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: