The "Tusk" is slang for penis, so the song is basically about sex. When Stevie Nicks heard the album was going to be called Tusk, she objected, but Mick Fleetwood really wanted to use the title, so he ignored her and she dropped the subject.
Stevie Nicks recalled to Mojo in 2015: "I didn't understand the title, there was nothing beautiful or elegant about the word 'tusk.' It really bought to mind those people stealing ivory. Even then, in 1979 you just thought, the rhinos are being poached and that tusks are being stolen and the elephants are being slaughtered and ivory is being sold on the black market. I don't recall it being (Mick's slang term for the male member), that went right over my prudish little head. I wasn't told that until quite a while after the record was done, and when I did find out I liked the title even less!"
The music was based on a riff the band used to play when they were introduced at concerts as the lights came up and they were introduced to the audience. When it came time to record the Tusk album, they decided to use it for a song.
The University of Southern California marching band played on this track. Mick Fleetwood decided to use a big brass sound after a visit to Europe in 1978 where he saw brass bands marching down the street.
Speaking with Johnny Black in 1995, Mick Fleetwood explained how it happened: "In soundchecks we used to jam on that riff, and I did the riff in drum form. When it came time to make the album, we pulled that riff out, screwed around with it, put it in the dustbin, and then a year into making that album, I pulled it out again and took it with me as a rough track to Normandy and came up with the idea of using the brass band on it, and using about 100 drummers on it, which we did.
That really worked. It's a glorious noise, and it's something I'm proud of because it's all drums. There's really no lyrics to it.
So I resurrected that, much to everyone's amazement, and I insisted on recording the USC marching band at Dodger Stadium. By this time they'd thought for sure I'm round the twist, and I said, 'Well, I'm going to pay for it. And we're going to film it.' They thought, 'For sure, he's blown it. He's way off the deep end.'"
The USC Trojan Marching Band was recorded at Dodger Stadium on June 4, 1979 while the Los Angeles Dodgers were on a road trip. This was a few weeks after graduation, so while some band members didn't show, most did, since just about everyone had a copy of Rumours in their dorm room and was thrilled to play on a Fleetwood Mac track.
Rehearsals took place in late May, and the day of the recording, each band member signed a release and was paid a dollar. The whole scene was filmed, and the footage used to make the music video. Stevie Nicks is seen twirling, but not like her signature stage move - this time it was with a baton.
Lindsey Buckingham was keen on experimentation at the time, so he recorded some of his vocals for this song in his bathroom using a microphone he placed on the floor that was connected to his home studio. He also did some percussion for the track on empty Kleenex boxes in his bathroom.
During the recording of the album, Mick Fleetwood got a large pair of replica elephant tusks that he set up on either side of the console, which became known as "Tusk." Whenever the console wasn't working, the band would say, "Tusk is down, Tusk isn't working!"
According to Stevie Nicks, the tusks gave them inspiration. "Those 13 months working in that room were our journey up the sacred mountain to the sacred African percussion place, were all the gods of music lived," she said.
The group's bass player John McVie had a falling out with Lindsey Buckingham and never made it to Dodger Stadium for the shoot, so he was replaced in the video with a cardboard cutout. When MTV launched in 1981, the song had already been out for two years, but the network played it anyway, as they didn't have many clips by popular rock bands.
In 1977, Fleetwood Mac released Rumours
, which was one of the most successful albums ever released. Tusk
was the follow-up, but the band (especially Lindsey Buckingham), decided to experiment instead of copying the sound of Rumours
. The result was a 20-track double album with some very adventurous songs. The title track was the first single, and it did well, reaching #8 in the US. The next single was "Sara
," which made #7.Tusk
ended up selling far fewer copies than Rumours
, partly because the double disc was sold for a hefty $15.98 in America. It certainly didn't tarnish the band's legacy, as it showed that they were willing to take risks when they could have simply recycled Rumours
is probably my favorite and most important Fleetwood Mac album," Mick Fleetwood said. "Tusk
meant this band's survival - if we hadn't made that album, we might have broken up."
On the Tusk tour, Fleetwood Mac played five shows in December 1979 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, near Los Angeles. The USC Trojan Marching Band appeared with them at each of these shows, lifted from hydraulic risers behind the stage to join the band on this song.
Fittingly, this is a very popular song among marching bands, especially at USC where the song has been performed regularly since its inception. At home games, fans often chant "UCLA Sucks!" during the song, even if they are not playing UCLA.
Two other schools also claimed it: the University of Alabama and the University of Arkansas. The Arkansas mascot is a razorback (boar) known as "Tusk"; the University of Alabama's mascot is an elephant known as "Big Al," which is actually tuskless in anthropomorphic form, but the University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa.