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Can’t help about the shape I’m in
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty
and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer
that you want me to
“Oh Well!” – Peter Green
It broke my heart upon learning of the death last weekend of guitarist and Fleetwood Mac founding member Peter Green, and then calling up his music through a streaming service, only to have the California version of the band with American interlopers Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham staring out at me, as if they are the definitive Fleetwood Mac.
Well, they may be for some people – perhaps the majority of the world – but give me the original all-male version of the band, followed by the post-Green versions with Christine McVie and Bob Welch.
That’s what’s so disturbing about seeing the final version of Fleetwood Mac representing the entire history of the band, without a trace of Green or fellow guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. Two of the original members are still there, of course, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, the two for whom the band is named.
But that name would have meant nothing had Peter Green not been a founding member of the band. In fact, the band was first known as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
That’s because it all began with Green’s emotive guitar, which first gained fame when he replaced Eric Clapton as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and where he played alongside future bandmates McVie and Fleetwood.
He brought scarifying guitar sense and melancholy vocals (is there a more melancholy song than his absolutely rocking “Oh Well” from the Then Play On album, his last outing with the group).
My vinyl collection is in storage until I find a permanent home here in the Twin Ports, so I couldn’t get at my early Fleetwood Mac and solo Peter Green records. That’s why I turned to streaming to pay tribute with my ears when I learned he had died on July 25 at the age of 73. An old pal of mine called to tell me. He knew I would want to know.
In my collection I have a Peter Green-era Mac album called English Rose, with a picture of the gigantic drummer in drag making a face on the cover. I was a teenager when I bought that record in Duluth many moons ago. It’s the record that made me a Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green fan.
It was not an actual album release by the band, but was a compilation for the U.S. market, which Fleetwood Mac had not quite cracked. It mostly included songs from the band’s second UK release, Mr. Wonderful. While most of the record is in the blues-rock vein, there are two standout pieces featuring all the best of what Fleetwood Mac was, and that is Green’s haunting guitar and the incredible titular rhythm section. The two pieces I mean are Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” which became a hit signature tune for Santana, and, the B side on the “Black Magic Woman“ single, the gorgeous “Albatross.”
But there’s also the horn-drenched “Stop Messin’ Round” with Green’s guitar blazing through. Jeremy Spencer’s raucous “Evenin’ Boogie” with lots of crying sllde geetar. Three Danny Kirwan songs are featured, including “One Sunny Day,” which reappears on the final Green release with the band, Then Play On.
When I moved to England in 1974, I was pleasantly surprised to find “Albatross” on almost every jukebox I saw in pubs in those days (along with Elvis and, inexplicably, Jim Reeves).
A couple years later, “Albatross” was being replaced in those jukeboxes by the hits of the Californiaized Fleetwood Mac.
There were rumors that Green had gone the way of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett and did too many psychedelics for his mind to withstand. When the new California Fleetwood Mac began breaking sales records around the world and became an unstoppable force for a moment, an intrepid BBC reporter tracked Peter Green down, who at the time was living in a modest country cottage with his father and working as a sexton (gravedigger) in the village cemetery. He seemed sadly out of touch with reality, especially when the reporter mentioned the current global success of his old band, and would he like to be asked to come and play with them. Peter held out his hands, showing grossly long fingernails curling over the tops of each of his digits.
“I can’t play guitar anymore,” he said. “My fingernails are too long.”
But, he eventually climbed out of whatever pit of despair he had been in for much of his time after leaving the band. He made a solo record shortly after leaving the band in 1970, called The End of the Game (which All Music Guide gives a one-star rating and says this in its short review: “The directionless jamming on The End of the Game, the first solo release by Peter Green, is just what you’d expect from someone as psychologically messed up as he was when he cut it. He still plays wicked guitar, and sounds much like Jimi Hendrix in spots, but without Hendrix’s vision. In fact, there’s no coherent vision at all on this record. None of the musicians could have enjoyed themselves in spite of the opportunity to play with Green. It’s drivel, from an immensely talented guitarist. Sad.”
And then there was nothing until 1979 when Green released a record called In the Skies, which I’ve had on vinyl for decades. He reportedly had some lead guitar assistance from Snowy White, because Green was not convinced he was ready for what would amount to a break from almost a decade of obscurity.
I love this record, and again, I’ve always felt it was imbued with melancholy. Is that the British version of soul?
The guitar, as always, is deeply expressive. He makes the strings sing. Other famous guitarists have noted the depth of the profound expression of human emotion he squeezes out of those strings. For example, check out the instrumental “Slabo Day.” It makes you want to do something special in honor of Slabo Day!
And that reminds me – that first icy guitar note that chimes as the introduction to “Black Magic Woman” still sends chills through my spine. I heard the Santana version of the song first, and loved it. It was a beautiful thing Carlos Santana did in paying tribute to Peter Green by covering that song so much like the original. But it has always meant so much more for me to hear Green singing his own lyrics and making that guitar speak.
There were more records and in the 1990s he began touring again with a band named the Splinter Group. He also became obsessed with Robert Johnson and released several collections covering Johnson.
I never saw the original Fleetwood Mac, or the several great versions that followed on records such as Kiln House, Future Games, Bare Trees, Penguin, Mystery to Me and even Heroes Are Hard to Find. And that’s about as far as I went with Fleetwood Mac. When they achieved superstardom with the California version, they didn’t need me.
Well, I’ll be digging into the back catalogue with relish and hearing everything in a new way now that Peter Green is gone. If you don’t know him and/or the original Fleetwood Mac, I would highly recommend you check them out. Guaranteed, you’ll never want to hear Rumors again.
And, really, Amazon Prime Music (Unlimited): When you’re listening to Fleetwood Mac – Before the Beginning – 1968-1970 Rare Live & Demo Sessions – you should not have Lindsey, Stevie, John, Christie and Mick staring out at you from the screen. When the original Fleetwood Mac is playing blistering blues, I want to see Peter and the fellas – Mick, John, Danny and Jeremy. Please!