When I was a boy, Fleetwood Mac were “the enemy.” I just hated their soft “stadium rock” and you simply could not escape them on radio at the time. I was into David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols. None of my musical heroes had long hair or beards. None of that hippie shit for me, 9-year old budding rock snob that I was.
Then, as it happened, a few years later I got a cassette tape of their Tusk album sent to me by mistake by Columbia House, which for those of you too young to remember was a “Twelve albums for a penny!” deal advertised in TV Guide and the Sunday paper. Once you got your initial dozen albums, you had to buy like six more at full list price with exorbitant postage and handling charges tacked on. Each month they’d send you a printed catalog along with a card that you had to put a stamp on and return refusing the automatic selection of the month or else they’d send you whatever “popular” album they were featuring and send you a bill for it. (This is how I came to own Ted Nugent’s Free for All, Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs and Jethro Tull’s Songs from the Wood.) Although I didn’t actually decide to purchase Tusk and as a two-record set with the extra high list price of $15.98 (a small fortune back then) it was an especially galling thing to get a bill for, I had to admit that I was crazy about the title track, which was on the radio at least once every few hours throughout 1980. I had one of those tape decks that would play to the end of one side and then the heads would flip over and play the other. What went from me playing “Tusk” (the song) over and over and over again ultimately became me listening to the entire album over and over again. During an an era where I mostly listened to XTC, Talking Heads, the Clash and things like that, I really got deeply into Tusk. I know every crevice, nook and cranny of that record. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece, sonically, from a songwriting, vocal, production and performance point of view, the total package, it was the creation of a group of truly great musicians at the height of their powers. With a practically unlimited budget.
A big part of Tusk‘s mythology has to do with the fact that it was the most expensive album ever recorded, with the final tab running over a million dollars. It was recorded in “Studio D” of the legendary Village Recorder in West Los Angeles. Much of the outrageous expense was due to the studio being kitted out to the group’s exacting specification, including 72 digital faders and an exact replica of Lindsey Buckingham’s home bathroom, where one can suppose he liked to… think? God knows how much more money was spent on cocaine. Only the accountants and the dealers and the dealers’ accountants and the dealers’ Maserati dealers know for sure.
Last year I had a chance to tour “the Village” and I’ve been in the very rooms where Fleetwood Mac were holed up for better than a year recording Tusk. I stood in the vocal booth where Stevie Nicks lit candles and incense and laid Oriental rugs and pillows. I imagined the exotic instruments and wall coverings, the actual tusks and the shrunken heads that sat around the room. I imagined the feasts fit for rock’s richest royalty that must have been served there day after day. It was a fascinating superstar “inner sanctum” for a fan to be allowed to enter. (And yes, I saw Lindsey’s personal crapper, but I did not use it.)
With the new 5.1 surround mix of Tusk available on Rhino’s new box set 5CD/1DVD/2LP deluxe release of the classic album, you can hear how at least some of that money was spent. Sounding better than it ever has, Tusk in surround is exactly the sonic revelation that I hoped for and wanted it to be.
When I get a box set, I want to lose myself in it. Smoke a joint, sit back, relax and listen to music. Not passively. I want to really get into it. Actively listen. When it’s over I want to play it again. And again. And over again. Folks, believe me when I tell you that I spent all weekend stoned, laying on the couch listening to Tusk to the exclusion of practically all other activities. I played all the outtakes and alt mixes (the way the title number was birthed is worth listening to) and the great live material from the Tusk tour of 79/80. It’s all good stuff and it has some of the more engrossing liner notes I’ve read in a long while, nice packaging too… but the 5.1 surround mix. Oh man. If you care about such things—and you should—it’s a truly peak experience when it comes to achieving an Earth-shattering high fidelity eargasm. “Sara,” the classic Stevie Nicks ballad, sounds like the gossamer and fine lace Stevie was probably wearing when she sang it. Christine McVie’s “Honey Hi” and “Think About Me” are pure pop perfection as is Nicks’ stunning “Beautiful Child.” Although I’m reasonably sure that most of the vocal and instrumental performances on Tusk were recorded individually and then stacked up on the mixing board and diced and sliced by Buckingham, when you hear those incredible harmonies coming at you from all corners of the room, each voice with a speaker to itself, it’s as if you are in Studio D of the Village and standing in the room as Tusk is being played live.
Tusk was always one of those albums that got pulled out for stereo demonstrations at the hifi stores of its day like a cliché, but until you have heard Ken Caillat’s stunning surround mix of the title track, you haven’t experienced the best of how a rock classic like this can sound reimagined for a 21st century audio system. “Tusk” starts out with the loopy drum loop played on a box and builds up to a thunderous and dramatic climax with the USC marching band’s participation taking it all to an outlandish level of sonic excess and gloss. The way the overdubbed voices and layered guitars leap out of the speakers is damned impressive. One is also really impressed by Lindsey Buckingham’s lightning fast finger-picking/strumming style as the 5.1 surround format puts a lot of space around what he was doing. The “wow factor” here is off the scale. I could listen to that one song for hours on repeat.
All in all, Rhino’s new deluxe Tusk box set is the classic rock box set of the 2015 Christmas season. No one who finds it under their tree on Christmas morning is going to be disappointed. The definitive edition of an essential album. A+