His music career began after he bought a Spanish guitar from a friend for £2 and Boilerhouse were his first proper group. Mike Vernon who produced Mac later recalled them; “It was well meaning stuff, you know. He (Danny) looked like he’d only just stopped wearing short trousers. The bass player and drummer were average, but Danny was really good”. At the time he was playing a cheap electric guitar which gave him a Texas blues sound. “I told him he sounded like Lowell Fulson” said Vernon “and he’d never even heard of him!” It was Vernon who offered Boilerhouse gigs at the Blue Horizon and Kirwan soon met Mac, and had even helped their roadies unpacking gear or jammed at sound-checks. At just 19, Kirwan looked even younger but his playing was definitely up for the job even though he was a self taught player; he arrived in the group just in time for some classic singles. `Albatross` was based on a melody Green had written on a plane had he says he couldn’t have completed it without Danny who provided the second part harmony. It is a long way from the blues sound for which the group had become known and this ethereal instrumental gave Mac a no.1 hit in December 1968 and would reach no.2 in June 1973 when re-issued. The group went on tour in the US with their new member in late 1968 and reviews from the time say just how quickly the new member fitted in, his and Greens’ guitars “prodding and provoking” each other. In those days, groups were far more prolific than they are now and it wasn’t long before Kirwan was recording tracks with Mac, some of which showed up on a US only compilation LP `English Rose`, released in January 1969 including the track that would become Kirwan’s signature `Jigsaw Puzzle Blues`, which contained hints of legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and was actually adapted from a clarinet piece written in the 1920s. The LP also included three new Kirwan songs that would later turn up on the next LP. In January 69, Mac also took part in two recording projects in which they were matched with bluesmen like Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy and the results can be heard on two records that marked the group’s last full on pure blues work but which were not released for nearly a year.
That month, a profile of Mac in NME included each member of the band answering some pop star style questions and readers discovered that Danny’s favourite food was melon and steak, favourite drink was Coke, miscellaneous likes “unattached women”, fave composers Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and his personal ambition was “for Peter Green to stop calling me Young Eyes”. But if this made him appear naïve, there was no doubting his musical talent and within six months of joining Mac, Kirwan had written loads of songs and it was clear that the magnanimous Green was happy to give his young protégée plenty of space even though the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Their next single was `Man of the World`, an introspective track in which Green appeared to be having doubts about fame (though he denied that) .There was no doubt that Green was happy to share the song-writing and Danny couldn’t believe it when his mentor told him he could have half of the next LP’s writing for his own material.
Released in October 1969, the LP did well, reaching no.5 in the UK album charts and becoming the first Mac LP to sell over 100,000 copies in the States. This period of relative stability is fondly remembered. McVie later said; “We had settled into a certain groove; when you get the feeling that your band is probably the greatest rock and roll band in the world. We had confidence..a rapport with our audience.” Not all was sweetness and light though and the relationship between Kirwan and Green was difficult and complex. Clifford Davis, the group’s manager at the time later said “Peter had a problem with Danny who was going through this `I’m the glamour boy in the band and I’m really as good as you and yet you’re getting all the attention`. This really made Peter fed up”. Tour manager Dennis Klein said; “Pete and Danny used to clash a lot. It was always Danny trying to bully Pete; he’d go up close with his guitar and try and intimidate him.” Some even reckon that this was a big factor in Green’s later departure from Mac. Yet as musicians they complemented each other so well over the 20 months they worked together. Green himself noted the distinctly different styles; Danny used short flurries of notes that melded his unique vibrato and note bending whereas Peter preferred arresting rhythms and improvisational ideas. The group’s success was to be further enhanced by their next two singles. `Oh Well`, a very well known song that aspiring guitarists and singers still try to this day. It’s distinctive riff was played alternatively and collectively on Green’s classical and electric guitars and by the whole band and the lyrics delivered almost mockingly; `Can’t help it ‘bout the shape I’m in / I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty, and my legs are thin / But don’t ask me what I think of you / I might not give the answer that you want me to`. There is a lesser known part 2 to `Oh Well` which is an artfully arranged romantic movement inspired, no less, by Vaughan Williams.
In December 1969, `Blues Jam At Chess` was released. The fruits of the start of year blues sessions the record was overlooked by all the other, more conventional releases. Jeremy Spencer, feeling he had under contributed to the last LP made a self titled solo album which was released in January 1970; Danny played on this as well; people did make a lot of records in those days! Early 1970 also saw Mac buy a country house called Benifold which they used as a sort of commune cum rehearsal place. Danny moved into the attic with his girlfriend Clare (who was Peter Green’s ex which added another level to the two guitarist’s working relationship); later in the year they married because she was pregnant but it didn’t last though they remained on good terms later on.
The next Mac single was called `The Green Manalishi` and proved to be another musical left turn; guitars and percussion beat out a foreboding riff and the whole thing is reminiscent of Cream. But Peter Green had a bombshell to drop – he was leaving the group in May 1970, the same month the single was released. His last gig would be at the Roundhouse in London on May 25. Green appeared to be suffering from a guilt complex about all the money the group were making and there were reports that he wanted to give all his money away and in an interview he said: “There are many reasons why I’m leaving; the main thing being that I feel it’s time for a change. I want to change my whole life because I don’t want to be all a part of the conditioned world and as much as possible I’m getting out of it”.
So it was that Danny Kirwan took creative centre stage and immediately stamped his musical authority by writing most of `Station Man`, a song so good that Mac retained it in their set years after Kirwan himself had gone. It’s also the song some credit with inspiring Pete Townsend to write `Won’t Get Fooled Again` which he penned after seeing Mac play in London and enthusing about `Station Man`. However due to his shy personality Danny left the fronting of the group on stage to the more outgoing Jeremy Spencer.
The first post Green LP was `Kiln House`, released in September 1970 and it marks the Mac recording debut of Christine McVie, though she didn’t actually join officially until after recording; she did, incidentally, draw the cover artwork. Mick Fleetwood later said of this period: "Danny came to the fore more than anybody when it came to the songwriting and showed his great melodic style." Kirwan’s contributions were easily the best tracks; the aforementioned `Station Man` is really a kind of crossroads between the Mac of old and the Mac yet to be; Kirwan holds it together brilliantly with dense riffing and his clear voice is a refreshing change to the departed Green. There’s his instrumental `Earl Grey` which sits on a four bar phrase but manages to hold interest and `Tell Me All The Things You Do`, a tight rock track with wah wah and a commotion swirling around his voice – it’s an odd sound that works really well and it’s the best production of the LP, as Kirwan lets loose even if the main riff does bear a resemblance to Ike and Tina Turner’s `Nutbush City Limits`. `Jewel Eyed Judy` which he sings and co-wrote with Fleetwood and McVie was going to be a single at one stage and it changes pace for the chorus. Overall, the LP jars a little because Jeremy Spencer, who takes lead vocal on half the tracks is prone to play about (the Elvisesque `Blood on the Floor` is a particular offender) while Kirwan sound earnest singing even the most twee lyric.
As Danny took on these challenges people around the group were starting to notice changes in his personality, partly due to stress and also increasing alcohol and drugs indulgence. Along with the rest of the group, Danny did a lot of mescaline but his first encounter with acid came after a gig in New Orleans in early 69. Jenny Boyd, Mick Fleetwood’s wife at the time later remembered the night when an acid mogul called Owsley “spiked us all and Danny started running around like a maniac and came up to me looking terrified and saying `I don’t know what to do….I can’t go on! because he’d never had acid before.” Another factor in Kirwan’s moodswings was his approach to gigs where he was unfavourably compared to Green when he started performing lengthy solos; admittedly this was exactly what everyone else was doing in the early 70s but Kirwan’s disciplined playing sometimes lacked the charismatic flair to hold the audience’s attention and one contemporary reviewer called them “some of the dullest guitar solos I have heard in a long time”. Then there was the question of his age; at 20, five years younger than the others, he was often left out of some of the socialising and found comfort with a few beers in his room; the number soon passing from `a few` to `a lot`. Much later Christine McVie had this to say of the guitarist; “he was really, really neurotic and difficult to work with – he was one of those people that would never look you in the eye.”
In Spring 1971, 24 musicians were auditioned for the vacant guitar job and an American, Bob Welch was chosen making his debut on the LP `Future Games`, released in September 1971. The songs shift the group’s style again, being more reflective and suggesting US groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Love and The Grateful Dead. The seed of their later mid 70s success can be clearly heard, especially on Christine Mc Vie’s track `Morning Rain` which could easily be from `Rumours`. Most of the material is up tempo and relaxed with open ended arrangements and it seems that Welch’s arrival gave the group a new sense of purpose. The record opened with Danny’s `Women of 1000 Years` that sounds slightly exotic thanks to engineer Martin Rushent’s echoey harmony vocals. It’s the longest track Danny wrote and the playout is languid and floaty; whereas `Kiln House ` had been a brief LP several of the tracks on `Future Games ` were extended by lengthy endings, reflecting the penchant of the early 70s for longer tracks. The title track, written by Bob Welch, is a particularly good example of West Coast rock given an extra impetus by the British musicians and builds to a climax via striking guitars from both Welch and Kirwan and ebbing harmonies.
One of Danny’s tracks `Sand of Time` was released as a single in November 71 and the full length version does meander a little but includes an excellent solo from it’s writer and some interesting percussive production but ultimately doesn’t seem to go anywhere. `Sometimes` is much better, with a country vibe completed by Christine McVie’s piano, it is a template for the sort of songs Kirwan would write on his solo albums a few years later; there’s some lovely chords on this and Danny’s vocal has more emotion while his `country picking` solos are lively and flow with more of a regretful tone. Would certainly have been a better single too. Mick Fleetwood said: "Danny was a producer of music. He would have been quite happy creating orchestrations for movies. He never really felt comfortable singing anything."
Following the LP’s release (March 1972 in the US, six months later here) Mac launched into yet another major US tour; over there interest in then was still fairly high whereas in their homeland it had waned. The previous two LPs had each sold about 250,000 copies in the States and `Bare Trees` matched this and got strong reviews at the time. By all accounts, Danny’s frame of mind deteriorated as the tour unfolded; he became even more introverted and was drinking excessively. One report says he wouldn’t eat for a whole week and just drank beer. There was definitely tension with Bob Welch too and all this seemed to fuel even more difficult behaviour from Kirwan. The best known anecdote about Danny’s decline references a gig before which (already drunk) he and Bob Welch got into an argument about tuning guitars which concluded with Danny smashing a guitar and refusing to come out on stage. Whereupon he spent the set at the mixing desk, coming up to the band later to tell them; “It was a pretty good gig; a little out of tune here and there”. Fleetwood later observed; "He was collapsing into the world in which, quite frankly, he's remained. He just couldn't handle life's process. He wasn't suited to the stresses and strains of creating."
This did not go down too well with his colleagues even though Mick Fleetwood was still hoping Danny would pull through; “I was the last mainstay” he said later “But he just couldn’t relax around people and it made us feel very ill at ease. It became intolerable; everyone was so fucking tense. I finally admitted I couldn’t take it either, and I had to be the one to tell him, to put him out of his misery. I knew he wouldn’t understand and he didn’t – he asked why. It was horrible.” Only later did the truth start to emerge; Welch later commenting publicly that “Danny was just coming apart at the seams and couldn’t function properly.” Kirwan would be the only member of Mac ever sacked. The band’s manager Clifford Davis was more forgiving and would later help Kirwan’s solo career maintaining that it was only Fleetwood and Welch who could not get on with Kirwan, though McVie was unequivocal about the guitarist having to go on the Family Trees documentary on the group in the 1990s.
So, in October 1972, Danny left Fleetwood Mac. Officially the announcement said; “Danny’s music was getting further away from what Mac wanted to play. After spending a lot of time paying exhaustive tours of America, it was felt that new blood and fresh ideas were needed in the band. Danny was happy to leave because he wanted to do a solo album for some time and he is now working on this project.” In retrospect, his departure was obviously going to happen but it is tempting to think that, had he stayed a while longer he could have fitted in perfectly with the sort of group Mac became in the mid / late 70s though maybe the superstar lifestyle would have cracked him up even more. At his height, he was easily as musically capable as the later likes of Lyndsey Buckingham or Stevie Nicks.There were rumours that after his departure he checked into a hospital for treatment of his nervous problems that always appeared to be the root cause of his drinking. Judging from what’s been said about him, it seems like he needed support to be at his best, socially and musically and that’s a shame given the talent that was clearly there. However you can’t tell people who are in that sort of a spiral, they either realise or they don’t.
Not too long after leaving Mac, Danny played on a solo LP by Chris Youden, ex-Savoy Brown called `Nowhere Road`, in 1973, and soon afterwards started demoing songs with ex-Chicken Shack member Andy Sylvester in Ealing and some of these would end up on his debut solo LP `Second Chapter` released in June 1975. At this point Kirwan was looking forward to working solo and it wasn’t long before he got a record deal with DJM. But the reaction to the album turned out to be a little disappointing; and the end result has been called `grooveless` but the songs became available again to hear, in a different order, on the 2000 LP `Ram Jam City` and time has been kind; maybe not to the lyrics, but certainly the music. Eventually the albums have become available.
What comes across in Kirwan's first album is the sound of an artist seemingly in control, whatever happened later. `Mary Jane` for example is airly catchy with a reggae touch and would have been a good choice as a debut solo single. `Cascades` is a lovely end to the record, carrying it’s reflective tune with some excellent guitars and is like one of those seemingly inconsequential Paul McCartney songs that you realise, all of a sudden, is actually good! `Odds and Ends` may more resemble a Ringo Starr track but it trundles along in toe tapping fashion complete with ragtime accompaniment while `Skip A Dee Do` introduces a square dance melody and a lyric that playfully watches an object of affection from a distance. Conjuring up the mid 70s vibe to perfection `Hot Summer Day` and `Second Chapter` are acoustic by the river songs peppered by Kirwan’s light electric pickings even if he’s a bit young here to be reminiscing about his youth. Both are as American as the music Fleetwood Mac were by now playing but mellower and, ironically given the guitarists’ life, they sound like someone at ease with themselves. `Best Girl in the World` sounds like a refugee from the early 60s with Shadows guitar and polite harmonies and even some `shooby-do-wops` thrown in. `Falling In Love With You` sees the banjo take prominence with a spiralling violin in the background; next day after I first heard this, it was running round my head for ages! `Lovely Days` is more ambitious as cellos and strings back Kirwan’s clear voice and acoustic; this goes round beautifully like a traditional English songs might and is full of inventive ideas even though it last less than 3 minutes whilst `Silver Streams` is from the Simon and Garfunkel area, but Danny adds an unexpected chord curveball on the chorus to make it his own. The country influence can be heard again on `Ram Jam City` which is only missing a `yee ha!” to complete an image of farmyard love.
Despite low sales for his two previous efforts, Kirwan saw out his three album deal with `Hello There, Big Boy` , which was nearly not completed. By now, his drinking and mental state were getting worse and Bob Weston, called in by Clifford Davis to help, later recalled “The album had to be finished but Danny’s playing just wasn’t useable. I went along to Clifford’s offices and when Danny came in he started pacing to and fro across the room walking with his arms straight and rigid. He said `Oh, I feel like a robot; I think I’ll walk like this all day`”. In the studio, Kirwan had built a den out of baffle boards (used to separate sound) and would remain in there often for a whole day of the session. Weston ended up covering the parts of Danny’s playing that could not be used. The embarrassing cover photos also show only too well the decline in the guitarist’s condition. The record itself, released in 1979 is one of those truly lost albums for which there is very little information about, though there are reports that it is not a million miles removed from Fleetwood Mac’s by then enormously successful West Coast rock albeit without the same commercial appeal and one track, `Caroline` apparently alludes to his failed marriage.
In 1993 he spoke to the Evening Standard and said “I’ve been through a bit of a rough patch but I’m not too bad. I get by and I suppose I am homeless but then I’ve never really had a home since our early days on tour.” He did add though; “If Mick would like to see me, that would be nice”. In a 1994 interview Peter Green said of Kirwan; “I think Mick and I are responsible for where he is now. I wish I could help him but I don’t know how.” Green had himself been through a similar decline during the 1970s, abandoning music and experiencing mental health problems but had seemed to recover and nowadays is often seen on tour. It seems no such return to the stage is likely for his old playing partner.
By the mid 1990s Danny had finally moved to a more modern home for alcoholics in south London and was being looked after properly to ensure he ate good food in between his daily alcohol intake. It was here that Fleetwood Mac’s unofficial historian Martin Celmins managed to interview Danny briefly in October 1995 and found him cheery, quick to share a joke and able to articulate forcefully if a little eccentrically though he soon tired. They shared a few cans of beer and Danny was willing to talk a little about the old days. He said of `Jigsaw Puzzle Blues`; “I worked out (the song) …and then played the signals to the rest of the band and John McVie knew every signal that you could give out.” He mentioned his favourite bluesmen; Albert King - “you’d drop out of last week for Albert wouldn’t you?” – and Otis Rush. And he referred to joining Mac; “Mick Fleetwood asked me; there I was, sitting like a little dum-dum, so he asked me. I didn’t know what to think, once I’d joined because before then I’d just been straddling around and then I was on stage and there were television cameras, and I got a bit paranoid.” He said that Green and Jeremy Spencer “knew each other well and were…mischievous. So I wasn’t actually a part of them really. I only got mixed up with them .” When it was suggested that Peter Green had said he couldn’t have done `Albatross` without Danny Kirwan, the man himself said, oddly “Well, that’s OK…as long as I’m Danny Kirwan without being dead next week!” adding that he and Green didn’t really get on; “We played some good stuff together, we played well together but we didn’t get on. I was a it temperamental you see.” He also commented that `One Sunny Day` was “a bit too powerful…Mick Fleetwood was a very strong drummer”.
When his mother died around the turn of the century relatives rallied round to look after Danny’s financial affairs as royalties had started to increase due to the many re-issues and compilations of early Fleetwood Mac material now being released. Clemins said he last saw Danny in August 1996 and he was looking `less jaundiced than usual`. Danny was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the rest of Fleetwood Mac in 1998 though of course he wasn’t present at the ceremony in New York. In 2000 when `Ram Jam City` was released, his ex-wife Clare Morris wrote the liner notes which included a story of the Rolling Stones office ringing Danny after Mick Taylor had left the legendary group – who knows what would have happened though they never managed to speak to him.
The Fleetwood Mac website said they’d seen photos of Danny’s 50th birthday and reported him looking “stronger and more together” and that he still played guitar for himself and was now well settled in the care centre. In May 2015 he turned 65, still surviving in his own way somewhere in London. It would be easy to make judgements either way about Danny Kirwan. Is he someone who squandered a talent or a tragic victim? Perhaps it’s best to let him have the last word: “I was lucky to have played for the band at all. I just started off following them, but I could play the guitar a bit and Mick felt sorry for me and put me in. I did it for a few years to about 1972 but…I couldn’t handle the lifestyle and the women and the travelling.”
Postscript 2018: On 8 June 2018 Danny Kirwan died.