Ross Palmer on “What Makes You Think You’re the One?” by Fleetwood Mac

Old dog, new tricks: Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk

Lindsey Buckingham did not want the follow-up to Rumours to sound like Rumours. That much we can say for sure: he infuriated the engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat by asking for sounds completely alien to his sensibilities (almost literally so: Buckingham would insist that Caillat turn the knobs of whatever device they were using 180 degrees from wherever they were set before he’d start recording a take) and bemused his band mates by playing them the Clash’s first record and trying to convince them that this is what they needed to sound like!

It was the late 1970s and Buckingham was convinced that his band had to evolve or die. History proved him right – their generation of artists either had to come to terms with the new music and fashions or wait a few years to start playing the nostalgia circuit. The majority updated their haircuts and wardrobes, bought synthesisers and drum machines, pushed up the sleeves of their pastel sports jackets and tried to make post-new-wave pop hits.

Buckingham should have realised that he was on a hiding to nothing. For all his good intentions, he couldn’t make Fleetwood Mac’s slick Californian navel-gazing into raucous English punk. But what the band came up with in the attempt was much more interesting than if they’d have succeeded. The appeal of Tusk lies in the tension between Buckingham’s aims for the record and the band’s failure to quite get there; between his own nervous, fractured songs and the material given to him by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie.

Lacking the woody warmth of Rumours (partly, perhaps, due to the album being recorded on an early digital system called Soundstream, rather than to analogue tape), Tusk’s Buckingham-penned songs turn away from mainstream LA rock, only for those written by Nicks and McVie to attempt to return to it. The attempted fusion of slick, albeit heartfelt, West Coast AOR with this raw and ragged new music resulted in a record that was uncategorisable: Fleetwood Mac gone askew, covert punk rock on a superstar budget.

Buckingham had recorded demos for his songs in his house and, enamoured with the sounds he got by recording in his bathroom, had a replica of his bathroom built in the studio. On some songs, he played all the instruments himself, painstakingly Xeroxing his lo-fi demos in a hi-fi studio. “What Makes You Think You’re the One?”, fortunately, was one song that he let Mick Fleetwood and John McVie play on (though not the fastidious and precise Christine). Buckingham has remarked that something about hearing that drum sound in his headphones, with its clangy slap-back delay, turned Fleetwood into an animal. His unhinged performance is hilarious, the highlight of the track: he beats his snare drum mercilessly, four to the bar for the entire song. It’s a joy to hear such a tasteful musician playing so uninhibitedly, throwing away all restraint, while Buckingham bashes out incongruously chirpy piano quavers and cackles maniacally.

Critics didn’t know quite what to make of all this and neither did the public. Tusk sold “only” four million copies in the US, less than a quarter of Rumours’s figures. Yet Tusk’s critical reputation has soared in recent years as West Coast-influenced artists such as Midlake, Best Coast and Jonathan Wilson have resurrected the old Fleetwood Mac sound and made them a cool reference point again – something that was hard to envisage 15 years ago but welcome and deserved for a group whose work was never less than sincere.

Live rehearsal version:

Studio version:

Yo Zushi: Back to the soil

The Simpsons, Woody Guthrie, Gone with the Wind and Neil Young – and what they tell us about America’s obsession with its land.

The novelist John Cheever once wrote of a “sense of sanctuary that is the essence of love”. When George H W Bush spoke out against The Simpsonsduring his 1992 re-election campaign, pledging to make the American family “more like the Waltons”, it was perhaps this sense of sanctuary that he was gesturing towards. The 41st president’s ideal family inhabited a uniquely American, mythical landscape in which good was unambiguous and true evil unknown; theirs was a mountain community sustained in spirit by the knowledge of its own rightness.

The Simpsons, on the other hand, offers irreverence and parody in place of earnestness – Matt Groening’s comedy caters for a sensibility that takes for granted the bogusness of the old-fashioned, folksy fantasy of home and derives much of its humour from its subversion. In one episode, Homer decides to uproot his family to a dilapidated farm to escape a duel. Far from bemoaning his fate, he sees the return to the land as a “big chance”, an opportunity for self-definition: “The Simpsons will be reborn as a bunch of gap-toothed bumpkins!” His son, Bart, declares that he will “dig an outhouse”; his daughter Lisa offers to “weed the floor”; his wife, Marge, meanwhile, mutters: “I’ll repress the rage I’m feeling.”

Where the Waltons lived more or less contentedly at the foot of a mountain in Virginia, accepting the hardships that came their way almost as a test of their national values (the Great Depression? a cinch), The Simpsons can only satirise the middle-American dream of a home close to the soil. The kind of “rage” Marge feels at the unfairness of her situation is something that cultural conservatives work hard to keep at bay – your pain is God’s way of reminding you of your American pluck, they seem to suggest, as they battle health-care programmes and redistributive taxes.

The Marge joke is funny because it has the ring of truth to it: it’s a struggle when you’re living in what amounts to a dump; it’s a struggle when you’re broke and you’re close to powerless to change the situation. Homer’s fantasy of the family’s rebirth – which echoes dimly the experience of the nation’s first European settlers – can be sustained only so long as that all-too-reasonable anger at miserable circumstances is swallowed down (maybe with a few cans of Duff beer).

After the gold rush

So what’s with the US and its romanticisation of living by the land? Perhaps there’s something in the ground itself. In Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, the Irish expat and Southern landowner Gerald O’Hara lectures his daughter, Scarlett: “Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything . . . ’Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for.” The folksinger Woody Guthrie had a more sceptical view on property ownership; in “This Land Is Your Land”, widely regarded as an alternative national anthem, he insists: “This land was made for you and me.” We should be willing to work, fight and die for it all, from the “golden valley” to the “endless highway” – not just the bits on your lease.

Farmers till it, soldiers march across it and spill blood on it, landowners build on it. Miners crawl into it, blast it with explosives, sift through it for what they can use. When Johnny Cash died in 2003, Bob Dylan described the country singer’s voice in “I Walk the Line” as sounding like it came “from the middle of the earth”: “Truly he is what the land and country is all about,” he wrote. A century or so earlier, others heard another voice from the middle of the earth – that of gold.

Neil Young is a Canadian but, like his fellow countryman Robbie Robertson of the Band, he has long been regarded as one of America’s most perceptive chroniclers in pop music. He explores the territory once again with his latest album, Americana – a collection of US folk songs from Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to the traditional “Tom Dula”. Here he turns the campfire sing-along “Clementine” into a pounding, menacing rocker that brings back to the fore the death and horror contained within the lyrics. The song is about the “forty-niners”, the first wave of migrants to descend upon California during the gold rush of 1849. Clementine, a miner’s daughter, slips and falls into a river; her “ruby lips” blow bubbles on the surface but she drowns in “foaming brine” as her lover looks on helplessly. It’s an angry song and the video shows us grainy archive footage of labourers, who’re probably struggling to get by.

Young takes us to the sanctuary of a song that many of us sang in childhood and shows us it wasn’t really a sanctuary after all. The lyrics are the same as they always were but the comforting affectlessness of the school-choir version is gone. I wondered how I’d not noticed the sadness of the words. There’s no glamour here, no certainty of right and wrong. Life is unfair – Clementine dies as a result of a trivial accident (her foot snags against a branch and she trips). We may be willing to fight and die for land – but what if that same land is what we’re fighting against and what causes our loved ones to die?*

*When Henry David Thoreau went into the woods of Massachusetts in the mid-19th century to write Walden, his stay was intended, in part, as an affront to passivity and resignation. Though eager to “suck out all the marrow of life” in all its sublimity, he was open to the possibility that nature was “mean”.

Yo Zushi‘s most recent album of songs, “Notes for ‘Holy Larceny'”, was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song “Careless Love” can be downloaded for free here.
(The above article first appeared on Newstatesman.com)