I have been obsessed with Fleetwood Mac – all versions of the band – since I was about 10 years old. People like to focus on the early blues years now, a different band entirely. But I still love the FM-radio version of Fleetwood Mac. As the documentary Fleetwood Mac at 21 puts it, “they are the FM in FM radio”. I’ve watched that documentary close to a hundred times. It was that one-hour BBC TV show from the late 1980s that taught me about Peter Green – and all of the guitarists that followed; that gave me a context beyond knowing about all the pop hits and what seemed like an anomaly, that instrumental Albatross.
Fleetwood Mac was named after the rhythm section; in fact that rhythm section (Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass) is still there. The only constant in the Fleetwood Mac line-ups. And that rhythm section’s name was, first off, loaned to a piece of music. Green and McVie and Fleetwood had all been nurtured through that British Blues Boom/sound, John Mayall and Alexis Korner and the like. When a young Peter Green was giving the gift of some studio time he laid down an instrumental track and decided, on a whim, to name it Fleetwood Mac. John and Mick had played on it. Green was happy to have that reflected. Shortly after he was leading a band with all of their names in the title: Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac played some of the best blues covers you could hear; an innate understanding of what drives those roadhouse shuffles and Green’s guitar was a crucial component. So was his voice. He also became a leader in much the way that his early mentor John Mayall had been a bandleader and talent spotter. Green pulled in the young Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer. This was a fascinating and fantastic three-guitar line-up with Spencer bringing a strange sense of almost vaudeville to the shows. He’d play Elmore James-styled slide guitar and brought in a range of rock’n’roll covers. Sometimes he’d barely play guitar, he’d shake his head and a pair of maracas in time with the music. Kirwan and Green traded leads and from the soulful to the raucous this was a pure distillation of blues energy.
Green fought against some severe demons to bring this music into shape.
There was always drama in Fleetwood Mac. It was always a soap opera. A decade before Annie Lebowitz would photograph the bed-swapping pop-group version of Fleetwood Mac Peter Green was struggling to keep it all together. By that I mean the band. And personally.
There was alcoholism and drug use. There was depression and – when it was eventually diagnosed – schizophrenia. And some of the extraordinary music that appeared was a direct result of the band’s most unhinged facets.
Green had a deep understanding of the blues – and developed as a songwriter by channelling that knowledge and his own dark vision. All at once his band were blues purists and part of the psychedelic rock movement. In the same song they could go from Grateful Dead jam band to Deep Purple frenzy while starting (and sometimes ending) the tune in Chicago or deep in the Delta.
Green left his own band – the rhythm section became the bosses, kept the branding and it was a revolving door of blues vocalists and guitarists for a few years. They brought with them plenty of problems, even more alcoholism and the wife-swapping/stealing started. This was years before Fleetwood Mac’s other great guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham, was in the mix.
Peter Green’s mental health sent him down a spiral were he wanted nothing to do with money, where the bad trips piled up and all but buried him. He hated the sell-out he was sure he’d become. This was while creating edgy masterpieces like The Green Manalishi and Rattlesnake Shake. He was also devoutly covering Elmore James and Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and distilling those influences down into a set of quite extraordinary and enduring original compositions: Stop Messin’ ‘Round, Black Magic Woman, Oh Well, Man of the World. And of course Albatross.
Green walked away from Fleetwood Mac. And walked away from music. He had set up a band that would continue to evolve, helmed by a rhythm section that became expert at (almost) all styles.
The very best of the early Fleetwood Mac material works because of Green – his voice, that touch on the guitar, like B.B. King, like Buddy Guy, like Elmore James his touch is his own. His guitar is his voice. Green’s tone was exquisite – and his knowledge of the music was huge, an important part of the development of the Fleetwood Mac sound.
In the late 1970s Peter Green returned to music – even appearing (uncredited) on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album (Mick Fleetwood has always had a loyalty and guilt around Peter). Green’s own music had that dark edge, as voodoo-like as British music could ever get. His deep understanding of the blues meant he knew that as much as the form was perfected in America it started in Africa. Green’s health had taken a toll but the very best of his music from the 1970s and 1980s is worth your time.
And then in the late 1990s he returned to touring, returned to presenting the material from the years where he found fame, blues covers, songs from his Fleetwood Mac tenure.
It was a remarkable return.
But if Green had only given us those few years at the start of the long and winding Fleetwood Mac journey it would have been enough.
He has the tone and feel and touch.
Watch the documentaries about the band (Fleetwood Mac at 21) and about Green (Peter Green: Man of the World). Read the biography (Peter Green: Founder of Fleetwood Mac). It’s a hell of a story. And the music, his playing, his wisdom, his writing, his singing, the very best of it is extraordinary.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.