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Tryin’ to make a devil out of me: Fleetwood Mac’s “Peter Green – Man of the World”
Originally airing on BBC Wales in 2007, Steve Graham’s Peter Green – Man of the World documents the story of Fleetwood Mac’s enigmatic original lead guitarist, who took the band to the top of the UK charts in the late Sixties with great blues-rock hits, including “Black Magic Woman,” before rampant drug use and ensuing mental health problems forced him out of their lineup in 1970. Check it out over on Night Flight Plus.
A major figure and bandleader in the “second great epoch” of the British blues movement, Green inspired B. B. King to say, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”
The two-hour music documentary — written and directed by renowned video director Steve Graham, who has directed videos for Oasis, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox and Lenny Kravitz, among others — features extensive and archive footage of live and studio performances, stills and original in-depth interviews with former bandmates Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac; Mike Vernon (producer of Fleetwood Mac’s Blue Horizons albums); Noel Gallagher of Oasis; blues giant John Mayall; road manager Dennis Keane; official Peter Green biographer Martin Celmins; Carlos Santana; Jeremy Spencer, the original Fleetwood Mac guitarist; and many others who were fortunate to work with or know this extraordinary Man of the World.
Much of the story, however, is told by Peter Green himself, who comes across as a very modest, low-key British pensioner, detailing how his post-Fleetwood Mac years including stints being homeless as well as spending years in mental institutions, and how he once confronted an accountant with a shotgun over royalty payments that he didn’t even want.
Peter Green — inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for his work with Fleetwood Mac — was born Peter Greenbaum in 1946, in Bethnal Green, a working class area of London, He grew up in Whitechapel, London’s East End Jewish ghetto.
As a child, he was, by his own account, repeatedly teased and taunted and he was reportedly so emotionally over-sensitive that he has said he would burst into tears any time he heard the theme song to Walt Disney’s Bambi movie.
He was drawn toward making music at a very young age, reportedly learning to play guitar at eleven years old and migrating toward the blues as a favored musical genre, which offered some solace and helped to heal the pain and loneliness of what was by all accounts a very difficult childhood.
By age fifteen, Green was already playing music professionally, initially joining a band called Bobby Denim and the Dominoes, who played UK pop chart covers and rock ‘n’ roll standards.
He would move from band to band in his late teen years, joining an R&B/Blues outfit called the Muskrats, and then another blues group called the Tridents (switching from guitar to bass briefly), and by the time he was twenty years old, he was playing lead guitar in Peter Bardens’ band, Peter B’s Looners.
In mid-1966, his talents as a lead guitarist were so well-known in the blues-rock circuit that he was invited to fill in for Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, joining the band on three of their concerts.
When Clapton left the band permanently, Green was invited to join the Bluesbreakers full-time, earning the nickname “The Green God” along the way from his adoring fans and musician friends.
Green made his recording debut with the band in 1967, playing on their second album A Hard Road, which featured two of his songs, “The Same Way” and “The Supernatural.”
Green was soon wanting to form his own band, however, and so he began assembling a group of great British blues rockers.
After their first recording session, he decided to call the band Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, the name coming from two combined names comprising the band’s rhythm section — Mick Fleetwood on drums and, just a bit later, bassist John McVie, the “Fleetwood” and the “Mac” — who he’d played with while in the Bluesbreakers.
Green later brought in a flamboyant guitarist and Elmore James enthusiast named Jeremy Spencer — partly because he was so entertaining on stage that Green knew he could hide behind him — and the band became Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer.
Within a month of their formation, their appearance onstage at the Windsor National Jazz and Blues Festival in 1967 led to a recording contract with Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label.
By 1968, Fleetwood Mac were enjoying a successful run as one of Britain’s top blues-rock bands — their self-titled debut album, Fleetwood Mac, stayed near the top of the British charts for thirteen months — and Green was soon writing some of Fleetwood Mac’s best tunes.
One of those is “Black Magic Woman,” a track featured on their second album, Mr. Wonderful, which would later enjoy its most popular success after it was covered, definitively, by Santana.
We learn in the documentary that the song was inspired by Green’s former girlfriend Sandra Elsdon, who helpfully points out that the lyric about a “magic stick” was actually how Green described “his cock.”
During her interview Elsdon also recalls hearing Green sobbing as he spoke of the pain of growing up.
“To me, those are Peter’s blues,” she tells his biographer, Martin Celmins. “The blues for him are Jewish blues.”
Peter Green’s next Fleetwood Mac recordings were for a double-album, Blues Jam in Chicago, recorded with participation from blues legends Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, and other blues patriarchs at the famed Chess Records Ter-Mar Studio in Chicago, Illinois (the recordings were made in 1969, but the LP wasn’t released until 1971).
That same year, the band would sign a new record deal with Warner Bros. Records, and when guitarist Jeremy Spencer declined to play guitar on Green’s tracks, the band added another guitarist, the brilliant Danny Kirwan.
In the documentary, we learn that during their first American tour, Fleetwood Mac hung out with members of the Grateful Dead in San Francisco, where Green and his bandmates met the legendary Augustus Stanley Owsley III, better known as simply Owsley, who offered them tabs of his high-grade LSD.
They turned Owsley down, but when Owsley met up with them again at their show supporting the Dead at the Fillmore East later that year, offering up samples of his acid once again, this time they accepted, and we hear in the documentary how they took it back with them to where they were staying in New York City, at the Gorham Hotel on West 55th Street.
Apparently, most of the group had a bad trip on Owsley’s acid, who had to talk them down over the phone, soothing them with mental pictures of what it might be like to fly like a bird.
Fleetwood Mac performing “Albatross”
Green may have relied on the experience for the composition of his languid and lovely instrumental “Albatross,” which was released as a single that soared to #1 in 1968 (it reached #4 when it was re-released in 1973).
The documentary takes its title from another of Green’s great songs, the terribly sad “Man of the World,” a track that UK journalist Keith Altham would later say was Green’s “first cry for help,” since we hear him singing “I just wish that I’d never been born.”
The lyric revealed that Green — who told interviewer at the time, “It’s very sad… It’s the way I felt at the time… It’s me at my saddest” — was experiencing serious doubts and bouts of depression at the time.
“Man of the World” was released as a single in April 1969, and would top out at #2 on the UK Singles chart on June 7th of that year, spending a total of fourteen weeks on the charts. The single would also chart in both the Netherlands and Norway, but it would not be released in the United States until 1976.
At the time, Fleetwood Mac were back in the States, on their third U.S. tour, meeting up with Owsley again when the band once again opened for the Grateful Dead, this time at the Warhouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, which took a dark turn after Owsley spiked the venues water fountains with his potent acid.
Green was apparently so high that he was unable to play guitar, and he and the rest of the band declined hanging out with the Dead after their concert, choosing instead to go back to their own hotel.
They later learned that the Dead’s hotel rooms were raided by police, who were pursuing Owsley at the time (the Dead would base some of their song “Truckin’” on the experience).
Green’s personal drug use was starting to become a problem, and he began lapsing into deep troughs of depression. It also may have had a hand in his questioning of his Jewish faith.
Green’s next hit, “Oh Well” (#2 UK Singles), would touch upon his ongoing religious struggles, and if you’ve heard the song, you no doubt remember the first lines that are sung — “I can’t help about the shape I’m in / I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin” — but it’s in the second verse that Green’s true thoughts and doubts come into focus:
Now, when I talked to God, I knew he’d understand,
He said, “Stick by my side and I’ll be your guiding hand,
But don’t ask me what I think of you,
I might not give the answer that you want me to”
By the time Fleetwood Mac began a new U.S. tour in August ’69, Green was renouncing his Jewish faith, and he grew out his beard and began wearing white monk’s robes onstage, with a huge crucifix dangling at his neck, espousing religious views that were a curious mix of Christianity and Buddhism.
In the 1969 NME Readers’ Poll, Fleetwood Mac were voted Britain’s best band and by now they were outselling both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in Europe, but Green continued to struggle, telling the band that he thought they should give away all of the band’s considerable profits to charity.
Everyone in the band rejected Green’s plea to send monies to charities, as you might suspect, except for Jeremy Spencer, who was fast becoming an acid-fueled religious zealot on his own (in 1971, he would leave Fleetwood Mac to join a religious group called the Children of God).
It was during the band’s European tour in the spring of 1970, promote their third album, Then Play On, that everything finally fell apart for Green.
While in Munich, Germany, Green joined up with a group of wealthy young dilettantes who latched onto the band at the airport.
It turns out that they were members of what’s described in the film as an “acid-fueled elitist commune,” which Mick Fleetwood says stripped Green of his personality, saying that he never really came back.
Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davis drove out to the band’s mansion to bring Green back to the venue, but Green told them that he wanted to “stay and live in the commune.”
They were able to finally convince him to join them, and Green later said the experience of binging on acid led to him writing yet another great Fleetwood Mac song, “The Green Manalishi,” which he says was about his feelings that he was earning too much money.
Green — who recorded all of the band’s parts himself, much like Brian Wilson did at a certain point with the Beach Boys — played his bandmates the song, taking complete control of the recording sessions, which didn’t quite sit well with Fleetwood, McVie and the others.
Things went from bad to worse during the rest of the tour, and at one point, while tripping on acid during one of the last shows — at the Lyceum in London, with… who else?.. the Grateful Dead — that Green attempted to set fire to the band’s amps.
Green officially left Fleetwood Mac, the band he’d formed back in ’67, on May 31, 1970, while their single “Green Manalishi” was shooting up the charts.
He would later fulfill his contractual obligations to Warner Bros. Records by releasing his first solo album, The End of the Game, which Green now refers to as his LSD album.
Peter Green stayed out of the music business until the mid-70s, and after he left the band, Fleetwood Mac left the blues behind and began moving toward a more melodic rock sound, thanks in great part to the addition of Christine Perfect, later to become Christine McVie in 1971.
On January 26, 1977, Green was arrested for threatening his accountant, David Simmons, with a shotgun he had smuggled in from a trip to Canada, to reportedly stop him from sending Green his artist royalties checks, after he’d become distraught that the royalty checks continued to arrive even though he no longer wanted the money.
Green was committed to a mental institution and placed under heavy sedation, and later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
He would spend time in psychiatric hospitals, undergoing electro-convulsive therapy during the mid 1970s, but after a period of time he was released to live with his eldest brother Len.
Green eventually gave away all of his guitars and the rest of his money, taking on a series of odd jobs — including a stint as a gravedigger — all while he watched the band he’d formed become one of the biggest bands in the universe.
There’s much more to the story, of course, but you’ll have to watch the documentary to find out.