Searching for Peter Green: the sad, strange saga of Fleetwood Mac's forgotten man

The guitarist's struggles with drugs, cults, and mental illness forced him out of the group he founded. But where did he go?

Premium
Fleetwood Mac - Peter Green John McVie and Jeremy Spencer and Mick Fleetwood -
Fleetwood Mac - Peter Green John McVie and Jeremy Spencer and Mick Fleetwood - Credit: Redferns

“This has been a dream come true,” said an emotional Mick Fleetwood from the stage of the London Palladium last night as the cream of rock royalty lined up either side of him to take their bows. To the right of the Fleetwood Mac drummer stood musicians including bandmate Christine McVie, former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

To his left, Aerosmith's Steve Tyler shared a smile with Metallica's Kirk Hammett while The Who’s Pete Townsend, Crowded House’s Neil Finn and the Godfather of British blues John Mayall clapped to the crowd. Minutes earlier Dave Gilmour had stunned the Palladium with a rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s hazy chillout classic Albatross, while Noel Gallagher had demonstrated his blues chops with three of the band’s early acoustic numbers.

The reason behind this rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Avengers Assemble? It was a concert to honour Peter Green, who founded Fleetwood Mac in 1967 before leaving less than three years later in an LSD-induced fug.

By any standards, the Palladium gathering was astonishing. Between them Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Oasis, Aerosmith, Metallica and ZZ Top have sold well over one billion albums and, the disbanded Floyd and Oasis aside, still sell out stadiums around the world.

Yet here were founding or former members of these groups – in what must rank as a rock fan’s ultimate fantasy festival line-up – sharing a modest stage to celebrate the music of an enigma who wrote his best songs over 50 years ago. Green remains that revered.

Mick Fleetwood on stage at the London Palladium for the Peter Green tribute night Credit: getty

The east Londoner recorded just three albums with Fleetwood Mac before disappearing into relative obscurity. Although the guitarist, now 73, has made music and toured in bursts since then he has barely been seen in public for a decade. (It was unclear whether he was at the Palladium concert, although Fleetwood said before the show that he’d be there.)

But Green’s years in the band saw him write some of their greatest songs: the rock standard Oh Well, mournful ballad Man of the World, Black Magic Woman (which became a global smash for Santana) and the aforementioned Albatross, which remains Fleetwood Mac’s only UK number one single to date.

Seven years on from the Green era, the band – its line-up by then including Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie – released Rumours, one of the best-selling albums of all time. Think of "the Fleetwood Mac story" and you automatically think of the internecine shagging and bitter fall-outs of this era. But the story of Peter Green is arguably a more fascinating chapter in the band’s history.

It is, on the one hard, a tragic tale about the perils of hallucinogenic drug abuse: a yarn involving strange cult-like groups, psychiatric hospitals and Green being arrested and locked up for threatening to shoot his accountant. It is, as Pete Townsend said from the stage, a “sad story”.

But it is equally the story of a shy rock star who didn’t give two hoots about being a rock star. And in a modern world where a musician’s ego regularly overshoots their talent, this is a refreshingly pure outlook. Green simply didn’t know how good he was. 

Born in 1946 in Bethnal Green, he started playing the guitar professionally aged 15. Green met Fleetwood in a band called Peter B’s Looners and soon both musicians were playing for John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a sort of finishing school for British blues guitarists which also counts Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Mick Taylor in its vast ranks of alumni.

It was here where Fleetwood and Green met bass player John McVie. (Not for nothing did Rick Vito, another former Bluesbreaker and one-time Fleetwood Mac member, introduce 86-year-old Mayall as “our mentor” from the Palladium stage). In the Bluesbreakers, Green’s playing caught everyone’s attention. In particular, a 1967 song called The Supernatural showcased the tone for which ‘the Green God’ would become renowned: clean notes, shimmering vibrato and a masterful control of feedback from his 1959 Gibson Les Paul. Green became the guitarists’ guitarist. B.B. King once said that he was the only ever player to give him the “cold sweats”. 

Green left the Bluesbreakers to form his own band with Fleetwood, but modesty prevented the guitarist from putting his own name to it. So he named it after the rhythm section of Fleetwood and John McVie, even though the bass player hadn’t joined yet (for a while the record company named the band the somewhat cumbersome ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer’, its fourth member, also on the stage at the Palladium).

The Peter Green-free Fleetwood Mac in 1982

Fleetwood Mac were a hit. Playing blues and – by their third album, Then Play On – psychedelia, they toured hard. On the road the Mac weren’t immune to the bawdy blue japes you might have expected from four carefree young men back then.

The band had a large dildo nicknamed Harold which a roadie would bring out on stage mid-set. And 1969’s Rattlesnake Shake was a song about how masturbation can “jerk away the blues” (sung with strutting gusto by Tyler last night). But there were signs that things weren’t right. Green’s song Man of the World is about a man who appears to have everything but still wishes he’d “never been born”. The song was a gargantuan cry for help. Likewise Close My Eyes was about unrequited love: “Some day I’ll die, and maybe then I’ll be with you.” Green was vulnerable, and the drugs that were part of the counterculture didn’t help his fragile state of mind. 

Fleetwood Mac were introduced to LSD in 1969 by The Grateful Dead’s soundman Owsley Stanley, who manufactured mass quantities of the drug in a clandestine lab. Around this time Green grew a beard, started wearing robes and became obsessed about the band not making money.

According to a 2009 BBC documentary, Green was also taking the drug Mescaline and he soon actively started wanting to give the band’s money to charity. Moved by the plight of starving people in Africa, he saw no reason not to use the band’s earnings to feed them by sending out cheese and tomato sandwiches.

The wheels fell off on a March day in Munich in 1970. The band had arrived at the city’s airport as part of the tour for Then Play On. Waiting for them among the usual fans were a smart, wealthy-looking bohemian couple – a beautiful young woman and a man in wire-rimmed glasses and a cape. They approached Green. In the days that followed, the guitarist ended up in their mansion in the forest outside Munich.

The rest of the band visited to find him at their cult-like commune, playing guitar intensely with his new friends. Some members of the band and crew joined in with the party but their main concern was to get Green out. But it was too late. He’d crossed a threshold. In the BBC documentary, John McVie doesn’t hide his disdain for the people who took Green from the band: “That was the fork in the road. Buggers.” Green played his final show with Fleetwood Mac on 20 May 1970. After less than three years in the band, he had quit.

In the years that followed, Green carried on playing but in the mid-1970s he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in psychiatric hospitals. He underwent electroconvulsive therapy. He even stopped playing guitar for a while, growing his fingernails and toenails “to find out what it was like” (it was “marvellous”, he has said).

In 1977 Green was arrested for threatening his accountant with a gun. Owed money, Green told David Simmons in a phone call that he would shoot his windows in if he didn’t get what he thought he was owed. Green, who said he didn’t mean it, was arrested and sectioned in Brixton Prison to undergo psychiatric tests. 

LSD left a permanent mark. As Fleetwood said in a recent interview: “It’s no secret that [Peter] took a left turn and never came back. But he’s OK.” Green himself has freely admitted that LSD has changed him. He told the Telegraph in 1996 that he “never did come down off the trip”. “I guess I took one trip too many,” he added. 

Fleetwood Mac performing in 1969 Credit: getty

It seems that Green was unaware of his talent. As Fleetwood once put it, he was “handed something and [he] didn’t quite understand the power of what he was handed”. Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine ahead of the Palladium show, Fleetwood said he wanted to remind people that Fleetwood Mac was Green’s band, not his. He said it was Green who music started a “massive ball” rolling 50 ago, a ball that is still going today. Last night’s concert was, Fleetwood said, about acknowledging that Green’s music “is still alive”. 

And it certainly is. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett bought Green’s 1959 Les Paul guitar, known as ‘Greeny’, in 2016. When Hammett took to the stage playing an ear-shredding rendition of The Green Manalishi, the last song Green wrote for the band, that familiar tone filled the Palladium. It was powerful. It was moving. It was a fitting tribute. But perhaps Crowded House’s Finn summed it up best when, before playing Man of the World, he said that Green’s “sad, tender and truthful” songs still resonate today.

So was Green really there to watch this tribute? Certain attendees, as Fleetwood had suggested, believed he was somewhere in the crowd. I certainly kept half an eye open for this kind, bald, portly, unassuming fellow. But there was no sign of him, no introduction, and no waves from the stage. As the cheers died down at the end of the night, Fleetwood himself cast doubt on the man’s presence. “Peter Green, we love you wherever you are,” he shouted. 

The Green God. An enigma to the last.

This piece is part of Behind the music – a weekly series celebrating music's untold stories, from band-splitting feuds to the greatest performances of all time

Comment speech bubble