There is no stronger proof of the growing conservatism of the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream—by which I mean the audience that puts records on the charts, and the radio stations that play them—than the reception received by Fleetwood Mac’s double LP, Tusk (Warner Bros.).
The appearance of this album should have been an event, and not just because Mayor Tom Bradley declared October 10 Fleetwood Mac Day in Los Angeles to celebrate its release. The band’s previous two LPs, Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, had sold close to 20 million copies worldwide, and were still on the air: Huge numbers of people were eager to find out what the group would come up with. Coming off a very bad year, large numbers of music-business people were eager to find out if the release of a certified blockbuster would stimulate across-the-board sales, remind everyone that records make good Christmas presents and thus save a lot of worry about the immediate future. Indeed, the financial prospects of Tusk were probably not without interest to Fleetwood Mac’s fans: In the past decade, even as a noisy but small minority has pledged allegiance to the willful outcasts and obscurities of popular culture, the vast majority has taken extreme pleasure in consciously associating with success—or, as it used to be called, money.
People bought Tusk straight off, before they heard it. The album ran up the charts, only to bump into new product by Led Zeppelin and the Eagles. But as far as the radio went, the album might well not have been released at all. Given Fleetwood Mac’s commercial status, airplay on Tusk has amounted to a near-blackout, which makes me wonder whether all those copies of Tusk that have passed over America’s counters are really being listened to.
For if Fleetwood Mac is mainstream in its place in the music world, Tusk is radical in its refusal of the mainstream’s limits, and the band is paying the price. The band tipped its hand early on, issuing the LP’s title track as a 45. More a set of fragments than a song, “Tusk” was as unlikely a hit single as a major group has offered in years—a Bronx cheer to radio programmers—and it died a quick death. The album itself seemed more palatable—Stevie Nicks stuck close to form, Christine McVie remained rock’s answer to Lorelei but only at first, or only if you sat down and played the two discs all the way through. Jarring, disorienting accents emerged from the sound and then took it over; the vocals, especially Lindsey Buckingham’s, retreated, came shouting back, and then faded again. The fragmentation evident on the single defined the album: The most striking tracks were not quite songs, and they didn’t make their claims as tracks. Programmers looked for The Cut, the one tune that hooks an album onto the air, the single number that will make programming rational, and programmers couldn’t find it, because Fleetwood Mac had left it off. Instead, programmers just kept on playing Rumours. One can assume many listeners were, more than anything, relieved.
I think the stand Fleetwood Mac has taken with Tusk is as brave as that Bob Dylan took with John Wesley Harding—braver, perhaps, because Fleetwood Mac cannot rely on his kind of charisma, or on the kind of loyalty he commands. The members of the band have never made themselves felt as personalities; they rely strictly on their music, which is strong on intelligence and invention, and weak on drama. With its insistence on perceptions snatched out of a blur, drawing on (but never imitating) Jamaican dub and ancient Appalachian ballads, Fleetwood Mac is subverting the music from the inside out, very much like one of John Le Carre’s moles—who, planted in the heart of the establishment, does not begin his secret campaign of sabotage and betrayal until everyone has gotten used to him, and takes him for granted. Tusk is, in its lyrics, about romance out of reach; its music is also out of reach, which means that you have to make a certain effort to get hold of it. That people seem less than delighted with the prospect is no doubt just the right note on which to end a year dominated by the Knack, Journey, the Doobie Brothers and the Blues Brothers: retreads all, flushed from encores for a performance that never took place.
As for the rest of the year, what follows is the Real Life Rock Top Ten for 1979—with a few more opposite numbers.
1. Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Reprise)
Divided—equally between graceful (if unsettling) acoustic reveries and viciously hard rock, this was a sneak attack on entropy, its explicit subject. Up against the most reliable and unpredictable rock ‘n’ roller of the seventies, entropy never had a chance—at least while this album was playing.
2. Into the Music, by Van Morrison (Warner Bros.)
As with his Astral Weeks, the best of it will never wear out. Toni Marcus takes the Most Valuable Player award for her violin playing. Signs of life: the Iron City Houserockers’ Love’s So Tough (Cleveland International), a blazing, soulful, altogether ignored debut LP, and Tonio K’s Life in the Foodchain (Epic), in which an Armenian from the Central Valley declaimed with great good humor about the general unmanageability of all things under the sun. Worst album, in heavy traffic: Evolution, by Journey (CBS).
3. “Hot Stuff,” by Donna Summer (Casablanca)
In a poor year for singles, nothing else came close. The difference was the beat, Jeff Baxter’s shredded guitar solo and, you know—sex. The race for worst single was much tighter, and when the Knack’s smutty little Beatles imitation, “Good Girls Don’t,” broke out of the pack (the pack being the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and Journey’s “Just the Same Way” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'”), it seemed to be all over. Then, out of nowhere, Rupert Holmes roared by on the outside with “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and, confounding tipsters everywhere, made off with the prize. The prize is eternal obloquy.
4. Graham Parker and the Rumour, in Berkeley, June 27
Guitarist Martin Belmont kicked off one last tune, a brutally harsh version of “Pourin’ It All Out,” which defines what Parker’s music is about and what it is for; Parker absorbed that harshness and somehow turned it into an embrace. Then, along with his band, he did pour it all out, and if there was anything left in the six men by the time the song was done, it would have taken surgery to remove it.
5. In the Skies, by Peter Green (Sail/Rounder)
Fleetwood Mac’s original lead guitarist returned from the wilderness to close the seventies with an album of the purest slow blues—every note chosen with reason, every inflection put down with authority. Runner-up in the Comeback Sweepstakes: Marianne Faithful, who roared out of the oblivion of heroin with an LP called Broken English (Island), and scared all who noticed half to death.
6. Gang of Four, in San Francisco, September 11
Not quite what Jiang Jing meant by People’s Opera, but if this is the future of rock, I can’t wait.
7. Candi Chamberlain’s “Golden Gate Greats,” KYA AM and FM, San Francisco, 6 to 10 P.M., Saturdays I’ve been listening to rock ‘n’ roll much longer than has Ms. Chamberlain, and each time I tune in her show I catch something wonderful I’d never heard before—a forgotten Miracles’ LP cut, “Let’s Go Together” by the Raindrops, “True Love Affair” by the Elegants. As she put it one night, introducing the Edsels’ “Ramma Lama Ding Dong”: “Now, I don’t know what that means—well, I know exactly what it means. But I’m not telling.”
8. Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age, by David Henderson (Doubleday)
An Afro-American poet from Berkeley reclaimed a legacy for black America, and in the process set the standard for rock biography.
9. Heroes of Rock & Roll, produced by Malcom Leo and Andrew Solt, February 9 (ABC-TV)
What you never saw before—what you never even hoped to see. When’s the rerun? And, in a fallow year for rock ‘n’ roll movies (still haven’t seen Quadrophenia), a cheer for Francis Coppola’s use of the Doors’ “The End” during the first moments of Apocalypse Now.
10. “Money Changes Everything,” by the Brains (Gray Matter)
Tom Gray, leader of this unknown band from Atlanta, told his story in a strangled voice, as if he were trying to explain, but instead laid a curse. This extraordinary single rates much higher than I’ve placed it—but if it were anywhere else, how could I end with it? And how else could this decade end?
She said, I’m sorry, baby
I’m leaving you tonight
I’ve found someone new
He’s waiting in the car outside
Oh honey, how can you do it
We swore each other everlasting love She said, Yeah, well, I know
But when we did there was one thing We weren’t really
And that’s money
Money changes everything
Money changes everything
We think we know what we’re doing
We don’t pull the strings
It’s all in the past now
Money changes everything.
New West, January 14, 1980