For the casual music lover, the name Fleetwood Mac brings to mind visions of the 1970s lineup, with Stevie Nicks front and center, twirling in long white dresses, and guitar extraordinaire Lindsey Buckingham playing FM radio staples. While there is no doubting that lineup’s amazing talent, if you’re not familiar with the Mac’s history, do yourself a favor and dig a little deeper. You’ll find a band whose roots are embedded in the blues.
Started in 1967 by Peter Green, the band was named for Green’s favorite rhythm section of John McVie on bass and Mick Fleetwood on drums. McVie quickly replaced original bassist Bob Brunning, and slide guitar master Jeremy Spencer was added to the fold. The mighty Mac stormed out of England with a solid grasp on the blues that had yet to be seen by such young Englishmen. Their self-titled album debuted on the Blue Horizon label in 1968. The follow-up, Mr. Wonderful, continued to solidify their reputation as world ambassadors for the blues; Green was hailed as England’s finest guitarist, and even B.B. King was quoted as saying Green was “the only guitarist that gave me the cold sweats!” Jeremy Spencer’s authentic Elmore James covers gave the band a whole other dynamic that many bands of the time were lacking.
By 1969, Peter Green was focused on pushing the boundaries of the band. He had a desire to jam on tunes during Mac’s live shows. Jeremy Spencer’s Elmore James and 50s standards worked great onstage, but did not blend with Green’s visions of extended guitar improvisation. Green soon went looking for a third guitarist. Enter Danny Kirwan, whose background was in the blues but who also had a deep love for the renowned jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Kirwan and Green immediately clicked; their styles and personalities were similar enough to work well together, but different enough to add tension and spark.
That same year, band entered the studio with producer Martin Birch to crank out a blues rock masterpiece: Then Play On, named after a line in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is a benchmark of where both genres were in the late 60s. Jeremy Spencer is noticably absent the LP; those looking for more authentic blues would truthfully be better served by their previous two albums, but what makes this album the original Fleetwood Mac’s masterpiece is that it shows Peter Green at the top of his game. He easily blended blues, rock and instrumental psychedelia to pave the way for Led Zeppelin and others to grab the baton and run with it in the 70s. That band and others had already debuted by the time it came out, but their course drastically changed after listening to it.
The album kicks off with Danny Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way,” which became part of Mac’s live shows during this time, and often served as a platform for Kirwan and Green twisting and tearing the structure for minutes on end! The Green original “Closing My Eyes” comes up next. By 2016 standards, it may seem like a strange choice for the second tune on an album. A reflective ballad, it indeed shows where Green was at the time. He often spoke of being disillusioned with the music business, and this song definitely gives you chills as you listen.
“Fighting For Madge” is an instrumental showcase of Green and Kirwan going head to head–taking the Blues into all new terrain. “When You Say” is another Kirwan original that shows his knack for songwriting, putting his amazing guitar chops on hold for the song’s sake. (The sign of a true master.) Green busts out the slide for his “Showbiz Blues,” yet again telling the world where his mind was, most definitely with the line “tell me anybody- do you really give a damn for me?”
“Underway” takes us back into jam land. This one often got connected connected with “Madge” in the live sets of this era, causing musicians everywhere to fear Kirwan and the Green God. “One Sunny Day” brings the blues back into the fold, with enough rock to make this one appeal across the board. “Although The Sun Is Shining” once again puts the song front and center, leading us right into “Rattlesnake Shake.” This Green original was the showcase of live shows for the late 60s Fleetwood Mac. Many have covered this tune over the years, and it is a textbook example of blues rock. Once again, in the hands of Green and Kirwan, the song gave new meaning to jamming when played live.
“Without You” shows Kirwan’s vocal chops drenched with emotion. “Searching for Madge” brings the ongoing “Jam” back. Again, both “Madge” tunes were often blended with “Underway” in Mac’s live sets, stretching the limits and ideas of what a band could do. “My Dream” is a beautiful instrumental ballad from Kirwan. Once again, he leaves his chops at home, choosing instead to blend beautiful melodies into a masterpiece! One of the album’s highlights for sure. “Like Crying” shows the band’s amazing vocal abilities, with awesome harmonies throughout. “Before The Beginning” once again puts us in the mind of Green with another reflective tune. It’s amazing and spooky all at the same time to hear how he is able to pull the listener into his world.
It’s worth noting that Then Play On was released in various forms over the years. Later versions included the blues rock staple “Oh Well (parts 1 & 2)” and the prophetic Green masterpiece “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown).” Sadly, this would be the last album that Peter Green played on with Fleetwood Mac. He soon left the band, sighting disillusionment with the music business as the main reason. Mick Fleetwood has often stated how lost he and the entire band felt when Green left. Searching for a new path, it was nearly impossible for them to continue on until, ultimately, they found it big time with their 1970s success.
To this day many are still unaware of the band’s blues roots, spearheaded by one of the world’s finest musicians- the great Peter Green. Jimmy Page has often said Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” was directly inspired by Green’s “Oh Well.” Green has entered and reentered the music business numerous times since he left Fleetwood Mac. He has become a sort of enigma over the years, often shrouded in mystery. I’ve been lucky enough to meet him a few times and, contrary to popular opinion, I found Peter to be very friendly and talkative. He also has a great sense of humor. The last time I witnessed him play a guitar was in 2002, and although he played much mellower than he did in the 60s, the old fire was still there and it was very inspiring to see him light up when he would play the blues.
Whenever anyone steps on the blues guitar train and goes off to study all of the greats, they will undoubtedly hear the name Peter Green pop up time and again. There’s a reason for that: Peter Green played the blues like a man four times his age during the 60s. He kept the music authentic, pushing the envelope to see how far it could be delivered all the while. What he discovered can be heard on Then Play On, which has a deluxe remastered edition released in 2013. Go get it and hear where Fleetwood Mac began.