Elephant in the room: the messy excess of Fleetwood Mac’s misunderstood Tusk

It's 40 years since Fleetwood Mac unleashed the sprawling and gloriously messy masterpiece Tusk. Malcolm Jack revisits an album forged from excess

On an offbeat video-sharing platform in an upload quality so trashy it looks and sounds as if it’s been exhumed from an ancient VHS video tape run over by a bin lorry, there exists the only semi-watchable version I can find of the long-lost 1980 Fleetwood Mac documentary known as The Making of Tusk. It’s a one-hour film which the 120-million selling Anglo-American rock band would seem to prefer disappeared altogether.

Melding studio and live footage with a faintly Spinal Tap-esque air of ridiculousness, it depicts the making of the Mac’s legendarily expensive, ill-fated, and faintly deranged 12th album – released exactly 40 years ago this month, and set to be reissued in late November on silver vinyl.

Following the stunning success of Rumours, this was the Mac at their most imperious and decadent – arenas of screaming fans, huffing from oxygen tanks backstage, a marching band on the title track, an unlimited recording budget and a perma-drunk bassist in John McVie.

Looming large but unseen throughout the film is the elusive but highly influential sixth member of classic Fleetwood Mac: cocaine

Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham – who dominated sessions for Tusk, determined to make the band feel relevant in the post-punk era of The Clash and Talking Heads – rattles around the studio like a bag of loose marbles. At one point he stuffs his face with a large bag of crisps while admitting he hasn’t phoned his mother in months. Looming large but unseen throughout the film is the elusive but highly influential sixth member of classic Fleetwood Mac: cocaine.

The band’s blizzardly intake of white powder during the late 1970s is much-storied, and its presence, while concealed, is repeatedly suggested. Be it during an interview sequence in which blabbering drummer Mick Fleetwood, oddly enough sat next to his evidently easygoing mum, does a lot of suspicious rubbing of his nose.

Or in the countless sequences of hairy hirsute men hunched over a mixing desk getting inordinately animated about things like the sound of a snare drum. And above all during scintillating live sequences, as the Mac hurtle perspirantly and explosively through performances at about 72bpm above tempo.

I dug up and watched The Making of Tusk recently amid a binge of docs that also included Fleetwood Mac: Don’t Stop and Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird: Christine McVie – all revealing portraits of the band in their own way. But it’s the scuzzily candid and highly entertaining former film in particular that grabbed me, for the way it helped unlock the scatological essence of the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood album in the Mac catalogue – a messy masterpiece in the vein of The Beatles’ self-titled effort [more commonly referred to as The White Album] or Bruce Springsteen’s The River.

The 45-million selling epic Rumours – the heart-punching break-up album to end all break-up albums – presented a towering obelisk of rock-band achievement that no follow-up record could ever have topped, much less one that cost a million dollars (making Tusk the most expensive record ever made to that point), sprawled four sides of vinyl and was supposedly titled after the genitally-obsessed Fleetwood’s nickname for his penis. But Buckingham’s singular vision and unhinged studio antics – battering a Kleenex box and slapping lamb chops for percussion, recording vocals into a mic taped to the floor while doing press-ups, that kind of thing – has inordinately shaped the legend of Tusk.

Because many of its best tracks, be it McVie’s gorgeous sun-dappled AOR opener Over & Over, or Stevie Nicks’ tear-stained Sara, stormy Sisters of the Moon and thigh-slapping Angel, are written by the band’s other two every bit as gifted writers – and sound not unlike songs that could have graced Rumours. Which is by no means to write off Buckingham’s art-wonk new wave experiments – the jerky power-pop of I Know I’m Not Wrong could be released today and sound in no way dated.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

For all that Tusk forgoes no indulgence, and does sound seriously weird in places – The Ledge is like cowpunk played on elastic bands and Tupperware; That’s Enough for Me Buckingham aptly described as “rockabilly on acid” – the illogically glorious end product lives up to every grand and gram that disappeared into its making.

The massive 112-date Tusk tour marked a nadir of overconsumption for Fleetwood Mac and a lot of darkness followed – Nicks for one would never really fully recover for more than a decade. High times masked a low point in the lives of all concerned. Which may be why The Making of Tusk has been left to languish, evading re-release even as part of a major box-set reissue of the album in 2015. I hope it’ll properly see the light again some day.

The Fleetwood Mac 1975-1987 five-LP box set, featuring Tusk, is released November 29 via Rhino

Image: Alamy