Peter Green – Man of the World
by Robin Bell
When someone mentions Fleetwood Mac, most people will automatically think of Mick Fleetwood or John McVie – after all, the name of the band comes from these two founder members. But don’t forget that the original name of the band was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and that Peter himself came up with the name as a tribute to the driving rhythm section of his band.
The Peter Green story is enigmatic. Born Peter Alan Greenbaum in the east end of London in 1946 to Jewish parents, his first job after leaving school without any formal qualifications was as an apprentice butcher. After two years of steady progress, with semi-professional appearances as a bass player in local groups, he decided that butchering was no life for him and handed in his notice. From there he moved into the French polishing business, a slightly better paid but infinitely more boring job. Peter lasted a year before walking out after a disagreement with his foreman.
Soon after this, Peter had his first encounter with Mick Fleetwood when he auditioned for a new instrumental group in the style of Booker T. and the MG’s, to be called Peter B’s Looners. Mick recalls being unimpressed with Peter’s playing and telling the group’s leader, Peter Bardens, that the prospective new guitarist was not good enough. Peter B. had other opinions, however, and gave Peter the job. However, the format of instrumentals only restricted the group’s bookings and they quickly recruited two singers, in Rod Stewart and Beryl Marsden, and changed the name of the band to Shotgun Express.
At this time Peter was living in the same block of apartments as the British bluesman John Mayall, whose Bluesbreakers lineup at that time included Eric Clapton. John and Peter would spend long hours listening to old blues records, having jam sessions and drinking coffee through the nights. Peter idolised Eric Clapton as a guitarist and legend has it that Peter sat in on the session when the Bluesbreakers recorded the Robert Johnson track ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’. As Eric Clapton performed the vocals, Peter leaned back in the control room and groaned “Oh shit. He can sing too”.
Because of Peter’s friendship with John, and his obvious ability and sympathy for the blues, when Eric Clapton left the Bluesbreakers, John turned to Peter Green as his replacement. By April 1967, the Bluesbreakers contained the nucleus of Fleetwood Mac, with Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass joining Peter. This lineup was shortlived, however and in June the same year Peter, Mick and John formed Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, also inviting a relatively unknown guitarist Jeremy Spencer, a bottle neck player in the style of the great Elmore James, to join them.
From the first, Peter and the rest of the ‘Mac set themselves apart from the rest of the blues bands then enjoying the blues revival in England. While the others were playing blues with a straight faced, moody pose full of angst, Fleetwood Mac were determined to enjoy themselves on stage, without losing the blues feel and roots of field work songs, persecution and oppression.
For the next three years, Fleetwood Mac recorded classic blues, along with equally classic Peter Green composed songs. Songs such as ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Oh Well’, the prophetic ‘Man Of The World’ and the instrumental that made the band a household name – ‘Albatross’. They toured America and Europe at a frenetic pace that, together with the pressures of finding time to record new material, saw Peter arrive at the brink of exhaustion. Finally in March 1970 the band arrived in Munich when the incident that John McVie describes as “Trauma City” happened.
Munich 1970 was a great turning point in Peter’s life, and still today there is much speculation as to what really happened there. The few facts that are known are that Peter was invited to a private party in Munich, took some acid and went to sleep exhausted. Sometime during the weekend the ideas that had already begun to form in his mind about an eccentric change in direction for his music were consolidated and he announced his decision to quit Fleetwood Mac to pursue a solo career.
His debut solo album ‘End Of The Game’ was released in June 1970 – a very introspective Peter Green and according to Melody Maker magazine in a review “certainly the most disturbing album release this year”. But already Peter was searching for new meanings in life and becoming more and more disillusioned with life. He applied for jobs at both London and Chessington Zoos in England, but was turned down because of his lack of qualifications. In 1971 he was working in Mortlake cemetery, enjoying the companionship of the eccentric people who worked alongside him. People like the doctor who had returned from the war to find his whole family had been killed in his absence. He had had a nervous breakdown and had been working at the cemetery ever since. Peter could identify with him as a fellow professional who could have been doing other things but preferred to push a lawn mower around with no pressures.
By 1974 Peter had virtually disappeared from the music scene and at one stage was forcibly committed to a mental hospital for allegedly threatening his manager with a shotgun after the manager refused to stop royalty payments to him. It was not until 1979 that he made a return to the recording business when he released the album ‘In The Skies’ for the PVK label. Peter’s brother Michael had joined PVK, after meeting the owner Peter Vernon-Kell, and it was through Michael that Peter Green was introduced to and signed up by PVK.
A series of lesser albums followed during the early 1980’s, but by 1984 Peter had once again retired to live alone, fighting depression and suffering lethargy caused by his medications. In 1995 his eldest brother Len and his wife Gloria persuaded Peter to live with them in the peace and seclusion of their home on the Suffolk coast where he began a slow, long recovery. A series of tribute albums were released, most notably Gary Moore’s “Blues For Greeny” and in 1996 Peter was reunited with an old friend Nigel Watson and the Splinter Group was born, with albums released throughout the late 1990’s and touring as far a field as Australia.
Peter Green’s great strength in his guitar playing has always been to be able to say more with less. While others may attempt to impress with lightning fast runs and scorching solos, Peter is happiest when he can let his playing speak for himself, with stunning simplicity and integrity. B. B. King told the truth when he said that Peter Green’s electric blue tone was the only thing he ever heard that made him sweat.
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