“Of all the guitar giants to emerge from the British blues boom,” writes Stuart Penny at Empty Mirror, “Peter Green was perhaps the most naturally gifted.” After replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers (and earning the nickname “The Green God”), the guitarist formed his own band, originally given the unwieldy name “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer.” Soon shortened to Fleetwood Mac, the band recorded their debut, eponymous album in 1968, and went on in the following year to spend “more weeks on the UK singles charts than the Beatles, the first time anyone had achieved that feat since 1963.”
Sadly, Green succumbed to what Penny describes as “the early onset of mental illness thought to be the result of an unsolicited LSD experience in Munich, Germany.” He left his band and joined the ranks of other wildly talented 60s musicians like Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, and Moby Grape’s Skip Spence whose careers were cut short by serious mental health issues apparently brought on, or worsened, by serious drug use.
1975’s Fleetwood Mac was like a reboot of the band after the introduction of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, who resisted playing any of the old material. Fans may get to hear those old songs live again—Fleetwood Mac is back and touring, and they’ve even reignited old feuds by firing Buckingham (he’s suing, of course). The move gives them the freedom draw from their back catalog again. Nicks remarked in May, “we’re gonna lock in to the history of Fleetwood Mac, which we were never able to do since 1975, because certain people in the band weren’t really interested in doing that.”
Green won’t take part in the band’s revisiting of old material. But he deserves full credit for the band’s success, despite its many successful reinventions, as Mick Fleetwood told the Irish Times last year.
For his legacy I think it’s important we remember that Fleetwood Mac was, first and foremost, a blues band. We all played and loved blues. And long after Peter left, we went to Chess Records in Chicago where we recorded with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. Can you imagine how that made us feel? Such an incredible experience could not have happened without Peter because, even though he wasn’t with us, the reason there’s a Fleetwood Mac at all is because of him.
Green made four albums with the band before departing in 1970 and scored a hit with the single “Black Magic Woman,” before Carlos Santana made the song his own. Like Barrett, Spence, and Erickson, he continued making music after leaving his famous band, recording in the early 70s with former bandmate John Mayall. In 1972, he did a session with BB King, who called him the only British blues guitarist “who gave me the cold sweats.” Voted the third greatest guitarist of all time by Mojo (after Hendrix and Steve Cropper), Green is still revered by diehard fans and guitar players of all kinds, even if his strictly blues-rock version of Fleetwood Mac never had as wide an appeal as the pop juggernaut the band later became.
But the low profile was part of Green’s personality. He has always bristled at the acclaim heaped on his playing, telling The Telegraph in 1996 “If I was a guitar hero, then what does that make my masters and teachers?” As Mick Fleetwood puts it, “Peter could have been the stereotypical guitar player and control freak. But that wasn’t his style. He named the band after the bass player and drummer, for Christ’s sake.” Green’s collaborative spirit and self-effacing manner may be rare qualities for a rock star, but he never seemed to aspire to that role. Nonetheless, he left his mark, as Allmusic’s Thom Jurek writes, as “the terminally shy skinny kid who could rain down fire from the heavens and draw water from the wells of hell on a guitar.”
See and hear some of Green’s classic performances with Fleetwood Mac in the videos here (some with out-of-sync audio), including “Black Magic Woman” at the top. And just above, see a much mellower Green in a much more recent performance playing “Albatross” with an acoustic ensemble.