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Danny Kirwan: The Forgotten Man of Fleetwood Mac

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In the long and difficult history of Fleetwood Mac, a band whose many tribulations prove, beyond question, that truth is stranger than fiction, the sad fate of Danny Kirwan, the guitarist and songwriter who helped to create some of their finest music, usually is overlooked. The whereabouts and condition of Danny Kirwan, who was expelled from Fleetwood Mac in 1972, are currently unknown to the general public, but his special talent continues to be highly regarded by discerning fans.

Danny Kirwan was born in 1950, in London, England, and became a member of Fleetwood Mac in 1968, when he was in his late teens. With Danny Kirwan playing his guitar alongside the guitars of Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, Fleetwood Mac soon became one of the standout bands in the United Kingdom, offering a trenchant form of electric blues that was both earthy and thoughtful. Then Play On, released by Fleetwood Mac in 1969, was the first of their albums to feature Danny Kirwan, and provides ample evidence of his strong abilities as a musician and a composer, particularly his gift for melody and harmony, on tracks such as “Coming Your Way” and “Although the Sun Is Shining.”

When Peter Green, who had been the main figure in Fleetwood Mac, became mentally ill and chose to leave the band in 1970, both Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer were forced to the forefront as guitarists and singers. The next album by Fleetwood Mac, Kiln House, has a sound that is quite different from their earlier albums, but it proved that the band could continue without Peter Green. Among its ten tracks, it features two songs written by Danny Kirwan, “Earl Grey” and “Tell Me All the Things You Do,” as well as two other songs, “Station Man” and “Jewel Eyed Judy,” written by Danny Kirwan with members of the band.

In February of 1971, while Fleetwood Mac was on tour in California, Jeremy Spencer departed from the band without warning and joined a Christian colony known as the Children of God, forcing Danny Kirwan even more to the forefront. Bob Welch, an American guitarist and songwriter, was quickly brought into the band, and in September, 1971, they released a new album, Future Games. The first track on Future Games, “Woman of 1000 Years,” a song written and sung by Danny Kirwan, shows his musical skill at its best, conveying an otherworldly mood with delicate layers of guitars and voices. “Sands of Time,” another song by Danny Kirwan, also has a dreamlike texture. His other song on the album, “Sometimes,” is a tuneful expression of regret, sung with sweetness and melancholy.

Bare Trees was released in 1972, and was the last album by Fleetwood Mac to include the songs and musicianship of Danny Kirwan. His five songs on Bare Trees display an undeniable degree of depth and maturity, making up the core of the album. “Child of Mine” and “Bare Trees” are driving rockers with solid riffs. “Sunny Side of Heaven” is a wordless composition that floats along on shimmery waves of graceful beauty. “Danny’s Chant” is a bold workout for guitar and wah-wah, combined with a free-form vocal. “Dust” is a plaintive setting of a poem by Rupert Brooke. It appeared that Danny Kirwan’s ability to write and perform music was gaining in strength, but in his private life, he had begun to fall apart.

The reasons for the decline and breakdown of Danny Kirwan are not entirely clear, but by all accounts, he never had been an easygoing or well-balanced person. His withdrawn temperament was ill-suited to the harsh obligations of fame and business, which frequently is the case with talented people. In addition, he was known to be drinking heavily, and his excessive consumption of alcohol undoubtedly had a harmful effect on his situation.

Danny Kirwan’s tenure with Fleetwood Mac came to a sudden end in August of 1972, during a tour of America. Minutes before a performance, he got into a backstage quarrel with Bob Welch, becoming extremely angry and refusing to play with the band. (He supposedly smashed his own head against a wall and broke his electric guitar into pieces.) Fleetwood Mac went on stage without him, and later that night, Mick Fleetwood dismissed him from the band.

Danny Kirwan went on to record several albums on his own (Second Chapter, Midnight in San Juan, Hello There Big Boy!), but he rarely performed in public after leaving Fleetwood Mac, and his albums mostly came and went without much notice. It seems that by the end of the 1970s, he had ceased to pursue any musical activities. Since then, there have been reports that he was living on the streets in London, completely overcome by alcoholism, as well as later reports that he was living in a shelter for homeless people. What is known for certain is that Danny Kirwan’s problems undermined his life and prevented his talent from reaching its full potential.

Fleetwood Mac carried on to become one of the biggest bands of the 1970s and 1980s, but the name of Danny Kirwan, the sensitive guitarist who gave a great deal of himself to their music before he went by the wayside, generally is accorded no more than a brief reference in their well-known story. As a singular musician whose contributions to the band were unquestionably impressive, he is deserving of a kinder estimation.

 

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About Michael Collins Morton

  • David Miller

    Another excellent piece by Mr. Morton. His comments about Kirwan’s music reminds me why I liked that period of Fleetwood Mac the best. Not only has Danny Kirwan been forgotten, but the early Fleetwood Mac bands have been pushed to the back shelf. Few people today remember them as a blues/rocker band and fewer seem to know about the period with DK. I am looking forward to more articles by Mr. Morton.

  • Bill Brovold

    A great article on a guitar player that had a powerful impact on many guitarists. A sad situation he has been in. I still listen to those records when he was in the group. When I do I hope he is feeling well.

  • Steve Talia

    It is marvelous that this man is getting his due by somebody. Green, Kirwan and Spencer should be household names and yet they are criminally overlooked except by those older fans who are truely in the know.

  • richard shanks

    did DK play the monster licks at the end of Future Games’ title track? i know it’s Welch’s song, & that he did most of its guitar work, but that explosive closing riff had to be Kirwan, right?

  • Neil Mincey

    To Richard Shanks: I remember reading an interview with Bob Welch a few years ago and if memory serves he credited Kirwan with playing all the lead guitar on that track. I read it online somewhere. Happy hunting!

  • james prichard

    thanks, i read this recently. danny’s mother named phyllis, swedish dad left them, danny self taught guitar from 15 , passed 6 O levels, loved studying and homework, liked coca cola, melon and steak, and single women. it was at livefrommars.co.uk. after the excruciating and sad collapse of roger barrett, it seemed at the time no band could ever again overlook substance problems. i do not blame pink floyd ,nor mac . i just crumble thinking how sad for a 22 year old superstar ,leading a hugely popular band, a father writing how he will never leave his son , and no one could help. danny must have felt that he was in hell. superstar buddy guy knows how fabulous danny is to all of us .danny is happier now, in sweden, maybe with a lady friend. i love danny and cry just as i did for syd. thank you for your kind words

  • Rick

    Much has been written about FM.
    Most of it inaccuate.
    FM Peter Green era – very good.
    FM Buckingham/Nicks – very good
    FM Danny Kirwan era – great – the best.
    Then Play On,Kiln House,Future games,
    Bare Trees contain some of the best
    rock ever recorded. Common thread-the
    great Danny Kirwan.

  • malcolm

    I was in a Shaftesbury avenue guitar shop in London, buying my 1st Fender in the 70s when Danny whooshed in with a few friends during his 1st dates with Mac. He was buying a guitar amp setup. He played, I new instantly that vibrato and it was thrilling to watch. I was always sad what happened to Danny. not fair.

  • http://www.purevolume.com/hisway Lee

    I first connected with what Fleetwood Mac was doing because of Danny. His rifs and overall melodies created connected emotionally with the listener, it was not a passive thing but a kinetic connection. I don’t think there ever was nor will ever be another song quite like Woman Of A Thousand Years. It literally takes you to another place. So very sad he had so many lost years, but I for one won’t forget his contributions and many of his songs are timeless and will continue to live on.

  • Geoff

    Much gratitude goes out to the early FM lineup who really intuited the color and tone of their generation and expressed this through their music.
    Danny Kirwan provided much of the mystical component through that harp-like guitar that had an uncanny ability to touch the soul in all of us. What a talent and gift he had to uplift.
    Its a crying shame Bob Welch was left out of Hall of Fame tributes – were egos in the way of recognizing the period he influenced produced some of their best or was it just plain old ignorance?

  • belindakmn

    While recently revisiting some of my favorite music from the early 70’s, I discovered who was responsible for the ethereal and enchanting quality of the Fleetwood Mac sound during that early period. Now I understand why I didn’t hear it after Future Games; Danny left. He forges a soul-connection through his guitar and voice and there’s no match on that level in any musician I’ve ever heard. I love him and am so grateful for the gift he gave. He is truly a musician’s musician and he poured bis spirit into everything he sang and played. He and Peter Green were a perfect match and we are all lucky that fate brought them together for that brief, and beautiful moment so we could always have the music they created.

  • stephen boyd

    Hello to those concerned regards Danny Kirwan’s where-abouts. I saw him the other day in a retirement home in south central London, where I worked. He seems to be doing ok. I was stunned by this although I was never a big fleetwood fan, I will now go and listen to his stuff. How is Oregon these days? I used to live in San Francisco, so visited a few times. S.

    • hugebigframe .

      I Lived in London 2 years ago as a chef and did some agency work at the same place.
      Being a fan was shocked when I found out it was him but he seems well looked after

      • squash

        what makes a guy like Peter Green go so far down and be able to resurface and this guy takes a similar road and maybe even be more talented and not be able to come back ? What was he like when you saw him ?

        • Rob

          its because he got pulled in as a teen whereas the others were older ..quite a bit older and the acid,,,when u r that young. Nobody in the band saw that side of Danny. All they saw was the workhorse ..the meal ticket. He could have some support from his mates but none ever came. Seems like the guys really used hm IMHO

    • James Prichard

      the american west is among the best, oregon has beauty everywhere , and westerly speaking cornwall and devon are wonderful parts of great britain. and danny is a stunner . maybe some filmmaker will use his tears inspiring wonders, or maybe his music will magically conquer the world . bring him flowers ,a dennis wheatley book or two, a big juicy t bone steak , or leg of lamb , and a hug. and soft pillows , warm wool socks, and anything else possible . like ice cream and cookies

    • squash

      I am so curious about this guy. So musical. Whereas peter Green made a comeback could this guy ever do so ? Unbelievable musician

    • Conor D’Cruz

      Hi – do you have any more news about Danny ?

  • grenville

    I went to infants and primary school with Danny, Brockwell park school on Tulse Hill, his name was Danny Langran, his mother re-married and changed his name by deedpoll to her new married name Kirwan, I remember on a number of occasions in my early teens going with some of our mates to call on him in his house in Elm Park road, which is just off Brixton Hill, to see if he was coming out but when we heard the sound of him playing his guitar coming from his window we didn’t knock as we knew he wouldn’t answer, totally into his music.
    Posted by Grenville

    • James Prichard

      i look ahead to a walk in brixton, and your incites offer a path or two. sort of a kirwan’s london , and i am already imagining danny everywhere about . thanks for your reminisces

  • Marcus Anderson

    Thanks for this – Danny *was* Fleetwood Mac. Danny probably fell out because they were all bonking each other.

  • Elwood James Band

    Glad I found this.

  • Romen

    Nice article , though I’m late on this . Undoubtedly underrated as guitarists go , as, are his contributions to Fleetwood Mac.but , man , could he light it up that Gibson, trading licks with Greeny