Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Green Ghost

On any journey to discover or rediscover blues, after drilling down in to Muddy, Buddy, the Three Kings and Otis Rush, one should take the exit ramp marked Peter Green. We all know Clapton, Beck and Page, but Green is the other British Blues Master that deserves a lot more attention and recognition than he gets.

 The haunted, psychedelic eyes of Peter Green (graphic portrait by Drew Townson)

He is one of the greatest guitarists ever to amplify the blues. The "woman-tone" that he coaxed from that '59 Les Paul rivalled that of all the other greats. With his incredible phrasing, vibrato and dynamics, he took influences like Otis Rush and Albert King and made his own sound. Green's guitar personality is so identifiable it only takes hearing a couple of notes to know it's him. He distilled the powerful and dark essence of the blues into his chops (arguably) even more than did Eric Clapton himself.

Green replaced Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in '66, and shortly thereafter founded Fleetwood Mac, with Mayall vets Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The three guitar band (with Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan) embarked on a short but intense run of four years, releasing two major albums and becoming superstars in their time.

The early Mac's sound moved freely between deeply authentic Elmore James style Blues shuffles, soulful rock, and Green's hallmark, chilling minor key originals like "The Green Manalishi," and "Black Magic Woman." The instrumental classic "Albatross," was the group's first hit. Inspired by Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk," the single hit #1 on the British Charts in 1967. By 1970 FM's records were outselling The Beatles, The Stones and Led Zeppelin.

YouTube contains a lot of great stuff from the early Fleetwood Mac, like TV appearances and live concert bootlegs. In addition to marvelling at Green's playing and singing, you'll love watching a young, painfully skinny and perennially shirtless Mick Fleetwood pounding the kit. The level of musicianship is jaw-dropping. Green's Fleetwood Mac was truly groundbreaking, or in today's jargon, "game changing."

Go to my YouTube channel and check out my playlist called Blues Guitar Greats and you'll find some really cool stuff, including a Mac appearance on Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club show.

For your consideration: A priceless 1969 performance of "Oh Well", a track that deserves to be ranked with any blues-riffed rocker on Led Zepplin I.


                     "Oh Well, Oh Well!" The Original Fleetwood Mac Transform The Blues, 1969

I don't recall exactly when Peter Green became my British Blues Deity. I think it was one night when I was a teenager listening to late-night FM on my Dad's expensive stereo. There I sat, Indian style, with my headphones on, just digging what was coming down the airwaves, when that opening riff of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" began. The station played the full LP version, including the haunting slow part at the end. I was captivated, and a little scared. As a young guitarist, one of my huge heroes was (and still is) Santana. Eventually I learned that Green was a MAJOR influence on Carlos, and that in fact, "Black Magic Woman" was originally written/recoded by Green's Fleetwood Mac. That was big. By 1992 I was recording a Les Paul instrumental dedicated to Green, called "The Demon Everclear."

When you compare Green to Clapton, you find that EC has a flawless fluid style, never hits a clam, but is very..."studied." His Blues vocabulary is and always has been huge. Green is more sparse, leaves more space and has a very soulful, almost tortured style that goes much deeper than that of Clapton. Green conveys raw feeling; painful emotion, and isn't that what Blues really is?  B.B. King famously said that "Greenie" was the only white guitarist that ever gave him chills. Because E.C. had been dubbed the God of British guitar in the mid 1960's, fans of Peter Green began calling him "The Green God." As fragile and short as Green's time in the limelight was, the man seemed to move on a darker, more intense level. Was it a dream? Did I really see that shadow? Did I really hear that whisper? Thinking of Peter Green always gets the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. He was like a spirit moving in the midnight; numinous, otherworldly, supernatural. The chilling minor-key triads and tremulous cries of his '59 Les Paul took electric blues deep in to the dark. Sadly, no one knew at the time that Green's mind was descending in to darkness, as well. In retrospect, songs like The Green Manalishi or even Black Magic Woman serve as signposts pointing to PG's personal highway to hell.

It's sad to think where Green might have gone had he not fallen in to his nightmare of schizophrenia. (It's often the greatest artists, living on the edge of sanity, who stumble over it: Van Gogh; roky erickson; Syd Barrett). Greenie might have become a guitar superhero; a full-blown '70s rock star. He could have towered up there with Page, Clapton and Beck. But after a very bad LSD trip in Germany, PG became the quintessential "Acid Casualty."

Instead of being a Hall-of-Fame name in guitardom, Green's legacy is as a ghostly cult-figure whose music threw a long shadow over the guitar generations to follow. Where would Santana be without Peter Green? You hear Green's licks played note-for-note by a young Carlos. Or The Allmans? Billy Gibbons? Gary Moore? Like Gram Parsons and Alex Chilton, Green is regarded as one of the great influencers in rock.

If Clapton was The God of British guitar...

Perhaps Peter Green was The Devil.

From Wikipedia:

Green is praised for his "swinging shuffle grooves" and "soulful phrases," and favoured "the minor mode and its darker blues implications.

No discussion of The Green God would be complete without mentioning so-called "The Green Mod", where the neck-pickup on the Les Paul is flipped updide-down, causing a polarity reversal. It causes the guitar to have a unique and extra-feminine tone. Peter did this supposedly by accident. Here's a nice explaination of the mod: TechTips GREEN'S LP IS WIDELY CONSIDERED THE MOST VALUABLE LES PAUL IN THE WORLD...IN THE 1M$ RANGE. GARY MOORE OWNED IT AND NOW IT IS IS PRIVATE HANDS.

** Although this may read like an obit, Peter Green is alive and well today. He still plays really well. However, the 1967-1972 flame in his eyes and fire in his fingers reside in annals of rock histoy.

It's All About The Tone, Baby!