- 27 Jul 20
Legendary guitarist Peter Green passed away on Saturday. His career was filled with epic highs and sometimes scary lows, from founding Fleetwood Mac to battling drug addiction and schizophrenia. In Ireland the magical opening he crafted for 'Oh Well' was ingrained in people's consciousness when it was used as the theme tune for his rock show by Dave Fanning. But that was just one of the blues-rock classics for which Peter Green was centrally responsible. To honour his life and the electrifying music he created, we're revisiting Andy Darlington's 1997 Hot Press interview with Peter, conducted when he was launching Peter Green's Splinter Group. That he had been seriously troubled along the way is clear. But it turned out to be a fascinating exchange nonetheless, with a man whose music still resonates with a profound musical eloquence. And yes, saying "I prefer his early stuff" is allowed...
"I could tell you about my life/ and keep you amused I'm sure . . . " ('Man Of The World')
JOY IT is to be here in the apple-blossom burbs, quietly seething with mysterious intrigue. And knowing it's all just a meandering bus-ride from Croydon, along the London Loop of bridle-paths and picturesque country-style pubs with names like The Good Companions.
But today, normality need not necessarily apply. For beneath all this apple-blossom suburban respectability lurks one of rock 'n' roll's most time-warped tales of teenage delinquency. Peter Green's story is a doosey among doosies. According to one of his biggest hits, he's a 'Man Of The World'. Just that for two decades the world in question happened to be Saturn. He's a man who took 20 years out of his life to write the longest suicide note in rock 'n' roll history.
But now Peter Green is back. Reclaimed from the Deadzone.
There's a new band, called the Splinter Group (with Cozy Powell on drums and Neil Murray formerly of Gary Moore and Whitesnake on bass). There's a new album, blazing with some of his most confidently blues-wailing-est material since... well, since his legendary last stint with Fleetwood Mac, the group he founded and which he originally powered to global stardom. And then there's a well-received on-going tour, including some soon-come Irish dates.
On the album, in the spaces between the live tracks, you can hear the audience warmth. Such levels of response must be gratifying.
"The response is not what I worry about," he says dismissively. "I don't worry about audience response at all. I wouldn't mind if they didn't clap. In fact, it would make a change or something. I prefer it when we're just playing without an audience. But sometimes, when we play particularly nicely, then the response is more sensible, you see? More like something at Ronnie Scotts. At a jazz club it would be more just, you know..." – he claps his hands politely to demonstrate his idea of what would constitute suitable audience appreciation. Then he trails off into vacuum. "In-between numbers we... we, well, mmmmm... I had a great word there, but it s gone, ah yeah..."
A RED HERRING
He knuckles his eyes at the sun. We're sitting on rustic chairs in his garden. Peter Green is wearing a grey V-neck sweat-shirt stretched over his gut, the short button-hole side folded annoyingly inwards at the neck, so that you have a persistent compulsion to reach forward and turn it right-side-out. His grey-white wisps and tufts of hair fan in the breeze. He teases out the strands as he talks, then smoothes it all back close to his head.
Sometimes he loses himself in his own trains of thought. But the emerging theme is obvious. He wants to be respected, if at all, for what he's doing now. Not for the tangled skeins of myth and half-truths that have accumulated around his life. The years of madness. The shotgun incident. The uncut finger-nails grown so unfeasibly long they made playing guitar impossible. The religious torments that had him appearing on stage in a long white robe and crucifix.
"I'm not one for heroes," he explains. "People keep complimenting me. They shouldn't really do that, you know. Sometimes you wonder if they're jokers or not. When people come up to me and say you're my hero, I don't want to hear that. They shouldn't say that to me. 'Cos I haven't got any heroes, so I can't accept that anyone else has heroes either. Buddy Guy. Howlin' Wolf. Sonny Boy Williamson. They're not heroes. The whole thing is that they're ordinary people to me. That's the whole point.
"I'm a working-class person," he adds. "I hated school passionately. Going to school, getting up in the morning and rushing, doing everything, I just hated all those things that I had to do. Then, when I got to work, it was really strange too, it was like going back in time. It was a very, very strange experience. But I'll always have love for people who have that sense of their own mortality, people that see that they're going to die, who know that fear of death that comes at some point in their lives. That kind of realistic thing you know?
"People who have spent time alone. People who have lived alone. And yet they're still just ordinary people. I can't have anybody as a hero. I could probably come up with some name for you, eventually. But it might be a jockey. Or it might be a cartoon character, I don't know."
For the moment let's restrict it to current guitar heroes. Who does Peter Green listen to?
"Loads of them. I like Francis Rossi. He plays quite interesting notes."
Or Lenny Kravitz perhaps? "I fancy his drummer, actually. That girl he has on drums. But I guess he's the nearest player around to Jimi Hendrix."
How about Oasis, then? "Too soon to say. Too soon for me to comment. Nice guitar sound, though."
And coming closer to home, it must be good having Cozy Powell playing with your current band.
"Why is that?"
Why? Because he's a powerful drummer.
"Naw. It's good to have any drummer. It's good to have someone on drums. But Cozy is a really great geezer. He's a good bloke. And he's very good-looking. But eventually I'd like to play with mixed races. I guess Cozy is a bit like a mixed race himself in a way. I don't know where he comes from . . ."
Mitch that is, Michelle Reynolds, former wife of Fleetwood Mac's former manager Clifford Davis, and now Peter's long-time companion adds "Cozy's part Red Indian, isn't he?"
"Is he? I thought he was. Yeah. He's not a bad drummer, I suppose."
There's a brief silence. I look around. Beyond the garden fence there's the apple-blossom burbs seething with mysterious intrigue. What do those neighbours think when Peter Green is here amped-up and rehearsing?
"They throw me a fish now and again," he laughs. Then adds, "A red herring. What is a red herring, anyway... a dead herring...?"
A UNIFORM AND AN AMPLIFIER
"Can't help it bout the shape I'm in/I can't sing, I ain't pretty, and my legs are thin . . . " ('Oh Well')
When the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band posed the question Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?, the ability of the paler more northerly races to play music more normally associated with the Mississippi Delta or the Kansas City ghetto juke-joints was a question of crucial subcultural importance.
And the fanatically purist '60s Blues Boom it described, ignited by the evangelical highly-amped boogie of Cyril Davies, Alexis Korner and John Mayall, was to become the forcing-house for much of the mega-buck rock 'n' roll mayhem that was to follow from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton to the hyper-platinum MOR dross of prime-time Stevie Nicks-period Fleetwood Mac.
And kingpins to it all were the lean, raw and hungry guitar heroes, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Slowhand Clapton and this guy, the outrageously, precociously talented Peter Green, who arguably took it all farthest. And then paid the most terrible price of all.
Robert Johnson legendarily traded his soul to Satan in exchange for his eerie genius. Peter Green must have hung around those same diabolical crossroads.
He does Robert Johnson on the new Splinter Group album Steady Rolling Man, with Peter singing and playing mouth-harp at its most authentic. And then there are two tracks done stark and stripped-back in the Fleetwood Mac Mobile studio.
"Stark what? What did you say about them?" he queries vaguely. "Stark and Stripped Back? What's that then? S-T-A-R-K and STRIPPED BACK?"
He samples the incomprehensible words like some baffling foreign language. "Stark...?"
"He means back to basics," offers Mitch helpfully, her deep bronze hair fringing down to her knitted white sweater.
"... And stripped back," he meanders on, each word pronounced carefully and very clearly. "I don't know what stripped back is."
This is the man who spent 20 years re-arranging his sock drawer. So I guess it's unreasonable to expect snappy soundbites now.
"I lost a lot of valuable years, maybe," he says. "But you can't say how it all works. I'm practising now, so I've got to be thankful for that. I'm learning. It's not work for me nowadays. It's pleasure. I can copy B.B. King solos with love. That's what people want. I ain't doing it for falsification. I'm doing it because I love copying B.B. King.
"I love his notations, his whatever-it-is you call it. There's no word for it. I copy them (the blues masters) as best as I can. I'm Jewish. So I've got a little trapdoor there. The old Hebrew Testament thing, right back to Moses. It could be worse, couldn't it?"
Peter Green was 14 years old, and already bass-player with a group called the Tridents, when he first heard blues.
"I was given three albums, a John Lee Hooker one. And one called Rhythm And Blues. It was a cheap Woolworth's album, and I didn't like anything cheap. I was very aware of all that kind of thing. I didn't like things from Woolworth's at all. But I love that album nowadays. It's one of my favourites. And the third album was Folk Festival Of The Blues with a dark cover and Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon on it.
"I didn't know what to make of them at first. I really didn't. I don't think I even wanted to play them. But the drums on one track with Buddy Guy slowed down, got slower and slower, and every time it got round to the start of another verse he kinda held it, and slowed it down a bit more. I don't know who was on drums, but he's a marvellous drummer. And that's what I first took to. The drummer. I took to the style of the thing. I felt what it was all about. I thought, I could feel this, feel what it was all about.
"Then, when I first heard Eric Clapton (with the Yardbirds) everything he played was pure enjoyment. Magic. Magic-er than magic. And Paul Samwell-Smith, the group's bass player, what he played I enjoyed too. He played chords on his bass. He had a beautiful bass guitar and a lovely amplifier. And the whole group was rocking along to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley things. And it was 'Wow, look at that!' And, you alter course, like a fish. I was onto Bill Wyman too. When you're young you kinda go on people who impress you. They're up there, strong and hairy, and futuristic I guess.
"So, I was a bass player for a while, and Eric Clapton was the person who led me here. He was the person who led me to this path. He put me on this path. Before that my guitar was a pastime. Then, when I got a job as a bass-guitarist, I found I could make a little bit of money. Not very much at all. Enough to pay for a guitar, a uniform and an amplifier. Nothing else really. But I didn't make much money as a bass player. And oh, I've forgotten what I was about to say. Oh yes, fingerboard study development, it's a direction, it shows you where to go from here."
A LOAD OF CLOWNS
So, switching from bass to lead, Peter Green followed Eric Clapton into John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. "And John gave me lots of music to listen to. He was always very enthusiastic. That's the only discipline he ever imposed: we had to be enthusiastic. We had to have that emotion and that ability to portray and form a tune."
Peter stayed with the Bluesbreakers for a year, before the first Fleetwood Mac line-up emerged out of its disintegration.
Peter Green doesn't believe in heroes. With a typically 'umble modesty he named his new band after its rhythm section, tall lanky drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, and he was violently opposed to the label titling their first album Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. But it was his virtuoso guitar and driven creativity that powered that oddly unwieldy outfit of deadbeat scruffs from the twelve-bar ghetto of kludged-together Elmore James and recycled Freddie King riffs, and up into chart celebrity.
Their three-year evolution was startling, with the delicately soaring instrumental 'Albatross', the sparse economical guitars of 'Man Of The World' and the torrid 'Oh Well' all making the Top Three, and their final album together, Then Play On, mutating into a supernaturally flaming morass of molten licks subsiding into brooding folderols of melting ambivalence. But the mounting pressures, commercial as well as artistic, were already testing the band's internal contradictions to destruction.
"You can't do much without pressure. Because it's a physical thing, pressure, isn't it? Unless it is a pressure put upon you to come up with something that you can't do, and you have to admit I can't come up with it, I'm sorry. John Mayall always insisted you love what you do. The same way that I do. I have that still. Love what you do. But it's best playing for free. It's best playing for no money. I don't make no mistakes when I'm playing for no money."
With commercial success, Fleetwood Mac were becoming increasingly strange, a strangeness magnified by their seismic introduction to LSD by New York acid-guru, Stanley Owsley. For Peter Green, it was a revelation, compelling him to re-evaluate his entire moral and spiritual value-system.
Slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer's behaviour was becoming equally erratic too. Peter now claims that, standing stage-front and concentrating on his playing, he wasn't always aware of the antics going on behind him. But at one point Fleetwood Mac were even banned from The Marquee Club, following Spencer's appearance there with a 16-inch pink dildo protruding from his flies!
"I don't know how much trouble we all got into. We lost our hair through Jeremy Spencer. The whole lot of us ended up bald doing all that rubbish. I think he saw a joke in it. He had some things that were blatantly obvious. Mick Fleetwood used to see the joke. But I didn't understand his sense of humour at all."
Do you look back with pleasure on the records you made with Fleetwood Mac?
"No. I don't, actually. I like Danny Kirwan's thing, 'Dragonfly', which was done when I first left. I think that's the best thing they did. But I was glad to get out of that group. They all seemed to be older than me, or taller or more fashionable than me, or friends with someone or something. That group was a load of clowns of some kind. 'Green Manalishi' of ours was quite good, it was on the way to brilliant, but it should have been a little bit quieter . . ."
TOFFEE-APPLE GLOSSY AND SWEET
"I tried so hard not to remember/And I've tried too hard to forget/But I can t stop my mind wandering . . ." ( 'Trying So Hard'; on the LP Mr. Wonderful)
Let's take a reality check here. A deep ultrasound scan.
Peter Green doesn't believe in heroes. And necking down fistfuls of Es or microdots of acid is not, in itself, heroic. Any fool can do that. It's the nightmare of creative tension that he wrung from the process that makes Peter Green's hideous mental collapse exceptional.
'Green Manalishi', Fleetwood Mac's final chart single to feature Peter Green, is a spookily satanic documentary that captures the crawling terror of a mind-splintering, coming apart, fragmenting into insanity. Its unsettling emotional intensity is spiked with white-hot jets of pure feral violence, riffs unfolding like bloody flowers in a speeded-up educational film. It's like being flung bodily through a wall of laser knives.
Peter Green was passing through an LSD-fuelled Quantum Singularity to emerge... altered. As though he'd changed places with the Peter Green from some alternate universe. Seemingly identical in every external respect. But different.
He woke up one morning.
He ate some bad karma.
And beyond the lost years, it's his return from that Deadzone that gives it all meaning.
"You lose your mind with LSD," he tells me now. "It puts you somewhere you don't know where you are. And you're very meek. You become very meek, very exceptionally truthful. Very, very... you have a necessity to tell the truth. Like you need something, you need to go somewhere. A need as strong as the need to go to the toilet or something. You can't fuck this up. You can't really miss one.
"It's like at school when you say can I be excused when you want to go to the toilet. Can you be excused? Well, it's like that, it's like pissing and shitting yourself. I did that when I was at school. I didn't know what was happening actually. I was four years old. I was walking home like this..." He apes walking round ludicrously splay-legged. "And my Mum said I saw 'im walking up the road like this, and I thought what's happening now?"
He guffaws deep and throatily at the memory. "I've lost track of it all. I just tape what comes. But 'can I be excused' they say. CAN I BE EXCUSED? I mean what a funny concoction to say! Can I be excused? But anyway so, it's like that when you're on LSD.
"It's like everything you say is said as a necessity. As necessary as that, you know? Or would you like something? You're replying but you are asking too. You're offering something. There's something funny about LSD. I'm still trying to work out what it was. It's marvellous. I don t know if you've ever taken it? It makes you very meek. Very docile."
I'm not sure, I could be wrong, but I'm sure I see a yearning terror behind his eyes as he pauses: "I was taking tablets. I was really bored. I was falling asleep. I was sleeping all of the day, all day long. I had very bad trouble in the night. I was being sick sometimes. Even now I do, occasionally. But I'm moving slowly. Sometimes it's a little too slow to tell you the truth. But there you go.
"I can play chords quite nicely. I can play Beatles tunes that sound roughly like them, to me. But listening to them today, there's a lot of subtle chords which I'm not familiar with, so I don't play those tunes. I only play basic chords, but I can't be a single-note person. In the study of melody, playing the melody of tunes. I can't play The Shadows' 'Wonderful Land' but I have played it. I couldn't play it to you now, without making a mistake. But 'Apache', I could probably get through that. And 'FBI', and a lot of other Shadows' tunes. 'Peace Pipe' is beautiful, that's one of the all-time greats to me..."
Elmore James. Willie Dixon. Robert Johnson. I'd expected names like that to occur. But Hank B. Marvin?
Peter Green might not believe in heroes, but others have regarded him in that light. Judas Priest did a ham-fisted heavy metal cover of his 'Green Manalishi', Santana went US Top Ten with his 'Black Magic Woman', Gordon Giltrap did a more credible version of 'Oh Well', and...
"The only good versions of my own songs that I've heard, the best one I've heard of mine, the only one of one of mine that I've really liked, is Rory Gallagher's 'Leaving Town Blues'," he offers. "He does a version of that, and it's a different arrangement, but it's a really, really good one."
He produces a thick wodge of lyrics faxed to him by Rory Gallagher, intended for future song-writing collaboration. The results, if they reach CD, should prove to be an intriguing mix.
"I worry whether they'll ever come through properly on record. Whether it will be polished enough. Even with this group now, I want to polish it a little bit more than we are doing.
"Do you know any good producers?" he asks suddenly. "I want to get that glossy production look on it. I wonder how they get that glossy look where it's all, like, toffee-apple glossy and sweet. We're looking for a good independent producer, do you know one?"
I mention names. Stephen Street. John Leckie.
"What colour are they?"
White. Does it matter?
"Yeah. We want a dark one. A more mixed-race African orientation."
I'm thinking Jazzie B perhaps, or the Massive Attack collective, when Mitch comes up with "What about Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson's finest producer?"
"He'll do then," says Peter Green decisively. "See if you can get 'im in."