The late 1970’s was a confusing time for me. I kept hearing these slick spiffy American pop songs on the radio by Fleetwood Mac and they sounded nothing like a trio of singles sat in my parents’ box of singles – “Man Of The World”, “Oh Well” and “The Green Manalishi”. Was somebody playing a joke on me? Just to add a little more confusion was the B side of “Man Of The World”, the amusingly titled “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight” credited to Earl Vince and The Valiants which sounded nothing like the A’side or those other two singles! Soon I began devouring books on rock and pop history (ah… remember those things? BOOKS?) and soon learned that Fleetwood Mac had one of the strangest sagas in rock history.
Therefore “my” Fleetwood Mac was this earlier version fronted by this guy Peter Green. That’s not to say I don’t dislike what came after but ever the contrarian, I have a fondness of the early 70’s era when Bob Welch was in the band. Some interesting music across those albums which the band have almost pretended never existed.
Let’s look at those three singles that formed part of the soundtrack of my childhood. First – “Man Of The World”. How fucking DEPRESSING and BLEAK is this song? Some have suggested it’s perhaps the bleakest single ever released and whilst I’m not too sure about that accolade, it certainly ranks highly. Flip it over and there was Jeremy Spencer pulling one of his regular pranks leading the band through a rock and roll parody… easy to forget the early live shows had a strange mix of blues rock and Spencer’s send ups – we’ll return to that in a little while. Next up is “Oh Well”. WTF was THAT? It was split across both sides, the A side mostly being this crazed rocker with a pair of vocal interludes with amusing lyrics “I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin” which then turns into a slow instrumental mood piece contrasting violently with what had come a moment before. A genuinely unique single that unnerved his band members who were alarmed at Green’s insistence it be released as a single. They were convinced it wouldn’t be a hit so had a wager with Green… when it reached number two, they coughed up, stunned at Green’s conviction it was a surefire hit and it’s the one Green penned number they continued to perform live up to their most recent shows. Lastly, the final Green single, “The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown)” – dark, doomy and dramatic, a chilling cry from goodness knows where, an aural nightmare – hell?
How could one NOT love a band like this? I always cherished and admired the unusual hence Peter Green who wrote all three A sides was somebody who interested me. I know as I type there will be dozens of other writers all publishing their own tributes to Peter Greenbaum and there’s not really much point replicating or stating the obvious stuff. As I grew older, I encountered more of his music with Fleetwood Mac and his sole album with John Mayall’s Bluebreakers “A Hard Road” all of which I enjoyed and still do on occasions. I do find the whole blues rock genre a bit… well… repetitive and predictable but I liked the warmth and sincerity of Peter’s voice and as a guitarist, absolutely no denying he was bloody superb. Not a speed merchant who wanked off a million notes a minute like Alvin Lee and various others… if anything, Green understood something unusual – economy in that it’s what you DON’T play that’s just as important. The prime example is “Need Your Love So Bad”. His soloing is very sparse… he leaves S-P-A-C-E between the notes… it breathes and it has a genuine emotional punch because of it.
Peter was an unusual man on many levels. Who else would name their band “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” for their debut single only to give the spotlight to the one member of the band not in the group name, Jeremy Spencer? It quickly became evident to Green that as good and amusing as Spencer’s accurate Elmore James impressions and rock and roll sends up were, he knew that it was limiting the band as a creative force so rather than fire Spencer like most would, he instead recruited Danny Kirwan as a third lead guitarist then to Kirwan’s teenage shock, insisted that Kirwan write half of the next album “Then Play On”!
Much has been made about the bizarre fates of Green, Kirwan and Spencer and I think we should add Bob Welch to the equation. In early 1970 Green was spiked with bad acid at some party in Germany and began acting bizarrely, thinking he was Jesus Christ insisting that the band give away all their money as he was convinced that money was “evil”. He quit a few months later then trod an eccentric path through the 1970’s sinking further into mental illness at one point infamously becoming a grave digger. Mick Fleetwood always kept an eye on Peter and when it seemed like he was mentally stable, Green relocated to Los Angeles and recorded a couple of guest appearances with the current Mac, Fleetwood convinced Warners to sign Green as a solo artist. It was a sad fiasco that embarrassed Mick enormously as when Peter was presented with the contract worth a million dollars, he instead went into a rant about why he wouldn’t sign, exclaiming that the money was “evil”.
Jeremy Spencer quit suddenly in early 1971 when after checking into a hotel in Los Angeles he went to a bookstore and failed to return resulting in a three day search. When found, he had changed his name, shaved his head and joined “The Children Of God” cult. Spencer too had been showing signs of mental distress as exemplified by his antics onstage when the band bought him a gold lame suit for his Elvis Presley impersonations where it was noticed he became so possessed he began to believe he really was Elvis. Strangely after many years in hiding as some impostor assumed his identity, he returned to music and remains active appearing earlier this year at the Peter Green tribute gig Mick Fleetwood organised in London which Green elected not to attend.
1972, and it was Danny Kirwan’s turn to crack and depart. Under enormous pressure having to try and help fill the gap Green had left, along with Spencer, his boozing got out of hand. Worse, he regularly clashed with new guitarist Bob Welch. A quiet introverted bloke, the drink brought out the worst in him. Then came one fateful gig where he smashed his guitar against the wall and refused to go on stage. Immediately after the gig during which he simply sat behind the sound desk, Kirwan confronted the band with a barrage of criticisms of how badly they’d played. He was fired on the spot. He returned to England and spent most of the rest of his life as a dishevelled tramp propping up bars and died in 2018.
Bob Welch now had to step in and help steer the unsteady ship during which there were ever more dramas surrounding the band (Bob Weston’s affair with Fleetwood’s wife, the temporary installation of singer Dave Walker and a bogus line up of the band put on tour by their manager Clifford Davis!) and it was Welch who convinced them to relocate and start afresh in America. Sadly, he lasted just one more album then quit feeling burnt out. He enjoyed some solo success in the mid to late 70’s but as Fleetwood Mac transformed into a massive success, he felt slighted as gradually it became clear his era and contributions to the band were shunned. Undeservedly as even Mick Fleetwood admitted in his first autobiography that had it not been for Welch, the band would had fallen apart. Matters would reach a nadir in the 1990’s with a lawsuit citing unpaid royalties that caused much bad blood. His health declined and with the impending fate of becoming an invalid, in 2012 Welch took his own life with a gun.
After the Warners contract debacle, Peter Green returned to England and signed with a small label which resulted in a handful of half hearted solo albums. He went off the rails once again in the early 80’s and virtually became a tramp with long fingernails. The British press were very fond of finding and snapping him and splashing the pictures all over their hateful tabloids poking fun and hinting that Fleetwood Mac was not a healthy career option. Bizarrely, like Jeremy Spencer, Green also had an impostor going around claiming to be him which even fooled some who had known Green personally. Yes, I did mention that Fleetwood Mac have a bizarre history! And we haven’t even mentioned anything about the dramatics Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks would add.
Fortunately, in around 1995, Green began to get the help and support he desperately needed and his medication was changed. He pulled his life and career back together and in 1996 made a surprising comeback with his Splinter Group. Whilst it was obvious the old mercurial Peter Green was long gone, audiences were just pleased and relieved to see and hear him being functional again forgiving his shortcomings and he was seemingly happy to tour and make albums once more which he did until 2010 when he quietly retired once more.
Peter Green is regarded as one of rock’s tragic cases as at his peak in the late 60’s, he had it all and was primed for superstardom but fell apart in slow gory motion as he descended into mental illness, shunning the limelight and disowning his stardom preferring to vanish and live an anonymous life but because of the high quality of his work and the later success of Fleetwood Mac, he would never be fully left alone and there are various horror stories about his antics during these years of turbulence.
There is no denying it is his 1966 to 1970 work that granted him immortality and will remain cherished and enjoyed for years to come. It’s a real pity he was never really able to enjoy his fame and success and that acid fucked his head and life up. I just listened to “Oh Well” just before writing this piece as a gesture of remembrance and it provoked mixed feelings – smiles for the first part then a melancholic wistfulness for the remainder. Perhaps that summed up Green and his life in some ways. I can do all the writing and talking I like but at the end of it all, it’s the music that does the REAL talking and there’s some such interesting examples in Green’s legacy to keep us listening and beguiled.
One further fond personal memory. It’s early 1988 and my music teacher David Parker was teaching us about pop song structures – the intro – verse – chorus – verse kind of stuff and he invited us to bring in some of our own records for study. Next time round, I walked in with a handful of battered 45’s one of which was “Oh Well”. That was spun and Mr Parker stopped in his tracks. He would have been in his early 30’s at the time and he not only LOVED it but confessed to having never heard it before. It was a massive hit! He surely must had encountered it back in the day but his reaction said it all. I enjoyed “deflowering” him as he scribbled down a note so he could track down his own copy and once again I’d caused a bit of chaos because there was a song that was a pop song that wasn’t quite the norm. Peter Green wrote and created that and for that alone, he’ll always be a legend to me.
Finally, there’s the couplet “Dont ask me what I think you, I might not give the answer that you want me to” – almost one of my mantras throughout my own bizarre journey through life for I’ve shocked and alarmed many over the years who asked me something only to get an answer they weren’t expecting because I DON’T play the game. I just tell the goddamn truth so if you ask how I am when I’m having a crap day or in a bad mood, I tell it as it is. Shocking how many recoil in discomfort when presented with Truth. Is it any wonder I’m now choosing to live in near reclusive seclusion to avoid being asked about viruses, distancing and masks? Trust me, my answers are not for the faint hearted.