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2013 saw the reissue of two vintage albums by the band Fleetwood Mac: the hugely popular "Rumours" and the last album to feature the band's founder, Peter Green. It's called "Then Play On." B.B. King once described Green as the only guitarist who gave him cold sweats. NPR's Tom Cole tells us why that last album and Green are worth remembering.
TOM COLE, BYLINE: You should listen to "Then Play On," says Rolling Stone magazine senior writer David Fricke.
DAVID FRICKE: I think it's one of the most beautiful records and exciting records ever made.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COLE: Fricke wrote the liner notes for the reissue.
FRICKE: I think as a statement of searching - within blues, within rock, within the possibilities in the electric guitar - like I said, I think it's one of the best records ever made. I've got three copies of it. I wouldn't be caught with any less.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE THE BEGINNING")
COLE: "Then Play On" was recorded in the spring and summer of 1969, and the story of the album is the story of a band at a turning point. The previous fall, Fleetwood Mac added 17-year-old guitarist and singer Danny Kirwan, giving the band a powerful three-man front, says Peter Green's biographer, Martin Celmins.
MARTIN CELMINS: You had Peter Green playing the B.B. King-style Chicago blues, mainly; Danny Kirwan with his more melodic rock, as it turned into; and then Jeremy Spencer doing these remarkable Elmore James impersonations is what they were, really. And for all that package to be in one band was a huge draw. And the response they got from the audience was wild. You know, they were just the top live band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")
COLE: Fleetwood Mac was also on the top of the British charts. They were pop stars, and they'd only been together a little over two years. But when it came time to make their third studio album, Peter Green was fed up with stardom. He'd grown up poor in a tough neighborhood in London's East End and the piles of money the band was making started to make him feel uncomfortable. Green was determined to escape the music industry treadmill and he wanted his band to follow him, says drummer Mick Fleetwood.
MICK FLEETWOOD: Peter Green was all about making an album that was going to be different and pushing the other members to say, hey, wake up. We got to do something special here. And we as a band were all about following our friend and our musical mentor into the fire, which became the "Then Play On" album.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COLE: Guitarist and singer Jeremy Spencer co-founded Fleetwood Mac with Green. But he says he had no idea how he could contribute to this new direction the band was taking.
JEREMY SPENCER: He would want me to play rhythm licks like Hubert Sumlin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SPENCER: He very much like that. But at that time, I wasn't really - I didn't feel proficient enough to do that, and so I would sort of back off. And so that pretty much opened the door for Danny Kirwan to move in.
COLE: Spencer chose not to play on the sessions, though he is pictured with the band inside the album cover and remained a member. Danny Kirwan composed half of the songs on "Then Play On," including the album opener.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING YOUR WAY")
COLE: During the sessions, Peter Green became increasingly withdrawn, composing material on his own and sometimes playing many of the parts himself. He was searching for something in the free-form improvisations that punctuate the album and in his personal life, says biographer Martin Celmins.
CELMINS: He found himself in a band where the rest of them were a bunch of lads who were having a great time, you know, playing music live and making records. And I think that Peter kind of went on a spiritual journey, the beginnings of which are very evident in "Then Play On."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING MY EYES")
COLE: The 23-year-old Jewish kid from London's East End went from an interest in Buddhism to Christianity. It was a journey that was influenced to some degree by Green's experimentation with LSD. But Martin Celmins says Green was not an acid casualty.
CELMINS: The influence of drugs didn't help but I think it's been exaggerated. I think there were far more musical, lifestyle reasons why he no longer wanted to be a member of a world-beating rock and roll band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH WELL")
COLE: Drummer Mick Fleetwood says Green felt his bandmates couldn't keep up with their leader's vision.
FLEETWOOD: Part of his frustration was thinking he couldn't move forward with the existing band.
COLE: Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac just months after "Then Play On" was released. He made several albums trying to integrate his spiritual search with a music that would express it, before abandoning music under the weight of what was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia, as he said in a 2009 BBC documentary.
: We saw a doctor. He said, do you hear voices? I said, yeah, I do. I am having a lot of kind of strange experiences inside of my head. But I didn't think I was schizophrenic. To them, it's schizophrenic. But to you, it's hellishly single-minded.
COLE: Green was institutionalized. He suffered electroshock therapy and took powerful medications that left him unable to play. Mick Fleetwood says the members of Fleetwood Mac had no idea going into the "Then Play On" sessions that Green was in so much pain. It makes the album's accomplishment all the more remarkable.
FLEETWOOD: When people ask me in interviews to this day what's the most favorite album, I say, well, I can't pick one album but I'll pick two. And one is "Then Play On" and two is the "Tusk" album because they were really pushing the envelope. And that is part and parcel of why bands keep going and certainly can look back on their work and say, we did something that was worth a damn. And "Then Play On" was worth a damn.
COLE: And the instigator of "Then Play On," Peter Green, eventually returned to music. He continues to perform and record today. Tom Cole, NPR News.
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