Peter Green: 1946 - 2020

Though his legendarily troubled existence sometimes overshadowed his brilliant output, the Fleetwood Mac co-founder continues to present an enigmatic ideal for blues-guitar sound and phrasing.

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Peter Green was the most humble of the blues-rock guitar gods — an un-showy innovator who maximized the space between each note, who savored every second of sustain and vibrato from his Gibson Les Paul. His signature composition is the least flashy: the 1968 Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross,” an oceanic atmosphere of six-string harmonies that soar like psychedelic seagulls. In an era of overblown showboating, he was a virtuoso of emotion.

Green died Saturday at age 73, but he’d essentially become a ghost in the rock world over the last 50 years: a generation-defining talent who barely scratched the surface of his skills, living out his final decades away from the spotlight. His passing is a sad reminder of the albums he could have made, but it also illuminates just how much legacy he distilled into his brief flicker of fame.

It’s fitting that Green, destined to be the star of any band he joined, consistently deflected marquee attention. The London guitarist’s first major collaboration came in 1965 as a member of Peter B’s Looners, a blues/soul combo featuring keyboardist Peter Bardens (future member of prog-rock outfit Camel) and a gangly, boisterous drummer named Mick Fleetwood. The next year, Green took the reins from Eric Clapton in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, gelling with bassist John McVie and (by 1967) the briefly tenured Fleetwood. Utilizing some free studio time gifted from his bandleader, Green joined his rhythm section to record a handful of tunes — including one that he dubbed, as a nod to his bandmates, “Fleetwood Mac.”

Recruiting Jeremy Spencer, a dynamo slide guitarist and an elite mimic who could channel Elvis Presley as easily as he could Elmore James, the trio splintered away from Mayall and launched the band that defined their careers. And Green was their creative engine throughout the ’60s, penning some of the most innovative blues of the entire movement. His first sparks of genius came on Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1968 debut: the dark Latin shimmer of “I Loved Another Woman,” a clear precursor to the more famous (and slightly more refined) “Black Magic Woman”; the jittery riffs and harmonica spasms of “Long Grey Mere”; the lonesome acoustic exorcism of “The World Keep on Turning.”

But Green’s vision crystalized once he abandoned the rigid confines of the 12-bar structure. By Then Play On, he’d developed a creative kinship with newly recruited guitarist Danny Kirwan, and together they ventured beyond the blues to embrace the era’s blooming psychedelia and folk-rock. Their back and forth is staggering: Kirwan’s paranoid gallop on “Coming Your Way” bleeding into the tranquilly strummed sadness of Green’s “Closing My Eyes”; Kirwan’s Beatles-y daydream “Although the Sun Is Shining” erupting into the primal pound of “Rattlesnake Shake” (still the funniest masturbation metaphor ever laid to tape).

With Green, Fleetwood Mac had become an institution in the U.K., cranking out a long run of Top 10 singles, including his final masterpiece with the group, 1970’s “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)” — a song so nakedly heavy that Judas Priest covered it nine years later. “Come sneakin’ around, tryin’ to drive me mad,” Green belts over the thundering guitars. “Bustin’ in on my dreams / Makin’ me see things I don’t wanna see.” And the paranoia of that lyric foreshadowed the frontman’s eventual collapse: Green, who famously experimented with LSD, was haunted by mental-health issues and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Though Green sporadically recorded as a solo artist after that point — even making a couple of minor cameos with his old band, including an airy solo on Tusk deep cut “Brown Eyes” — he only occasionally flirted with the magic of old, like on the stoned wah-wah wandering of 1970’s “Bottoms Up” and the breezy imagery of “In the Skies.” Arriving after the Fleetwood Mac days, these reminders of his brilliance felt bittersweet.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing on the guitar,” he told Guitarist magazine, with reliable humility, in 1998. “I was very lucky to get anything remotely any good. I used to dash around on stepping stones, that’s what I used to call it.”

But that willingness to savor the moment, to fold himself into the symmetry of his band, is what made him a master.

Image credit: Rovi.

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