Everyone knows Fleetwood Mac, the mega-selling incarnation fronted by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. And rock aficionados know the original, blues-rooted version of the band starring Peter Green. But there's a bridge between those two starry incarnations led by a key figure lost to rock history—Danny Kirwan.
"Danny was a quantum leap ahead of us creatively," Mick Fleetwood said of Kirwan's early influence on the group. "He was a hugely important part of the band."
Hired by Fleetwood Mac at the age of 18, Kirwan utterly transformed the group's sound, adding both an unusually sweet guitar vibrato and a dreamy songwriting style. His pensive approach dramatically countered the driving blues structures that dominated '60s British rock. And the contrast paid off: Three years into his tenure, he became Fleetwood Mac's de facto frontman, buttressed by fellow singer-songwriters Christine McVie and Bob Welch on such under-appreciated, early '70s albums as Future Games and Bare Trees. In the process, he provided the lifeline between the barrelhouse British sound of early Fleetwood Mac and the warm California-pop style that would eventually entrance the world on 'Rumours'.
Unfortunately, Danny Kirwan's story involves as much tragedy as triumph—and both aspects seemed baked into his story.
JOINING THE BAND
The outsized talents of this Brixton-born guitarist revealed themselves early. When he was 17, Kirwan's blues-based trio, Boiler House, secured gigs in London, where he would come to check out his idol: Peter Green. "He used to come hang at the Nags Head in Battersea, which is where we played a lot," Fleetwood said. "He would always be sitting in the front row, staring."
The ambitious Kirwan talked up his band to Fleetwood and, while the drummer found his guitar playing "amazing," he told the young hopeful, "if you want to get anywhere, you need to unload your band."
Kirwan wasn't pleased about the advice but, eventually, he took it, inspiring Fleetwood and Green to try to find new sidemen for his protege. As it happened, none proved worthy. Around the same time, the band's second guitarist Jeremy Spencer began diverging from Green's interests, moving into a more rockabilly sound. The idea arose to hire Kirwan in order to give the band's top star a more appropriate foil. In the process, Mac earned a rare configuration, boasting three axemen at the front. "Danny filled a hole that allowed Peter to move forward creatively," Fleetwood said.
He also brought new influences to the band, from sources as broad as ragtime and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Kirwan played with an almost scary intensity, according to Mac's early producer, Mike Vernon. In a vintage interview, Vernon said that Kirwan was so into the music "he cried as he played."
By the time Kirwan joined Mac, they already had two albums out, along with a single written by Green, "Black Magic Woman," later Latinized into a classic by Carlos Santana's band. Kirwan's contribution showed on very his first recording with the band: "Albatross," an instrumental penned by Green in late '68. The song anchored on two, languid guitar lines, with Kirwan offering a ghostly answer to Green's lead. The cadence of the melody took influence from the swaying Hawaiian guitars of Santo and Johnny's hit "Sleep Walk."
Years later, Green said he never would have written the song without his protege's influences. Still, the fluidity, and introspection, of "Albatross" alarmed the band's early fans. According to Fleetwood, they considered it "schmaltz." Regardless, it became a No. 1 smash in the U.K. The B-side featured a Kirwan original, "Jigsaw Puzzle Blues," which showed his debt to the work of Django Reinhardt, a rare influence in the British blues scene of the day.
DANNY HELPS THE BAND "PLAY ON"
Kirwan's impact extended exponentially on his first full album with Fleetwood Mac, Then Play On, released in September of '69. "Peter gave Danny half the album, which was unbelievably generous," Fleetwood said.
Not only did Kirwan write seven songs for the album, he penned the kick-off track, "Coming Your Way," fired by a glistening guitar line which teased Mick Fleetwood's wild tribal drums. Other Kirwan originals included the wan "Although the Sun is Shining," the blues-hued "Without You," the weighty psychedelic "One Sunny Day," and the airy acoustic ballad "When You Say." Kirwan's songs balanced tranquility with yearning, suggesting a rich interiority of feeling. Fleetwood said a key inspirer of those compositions was the work of Harry Nilsson.
Kirwan sang his songs in a voice of boyish hurt. His physicality suited the sound. With his fine blonde hair and choir-boy features, Kirwan looked like a fallen angel. As a character, however, he was brooding, and the music reflected it. His instrumental, "My Dream," showcased the shivering vibrato of his tone, a sound that suggested both preciousness and peril.
"His vibrato was perfect," Fleetwood said. "Danny had pure, resonant note comprehension. Many guitarists make the vibrato sound like a dying cow or a mosquito in heat. Danny had an unbelievable touch."
Still, several of his songs were left off the original U.S. version of Then Play On to make way for a Green piece that would became a Mac classic: "Oh Well, Parts I and II." A true guitarist's showcase, the song has became so associated with the band, they performed it right through the Lindsey/Stevie era. In "Part 1"—the better known section—Kirwan took the main solo, displaying a capacity for aural savagery equal to his bent for beauty. Both the U.S and U.K. versions of Then Play On featured the only song Kirwan ever wrote with Green, "World In Harmony," a staple of the band's live show.
A particularly telling Kirwan original from the era, "Something Inside of Me," turned up on Shrine 69, a live album not released until years later. Though his song ostensibly addressed a lost love, it seemed to channel something deeper: a lost soul, with lyrics that spoke of an inner torment the narrator couldn't shake. At the time, Kirwan suffered from increasing self-consciousness, both socially and as a figure of public focus. "He felt less than perfect in ways you and I can't even imagine," Fleetwood said.
THE PROTEGE REPLACES THE MENTOR
Kirwan wasn't the only troubled member of the band. After a bad acid trip, Green became mentally unstable and, combined with his already conflicted feelings about fame, he decided to quit the band in May of 1970. Shorn of their star, the band felt adrift. Yet, just four months later, they rallied to record the album Kiln House. Fleetwood calls it "a funny little album by a vaguely lost band. But I love it for that reason. It's pure and sweet."
An unusual affair, Kiln House ping-ponged between Spencer's Buddy Holly/rockabilly salutes and Kirwan's originals which, this time, took a harder turn. For the album, Kirwan penned one of the hottest guitar tracks in Mac history, "Tell Me All The Things You Do." The song proved he could idealize a frenzied style as well a ruminative one. Kirwan epitomized the latter mood with his mournful instrumental "Earl Grey." Another stand out track penned by Kirwan, "Station Man," attracted the attention of Pete Townshend. The Who leader told Fleetwood it was one of his favorite songs. "I remember Danny saying, 'wow, I would have thought he would have fucking hated it,' the drummer recalled.
To beef up the band in that shaky period, they added a "guest" keyboardist on Kiln House—Christine Perfect, who had just become Mrs. McVie. Under her maiden name, Mcvie had performed in the blues band Chicken Shack and released a solo album which featured playing, and composing, by Kirwan. Still, she found the young guitarist strange. In a later quote, McVie called him "really, really neurotic and difficult to work with. He was one of those people who would never look you in the eye. To be around him was a very nerve-wracking thing. So he and I never wrote together."
On his own, however, Kirwan remained prolific. Two songs he wrote for Kiln House, which didn't appear on the album, became part of their live show and favorites of arch fans, including the billowing "Dragonfly" and the psychedelic rocker "Purple Dancer."
As eccentric as Kirwan could be, Spencer upstaged him in the strange department in early 1971. Smack in the middle of a U.S. tour, he bolted the band, announcing he was joining a religious cult known as The Children of God. For those keeping score at home, that makes two guitarists gone off the rails in less than two years. If nothing else, Spencer's defection precipitated a major shift in both the band's sound and in their home base which, together, led to a new prominence for Kirwan.
THE "CALIFORNICATION" OF FLEETWOOD MAC
Shaken after losing Spencer, the band decided to anchor themselves in the U.S., soaking up the style, mood and lifestyle of L.A. at its mellow peak. To aid in the transition, they hired their first American member, singer-songwriter Bob Welch. His contemplative sound fit perfectly with Kirwan's approach. Better, McVie had began to write, together shifting the band's focus from a triple guitar act to a three-way singer-songwriter collective. The first songs McVie penned leaned towards Kirwan's mix of the ethereal and the romantic. At the same time, Kirwan forged more adventurous harmonic structures than ever, evident in his hypnotic tracks off the band's first U.S.-based album, Future Games. His "Woman Of A Thousand Years" sounded as unusual as a David Crosby song of the era, or like some precursor to the grey and braided sound later minted by Elliot Smith.
Welch, who contributed key songs to the album, greatly admired Kirwan, saying in a later interview that "at twenty four, he played with a surprising maturity and soulfulness." But he also called him "one of the strangest people I've ever met. He didn't seem to ever be able to distance himself from his work. Danny was the definition of 'deadly serious.'"
Despite Kirwan's growing inner turmoil, he perfected his art the next year. The Bare Trees album, released in March of 1972, was a note-perfect work, with five of its nine tracks penned by Kirwan, including the chugging opener "Child of Mine," a song which addressed his absent father. Though Welch wrote the album's FM hit, "Sentimental Lady"—and though McVie greatly upped her writerly chops—Kirwan's sound defined the album on songs like the ravishing title track or the wah-wah guitar work-out "Danny's Chant."
Bare Trees also set a template for the band. While they released three albums between that 1972 work and their breakthrough Fleetwood Mac disc in '75 (the one which debuted the Nicks/Buckingham team) there's a crucial connection between the former, and latter, works. According to Fleetwood, it has to do with cohesion. Both albums found the band sustaining a beguiling mood from start to finish. "Bare Trees' is the beginning of the band showing a body of work with all the proper connections made," he said. "It's a well-rounded album. Like Lindsey, Danny had the chops with layering techniques, and the ability to know what's right and wrong in the studio."
Bare Trees also got the band to focus on harmony, an aspect which would later define the most successful version of the band.
THE LAST STRAW
To showcase Bare Trees, Fleetwood Mac went on tour with Savoy Brown and Long John Baldry during the Spring and Summer of '72. The tour, billed as "The British are Coming" turned out to be a traumatic affair. On the road, Kirwan "just got more and more intense," Fleetwood said. "He wouldn't talk to anyone. He was going inside himself which we put down to an emotional problem that we had no idea about. We thought he was just being awkward. I had no idea he was struggling to that level."
At one pivotal gig, Kirwan and Welch fought over tuning, to the point where the troubled guitarist refused to go on-stage. "That's the cardinal thing you just don't do," Fleetwood said. "In essence, he had a breakdown."
Kirwan smashed his guitar, then let the band struggle through their performance without him. Afterwards, he launched into a critique of their playing. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Fleetwood. "That particular pain and story needed to stop."
"Looking back, Danny was not suited to this business," Fleetwood said. "It was too much pressure. He and Peter were both highly sensitive people, not suited to take the blows."
Kirwan went on to release a few solo albums for DJM Records. They contained some sweet moments but more pale ones. His mental deterioration led to periods of homelessness in the '80s and '90s. In 1998, Kirwan had a potential lift: He was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame along with the other key members from Fleetwood Mac's strange and convoluted history. But he didn't show up to accept the honor.
In the decades since Kirwan left the band, Fleetwood has had little contact with him, though he remains in touch with his ex-wife Claire. She told him the guitarist "lives a very simple life and is pretty much disconnected from what you, or I, would call any form of reality."
Despite the sustained pain surrounding the guitarist's tale, Fleetwood remains committed to stressing his unique talent and his pivotal role in the band. "I cared for Danny a lot and I care for his legacy a lot," he said. "Lindsey Buckingham also has a huge regard for Danny. He is the lost component. In many ways, Danny is a forgotten hero."