Riffology – A Tale Of Two Manalishis

If you’re a metal head of any experience, you’re likely familiar with Judas Priest’s version of “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown).” The studio version first appeared on Killing Machine / Hell Bent for Leather, and it appeared again on the band’s classic “live” album Unleashed in the East. If you’re not a great reader of liner notes, you might not know that “Green Manalishi” was written by Peter Green and originally performed by the Green-led version of Fleetwood Mac.

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was quite a different animal than the more famous Buckingham / Nicks-led version of the band of the mid-Seventies and beyond. Peter Green might not be a household name today—his most lasting legacy, in fact, might be in his songs made famous by others: “Green Manalishi” for one, and especially “Black Magic Woman”, which Santana turned into an all-time classic.

In the mid-to-late Sixties U.K., however, Peter Green was a big fucking deal. He replaced Eric “God” Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966, and no less than B.B. King said that Peter Green was the only guitarist who could make him break out in a cold sweat. Green’s tone was legendary, and he was possessed of a legendary “magical” Les Paul, which he eventually sold to another guitar legend, the late Gary Moore. Following Moore’s untimely death, that same guitar was purchased by none other than Kirk Hammett. Much like Clapton, Green quickly outgrew the Bluesbreakers and split to form Fleetwood Mac with fellow Bluesbreakers alumni, drummer Mick Fleetwood and (eventually) bassist John McVie in 1967.

Initially, Fleetwood Mac (which also included slide guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Spencer) was a pretty straightforward blues band, much like the Bluesbreakers. As time wore on, however, and with the addition of third guitarist / vocalist / composer Danny Kirwan, Fleetwood Mac would branch out from the blues into more progressive directions. The scope of the band’s success is difficult to grasp from a half century’s remove, but it’s been said that Fleetwood Mac sold more singles than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined in Britain in 1969 on the strength of hits like the instrumental “Albatross” and “Oh Well (Parts 1 & 2).”

Peter Green, however, struggled with his fame and fortune. He gave most of his earnings to charity and sought solace in religion and drugs, particularly LSD. Green’s discontent ultimately led him to depart Fleetwood Mac at what was then the peak of the band’s popularity. His departure could not slow Green’s descent into madness, though. He was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent years in and out of mental institutions—an acid casualty in much the same sad vein as Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett.

Green’s unease is quite apparent on one of his final recordings with Fleetwood Mac: “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown).” Green has explained that the Green Manalishi is a metaphor for both money and the devil, as, to Green, the two were one and the same. Fleetwood Mac were by no means a heavy metal band, but “The Green Manalishi” is an indisputably heavy song. Let us explore why that is so.

The Fleetwood Mac version of “Green Manalishi” begins with the strum of a full E-minor chord, out of which emerges a steady, palm muted eighth note pulse on the open low E string. We’ve talked about pedal tones in metal before, and the “Green Manalishi” uses one extensively: That thumping low E note almost never goes away. At the start of the third measure the band plays a D-major dyad on the fourth and fifth strings, while strumming the other four strings open. In this way the band is almost playing two chords at once. The open strings sound E-minor, while the dyad offers the essence of a D-major chord. Two bars later, with that low E still pedaling, another dyad—this time a C#5 power chord—is played on the fourth and fifth strings in conjunction with the E-minor chord. Two measures later, a higher voiced E-minor chord is sounded, leading into the verse. These full, more complex chord voicings in the original differ from the Priest version.

Fleetwood Mac, with its roots in traditional blues, played with a comparatively clean sound. The Fender amplifiers they primarily used were only capable of mild distortion (what is known as overdrive), and this was only achieved by playinf at or near maximum volume. So, without heaps of distortion on hand, the best way to make a bigger racket was to play more notes. Hence, while Priest’s “Manalishi” benefited from a more robust distortion producing plenty of crunch and chug, Fleetwood Mac had to make do with more of a clatter and clang.

The steady eighth-note pedal is the sole accompaniment for the verses—an eerie calm before the storm. At 0:28 we come to the signature riff of this tune: the pre-chorus, beginning with a big open E-minor chord, followed by quick stabbing bar chords from G to A twice, then G resolving back to E. It’s the riff that makes this tune strut, but the Fleetwood Mac version has a key element that I feel the Priest version is sorely missing. Before the riff kicks off, Mick Fleetwood anticipates it with two big thuds on the toms. It’s just two beats, but it adds so much more drama to the proceedings than Les Binks’ fancier but less evocative fill in the Priest version.

For the sake of argument, let’s call the section from 0:43 to 0:50 the chorus, though it’s debatable whether this song really has one. It consists of a measure of G, measure of A, and then a pretty sinister little lick. The lick goes E, A, B, G, A, F#, F, C, in straight eighth notes. That phrase is almost entirely in E-minor, except for that F-natural note, which is the minor second. This one out-of-key note provides just enough of a nudge to send this lick down the left hand path to evil.

The first and second choruses are each followed by a passage of major and minor third dyads played over a low-E pedal tone. The passages have similar melodies, but the second passage is a little longer and more elaborate. For future reference we’ll call these passages the first and second interludes. Both of these sections—like the previous riff—stick pretty close to the key of E-minor, but each riff starts with a half-step shift from an E-minor-third dyad down to an E-Flat-minor-third dyad and back. The E-flat is out of key and lends a sort of nervous insistence to the riff, particularly when coupled with the constant throb of the pedal tone.

At 1:49 there occurs a brilliant little six-bar riff that doesn’t really change key, but it still functions as something of a bridge, lightening the mood a bit. The riff is built from alternating half-measures of strummed E and A chords, each followed by a partial arpeggio lick on the third and fourth strings, with the third measure ending in a descending sixteenth-note lick, and the sixth and final measure with ascending lick. To me, the sixteenth note licks just cry out for the Tipton / Downing harmonization treatment, but for some inexplicable reason, this riff is absent from the Priest version—a missed opportunity, in my opinion.

After one more verse and chorus, “The Green Manalishi” begins its descent into madness. The aforementioned second interlude riff becomes the theme for the song’s dirge-like outro. Over this, Peter Green moans like some kind of maniacal apparition, accompanied by a few ghostly slide licks and some blues noodling. It is grim and all too accurate foreshadowing of Green’s future.

In contrast, Judas Priest’s version of “The Green Manalishi” is everything you’d want a good cover to be: It retains the essence of what makes the original great, but the band puts its own personal stamp on the song.

For starters, Priest’s overall arrangement is different from the Fleetwood Mac version in that it’s more compact and streamlined. Priest eschews the original’s ominous intro and jumps right into the song with its version of the riff from the second interlude. In place of the major and minor third dyads and open chords, Priest mainly employs two-note, root / fifth power chords. Tipton and Downing also ditch the low E pedal tone in this section, though Ian Hill maintains it in his bassline. This unclutters the riff, pushing the melody to the forefront. With Priest’s more muscular, distorted tone, the band can do more with fewer notes. Furthermore, distortion tends to amplify the dissonance of more colorful intervals such as thirds, so the fifths are more in keeping the Priest’s smoother, groovier sound.

Let us take a moment here to discuss distortion, because it plays a pretty big role in the difference between these two versions of the song. You’d think that by 1979—almost a decade after the dawn of heavy metal and with the growing prevalence of hard rock—amplifier technology would have evolved to the point where a decent distorted tone could be achieved without jumping through too many hoops. You’d be wrong, though. Distortion was originally viewed as a flaw, so amplifier manufacturers were much slower than guitarists to embrace it as a feature. It would actually be some years yet before amplifiers were commonly produced with enough onboard gain to achieve a respectable metal sound without help.

While the Marshall amplifiers that Priest used during this era distorted more readily than the Fenders Fleetwood Mac used, this distortion was still achieved at the cost of deafening volume, and even so it wasn’t really quite a metal sound. So, Priest used a secret weapon called a treble booster, the same effect Tony Iommi used to achieve his wall of sound in Black Sabbath. Treble boosters were originally designed to brighten up “dark”-sounding British amps to match the high-end sparkle of American Fenders by, as the name suggests, boosting the treble. However, by cranking the knob on the treble booster, you could boost the guitar signal enough to create some pre-amp distortion, which, when combined with an amplifiers over-driven power section, gave you something resembling the high-gain sound we now associate with heavy metal. If you play electric guitar, you almost certainly have an amplifier with a gain knob on it, with which you can dial in a distorted tone at least robust enough for thrash metal. You may take this for granted, but know that it is, relatively speaking, a recent development. The founding fathers of metal had to work a lot harder to summon the thunder.

Now let’s get back to the riffs.

For the verses and choruses, Priest follows the Fleetwood Mac blueprint pretty closely, but the chugging in the verses is much heavier and tighter sounding, thanks to the thicker guitar tone. It is after the second chorus where Priest really starts to take flight. Over the second interlude riff, Glenn and K.K. engage in a brilliant guitar duel, trading solos back and forth. In a departure from the norm, Downing in the right speaker favors more melodic licks, while Tipton in the left speaker is more aggressive. (Speaker positions might be reversed depending on the version you listen to, too.) Then, following the final chorus, where the Fleetwood Mac version descends into madness, the Priest version soars on the wings of a beautiful melodic theme original to Priest’s rendition. Once again, distortion is key to this, for without it the singing, long-sustaining notes that make up this melody would not be possible.

Having not heard either tune, if you’d asked me which version of “The Green Manalishi” would be heavier, I would have picked the Judas Priest version, without hesitation. Of course the heavy metal band’s cover is going to be heavier than the original, right? Now, having spent a lot of time listening to both versions, I think the Fleetwood Mac version is actually heavier. True, the Mac is under-gunned, sonically. Even with three guitarists, Fleetwood Mac lacks the beef to compete with Priest’s mighty tone.

When it comes to the rhythm section, however, things are a little more even. Recording technology disparities aside, Fleetwood and McVie thud and thump with a bombast that rivals Binks and Hill. The Fleetwood Mac version is much darker and more harrowing, emotionally. The overall tone of the Judas Priest’s version is almost entirely different. The verses do capture some of the original’s menace, but the Priest interpretation contains nary a hint of madness or despair. In fact, Priest’s version is practically uplifting with its melodic focus.

What have we learned from this lesson? Several things. First, be careful with LSD. And if you think you might be losing your grip on reality, seek professional help. Secondly, heaviness is in the ear of the beholder. Thick tone and aggressive playing can certainly add visceral weight to a riff, but riffs don’t exist in a vacuum. The emotional weight and delivery of the lyrics and atmosphere of a song can really color your perception of how heavy something is. Thirdly, be thankful amp companies finally got behind the whole distortion thing. Priest, Maiden and the like sound fine through Seventies-era Marshalls, but I can’t imagine it working out too well for the likes of Suffocation or Napalm Death.

As for Peter Green, he eventually conquered his mental demons enough to resume recording in the late Seventies, and he was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame with Fleetwood Mac in 1998. Green performed “Black Magic Woman” with fellow inductee Santana at the ceremony, and Carlos hogged the spotlight and upstaged Green. I’m sure Pete has been through worse.

Bonus Manalishi!

This is a tale of two Manalishi’s, but there is a notable third version of the song. The Melvins recorded their version for 1999’s The Maggot. Their cover is excellent, but there isn’t much to discuss for our purposes because it sticks very close to the original arrangement, only slower and heavy as balls. Have a listen:

Homework: Another quite famous metal band covered “The Green Manalishi” early in their career, and they did a piss-poor job. If you know the band I’m referring to, post it in the comments. And if you happen to know of any other covers of “The Green Manalishi,” post those as well.

Extra Credit: Learn to play “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)”. Fleetwood Mac version here, and the Judas Priest version here.

Posted by Jeremy Morse

Riffs or GTFO.

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