Fleetwood Mac’s 12th album is both demented and debonair, familiar and foreign — a sprawling double LP that, like the Beatles’ White Album before it, reveled in its own messiness, jumbling together the work of three distinct songwriters. Singer Stevie Nicks and keyboardist Christine McVie carried the commercial weight on Tusk, penning playful pop grooves (the latter’s “Think About Me”) and stormy rockers (the former’s “Sisters of the Moon”) that massaged the same sweet spot as their previous record, the mega-platinum 1977 masterwork Rumours.
But Lindsey Buckingham was unwilling to repeat himself. Savoring the edgier modern sounds of New Wave and punk, the singer-guitarist prepared to march into the unknown — whether or not his bandmates were interested in the journey. That friction ultimately defines Tusk, the band’s fractured masterpiece.
“The explosion of the punk movement had changed the musical landscape, and the popular conception was that bands like ours, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Elton John and everyone else from our era, were a bunch of dinosaurs who’d lost touch with the real world,” drummer Mick Fleetwood wrote in his 2014 autobiography, Then Play On. “That wasn’t true, of course — we were in touch and aware of all those changes in culture, Lindsey most of all. He was intrigued by punk bands like the Clash and lots of New Wave artists such as Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson, and he wanted to follow that muse creatively. The issue for him was whether or not he was going to be able to do that with the rest of us.”
They did, of course, in the most Fleetwood Mac way possible: with lots of drama and loads of cocaine. And they wound up with 20 songs that showcased each facet of their style — from the twangy, galloping mania of “That’s Enough for Me” (which Buckingham once described as “rockabilly on acid”) to the title track’s brassy, percussive chaos.
“I think Tusk is a spectacular record,” Nicks said in the liner notes to the album’s 2015 reissue. “We were all down with getting heavy, but Lindsey was really trying to make it weirder and heavier than any of us were able to comprehend. But we went along. We followed him up that mountain!”
In honor of Tusk‘s 40th anniversary, here are 10 things you may not know about the band’s most outrageous LP.
1. Fleetwood Mac recorded the bulk of Tusk in their own space at L.A.’s Village Recorder, Studio D, which they had built using some of their advance album royalties. They eventually racked up more than $1 million in costs, the first LP to ever cross that threshold.
Ironically, the band entered the Tusk sessions with a more frugal mindset. They’d already envisioned recording a double LP, allowing each of their songwriters enough room to stretch out — but that plan promised financial ruin after the drug-and-drink-fueled sessions for Rumours. (The quintet considered thanking their cocaine dealer in that record’s credits before he was killed via gang violence.) The solution: avoid the punch-clock by investing their royalties into a space at the Village Recorder, a state-of-the-art studio that formerly functioned as a Masonic Temple and meditation headquarters of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Given their collective lack of self-control, they should have known that their plan wouldn’t work out. The band transformed Studio D into their own weird, expensive oasis — ordering fancy lobster dinners and lavishly decorating vocal booths. “When we were locked up in Studio D for a year — with the 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 — it was heavy, intense heavy,” Nicks said in the reissue liner notes.
Christine McVie called the excess “quite absurd” in a 2015 Uncut interview. “The studio contract rider for refreshments was like a telephone directory,” she said. “Exotic food delivered to the studio, crates of champagne. And it had to be the best, with no thought of what it cost. Stupid. Really stupid. Somebody once said that with the money we spent on champagne on one night, they could have made an entire album. And it’s probably true.”
2. Buckingham demoed several of his songs at home before bringing them to the band. When he got to the studio, he lobbied for — and received — a replica of his personal bathroom in order to capture the “amazing sound” he was churning up.
Buckingham was eager to experiment on Tusk, to move away from the perfect intonation and sleek engineering that defined Rumours in favor of the rawness and realness he admired in New Wave and punk. Sticking a microphone in the bathroom was apparently a natural move.
“What I’m basically trying to do is take a track that we cut in the studio which has very, very dry sounds on it — no ambience, no echo at all — and selectively, say, take the snare drums and vocals, run them through these speakers [and] mic the bathroom, which is right across the hall, which has an amazing sound: 1927 bathrooms, believe me — they’re rock & roll all the way,” he said in studio footage from the Tusk era. “[I] mic what’s being recorded in there and record it back on some empty tracks so that the whole song takes on a much more atmospheric sort of feel to it.”
In the same clip, Fleetwood argues that Buckingham’s home-to-studio process marked the “peak” of the guitarist’s “creative smarts.” Given the end product, it’s hard to argue: The guitarist was willing to take risks, even if that meant dangling a microphone precariously close to a toilet.
3. Even when he entered the studio, Buckingham experimented restlessly with recording techniques — often to the annoyance of others.
In contrast to the quintessentially lush, epic-scale production of Nicks’ and Christine McVie’s songs, Buckingham’s Tusk tunes are full of harsh tones, jagged arrangements, and vocal performances that feel almost confrontationally haggard. That’s because, by the time he’d entered Studio D, he’d already ripped apart his recording rulebook and set it ablaze.
“I remember Lindsey used to make such a horrible sound,” engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat told me for 2018’s Fleetwood Mac FAQ, noting how Buckingham had entered the studio with chopped-down hair and layered make-up on his face. “He would physically make me distort the guitar so that it sounded like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard. I remember when he was recording ‘Not That Funny,’ he insisted he wanted a really weird-sounding vocal, so he made us tape a microphone to a tile floor, and he was doing a push-up over the microphone, singing, ‘Not — that — funny — is — it?!’ Anything to make it weirder was better on his songs.” (Evidence of the push-up technique survives — in one scene from the previous clip, Buckingham coos out “ooh-ahh” vocals into the floor.)
Elsewhere, Buckingham messed around with playback speeds, tuned down his guitar to bass range — the trashy guitar sound on his ramshackle cowpunk ditty “The Ledge” — and, with Fleetwood, banged around on random junk for percussion sounds (on the title track, he and Fleetwood utilize lamb chops and a Kleenex box, respectively).
“I was losing a great deal of myself,” Buckingham told Mojo. “My thought was, let’s subvert the norm. Let’s slow the tape machine down, or speed it up, or put the mike on the bathroom floor and sing and beat on, uh, a Kleenex box! My mind was racing.”
4. Nicks’ “Sara” was inspired in part by an unborn child that resulted from an affair with the Eagles’ Don Henley. The track caused some serious issues in the studio.
Stevie Nicks rarely writes a conventional love song, and “Sara” is one of her most complex and mysterious, alluding to romance, friendship, and unrealized motherhood. “Had I married Don and had that baby, and had she been a girl, I would have named her Sara,” she told Billboard when asked about her relationship with Henley. “But there was another woman in my life named Sara, who shortly after that became Mick’s wife, Sara Fleetwood.”
The song’s elegant album version originated from Nicks’ monstrous home demo, which featured several verses that never made it to the final LP. “I played it for J.D. [Souther] and Don Henley, and they both said, ‘You know what, it’s almost not too long. It’s good in its full 16 minuteness — it’s got all these great verses and it just kinda travels through the world of your relationships,’” she said in the reissue liner notes. “They were really complimentary to me and these are two great songwriters. I knew I had to edit it down, but I found it hard to get below seven minutes.”
She eventually took an ax to the track, chopping it down to the 6:22 album version — and then the 4:37 single that wound up a minor U.S. hit. And it was just as tough for Fleetwood to find his way into the track, navigating around a guide vocal that included accidental leakage from her rough piano part.
“The timing of it was just so individual – there was no way [Christine McVie] could get in there,” Fleetwood added. “The vocal and piano were just not able to be separated. But the guys were saying, ‘The timing is all over the place,’ so I said, ‘Just let me weasel around and make it okay. If I’m playing brushes there’s no absolutes, no hits, it can just grease around.’ So I spent about 24 hours — a long, long time — dropping in phrases, schmoozing my way around her timing, and that’s the track that survived, with Stevie playing piano.”
5. The rhythmic core of the manic “Tusk” originated from a brass band Fleetwood heard in France.
In retrospect “Tusk” was an odd choice for a lead single: a nervous, jittery Buckingham sing-along with a mysterious title, an out-of-nowhere drum freakout, and only a handful of lyrics, with the bone-dry tom-toms mixed louder than the whispered vocals. Then there are the interjections of the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band, whom Fleetwood recruited after encountering a brass band outside his hotel room in the French fishing village of Barfleur.
“I was in a room in the town square with a horrific hangover, and I was woken by the sound of the local brass band that relentlessly went round and round the square,” he told British GQ in 2015. “As the day went on, they got drunker and drunker. But one thing was apparent. Everyone followed the brass band around the town, and I thought, ‘What a good idea!’”
The massive, 112-piece USC band tracked their performance live at the L.A.’s Dodger Stadium, and the surreal scene was famously filmed for a promo video.
6. Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac’s co-founder and chief songwriter of their early blues era, contributed a brief guitar cameo to Christine McVie’s airy ballad “Brown Eyes.”
Green’s most productive years were behind him by 1979, when he dropped by Studio D for this somewhat random guest spot. He’d been out of Fleetwood Mac for nine years by this point, battling mental illness and problematic drug use, and his solo career had become a commercial afterthought — a sad tumble into obscurity for a guitarist once anointed the most innovative in England.
This studio reunion should have been legendary. Instead, hardly anyone remembers it happened — or exactly how it happened.
“I remember [Fleetwood Mac guitar tech] Ray Lindsey was jamming with Peter because Peter wanted to have a guitar player to play with him,” Caillat told me in Fleetwood Mac FAQ. “But that’s not going to make the record. I just remember that I thought it was kinda silly — the guy who should have stayed there was Lindsey, and then it would have been historic. But he just kinda took off like he didn’t want to be bothered or didn’t want to be shown up. I don’t know. To the point where a guitar player, Ray Lindsey, stoned out of his brain, was playing. I remember [co-producer Richard Dashut] was playing drums by the time Mick was too screwed up to play. It was not even worth pressing the record button.”
Green’s contribution amounted to a truncated flurry of notes in the fade-out — not exactly the dual-guitar fireworks Caillat had hoped for. “I don’t remember Peter Green coming in, so I don’t think I made any judgement on whether to use [his part] or not,” Buckingham said. “Mick would ultimately have had the decision to use his playing or not. And it was Christine’s song to do with as she wished.” Fleetwood added, “I can’t recall why we only used Peter at the very end, but it’s great that he’s on here, because it’s Peter and it’s his band.”
The session generated more magic than originally thought: A bluesier version of the song, featuring Green’s full performance, appeared on an expanded Tusk reissue in 2015.
7. Buckingham reportedly consulted the Beach Boys’ then-unreleased Smile recordings for “research purposes” during the sessions, taking his Brian Wilson obsession to a new level.
Buckingham worshiped Wilson for approaching pop like high art. You can hear the influence in their mutual love of complex vocal harmony, widescreen production, and avant-garde arrangements.
“Pet Sounds is the acknowledged masterpiece, and it’s everything it’s said to be, with Brian taking some of the influences he got from Phil Spector and making something all his own,” Buckingham wrote in his Beach Boys dedication for Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists list. “But even before that there’s Side Two of The Beach Boys Today!, which is really just one ballad after another and is for me one of the great sides on a rock album. Those are beautiful numbers — “Please Let Me Wonder,” “Kiss Me Baby,” “She Knows Me Too Well,” “In the Back of My Mind” — that foreshadow Brian’s angst and show where he’s starting to expose his vulnerability. A lot of what you find later on Pet Sounds or Smile, you could find in a different form early on.”
By 1979, Wilson had long since abandoned the latter LP, a self-declared “teenage symphony to God” full of ornate, interwoven fragments, and progressive pop pilgrimages. But the unfinished sessions had become mythical among musicians and diehard fans, Buckingham among them. And according to Domenic Priore’s 2005 book, Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece, the guitarist “accessed” the tapes while recording Tusk, perhaps channeling Wilson’s work on two especially dreamy cuts: his own “That’s All for Everyone” and Nicks’ “Beautiful Child.”
8. The album was a commercial disappointment, relative to Rumour‘s blockbuster status. And while the glut of experimental songs contributed to that backslide, the record company’s strange promotional ideas didn’t help.
Tusk wasn’t even close to a “flop” in the broader commercial sense, topping the U.K. charts and landing at Number Four in the U.S. — not a bad return on investment when you consider the amount of bathroom recording involved. But Warner Brothers certainly didn’t do the band any favors on the promo side, playing the double LP in full one day before its release date via the Westwood One radio network.
“That was ridiculous, and that was Warner Brothers’ fault,” Fleetwood told Discoveries in 2004. “I said, ‘I don’t think you should be doing this,’ and they said, ‘Oh no, it’s all part of a new thing, friendly to radio.’ But there are people with tape machines out there. And they played the whole album! I should have stopped it. But they’d convinced me it was part of a new, cutting-edge marketing thing. Who knows how much damage it did? To me it was like a milestone of stupidity, and rolling the dice unnecessarily. But the album survives.”
It also didn’t help that the album’s list price was just under $16, a lofty price for the late Seventies. (Calculated for inflation, that’s around $56 in 2019 terms.)
9. There are a lot of theories about the album title. Depending on the source, the name was inspired by the African nature photography of Peter Beard (who worked on the surreal collages that adorn the album’s inner packaging), by Fleetwood’s nickname for his own penis, or by genitalia in general.
No one seems to agree on the origins of Tusk’s mysterious title. Caillat recalled some band members using the tusk as a symbol for “male prowess” — an in-joke that he found quite irritating. “I used to get so annoyed when these guys would be talking about it, like, ‘Get it, “Tusk”?’” he told me in Fleetwood Mac FAQ. “Yeah, I get it. What, are you six years old?” He emphasized that, despite the chatter, the name had “nothing to do with Mick’s penis.”
Dashut concurred. “What I’m fairly certain of is that it didn’t come from the dick meaning,” he said. “I know we joked about that, but I don’t think we were that frivolous to make that the album title. It was part of the artwork and the overall artistic concept. I’m not sure if any of us knew what it meant.”
Larry Vigon, the band’s art director during that period, said it originated from the elephant references in Beard’s artwork. And Beard himself added, succinctly, “The album was named Tusk because of all my photographs with tusks in them.”
10. Mick Fleetwood re-recorded the Buckingham track “Walk a Thin Line” for his 1981 LP, The Visitor, with a cameo from his ex-brother-in-law George Harrison.
Fleetwood has always banged the drum for Tusk over the years, hyping it over its multi-platinum predecessor. (“Along with [1969’s] Then Play On, it’s probably my favorite Fleetwood Mac album,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016.) So it makes sense that, when assembling the track list for The Visitor, he decided to rework this meditative Buckingham cut, along with the band’s early blues anthem “Rattlesnake Shake.” The result is breezier and more uptempo, featuring backing vocals from a group of African musicians and a more conventional pop lead vocal from George Hawkins.
Luckily, Harrison was also available for the session, and his signature slide-guitar twang adds another dimension to this otherwise snoozy cover. “I really loved the song and wished that I’d written it,” Fleetwood told MusicRadar in 2012. “I approached it with a whole ensemble of African musicians, so as a percussion player, during these recordings, I was, as we say in England, ‘like a pig in shit.’”