Danny Kirwan’s guitar skills started attracting attention at an early age, and he was still only 17 when he came to the attention of established British blues band Fleetwood Mac, while he was playing in London with one of his first bands, Boilerhouse. He persuaded Mac’s producer Mike Vernon to go and watch Boilerhouse rehearse (in a London basement boiler-room), and Vernon then informed Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green of his discovery. Green was impressed and, after a consultation with drummer Mick Fleetwood, Kirwan was asked to join the band in August 1968.
Kirwan’s arrival expanded Fleetwood Mac to a five-piece with three guitarists, Danny playing alongside renowned ex-Bluesbreaker Green, and slide guitar player Jeremy Spencer, plus experienced bassist John McVie and drummer Fleetwood, both also formerly with the Bluesbreakers. Green had been looking for another guitarist to share some of the workload, in view of Spencer being unwilling to contribute much to Green’s songs.
In an interview with Mike Vernon in June 1999, Green described Kirwan as “a clever boy who got ideas for his guitar playing by listening to all that old-fashioned roaring twenties big band stuff.” He added that in those early days, Kirwan “was so into it that he cried as he played”.
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac
Kirwan first appeared on the huge instrumental hit single “Albatross”, the B-side of which was his first published tune, the Django Reinhardt–inspired instrumental “Jigsaw Puzzle Blues”. Kirwan’s skills came further to the forefront on the mid-1969 album Then Play On where he split the songwriting and lead vocal duties almost equally with Peter Green, many of the performances featuring their dual lead guitars. Since Spencer hardly played on the album, Kirwan had a significant role in the recording. In fact, his “Coming Your Way” opened Side 1, and his varied musical influences are in evidence throughout, from the flowing instrumental “My Dream” to the 1930s-style “When You Say”.
The UK release of Then Play On featured two extra, slightly older, Kirwan recordings—the rather morose “Without You”, and the heavy “One Sunny Day”. The US-only release English Rose from the same era included these two songs, plus the tense blues “Something Inside of Me” and the aforementioned “Jigsaw Puzzle Blues”, both also dating from earlier sessions.
When the US track listing of Then Play On was reordered to allow the inclusion of the full version of Green’s hit single “Oh Well”, two of Kirwan’s songs (“My Dream” and “When You Say”) were dropped. Only “Coming Your Way”, the wistful “Although the Sun Is Shining”, and his duet with Green “Like Crying” appeared on all the later non-UK vinyl releases. On the CD release, Kirwan’s two dropped songs were reinstated, although “One Sunny Day” and “Without You” were now absent from releases in all territories, including the UK.
Out-take packages from this era, such as the Vaudeville Years and Show-Biz Blues double sets, include many more Kirwan songs, showing blues influences as well as the more arcane tastes that led to songs like “Tell Me from the Start” which could have been mistaken for the 1920s-style group The Temperance Seven. Such unusual musical interests prompted band leader Green to dub Kirwan “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”—at least that was preferable to Green’s other name for him, “Young Eyes”, which Kirwan was less keen on.
Although Fleetwood Mac’s hit singles from 1969–70 were all Green-penned tunes, Kirwan’s style showed through thanks to Green’s increasing desire not to act as the band’s main focus. He took the solo on “Oh Well Pt. 1” and joined Green in the dual guitar harmonies on “Albatross”. The final hit single from this line-up, “The Green Manalishi”, also provided Kirwan with opportunity to step forward, although Green generally stole the show. The B-side of this single was the instrumental “World in Harmony”, the only track ever to receive a “Kirwan/Green” joint songwriting credit.
Sessions away from Fleetwood Mac
In January 1969, Kirwan made his first non–Fleetwood Mac appearance when he contributed to Otis Spann’s blues album The Biggest Thing Since Colossus, along with Green and McVie. After Then Play On had been completed, Kirwan worked on Christine McVie’s first solo album, simply titled Christine Perfect as she was still using her maiden name at that time. She recorded a version of Kirwan’s “When You Say” which was chosen as a single, and Kirwan arranged the string section and acted as producer as well.
Kirwan also worked on the first solo album from a then-current member of Fleetwood Mac, when Jeremy Spencer released his eponymously titled album in 1970. Kirwan played rhythm guitar and sang backing vocals throughout. The album was not commercially successful but Spencer discovered that he and Kirwan worked well together without Green: “In retrospect, one of the most enjoyable things was working with Danny on it, as it brought out a side of him I hadn’t seen.”
Kirwan was also asked to contribute as a session guitarist with the blues band Tramp on their album Tramp (1969). After he left Fleetwood Mac, Kirwan worked with Tramp again on their second album, Put a Record On (1974), and also with Chris Youlden of Savoy Brown on his solo album Nowhere Road (1973).
After Green left in 1970, the band considered splitting up, but they continued briefly as a four-piece before recruiting keyboard player Christine McVie. Kirwan and Spencer handled the guitars and vocals together on the Kiln House album, released in the summer of that year, and they were able to continue the working relationship they had started whilst recording Spencer’s solo album the previous year.
Kirwan’s songs on the album included “Station Man” (co-written with Spencer and John McVie) which became a live staple for some years, stretching into the post-1974 Buckingham-Nicks era. His other songs were “Jewel-Eyed Judy”, dedicated to a friend of the band, Judy Wong; the energetic “Tell Me All the Things You Do”, and “Earl Gray”, an atmospheric instrumental which Kirwan largely composed while Peter Green was still in the band. Kirwan could also be heard providing distinctive backing vocals to some of Spencer’s numbers, such as the 1950s-flavoured album opener, “This Is the Rock”.
Other Kirwan compositions from the second half of 1970, such as those that eventually surfaced on the 2003 Madison Blues CD box set, included “Down at the Crown”, with lyrics centring on a pub down the lane from the communal band house ‘Benifold’ in Headley, Hampshire. The unsuccessful single “Dragonfly”, recorded late in the year, was also written by Kirwan, and included lyrics adapted from a poem by W. H. Davies. Peter Green said of “Dragonfly”, “The best thing he ever wrote… that should have been a hit.” This was not to be the last time Kirwan used a poem as lyrics for a song, and may have been a solution to Kirwan’s apparent occasional lack of inspiration when writing lyrics. The B-side of the single, “The Purple Dancer”, was written by Kirwan, Fleetwood and John McVie and uniquely featured Kirwan and Spencer duetting on lead vocals.
Kirwan and Bob Welch
A tour of the USA followed in support of Kiln House, but this was blighted by Spencer’s bizarre departure from the group, when he disappeared one afternoon in Los Angeles, and was later discovered to have joined the religious cult the Children of God. After an uncomfortable time finishing the tour, during which Peter Green was asked to come back and help out, Californian Bob Welch was recruited to replace Spencer, without an audition as such, after a brief period getting to know the band. Welch’s contrasting attitude towards Kirwan, on the one hand their difficult personal relationship, and on the other, Welch’s respect for Kirwan’s musicianship, was a point of focus during the 18 months they were together in Fleetwood Mac. In 1999, Welch stated: “He was a talented, gifted musician, almost equal to Pete Green in his beautiful guitar playing and faultless string bends.” In a later interview, Welch said: “Danny wasn’t a very lighthearted person, to say the least. He probably shouldn’t have been drinking as much as he did, even at his young age… He was always very intense about his work, as I was, but he didn’t seem to ever be able to distance himself from it… and laugh about it. Danny was the definition of ‘deadly serious’.”
The last two Fleetwood Mac albums to feature Kirwan showed an increasing maturity in his songwriting and playing, his songs taking up about half of each album. His guitar work also showed noticeably in several songs written by Welch and McVie, as they developed their own songwriting techniques.
Future Games (1971) was a departure from its predecessor with the clear absence of Spencer and his 50s rock ‘n’ roll parodies. Welch brought a couple of new songs, notably the lengthy title track, which featured both guitarists stretching out. Kirwan contributed the opener “Woman of 1000 Years” which, according to one unknown critic at the time, “floated on a languid sea of echo-laden acoustic and electric guitars”. His other songs were the melodic “Sands of Time” which was chosen as a single in the USA, and the country-flavoured “Sometimes” which suggested the route he would take during his solo career. Kirwan’s influence can also clearly be heard on the two Christine McVie songs, “Morning Rain” and the laid-back and gentle “Show Me a Smile”.
Bare Trees (1972) contained five Kirwan songs including another instrumental, “Sunny Side of Heaven”, and the album-closer “Dust” with its lyric taken from a romantic poem by British war poet Rupert Brooke, although Brooke was not credited. “Danny’s Chant” featured heavy use of the wah-wah guitar effect and was effectively an instrumental but for Kirwan’s wordless scat vocals. “Child of Mine”, which touched upon the absence of Kirwan’s father during his childhood, and “Bare Trees” opened each side of the LP and showed funk and slight jazz leanings. An unissued Kirwan track, “Trinity”, was played live for a period during 1971-1972 and the studio version was eventually released on the 1992 box set 25 Years - The Chain.
Kirwan leaves Fleetwood Mac
Kirwan shouldered much of the songwriting responsibility during this troubled and uncertain period for the band, through the changes in both the line-up and in musical style. The pressure showed in his health and he suffered problems with alcoholism; stories abound of Kirwan not eating for several days at a time, subsisting largely on beer. He gradually became estranged from the other band members, and things came to a head during August 1972. Before a concert on that year’s US tour, Kirwan and Welch rowed over tuning and Kirwan flew into a rage, smashing his guitar and refusing to go onstage. Instead he watched while the rest of the band struggled through without him, and offered unwelcome criticism afterwards. Kirwan had to be sacked by Fleetwood, who had hitherto been the only other member still speaking to him. Fleetwood later said: “It was a torment for him, really, to be up there, and it reduced him to someone who you just looked at and thought ‘My God’. It was more a thing of, although he was asked to leave, the way I was looking at it was, I hoped, it was almost putting him out of his agony.”
Kirwan’s reaction was initially one of surprise, and it seemed he had little idea of how alienated from the other band members he had become, but shortly afterwards he met up with his replacement Bob Weston. Weston described the meeting: “He was aware that I was taking over, and rather sarcastically wished me the best of luck - then paused and added “You’re gonna need it”. I read between the lines that he was pretty angry with the band.”
Solo career and beyond
Guided by ex–Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Davis, Kirwan later recorded three solo albums for DJM Records, showing a gentler side as opposed to the blues guitar dynamics of his earlier Fleetwood Mac days. The first of these, Second Chapter (1975) was filled with various different musical influences, including a style close to that of Paul McCartney late in his Beatles career. Many songs were very simple musically, with little more than infectious melody and basic lyrics to carry them along. Lyrical themes rarely ventured beyond love.
1976’s Midnight in San Juan featured a reggae-inspired cover of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, which was released as a single in the USA. Otherwise, Kirwan tended towards the simple tunes and they arguably benefitted from the absence of the slightly cloying production on the previous LP. Lyrically the subject matter still largely dwelt upon love, but apparently less cheerfully than before, with growing themes of loneliness and isolation, such as on the closing track “Castaway”. There was also a song, “Look Around You”, written by another Mac refugee, Dave Walker, with whom Kirwan had very briefly formed a band called Hungry Fighter in 1974.
Kirwan’s last album, Hello There Big Boy!, ironically featured guitar contributions by his Fleetwood Mac replacement, Bob Weston. Kirwan was not well at this time and it is not clear how much guitar work he contributed to the recording, though he did sing on all the tracks. Far fewer of the songs were self-penned, and there was one song dug up from his Fleetwood Mac days. There were also backing vocalists for the first time, and musical style was much less distinct. Producer Clifford Davis added the contribution of 87 musicians to the final recording, and later described the album as “so bad”.
None of Kirwan’s solo releases was commercially successful. This can be largely attributed to his total reluctance to perform live. Kirwan did not play any live gigs after a few shows with Tramp and a one-off outing with Hungry Fighter (all in 1974), leaving all three of his solo albums completely unsupported by any form of extra exposure or active promotion apart from an irregular string of equally unsuccessful singles. None of his solo work saw release in continental Europe, which might have been a source of success given Peter Green’s resurgence there, particularly in Germany.
Kirwan was married in 1971, but was divorced a few years later, and he has one son.
During the late 1970s Kirwan’s health deteriorated significantly and since then he has played no further part in the music industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, he endured a period of homelessness living in London. In a 2009 BBC TV documentary about Peter Green, Clifford Davis blamed Kirwan’s deterioration on the same incident that damaged Green’s mental stability, i.e. a reaction to LSD taken at a party in Munich, Germany in 1969. Davis stated:
“Peter Green and Danny Kirwan both went together to that house in Munich, both of them took acid as I understand it, [and] both of them, as of that day, became seriously mentally ill.”
Kirwan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for his work as part of Fleetwood Mac, although he did not travel to the induction ceremony.
His three solo albums were given a belated CD release in February 2006, but only in Japan. A limited edition of 2,500 copies of “Second Chapter” was issued by Repertoire Records in early 2008. The rights/royalties situation regarding these releases is currently such that it is not commonly known if Kirwan will see any income from them. Prior to this, only Second Chapter had been available on CD, for a brief period in Germany in 1993.
During the past couple of years, there have been rumours of a reunion of the early line-up of Fleetwood Mac, involving Green and Spencer. Whilst these two guitarists apparently remain unconvinced of the merits of such a project, Kirwan has remained as silent as ever on the subject. In April 2006, during a question-and-answer session on the Penguin Fleetwood Mac fan website, bass player John McVie said of the reunion idea:
“If we could get Peter and Jeremy to do it, I’d probably, maybe, do it. I know Mick would do it in a flash. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart”
Edited by nooneastern on 28 Mar 2010, 01:17
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