Peter Green, guitarist who founded Fleetwood Mac but vanished from the scene for decades – obituary

Peter Green in 1968 - Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Peter Green in 1968 - Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Peter Green, who has died aged 73 was, alongside Eric Clapton, widely regarded as the foremost white blues guitarist of his generation, although he became equally famous as rock’s second-most notable LSD casualty (after Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett).

In 1969, Green’s band, Fleetwood Mac, sold more albums than the Beatles and the Stones combined, and in its first three years the group’s best-known hits were all written by Green. These included Black Magic Woman, which later became a massive hit for Carlos Santana, and Albatross, the dreamy instrumental which went to the top of the charts in 1968 and has featured as the soundtrack of numerous surfing and wildlife films. Both Oh Well and Man of the World reached No 2 in 1969.

Green seemed to have everything – looks, talent and a dazzling career ahead of him. Critics praised the understated brilliance of his singing and the liquid brilliance of his guitar playing and the pure tone he could coax from his 1959 Les Paul guitar. The great blues guitarist BB King, one of Green’s heroes, whom he had originally set out to emulate, would say of Green: “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

Green rehearsing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969, with John McVie in the background - Michael Putland/Getty Images
Green rehearsing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969, with John McVie in the background - Michael Putland/Getty Images

But the 1960s drug culture took a heavy toll, and in 1970 he dropped out of the music scene and plummeted out of sight (though not before writing the haunting The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown), which seemed to document his descent into madness).

For the next 25 years Green drifted in and out of psychiatric hospitals, earning only the occasional reference in the press – as a cautionary tale about the excesses of Sixties rock. Yet he not only survived, but returned. In 1995, he picked up his guitar, discarded the anti-psychotic drugs, put a new band together and resumed his performing career.

The youngest of four children, Peter Allen Greenbaum was born on October 29 1946 in Bethnal Green, East London, to Jewish-Polish parents. His father, a tailor turned postman, changed the family name from its Jewish form to Green in 1948.

He first became interested in the guitar aged 10 when one of his brothers brought home a Spanish guitar, which Peter eventually inherited. Though he left school aged 15 to train as an apprentice butcher, music was his passion. He played bass in several amateur bands before being invited by the keyboard player Peter Bardens to play lead in his band, Peter B’s Looners, in 1966.

He stayed with Barden for three months before leaving to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He had been an avid fan of the Bluesbreakers guitarist Eric Clapton, and when Clapton left the group to go to Greece for a while, Green asked if he could take his place.

Mayall had hired another guitarist, but recognised that Green was far better: “This Cockney kid – Peter Green – kept coming down to all the gigs and saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing with him? I’m much better than he is. Why, he’s no good at all!’ So finally I let him sit in.”

Green did about three gigs with the band before Clapton returned. Six months later, when Clapton left the band for good, Green was immediately hired as his replacement. At first Clapton fans were openly hostile, but Green quickly built up a following and performed with honours on Mayall’s bestselling Hard Road album.

Fleetwood Mac in 1968, l-r, Jeremy Spencer, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Danny Kirwan and Green - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Fleetwood Mac in 1968, l-r, Jeremy Spencer, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Danny Kirwan and Green - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was in the Bluesbreakers that Green solidified his relationship with the bass player John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. When, inevitably, he left the group in 1967, he recruited the two in order to found his own band, Fleetwood Mac, along with the guitarist Jeremy Spencer.

A triumphant appearance at Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival in 1967 was followed by the group’s first album, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, drawing on their stage repertoire of covers of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, and original material in a blues vein written by Green and Spencer. Despite the lack of a hit single, the album spent 37 weeks in the charts.

Green’s songwriting was rapidly broadening from its purist blues roots. In 1968 the group scored its first chart hit with the haunting Black Magic Woman, beginning a run of Top 10 singles culminating with Green Manalishi in 1970.

The band in 1969 - RB/Redferns
The band in 1969 - RB/Redferns

But the pressures of success weighed heavily on Green, exacerbated by his use of LSD. By 1969 he had renounced his Jewish faith, opting instead for a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism. His behaviour became increasingly bizarre, though it was apparently only when he suggested to other members of the group that they should give all their money away, after having a vision of an angel holding a Biafran child in her arms, that they realised things were getting serious.

The breaking point came in 1970 in Germany, where the group were touring in support of their third album, Then Play On. Green was approached by members of a commune who, sensing his vulnerability, plied him with LSD and attempted to recruit him. When Green failed to return to the group’s hotel, members of the road crew were dispatched to bring him back.

“Certainly John McVie would fully blame an event in Germany where Peter took some more drugs and never really came back from that,” Fleetwood recalled in a documentary, Man of the World. “They captured Peter completely, and pulled him away.”

After completing the tour Green walked out, although he made a brief return in 1971 to help the band complete a tour when, in a bizarre twist, guitarist Jeremy Spencer left his bandmates in a bookshop to join a religious cult called the Children of God.

Green’s missing years were filled with rumours about his health and eccentric behaviour – many of them true. He worked, variously, as a gravedigger, hospital porter and petrol pump attendant. He spent time on a kibbutz, an experience which apparently made him think of joining the PLO. In Britain, his grimy, dishevelled figure was sometimes seen lurking in suburban shop doorways.

In 1974 he was remanded to Brixton Prison for psychiatric reports after allegedly threatening his manager with a shotgun. The sojourn in Brixton, where he was diagnosed as suffering from drug-induced paranoid schizophrenia, was the beginning of a 20-year period of attendance in psychiatric hospitals. He was given ECT and medication which left him bloated and dulled.

“The trouble with those places,” he would remark later, “is that no one ever tells you why you’re in there. No one came up to me and said, ‘You’re here because you’re an LSD freak’ – I had to work that out for myself.” When not in hospital he drifted, often sleeping on friends’ floors.

Green in later years - Livepix
Green in later years - Livepix

He re-emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s with three relatively inconsequential albums, In the Skies, Little Dreamer and White Sky. In 1978 he married an American “Jews for Jesus” Christian; they had a daughter but the marriage did not last.

By the 1990s, he had reverted to the name Peter Greenbaum and had returned to live with his parents at their home on Canvey Island in Essex. He had not touched a guitar in years. So completely was he forgotten that a con man was able to pass himself off as the missing guitarist because no one had seen him for such a long time.

A few friends stuck by him, among them Michelle Reynolds, once married to Fleetwood Mac’s manager, Clifford Davis. In 1995, out of kindness, she took him to stay at her home in Surrey for the weekend and introduced him to her guitarist brother, Nigel Watson, who put a guitar in Green’s hands and asked him to have a go.

Green plays the Paradiso, Amsterdam, in 1996 - Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Green plays the Paradiso, Amsterdam, in 1996 - Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Despite not having played for years, Green could not put the instrument down. With the help of Watson and Reynolds he began to make contacts with other musicians, put together a new band and resumed touring. In early 1996 he gave up his medication and doctors concluded that the schizophrenia had finally burned itself out.

Green’s return to the touring circuit with his new band, Splinter Group, was greeted with incredulity, since it was assumed he was lost forever. The slender, almost saturnine, Jesus-haired hippie of the 1960s had become a portly, heavy-jowled, almost Dickensian figure, but he had somehow retained much of his old fluidity and assurance as a guitarist.

The group became an established festival and club draw and released nine albums between 1997 and 2004, when Green suddenly left the band and moved to Sweden. He would not perform again for another five years, when he assembled another group, Peter Green and Friends, which toured in Britain, Germany and Australia.

Green freely admitted that LSD had left a lasting impression on him. He never got over the effects of the anti-psychotic drugs he had lived on for so many years; he was prone to nodding off and his conversation was inclined to fly off at a tangent.

By 2010 he had retired from music altogether, and vanished from view, living in the south of England and pursuing his hobbies of fishing and painting.

In 2020 Mick Fleetwood gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he talked on having last seen Green in 2018. “He’s not the Peter that I knew, clearly. But he plays acoustic guitar. It’s no secret that he took a left turn and never came back, but he’s OK. He also has really little or no ego at all, which is unbelievable. You want to go: ‘Do you realise what you did?’ ‘No, no. Yeah, I suppose so.’ He has no ego about what he did.”

In February 2020, Fleetwood organised an all-star tribute concert at the London Palladium, featuring such musical luminaries as Pete Townshend, David Gilmour, Noel Gallagher and John Mayall, and billed as “Mick Fleetwood and Friends Celebrate the Music of Peter Green.”

Green himself was not in attendance, and it was possible he was not even aware of the event. It ended with Mick Fleetwood looking out into the audience and declaring: “Peter Green, we love you wherever you are.”

Peter Green married Jane Samuels in 1978; the couple had a daughter, Rosebud, but divorced in 1979.

Peter Green, born October 29 1946, died July 25 2020