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Book Review: Tusk

By Clive Young. Rob Trucks’ "Tusk" dissects Fleetwood Mac's oft-dismissed follow-up to the 23-million-selling classic album, "Rumours." Between pioneering home recording efforts, remodeling a studio it didn’t own and hiring out both the USC Marching Band and Dodger Stadium, the band famously burned through $1.4 million in its quest to deliver a sprawling, 20-song artistic statement.

By Clive Young.

The 33 1/3 books are an ongoing series of mini-tomes about notable, usually near-classic albums by famous acts. “Near” is the operative word here, as they’re often not about The Classic Album but the one next to it—not Appetite For Destruction but Use Your Illusion I/II; not The Queen Is Dead but Meat Is Murder; not Nevermind but In Utero; and so on. Such is the case with Rob Trucks’ Tusk, a 131-page take on not Rumours but….

Of course, the catch is that you can’t talk about Fleetwood Mac’s sprawling 1979 double album without talking about its immediate predecessor–or the albums of varying achievement that came after it. Nonetheless, while most Fleetwood Mac biographies would focus most closely on 1977’s career-defining Rumours, Trucks’ book is far more interested in what happened in the undulating, immediate wake of its success.

The well-known answer is that Lindsay Buckingham took over the reins for the Mac’s next record as guitarist/singer/main-songwriter/producer, and created an opus that was openly, aggressively Not Rumours. The resulting mix of Art Rock, New Wave and, well, Fleetwood Mac was seen as a failure; Trucks repeats a few times that the drop in sales from 23 million for Rumours to 4 million for its follow-up is the all-time biggest plunge in music history. Ironically, that oh-so-terrible sales figure would welcomed with open arms by the record industry today, easily making for a best-selling album of the year.

Success or failure, Tusk is now largely perceived as Buckingham’s album, and an influential one at that. Some of that comes down to songwriting, which Trucks tries to illustrate–with mixed results–by discussing the LP with members of indie acts like Wolf Parade, Camper Van Beethoven and The New Pornographers.

Tusk’s greatest legacy, however, may well be that it presaged the abandonment of major studios for the private experimentation afforded by home recording. In 2011, Buckingham was presented the TEC Foundation’s Les Paul Award, given annually to “a musician or recording professional whose work has epitomized the marriage of music and technology.” At least some of that reputation stemmed from his pioneering home recording efforts on Tusk, where he built up many tracks by playing tissue boxes for drums or taping vocals while on his hands and knees in his bathroom. That’s not to say that the album was done on the cheap, however, as Trucks readily acknowledges:

This is how the story goes:
Before Tusk recording begins, Mick, as manager, approaches the record company, the record company that has just been delivered the best-selling album in its history, and suggests that the band purchase its own studio.
With a record company advance, of course.
The record company says No. A mistake, considering they will ultimately shell out a record-setting $1.4 million to custom-fit Studio D [of The Village Recorder] and receive nothing but the Tusk master tapes in return.

And then there’s the small matter of hiring out the USC Spirit of Troy Marching Band and Dodger Stadium to record the title track. Trumpet player Gretchen Heffler recalls in the book that session didn’t go too smoothly either:

“When we got to Dodger Stadium, we pretty much knew what to do, but we were still struggling in the infield. That recording took a while to get. I remember the director and Mick getting a little frustrated with us. Everybody was trying because nobody was really messing around, and we were known for messing around, so everybody was really focused, but it took a while and then they got enough where I think they could splice together, because a lot of it, I think, is a real cut-and-paste.”

The end result of $1.4 million and a year’s recording was an ambitious, 20-song album that Trucks concedes “is in no way perfect. Far from it.” Tusk can be cast as many things—a cautionary tale of art versus commerce; an allegory for the rise and fall of the music business; or just the sound of five people struggling to figure out what comes after Everything You Ever Wanted. As Buckingham himself states in one of the book’s interviews, “The double-edged sword of that kind of success is that it gives you freedom–but you’ve also got to have the perspective to use the freedom.”