The British blues boom. There’s a tendency to dismiss it as little more than a bunch of lank-haired white boys from the home counties misappropriating the music of black America. And not in a good way. There may be some truth in that, but it’s not the full picture. The British blues boom was, in its late 60s heyday, a vibrant cultural movement directly linking the beat/R&B groups of the early 60s with the stadium rock bands of the 70s and beyond. And while it’s true that some British blues bands were much too earnest for their own good, it wasn’t all just lumpen 12-bar boogie and “woke up this morning” lyrics by any means.
At its best, British blues mixed elements of jazz, R&B, and acoustic folk blues with the style and attitude of the Mod culture and Swinging London. It brought about significant changes in social attitudes and fashion, while the guitar techniques and advances in amplification technology it engendered formed the blueprint for the progressive rock and heavy metal revolution which followed.
As with any genre, the biggest and best exponents rose quickly to the top. Guitar heroes such as Jeff Beck, Mick Taylor, and Eric Clapton became akin to teen idols, each with their own fiercely partisan fan base who would follow them from gig to gig. During his short tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Clapton had revolutionised electric blues guitar and the LP Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (commonly known as “The Beano Album”) instantly became a genre-defining classic. So, in mid-1966 when it was announced that a little-known guitarist named Peter Green was about to replace Eric in Mayall’s band, the UK blues world was abuzz with expectation.
It was not the first time Clapton had left the Bluesbreakers. In a blaze of summer madness, he had gone AWOL during 1965, leaving Mayall temporarily without a star guitarist. The story goes that Peter Green approached the stage at a Bluesbreakers’ gig and declared “I can play better than that!”, indicating Eric’s stand-in. He got up and proved he could do exactly that and was hired on the spot. Green lost the job on Clapton’s return, but Mayall kept his phone number and after Eric split to form Cream, Green got the gig permanently. His first official show with the Bluesbreakers was July 24, 1966, at the Britannia Rowing Club, Nottingham.
In February 1967, A Hard Road, the third John Mayall album (and the first to feature Green) appeared and a consensus was quickly reached. On this evidence, Peter Green was not only the equal of Clapton but in certain areas, he may have had the edge over the man the London graffiti artists were calling “God.”
There was only one way to find out for sure. So, on Saturday, May 20, 1967, together with Alan, a school pal, I hitch-hiked to the picturesque Derbyshire spa town of Matlock Bath where John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were booked to play at the Grand Pavilion. Matlock Bath is a genteel country town sitting mid-way between the urban sprawl of Sheffield, Derby, and Nottingham. Although off the beaten track and outside the 60s concert circuit, Matlock occasionally hosted big-name rock shows and in February 1967, just a few weeks before the Bluesbreakers gig, Clapton’s new band Cream had played the Grand Pavilion.
We arrived mid-afternoon just as Mayall’s van crunched into the gravel carpark of the Pavilion. There were no band tour buses back then and even a well-known recording group such as the Bluesbreakers usually traveled the country crammed into a mid-sized Ford Transit, equipment and all. With no other fans around we volunteered to help unload the gear and while the roadie (singular, as I recall) and band members struggled with the Hammond organ and Marshall speaker cabinets, we were entrusted with the drum cases and guitars. Precious cargo indeed, especially in light of subsequent events.
Unlike today’s big-name guitarists who routinely have a clutch of instruments tuned-up and waiting in the wings, I’m sure Peter Green brought just one guitar with him that day. But what a guitar it was. The 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul, nicknamed “Greeny,” he used throughout his time with the Bluesbreakers (and later, Fleetwood Mac), went on to acquire truly mythical status. Following Green’s enforced retirement in the 70s, “Greeny” passed first to Gary Moore and then, more recently, to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett for a rumoured US$2 million, making it one of the most valuable guitars in rock history.
John Mayall was notorious for hiring and firing his musicians almost at will and the Bluesbreakers’ line-up seldom remained the same from one month to the next. It transpired that Aynsley Dunbar, the drummer on A Hard Road, had recently been dismissed from the band for his “jazz leanings” and by May 1967 the drum stool was occupied by Mick Fleetwood. So, with Peter Green on guitar and bassist John McVie, this incarnation of the Bluesbreakers brought together, for the very first time, the core line-up of the yet-to-be-formed Fleetwood Mac. Dunbar would go on to success with numerous projects, including the Jeff Beck Group, Frank Zappa, and David Bowie, but in 1967 he couldn’t resist a little farewell dig at John Mayall: the sacked drummer’s next band would be named The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation.
But it was Peter Green we’d come to hear and he didn’t disappoint. Considering he’d appeared on just a few minor recordings before A Hard Road (including a couple of Decca singles and a UK-only collaboration EP with Paul Butterfield) he arrived fully formed and firing on all cylinders. Not only was Green an unbelievable guitar player, he had a great singing voice and was already writing his own material too.
With all the confidence of a 20-year-old guitar slinger, Green replicated Clapton’s parts on the “Beano Album” classic “All Your Love,” a song he grabbed by the scruff of the neck and turned inside out. The Freddie King catalogue was a rich source of material for the British blues groups back then, with the instrumentals proving especially popular. Clapton had already immortalised “Hideaway,” while Mick Taylor recorded “Driving Sideways” and Chicken Shack’s Stan Webb tackled “Remington Ride.” Green’s showcase instrumental was “The Stumble” but during 1967 he was also performing another, lesser-known, Freddie King piece, “San-Ho-Zay” and this was a highlight of the Bluesbreakers’ live set. Green’s playing was extraordinary on this instrumental, using every trick in the book, from delicate B.B.King-style vibrato to muscular heavy rock with Hendrix overtones.
The Pavilion stage was small and throughout the set Green played partially hidden behind his Marshall speaker cabinets, prompting Mayall to refer to him as “the invisible man on guitar” during the band introductions. The support group was One Step Beyond, of whom I remember nothing and can find no information at all. Perhaps they were a local act who never recorded?
How much would John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers have been paid for a show of this size? It’s hard to say for sure, but we do know that for a similar-sized gig (300-400 fans) in nearby Coventry in December 1966, Mayall received just £85 (approx. US$105, at 1966 exchange rates) so we can assume he pocketed a similar amount for the Matlock concert.
After the show, we spoke with the band as they were packing up. Green was cocky, self-assured and his conversation was peppered with expletives. With his disheveled, black curly hair, beat-up leather jacket, hooped rugby shirt and washed-out Levi’s 501s (difficult to find in Britain at that time) he couldn’t have looked cooler. To a couple of 16-year-old provincial schoolboys like us, he was everything we wanted to be and much more besides.
Whether it was teenage bravado, sheer stupidity or simply a rush of blood to the head I’ll never know, but at that moment something came over my mate Alan and he did a very strange thing indeed. He invited the entire band back to a party at his house in nearby Alfreton! Even stranger perhaps, the band (and John Mayall in particular) seemed surprisingly keen to accept. Visibly warming to the idea, Mayall repeatedly asked, “Will there be any women there?” The affable Green, meanwhile, seemed less interested, saying he’d prefer to go back to his hotel with a bottle of Johnnie Walker.
Even allowing for the fact that Alan’s parents were away for the weekend, the prospect of a bunch of hard-drinking blues musicians turning up in his quiet suburban street bent on carousing long into the night simply didn’t bear thinking about. I quietly took my buddy aside and explained what should have been obvious to him already: this was madness and it probably wouldn’t end well. Thankfully, the idea wasn’t pursued much further.
This Bluesbreakers configuration was together for only three months and very little official material was recorded. But thanks to Tom Huissen, a Dutch John Mayall fan, we can now hear how they sounded on stage. Recorded on a lo-fi domestic reel-to-reel tape recorder at five shows in and around London in April/May 1967 John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Live in 1967, Vols. 1 & 2 (Forty Below Records) was recently released as two separate CDs and is a good representation of the music we heard in Matlock Bath that night.
Things moved quickly back then and within weeks Mick Fleetwood was fired for “insobriety,” one of Mayall’s pet hates. Peter Green also left the Bluesbreakers shortly after and together they formed Fleetwood Mac. With Jeremy Spencer on slide guitar and Bob Brunning filling in on bass temporarily, the new band made its worldwide debut at the National Jazz & Blues Festival, Windsor on Sunday 13th August 1967 (and, yes, I was there, too). The bill also included Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and, who else but John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, already featuring new whiz-kid guitarist Mick Taylor and Keef Hartley on drums. The “Mac” part of the Fleetwood Mac equation, John McVie, lingered within the financial security of the Bluesbreakers for a while longer until he was persuaded to take the plunge in September 1967.
This early blues incarnation of Fleetwood Mac enjoyed enormous success and in 1969 spent more weeks on the UK singles charts than the Beatles, the first time anyone had achieved that feat since 1963. It didn’t last however and in May 1970 Green left the band, suffering the early onset of mental illness thought to be the result of an unsolicited LSD experience in Munich, Germany. Aside from a few worrying news reports and a couple of low-key attempts to revive his musical career during the 70s, Green gradually slipped off the radar and by the early 80s, he was rumoured to be living virtually as a vagrant, his mental health worse than ever. Then, our paths crossed again.
One day in 1982 I was browsing through records in an Oxfam thrift shop in the leafy London suburb of Richmond when I noticed that the light-hearted chat between the two old ladies behind the counter had taken on a conspiratorial tone. “Look, Mabel” whispered one of the women, “there’s that strange man again.” I turned to see what was happening and there, peering into the shop window, hands cupped to his face to cut out the glare, was a hunched, yet curiously familiar figure. Although looking vastly different to the last time I’d seen him, it was unmistakably Peter Green.
I left the shop and followed him as he shuffled slowly along the street. With his matted hair and shambling gait, he cut a sorry figure and could easily have been mistaken for a tramp. He was unkempt, grossly overweight and by the look of his clothes he had been sleeping rough. Unable to restrain myself, I stepped in front of him and uttered the immortal words “You’re Peter Green. You were my hero!” Seeing this brought little response other than an embarrassed shrug and an incomprehensible mumble, I made matters worse by insisting on shaking his hand while making inane small talk about his earlier triumphs. Gripping the flaccid, seemingly boneless hand, I noticed that his heavily nicotine-stained fingers ended in grotesquely long fingernails which would make playing guitar next to impossible.
What had happened to the self-assured, whisky-drinking character I had first met 15 years previously with John Mayall? I’d read stories about a breakdown, of course, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Back then he had the world at his feet, but the Peter Green whose hand I was shaking was little more than a bloated caricature of his former self. It was all terribly sad. Deciding not to prolong the agony I let him go, watching in quiet disbelief as he shambled off up the road.
Not too long after that, attempts were made to rehabilitate Green and with considerable help from his friends he embarked on a series of comeback albums and tours in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. While it was heartening to see him being taken care of and onstage again, his latter-day performances were low-key and perfunctory. The fire was gone.
Of all the guitar giants to emerge from the British blues boom Peter Green was perhaps the most naturally gifted. B.B.King famously said this about him: “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” That’s really all you need to know about the man.
In 2017, the sound and spirit of British blues is very much alive and well in the hands of guitarists such as Joe Bonamassa, one of the most talented of the new wave of American virtuoso blues players. Bonamassa lives and breathes the music of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff and the others; he never misses an opportunity to fly the flag for the music they created half a century ago.
Peter Green – recommended listening
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – A Hard Road (Decca 1967)
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Looking Back – compilation [1964–68] (Decca 1969)
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Thru the Years – compilation [1964–68] (Decca 1971)
Fleetwood Mac – Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (Dog & Dustbin Album) (Blue Horizon 1968)
Fleetwood Mac – Mr. Wonderful (Blue Horizon 1968)
Fleetwood Mac – Then Play On (Reprise 1969)
Fleetwood Mac – Blues Jam At Chess (Blue Horizon 1969)
Fleetwood Mac – The Pious Bird of Good Omen – compilation (Blue Horizon 1969)
Fleetwood Mac – The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions – 6CDs [1967–1969] (Blue Horizon 1999)
Various – Peter Green: The Anthology – 4CDs [1966 – 2003] (Salvo 2009)