The autumn of 1979 was, by any reasonable accounting, a challenging time to be alive. The world felt tenuous, transitional: panicked families were fleeing East Germany via hot air balloon, China was restricting couples to one child each, fifty-two Americans were barred inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, pending release of the Shah. It was also the year of Tusk, the album in which Fleetwood Mac, a soft-rock band second only to the Eagles in their embodiment of easy 1970s gloss, completely lost their minds. It was the band’s twelfth album, though only its third with the now-iconic lineup of guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, keyboardist Christine McVie, and singer Stevie Nicks, and it reflected a personal tumult so claustrophobic and intense it felt global in scale—an after-the-fall re-telling of catastrophic heartache and its endless reverberations.
By this time, Fleetwood Mac was widely beloved for its melodic, harmonized jams, which evoked Laurel Canyon, curtains of strung beads, turquoise jewelry, pricey incense, scarves flung over floor lamps, and brandy poured into a nice glass. Despite their smooth, murmuring sound, few of the band’s records pull punches emotionally, but even compared to a cry of pain like “The Chain,” Tusk is singular. It is pocked with heartbreak, resignation, lust, hope, and deep hurt. It poses unanswerable questions. It reckons with the past, and what that past means for a future. It invariably makes some people want to lock their door, excavate half a joint from the recesses of their couch cushions, and spend the next fourteen hours contemplating the Buckingham-Nicks union as one of the great failed loves of the twentieth century.
Just two years earlier, the band had released Rumours, a collection of pert and amiable love songs that sold over ten million copies and spent thirty-one weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 chart. Rumours is presently among the top ten best-selling albums in American history, and, as of 2009, has shipped more than forty million units worldwide. It was—it remains—an album owned by people who have only ever owned eleven albums.
Commercial success on that scale is, of course, a complicated thing to navigate; for Fleetwood Mac, it was presaged and then aggravated by outrageous amounts of cocaine and an awful lot of intra-band copulation. I don’t mean to be reductive about the group’s emotional dynamic, but I can’t think of another assemblage of five able-minded adults who created and survived such a preposterous tangle of romantic investments and divestments (to wit: Nicks and Buckingham, McVie and McVie, Nicks and Fleetwood, Fleetwood’s wife and former member Bob Weston, McVie and the lighting designer, and Fleetwood and Nicks’ then-married best friend—to cite just the handful of permutations known to the public).
By the time Tusk was released, the two primary relationships sustaining the band (Christine and John’s marriage, and Lindsey and Stevie’s long-standing romance) had fully dissolved, which seemed to qualify Fleetwood Mac, in some perverse way, to go on to become one of our best and bravest chroniclers of love’s horrifying tumult. Being tasked with singing backing vocals for a song written by your ex-lover, about you, months (and eventually years) after the relationship ruptured? Hold that in mind—just how excruciating that must’ve been. Then find a video of Buckingham and Nicks performing “Silver Springs” (a song written by Nicks about Buckingham, withheld from Rumours, and later released, either cruelly or keenly, as the B-side to the single “Go Your Own Way,” a song written by Buckingham about Nicks) and try not to lose your mind completely when, as if to narrate the precise mechanics of their break-up, Nicks announces: “I’ll begin not to love you… Tell myself you never loved me.”
It’s “Silver Springs,” more than any other track in the band’s pre-Tusk discography, that tells the story of how Buckingham and Nicks lost each other, and, ergo, the story of Tusk; performing the song live, they frequently end up locked in a kind of tense combat stance. When Nicks’ cool, steady voice begins to dissolve into something feral and nearly deranged (“Was I just a fool?” she finally hollers) she’ll often take steps toward him. He always meets her gaze, calmly, and with determination. Maybe they’re putting us all on, but there’s something in those moments that makes True Love—the preposterous, fairy-tale kind, the sort that never resolves itself, that can’t be outrun or eschewed, not ever, not after decades, not after a lifetime—seem entirely possible, even to the most hard-boiled cynics. I bring this up because it’s the only explanation I can think of as to how the band kept going, despite what must’ve seemed, to anyone watching, like a cataclysmic implosion. True Love doesn’t care if your relationship ends; it remains, it buoys you.
If Rumours was the band’s break-up record, Tusk covers arguably even more complicated ground: how to transform a romantic partnership into a purely creative one, while remaining mindful of all the perilous ways in which love nurtures art, and vice-versa. That the band did this at all, much less successfully, much less good-naturedly—in promotional photos for Tusk, Nicks is pictured resting her left hand disconcertingly close to a bulge in Buckingham’s blue jeans—is dumbfounding.
The result is a beautiful and terrifically strange album. From the outset, Buckingham was insistent that the band not churn out a sequel to Rumours. His was a defensive, contrarian pose: Let’s deliberately not recreate that colossal commercial and critical success; let's instead do something different, artier, less bulletproof, more experimental, more explicitly influenced by punk and new-wave, and less indebted to pop. Tusk contains twenty songs and is seventy-two minutes long. It retailed for $15.98 (or $52.88, in 2016 dollars). Its terrifically unattractive cover features a grainy, off-center photograph of a disembodied foot getting chomped on by a dog. The title is a euphemism for cock. Its sequencing is plainly insane, seesawing between two equally manic moods: “Everything is totally going to be fine!!!” and “This plane is going down and we’re all going to die!!!”
Tusk took thirteen months to make, and was the first record to amass production costs of over a million dollars. It was called self-indulgent, and it is. Legends abound regarding the details of its composition and recording. Nicks described their space in Studio D as having been adorned with “shrunken heads and leis and Polaroids and velvet pillows and saris and sitars and all kinds of wild and crazy instruments, and the tusks on the console, like living in an African burial ground.” Everyone agrees Buckingham was losing it a little—that he was chasing something (artistic greatness? avant-garde credibility?) and pursuing it wildly, haphazardly, like a crazed housecat stalking a black fly about the living room. Did he really have a drum set installed in his bathroom so he could play while on his toilet? (More reasonable minds have suggested he merely liked the acoustics in there.)
One solid argument against Tusk—though it could also be levied against Rumours—is that it lacks narrative coherence, in part because it features three songwriters (Nicks, Buckingham, and McVie), each working in their own distinct style. Still, while Nicks and McVie contributed some truly lovely tracks—“Sara,” “Beautiful Child,” “Think About Me”—the record clearly belongs to Buckingham, who wrote nearly half its songs, insisted upon its scope, and is its unquestionable spiritual center, the hamster on its wheel. The engineer Ken Caillat described Buckingham as “a maniac” during the sessions. He said it without equivocation. “The first day, I set the studio up as usual. Then he said, ‘Turn every knob 180 degrees from where it is now and see what happens.’ He’d tape microphones to the studio floor and get into a sort of push-up position to sing. Early on, he came in and he’d freaked out in the shower and cut off all his hair with nail scissors. He was stressed.”
At one point, Buckingham insisted that the band rent out Dodgers Stadium, and arranged to have the 112-piece U.S.C. Marching Band back them on the title track (his bandmates went along with this; none of the group’s foundational romantic relationships were intact, but Tusk still couldn’t have been made by people who didn’t trust one another implicitly). “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? Why don’t you tell me who’s on the phone?” Buckingham and Nicks chant, their voices paranoid. Buried somewhere in there is a riff that could have sold a zillion cassingles, had this been 1977. But it wasn’t.
Though Tusk’s most memorable tracks are also its strangest (like “The Ledge,” a manic, pitter-pattering kiss-off in which the band’s signature harmonies are overridden by a guitar that’s been tuned down and turned up), there are a handful of songs that harken back to Rumours’ rich palatability. “Save Me A Place” plays like an extension, at least lyrically, of “Go Your Own Way,” in which Buckingham begrudges his lover’s unwillingness to grab what he’s half-offering her. A lot of Buckingham’s lyrics from the late ‘70s seem to simultaneously admit trepidation and cast him as the aggrieved party; he seems, in an endearing way, oblivious to his own caveats, or how they might dissuade another person. “Guess I want to be alone, and I guess I need to be amazed/Save me a place, I'll come running if you love me today,” he sings on “Save Me A Place.” He later described the song as vulnerable. “None of us had the luxury of distance to get closure… It’s about a feeling that’s been laid off to one side and maybe not been fully dealt with, sadness and a sense of loss.” It captures the wildness of recovery: what happens when love dissipates, and you have to find a new thing to believe in? What if that thing is work?
Buckingham funneled all of his disorientation into these songs. Tusk is, more than anything else, a document of that feeling and that process—of bewilderment turning into ambition writ large. What happens when a complicated, wounded person grows exhausted and unimpressed by the commercial medium he took to naturally, maybe even instinctively, but no longer believes is important or curative? It’s not hard to imagine the voice of Buckingham’s internal foil during these sessions, whispering seedily, naysaying each new melody, pushing for more: “This is fine, but it’s not Art.” I don’t know anyone who cares about making things who hasn’t at some point lobbed the exact same challenge at themselves: Can’t you do better? Hasn’t someone done this before? Haven’t you done this before? You get the sense of a broken-down person trying to rebuild himself. He is diligent about getting the architecture right.
All of which makes “I Know I’m Not Wrong”—the first song the band started recording for Tusk, and the last one to be finished – even more poignant. When Tusk was reissued, in 2015, the expanded release included six (!) different “I Know I’m Not Wrong” demos, all recorded by Buckingham in his home studio. The chorus is a declaration of intention, of confidence: “Don't blame me/Please be strong/I know I'm not wrong.” It’s not a thing a person gets to say very often. But Tusk isn’t a record that gets made more than once.