Of all the British Blues Boom guitarists, Peter Green was perhaps the most mercurial and the most fascinating. Michael Stephens charts his astonishing run of creativity in Fleetwood Mac.
The so-called ‘Surrey Delta’ had its own trio of guitar stars in the ’60s: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. But for the best of the British blues explosion you had to also look a little further East, to London’s Bethnal Green. Peter Green was rarely considered part of the Clapton/Beck/Page coterie – he was two years younger than Page, for example – yet he was every bit their equal. Indeed, to many, he eclipsed them all. Green never achieved the long-term mainstream success of the others but his impact from 1966-1970 was phenomenal. If there ever were a ‘Mount Rushmore’ of genius British blues players it would be Clapton, Page, Beck… and, to the fore, Peter Green.
Green’s best work still resonates across the generations. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Gary Moore, Billy Gibbons, Carlos Santana, the Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson and Noel Gallagher all became fervent disciples of a player and songwriter who had something special. As BB King famously remarked of Green, ‘He has the sweetest tone I ever heard. He was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.’
Yet Green’s fading from fame was just as remarkable as his rise. Peter Green still plays and performs today, but has never been quite the same since his dramatic departure from Fleetwood Mac in 1970. Here’s the story of an extraordinary burst from one of Britain’s greatest-ever guitarists…
Drawn To The Blues
Like most of his peer group, the teenage Peter Greenbaum (he shortened it to Green from around 15 years old) grew up playing pop, rock’n’roll and skiffle. His first bands – Bobby Denim and the Dominoes, the Muskrats, the Tridents – never made it.… and although Green had learned to play guitar, in the Tridents he was ‘merely’ the bassist.
In the London clubs, however, he’had witnessed the 18-month-older Eric Clapton. ‘I decided to go back on lead guitar after seeing Eric Clapton,’ Green told Neville Marten. ‘I’d seen him with the Bluesbreakers before he considered singing and his whole concentration was on his guitar – he had a Telecaster – and it was really impressive. And he had a Les Paul, his fingers were marvellous. It took everything away from me, like my birthday, Christmas; you forgot everything… just listen to this.’
Green had got into guitar via his elder brother Len (whose ability he soon eclipsed) and a friend called Mick Maynard. ‘Unique player, didn’t sound like nobody,’ Green told writer Mick Donovan in 1996. ‘He was a good bloke. He used to say “Come with me, I’ll play you a record. It’s a blues record and it’s by Muddy Waters, called Honey Bee… That’s blues.”
‘The bloke laid some albums on me. A John Lee Hooker album, Blues Volume II with Otis Rush on it, Sonny Rhodes, a couple of other albums like a folk festival of the blues with Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willy Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson on. One of the best albums you’re ever going to get hold of, if not the best.’
Even though he wasn’t formally taught, Green managed to pick up blues licks and phrasing remarkably quickly. By 1966, aged 19, Green did get to play lead guitar in Peter Bardens’ band Peter B’s Looners and made his recording debut with the single If You Wanna Be Happy c/w Jodrell Blues. Importantly, he also met drummer Mick Fleetwood on the session. The lightweight, cabaret-sounding A-side saw Peter merely comping chords: the B-side did have a stinging solo, but nothing suggested he was anything other than a young and, well, ‘green’ blues guitarist.
A Supernatural Talent
But then the remarkable happened. Clapton suddenly walked out of the Bluesbreakers – briefly going to Greece with the intention of forming a new band called the Glands – leaving John Mayall in a fix. This was the era of ‘Clapton Is God’ graffiti and British blues morphing into something new. The highly traditionalist John Mayall could have been left high and dry, but he hit an unexpected jackpot. Green deputised on a few gigs, and would soon be recording after Clapton left the Bluesbreakers for good.
As Decca’s blues aficionado and producer Mike Vernon recalled, ‘As the band [next] walked in the studio I noticed an amplifier which I never saw before, so I said to John Mayall, “Where’s Eric Clapton?” Mayall answered, “He’s not with us anymore, he left us a few weeks ago.” I was in a shock of state [sic] but Mayall said, “Don’t worry, we got someone better. ” I said, “Wait a minute, this is ridiculous. You’ve got someone better? Than Eric Clapton?” John said, “He might not be better now, but you wait. In a couple of years he’s going to be the best.” Then he introduced me to Peter Green.’
With Mayall Green made only a few singles and one album, A Hard Road (’67), but within his year-long tenure he was suddenly being talked of as a more-than-worthy heir to Clapton. On the album he sang on his own The Same Way, a lightly shuffling rock’n’roller that highlighted his vocal prowess and some stinging licks. But it was another Green tune that kicked open the doors. The Supernatural, a Latin-flavoured instrumental in D minor, saw him using thick, reverbed sustain that – in retrospect – pointed the way to his supple phrasing and tones on Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross and Black Magic Woman.
You might also argue The Supernatural basically ‘invented’ Carlos Santana – note the 10-second sustained single notes from the-off (and thrice thereafter). Green had clearly taken in EC’s majestic tone on the ‘Beano’ album, as well. Green said he got his extraordinary tone on The Supernatural ‘stood near the Marshall speakers, using my Les Paul’ and using a studio plate reverb. Green wrote and recorded The Supernatural only three months after being recruited by Mayall. Add Peter’s masterful licks on the cover of Freddie King’s The Stumble – a response to Eric’s own cover of King’s Hideaway, maybe? – and the Bluesbreakers suddenly had a new deity: the Green god.
Like Clapton, Green had fast become a disciple of BB, Albert and Freddie King. ‘I don’t have to go to work because of them,’ Green recalled later. ‘Their styles were simple enough for me to get into professional music.’
Yet Green was typically low-key about any acclaim thrown his way. ‘Mike Vernon came up with the idea for The Supernatural. He said he’d seen this guitarist who’d played a high note, sustained it and then let it roll all the way down the neck. But I played it and I decided on the sequence.’
The Supernatural remains everything a guitar instrumental should be. It’s not technically flash, but has incredible power, tone, melody, lyricism, phrasing and that hard-to-define ‘mojo’. The Supernatural showed that the playing of Peter Green, a mere 20 years of age, was out of this world.
Break from the Breakers
Poor John Mayall. He’d found a worthy successor to Clapton, but Peter didn’t hang around for long. Green said later he only ‘sometimes’ enjoyed playing with Mayall. Why? ‘I was so kind of behind,’ Green explained to Guitar Player. ‘I was jumping the gun a bit. I was trying to play as good as Eric Clapton; I had to try because I had to fill his place.’
Yet Green’s departure was arguably Mayall’s own doing. As a birthday gift to Green, he’d booked him some studio time, where Peter jammed away with bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, who had been depping on drums for some Mayall live shows. Mike Vernon: ‘We recorded the Bluesbreakers as a trio. It gave Peter the opportunity to do something he couldn’t do with John Mayall. And Peter did say that day he was seriously thinking about leaving the Bluesbreakers – he said, “I want to form my own band.”’ The trio’s sessions – mostly high-octane blues instrumentals – went supremely well, and at the end the engineer asked what he should write on the recording tape. Mick Fleetwood recalls, ‘Peter said, “Well, let’s call this Fleetwood Mac, ’cos Mick and John are here.” The whole Fleetwood Mac vibe came out of those sessions. Peter was very generous. He was adamant he didn’t want to be the main dude.’
It’s a bizarre scenario, even now. Peter Green clearly was ‘the main dude’ yet he decided to name his proposed new band after the drummer and bassist. Later, he even fought new label CBS and promoters against billing the band as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Even before he was truly famous, fame did not interest Peter Green. More bizarrely, John McVie didn’t even originally join Fleetwood Mac, and their first bassist was Bob Brunning. Green left the Bluesbreakers, leaving John Mayall writing out ‘Guitarist Wanted’ ads once again – though Mayall would be fine, as future Stone Mick Taylor replaced Green – and Fleetwood Mac were born.
Fleetwood Mac: First Flight
Fleetwood Mac made their major debut in August ’67 at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival, with Green, Fleetwood, Bob Brunning (bass) and newly-recruited Jeremy Spencer also on vocals and guitar with Green. Within a month, McVie did join, deciding, despite the good money, that the Bluesbreakers were getting ‘too jazzy.’
Mac’s debut single was I Believe My Time Ain’t Long, billed as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Fronted by Jeremy Spencer’s aping of Elmore James (it’s basically a slightly revised take on Dust My Broom) it was underwhelming. No matter, for Mac were getting their skills together. They became house band for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label, later backing Otis Spann, Eddie Boyd, Anthony ‘Duster’ Bennett, and others. Green’s extra-curricular playing produced some of his finest pure blues playing – listen to Temperature Is Rising for some simmering Otis Spann/Green interplay on The Biggest Thing Since Colossus album. And, of course, Green and Mac would later reinterpret Bennett’s Jumping At Shadows as a live tour-de-force.
Fleetwood Mac’s debut album was released in February 1968 and hit #4 in the UK charts, despite the absence of any hit single. Yet Mac’s early recordings were somewhat scattershot. The Spencer-fronted slide songs (Shake Your Moneymaker, Got To Move) would please purists in thrall to the Bluesbreakers, but paled next to Green’s originals. His Looking For Somebody and Long Grey Mare both sashayed more stylishly, while If I Loved Another Woman had the Latin feel and spooky guitars that Green was increasingly making his own. Green admitted that the Shadows were still a huge influence, but by marrying that twang to his blues licks, vibrato and phrasing he was patenting a unique sound.
This being the ’60s, one-off singles were just as important. March 1968’s Black Magic Woman was the first bona fide FM classic, even if it initially stalled at #37 in the UK chart. Green used principles he’d learned with John Mayall. ‘John got me into songwriting, and one of the first things he said was that if you really like something, you should take the first lines and make up a song from them. So that’s what I did… but then it turned out sounding more like BB King’s Help The Poor.’
Ironically, Black Magic Woman – again in D minor – was one of Green’s last songs in a straight blues structure. Speaking to Guitar & Bass in the 1990s, Green opined, ‘I was never any good [at blues] really. I could do it at 22 but that doesn’t mean I was any good. Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon don’t listen to me… because they don’t need to.’ Try telling that to others. Fabled blues pianist Eddie Boyd, backed by Green and Fleetwood Mac only months earlier, remarked: ‘Peter Green’s a negro turned inside out.’
Blues In The USA
By July ’68, Fleetwood Mac were becoming a major force. Their cover of Little Willie John’s Need Your Love So Bad, highlighted by Mickey Baker’s string arrangement and Green’s weeping guitar and plaintive vocal, was a hit. Mac played the USA, from Detroit to San Francisco to LA and guested on The Ed Sullivan Show. Second album Mr Wonderful followed the next month. It was again straight blues, with Spencer’s Elmore James slide riffs all too prevalent, but Green shone on his own Stop Messin’ Round and Rollin’ Man. With added horns blaring away, the fabled Peter Green tone was by now in full effect.
By August, Mac had a third guitarist in Danny Kirwan. Mike Vernon says he recommended Kirwan as Peter was increasingly frustrated with Spencer’s Dust My Broom-isms, yet Green later insisted it was Mick Fleetwood’s idea. By December 1968 the three-guitar Mac were back in the USA, notably at a now-famous residency of gigs in Boston. An 18-year-old Anthony Joseph Perry was a regular. ‘I was really into the whole British Invasion thing,’ the Aerosmith guitarist told G&B. ‘I’d never seen the Yardbirds or the Beatles so I went to see Fleetwood Mac many times. I got to hear The Green Manalishi and Oh Well before their record release. I learned a lot about blues guitar from Fleetwood Mac. Peter Green’s style and sound made a big impression on me. He was incredible. He’s one my favourite ever players.’
Green Spreads His Wings
Peter Green may have been unwittingly educating future Boston hard rockers about blues guitar, but he had new ideas. In January ’69, Fleetwood Mac recorded at Chicago’s Chess Ter-Mar Studios with Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, JT Brown, SP Leary, and Honeyboy Edwards, resulting in The Blues Jam. It was the band’s last ‘all blues’ recording.
Kirwan’s recruitment was key to Green’s development. At 17, Kirwan was in blues band Boilerhouse and a highly lyrical and melodic player – ‘we played well together,’ said Green. This allowed Green to expand his blues horizons. Kirwan could now take some soloing (and could write, too), allowing Green to develop his songs. With Green inexplicably doubting his own blues skills, he switched tack… and in some style.
The melody of Albatross had come to Green on a trans-Atlantic flight, while he stared across the skies from his window seat. He says he was pondering Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (in which an albatross is killed) and Traffic’s psych-lite-hit Hole In My Shoe, in which a girl takes flight on the wings of a huge bird.
Cutting what Mike Vernon calls ‘a lullaby’ with no vocal as a single seemed folly, but Green was adamant: ‘I always knew that would be a hit.’ Santo and Johnny’s lilting 1959 hit Sleepwalk (also a favourite of Jimmy Page’s) was a big influence. ‘That is a truly great song,’ Green later remarked. ‘Sleepwalk will be remembered longer than Albatross.’
With Fleetwood splashing cymbals and tapping mallets on his tom-toms, Green mixed his ’59 Les Paul with a Strat, played lap-style, for overdubs and slide interjections. He also plays a Fender VI bass alongside McVie’s Precision, while Kirwan adds delicate Tele licks. CBS Studios in London’s New Bond Street provided the ambience, but Spencer doesn’t feature: ‘Jeremy had a funny way of not being around the studio when we recorded my tracks,’ remembered Green.
Against all pop logic, Albatross hit #1 in the UK. Mike Vernon told G&B in the ’90s, ‘Peter was one of those rare musicians who play only what is necessary. Listening to Albatross you know that the feel of the man was absolutely incredible, unrivalled. I don’t think I ever heard him play anything ordinary.’
Albatross influenced the best, too. Of the Beatles’ Sun King, George Harrison admitted, ‘We said, “Let’s be Fleetwood Mac doing Albatross, just to get [the song] going.” It never really sounded like Fleetwood Mac… but that was the point of origin.’
Typically of Fleetwood Mac, their next masterstroke would be another single. In May ’69, Green’s Man Of The World was released, only missing out on #1 behind the Beatles’ Get Back. Green and Kirwan again weave delicate chords and phrases… and there’s no Jeremy Spencer. Man Of The World is hauntingly beautiful yet devastatingly personal, a young man’s heartbreak committed to tape. Green later judged it to be ‘corny’. ‘“Shall I tell you about my life?” My life! That’s Jewish for a start, isn’t it?’ Peter Green must be the only man in the world who says he ‘laughs’ when he hears Man Of The World.
To Play On Or Leave?
The two-year journey from A Hard Road to Man Of The World was indeed a long road, but Green had hit an unrivalled patch of creativity. With Kirwan onboard, Then Play On would be Fleetwood Mac’s third LP in just 18 months. Yet Green still had time before its release for another tour-de-force 45. Oh Well (Parts 1 and 2) was a Green solo track in all but name: only Fleetwood and McVie otherwise appear. Green plays a Michigan dobro, a Ramirez Spanish guitar, his ’59 Les Paul (through an Orange OT120), plus recorder and cello. It remains testament to his versatility, vocals and lyrical prowess, but Green voiced his unhappiness. ‘People didn’t realise the best bit was Part 2 [the classical-influenced instrumental]. I used to hate playing Oh Well live because we played the bit that wasn’t as good.’
Mike Vernon believes Green became frustrated with his inability to convey his ideas to the rest of his ‘blues’ band. Roadie Dennis Keane concurs. ‘Peter wanted to be a total musician, not just a blues player. You’d go round to his gaff and he’d be playing all kinds of music, from classical to jazz to African bongo stuff. It killed Peter that Oh Well Part 2 was never performed live.’
Then Play On hugely developed Fleetwood Mac’s sound. Rattlesnake Shake is rooted in blues but adds a funky edge, Afro-Cuban rhythms bolster brilliant intertwining guitars from Kirwan and Green on Coming Your Way, and Kirwan makes his own mark with Closing My Eyes, the baroque-folk of When You Say and others. But trouble clearly loomed: on Green’s stomping acoustic Show Biz Blues, Green moans ‘do you really give a damn for me?’ It’s Green playing the slide guitars, too: Jeremy Spencer barely plays on Then Play On.
Simultaneously, Green and band were working on another 45rpm ace. The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown) was heavy duty. Green’s lyric railed against the Fleetwood Mac’s wealth: ‘The Green Manalishi is the wad of notes, the devil is green and he was after me,’ he explained. After watching a TV report about famine in Biafra, Green had tried to persuade the band to donate their profits so he could ‘send some sandwiches.’ Musically, it was hard as nails – and spooky. Green plays his Les Paul and a Fender Bass VI (for powerchords) and it ends with Green wailing across pounding rhythms from Fleetwood and McVie. Much of Green’s guitar was recorded in the underground car park at London’s De Lane Lea Studios. Green later said: ‘Fear, inspiration, is what it was. But it was that tribal, ancient Hebrew thing I was going for. Ancient music.’
But by the time The Green Manalishi… hit the UK charts, Peter Green had left Fleetwood Mac. He was just 23 years old.
The End Of The Game
Rock fable has it that Green had to leave Fleetwood Mac after being spiked with LSD at a Munich party in March 1970. It’s likely overly-simplistic, although Green did admit, ‘I was just… destroyed. I took LSD and I had a hard time getting back.’ Yet Green had taken LCD many times before and, indeed, after. Just as importantly, he was clearly unhappy with other aspects of star life.
Green had the ‘show biz blues’, frustrated by industry demands and the band’s unwillingness to experiment as much as he would like. It’s notable that his final contractual album of 1970, the solo The End Of The Game, was recorded freeform with barely any rehearsal in just six hours. ‘I made it because I felt restricted,’ he later mused. It could have been the drugs, but maybe Green just didn’t care to play music anymore? Also, it’s on record that his mental illness didn’t truly manifest itself until late 1971. After all, he was well enough to briefly return to Fleetwood Mac when Jeremy Spencer abruptly left mid-tour (February ’71).
So why the enduring fascination with Fleetwood Mac-era Peter Green? Part of it is his prolificacy. Between the ages of 19 and 23 he produced a body of work that belied his youth, with a run of classic singles; between 1968 and 1970, Fleetwood Mac were said to have outsold the Beatles. Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Mick Fleetwood remarked, ‘It was an incredibly short run. Yet we’re still talking about it 40 years later. That’s interesting.’
The nature of Green’s self-imposed exile will always continue to fascinate. Drugs played a part, but Green has claimed he simply ran out of things to play, ‘so I just stopped.’ Ultimately, the appeal is the music. After all, Green has made 12-plus albums since 1979, yet none has garnered the acclaim of his ’67 to ’70 work, and his guitar playing, writing nor his singing ever hit such heights again. With Fleetwood Mac he helmed some of the best British blues, arguably played better than Eric Clapton could dream of, and wrote some of the most haunting songs of his era. Peter Green may maintain he ‘wasn’t very good,’ but – with all due respect – he is wrong. As Eric Clapton acknowledged, ‘He is one of the best. It’s all there.’