In Praise of Peter Green(baum)

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By James Cullingham

Peter Green’s death was announced by a British law firm on July 25, 2020.  The news elicited an outpouring of grief and admiring statements from his musical peers. Like Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys or Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Peter Green is viewed alternatively as a prime musical casualty of the psychedelic moment, or as a trailblazer who produced shape-shifting and era-defining work before he was thirty years of age.

Peter Green c. 1970 (Wikimedia Commons)

Without question Green was one of the most accomplished and fascinating composers, guitarists and bandleaders among the great swell of British musicians who emerged in the 1960s.

Born in 1946 as Peter Greenbaum, the son of a Jewish butcher in London, Peter Green became a professional musician as a teenager. By the age of 20, he replaced Eric Clapton with John Mayall’s Bluebreakers, an influential unit that helped shape the fusion and transmission of African American music with its “British blues” sound.  Green then formed Fleetwood Mac, a band that he named after its drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie with whom he had worked under Mayall. Green would remain with that band of his creation for three years. Famously, he told band mate Jeremy Spencer that he chose the name so that Mick & John could carry on after he left.  Carry on they did as a more pop oriented version of Fleetwood Mac became the world’s biggest band by 1977 with the release of Rumours.

To these ears, the LA pop of the latter Fleetwood Mac pales in comparison to the band of Green’s era. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac began as faithful disciples of the blues. Within three years they developed a sound that rivalled the power and virtuosity of The Rolling Stones or The Who; they offered original compositions with melodies as lovely as those written by Lennon & McCartney and were as adventurous and inventive on stage as The Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers Band.

Fleetwood Mac was defined by Green’s guitar playing, singing and song writing.  The great blues guitarist and singer B.B. King was among those who were impressed, he grouped Green among a passel of stellar 60s British guitarists including Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. King proclaimed, “He  (Green) has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

One can hear Green’s intoxicating guitar talents on a 1969 album by Chicago blues pianist and vocalist Otis Spann, The Biggest Thing Since Colossus. On tracks like “My Love Depends On You,” Green and Spann engage in superb call and response instrumental duets. That album as well as John Mayall’s A Hard Road which included one of Green’s first compositions the soaring instrumental “The Supernatural” and the Fleetwood Mac early studio recordings made Green an extremely influential blues guitarist.

Even with his virtuosity and singular guitar style established, no one expected what was next. Green shifted gears as a composer and wrote the genre blending instrumental “Albatross” which was Fleetwood Mac’s first number one hit and, as John Lennon admitted, the inspiration for “The Sun King” on The Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” Green wrote a complex rock number with a Latin hue called “Black Magic Woman” that Carlos Santana turned into his own career-defining hit. He also wrote classic rock tunes such as “Oh Well” (famously used by director Cameron Crowe in the movie Jerry Maguire) and “Rattlesnake Shake” (a clever paean to masturbation) that have been studied and copied by guitarists ever since.  Recording industry enthusiasts assert that in 1969 – 1970 Fleetwood Mac sold more records in the United Kingdom than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined.

Peter Green also wrote darker tunes like “Man of The World” which contains the line, “I wish I had never been born,” and “The Green Manalishi” which Green said was about the evil of money, but it surely sounds like it’s about meeting the devil.

“Then Play On” Green’s final studio album with Fleetwood Mac is a tour de force. Mick Fleetwood says that by that time Green had adopted a Brian Wilson like approach in crafting the entire sound of the album. That’s most evident on instrumentals such as “Underway” and the Ennio Morricone like “Oh Well (Part Two)” a gorgeous piece that defies categorization, but is much closer to flamenco and European classical music than American blues or rock ‘n’ roll.

As a live act, Fleetwood Mac became a three guitar monster with Green, Spencer and the precocious Danny Kirwan proffering distinctive styles and featuring a thunderous yet dextrous rhythm section in Fleetwood and McVie.  Playing America’s top rock venues with the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and The James Gang, Fleetwood Mac became sonic pioneers that “jam” bands would emulate for decades. This side of the band is well presented on the LIVE AT THE BOSTON TEA PARTY albums that were released years after Green’s departure. An extended version of “Rattlesnake Shake” that morphs into “Underway” plus an “Encore Jam” with Joe Walsh then of The James Gang joining the band are as ferocious and accomplished as The Who’s masterful “Live At Leeds” recorded just a week after Fleetwood Mac’s February 1970 dates in Boston.

Green left Fleetwood Mac later in 1970 and renounced the wealth and fame he had garnered in the rock ‘n’ roll circus.  Before quitting, he told Mick Fleetwood, “I want to find out about God. I want to believe a person’s role in life is to do good for other people, and what we’re doing now isn’t just shit.” At one stage it appears Green abandoned Judaism and began to explore Buddhism and Christianity. In his final Fleetwood Mac shows, he sometimes wore a crucifix and robes.

Mick Fleetwood is among those who believe Green was not equipped to handle the LSD that The Grateful Dead and its soundman/chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III introduced the band to on its American tours.  Fleetwood and John McVie think Green did himself particular damage when he attended a drug laced party with German cultists in Munich.  Whatever the specific cause, Green left the band and went to live on Kibbutz Mishmarot in Israel for about a year telling a girlfriend that he wanted, “to get in touch with his people.” Back in London by 1973, Green was eventually labelled schizophrenic and spent time in a mental hospital and was frequently away from music all together as a grizzled, overweight homebody.

However, it’s a disservice to overlook what Green accomplished musically after Fleetwood Mac. In another comparison with the aforementioned Brian Wilson, neither one transcendent moment nor bouts with mental illness define the artist.

Shortly after leaving Fleetwood Mac, Green recorded “The End Of The Game” a jazz fusion undertaking with a diverse group of musicians. If you like the swerve Miles Davis took about the same time, you might find this album of interest. In 1979, Green released “In The Skies” that has several understated fine instrumentals including “Funky Chunk” and “Proud Pinto.”

By this time, Green was almost an afterthought in the industry except for several rumoured returns to Fleetwood Mac that did not come to pass except for one recording appearance on the Christine McVie composition “Brown Eyes” on the album “Tusk.”

In 1996, Green surprised the musical world by forming Peter Green Splinter Group with partner Nigel Watson. Its first album combines studio tracks with live performances from a European tour. It heralded the rebirth of Peter Green blues purist. Splinter Group recorded several albums including “The Robert Johnson Songbook” which won a WC Handy Award (now known as The Blues Music Awards) in 1999 for “Best Comeback Album.” On that disc and the follow up “HotFoot Powder” Green and Watson did the entire catalogue of known Robert Johnson songs. It’s a well wrought tribute to the iconic Johnson with guest appearances by the likes of Buddy Guy, Dr John, Paul Rodgers and Hubert Sumlin.

In 1998 I saw Splinter Group in Detroit and wrote a profile of Green for The Globe And Mail.  A packed house in the blues and jazz venue greeted the guitar legend with a standing ovation when he walked on stage.  Green was tentative at times and extremely accomplished at others. In addition to songs made famous by Johnson, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Willie Dixon, the band folded in Green chestnuts like “Albatross” and “The Supernatural.” Green sang very effectively, played harmonica expertly and sometimes rose to the occasion on guitar as he traded licks with Mr. Watson.

I interviewed Green along with Watson after the show. Their relationship was admirable, Watson clearly taking on a protective brother role to the frailer Green who had not toured in two decades. As for why Green was back in circulation, Watson laughed and said “I told him he couldn’t just sit around on his ass forever.” Green was humorous, articulate and like John Fahey, another brilliant, troubled guitarist that I have chronicled, steeped in musical knowledge.

Peter Green did not subscribe blindly to common blues orthodoxy. He told me that Robert Johnson was distinctive because he would have heard flamenco guitarists in big southern cities. As scholars like Fahey and Dennis McNally have shown, some blues musicians in the American south from the turn of the 20th century to World War II were more cosmopolitan than the liberal imaginary might allow. Green laughed as he said his nervousness might be a good thing because, “perhaps being worried is a sign of normality.” Green was self-effacing, criticizing some of his own early blues interpretations stating that his playing was “too fast” on a famous Fleetwood Mac iteration of Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” recorded by BBC. “Just ridiculous,” was Green’s take, “I couldn’t learn the finger-picking stuff then.”

Splinter Group recorded eight albums and toured extensively. Band members other than Green wrote original songs.  Green’s singing is affecting, but he was no longer the powerhouse vocalist of early Fleetwood Mac.  This period features some fine, more restrained guitar playing by Green with his distinctive tone intact. A guitarist friend came by my place in the late 1990s while I was spinning the first Splinter Group album. Without knowing Green was back in circulation, he lifted his head during a guitar solo and said, “that’s Peter Green!”

In 2010 Green made some of his final stage appearances with Peter Green and Friends which toured the United Kingdom and Europe. In his final years, he reportedly took great satisfaction in fishing. In February of this year Mick Fleetwood organized a Peter Green Celebration in London in recognition of his “greatest mentor.” Mayall, Spencer, Kirk Hammett, Christine McVie, Pete Townshend and Steve Tyler were among the performers. Guitarist David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame undertook what was apparently the first stage performance of “Oh Well (Part Two).”

Peter Green was a master musician and a troubled soul. He was wounded in life. That does not detract from his sizeable contribution, nor should it efface the courage and tenacity he showed by sharing his considerable gifts in continuing to perform and record for most of his life.

James Cullingham is a filmmaker, historian and journalist. He is an adjunct graduate faculty member in Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University and president of Tamarack Productions in Nogojiwanong – Peterborough.

Selected references

Black, Johnny, “Peter Green: The Shape I’m in,” originally published by MOJO Magazine, September 1996.

Celmins, Martin, Peter Green – The Authorized Biography, Sanctuary Publishing Inc., London, 2003.

Cullingham, James, “A Guitar Legend Climbs Back In The saddle,” The Globe And Mail, September 9, 1998.

Fahey, John, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, Chicago, Drag City Incorporated, 2000.

Graham, Steve (director & writer,) Peter Green – ‘Man of The World,’ 2009 documentary.

McNally, Dennis, On Highway 61  Music, Race and The Evolution of Cultural Freedom, Berkeley, Counterpoint, 2014.

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One thought on “In Praise of Peter Green(baum)

  1. minskerwv

    Thanks for this well-written in memoriam by the thoughtful James Cullingham. My only addition to the story of Peter Green is the sad fact that by 1971 he was becoming an outcast among many of his musician friends in England. In particular, there is a John Mayall interview from late 1970s (I have it on the flipside of a Mayall LP or EP) where he comments on Green “walking around London with dead eyes” and “having nothing left in him” circa 1971/1972. Mayall mentions that “nobody wanted anything to do with him” any longer because “the magic” was gone.

    Glad that Green was able to revive some of that magic with the Splinter Group, as attested to by Mr. Cullingham in this piece!

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