Few bands could generate a good mood as deftly as Camper Van Beethoven did—I keep wanting to call their low-key gems a “hoot.” An likeable band with a shambolic take on melody and a sense of humor—the gods don’t bring such treasures so often. They were like that guy you hung with after you graduated high school who was always stoned and could always make you laugh. In their original run they churned out five minor classics, of which my fave was Telephone Free Landslide Victory, with their wistful, Led Zeppelin-influenced self-titled album a close second.
Anyway, they broke up and then David Lowery went off to form Cracker, while the rest of the band (more or less) became Monks of Doom. Camper Van Beethoven wouldn’t be a thing again until roughly 1999, when David Lowery, Victor Krummenacher, and Jonathan Segel convened to create Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead: Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, which was a fake rarities compilation—that is, none of the material was actually old.
Two years later, with the same straight face, Camper Van Beethoven claimed to have discovered the 4-track tapes they’d recorded in 1987 of a song-for-song cover of Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 follow-up to their massive success Rumours, a famous flop that is actually a pretty damn good album.
Yesterday, Marc Maron released his interview with David Lowery on his podcast WTF, in which his guest explained what actually happened with their album Tusk, released in 2001. Maron’s prompt (around minute 80) is “Why’d you guys record Tusk, the Fleetwood Mac record?” Here’s Lowery’s answer:
Okay so, Camper Van Beethoven really got back together in say 2001? But we didn’t really play any shows, but we decided we’d record together again, but we decided that, what we would do is, there’s an album called Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead … Long Live Camper Van Beethoven. And it’s a fake oddities record. We actually just kind of recorded it and pretended like it was an oddities album. and dropped it out there. It was very Kaufman. ... I think we were probably influenced by Andy Kaufman, right? You know, it’s like, “Let’s put out a fake oddities record as our new record!” We just put it out there, it’s like, okay. “Oh hey, we just discovered that we recorded Tusk in 1987 on our 4-track, we finally found the tapes for that.” That wasn’t true, we recorded that, the whole album then put it out as if like something we had done in 1987 and just put out there. Nobody noticed.
Here’s an interview item from New York Press in 2002 in which Lowery is selling the fake origin story and the NY Press is buying it hook, line, and sinker. (Why wouldn’t they?) Ahem: “About to record their third album in 1986, Camper Van Beethoven retired to a cabin in Mammoth, CA, to write songs, and ended up recording a song-for-song tribute to Tusk.” Then, quoting Lowery: “Well, 1986 was only a few years after the release of Tusk. Fleetwood Mac was completely unhip in the indie rock circles at that time - that was part of the reason we recorded it—but we also had this major Fleetwood Mac obsession, particularly Lindsey Buckingham songs….” Etc.
You know, if you pull a prank on someone and you’re super deadpan about it, you can’t be surprised that nobody figures out that a prank was played. Allmusic.com still thinks this album was recorded in 1987—again, why wouldn’t they? It’s a curious kind of prank, to say the least.
The point of the Tusk sessions was that they were a kind of throat-clearing, a test process to see if the band members could work together productively again. It’s a pretty savvy move if you look at it that way. There’s no way the album can hold a candle to the original, of course, but that was hardly the point. I’ve created a Spotify playlist in which every Fleetwood Mac song is followed up by its Camper Van Beethoven counterpart, alternating its way to the end, and I think listening to that is quite enjoyable. Not all the tracks really work—Camper’s version of “Storms” works very well, I think.
You wouldn’t expect that there would be any video material on YouTube from Camper Van Beethoven on such a tossed-off project, and there isn’t any. From Fleetwood Mac, of course, there’ll always be the very memorable “Tusk” video shot in an empty Dodger Stadium and featuring the USC Trojan Marching Band: