Peter Green was born in Bethnal Green, East London, on the 29th October 1946. He formed Fleetwood Mac with Mick Fleetwood in 1967; the pair had met playing in bands in 1960’s London. They played in Peter B’s Looners and then the subsequent Shotgun Express, a short-lived R&B group that featured a young Rod Stewart as the vocalist.
In addition to this, Green played guitar in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, an iconic band that has featured some of Britain’s best musicians — he had joined to replace none other than Eric Clapton himself. Clapton had become a superstar with Cream, and Green wanted to replicate that for himself.
The long and highly mythologised history of Fleetwood Mac was to start when Bluesbreakers drummer Aynsley Dunbar left the band to join the new Jeff Beck Group, a band that would become legendary in itself. Without a drummer, Green suggested Fleetwood join, and Mayall agreed. The line up of The Bluesbreakers then consisted of Green, Fleetwood, Mayall, and bass player John McVie.
Mayall had given Green some free recording time as a gift, and so he, Fleetwood and McVie recorded five songs. The fifth of these was an instrumental named ‘Fleetwood Mac’, after the instrumental section of The Bluesbreakers, “Mac”, being short for McVie.
After this short recording session, Green proposed to Fleetwood that they form a new band. The pair headhunted McVie as bassist and attempted to entice him by using the name Fleetwood Mac. Unsurprisingly, rather than risk it with a new band, McVie opted to keep his steady income, and declined.
Forgetting about McVie for the meantime, the duo hired slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and bassist Bob Brunning; Brunning joined the band on the fairly harsh condition that if McVie agreed to join, he would leave.
Brunning would only play a handful of shows with the new band, and this first iteration of many would debut live on 13th August 1967 at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival as ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, also featuring Jeremy Spencer.’ Within a few weeks of this show, John McVie agreed to join the band in what is now a legendary lineup change.
This second iteration of the band would have hits with Green’s compositions of ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Albatross‘, ‘Man of the World’, ‘Oh Well’ and ‘The Green Manalishi’. They remain fan favourites, cherished particularly among Mac purists. Along with these hits came international recognition, and of course, excess.
The band released their second album, Mr Wonderful, in August 1968 and went on their first of many American tours. In an anecdote stereotypical of the time, they hung out with The Grateful Dead in San Francisco and were offered LSD, amongst other things, by the Dead’s now-legendary purveyor of psychedelics, Owsley Stanley.
By December things had changed. At the start of a 30-date tour in New York, the band finally succumbed to Stanley’s pervasive products. This was the start of the end for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, including Jeremy Spencer.
It is well documented that Peter Green’s unselfish nature allowed the then-members of Fleetwood Mac to thrive musically, and without him, they would not be the band we know today. This is true, regardless of how third guitarist Danny Kirwan felt; he had joined as an eighteen-year-old in 1968 and didn’t connect personally with Peter Green.
It is interesting to note though, that both Green and Kirwan’s mental states visibly started to change after the release of 1969’s single, ‘Man of the World’. Both were taking large doses of LSD, and Green had adopted a form of Buddhism influenced by Christianity — Green started wearing white robes and a crucifix around his neck.
The frontman also became concerned with accumulating wealth, and Fleetwood recalls: “I had conversations with Peter Green around that time, and he was obsessive about us not making money, wanting us to give it all away. And I’d say, ‘Well you can do it, I don’t wanna do that, and that doesn’t make me a bad person.'”
A story as old as rock and roll itself, tension and drug use finally engulfed the band. In what is now a legendary moment in the band’s career, the “final nail in the coffin” for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, according to Mick Fleetwood, was the ‘Munich LSD Party Incident’.
In 1970 the band were on a European tour, and as soon as the band had reached Munich airport, Green was collected by a pair of mysterious German hippies. The man is said to have looked like John Lennon, with similar glasses and a black cape, and according to Jeremy Spencer, the woman was so alluring she could’ve been a movie star or model.
It is alleged the pair were Rainer Langhans and Uschi Obermaier, leading members of the wealthy Highfisch-Kommune. That night, the band went to a party at the commune, at a mansion in the Bavarian countryside. The house had “weird stuff going on in every room”, psychedelic walls, and according to Fleetwood a lot of “money flying around”.
In a 2009 BBC documentary on Green, the other band members and crew describe the party as having an insidious vibe, where they all had bad trips. Green was kept apart from them all night and was in another room playing weird, terrible music with commune members. In the documentary, Fleetwood, McVie and Spencer, seem to infer this commune was more of a cult, a group who were particularly concerned with Green and his money.
One of the band’s roadies, Dennis Keane, recalls his bad trip subsiding, and took action to get the band out of the party and back to their hotel. This is all weirdly Pynchon-esque. It bears huge similarities to the scene in Inherent Vice, where protagonist Doc Sportello heads to a hippie-cult party in a California mansion, to rescue musician Coy Harlingen, who is in the cult’s clutches.
On the contrary, Green stated he had fond memories of the commune: “I had a good play there, it was great, someone recorded it, they gave me a tape. There were people playing along, a few of us just fooling around and it was… yeah it was great.”
He also told Jeremy Spencer in the car at the time: “That’s the most spiritual music I’ve ever recorded in my life.” It was with this statement that the band knew the end of Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac was near.
Looking back on that fateful night, then manager Clifford David also claims this was the night that both Green and Kirwan became “seriously mentally ill”. After that night, and with all that was going on internally, Green had become so disillusioned with what he saw as the constraints of the band, that after a performance in May 1970, he decided to leave.
His departure coincided with his last single with the band, ‘The Green Manalishi’, reaching number ten in the UK chart. Reflecting the gravity of his developing mental illness, he had written the song after waking from a nightmare in the wake of the commune party. The party’s tone clearly affected him. The ‘Green Manalishi’ he claimed, was a metaphor for money: “The Green Manalishi is the wad of notes, the devil is green and he was after me.”
In an extraordinary swap of fates, Green did return to Fleetwood Mac for a six-week stint. He was recalled to the band, who were in dire straits after guitarist Jeremy Spencer had shockingly walked out on the band in 1971 — before a sold-out show at L.A.’s prestigious Whisky A Go-Go.
Spencer had also started to struggle with mental health issues, and had left the band to join the infamous Christian cult, The Children of God, after meeting two of its members on the street.
Green immediately flew to America, and after one 30-minute rehearsal, they embarked on the tour, which largely consisted of improvised jams. The band’s set was so fluid they were scared to go on stage every night, as none of them really knew what the plan was. Ironically though, the tour was a success, they were called back for encores every night, and according to Fleetwood, it was the most lucrative tour they’d ever done.
In what is now regarded as trademark Green, his last ever show with the band he formed included a four-hour version of their early hit ‘Black Magic Woman’. The Mac “took the place by storm”, and according to promoter Bill Graham, a riot nearly ensued when he tried to end the show at midnight – the show eventually finished at four a.m. when Green ran out of ideas.
The next chapter of Fleetwood Mac, The Buckingham-Nicks era, was to be the one where they achieved real superstardom, however, this was not without its turbulence, as is well documented.
Subsequently, Green was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in hospital in the mid-70s, receiving electroconvulsive therapy, and entering a subdued, trancelike state. He ended up giving all his money away, allegedly lived a homeless life in West London for a time, and then settled with his older brother in Great Yarmouth in the ’80s, where his process of recovery began. In 1988 he said: “I’m at present recuperating from treatment for taking drugs. It was drugs that influenced me a lot. I took more than I intended to. I took LSD eight or nine times. The effect of that stuff lasts so long … I wanted to give away all my money … I went kind of holy – no, not holy, religious. I thought I could do it, I thought I was all right on drugs. My failing!”
Sadly, Peter Green died on 25th July 2020, but he will not be forgotten. Ultimately, his era of Fleetwood Mac lasted only three years, involving drugs and mental illness, with Kirwan and Spencer also succumbing, it is a story indicative of the time. However sad it was, Green’s personal Fleetwood Mac story ended heroically in the witching hour of a Los Angeles club, helping his old friends out.
It is further testament to his person that his unbridled musical talent had such a massive impact on future industry heavyweights. These include Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Colin Greenwood of Radiohead and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, to name but a few.
Even one of Green’s idols, the late, great B.B. King commented: “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” This high praise is also backed up by former bandleader John Mayall, who claimed Green was “better” than Clapton: “Peter in his prime in the ’60s was just without equal.”