A titan of the British blues-rock scene in the 1960s, guitarist Peter Green founded the long-running Fleetwood Mac, penning some of their earliest hits, including "Black Magic Woman," before substance abuse and mental illness leveled his promising career. Though Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page were publically regarded as the reigning kings of British blues, both men were also ardent admirers of Green's stinging vibrato tone and soulful playing on such hits as "Albatross" and "Oh Well." He initially honed his talents in Clapton's shadow, replacing him briefly in John Mayall's legendary Bluesbreakers before launching his own group, Fleetwood Mac, with bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. For much of the late '60s, Green led the group to success on the charts, but the pressures of performing and the music business led to copious drug usage that left Green mentally unmoored. By 1970, he had left Fleetwood Mac to disappear into a twilight state of constant hospitalization, broken only by sporadic and unfocused recording or performing. After a brief comeback in the early 1980s, Green appeared well enough to tour and record on a regular basis, his guitar talents still formidable. Green's return to the public eye after his long period in absentia marked him as another '60s genius- turned-recluse, much like Brian Wilson or Roky Erickson, who emerged from personal turmoil to bring their music to the world again.
Born Peter Allen Greenbaum on Oct. 29, 1946 in Bethnal Green, a working-class district in the East End of London, England, Peter Green was introduced to the guitar at the end of 10 by his older brother, Michael, who passed down a cheap Spanish model to him. A steady diet of American blues musicians like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, as well as local guitar hero Hank Marvin of the Shadows, inspired the teenaged Green to pursue his own musical career through a variety of rock and R&B bands, for which he was billed as "Peter Green." In May 1966, he was hired by keyboardist Peter Bardens, later of the progressive rock group Camel, to serve as lead guitarist for Peter B's Looners, a group that included drummer Mick Fleetwood. Green would make his recording debut with the band on an instrumental cover of the Jimmy Soul novelty song "If You Wanna Be Happy" before splitting from the band three months later to badger keyboardist John Mayall into letting him replace Eric Clapton as guitarist for his Bluesbreakers while the guitarist was on indefinite holiday in Greece.
The union proved successful but short-lived; Mayall relieved Green of his duties upon Clapton's return in late 1966, but he was called back into action after Clapton departed again to form Cream. Green faced an uphill battle in winning over the legion of Clapton fans that had deemed the guitarist nothing short of God, but they were soon won over by his melancholy, economical style, especially on his instrumental composition "The Supernatural," from the 1966 Bluesbreakers album A Hard Road. Green soon struck up a potent creative collaboration with the band's bassist John McVie as well as Mick Fleetwood, who had served as drummer with the group for a month before being sacked for frequent inebriation. When Green decided to leave the Bluesbreakers in 1967, he took McVie and Fleetwood with him, and used their surnames as the handle for their new group: Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.
The band, which also featured guitarist Jeremy Spencer and later Danny Kirwin as part of a three-guitar arrangement, made their debut in the summer of 1967 and quickly established themselves as the vanguard of the British blues scene, with such esteemed players as Jimmy Page and Clapton himself among Green's admirers. Their eponymous 1968 debut album was a Top 5 hit in the U.K., thanks to Green's supple handling of classic blues material by Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, but by the time of their second release, 1968's Mr. Wonderful, he had begun to establish himself as a composer, blending blues influences with touches of the psychedelic as well as classical and experimental flourishes. These efforts paid off in spades for Fleetwood Mac, which scored a Top 40 U.K. hit with the Green original composition" Black Magic Woman" (1968), which later became a massive hit for Santana in 1970. The band earned its first No. 1 U.K. single with the ethereal instrumental "Albatross" (1969), which was soon followed by the lengthy and complex "Oh Well" (1969), which reached No. 2. But Fleetwood Mac's rise in popularity appeared to have a negative impact on Green's mindset. He was consuming vast quantities of LSD as a means of coping with the pressures of fame, which produced quasi-ecstatic hallucinations, prompting Green to adopt a stage wardrobe of flowing monastic robes and crucifixes. He also became obsessed with giving away the band's money, a notion that found little favor with the other members.
Green's deteriorating mental stage had a profound effect on his music, which moved into murky waters with the mournful, semi-autobiographical "Man of the World" (1969) and the nightmarish single "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)" (1970). After a three-day drug binge in 1970 at a commune in Germany, Green decided to leave Fleetwood Mac. He then released a solo album, The End of the Game (1970), a collection of studio jams built around his unfocused theories about wildlife extinction, as well as his own withdrawal from public life. For a period of several years, he recorded with a variety of musicians, including B.B. King and guitarist Nigel Watson. Green also reunited briefly with Fleetwood Mac after Jeremy Spencer left the group in 1971 after his own drug-fueled meltdown and conversion to the notorious Children of God cult. After contributing uncredited lead guitar on the song "Night Watch" from the band's 1973 album Penguin, Green's mental condition worsened. He was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent much of the mid-1970s undergoing electroconvulsive therapy in several psychiatric hospitals. From time to time, rumors of his condition and whereabouts would surface in the press, including a much publicized account of a 1977 arrest for allegedly threatening Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Davis with a gun after he attempted to give Green a royalty check, though the details of the incident were never fully verified.
In 1979, Green began to emerge from his long seclusion. He was again uncredited for his contribution to the song "Brown Eyes" on Fleetwood Mac's 1979 album Tusk, and sang and performed on two tracks, including the vintage Mac song "Rattlesnake Shake," for Mick Fleetwood's solo album The Visitor (1981). A string of blues-based albums, largely written by his brother Michael, were released in the early 1980s, as well as 1984's A Case for the Blues, a group effort with Kathmandu, which featured ex-Mungo Jerry singer Ray Dorset, Vincent Crane from Atomic Rooster and Len Surtees of the Nashville Teens. While Green's guitar playing remained exceptionally strong, his mental state proved too fragile to mount any sort of substantial comeback, and he soon retired from view until 1997, when Nigel Watson and veteran rock drummer Cozy Powell helped him to form the Peter Green Splinter Group. The following year, Green performed "Black Magic Woman" with Carlos Santana at Fleetwood Mac's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A prolific period of recording and touring with the Splinter Group lasted until 2004, after which he relocated to Sweden for another lengthy hiatus. Green resurfaced again with a new group, Peter Green and Friends, in 2009, the same year the BBC aired the documentary "Peter Green: Man of the World" (BBC Four).
By Paul Gaita