NOTE: I just learned Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac died Friday, at age 68. Kirwan was an important member of the band before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in late 1974. He played a luscious vibrato guitar, and more importantly, wrote some of the band’s best songs. Sadly, he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and left the band in 1972. Until he died Friday, he seemed to be a forgotten man. Longitudes loves good songwriters like Kirwan (they’re in short supply these days). So, I’m re-posting this 2014 essay about the Mac. Thanks for your beautiful songs, Danny.
On a recent Sunday while drinking my coffee, I turned the TV to the long-running television program, “CBS Sunday Morning,” hosted by Charles Osgood. This enjoyable show always has at least one segment devoted to popular culture. Past shows have included interviews with Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. This particular show included a puff piece on the pop-rock band Fleetwood Mac. The rationale was drummer Mick Fleetwood’s recent (and 2nd) autobiography, which coincides with the band’s 61st (or maybe 62nd) reunion tour.
Full disclosure here: Fleetwood Mac isn’t one of my favorite bands. Their songs are tuneful, albeit in an effete sort of way. But “the Mac’s” unthreatening, southern California brand of rock was perfect ear sweetener for the somnolent mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, and there’s still nostalgia for that stuff amongst baby boomers. So I wasn’t too surprised to see them profiled on TV alongside segments devoted to the wedding of George Clooney and “The Timeless Allure of Swing Dancing.”
What really stuck in my craw, though, was the narrator using a sweeping statement, during a buildup to the gilded Buckingham-Nicks years, that “other band members came and went.” There was no mention of founder Peter Green. No mention of Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch… forget it. Seven different band members, eight years, and nine albums brushed aside.
So, once again, I feel the need to set the record straight. Nothing against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. But there was a band called Fleetwood Mac that existed long before those two joined in 1974 to help catapult them to superstardom. They were English. They had a curious and colorful biography, and they were very talented.
Fleetwood Mac sprouted in 1967 from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an English blues band that featured virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton was, and is, one of the most formidable blues guitarists in history. When Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers to form the legendary Cream, his place was taken by a guy named Peter Green. Not only did Green have a great first name, he also had the challenge of replacing a guitar god. Most rock critics would agree that he more than met the challenge. John Mayall felt so, too, and after only one album with Green, he encouraged Green to “go thither into the world” and form his own band.
Green did just that. Before long he selected bass player John McVie (also from the Bluesbreakers) and a drummer named Mick Fleetwood, whom he knew from two earlier bands. For added punch, he added Elmore James-influenced slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Being a humble guy, leader Green named the band after his rhythm section… neither of whom were songwriters!
This early version of Fleetwood Mac released three studio albums: FLEETWOOD MAC, MR. WONDERFUL, and the double album THEN PLAY ON. At this juncture their music emphasized blues-based rock, and they had a reputation for being a dynamic live act. Green was a powerful guitarist and had a distinctive guttural voice that perfectly complemented his blistering guitar licks. He was also a skilled songwriter, going from the sublime (“Man of the World” and “Albatross)” to the earthy [“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)”] and “Oh Well”) to the mysterious (“Black Magic Woman,” which was covered by West Coast band Santana and became their signature song). Jeremy Spencer was also notable. He often closed the band’s shows by doing old rock ‘n’ roll numbers and mimicking people like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The band was a regular attraction at 60s-era ballrooms like the Shrine Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Boston Tea Party.
Then the first tragedy occurred. Like so many creative artists from that era, Green began experimenting with LSD. And like Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) before him, he became a casualty of the drug. He began wearing long robes on stage and drifting off into endless guitar solos. Although the undisputed leader of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had to leave the band he had founded. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and entered a mental hospital. In the late 1970s, there was a rumor he was working as a gravedigger.
Some people seem to pull an ace out of their sleeve just when it’s needed. Fleetwood Mac’s ace was a guitarist named Danny Kirwan, whom Green had enlisted before the THEN PLAY ON album. Although Kirwan wasn’t the singer or instrumentalist that Green was, he was (at least to these ears) the best songwriter the band ever had. Kirwan guided the band through the next three records: KILN HOUSE, FUTURE GAMES, and BARE TREES.
Kirwan played a unique vibrato guitar and was responsible for some of the group’s most melodic songs, gorgeous gems like “Dragonfly,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy,” “Earl Grey,” “Woman of a Thousand Years,” “Bare Trees,” “Sunny Side of Heaven,” “Dust,” and others. For support, Kirwan leaned on John McVie’s wife, Christine Perfect McVie, who’d sung for the blues band Chicken Shack and joined the Mac during the KILN HOUSE sessions (and who created the striking artwork for that album sleeve). One of her songs, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from the BARE TREES sessions, became a staple of the band’s repertoire.
Kirwan, however, was always a little unstable. He was a heavy drinker and frequently succumbed to major mood swings. He was fired in 1973 after one particularly violent outburst. He later made three solo albums, the first two of which are very good (though not many people have heard them…they’re available for listening on YouTube, including the lovely “Cascades“).
Spencer, too, had quit in 1971 during a tour. While in Los Angeles, he’d gone out to buy a magazine, then disappeared for several days. The group later discovered he’d met a stranger on the street corner, who’d convinced him to renounce his former life and convert to a religious cult known as the Children of God.
Fleetwood Mac’s seventh and eighth studio albums were PENGUIN and MYSTERY TO ME. They were a bit of a letdown after the creative Green and Kirwan years, but the latter LP had at least one great song in “Hypnotized,” which became a favorite on American FM radio. This tune was written and sung by Bob Welch, an unknown Californian who’d joined the Mac just after KILN HOUSE. Welch wasn’t on a songwriting par with Kirwan, but he helped in three ways: he provided vocal and writing support; he eased them into the American market with radio-friendly material like “Sentimental Lady” (which Welch later re-recorded as a solo artist, becoming a Top 10 hit); and – most significantly – he convinced them to move their offices from London to Los Angeles.
Welch was the last significant member to join Fleetwood Mac, until Nicks and Buckingham in ’74. He quit the band after the ninth album, HEROES ARE HARD TO FIND, when he became tired of touring, as well as fighting a legal battle over ownership of the band’s name (in another strange twist in the band’s history, Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davies, to fulfill a contract obligation, sent out a fake Fleetwood Mac on tour in 1974; Fleetwood later claimed he knew nothing about the ruse. This fake band later changed their name to Stretch and had a No. 16 hit with “Why Did You Do It?” which was aimed at Fleetwood).
In late ’74, Fleetwood made the acquaintance of American Lindsay Buckingham, who’d recorded an album with his then-girlfriend, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks. He asked Buckingham to join the band to replace Welch. Buckingham agreed, but only if he could bring along Nicks. Fleetwood nodded “Yes,” and Fleetwood Mac’s long mystery train finally rolled toward that nebulous place where English blues musicians, Wall Street mercantilists, and inaugurated U.S. presidents get together to harmonize.
Today, founding member Peter Green keeps a low profile. But as late as 2010, he was doing short tours with his own band. In its list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine placed him at No. 38. Mojo Magazine ranked him No. 3.
Jeremy Spencer is still associated with the Children of God (now called Family International). He’s lived all over the world, has jammed privately with both Fleetwood and John McVie, and in 2009 appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.
Bob Welch took his own life in 2012. His widow said he was in intense pain after recently undergoing unsuccessful spinal surgery. She thinks his pain medication may have also contributed to his suicide. In 1998, Welch was not included with other band members for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). He’d earlier filed a lawsuit against the band for underpayment of royalties, and he believed that Fleetwood and the McVie’s convinced the hall to blackball him.
Not much is known about Danny Kirwan. According to Wikipedia, his mental health declined after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1973 (he was supposedly homeless for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s). Unlike Welch, Kirwan was inducted into the RnRHoF with other members. But he didn’t show up at the ceremony. John McVie was quoted as saying that a Fleetwood Mac reunion with Green and Spencer is a possibility, “but I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart.”
18 thoughts on “Fleetwood Mac: The Forgotten Years (Re-Post)”
Thx Profesor P! I always your lessons… How is the next book coming along? Miss you around here but let’s catch up at lunch sometime – let us know when you want to mongolian buffet!
Well Pete you don’t have to set the record straight with CB. He quit following the band after ‘Bare Trees’. Their early stuff still gets regular play at my shack. One of CB’s first takes was ‘Live in Chicago’. I just told someone else recently that I took ‘Live in Boston’ (1970) for a walk the other day. (Still listen to a Disc-man). So you’re speaking to the converted. Not knocking the later version that had all the success but it was the early stuff that CB dug. Good post, Hope some of your readers check the music out. (Have a great Peter Green and the Splinter Group CD ‘Me and the Devil’)
We’re on the same page, CB. My favorite Mac is the Kirwin years, with “Bare Trees” at the top. Would eventually like to check out “Then Play On,” which I hear is rather good, too, in a bluesy way. If you like their live work (and haven’t yet heard it), another tasty disc is “Shrine ’69.” Peter Green is at the top of his game. He was one cool guy, and it’s great hearing him talk to the Shrine audience in his clipped English accent.
I was off the grid for a bit. But yeah. I will check out ‘Shrine ‘ 69’ for sure. I might throw a little ‘Mac’ on today. Like your positive take on things. CB
Talk about complicated histories! I can’t keep all of this stuff straight.
And now Buckingham is out of the band. I wonder if the complete story about that will come out some day.
Lots of comings and goings. But not surprising when a band has been around for almost 50 years. That’s why a band like the Stones is so amazing: they keep Rolling along, with only a few personnel changes.
Back again. My empathy goes out to Danny’s family. They would have been living his struggle with him. The music of Mac’s early years is the stuff that does it for me. I guess I left the band when Danny did.
Glad to have you “back again,” CB. Sounds like you were an early Mac fan. Kirwan’s whereabouts were long a mystery. Fleetwood put out a missing persons notice at one point. His ex-wife (Claire?) was the only one in touch with him. I just think he’s a fantastic songwriter, and it’s a shame he’s not recognized more (BTW, thanks for the link to “Station Man” you did recently…I listened to the whole Kiln House album).
If I dig a certain band or a film it’s sure not to be popular. If a certain band doesn’t do anything for me they will go onto be superstars. Back to you for the “thanks”. I’ve spun ‘Shrine 69’ a few times. Fantastic. Man did the early members have head troubles or what.
Pete, thanks for the detailed history of the band. While I was aware of a long presence before Buckingham-Nicks, I was unaware of the links to the Bluesbreakers. By itself, that link says these early folks could play. It is interesting that Buckingham was dismissed from the tour as he did not want to play earlier stuff that pre-dated. He has been amply replaced.
As for the very successful version of the group, I think the three part and various two part harmonies made them work well. They were kind of like the old Oakland A’s who won three straight World Series. They played well, but fought like hell. Keith
You’re welcome, Keith. Interpersonal squabbles in rock bands go way back. I’m mainly interested in the music. Harmonies? I never focused much on the Mac’s harmonies (for me it’s Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, etc.). All the members of the Mac are/were talented, and Buckingham is a good writer, but there was an edge to the earlier music that I liked, and which became too polished later on. Danny was a great writer, very underrated. Thanks for commenting!
as usual a bit late to your thoughts but aside from Steely Dan I have been listening to F/M since 1971 and the release of Future Games (47 years ago).
Danny Kirwan and Lindsey Buckingham were the melodic soul of that band.
Bob Welch’s and Christine McVie’s contributions though should never be underestimated. Remember that his last album, “Heros Are Hard To Find” was the highest tracking F/M album (#34/US).
I could go on and on but suffice to say I could grab any F/M album that I own and be perfectly satisfied with choice. As an aside…wouldn’t it have been interesting if Mick Taylor, having left the Stones, found the guitar seat with that band. Kirwan and Taylor together…
Great minds think alike, Rob. I’ll have to confess that I put Kirwan ahead of Buckingham as far as songwriting goes. However, I don’t claim to know everything LB has written, and I’m sure there are little-known songs by him that I’m missing. However, I can’t see Buckingham writing a song like “Woman of a Thousand Years.” Not a big fan of Welch’s songs, although he certainly had talent. I love many of Christine’s songs. I heard “Little Lies” two days ago while browsing in a store, and it reminded me of her talent.
Mick Taylor in FM? Wow. Like Green, Taylor did his apprenticeship with John Mayall, correct? Speaking of Mayall, I saw him in a club last year. The guy’s a rock, still ‘fessing the blues.
replying to your post today given Trumps NATO diatribe to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg all this morning seems a bit trite, but given our direction these days perhaps putting our focus on some more mundane topics will give us a brief respite.
Couple things…I have Future Games on the stereo while I type.
Regarding Danny Kirwan – no Mayall stint.
I mentioned Mick Taylor as you can hear that Kirwan melody in songs like Sway, Moonlight Mile, Winter,,
Taylor rocked on songs like Bitch,Tumbling Dice however you can hear that same thoughtful, wistful tone in his other contributions.
I found this quote about Danny and think that it could be equally ascribed to Mick.
Danny (Taylor) was a quantum leap ahead for us(Fleetwood/Stones) creatively,” Fleetwood (Keith) told Music Aficionado. “He was a hugely important part of the band.”
Closing this out – if you truly want to hear the earliest, pre-evolution of Buckingham/Nicks, listen to Christine’s 1984 album – you will hear its roots.
Thanks, Rob. Yes, what I meant was that Mick Taylor played with Mayall (not Kirwan).
I’ll listen for those Kirwan/Taylor comparisons you mentioned. And I agree, Taylor’s support of Keith Richards is similar to Kirwan’s support of Green. You’re a man who knows his music! And Christine McVie is SO underrated. I just heard her “Little Lies” while on vacation, and forgot what a good song it is. Peace!
“You’re a man who knows his music! “…lol
Pete, I have had a Zelig / Forrest Gump kind of life.
Addressing it online would appear to be braggadocio.
I made my living as a “stupid” (#1*) carpenter/contractor…lol, not a shrimp fisherman. 😉
My associations started at around 15 years of age as a roadie for a major label band and the rest was being in the right place at the right time.
E-mail some time if you want and I’ll tell you some stories that while aren’t Bill Graham, they are
nuggets about some of the most famous musicians that you have heard of.
I’ll tease you, among many…I had dinner with Artimus Pyle (drummer) – Lynyrd Skynyrd…;-)
Never knew it was going to happen.
ps – (#1*) – I loved my trade, however living and working for CEO’s, Masters Of The Universe in Fairfield County as a building Contractor I was always aware of my life in their pecking order.
Thankfully I worked for more Buffett, Gates type of individuals who appreciated my talents.
One more thing – I actually worked for one of the “Barbarians Of The Gate” (book).
It will blow your mind – talk about crazy F-you money.
Rob, I’d love to hear your stories some time. Have you thought of doing a book about roadie life? I’m sure it would sell well!
Speaking of Bill Graham, one of the best rock books I’ve ever read is “Bill Graham Presents.” You’ve probably read it, but if not, you must make it a priority. He knew them all, he escaped the Nazis, and he’s a great raconteur Take care.