WRTC hosts paid tribute to ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan who passed away at the age of 68 on June 8.
The June 9 edition of Greasy Tracks featured 90 minutes of Kirwan-related music while The Devo Rock Show on June 11 spent 60 minutes going deep into the archives to spotlight the tragic and sadly overlooked if not all-but-forgotten talent that was Kirwan who was pivotal in keeping Fleetwood Mac together in the early 1970s.
Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac in 1968 shortly after the band released its second studio album, Mr. Wonderful, to round out the three-guitar outfit that featured founding members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer.
Green, heavily influenced by B.B. King and Freddie King, was the focal point of the band, having left John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers after recording A Hard Road with bassist John McVie in tow as they brought in journeyman drummer Mick Fleetwood – who also had done a brief stint with Mayall – to form Fleetwood Mac.
The band’s self-titled debut came out in early 1968 and featured a handful of originals by Green and Spencer, who was a follower of Elmore James, along with a number of traditional covers by James, Robert Johnson and Chester Burnett.
Green and Spencer were equal contributors to Mr. Wonderful, but Green was looking to add another guitarist to the Mac lineup as the slide-playing Spencer was less and less willing to play on Green compositions. Kirwan, then a just-turned 18-year-old with the amateur trio Boilerhouse, was on Green’s radar and was brought on board where he made an immediate impact.
In September 1969, Fleetwood Mac’s third studio album, Then Play On, featured seven tracks written by Kirwan whose guitar work and singing complemented Green’s style. Spencer played little of a role in the sessions, but the final product sent the band to the top of the U.K. charts as four tracks hit the Top 10 with “Albatross” going to No. 1, while “Man of the World” and “Oh Well” reached No. 2. “The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown)” went to No. 10 in 1970.
In 1969, Fleetwood Mac outsold the Rolling Stones and Beatles combined when it came to moving product.
As the 1970s arrived, the band would be plagued by a series of unsettling events that would impact the guitarists. In March 1970 while on tour in Germany, Green took a bad dose of LSD while visiting a commune on the outskirts of Munich. Stories of the event vary, Kirwan may have also been present and partaken. From that day onward, Green was never the same and would end up leaving the band two months later.
A month after Green’s departure, the band entered the studio and that fall, released Kiln House with Kirwan contributing to four of the tracks and singing lead on the album’s best offerings: “Station Man,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy” and “Tell Me All the Things You Do.” It was the first Mac effort to include ex-Chicken Shack keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie in the sessions, despite not being credited.
“Station Man” was rumored have inspired Pete Townsend to write “Won’t Get Fooled Again” which he came up with shortly after seeing the Mac perform in London.
In the midst of touring Kiln House, Spencer, already mentally unsettled after a bad mescaline trip, left the band’s hotel to “get newspapers,” but ended up joining a religious commune. Green was brought in to finish the tour, but the band needed to replace Spencer and in June 1971, brought on American Bob Welch who had been living in Paris where he was part of a soul trio, Head West.
Buoyed by Kirwan and Welch’s writing and playing, Mac’s ensuing album, Future Games, ushered in a less bluesy approach to the band’s sound as it turned to a jazzier, albeit more melodic feel. Kirwan, Welch and Christine McVie provided the bulk of the eight tracks. Five months later, they released Bare Trees with Kirwan providing half of the songs in what would ultimately be his last Mac recording project.
While blues purists may insist the Then Play On-era Kirwan was more preferred, his position as one of the primary writers/singers/guitarists during Future Games and Bare Trees period was equally impressive, especially given the ranges of styles: the rocking “Bare Trees,” “Child of Mine,” and “Danny’s Chant”; the more melodic, jazzy-pop leaning of “Sands of Time” and “Woman Of 1000 Years”; to the more delicate if not melancholy “Dust,” “Sometimes” and “Sunny Side of Heaven.”
Bare Trees was proof of Kirwan’s abilities, especially in the studio where he layered guitar tracks to capture a unique sound, but ever volatile he was hampered by a drinking problem that led to difficulties on and off stage, including a punch-up with Welch which led to him being tossed out of the band in the middle of the tour to support the album.
Kirwan’s post-Mac years were primarily spent in obscurity, despite a number of critically well-received releases which failed to chart. Kirwan’s life continued to decline due to his drinking and poor mental health which contributed to him being homeless for large stretches of time and in and out of hostels around London in the 1980s and 90s.
In addition to his studio work with Fleetwood Mac and solo recordings, Kirwan appeared on releases by Otis Span, Jeremy Spencer, Christine Perfect (before she joined Fleetwood Mac) and ex-Savoy Brown vocalist Chris Youlden.
In 1998, Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Kirwan did not attend the ceremony.