Monday, October 1, 2007

from Unknown Pleasures: Great Lost Albums Rediscovered booklet, free with Melody Maker, 1995
[director's cut version]


If anyone remembers Fleetwood Mac's Tusk at all, it's as
the surprise flop sequel to 1977's Rumours. A soft-rock masterpiece (gorgeous melodicism charged with the emotional carnage wreaked by the inter-band tangle of break-ups and infidelities), Rumours was also an unprecedented blockbuster, selling a staggering 21 million copies worldwide. In America (where FM were just made for FM radio), the LP was even huger: 31 weeks at Numero Uno in the Billboard Charts (that's two-thirds of a YEAR!) and total sales that, at 14 million, still make it America's second best-selling LP ever. In the USA, Rumours was what happened instead of punk; even in Britain, where FM radio barely existed, it was the album in every suburban hi-fi cabinet, right next to Dark Side Of The Moon.

And so, by the fall of 1979, a tremendous head of anticipation had
built up vis-a-vis the long-awaited follow-up. Los Angeles' Mayor Tom Bradley
even made October 10th Fleetwood Mac Day to celebrate its release. Two years in
the making, Tusk had swallowed up an astronomical, and back then virtually unprecedented, $1 million. Instead of Rumours # 2, though, fans were confronted with a sprawling double album, dense with detail, alternately over-done and oddly incomplete, and seemingly devoid of hits. Record biz insiders
dubbed it "Lindsey's folly", a monument to the hubris and
Brian-Wilson-complex of de facto producer Lindsey Buckingham (the guy who'd originally turned around the one-time Brit-blues band's ailing fortunes, when he and his folk-rock-maiden lover Stevie Nicks had joined in '74). Sheer post-Rumours momentum resulted in solid sales of 4 million, although whether anybody who rushed out to buy Tusk on its day of release made it through the four sides more than once is a moot point (the number of mint second hand copies in circulation suggests otherwise). A virtual radio black-out completed the sense of non-event.

Tusk ranks as one of the great career-sabotage LP's in pop history, alongside The Clash's Sandinista, ABC's Beauty Stab and Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique; one of those albums by bands apparently on a creative and commercial roll who nonetheless wilfully confound their audience, motivated by artistic frustration, or fucked-up/fucked-off confusion, or simply because they've succumbed to a kind of collective death-wish.

The album that Tusk most reminds me of, though--as anti-populist refusal of the soft option and the easy money, as cocaine-addled exercise in superstar experimentalism--is Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. Musically, there's the same obsessively nuanced production, the same oddly disjointed rhythms; mood-wise, the same consumer-unfriendly aura of uncertainty (offputting to punters who felt they'd propelled their heroes up into the dizzy heights, and that the least they could do is sound like they were having fun). Hell, even the same two year gap between megahit (Stand, in Sly's case) and its down-tempo sequel. Tusk is soft-rock's Riot, a band's trademark sound fractured by the same forces of out-of-control fame and fortune that sent Sly spiralling off into paranoia and addiction; the document of a band half-defeated by, half-struggling against the soul-destroying poisons of luxury, sycophancy and party-powders. It's white So-Cal suburban blues.


You only have to look at the record to get a pungent whiff of
not-rightness. Something's askew, from the oblique cover (an expanse of dun
and beige textures, with a B/W snap of a dog savaging someone's ankle), to the even then terribly dated '70s prog packaging (inner sleeves within inner sleeves,
trompe l'oeil, pseudo-surreal photos of the band) to the obtuse, inscrutable title (the perennial jester Mick Fleetwood's l'il joke, 'tusk' being his personal
slang for the male sex organ). The not-right aura was positively trumpeted
by the title-track single that trailed the LP, a daft little ditty whose mock-tribal rhythms, peculiar 'found sounds' in the back of the mix that sound like a restive mob, and pompous, punctilious horns (courtesy of the University of Southern
California Trojan Marching Band, recorded live at Dodger Stadium) now strangely
make me think of Faust at their silliest ("The Sad Skinhead", maybe). A 'novelty' hit, and doubtless by dint only of the blind-loyalty of the fans, "Tusk" sounded, to this 16 year old PiL-head, exactly like the hippy dinosaur drivel I'd read punk had set out to destroy. Mind you, I'd probably have felt the same about Faust, back then.

So I never actually heard Tusk the album at the time; but a few months
later I astonished myself by tumbling head-over-heels for "Sara", the Stevie Nicks song that provided Tusk's one bona fide hit (in the USA, anyway). Gushing out of the radio in, I guess, early 1980, the single's gold-dust rush of sound was the perfect aural analogue of the song's central, arresting image: "drowning/in the sea of love/where everyone would love to drown". Unaware of the metaphor's ancient history--which goes back through Romanticism's wombadelic dreams of "the sea of seas", through Zen, perhaps all the way to primordial memories of when life emerged from the briny deep--I was hooked by that line, and the oozy, swoony way Stevie sung it. I'd felt that oceanic impulse, the urge to merge, to be subsumed in the plenitude of "us" rather than stranded within the paucity of "me". Drowning in the sea of love--yeah, I could go for that.

Of course, it never occurred to me to buy the single; hard-earned egg-stall
money was reserved for 'relevant' releases, e.g. Gang of Four's second LP Solid
(whose dessicated drudgery I now wouldn't submit myself to if you paid me).Only when time enough had elapsed for the punk-indoctrination to fade, and I
could actually listen to forbidden fruit (e.g. Led Zeppelin), did I actually buy
Tusk, along with pretty much everything else Stevie had breathed on. I'd gotten this mad notion that Nicks' lachrymal, lump-in-throat (headful-of-snow?) voice was a precedent for the clotted, inconsolable-ness of Kristin Hersh.

Those who supervise admission to the Canon of Rock do not take Ms Nicks seriously, to put it mildly: "mooncalf", "space cadet", "hippy-chick" are the sort of pejorative hurled her way. And it's sort of understandable: how seriously can you take someone who named her publishing company Welsh Witch Music? Who--for her last interview with a UK rockmag--had her personal affects transported, at her own expense, to the photographer's studio, where her boudoir was
painstakenly recreated? In mitigation, I might propose her as the American Kate Bush (the same fascination for mythopoeic fancy, Celtic lore and old Albion). Actually, I'd rather up the stakes and make the case for Stevie as a pre-punk Liz Fraser, blessed with a voice so language-liquidising, so milk-and-honeyed, it's almost edible, definitely pre-Oedipal. Not only does Tusk contains two of Nicks' greatest songs--"Sara" and "Beautiful Child"--it also catches the Voice at its most perfect blend of husky and luscious, poised midway on the long dying arc from the nymph of "Dreams" (1977) to the rock survivor of the '80s/'90s, when age and abuse had worn her pipes down to a Marianne Faithfull croak.

A word of warning: the CD of Tusk contains a sacrilegiously truncated
edit of "Sara". Avoid this travesty and hunt down the vinyl dubble, for the full
six-and-a-half minute glory. Siphoning sheer nectar from her throat, Stevie is cradled in Buckingham's shimmerscape production--cascades of scintillating acoustic guitars, susurrating plumes of angel-breath harmonies, drums that seem to billow in out and of the mix (I imagine a totally wired Buckingham, hunched over the mixing desk, Lee Perry with a Cali perm and chest hair poking out his open shirt). At the second verse, there's a key change, the rhythm shifts to an uncanny urgency, it's like we've passed through the looking-glass; Stevie's singing becomes modal as she falls into reverie. The lyrics are elliptical, but charged with dream-time vividness: "I think I had met my match/he was singing/and undoing/the laces". The chorus is more affirmative, less otherwordly, then the song plunges back again through veils of gossamer haze into the mystic-zone; so liquefacient and iridescent is Stevie's voice, as she sings "the starling flew for days", it seems to chime and twinkle. Then the chorus--just a little too uplifting--and the song cruises off into a glorious slow-fade. I've never been able to figure out what "Sara" is about: is it a love-song to a woman, or a strange account of some kind of emotional
menage-a-trois, or just a mystical hymn to Love itself, its oceanic powers to
dissolve boundaries? Actually, I don't really want to know.

Elsewhere on Tusk, Stevie's in her Billie-Holiday-of-FM-radio mode.
The tale of a ships-passing-in-the-night tryst with an old flame, of consummated lust and unrequited love, "Beautiful Child" is exquisitely written, from the tentative, aching, dagger-in-your-heart melody to lines like "your eyes say 'yes'/but you don't say 'yes'", and it's framed in another bejewelled
Buckingham arrangement. The final stretch never fails to crush the breath out of me: a roundelay of double-tracked Stevie, plus backing harmonies, with all the voices repeating the lyrics from the last verse in counterpoint. The effect is like the heart is literally broken, a clockwork device gone out of synch, or like the lover's inner monologue is in 'random shuffle mode': self-confounding thoughts tread on each other's tails, clash and overlap, furrowing out a locked-groove of unresolvable anguish. All this is emphasised by the fatalistic trudge of the rhythm section as the song fades (yet paradoxically mounts in intensity)--like leaden steps that take you further and further into exile-from-paradise.

"Storms", the third and last Nicks gem, is also on the
angel-with-a-broken-wing tip. Drizzled in honeyed guitar, Stevie casts herself
as an elemental wild-child: "never have I been a calm blue sea/I have always
been a storm". "Angel" plays on the persona she established with "Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)", the Celtic witch who "rules her life like a bird in flight",
the proto-feminist sprite forever eluding male grasp. "Sisters Of The Moon"
harps on the Woman-as-Mystery shtick too, but the stompin' stodge-rock brings to mind unwelcome images of Stevie whirling her scarves around onstage, and when she
belts, there's a glottal wobble that reminds you why so many people regard her as
kin to Kim Carnes et al, as opposed to unacknowledged precursor to Hersh, Fraser, Merchant and Archer (Tasmin, that is).


And what of Fleetwood Mac's other two singer/songwriters, Christine McVie
and Lindsey Buckingham? (It's ironic that the band are named after the rhythm
section, although Mick & John's supple, poised grooves--schooled
in the British blues-boom--are vital to this music's sway, the way it breathes).

I've never cared much for Christine McVie's air-freshener tones.
Greil Marcus hailed her as "the premier white female singer of the ['70s]" and even "rock's answer to Lorelei" (the siren of Germanic legend whose dulcet tones lured Rhine boatmen to shipwreck). But for me, her clarity of expression wholly lacks Stevie's grain-of-the-voice viscosity. (It seems appropriate that before marrying McVie she was Christine Perfect). Still, she has sung some of FM's (the band and the medium) prettiest songs, and on Tusk she has one stone killa in the baleful "Brown Eyes", a song trembling with the tentativeness of someone on the edge of falling in love but who's been burned too many times before. Elsewhere, McVie whips up her usual meringue of diabetic harmonies for songs like "Honey Hi".

As for Lindsey--eight songs and total hegemony over the mixing-desk make
Tusk his album, really. The production is credited to
"Fleetwood Mac (special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham": is that a hint of sarcasm, or just Buckingham insisting on pre-eminence? Cramming every cranny of the soundscape with detail, fanatically tweaking the minutiae, overdubbing 'til the cows come home, Buckingham earns his special mention, and then some. In his guide to albums of the '70's, Dean of American rock-crits Robert Christgau notes the surreptitious avant-gardism at work here: the way the "passionate dissociation of the mix" means the music works "like reggae, or Eno--not only don't Lindsay Buckingham's swelling edges and dynamic separations get in the way of the music, they're inextricable from the music, or maybe they are the music."

All this is particularly evident in the placing and dislocation
of the drums and in the intricate lattice-work of the harmonies. This So-Cal hallmark, from the Beach Boys to the Eagles, is on Tusk taken to an almost pathological pitch of complexity: on "The Ledge", peculiar acoustics turn the harmonies into a vocal labyrinth, while the backing voices on
"That's All For Everyone" overlap, intertwine and converge in 3D,
like the celestial geometry of close-formation jet aerobatics. Buckingham
is also a bit of a bitchin' guitar player: dig his hornet-in-your-earhole fuzz solo on "Not That Funny" (Faust again, this time "It's A Bit Of A Pain"), or
the gently weeping C&W filigree that adorns "What Makes You Think You're
The One" (where Buckingham's saccharine sneer is reverbed like John Lennon on "Instant Karma").

Buckingham's songs--which I don't respond to as emotional statements
so much as peculiar sonic objects--range from lurching ballads encased in
wedding-cake arrangements to an odd strain of hillybilly boogie, like
the 1.58 minute canter of "That's Enough For Me" (imagine Carl Perkins filtered through Boston's "More Than A Feeling").


Back in '79, Greil Marcus was one of the few critics to defend Tusk, decrying its disappointed reception as sure and sad proof of "the growing conservatism of the rock'n'roll mainstream", and declaring that "the stand Fleetwood Mac has taken with Tusk is as brave as that Bob Dylan took with John Wesley Harding --braver, maybe, because Fleetwood Mac cannot rely on Dylan's kind of charisma, or on the kind of loyalty he commands.... With its insistence on perceptions snatched out of a blur, drawing on (but never imitating) Jamaican dub and ancient Appalachian ballads, Fleetwood Mac is subverting the music from the inside out, very much like one of John Le Carre's moles--who planted in the heart of the establishment, does not begin his secret campaign of sabotage and betrayal until everyone has gotten used to him, and takes him for granted".

Perhaps this is to attribute too much to a record only half of which really withstands close scrutiny. Still, Marcus' inclusion of the Tusk piece in In The Fascist Bathroom [aka Ranters and Crowdpleasers], his anthology of punk-related writings, is a striking feat of recontextualisation. Only 30 pages later comes a treatise on PiL's Metal Box. There are unlikely parallels between Tusk and Box: both were long-awaited double albums released late in '79, with bizarre packaging; both were essays in anti-rockism shaped by the input of dub; both were attempts (probably semi-conscious in Fleetwood Mac's case) to sidestep an audience's expectations and tamper with one's own mythology. But Marcus' juxtaposition appeals to me especially, because Metal Box was the absolute soundtrack of my angst-wracked adolescence, while "Sara", an 'aberration' in my punk-conditioned taste, was a brief glimpse of something ("the sea of love") beyond the prison-cell of misery-me.

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

The closest thing Britain had to North American FM radio at the time was, oddly, Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton - until it was forcibly turned by the then regulator into something much closer to what you'd now expect from BBC local radio (extraordinary that British regulators ever had that power, but they did).

Interesting to think of Le Carre being read and respected in the United States at all, because the subtext of his work - which was surely already becoming apparent, though I grant that it became more blatant later, to the point where it virtually became the whole text in itself - is so obviously that having to fight the Cold War (and, eventually, the Islamic world) in the name of, and subordinate to, American pop culture was such a national humiliation that being on the other side mightn't have been so bad after all.

In the end I tend to feel that Le Carre's nihilism is poisonous (to bring this somewhere near topic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was running on BBC2 just before the release of 'Tusk'), but it has very clear roots in romantic nationalism which resents the whole of modern culture - appealing enough (I know this from direct personal experience) that the case against it has to be strong and without holes.