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When he burst onto the British blues scene in 1967 with a stunning guitar performance on John Mayall’s A Hard Road, Peter Green was tipped by many to follow in the footsteps of Eric Clapton who had appeared on Mayall’s previous release, the famous Beano album. With his performance on John Mayall’s 1966 studio debut, Clapton gained near superstar status amongst young budding blues guitarists and would go on to become one of the most famous guitarists of the late 60’s when he left Mayall’s Blues Breakers to form Cream. Green seemed to be heading in the same direction and following his departure from Mayall’s Blues Breakers he went on to form his own group with bassist John McVie, who he had played with during his time with John Mayall, and drummer Mick Fleetwood. Green’s decision to name his band after his rhythm section was one of the first signs of his aversion to fame, something that would become a bigger problem over time. This line-up provided the core for the original Fleetwood Mac and would go on to produce some of the best and also some of the most criminally overlooked music of the late 60’s British blues boom.
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac would go on to release three studio albums, along with various compilations and some highly acclaimed singles, before Green’s deteriorating mental state led to his departure. Green’s final outing with the band, 1969’s Then Play On, sees the guitarist/singer at his creative peak and is not only the highlight of the Green-led era of the band but also one of the best albums the band would ever release, standing alongside the classic, but musically very different, Rumours, as one the band’s finest achievements.
A large part of Then Play On’s success can be traced to the band’s decision to hire guitarist Danny Kirwan, who effectively replaced the group’s original fourth member, second guitarist and vocalist, Jeremy Spencer, who Green had used in order to shield himself from the limelight. It was clear to anyone even remotely interested in the type of music the band were playing that Green was perfectly capable of leading the band on his own, but his troubles with dealing with the fame he was becoming increasingly exposed to meant he needed a second front man to take some of the spotlight. While being a fairly accomplished rhythm and slide guitarist, Spencer at times seemed very much like an unnecessary part of the band, drafted in merely to provide support for Green and his reluctance to be seen as the band leader. Kirwan on the other hand was a much better fit for the band, complementing Green’s style rather than clashing with it as Spencer had on the band’s previous albums.
Kirwan’s presence is felt from the very beginning with opening track, Coming Your Way, which sees the newly recruited member providing lead vocals and playing some excellent dual guitar with Green. The song serves as an excellent opener, setting the tone of the album perfectly with its loose, laid back style. Following track, Closing My Eyes, sees Green taking over lead vocals and is without doubt one of the albums standout tracks. The song’s gentle, melancholic guitar licks combined with Green’s mournful lyrics and emotional vocal delivery makes for one of the most moving songs Green has ever written. There is something incredibly sincere about the way Green delivers lines such as “is it asking too much when the question is what to do, with the life I have, when I know nothing now, except my love for you”
. The song serves as a perfect example of Green’s incredible ability to convey emotion and pain through his music to the extent that it evokes the same feelings within the listener.
Another standout moment comes in the form of the beautiful instrumental, Underway, which is another testament to how well Green is able to convey his emotions through music, this time purely through his guitar playing. The album’s unrivalled highlight however is undoubtedly the magnificent Oh Well, one of Green’s most accomplished and creative compositions. This nine minute opus is comprised of two parts, the first of which is an upbeat blues rock jam that opens with an excellent acoustic guitar riff from Green and features some excellent musicianship from all four band members broken up by two a cappella verses. The latter part and the main body of the song is made up of some haunting and very atmospheric acoustic guitar playing, during which Green’s ability to move people with his playing is once again brought to the fore. With its unconventional structure and creative musicianship Oh Well shows a more progressive direction that was just beginning to creep into the band’s sound. This experimental side is also explored on the seven minute instrumental Searching For Madge, a piece composed by bassist John McVie, during which the whole band is given room stretch out musically.
While many of Green’s compositions give the album quite a dark and melancholic tone, there are some more light-hearted moments such as When You Say and Rattlesnake Shake. The former is a mellow, whimsical number composed and sung by Danny Kirwan while the latter sees Peter Green add a touch of humour to his song writing, something that is rarely associated with the troubled musician. The album closes with another emotional track from Green in the form of Before the Beginning, a song similar in style to Closing My Eyes with its gentle guitar playing and sorrowful lyrics once again evoking a feeling of intense melancholia.
While it’s the main man Peter Green who shines the brightest throughout this album, the album’s consistency is thanks in large part to the contributions of Danny Kirwan, who is a much better fit for the band than Jeremy Spencer was. Unlike on the band’s previous albums, their self-titled debut and the flawed Mr. Wonderful, there is a good balance and understanding between the two guitarists/singers whose styles are well suited to one another. Overall Then Play On feels a lot more cohesive than any of the albums (including compilations) recorded prior to Kirwan’s arrival. The only noticeable flaw found on this album is the slight dip in quality just before the end. The tracks When You Say and Like Crying are solid but somewhat forgettable and don’t quite hold up when compared to the rest of the album. These minor flaws aside however, Then Play On deserves to be regarded as one of the classic albums from the British blues movement of the late 60’s and should also be hailed as Peter Green’s crowning achievement, a testament to the talents of a truly gifted musician. Sadly shortly after the album’s release Green’s mental problems began to deteriorate rapidly putting an end to his time with Fleetwood Mac. Green did embark on a solo career but this was broken up by periods spent in mental institutions and, despite one or two great solo albums, he never managed to recapture the magic heard on this album.