A Peter Green Playlist
At the time Peter Green passed away, my drafts folder contained three reviews on albums featuring Peter Green: John Mayall’s A Hard Road, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Then Play On. I had finished the intros (always the hardest part for me), but in each case, I developed writer’s block and found myself unable to move forward.
I finally had to admit to myself that the problem was that I really didn’t give a shit about “the other stuff” on those albums. All I cared about were the Peter Green tracks.
I consider myself a John Mayall fan but I don’t think his work on A Hard Road reflects Mayall at his best; his vocals sound unusually strained and he was still working out the finer points when it came to integrating horns into the mix. As for the two Fleetwood Mac albums, I place the blame solely with Peter Green for insisting on a second guitarist so he wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of playing frontman. I’d rather listen to a full orchestra of fingernails on chalkboards than listen to Jeremy Spencer with his silly vocalizations and pedestrian slide playing, and though the Danny Kirwan of Then Play On shows promise, some of his contributions reek of early flower child music. On all three albums, Peter Green’s work is several cuts above the contributions of his colleagues.
When I heard the sad news, I realized that in the context of a completed life, commenting on a few flawed albums filled with irrelevant material would represent a great disservice to the memory of this unusually gifted artist, so I started thinking that a playlist of selected tracks might be a better approach. The challenge I faced was pithily expressed by one of my top commentators (Dean) who noted in response to a thread that arose from my review of Future Games, “The Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac (through 1970) discography is a mess.”
I found motivation enough to overcome those obstacles in what seems to be the norm in Peter Green bios, obits and retrospectives: briefly acknowledge his status as a great guitarist then capitalize on the human fascination with tragedy. When I revisited the documentary Man of the World, I found myself frequently shouting at the screen, frustrated with the comparatively little attention devoted to the music and the inordinate amount of time devoted to tabloid-quality amateur psychologizing (Noel Gallager is the next-to-last person I’d hire as a psychoanalyst, right after his brother). I resented the emphasis placed on “Oh, what could have been if he hadn’t fucked it all up by taking too much acid” rather than what the man actually accomplished—which was more than most musicians can only dream of achieving.
We’re talking about artistic achievement here, not commercial success. The most insightful comment Peter Green ever made about his approach to guitar was this: “I like to play slowly and feel every note. It comes from every part of my body.” I’ve always felt that the greatest musical artists are imbued with a reverence for musical sound, likely ignited in early in the learning curve when they plucked a note a certain way, stumbled across an unusual chord, or happened upon a pleasing combination of notes and tempo. The true musical artist is engaged in a constant search for those fleeting epiphanies in sound, beautiful timeless moments of pure wonder—and Peter Green was a true artist.
Some of the choices I made are obvious; others less so; and I’m sure some will complain about certain omissions. Let me clarify things: this is not a “best of” list but a selection of tracks revealing different facets of Peter Green’s artistry.
“The Stumble,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: This high-speed shuffle may seem a contradiction to the “play slowly and feel every note” mantra, but it demonstrates a few important aspects of Peter Green’s style and personality. Remember, Peter Green had the apparent misfortune of succeeding Eric Clapton in the role of Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarist at a time when juvenile delinquents were spraypainting “Clapton Is God” on Arvon Road. I’m not sure who was responsible for selecting this Freddie King number to demonstrate Green’s licks, but since Clapton had already demonstrated his mastery of the fretboard on Freddy’s “Hideaway,” this was a pretty ballsy decision.
If Green felt any pressure about going up against a god he sure doesn’t show it here. For the first couple of go-rounds he sticks pretty close to the patterns in Freddie’s original, but as the song progresses you begin to notice Peter filling his phrases with a few more notes than Freddie. The difference becomes quite noticeable when he travels to the upper reaches of the fretboard (where Freddie only made a few brief appearances). What strikes me most is his tonal clarity at high speed; instead of the usual unintelligible flurry used by turbo-charged guitar heroes to impress the masses, every single note is clean and distinct.
Some guitarists thunder, some rain, but with Peter Green, it’s like listening to a spring shower where you can hear sweet music in each and every drop.
“The Supernatural,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: Having proven he could match Clapton or anyone else in a high-speed competition, Green confirms his “each note” artistic manifesto in “The Supernatural.” It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a set-piece featuring guitar and a modest supporting cast but a layered composition melding multiple octaves within the limits of four-track recording capability, completely designed by Peter Green. Mostly famous for its masterfully controlled feedback followed by thrilling slides down the fretboard, “The Supernatural” was described as “haunting” by Mayall; I would add the word “mesmerizing” to complete the picture.
Though it may not be apparent at first, “The Supernatural” is a blues in D minor—a scale Green would continue to explore over the coming years in what I interpret as a quest for perfection . . . but more about that later.
“The Supernatural” also launched what seems to be an eternal question in the guitar community: “How can I create the Peter Green tone?” Well . . . you could start by picking up a ’59 Les Paul and setting the pickup switch to the middle (dual-pickup) position . . . but I’m afraid you still won’t get there, no matter how many pedals you try and amp settings you tinker with. For one, Peter Green’s ’59 wasn’t just any old Les Paul, but the result of a boo-boo at the Gibson factory.
Jol Dantzig wrote a piece on Premier Guitar describing how he had the opportunity to play Green’s ’59 back in 1984 courtesy of Gary Moore, who bought the guitar from Green—for exactly what Peter had paid for it back in the ’60s (Metallica’s Kirk Hammet bought it a few years back for $2M). Plugging into a ’68 Marshall Plexi, they each played some of Green’s works and managed to reproduce the tone. “Up to this point in time, I’d been the owner of a few original Sunbursts, and our shop had bought and sold plenty more. But none had the eerie tone that Green’s guitar demonstrated in the middle selector position with both pickups on.” Being the curious sort, Dantzig suggested to Moore that they disassemble the guitar to see if Green had messed with the innards. Their initial investigation revealed nothing but factory standard, but Dantzig was one determined investigator:
A pickup creates current through the use of a magnetic field coupled with coils of wire. Both the wiring and the orientation of the magnetic poles determine polarity. If you alter either of these, you change the phase of the pickup relative to another pickup. So, with the wiring intact, I decided to test the magnetic polarity with a compass. Bingo! The magnet was reversed on one pickup. Because the pickup internals looked undisturbed, I concluded that it must have been a mistake at the factory. With Gibson having made over ten thousand electric guitars that year, the odds of the mistake showing up in Green’s guitar seems incredible.
All well and good, but even if you could pry the original from Kirk’s grubby mitts, the truth is Peter Green used multiple pickup settings within the same song and used a Strat as often as a Paul. So, you might be able to get Peter Green’s tone on this song but unable to reproduce it on that song.
The harder truth is stating the obvious: you’re not Peter Green.
“Greeny,” A Hard Road, 2003 Expanded Edition, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: In the intro I expressed some disappointment with A Hard Road, but a lot of that disappointment vanishes when I listen to the expanded edition. Not only does the grander version give us more Peter Green, but Mayall sounds like he’s having more fun.
In addition to tone, Peter Green is also renowned for his vibrato, an effect most often created by bending the strings. Nearly every lead guitarist on the planet uses some vibrato, most obviously in those moments when they bend strings in an attempt to replicate the cry of pain and anguish in a blues or blues-influenced number. What’s remarkable about his work on “Greeny” is how Green applies vibrato in tiny bursts—like on the second note on the simple four-note core motif, turning a rather pedestrian theme into something that gives me the chills every time I hear it. Though Peter Green could do the guitar hero schtick as well as the best of them, his best work is found in the slower stuff or in songs with a nice, easy tempo like this one.
“I Loved Another Woman (all takes),” Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, 1999 re-release: This expanded edition is quite educational because of its inclusion of multiple takes, giving insight into the nature of Peter Green’s quest for perfection.
- Take 1: Peter’s guitar sounds fabulous, but his voice could have used a bit more of a warm-up. He stops the take a minute into the song, claiming “Sorry, I forgot the words,” but his subsequent feedback to Mick Fleetwood (“you came in a faction late”) tells us that Fleetwood’s tardiness in syncopation is probably what threw him off. This happens a lot in recording—you hear something that sounds a teeny bit off but you’re not entirely sure, so you shoulder on for a while, but that damned little fuck-up is still on your mind and will eventually destroy your concentration.
- Take 2: Peter’s voice is still a bit strained but not enough to spoil the mix; a sharp critic would likely write it off to a stylistic choice—the exhaustion of losing his best gal. McVie and Fleetwood seem to play with a bit more conviction, and Peter’s hard-picked solo is gorgeous and damned sexy. If I had been in the booth, I might have given it a thumbs-up, but the engineer’s “Come and have a listen to it,” communicates some doubt. Try again.
- Take 3: Peter stops after the first phrase and indicates someone (Fleetwood?) “didn’t come in straight away.” Another fractional error.
- Take 4: The engineer cuts it off midway; we have no idea why. He just shouts out “No” and that’s that.
- Take 5: A very promising start with another beautiful solo collapses into ghoulish laughter near the end of Peter’s wordless, falsetto recitation of the melody. Right before the cut I hear a noise like paper shuffling or shoes scuffing, so that may have been a distraction. What’s nice is that Peter ends it with laughter, helping to relieve any pressure in the studio.
- Take 6: Peter says, “Hang on to my tit,” which could mean that whatever caused the distraction in Take 5 might have been attached (no, his voice doesn’t convey the pain of nipple clamps) or in a shirt pocket. Before he begins this take he asks for more fractional improvement from the band; in response to a request from a band member (sounds like Fleetwood), he agrees to play the intro a bit slower. On this take, Peter has more command of his voice; his voice-cracking sounds more intentional as opposed to a problem with the pipes. For reasons unknown, he cuts things off mid-take.
- Final Version: The clarity of instrumental separation clearly shows the effect of mastering; McVie’s bass is more prominent and Peter’s tone is . . . well, it’s frigging beautiful, with just the right amount of reverb to thicken his vibrato. He absolutely nails the vocal, burnishing his credentials as one of the most underrated blues singers of all-time. I also like the way the song fades on his wordless vocalizations (ooh-ooh’s), giving the listener the feeling that the pain of losing his baby is going to stay with him for a long time.
This is the second in a series of three Peter Green D minor blues numbers; the third is the much more famous “Black Magic Woman.” I chose not to include the Fleetwood Mac version largely because I think Santana’s version realizes the song’s full potential by expanding on the song’s innate Latin feel. I’ll explain more when I review Abraxas later this year; for the present, give Peter Green due credit for writing one of the greatest minor blues songs in music history. Mission accomplished.
“Albatross,” English Rose, Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac’s first #1 hit in the UK provides further proof that though they share a common language (well, sort of), British and American cultural tastes do not sync as often as PBS viewers would have you believe. The song didn’t even chart in the U. S. unless you count #4 on The Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 as “charting.”
The most obvious choice for the source is Santo and Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk” from that marvelous era when instrumentals were as likely to chart as vocal performances, with Chuck Berry’s “Deep Feeling” a close second. According to the songwriter, neither answer (if stated in the form of a question) would earn you a cent on Jeopardy. “I heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ cover of Jimmy Rodgers’ The Last Meal – that’s the blues singer, not the country and western one. I thought I would take it and develop it. I called it that because of that reference to the back of a giant albatross mentioned in the Traffic record ‘Hole in My Shoe.’”
What sounds like a steel pedal guitar is actually Green playing his Strat on his lap. Recent addition Danny Kirwan helped Green complete the composition and supplied the harmonic guitar support that Jeremy Spencer was never able to pull off. You can tell that Green is savoring each note in this exceptionally slow (67 bpm), meditative number, and kudos to Fleetwood for using timpani mallets to create the shimmer.
“Stop Messin’ Around,” Mr. Wonderful, Fleetwood Mac: Mr. Wonderful was one of those experiments that didn’t quite pan out. In an attempt to duplicate their live sound, the album was recorded through a P. A. system. Even producer Mike Vernon, who embraced the idea, had to admit its limitations: ” . . . we never actually really captured the live performance in a studio – with the exception of “Stop Messin’ Around” from the Mr. Wonderful album.”
With support from Christine Perfect (later McVie) on the 88’s and the saxophone duo of Steve Gregory and Johnny Almond, Green finds his guitar and vocal grooves right from the get-go. Like Sinatra and Billie Holiday in many of their vocals, Peter’s guitar phrasing defies the fixed rhythm, falling slightly behind on occasion and anticipating the beat on others. Though he only devotes two verses to vocals, he sounds positively joyful as he calls out his baby’s bullshit. And I love his high-end bends on that last go-round—as sexy as sexy gets.
“Last Night,” Blues Jam at Chess, Fleetwood Mac, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Shakey Horton, J. T. Brown, Buddy Guy, Honey Boy Edwards, S. P. Leary: Peter Green was very hard on himself when he didn’t measure up to his own lofty expectations, and in the documentary Man of the World, he waves off his contributions on Blues Jam at Chess (or Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, whatever) as feeling out of his element in the presence of some great black blues musicians. White guilt aside, his discomfort is actually clearer in the rougher vocals than his guitar work. I picked this piece because his vocal is in sync with the song’s essential feeling and his guitar is generally limited to economical support in the form of brief fills and light support for Shakey Horton’s harmonica solo. His solo comes in at around the 3:20 mark, an equally economical performance featuring his scintillating vibrato with just the right amount of notes and not one note more. I imagine a report card somewhere that reads, “Peter plays well with others.”
“Man of the World,” The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac: Part of the motivation in bringing Danny Kirwan into the fold was to give Green a true guitar partner; the other part involved Peter Green’s desire to expand the band’s playing field beyond blues-based rock without losing the essence of the blues. “To my mind,” Green told journalist Ian Middleton, “a blues doesn’t have to be a 12-bar progression. It can cover any musical chord sequence. To me, the blues is an emotional thing. If a song has the right emotion then I accept it as a blues.” Music is largely an emotional experience, and Peter Green was a master at expressing and evoking emotion.
With its baroque-style chords having more in common with the songs on Odessey and Oracle, “Man of the World” bears little resemblance to the music on the first two Fleetwood Mac albums. And though the structure is a long way from 12-bar blues, the song expresses sentiments associated with the blues through a combination of lyrics and Peter Green’s vocal abilities.
By this time, Peter Green was becoming deeply disillusioned about the life of a rock star and its essential disconnection from reality. Over a soft background of electric guitar and bass, in musical phrases marked by frequent appearances of minor chords and variants thereof, he sings gently and self-deprecatingly about his “dream life” in the music business . . . then suddenly raises his voice in anguish to deliver a thoroughly shocking sentiment:
Shall I tell you about my life
They say I’m a man of the world
I’ve flown across every tide
And I’ve seen lots of pretty girls
I guess I’ve got everything I need
I wouldn’t ask for more
And there’s no one I’d rather be
But I just wish that I’d never been born
While some tend to interpret that line (and much of the “The Green Manalishi”) through the lens of Green’s future bout with mental illness, I would remind people that such sentiments are part of the stock in trade when it comes to the blues. What’s shocking is hearing them in what sounds like a perfectly lovely ballad. Green softens the blow by attaching his anguish to the absence of true love, but you can’t help but notice the not-so-hidden message that his desperation is aggravated by a feeling that the life he’s living is something of a fraud:
I could tell you about my life
And keep you amused I’m sure
About all the times I’ve cried
And how I don’t want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love
“Man of the World” may or may not sound the alarm in terms of Peter Green’s mental state, but it is certainly a signal that Peter was searching for a way out of a dilemma. It’s also a terribly beautiful piece of music.
“Oh Well, Pts 1 and 2,” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: I will be forever astonished that Peter Green considered Part 1 “just the packaging” to get to Part 2. He felt that Part 1 an irrelevant piece based on a “throwaway riff” and should have been surgically removed from future compilation albums. To my ears, both parts are essential, forming a holistic composition concerning the modern manifestation of yin and yang: the aggressive, competitive, extraverted world of the daily grind where image has more value than substance versus the introverted, reflective world where we recover from the general toxicity to ponder our thoughts and emotions.
To my ears, Part 1 is three minutes and twenty-four seconds of some of the fiercest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded. The joint guitar crescendo is tremendously exciting, forming a sort of musical question that is answered with a stunning moment of near silence broken only by Mick Fleetwood on cowbell before Peter enters with his stop-time, no-more-bullshit, proto-rap lyrics:
I 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
The self-deprecation is typical Green; the refusal to continue to play Mr. Nice Guy is the emerging Green, sick and tired of playing the game. In the segment covering “Oh Well” in Man of the World, Peter identifies the guitar as a “Michigan” he bought from some fellow in the North Country (most likely a branded Harmony guitar) and used only on this one song to get a different sound—the rawer, less-embellished sound we’d eventually associate with garage rock. Part 1 ends with a bass pushing the recording limits of the era (Green indicated he played a six-string bass on the piece) fading into the strum of a Spanish guitar that marks the beginning of Part 2.
Mick Fleetwood commented in Man of the World that at this time Peter was beginning to play more of a Brian Wilson role in the band, imagining and creating sound collages combining traditional rock instruments with other sounds and textures. In Part 2 he uses the contrasting timbres of Spanish and electric guitar to build a minor key soundscape contrasting hope and despair, light and dark; later he uses the deep melancholy of a cello (played by himself) in contrast to the wistful yet earthy sound of a wood recorder played by one Sandra Elsdon (a much better textural choice than a metal flute). Employing Jeremy Spencer on piano, he mixes the various elements to form an intermediary crescendo, following the peak with an extended cello-Spanish guitar duet that I’d say was the loveliest musical passage he ever recorded. After another brief moment of silence, the piece turns into sort of a dirge with Fleetwood providing the boom for a few measures before we return to blessed quiet, the recorder now a faint, fading sound in deep background over Peter’s gentle strumming. In a brilliant move, he ends this largely sorrowful segment on a major chord, closing with a bit of hope for our tension-filled world. Of the thousands of what-ifs that haunt the story of Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Well” is the one that brings up my deepest feelings of regret: the combination of power and compositional promise of Fleetwood Mac at that moment of time was beyond exceptional.
“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: Even more so than “Man of the World,” people classify “The Green Manalishi” as a descent into darkness that clearly reveals the onset of mental disease.
That’s one way to look at it. Peter described it as a song about a bad dream he had. Hey, wait a minute! I’ve had bad dreams! I need meds! Gimme my meds! Lots of meds!
I find this kind of Monday morning psychologizing by non-experts both insulting and unfair to Peter Green’s memory. At this point in his life, he had been moved by the catastrophic famine in Biafra and wanted to do something about it. As his thinking about the situation progressed, he looked at his own life and figured out he was making more money than anyone deserved to make, given the existence of millions of people simply trying to survive another day. Naïve idealist that he was, he tried to get his fellow bandmates to give all their money away and invest it in charitable causes, a proposition that didn’t go over too well with the boys.
Peter Green was always very clear that “The Green Manalishi” was about money and the old adage that money is the root of all evil. Yes, he was taking acid at the time, but given the hundreds of musicians who also partook in the psychedelic experience, his usage was hardly unique and not necessarily problematic in relation to this composition. Yes, the song is on the dark side, but right around this time, Black Sabbath was inventing an entire genre of dark sounds that we now refer to as heavy metal and is considered so socially acceptable that you can win a Grammy for conjuring up such harsh sonic imagery. The opening is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young,” and as far as I know, no one suggested that Eric or any of his bandmates should have been committed to a mental institution. What I hear is a compelling, bitter attack on the power of money and its corrosive power; it sounds more immediate and possibly more ominous because Peter really feels it. The soundscape (enhanced enormously by the line “The night is so black, the darkness cooks”) is appropriately creepy, marked by tightly coordinated guitar duets and sharp cuts, with Peter’s eerie falsetto completing the ghoulish painting of a world gone mad due to unrelenting greed.
“Timeless Time,” The End of the Game, Peter Green: Shortly after Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac, he released his first solo album to universal scorn. The End of the Game isn’t really as bad as the critics make it out to be, biased as they were by their insistence that Peter should stick close to the blues-rock formula that made Fleetwood Mac the darlings of the late ’60s.
There are problems with the record, most involving the method of construction: Peter engaged his band of brothers in a series of jams, then cut and spliced what he thought were the best parts. It’s obvious that his perfectionist streak had dimmed somewhat, particularly in relation to Alex Dmochowski’s bass, which frequently overpowers the mix. Still, there are some good musical ideas on the album, especially those that lean towards modern jazz.
I chose “Timeless Time” for this essay because of something I learned watching Man of the World. Peter’s introduction to the guitar came via his brother Lenny, who had purchased a guitar only to find out he was tone-deaf. He gave it to his ten-year-old kid brother Peter and showed him three chords: E, A and B7, the classic blues combination. According to Lenny, “after about six to eight months, Peter was doing really well.”
When I listen to “Timeless Time,” where Peter’s guitar is extraordinarily quiet and limited to a single channel, it calls up images of a kid in a room with the door closed, cradling his guitar, playing wherever his fingers lead him, repeating a few riffs that charmed him, experiencing the wonder of musical expression by playing slowly and feeling every note.