Peter Green and Bela.
Interview with Bela Swardmark-Stephens about a band who reached cult status
By: Birgitta Larsson Photograph courtesy of Bela Swardmark-Stephens
This year (2007) it’s 40 years ago since the legendary band Fleetwood Mac was founded. Since few blues bands have made such an impact on the world musical scene as this one, there are all reasons to pay attention to their 40th anniversary. The band represents the essence of the English blues that developed during the late sixties, and to many it became the gateway to the blues, English as well as ”black” blues. The days of glory didn’t last long, only for 3 years, from 1967 to 1970. But what an exceptional career it was! According to statistics the band sold more records than The Beatles in 1969, and Peter Green, mega star in Fleetwood Mac, was considered as one of the best blues guitarists in the world. According to some people, the very best, or – to many – at least the very best white blues guitarist. Beyond doubt he – as well as the band – had a tremendous influence on the history of music. With the energy of Jeremy Spencer, the other charismatic front man, and his playing style heavily influenced by Elmore James, a highly attractive and dramatic blend was created in the meeting with the more lyrical and restrained virtuoso style of Peter Green. And the band as a whole was extremely tight.
However, it all changed when Peter Green left the group in the springtime of 1970, later followed by Jeremy. Fleetwood Mac was now only a remnant, never to recover. By name the band still exists, and has had commercial highlights, but the sparkling glow is gone. To get a clearer picture of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, as we can call this period of glory – from the title of their debut LP – I have made an interview with Bela Swardmark-Stephens who probably is the most well-informed expert in Sweden on Fleetwood Mac/Peter Green. Already at the age of 16 he got the opportunity to jam with Fleetwood Mac, and has since then developed a thorough knowledge about the band and their music, and about Peter Green in particular. It is also interesting to note that Bela Swardmark-Stephens has kept the musical legacy of Fleetwood Mac alive, with his Orebro based band, The Blue Pearls.
How was Fleetwood Mac founded?
In the summer of 1966 Peter Green got the tough job to replace Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. To everybody’s surprise he got off with it remarkably well, probably because he didn’t try to sound like Clapton at all. Instead he established an own identity with a restrained style which could be described as ”less is more”. Soon Peter grew tired of just being allowed to play only one or two choruses of guitar solos. Later when Mayall decided to include a horn section Peter have had enough, because to him it was too jazzy. After all, he was a BLUES GUITARIST!
When Peter formed his own band – which was originally planned as a trio – his choice of drummer was Mick Fleetwood. They got acquainted when they both played in Peter B’s Looners. Mick said that he ”was not impressed” when he first heard Peter, and later admits that it was one his biggest screw-ups. Peter wanted his old mate John McVie from the Bluesbreakers on bass, and he had already named the band Fleetwood Mac after Fleetwood and McVie. Bob Brunning was a stand-in on bass for some weeks before John finally joined the band in late September. Mike Vernon, who was a producer at Decca where the Bluesbreakers had recorded all their records, recommended Jeremy Spencer as second guitarist. Peter Green played his last gig with John Mayall at Le Metro in Birmingham on June 11, 1967, and that same evening he offered Jeremy a place in his new band.
What was the breakthrough?
1968 started with a recording session for Fleetwood Mac together with the legendary blues pianist Eddie Boyd. They recorded the album 7936 South Rhodes. Eddie Boyd was very impressed by Peter’s guitar style and called him ”a negro turned inside-out”, he meant that Peter was black on the inside. During this time Fleetwood Mac kept playing 3-4 gigs a week in the U.K. Their first LP, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, was released on February 24. This album sold more than any other blues record earlier in England. It stayed in the charts for over a year! The songs had been recorded during November to December in 1967 and gives a good picture of the band’s live performances at this time that captivated the audiences. The album was recorded live-in-the-studio, no overdubs, they played all instruments simultaneously as well as lead vocals and the guitar solos.
A month later, March 29, they released the single Black Magic Woman/The Sun Is Shining. Black Magic Woman was unlike other blues songs. It became a trademark for Peter Green’s guitar style and his capability of writing ”altered blues”. This song has 13 (!) bars on the vocal verses instead of the usual 12 bars, and the rhythm has a ”latin feel”, which Santana developed further on his cover version. These two records elevated Fleetwood Mac above the other blues bands and they no longer needed to ”chase gigs”, all of a sudden all promoters chased them. The band was established as England’s premier blues band.
They went on their first tour abroad to Denmark and Sweden in May 1968. Later in June they went on their first U.S. tour together with Ten Years After. That tour lasted for six weeks. They socialized with other greats as Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Janis Joplin. Naturally this all influenced them musically as well as their private lives; after all they were four young English lads in their 20’s. When they came back to England they augmented the band witha fifth member – Danny Kirwan. They recorded the single Albatross/Jigsaw Puzzle Blues with Danny. Albatross, a perennial hit, was a chart-topper in a lot of countries around the world. This was the definitive international breakthrough for Fleetwood Mac!
What made it possible for this particular English blues band to become that enormously successful, at this point of time?
In the 60’s there were so called ”demon producers” who made hit records without ”heart and soul”, they were only in it for the money. As a sound reaction to that, bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Animals had rather successfully recorded some fine rhythm & blues albums during the mid-60’s. Many American blues singers/musicians came to England during this period as well and popularized the blues. This all paved the way for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac when they ”went all the way” and played real Chicago blues. The time had come for the British Blues Boom and Fleetwood Mac played the blues with such power and passion that it also fascinated the ordinary pop audience which had not listened to the blues earlier. Fleetwood Mac performed on blues clubs as well as on big Pop Festivals and made their blues accessible for the ”ordinary listener”, who usually did not visit blues clubs.
The main reason that the big audiences embraced Fleetwood Mac was that the members of the band, especially Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, were both great personalities with a strong stage presence and extremely talented blues musicians. Fleetwood Mac was the only blues band who reached the status of Mega Stars. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers never got that kind of recognition amongst the pop audiences.
Could you describe their original style a little bit more?
You could make it really easy and just call their original style ”Chicago Blues”, but that is to simplify things too far. Early in their career they had elements in their music which became”their own blues”. They kept developing their own kind of blues as long as Peter Green was in the band.
Sometimes you can read that Peter Green was taking the role of B.B. King on stage, while Jeremy Spencer took the role of Elmore James. What’s your opinion about that?
Yes, I have to agree. I have just seen B.B. King live of these two you mentioned, but, sure, it was like that. Peter Green was an outstanding talent with a unique feel for the blues and played soulful renditions of B.B. King’s Worried Dream, All Over Again, Need Your Love So Bad and Sweet Little Angel. Jeremy Spencer played many Elmore James classics as Shake Your Moneymaker, The Sun Is Shining, Madison Blues, Dust My Broom and I Can’t Hold Out in a dedicated way that has not been surpassed yet. Peter Green was one of the few white guitarists who not only”passed the audition”, but was also admired by black blues greats as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Why was Danny Kirwan brought into the band, and how did his entrance change Fleetwood Mac?
One of the main reasons why Danny Kirwan was invited to the band was that Peter had troubles with Jeremy’s refusal or inability to learn Peter’s songs properly. Peter always laid down a nice rhythm guitar behind Jeremy on stage whereas Jeremy sometimes used to leave the stage on Peter’s songs. Peter grew tired of this and invited the talented guitarist/singer Danny Kirwan, who was only 18 years old when he started to play with Fleetwood Mac. Danny is an underrated guitarist who was overshadowed by Peter Green. Danny inspired Peter to write the most moving and powerful songs in his life. They brought out the greatness in each other. Some people say that Fleetwood Mac no longer played blues since Danny joined the band. That is not true! Fleetwood Mac kept playing the blues till their last concert with Peter Green, May 23, 1970. It should be pointed out though that they played ”outside the boundaries” of what was then called ”the blues”. Unfortunately there are reactionary people who have a deeply rooted opinion that the blues should sound and be played like they did in Chicago in the 50’s. But these fanatics don’t realize that many of these legendary blues giants who became famous at that time, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush etc continued to grow as artists and developed their sound and style.
How did their style develope in other respects?
Hemingway wrote ”no man is an island”, and of course that goes for bands as well. Everybody is influenced of the time and age you live in. Just as Elmore James had transformed Robert Johnson’s songs which were originally played on acoustic guitar, Fleetwood Mac wanted to broaden their musical horizons. They didn’t wanna be predictable, they wanted to surprise the audience. There were old fans who said that they had ”sold out” and become ”commercial”. Is there any artist who releases a record that he does NOT want to be successful…? While they kept on playing straight Chicago blues Peter started to write new songs as Oh Well,where the lyrics reflect his frame of mind; ”say something and I will tear your argument apart”. There were also the troubled Man Of The World and the raw Rattlesnake Shake where we can hear Peter’s sharp contrasts; the most lyrical and also the brutally aggressive. The effect was mesmerizing. Peter’s last recording with Fleetwood Mac was The Green Manalishi. It takes us to a spooky place,where all the streets are dead ends. We can feel our whole being quiver… He showed the world that he, together with the other members, could create music that no one had done before them! Peter needed to move away from the 12-bar blues format. A change of mood and space, but everything was still deeply rooted in blues!
What do you consider to be the greatest strenght of Fleetwood Mac?
In my opinion Fleetwood Mac’s greatest strength was their variety and their genuine ability to express themselves on their instruments. They were quite unique with three solists within the band. Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan were all skillful blues interpreters with their own separate styles. When you attended a Fleetwood Mac concert you’d experience a magic musical evening that no other band could offer. They played Chicago blues, rock ’n’ roll, pop ballads and psychedelic jams in world class caliber. Although they were three fantastic frontmen there were no ego problems. When one of the three was fronting the band, the others stood behind and generously backed up the solist. Jeremy, who sometimes earlier left the stage on Peter’s numbers, was now on stage the whole time and played piano on Peter’s and Danny’s songs. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood were the tightest and best rhythm section you could imagine, a dream-team. I can bear witness that the band managed to spellbound the audience on their concerts. Luckily enough there are some concerts recorded with them when they had reached their creative peak, the Winter of 1970. The most wellknown are the Boston Tea Party concerts. These recordings showcase the band at the top of their heights. It should be added though, that the real magic could not be captured on tape. It had to be experienced there and then!
Tell us a little bit about Peter Green when being on top of the world. B.B. King is said to have made the following comment: ”Peter Green is the only living guitarist who ever made me sweat”.
Something that I have to point out is that there is a misconception that Peter was shy! It is untrue and will stay that way no matter how often it is reiterated. Peter thought that he was the best blues guitarist in the world, only second to B.B. King. He said this openly in an interview with the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda, May 1968, and that was his attitude while he was in Fleetwood Mac. Luckily Peter’s life as a musician wasn’t that hard and that full of problems as so many people have said, just to keep the myth alive. Peter Green was a natural talent, he had no knowledge in musical theory nor could he read music. He was a natural bluesman, he was born with it, he lived it. He was a perfectionist on his instrument, and played all his riffs and solos with a razorblade sharpness, without ever letting the technique become more important than his tone and feel. The tone in his Gibson Les Paul was warm and had ”soul”. Nobody could play so emotionally and heartfelt like Peter. You could feel the pain and hurt that Peter expressed through his sensitive touch on the guitar and his straight-from-the-heart singing. Peter Green was a great personality and had an incredible integrity, other greats as Bob Dylan were impressed by him. Dylan said that Peter ”radiated”. Peter was a ”seeker” and had a very sensitive psyche; consequently it did not do him any good to experiment with LSD and mescaline as he did a couple of times.
Why did Peter Green leave the band?
Of course there were a lot of reasons for that, both on the private level as well as from the musical perspective. Peter Green was a working class hero who had become ”rich and famous”, and that caused conflicts in his sensitive mind. Peter had felt for a long period of time that he was neither in phase with the other members of the band nor what was happening in the world at that time. He felt bad because of the starvation in Biafra and sent money there. As the other members didn’t agree to give their earnings away he could at least convince them to do a couple of charity concerts. It’s funny how values change over time. Peter Green was considered ”sick and mad” because he could not bare the thought that so many people were starving while others lived in excess. He had a healthy mind looking at a sick world! From the musical point of view Peter’s time with Fleetwood Mac was a fantastic journey: from their debut single I Believe My Time Ain’t Long/Ramblin’ Pony to Peter’s swan-song The Green Manalishi /World in Harmony. These two singles, recorded during the relatively short period of barely three years, showcase a musical progression that would have taken a whole life for many other people. Peter was in a divine state of mind during these years, and of course it could not last for ever.
What happened later?
The same year that Peter left Fleetwood Mac – 1970 – he was featured on a blues classic, Memphis Slim’s The Blue Memphis Suite. He also released his first solo album The End Of The Game. The tracks on this album were from a jam session one night in June at the De Lane Studio in London. It is almost painful to listen to this album. There are no structures; it reflects some of the confusion that was in Peter’s mind at this time. He couldn’t find any musicians who were capable, or willing, to play the music that he heard within himself. It was above everyone’s head. Peter was featured as guest artist on a few recordings. He was brought in on a U.S. tour as a dead-ringer for Jeremy Spencer in Fleetwood Mac when Jeremy had left the band in February, 1971. Then Peter took a long time-out from the music scene. After some dark years, when Peter was hospitalised for his mental illness, he found a way back to ”normal life” again. His brother Michael had managed to get him a record deal with Peter Vernon-Kell. His comeback album In The Skies was released on PVK Records, it was pressed in green vinyl! Snowy White is also featured on this album. He and Peter play beautifully together.
In the 80’s Peter Green recorded some albums with White Sky and Kolors, he also toured with Kolors. Then again there were many years of a self-imposed exile from the music world. In 1996 he had a revival with his new band called Peter Green Splinter Group, which lasted till 2003. Nowadays Peter Green leads a fairly low-key life and plays only occasionally. After leaving Fleetwood Mac, Jeremy Spencer joined the religious cult the Children Of God. He is still a member of the sect and performs very sporadicly nowadays. Danny Kirwan left the band in August, 1972. He released three solo albums in the 70’s, but has now given up music altogether. The other members of Fleetwood Mac moved to the U.S. and kept on playing under the name of Fleetwood Mac. They no longer played the blues but modern West Coast and rock music. Members has come and left but Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are still in the band
You met the members of the band on several occasions, Peter Green in particular. What impression did they make in private?
When we’re talking about Peter Green’s Fleetwood we must not forget that they were five young boys from England. Danny was the youngest member, only 18 years, and John McVie was the eldest, 23 years. They had, like most pop and rock musicians in the 60’s, dropped out of school at an early stage and focused on their music. Their ”education” came from the street of rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life. Their sensitive minds soaked up everything they needed to be able to communicate their thoughts and feelings through their songs. Peter Green was the one who always got the most attention and he was praised by the media. He also was their leader ”off stage”. The other band members relied on his creativity and it became a burden for him to feel the pressure of writing new hits. I met them backstage on four different occasions during 1968-1969 and saw achange within the band; they evolved from five band members who played their hearts out for the fun of it, to five professional individuals. This process is natural and can’t be stopped. They grew up, got married and had other things that they were responsible for beside their solidarity for the band’s musical career. To my knowledge their stardom did not go to their heads. They still loved toplay Chicago blues as well as their own kind of progressive blues.
Do you have any funny story to tell from those days?
I recall a funny situation from their first concert at Club 700 in Orebro, May 11, 1968. I was in their dressing room and took up Jeremy Spencer’s guitar. (I was only 16 years old and had no inhibitions). I was trying to be kind and tune his guitar since I thought it was ”out of tune”. Jeremy came in the room and saw me and asked ”what the hell I was doing”. I told him ”I’m tuning your guitar since it’s out of tune”. Jeremy laughed his head off, and showed me that it was tuned in an open E-chordfor playing slide guitar. I had never seen or heard of that before, so we all had a good laugh. Jeremy showed me some riffs that he played on Shake Your Moneymaker. I can not help wondering sometimes what would have happened if Jeremy would have walked on stage with ”my tuning”…
You got the opportunity to jam with them at the age of 16?
After their concert at Idrottshuset, Orebro, November 23, 1968, Messrs Green, Kirwan, Spencer, McVie and Fleetwood didn’t want to stop. Then somebody suggested that they should move their equipment to a local blues club called Power House and have a jam session there. Everybody went there. First Mike Vernon joined the local support act, Blues Quality, for some songs. The members of Fleetwood Mac enjoyed seeing their recording manager on stage. Then they finally took over and played some blues that even surpassed the concert earlier that same evening. Everyone knew that they were in the midst of something magical and experienced something that they would never forget. After a few songs Peter Green saw me and invited me to play with Fleetwood Mac. First it scared the hell out of me, and I gently said ”thanks, but no thanks”, but Peter insisted, and I found the courage to join them on stage. We did Stop Messin’ Round, I played guitar solo for one chorus and stopped, Peter nodded at me to go on, and so I did, with new gained conviction. Everybody was cheering and shouted for more, so we did a 12-bar blues jam in E similar to Shake Your Moneymaker. The feeling of standing on stage with my idols was almost surrealistic and gave me such a kick that I squeezed some fantastic licks from my guitar that surprised everybody – including myself. Consequently these two songs are always featured on my own performances to this day.
How has that affected you?
It goes without saying that this was one of the happiest and most influential days in my life. It has affected my life in many ways, both negatively and positively. If we look at the negative part first, there were – and still are – other musicians who were jealous of me and angry with me because I, as a talented 16-year-old guitarist, got the opportunity to play with Fleetwood Mac. But of course the positive parts outweight the bad ones, and I have kept the vibes from the magical evening with Fleetwood Mac within me during my whole life as a musician. I was categorized as a ”musical prodigy”, and I have done everything I can to live up to people’s expectations. Then, I was just a boy trying to play ”men’s music”. Now I am a grown up man myself and I help young talents in many different ways, just as Peter did with me.
Tell us about your band, The Blue Pearls.
The Blue Pearls are: Perry Marshall – vocals and guitar, Andy Young – bass, Per Lindberg – drums and myself playing guitar and being bandleader/composer. We’ve adapted the legacy of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and we play the blues in the same vein as they did. The Blue Pearls only perform own originals and Fleetwood Mac classics. We play as much for ourselves as to please an audience. That has given us an air of freedom which the audience as well as the critics find highly attractive. We have fans all around the world and our promotion album Watch Out has been played on radio stations world over. People appreciate that we play the blues the way we feel it, sometimes in a cocky way, breaking down musical barriers and walls of restrictions. Just like Fleetwood Mac did then!
Several tribute albums have been done honouring Fleetwood Mac, for instance one by Gary Moore. You are planning to do one as well?
Yes, there are some tribute albums but none of them has been successful, neither with the audience nor the media. We are enthusiastic – with all the good reviews that we have received. Stuart ”Dinky” Dawson, Fleetwood Mac’s legendary sound man, has expressed his interest in working with The Blue Pearls, both on the road and in the studio. We hope that we can invite some of the original members of Fleetwood Mac to be featured as guest stars. Dinky is a good friend of Mick Fleetwood’s. Four songs are already completed and we have sent them to a couple of radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. We have received some fantastic reviews and comments, and they all say that they are eagerly waiting for the album!
I have read that ”Dinky” Dawson considers you to be the only white blues band playing blues in the true spirit of Fleetwood Mac. I have also read some highly appreciative judgements of you as a guitarist: that you represent premier world class; something I agree with. Why don’t we see you and your band more often on the Swedish blues scene?
Well, you should probably put that question to the blues associations in Sweden! It is sad, but true, that good Swedish blues bands often are discriminated – black Americans have preference. Even Buddy Guy himself says that he is ”colour blind” when it comes to music; he says that GOOD blues is GOOD blues no matter if it is performed by white or black musicians! It is almost tragi-comical that The Blue Pearls have received such good international reviews and don’t get more attention amongst the blues promoters here in Sweden! It is a shame that Swedish musicians sit on positions where they decide which bands will get the opportunity to perform. Often they grab the best gigs for themselves and at the same time act as ”gate keepers” for other Swedish blues bands! Nonetheless I see a bright future for The Blue Pearls. Our coming album Tribute To Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac will put the spotlight on us!
A selected Fleetwood Mac discography:
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Blue Horizon, 1968, LP. Blue Horizon 1993, CD.
Mr. Wonderful. Blue Horizon, 1968, LP. Castle/Essential 1989, CD.
Blues Jam At Chess. Blue Horizon, 1969, LP. Blue Horizon 1993, CD.
Then Play On. Reprise, 1969, LP. Reprise 1988, CD
Live At The BBC. Castle Communocations PLC, 1995, CD
Live In Boston. Shanghai 1984, LP. Vol 1-3. Snapper Music 1999. CD
The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions 1967-1969. Colombia 1999, CD-Box
www.fleetwoodmac.net : Here you can find records, biographies, concert dates, books etc
Martin Clemins – Peter Green, Founder Of Fleetwood Mac. Castle Communications PLC, 1995.
Stuart “Dinky” Dawson – Life On The Road. Billboard Books, 1998.
Christopher Hjort – Strange Brew. Jawbone, 2007. (This book presents Peter Green, Eric Claptonand Mick Taylor during the years 1965-1970. Bela Swardmark-Stephens has contributed facts and vital details to this book).
You can read more about The Blue Pearls and Bela Swardmark-Stephen’s encounters with Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac and his concert reviews at http://www.thebluepearls.com
Birgitta Larsson / Jefferson #152