Peter Green Started Fleetwood Mac, Then Kind of Got Lost. So Did the Blues.
In a way Peter Green did it backwards. First he played the blues, then he lived a hard life of trouble.
Green, a magnificently gifted guitarist, died Saturday at the age of 73 and on his life resume, two items should be highlighted. He founded Fleetwood Mac and he honored the blues.
The Fleetwood Mac part is the reason he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the rest of the group in 1998, even though he had split almost 30 year earlier.
It’s also true that the Fleetwood Mac Green founded in 1967, along with Jeremy Spencer and Mick Fleetwood, bore only passing musical resemblance to the smooth pop/rock outfit that became rich, famous and chaotic in the 1970s with the album Rumours.
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac — in the early days, that’s what it was called — played music heavily rooted in the blues. Lest there be any doubt, Green’s opening notes on the band’s self-titled first album channeled the rocket-propelled bottleneck riffs of Elmore James.
That leadoff song, Spencer’s “My Heart Beat Like a Hammer,” is only the most distant kin to “Say That You Love Me” or “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).”
You probably wouldn’t find one Mac fan in a hundred who would prefer “My Heart Beat Like a Hammer” to “You Make Loving Fun.” Not a problem. “My Heart Beat Like a Hammer” stands on its own, a song that gets you on your feet dancing or playing vigorous air guitar.
It’s a safe bet Green had no clue what Fleetwood Mac would morph into by 1975. He did know what the band was playing in 1968: a full-throttle blues style that too quickly slipped away.
Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing for the next decade, you could throw a dart at a list of British guitarists and almost certainly hit someone who came to the instrument through the blues.
Of course there were George Harrisons whose taste ran more to new-fangled rock ’n’ roll. True also, Britain had its own guitar deity, Hank Marvin of the Shadows.
But from Eric Clapton to Keith Richards to Jimmy Page and dozens of their peers, famous and otherwise, a horde of young British musicians had heard Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Pat Hare and a hundred other black American blues musicians and said, “I wanna be him.”
The blues riffs that ran through the music of the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and their kin played a core role in creating the whole blues-rock style that was soon embedded in mainstream rock ’n’ roll.
While these riffs were sometimes reworked from the originals — okay, and sometimes diluted — artists like Peter Green nonetheless were working directly from the recordings of artists like King, Waters, Johnson and James.
By the 1970s, the next generation of blues-influenced musicians had often grown up listening to Clapton, Green or Page. There were more degrees of separation from the source, which is how artistic progression works in almost every field.
The consolation for older fans, perhaps, is that the first Fleetwood Mac album feels as fresh and invigorating in 2020 as it did in 1968.
Green himself did not write an altogether happy story. He dove into drugs in the late 1960s, notably LSD, and he was one those it did not affect well. He began appearing on stage in a white robe with a crucifix, calling himself messianic and vowing to give away all his money.
One of his songs from that time, “The Green Manalishi,” couldn’t get much more disturbing: “Now when the day goes to sleep and the full moon looks / And the night is so black that the darkness cooks / And you come creeping around, making me do things I don’t want to do.”
Green left Fleetwood Mac in 1970. While his former band was becoming the biggest rock ensemble in the world, he was trying to put himself back together, undergoing psychiatric treatment that included electroshock.
He got to see Santana have a huge hit with “Black Magic Woman,” which he originally wrote for and recorded with Fleetwood Mac, and he made a few more records over the years. He also played live here and there, and gave a few interviews in which he expressed regret over how some things like the drugs had played out.
So there’s a might-have-been to Green’s musical career, as there has been with so many other artists. But there’s nothing trivial or lacking in what was.