‘Get Tusked:’ How Once Stately Fleetwood Mac Went Bipolar

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In the fall of 1974, Mick Fleetwood, the leader of Fleetwood Mac, was looking for a Los Angles studio to record his band’s next album. While touring L.A.’s Sound City studios, he was played a tape by producer Keith Olsen, to hear what the studio was capable of. On it was a cut from an otherwise stillborn LP titled Buckingham Nicks, recorded by a young singer-songwriter duo at Sound City. Their album was a bomb in terms of sales, but Fleetwood liked what he heard. Stevie Nicks, the singer, and Lindsey Buckingham, the guitarist, had created a hip version of the then-prominent singer-songwriter template that dominated the American charts of the mid-’70s, with the earnest likes of Jim Croce, Don McLean, and the Carpenters. Buckingham-Nicks had discovered that the harmonies and acoustic guitar playing go down much better if the tempos are speeded up a bit, and the rhythm section has a bit of muscle to it.

This was something that Mick Fleetwood, as a drummer, could relate to. His guitarist, Bob Welch, had recently quit, and Fleetwood needed a replacement – fast. (Welch himself was the replacement for Peter Green; as Buckingham later joked, guitarists in Fleetwood Mac are the equivalent of drummers in Spinal Tap.) Fleetwood sent out an offer to Buckingham to join, but the latter was insistent: Nicks had to join as well, as part of a package deal. Reluctantly, Fleetwood agreed.

The band went into Sound City on February 1975 and recorded the eponymously-titled Fleetwood Mac, which initially sold steadily. (As Kent Hartman wrote in Goodnight L.A, Fleetwood Mac’s U.S. sales in the early 1970s averaged about 220,000 albums each time they released a new LP. “The inside joke had always been that, year in and year out, although far from a superstar act, Fleetwood Mac at least always dependably covered Warner Bros. Records’ light bill.”) But the band toured relentlessly to support it, and by September of 1976 it was number one on the charts, and eventually sold over seven million copies in the U.S. But before that momentous occasion, in February of 1976, Fleetwood Mac entered the Record Plant recording studio in Sausalito to record its sequel.

As the sales of Fleetwood Mac began to soar, in order to cement the band’s reputation, the pressure increased to deliver an equally hit-filled sequel.

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Ken Caillat began Rumours as its recording engineer, and by the time the album was done eight months later, he was promoted by Mick Fleetwood to co-producer. His 2012 book, Making Rumours, The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album describes some of the craziness that went on during the album: the breakdown of the relationship of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks; the divorce of keyboardist Christine McVie and John McVie; and the divorce of Mick Fleetwood and Jenny Boyd (the sister of Patti Boyd, later Pattie Harrison, and then Pattie Clapton).

And a strange white powder became omnipresent during the sessions, leading to a practical joke Caillat played on the band:

Stevie was in the control room with us, and everyone was encouraging me to go for it. “Okay . . .” I heaved a big sigh. Having second thoughts almost immediately, I picked up the baggie from the flap at the top, pinching the bottom of the baggie closed with two fingers until I got into position. I headed out through the double doors into iso 2, and then I went straight into the studio.

“Who’s first?” I held the baggie up high, releasing the roll, and it unfurled upside down, flour falling to the floor all around me. Deliberately not paying attention, I clumsily flailed around the studio, offering the bag haphazardly to anyone who was interested.

Aghast, Christine, John, and Mick were speechless for a second, eyes glued to the disaster that they thought was unfolding in front of them. Mick and John started pointing wildly, words still not available to them.

Christine spat out at me from her keyboard, “My God, you stuu-pid twit! You’re spilling it!”

I spun around fast, expelling more of the flour in a circle around me, and Mick and John rose almost in unison and started toward me. Maybe the joke’s on me, I suddenly thought. I started to back away from the soundproof control room, and we could all hear muted hysterical laughter. I turned around to see Richard laughing so hard that he was bent in half. Stevie was up off the couch, pointing and laughing. Back then, Stevie had a really great sense of humor. Then I started laughing, too, as understanding dawned on Mick, Christine, and John.

“You bas-tard! You really got us good!” Mick cracked up. “It wasn’t the real blow?” he asked, just to be sure.

During the coke-fueled making of Rumours, a power struggle emerged between Mick Fleetwood, the band’s co-founder, and until that point its leader, and his guitarist and songwriter. Buckingham, inspired by his teenage idol, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, began to be increasingly dictatorial in the parts he wanted from Fleetwood and McVie, both veteran musicians who had played with some of the greatest guitarists in the world: Peter Green, and Eric Clapton, during their earlier stint as the rhythm section of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. They did not respond well to Buckingham’s tactics, Caillat writes; by the time they were recording their follow-up album, when out of earshot of Buckingham, John McVie referred to him as “F*ckingham.”

But Buckingham’s reinvention of the band handsomely rewarded everyone’s bank account. Once Rumours was complete, its sales were phenomenal, going to eight million albums sold in the U.S. alone.

Its follow-up double album, 1979’s Tusk, is the subject of Caillat’s newest book, Get Tusked: The Inside Story of Fleetwood Mac’s Most Anticipated Album, co-written with Tusk engineer Hernan Rojas. Whereas during Rumours, Fleetwood Mac was a veteran road warrior band about to ascend to superstardom, by the time of the Tusk recording sessions, they were the toast of Los Angeles in the late ’70s. They had the ultimate in rock & roll superstardom: they had built their own custom-designed recording studio in the facilities of L.A.’s Village Recorder Studios. Cocaine and pot were omnipresent during the sessions, as was a fair amount of paranoia and hauteur. Get Tusked‘s title derives from the barriers that Fleetwood Mac put up around itself, thanks to their newfound mega-stardom:

The term Get Tusked basically means “Go f*** yourself.” This was the attitude Fleetwood Mac had adopted under the onslaught of its new-found fame and fortune. Successful beyond all measure, the band members found themselves at loose ends, looking for a way forward in the face of insurmountable expectation. They reacted in the most outrageous way possible: Tusk.

Every album has a secret life, a story untold that lives only in the men and women who gave birth to it. This is the story of an ambitious band and the making of its most ambitious record in that frozen moment. This is a book about a band in the midst of unexpected stardom, wealth, and independence. A band that took a stand, challenged its confused audience with a style made up of many styles, and made a noble failure. It’s also a story about a misunderstood double album that resiliently endures and continues to resonate with younger generations.

Once again, Lindsey Buckingham was driving the craziness. Fearful of making Rumours Part II in the era of Devo and the Ramones, Buckingham arrived on the first day of the sessions with his beard gone and long curly hair sheared away by his own hand:

“Lindsey, what the hell did you do to your beautiful hair?” Christine asked, clearly dumbfounded and anxious for his explanation.

“I don’t know. I was in the shower after [his then-girlfriend] Carol and I had a fight and I just lost it. I grabbed a pair of scissors and just started chopping my hair off,” Lindsey said, “and once I started, I pretty much had to finish the job.” This story, although strange, was not atypical of Fleetwood Mac in general. Lindsey explained he was in a rut and needed to shake things up in his life.

Caillat had crafted the very definition of mellow rock on Rumours, but Buckingham had something much more radical in mind this time around, even if, on the first day of recording, he couldn’t quite define his vision to his engineers and co-producers:

Lindsey smiled oddly and then said to me, “Ken, are you happy with the sound you guys got on this?”

“You bet!” I said truthfully.

Then, he said something he had never said before to me during Rumours.

“Okay, now I want you to turn all your knobs one hundred eighty degrees in the opposite direction!”

“What?!” I asked, totally astounded and confused at his request and his intention behind it. “Lindsey, if I do that, it will ruin the sound that we have in here,” I pleaded, even though he knew that just as well as I did.

“Just do it now!” he said in an agitated tone of voice. Then, he paused for declamatory effect, “I don’t want this to be another Rumours. I don’t want to make the same record twice like the Eagles did!”

“Okay,” I capitulated, “but how am I to do my job? I can’t just turn all the knobs a hundred eighty degrees the wrong way the whole album.” This wasn’t my first time dealing with a frustrated guitarist, especially this one. “Do you want to change your guitar sound? Are you saying you’d like this album to emphasize the bottom end more, to have a darker tone with less sparkle?” I reasoned.

Lindsey thought for a moment and then said, “Umm, yeah, I guess that’s what I’m saying.”

“All right, then; let’s try that, a darker album,” I relented. It was an auspicious beginning to what was supposed to be the follow-up album by California’s sunniest band. Somehow his new look made everyone feel even more ill at ease. For the rest of the night, Lindsey built his song brick by brick without the contributions of the rest of the band. After everyone was spent, He announced his vision: that he saw a different direction for this album, and if the rest of them didn’t do what he said, he’d quit the band.

And thus, another Fleetwood Mac album begins with plenty of high drama and tension in the air.

Tusk was recorded in 1978-1979, and during that period, the L.A. music scene began to change radically. Out of style were bands that looked like Led Zeppelin and Peter Frampton – guys in bell-bottom blue jeans with long permed curly shags, and thanks to new wave and punk, back in was clean short hair, Armani suits, and even crew cuts. Buckingham was terrified of repeating the laid-back formula of Rumours. (“I don’t want to make the same record twice like the Eagles did!”) So he was eager to experiment. Eventually, he arrived, on several of his songs, with an echoed psycho-rockabilly sound, with many of the parts recorded or reprocessed in his own home:

“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 or echo at all, and selectively, say, take the snare drums and the vocals and run them through these speakers and mike the bathroom, which is right across the hall, and which has an amazing sound. I mean, 1927 bathrooms, believe me, are rock and roll all the way. I mike what’s being recorded in there and record it back onto some empty tracks, so the whole song takes on a more atmospheric sort of feel to it.”

Parts of Tusk, like the title song, worked in their own quirky way, with the latter along the lines of the orchestral overdubs on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” except, for even more weirdness, with the USC marching band, recorded on location at Dodger Stadium, to boot:

This was the earliest I’d seen the Fleetwood Mac awake when not on tour, but everyone was exhilarated and a party atmosphere prevailed. Stevie remarked to Christine, “Who are we to deserve the USC marching band to play for us?” To which Chris responded with typical English archness, “Stevie, don’t be so humble.” None of the finer points of the recording had been discussed yet; we just planned to arrive and wing it and record whatever they had.

* * * * * * * *

If you weren’t a member of the recording team, you were having a really good time. Spirits were high and the outdoor location served as a release for all the tensions that had accumulated during the year we had spent in our dark rooms. We had sent John off on his boat trip to Hawaii, and [promotional assistant Judy Wong] had a life-size John McVie cutout made, which only added to the surrealism of what was taking place. Everywhere you looked, there was John, standing and saying nothing, which wasn’t too different from the studio, as he could be very soft spoken. I found it funny to see Christine carrying him around in one hand with a glass of Champagne in the other.

And somehow, they pulled it off, making an album whose fans appreciate its quirkiness to this day, in part because of the chances taken, and the wide variety of styles on the double album’s tracks. But unlike Rumours, Tusk “only” sold two million copies. As a result, Warner Brothers began to take a much closer look at the bottom line when it came to studio costs and endless recording sessions.

Today, record labels are even more stingy with studio costs, for all but the most ozone layer of superstars. The music business is now a very different world, a topic we discussed in our earlier article, “‘Recording in Progress:’ Newly Arrived Documentary Explores the Changing World of the Recording Studio.” But for a look back at the music industry’s Gilded Age, Making Rumours and Get Tusked are fun-to-read books on how two best-selling albums came together, with plenty of enjoyable anecdotes, from a band that creates plenty of its own drama, to this very day.

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