Peter Green and the Holy Grail

By Sergio Ariza

“He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Let’s heed the king of blues guitar and consider Peter Allen Greenbaum, born the 29th of October, 1946, London, among the greatest guitarists of all time, someone clearly recognisable in each beat and capable of thrilling more with three notes than any pyrotechnic of the 6-string with 20, in the great tradition of the late B.B. King. But, Of course, while King was at a very high level playing for over 70 years,  the time Green was playing at his best is cut down to between 1967 and 1970, years in which Peter Green was Clapton after Clapton, and Jimmy Page before Jimmy Page, or put simply, the successor of the first and the predecessor of the second.       

Everything surrounding Green is soaking in legend and myth, his mental decline, due to drug abuse, impeded our enjoyment of one of the essential British guitarists, someone who, if not for the circumstances, could have been put in the category of a Clapton or a Page, two guitarists who have always been considered among the greats. He, like them, knew how to provide his own vision of blues rock, getting close  to ‘hard rock’ at times, yet at his r best he  is bound to the sweetest sound ever heard. Part of the blame of this sound  goes to the guitar, known among the experts as the Holy Grail, a Les Paul Standard from 1959, with ‘magic’ powers, able to sound like a Les Paul, yet something completely different, what some like to identify as a Stratocaster, but more itself and unique. Its story goes totally tied to the mythic ‘Greeny’.        


His career started as guitarist in a band called the Peter B’s Looners, of Peter Barden, where he met e t drummer Mick Fleetwood for the first time. He made his first recording with them, but it was the following year that he got a slap on the back to his career when he got the most cherished spot of all British guitarists: to substitute Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. It was in these very times that Peter Green, just as Arthur did with Excalibur, found the ‘magic’ in his Les Paul. Strangely enough, this was after seeing Clapton with another mythic guitar, his Gibson Les Paul Sunburst to which they nicknamed ‘Beano’( the name of the comic on the album cover of the only record made by Mayall and the Bluesbreakers).

Now that Clapton had left to form Cream, John Mayall could pick someone among the best U.K. guitarists, to fill his boots. His choice showed that he knew how to find a player. When he arrived at the studio without Clapton,  one of the producers at Decca took a look at the guitar amp and saw that it wasn’t ‘Slow Hand’s’, so he inquired about the star. “He’s not with us anymore, he left us weeks ago. But don’t worry, we got somebody better.” Green didn’t want to put his boss on the spot, so, in return, he wrote the best song on that album, called ‘Hard Road’, the instrumental ‘The Supernatural’, which could be considered the foundation  to Fleetwood Mac, as well as the predecessor to his  most mythic numbers, ‘Albatross’. The personal, special sound that Green got from his Les Paul was considered one of the top 50 of all time by Guitar Player magazine. It’s this particular sound of ‘Greeny’ that is stuff of legend. They say that one of the pick-ups was inversely set due to factory error,which gave it  a sound out-of-phase and sounded truly unique and recognizable.   

His time with the Bluesbreakers was brief and profitable, leaving an impact of Clapton proportions. When he decided to make his own band in 1967, Green was already a star and had his own nickname; if Clapton was ‘God’, Green was the ‘Green God’. But at that moment, his rebel side was revealed, fed up with praise and big egos that guitarists had, Green decided to baptise his new project with the surnames of his favourite drummer and bassist, who he had played with in the Bluesbreakers, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie. The first accepted without hesitation, having had troubles with Mayall and his drinking, McVie joined some months later. For the finishing touch of the band, Green recruited a young prodigy, Jeremy Spencer, who played slide guitar, and could take the spotlight off himself somewhat. To the point where the first single on the album, ‘I Believe My Time Ain’t Long’, a version of ‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James, was sung by Spencer.  

Shortly after, ‘Fleetwood Mac’, the band’s first record, was released  in February 1968. It’s a collection of blues classics, like ‘Hellhound on my Trail’, by Robert Johnson or Elmore James’ ‘Shake your Moneymaker’, and some originals too, 5 by Green, and 3 by Spencer. While Green’s songs like ‘Long Grey Mare’ or ‘Merry Go Round’ are spectacular, those of Spencer weren’t at the same level. His effort to skirt the limelight and share the load of the band yielded records that never reached the category of what he once had. Yet, in spite of it all, he became ‘the next big thing’, with the whole music world considering Fleetwood Mac and its leader as having the brightest future in the British record industry.    

The following steps would prove them right, the group released the amazing singles ‘Black Magic Woman’, a Green original that Santana made a global success two years later, and ‘Need Your Love So Bad’, the song that B.B. King must have been thinking about when he said that line at the beginning of this article. These songs show that Green wasn’t just a great guitarist but also had a voice right up there with the original bluesmen that had influenced him in the first place. The demand was so great that 6 months after his debut album, the shops were selling the band’s second record, ‘Mr. Wonderful’. A record that took noticeably too little time to make, with 4 songs starting with the same riff lifted from Elmore James, courtesy of Spencer. In October 1968, Green decided to bring another guitarist on board, the young Danny Kirwan, 18, after seeing that Spencer was bringing very little to the work.  This move paid off and the first song recorded with the ‘new’ band was the instrumental ‘Albatross’, which became their first #1 hit on the British charts. Edited the 22nd of November 1968, the song was a Green composition based on a famous hit from the 50s called ‘Sleep Walk’ by Santo & Johnny. Spencer didn’t play on the song and Green never used ‘Greeny’, but instead a Fender Stratocaster hooked up to a Orange Matamp OR100 amplifier. It became a hit sensation in his native England, influencing players such as David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and even the Beatles, whose ‘Sun King’ from ‘Abbey Road’ was based on it.


Its sequel, in April of ‘69, would be the absolute confirmation of the group, ‘Man of the World’ another classic penned by Green in which he gets back to expressing his disgust for fame, although, paradoxically, the record shot to the top of the charts at #2 in England. On this record we hear the unmistakable sound of ‘Greeny’ on one of the most remembered solos. Shortly after the band started to record their 3rd album, ‘Then Play On’ released in September, the first with Kirwan as a full member. During these very sessions he recorded another of his undeniable classics, ‘Oh Well’, a song over 9 minutes long, composed by Green, split in two distinct bits, the first built of a powerful riff close to ‘hard rock’, and the second, an instrumental where Green plays a Spanish Ramirez guitar with classic influences. The second part was the favourite of Green himself, who wrote it in the first place, but it was the shape of that powerful riff, with the band joining in, then a big pause when the voice comes in that inspired one of Green’s biggest followers to write one of the most famous songs in history: we’re talking about Jimmy Page and ‘Black Dog’. Page has always recognised Green as one of his influences and when they got together with the Black Crowes to record ‘Live at the Greek’ some classic Led Zeppelin hits, and ended off with ‘Oh Well’ by Fleetwood Mac. ‘Then Play On’ also included a Green classic, ‘Rattlesnake Shake’ one of drummer Mick Fleetwood’s favourites which he considered a good way to ‘jam’ like the Grateful Dead.

With ‘Oh Well’ at #2 on the charts and ‘Then Play On’ among the 10 bestselling records, everything was going as smooth as silk for the band even having started to appear on the U.S. charts, a country where he had performed with great success with Ten Years After. But it was all about to go up in smoke. Peter Green’s health started to teeter, and his abuse of LSD did nothing but make things worse. The key moment, according to bassist John McVie was in Munich, March 1970, when Green ended up in a hippy commune tripping on acid from which he never fully recovered. At first he decided to stay in the commune and didn’t leave until the rest of the band found out his whereabouts and took him out of there. But something had changed, Green had become obsessive with his rejection of stardom and the wealth that carried him. He tried to convince the band to give their money and possessions away, but when they said no to that, he quit the band. But not before giving a last shot with lucidity and talent on a last song recorded before leaving for good: ‘The Green Manalishi’. A song which compared money with the devil and seemed to faithfully document his struggle to detain his descent into madness. To everyone’s misfortune, he lost that battle. His last gig with Fleetwood Mac was May 20, 1970, five days after ‘The Green Manalishi’ hit the market.

His career and special way of playing would never be the same. In June of 1970 he accompanied his ex-boss John Mayall in a show and around the same time he recorded a jam session that would be edited in December under the meaningful title ‘End of the Game’, a record that got away from his sound in Fleetwood Mac, but rather something more Hendrix with distortion but, undoubtedly, without his talent and magic. It was evident proof that something had broken him inside, which he would never get back. As with the magic, the same with the guitar, just before leaving Fleetwood Mac, a group that he himself had created, Green started giving away his possessions, the most precious landed in the hands of a young Irish guitarist hardly 18 years old. We’re talking about Gary Moore. He told Green he couldn’t deal with the price of the guitar, but he answered saying he would give ‘Greeny’ for what he could get for his guitar a SG. Moore accepted the deal and paid Green 300$ for it. In 2006, when he was pressed with money troubles, he decided to sell it. He got 2 million dollars for it. Eight years later it would end up in the hands of another guitar wizard, Kirk Hammett on the advice of Jimmy Page, he managed to get  the Holy Grail of guitars and ‘Greeny’ returned once again on a record, specifically: the last Metallica album.

As for Green, he would return from the hell of dementia and schizophrenia (the hell that got him admitted to various psych clinics and got ‘electroshock’ therapies they used in the 70s), but would never sound the same. He even returned to play on a Fleetwood Mac record, specifically on ‘Tusk’, with the definitive band, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie, however his performance wasn’t registered. At the end of the 90s he managed to tour with his group Peter Green Splinter, and got a warm reception from the public. There were even attempts by Gibson to make a Les Paul Peter Green, but after parting with ‘Greeny’ he went on to a Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion and nothing came of it. The mold had broken long ago, and nobody, not even he himself was able to repeat “the sweetest sound” ever heard on an electric guitar.