Danny Kirwan was just 18 years old when he joined Fleetwood Mac in late 1968, but the blues guitarist – who died on June 8th of unknown causes – was already an experienced player on the London scene and he immediately became a crucial part of their songwriting process. And even when Peter Green was churning out classics like “Rattlesnake Shake” for their 1969 LP Then Play On, Kirwan wrote half of the album’s 14 songs.
Check out this video of Fleetwood Mac playing Kirwan’s tune “Like Crying” on the BBC in 1969. He shares guitar and vocal duties with Peter Green. It’s a perfect demonstration of their incredible chemistry (Kirwan is the one with the left with the lighter hair), though it was destined to be short-lived. Just one year later, Green began struggling with drug and mental health issues and left the group. Jeremy Spencer was brought in to replace him, but much of the burden fell on Kirwan to produce lead material and lead the group.
This period in the group’s history is often labeled the “Wilderness Years” by Fleetwood Mac fans since the albums stopped charting and the group struggled to keep a steady lineup. Kirwan began drinking very heavily in the early 1970s and became distant from his bandmates, and they sacked him in 1972 when they got into a violent fight backstage. Kirwan released a handful of solo albums in the 1970s, but none of them got any traction and he soon vanished off the grid. He battled mental health issues for the rest of his life and was even homeless for a short period of time.
Sadly, there’s precious little video of Fleetwood Mac from the early 1970s where Kirwan was leading the band and writing many of their best songs. Many Fleetwood Mac fans of today are only faintly aware he even existed since they’ve had so many guitarists come and go over the years and the Rumours-era lineup became so wildly successful that everything that preceded them has been largely ignored. That’s going to change on their tour later this year since they’ve pledged to finally play songs from the group’s entire run, and hopefully that’ll include at least one Danny Kirwan song.
“Danny’s true legacy, in my mind, will forever live on in the music he wrote and played so beautifully as a part of the foundation of Fleetwood Mac, that has now endured for over fifty years,” Mick Fleetwood said in a statement after he died. “Thank you, Danny Kirwan. You will forever be missed!”