Overnight, no doubt like many of my vintage with an interest in popular music, I was deeply saddened to learn the news that guitarist Peter Green had died at the age of 73.
In penning this piece I shall leave others who take the trouble to go public with their appreciations – not least media obituary-writers and iconic music industry figures – to recite the facts of Green’s life, legend, legacy and lasting influence upon fellow musicians and fans alike over the past half-century, still less into the future.
As I begin I want to steer clear of the ‘drug-damaged/mentally tortured genius’ cliché that often abounds in fields of artistic endeavour – and in someone like Green’s case – adds an element of both romance and the eternal issue of whether greatness arises because of such issues or despite them.
He was a bloody good guitarist.
As with most crafts and skills, indeed careers in most walks of life, a musician’s proficiency and success tends to stem from a combination of acquired technical competence/knowledge and then what the individual does with it, creatively or otherwise.
It so happens that from the moment he ‘arrived’ at age of eighteen/nineteen during the British Blues Boom of the mid-1960s, first filling in for Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and then replacing him when “God” went off to join the Yardbirds and become a founder-member of Cream, Green stood out both as very much ‘his own man’ and also for the purity of his playing tone.
Next, of course, he left Mayall to form the highly successful blues band Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac which – after his ‘enforced self-retirement’ and disappearance in 1970 at the age of 23 – went off to America and transformed itself into the Fleetwood Mac of Rumours and subsequent mega-stardom fame.
Here’s a true story.
In about 1971 I had a reunion with a chap I’d once shared a pram with because our parents were great friends. Since then his family had spent nearly two decades in Australia because of his father’s work and now they had returned to the UK.
In that time my 20 year old contemporary had become an accomplished enough guitarist to belong to a three-piece group that had a degree of pop success Down Under. However, his first love was classical music and he had just been awarded a place at the Royal College of Music to study the lute on the quality of his playing alone – he’d been unable to take the ‘Musical Theory’ exam because he couldn’t read music!
One evening my parents were invited for dinner by his and I was taken along for the ride so that we could meet up again. After the meal he and I went off to chat on our own and naturally talked about music. I asked him about his views upon the great guitarists of the time and was fascinated by his responses.
Jimi Hendrix was in a category of one – effectively the equivalent of an alien who had visited Earth from outer space.
Green got an honourable mention along with Mike Bloomfield, Roy Buchanan and John Fahey – three Americans I’d heard of but never listened to – but to my huge disappointment (I was then a devoted fan of Led Zeppelin) Jimmy Page was dismissed as technically brilliant but totally devoid of ‘soul’/blues feel.
Nobody could ever have said that of Peter Green.
He ‘owned’ his guitar to the extent it was part of his being. He could play anything but he did so with such economy it was almost as if the notes he left out meant as much as those he chose to use.
No wonder B.B. King once paid him the tribute “He was the only one who gave me the cold sweats”.
An often under-rated and unmentioned factor is the quality of Green’s voice – for a British Jewish white kid he always sang with the aching world-weariness of a Mississippi black man.
To salute Green today I am going to offer Rusters three examples of him in action, courtesy of YouTube:
Firstly, here’s a link to a television performance of one of his version of Fleetwood Mac’s biggest UK hits from 1969, at a time when Green’s mental state was beginning to get the better of him, as is all too apparent from the lyrics [to see them, click on the “Show More” under the poster’s profile] – MAN OF THE WORLD
Secondly, here’s a link to one of my all-time favourite Green outings, one of the few times that an undiluted traditional blues song has hit the UK charts – it was written by Mertis John and first recorded by his brother Little Willie John [a good example of Green’s sparse but telling guitar-playing] – NEED YOUR LOVE SO BAD
And to finish, for the purists, here’s a link to a 8-minute version of a blues classic by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers from early 1967 – vocal by Mayall, featuring Green aged 20 on lead guitar – STORMY MONDAY