I should probably keep this to myself, but I’ve spent the last week avidly listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, a band I’d never bothered to form an opinion about before. If you’re one of the zillions of people who grew up on Rumors, the notion of a guy in his mid-30s only just now catching up on Fleetwood Mac probably seems awkward at best. If you’re part of the equally large group that thinks the band is irredeemably cheesy, then my sudden devotion probably seems all the more heedless and shameful for being so late-to-the-ball. It guess it would be something like writing “I just found about this cultural phenomenon called ‘Burning Man’– I’m thinking about going next year!”– acotlytes and detractors alike would be nauseated, and nobody has a neutral attitude towards it. My only excuse is that I was a teenager in the late 80s in the Northeast: if there was ever a time and place hostile to late 70s smooth rock, that was it. So this genre became a sort of lingering blind spot for me, something I’ve only just caught up on in my 30s.
Anyway, I listened to Rumors a few times and it enjoyed it in the half-sincere/half-snide fashion that crops up over and over again in this blog (I’m probably going to have to add ‘things I’m not sure if I seriously or ironically enjoy’ to the tag list, but can’t figure out how to concisely phrase it). But then I moved on to Tusk, which is a legitimately great album– it has all the good things that Rumors has, but without the cloying-and-craning-for-stardom-and-success thing that makes Rumors a little bit annoying after a while. Believe me, I understand the dynamics that keep people from taking this band seriously: the multiple lineups, revolving front men, tacky intra-band romances and name formed from last names of band members— all of this seems a piece with the coke-fuelled arena-rocking supergroup zeitgeist of the late 70s. Then there’s whole cheesy/breezy LA thing (a Pitchfork staff list of best albums of the 1970s aptly likens Rumors to ‘a David Lynch LA’ with its ‘bowling lane-slick production’) and the Jefferson Starship-like 80s solo projects. There’s the Clintons and Gores prancing around victoriously to ‘Don’t Stop’ in ’94.
But once you peel aside all that compromising context, I don’t see why Tusk shouldn’t be a record that ‘serious’ music people listen to any less than, say, Big Star’s Sister Lovers: both are fractured, introspective, sprawling records by bands with brilliant songwriters, commercial aspirations and self-destructive trajectories, caught at a point when they had nothing to prove– albeit for opposite reasons. More than anything else, the difference between the records is Fleetwood Mac was coming off the highest-selling album in history, whereas Big Star had nothing to prove because they had no hope of stardom any more. Big Star never ‘made it’, and seem untainted partly as a result. With Fleetwood, we have to deal with all the grotesque flab of their successes, which is daunting indeed (I’m thinking specifically of Clinton’s big bobbing head here).
Another difference is that Big Star was never impersonated by a decoy band, a fate that befell Fleetwood Mac in one of the weirder episodes in rock promotion history. The band’s manager, Clifford Davis, frustrated by the band’s reluctance to tour, ridiculously claimed the legal rights to the band name and put together an imposter version of the band, then booked a series of concert dates and launched a U.S. tour. What? File this under Ruses That Wouldn’t Worked Out Nearly As Well In The Twitter Era. Given that this was the 1970s, word gradually began to leak out that the original members weren’t involved. I guess the fact that no women were involved in the lineup might have helped tip off audiences. Inevitably, the scam stalled as the real band members managed to get off their asses long enough to obtain a legal injunction against the rogue manager. Thus, the end of Fleetwood Mock.
Weirder still, the zombie Fleetwood Mac band– under new name Stretch– later released a hit single ‘Why Did You Do It? that’s actually good! Better yet, the song airs their grievances with real Fleetwood Mac drummer and namesake Mick Fleetwood (they had basically been sold the same bill of goods as the concert goers and expected that Mick was actually going to join them and legitimatize the project– whether Mick was complicit or not in the whole situation remains unclear and fiercely disputed). It’s a stolen identity grudge song! If you read the bio of fake Fleetwood guys, you’d never imagine that they’d be capable of going on to be a modest success in their own right– judging from the names of the bands they were recruited from– Status Quo, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, Curved Air (!)– it sounds like it’s gonna be the worst group in the history of the world. I’d known ‘Why Did You Do It?’ for years since my friend Sara put it on a mix for me and liked it OK without having any idea of the wacko history behind it.
Last thing, unrelated to above tangent: another convoluted chapter of the band’s history involves the hapless misfortunes of earlier frontman, Peter Green, who led the group a few incarnations before Buckingham and Nicks joined. Just for fun, if you unquestioningly accept the most sensationalistic version of each event reported on the internet, the story you wind up with is: Green’s mental health began to deteriorate after he unwittingly took acid in Munich, where he was hanging out at something called the ‘High-Fish-Community’ at the behest of two German promoters who wanted to stage a ‘Bavarian Woodstock’ (I can’t even type those last two words without giggling). As his sanity started to slip away, he insisted that the band members give all their money away to charity and quit once they refused, eventually joining the religious cult Children of God. This is the same outfit that Christopher Owens– front man of current indie darlings Girls– was born into and escaped from as a teenager. So: weird that there’s just one degree of separation (albeit a highly disturbing and un-fun one) separating Fleetwood Mac and Girls.
Krafty adds: I suffered from the same “70s smooth rock blindspot” as Dan, and never truly appreciated FM until I saw this amazing documentary about the making of “Rumors.” It’s part of VH1’s “Classic Albums” series, where the filmmaker interviews band members, producers, and other people involved with the record, and there are always extended scenes in the studio where the master tracks are getting messed around with (so you get to hear the song with just the drums, then with the drums and bass, then with the backing vocals, etc.). I cannot recommend the “Rumors” installment highly enough: everybody in it (particularly Lindsey Buckingham) is amazingly articulate in describing what it was like to be the most popular band in the world, on lots of drugs, and also two couples in the process of breaking up and writing songs about the disintegration of the relationships that would become the most successful album in the world. If you set your Tivo to “Classic Albums,” it will record it within about six weeks (I’ve discovered this through erasing it by mistake periodically and the re-recording it).