(Typical “mischief-making” topic: name the five best guitar players ever. Here’s my list: Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and…Peter Green.)
How Blues can You Get?
Trivia question for the day: name the late ‘60s group to simultaneously field a trio of killer guitarists who could each independently rampage the studio and stage with stomach-churning blues and handle the chore of vocals as well. Throw in an overseas heritage as a devoted bar band who just played the basics and were known to party hearty. We’re not talking homegrown Delta men, either, who knew the roadhouses, but they honored their forefathers’ influences: the Kings (Albert and B.B.); Otis Rush, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon; and Elmore James. (The last one is a hint.) Goin’ to Chicago, y’all. Still caught off-guard? This premier band lost those three heroes to fame, drugs and drinking, insecurity, and religion. And then women came onboard and turned whatever firewater remained into light beer—but not to put down the ladies for their efforts: they ultimately earned them hits on mainstream pop FM radio.
Before Stevie Nicks and her love affairs with Celtic mystique; before the late Bob Welch and his Robert Palmer-like vanilla ice cream vocals; and the early ‘70s days of fragile pop stars trying to write tough hooks—ladies and gentlemen, meet Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. You couldn’t ask for a more honest musician than Peter—he literally told John Mayall to take his music and shove it because it wasn’t true-blue enough. Remember: B.B. King onstage once credited Peter as a better player with more feeling than Eric Clapton and *George Harrison—and those two gents were directly addressed as members of the audience. (*I’ve heard options that the other guest was Mike Bloomfield.) Regardless—if you think that you know your blues chops and players and have left Green off your top five list, then go back and review your color spectrum standards. Peter had the touch that sent shivers down B.B.’s spine—that’s what the man said. And just for fun, Pete could saw down the strings with a slide and turn out a spectral 6-string bass solo on the live versions of “The Green Manilishi.” This is the guy who was invited to jam with Jerry Garcia and special guest Duane Allman at a Grateful Dead concert. Carlos Santana knew what treasure he found with Peter’s “Black Magic Woman” too. Those are Peter’s licks he’s playing. The title? That was Peter’s girlfriend, practicing a little “not now, honey” celibacy. And she wouldn’t “pick up my magic stick.” Some parts on a man turn mighty blue when you don’t get any. Oh, yeah—Peter could blow blues harmonica too. ‘Nuff said?
So you’re a youngster of 17 with a baby face and blonde hair, and you play a mean Texas-style blues with heavy vibrato—you’re in a group called The Boilermakers—and you’ve caught the eye (and ear) of Peter Green. Hello, boys, meet Danny Kirwan. In the Mac world of musical genies, Danny offered piercing lead and strong rhythm in support of Green and Spencer—and along with poster boy looks, a tenor voice that gave enough earthiness to warm your bruised heart. Caught between the stunning displays of ego and talent of Spencer and Green, it’s amazing that Danny survived as a member for the short duration. Green’s skills left Kirwan in awe, but Danny gave Peter the steady bracing needed to make ’69-70’s Then Play On stand out as Green’s swan song. With the need for teamwork once again, Spencer and Kirwan joined ranks in making the follow-up, Kiln House, a platform for Jeremy’s charismatic displays and Danny’s meaty lead licks and instrumental songwriting on cuts like “Earl Gray” and “Tell Me All the Things You Do.” The collapse came before Bare Trees: Spencer departed after a religious movement inspired him to renounce his name and lifestyle, and Danny was left to shoulder his Les Paul and responsibilities as the front man, along with Bob Welch’s pop-oriented ballads, held together with Christine McVie’s piano and vocals. Kirwan continued to contribute notable instrumentals (“Danny’s Chant” and “Sunny Side of Heaven”), but the band is remembered more so for Welch’s feathery “Sentimental Lady” (done also on his own solo release), as well as 1973’s “Hypnotized” (from Mystery To Me). The results were anything but blues; more like the Moody Blues, and that’s a sad statement.
With respect, Fleetwood Mac’s namesakes were also strong fundamental blues men: bassist John McVie, a co-member with Green in Mayall’s BluesBreakers, walked out when the eclectic leader brought in horns and ordered them to perform in a jazz mode. McVie could bob and weave gracefully, but was more comfortable just pulling the plow behind the others’ direction. Mick Fleetwood put all of his skinny 6’6 frame into crushing percussion tricks that could gracefully adapt tone and muffled drum skins and rolling tom-toms along with world-on-my-shoulders drudgery through repetitive 12-bar songs and comic routines.
The blues have left their price (as any musician who plays will tell a listener): Peter Green has returned to the stage and recording studio with The Splinter Group, but he’s a shell of what he once was. A once cheerful, vibrant voice that could moan the blues as well as shag it with rock ‘n roll vibrancy has eroded into a creaky gasp. Electric shock therapy to help him recover from the LSD he liberally sampled has left him unable to play with the power he did, and his routines are now basic Robert Johnson tributes. According to an unofficial Danny Kirwan web page, he was allegedly found in various shelters for the homeless and destitute in London, a victim of alcohol abuse and his own fears and worries about competing as a guitar player. A Youtube comment I came across says he has now moved to Scandinavia and is gingerly picking up the fragmented pieces of day-to-day living. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood continue to support and play together…but if there’s any blues left in the band, it’s baby-blue. And that is why they need to be remembered for what they were: the best band on both sides of the Atlantic that ever played the blues.
Where to start? A serious blues collector will have the aforementioned Horizon set (a great price at $40), and I endorse the Boston Tea Party three-some. Go for Green’s farewell virtuosity on Play On (he wrote one helluva classic guitar coordinate on “Oh Well”), and the Live at the BBC 2-CD set. Add The Vaudeville Years of Fleetwood Mac 1968-1970 and Show-Biz Blues 1968-1970. For some tight live blues, try Shrine ’69 and get a “Lemon Squeezer.” You’ll need Jumping at Shadows – The Blues Years double CD, and to end, go for Peter Green & the Original Fleetwood Mac – Alone with the Blues. Ya wanna get Peter bending strings as neatly as Albert King on “Born Under a Bad Sign,” right? And collaborator and friend Duster Bennett did Muddy Waters justice by giving Peter “Trying So Hard to Forget,” as well as showcasing Green’s tormented blues lead guitar on “Jumping At Shadows.” Finally, Blues by Green has a few tunes that are repeated on other discs, but worth carrying. Magnificent in their efforts, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac deserves a place in the blues Hall of Fame. And rejoice: Jeremy Spencer is alive and well after woodshedding for years in India: Precious Little is now available—and it’s like he never left the process of making music. Check out “Psychic Waste” for some un-organic looks into our lifestyles and habits.