraging volumes of home taping. The album cost over $1 million to make, the most expensive record in pop music history up until that time, and with consumers forced to shell out an extra $2 to cover the price of the resulting double album, economics discouraged those on a budget from making a ready purchase. It did produce a pair of hits in “Sara” and the title track, but given the fact it bore 20 tracks in all, expectations were never fully realized.
Nevertheless, in retrospect it is a fascinating album, a brilliant combination of excess, eccentricity and studio savvy. Consequently, any reason for re-examination is well worth the time and effort. To be sure this 2015 version isn’t its first reissue; an extensive re-release was launched a decade ago, but it pales in comparison to the expansive treatment the album is accorded this time around. Offered now as a six disc set in its most elaborate configuration, it features an entire side of outtakes, rarities, works in progress and demos, as well as two discs culled from live recordings extracted from the Tusk tour, an alternate version of the album as it was first intended, and a DVD containing a surround sound mix of the original recordings. It’s housed in an elaborate box that also boasts heretofore unseen photos and an extensive essay by journalist Jim Irvin, who, in turn, offers insights about the circumstances surrounding the album’s recording while reflecting on the general bewilderment it cast on an unsuspecting record label, music critics and the public in general, most of whom were either too confused or too overwhelmed to give it the time and attention the album deserved. As Irvin points out, many second generation copies were obtained from used record stores, discarded by the original owners simply because they had no patience for digesting it all.
More than 35 years later, Tusk can now be seen as the bold effort it is, and in listening to the various rehearsals and formative versions of its staple songs, it’s possible to appreciate all it has to offer. (Buckingham’s multiple takes on “I Know I’m Not Wrong” and his slow construction of “Tusk” offer fascinating insights into the way the genesis of the record was fashioned, one layer at a time.) No, Tusk is hardly a perfect record, but in terms of sheer brashness and bravado, it states an exceptionally high bar.
DOWNLOAD: “Tusk” (demo), “I Know I’m Not Wrong” (alternate version), “Sara”