peter green, 1946-2020

Peter Green in 1970.

It’s understandable, given the commercial concerns of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll, to view Fleetwood Mac as a product of the ‘70s and ‘80s – a hitmaking force that made stars out of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie and seemingly back seat celebrities out of name sake members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. But Fleetwood Mac had an entire career – several, actually – prior the Buckingham-Nicks boom. The group began as a blues band that sifted through numerous singers, guitarists and de facto frontmen before fortunes came their way.

And it all began with Peter Green, who died today at age 73.

Green’s guitar sound – fluid and lyrical with rich vibrato – had zero patience for grandstanding. What it accomplished in under three minutes with “The Supernatural,” an instrumental Green composed for (and recorded with) John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966, was a master class in creative economy. His tone was as operatic as it was electric, an elongation of psychedelia that favored compositional might over flashy technique.

Fleetwood Mac came about in 1967 as an offshoot of a fertile British blues movement of which Mayall was the undisputed chieftain. In the waning days of the 1960s, Green’s lean, introspective intensity shared space in Fleetwood Mac with more verbose guitar voices like Jeremy Spencer and, to a lesser extent, Danny Kirwan. A young Carlos Santana would prove a major disciple of Green’s music. The sinewy, emotive lines of Green’s playing would form the basis of Santana’s still-evolving guitar sound. Similarly, one of the biggest early hits of the band that would bear Santana’s name, “Black Magic Woman,” was a Green tune cut as a single for Fleetwood Mac in 1968. Santana’s version landed in the Top 5 during the fall of 1970.

A rapid mental decline often thought to have been prompted by LSD use led to Green’s departure from Fleetwood Mac in 1970. But before leaving, Green helmed what is rightly viewed as the strongest recorded document of the band’s early days – a keenly orchestrated feast of spacious, blues-informed psychedelia titled “Then Play On.” The album should be considered essential listening for any admirer of progressively minded late ‘60s music.

Green’s career never fully regained traction after Fleetwood Mac. A 1970 solo debut album, ironically titled “The End of the Game,” is a great listen, but is essentially just an instrumental jam album. Several more song-oriented ventures followed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that offered hints of Green’s compositional command but little of his guitar spark.

Peter Green in 2004.

I was lucky enough to see Green perform twice in 1998 with his Splinter Group (the second being as part of a Robert Johnson tribute). Green was in his early ‘50s at the time but looked much older. His singing, which always possessed a tone far lighter than his guitar voice, seldom rose above a whisper while Green’s playing, though quite proficient, seemed distant and tentative. Still, it was inspiring to hear him roar through a series of blues standards as well as early Fleetwood Mac works like “The Green Manalishi” and “Albatross.”

Green’s legacy has always been ripe for reexamination. A three-disc collection of largely unreleased live music from his Fleetwood Mac years was released as “Before the Beginning 1968-1970” late last year while “Then Play On” will be featured as part of “Fleetwood Mac 1969-1974,” an eight-CD Rhino Records compilation of pre-Buckingham-Nicks music due out in September.

But you can fully discover Green’s luminescence as a composer and instrumentalist in the space of three thrilling minutes. That’s all it takes to peel back the years to 1966 and “The Supernatural” and revel in the beauty of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most unlikely guitar heroes. Play on, indeed.



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