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Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi” is a Proto-Metal Classic

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac became an international hit-making machine with Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine McVie co-fronting the band in the mid-’70s, but way before that, they were a blues/psych band that started out in the late ’60s with frontman Peter Green. Green left the band in 1970 due to mental health issues that were possibly induced by increased use of psychedelic drugs, just months after releasing his last single with Fleetwood Mac, “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown).” That song hit No. 10 in Britain and charted in a few other countries as well (still modest compared to what Fleetwood Mac would achieve by the end of the decade), but it had a lasting impact on a genre of music that Fleetwood Mac isn’t normally associated with: metal.

It was released as a single in May 1970 and there’s a well-known live recording dating back to February 1970. So it came about a year after Led Zeppelin’s first album and within months of Black Sabbath’s first album and Deep Purple in Rock, which is to say that heavy metal as we know it was starting to come together. And “The Green Manalishi” was as ahead of the heavy metal curve as any of those three aforementioned bands.

It opens as a dark and distorted but mostly unassuming rock song, but after Green sings his first line, the iconic riff comes in. It’s mean, thick, low-pitched and played at a sluggish tempo with pounding drums from Mick Fleetwood that only make the riff sound more evil. In other words, it’s prototypical doom. After a verse of that, Green & co go dive into an even darker dose of doom, with a descending riff that uses the metal friendly harmonic minor scale. On that famed early live version, which is stretched out to 13 minutes, the song is fleshed out with both a white-hot guitar solo and a beefy bass solo that were both pretty damn heavy for the time. Plus, Green says the song is about money presenting itself to him in a drug-induced dream as a manifestation of the devil, and it includes the lyric “the night is so black that the darkness cooks.” So yeah, pretty fucking metal.

“The Green Manalishi” didn’t prove to have quite the major impact of Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Purple, but its influence did live on. Different bands have put different spins on the song, but no matter how the song gets re-interpreted, it still sounds like pure evil. The most famous metal cover of “The Green Manalishi” is by Judas Priest, who recorded it for 1979’s Hell Bent for Leather, and whose version is arguably more famous than Fleetwood Mac’s at this point. In 1979 Judas Priest were both forebears and peers of the new wave of British heavy metal. They were polishing and speeding up their sound, and they applied that same faster formula to “The Green Manalishi,” stripping it of its doom side and turning it into a definitive song of the new era of metal.

A few years later, when metal and punk bands started taking cues from each other and thrash was becoming a dominant metal subgenre, crossover thrashers Corrosion of Conformity took the song on for their 1984 debut album Eye for an Eye, speeding it up even more and making the riff work in a scrappy punk setting.

Two decades after the Priest cover, another beloved metal band, the Melvins, would take “The Green Manalishi” back to its doom roots and slow it down even more with their cover for 1999’s The Maggot. They applied Green’s riffage to their own plodding sludge and reminded everyone how timeless and powerful that three-power-chord riff remained in a decade where doom/sludge metal was getting lower, heavier, and more widespread than ever.

It’s evident from those three covers alone how well the song held up over time and how crucial a contribution to heavy metal it is. “The Green Manalishi” lasted from the proto-metal heavy blues era, to the NWOBHM era, to punk/thrash, to sludge, and it never got old. (Other covers exist from over the years, including one done live by Pantera and King Diamond that was based off of the Judas Priest version.) It has that same special something that Sabbath has, the evilness that separated it from the other proto-metal bands that sound more like hard rock today. Like so many Sabbath riffs, the “Green Manalishi” riffs are metal no matter what era you’re in and what subgenres you prefer. When the line was drawn in the sand between metal and hard rock, Fleetwood Mac were on the metal side for at least one song.

Fleetwood Mac went on to make a lot of different types of music after that, but never really revisited or became associated with metal or even hard rock. If there’s a semi-exception, it would at least be that tons of metal and hard rock bands have shown love for “The Chain” over the years, probably partially due to the darker, harder bassline in the mid-section, courtesy of longtime member John McVie (the same bassist responsible for the solo on the lengthy live rendition of “The Green Manalishi”). One notable cover of “The Chain” is by The Body and Thou. You can watch them play that in a KEXP session, along with streams of “The Green Manalishi” by Fleetwood Mac (live and in studio), Judas Priest, Corrosion of Conformity, and the Melvins, below.

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