Traffic

TrackAlbum
40,000 HeadmenTraffic
Coloured RainMr. Fantasy
Giving To You (Mono)Mr. Fantasy
GladJohn Barleycorn Must Die
Heaven Is In Your MindMr. Fantasy
Medicated GooLast Exit
No Time To LiveTraffic
Pearly QueenTraffic
Shanghai Noodle FactoryLast Exit
Who Knows What Tomorrow May BringTraffic

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Traffic playlist

 

 

Contributor: Rob Millis

With Steve Winwood the youthful face of British R&B, riding high in 1966 with The Spencer Davis Group, all eyes must surely have been on him when the group announced his departure (along with his brother Muff) at a high point in their fortunes.

You could understand it when Eric Clapton quit The Yardbirds; there was a staunch R&B instrumentalist whose band wanted to take the tarnished silver of full-on pop. But Winwood? Quitting a group scoring decent hits without resorting to the Graham Gouldman songbook, retaining the throaty blues guitar and growling Hammond organ that Winwood excelled at (when not churning out some of the best Anglo-pseudo-black American lead vocals that would give even the likes of Eric Burdon and Steve Marriott a run for their money) and attracting the likes of every respected musician in Swinging “Maximum R&B” London (Clapton, Burdon, Paul Jones …) to turn up at their dates and queue up for a jam? Apparently, yes. So it had better be worth it then, surely?

Bells must have rung in the SDG camp when guitarist, singer and composer Dave Mason, drummer and lyricist Jim Capaldi and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood – of the Black Country experimental band Deep Feeling – started to hang out with Steve, who would then spend most of his free time in their company rather than the increasingly restrictive (Winwood was the “kid” in a van of older guys, including his big brother) atmosphere of his own band. If not, those bells certainly must have been ringing by the time Mason, Capaldi and Wood were being invited into the studio to contribute percussion and backing vocals to the last two Winwood-era SDG singles. The public may not have heard of Capaldi, Mason and Wood when Winwood unveiled his plans in 1967, but I very much doubt that Muff Winwood, Peter York and Spencer Davis were surprised in the slightest.

Nor was it news to Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records – the hip independent label of 1967 and the next few years – who had signed Traffic, for that was the name of the new Winwood venture. It was to be a co-operative affair, with all four members sharing equal billing and contributing material, rather than Stevie Winwood and his new band. And rightly so; for Winwood, one element very much lacking in the SDG had been a “foil” to bounce off – Winwood had been the lead singer, played not only organ and piano but was the de facto lead guitarist as well (Davis was more of a folk musician).

Soon the group rented a cottage in Berkshire and lived communally – tantalising shots of the band show them in the English countryside with all the gear set up in their back yard, jamming for hours and woodshedding their nascent act and original material – pioneering the now-hackneyed rock star lifestyle of “getting it together in the country”. In the case of Traffic, it paid off, for after a couple of pop singles (and contributions, along with the new SDG, in the film Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush) the band unleashed Mr Fantasy, a fine debut album, late in 1967.

It wasn’t all peace, love and understanding, however. Dave Mason, as a writer, was proving to be a strong-willed figure, not keen on input from the others in his own songs, which in turn were often deemed unsuitable for the band (Hole In My Shoe was a Mason original; the send-up by Nigel Planer years later wasn’t far from the original, nor was Mason’s ‘candyfloss and cheese’ song House For Everyone on the debut LP) who were keen to shun the calculated, market-led psychedelic pop tag in favour of their own organic, looser collaborative style (the title track, the album opener Heaven Is In Your Mind – actually the USA title for the debut LP – and the closing near-instrumental Giving To You are good examples). The upshot was that before Mr Fantasy was in the shops, Mason was gone – he isn’t even pictured on the cover of the US version of the debut.

After touring as a trio (Winwood had played bass on the organ pedals even when Mason was in the group, to allow both organ and guitar in the live line-up) they regrouped back at home in 1968 to cut a second LP (for your author, their best) simply entitled Traffic. This saw Mason rejoin briefly, contributing some much more fitting material (Island sampler LP title cut You Can All Join In and the oft-covered Feelin’ Alright stand out) shorn of the bubblegum psych trimmings of his earlier contentious work. The nucleus of Winwood, Capaldi and Wood weren’t caught napping either – from their first Traffic offering Pearly Queen to the closing Means To An End every track is sublime.

The production work by Jimmy Miller on these two albums is worth a mention every bit as much as the material itself. The simultaneous clarity and warmth, the infectious feel and the intelligent use of congas and sundry percussion stand up even today. When The Rolling Stones wanted to relaunch after their abortive psychedelic period, they turned to Jimmy Miller as producer. You can hear the sound of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed waiting just around the corner, if you listen to the first two Traffic albums – especially Traffic – hard enough!

In 1969, Blind Faith happened and Traffic was no more. A 3rd album was released in Last Exit (a collection of 1968 non-album tracks and a live side from the Fillmore West) and also in 1969 The Best of Traffic (general compilation, also rounding up the earlier non-LP singles not appearing on Last Exit). Do not misunderstand me, though – as cash-ins go, Last Exit remains essential, if only for Shanghai Noodle Factory, Withering Tree and Medicated Goo. The live side is well worth a listen if slightly ponderous; two standards each given a lengthy organ/sax/drums workout. On a late sixties rock album, this non-guitar format makes for an interesting listen.

Live dates were undertaken by an interim combo of Capaldi, Wood, Mason (again!) and fellow Island artist Wynder K. Frog (Mick Weaver to his mum – still an in-demand Hammond player to this day) filling the vacant organ bench. The group is known both as Mason, Capaldi, Wood and Frog and the shorter, colloquial title Wooden Frog. No studio recordings saw the light of day, although it is considered likely that due to the dates involved, live recordings of Jimi Hendrix joined on stage by “Traffic” (or the other way around) actually feature the Mason/Frog band; sound quality makes them worth a listen but not essential and as they have appeared on those ubiquitous live Hendrix releases with myriad titles, track selections over the years, I am not going to suggest where to start looking! Ask a Hendrix buff…

Following the demise of Blind Faith (and a brief stint in Ginger Baker’s Airforce, reuniting him with Chris Wood), Winwood set about recording his first solo LP (with a working title of Mad Shadows that initial producer Guy Stevens suggested and would later use for Mott the Hoople’s second album). It didn’t take long before Winwood was back in touch with Jim Capaldi to help out, and eventually Chris Wood was on board too – and the LP became the start of a reborn Traffic. This chronology can be seen on the performance credits on the sleeve of John Barleycorn Must Die where tracks range from Winwood on all vocals and instruments, through Capaldi adding drums, and then vocals, to the three Traffic members fully reunited. The album, much like (say) Eric Clapton’s 1970 output, bore all the hallmarks of a musician influenced by The Band – folk influences in the title track, a hymnal feel and stately organ sound on Every Mother’s Son and a maturity and better sense of structure to the songs in general. Like many post-Big Pink album releases, the loose jams (even opening instrumental Glad had a strong arrangement between the solos) and funky two-chord workouts were gone; unlike many bands, this facet would return in Traffic.

Traffic added their first permanent bassist after the release of this comeback LP (none other than the late Ric Grech; Winwood’s recent Blind Faith bandmate and founder member of Family; Grech also contributed violin as he had in both previous bands) and once again hit the road, touring the USA as a quartet.

The curious tale of the in-concert album that never was follows. Shows were taped at the Fillmore East, the release was scheduled; it even got an Island catalogue number – ILPS 9142, the perfunctory title of Live – November 1970 and is reckoned to have had finished sleeves and been just days from being pressed up and hitting the shops – but never materialised. Bootlegs exist, and some finalised tracks were released officially (including Bill Graham’s introduction; the performances are excellent) as bonus cuts on the expanded CD release of John Barleycorn Must Die. The performances are excellent, and as one theory of a lost tape is rather far-fetched if the sleeves were indeed printed, it is likely that events of the following year caused this project to be abandoned: these range from the band having second thoughts, to disputes between Chris Blackwell and UA records in the States over their handling of Winwood’s back catalogue. Moreover, in the summer of 1971, Dave Mason rejoined a third time (fourth if you include the Wynder K. Frog period!) along with percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and ex-Derek and the Dominos/Delaney and Bonnie drummer Jim Gordon.

True to form, Mason didn’t stick around long. He’d been in the same Delaney & Bonnie And Friends band as Eric Clapton, predictably not lasted long as a Derek and the Dominos founder member, but had notched up Alone Together, a promising debut solo LP with a who’s who of Dominos/Leon Russell scene figures, several prominent US heavyweight players (Chris Ethridge, Larry Knechtel, Jim Keltner to name a few; Jim Capaldi helped out too) and a collaborative LP with Mama Cass Elliot early in 1971. But the Mason/Gordon/Kwaku Baah augmented Traffic did manage to complete a handful of dates (they are captured on the 1971 festival movie Glastonbury Fayre) and from these came Welcome To The Canteen, a live effort. Opinions are divided on this; there are some spirited moments (40,000 Headmen and Mason’s own Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave stand out) but a reliance on an extended conga-heavy workout based on the old Spencer Davis Group hit Gimme Some Lovin’ verges on desperation to fill an LP. Maybe that’s the reason why individual musicians are credited on the album cover – a sense of not being worthy of the Traffic name? For it is nowhere on the LP sleeve – only the band’s distinctive roundel logo appears on a cola bottle on the back cover! For some, this LP ushers in the period where Jim Capaldi began to look like a spare part (certainly live; he nevertheless remained a key writer). Freed from his drum kit by Gordon, ostensibly to focus on singing, he would increasingly bumble around the stage looking as stoned as they come, bashing a tambourine.

It is thought that upon leaving Fairport Convention (another Island stable act), guitarist Richard Thompson was invited to join Traffic. A prolific writer by then, and with a definite style of his own, Thompson instead opted to stick to his plans of launching a solo career. Yet another musician with a fine understanding of musical styles, his addition to Traffic could have made for some very interesting listening.

September 1971 saw Traffic in the studio once more following the departure of Mason, with Gordon and Kwaku Baah staying. Following the live LP fiasco of 1970, and the ho-hum Welcome To The Canteen, it was undoubtedly refreshing to make an all-new studio LP and have it in the shops by Christmas! Indeed, with Last Exit having been half live and released after the ’69 split, the Best Of Traffic compilation LP the same year, John Barleycorn Must Die intended as a solo effort from Winwood, and then nearly a year spent debating/releasing a live effort, there is argument that Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys was the first proper Traffic LP since the eponymous second platter in 1968.

Low Spark was a success in the USA – Billboard no.7 placing – and is generally considered with fondness by fans, despite far less success in the UK. The lengthy title track featured some good extended soloing from Winwood and Wood, and Capaldi’s new role as co-vocalist was well utilised in his own Light Up Or Leave Me Alone, an up-tempo, funky workout with some of Winwood’s sharpest guitar to date. I personally find that the LP could have done with more of this, as several other cuts on it are a little lacking in direction, although Grech’s Rock & Roll Stew is a good mid-tempo funk pot-boiler. But it went platinum in the States – what do I know! Grech and Gordon left shortly after release. Winwood, feeling distinctly off-colour, called a break; he was actually suffering from peritonitis.

1972 saw no LP release as the re-jigged group (experienced Muscle Shoals stalwarts David Hood and Roger Hawkins comprised the rhythm section) toured extensively to promote Low Spark following Winwood’s return to health, although a good in-concert TV film was taped in Santa Monica at the Civic Auditorium and remains the only feature-length footage of the band. This line-up (with cameos from other Muscle Shoals alumni) recorded Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory later in the year, which was released early in 1973.

Shoot Out is a hard LP to love, but again, it sold well Stateside. It opens well with the funky, conga driven title cut, but even that seems to outstay its welcome after a fashion, the coda of guitar and flute interplay appearing never to end. The remainder of the LP seems very much on one, meandering, lumpen groove. That the closing track was called (Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired has not been lost on many, a cheap shot to fire maybe, but not one without basis. In contrast, the double LP On The Road culled from 1973 dates fared better in the UK than either studio predecessor. Hood and Hawkins, however, left the band at this point and Rebop Kwaku Baah was fired, following his developing habit of continuing to play the congas after the rest of the band had stopped playing songs and even finished complete gigs.

Thankfully Capaldi took this cue to return behind the drum kit, and with new bassist Rosko Gee on board, the (refreshingly concise, once more) band completed recording When the Eagle Flies by mid 1974 and released it the same autumn. Patchy it may be, but the opening piano and sax notes of Something New (“something new” for Winwood maybe, but not the band; the album was to be their last for twenty years) revealed a simpler approach, free of all the flab of the weaker parts of the last two studio records and is immediately refreshing. The album did veer into moodier, sparser turf, but the hypnotic groove of Walking In The Wind is far more effective than the self-indulgence of Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory. The album also marked Winwood’s first writing collaboration with the late, great Vivian Stanshall, a seemingly odd pairing but one which Winwood would return to in solo years.

Traffic never officially split up, but Winwood abandoned their last scheduled gig mid-set and went home without telling the others, once again dogged by ill health both personally and in terms of how he saw Traffic – with Chris Wood’s addiction-fuelled lifestyle physically taking a toll, the band in general was not in good shape on those 1974 shows. Chris Wood died of pneumonia in 1983.

In 1994, Winwood/Capaldi revived the Traffic name for some well-received live dates (including Woodstock 2; and in the UK, Hammersmith Odeon where your then-20 year old author sat pinching himself at the notion he was actually watching Traffic!). Randall Bramlett, a multi-instrumentalist filled the Chris Wood role superbly. An album, Far From Home, was recorded but was more akin to a trademark slick Winwood solo LP with “cut and paste” Traffic trademarks (flute; ethnic/exotic instruments) than bona fide Traffic; the gulf between the new songs (Some Kinda Woman and Here Comes A Man) and the old favourite 40,000 Headmen when the band performed on the Later … with Jools Holland BBC TV show was anything but invisible, and your author – working in an independent Surrey record store at the time Far from Home was released – remembers one regular customer and die-hard Traffic fan quipping that it was a good thing that the familiar band logo had all but monopolised the CD cover, as you could easily miss the point if you relied on your ears. Thankfully, the revived band had supported The Grateful Dead on tour, and from these dates a live album fittingly named The Last Great Traffic Jam has since been released to better document this period.

In 2005, Jim Capaldi sadly passed away, effectively ending any tentative plans for Winwood and his old sparring partner to revive the Traffic name once again. Winwood’s own releases and shows have thankfully seen a return to organ and guitar far more than those big-selling synth-laden solo LPs of the eighties and nineties.

Traffic were a unique band, so very British in many ways but impossible without the great understanding of jazz, folk and blues that the Winwood/Capaldi/Wood nucleus definitely injected into their songs and style. A friend once suggested that they were the archetypal 60s heavyweight act that aside from those of an age to have been there at the time, “everybody has heard of, but never heard”. This is not entirely true – early singles Paper Sun and Hole In My Shoe have long been compilation and oldie radio favourites – but compared to Cream or Hendrix, you just don’t get the exposure to the “meatier” material that stands up there with their contemporaries without seeking the albums out for yourself. Though both Winwood and Dave Mason played some fine guitar worthy of the likes of friends and frequent jamming buddies like Clapton and Hendrix, the group lacked an obvious guitar hero for the public to identify with easily, with Mason in and out of the band during crucial periods, and Winwood frequently playing organ (and possibly thought of as a keyboard player by the public). In an era where a band had to have a readily identifiable front man or heroic guitarist, Traffic’s often subtle and very varied instrumentation is likely to be the reason for this criminal overlooking.

It’s certainly the reason why those of us who love that band do.

Traffic biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #45

8 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Aug 11, 2013

    Until Traffic, Chris Blackwell’s Island label was known for Afro-Caribbean and soul music. Because these had their own specialist outlets in the UK, Blackwell released the Spencer Davis Group via the major label Fontana, knowing they would be big and doubting his own label’s ability to market them. Blackwell became Traffic’s manager, and Muff Winwood went to work in A&R at Island. Island had tried straight rock briefly with the “Brit” label (releasing “Incense” by The Anglos, which was Steve Winwood with Millie). But the “pink label” Island was founded very much around Traffic initially, and in an era when picture sleeves were very rare in the UK, the first three Traffic releases all had them. Spencer Davis, interviewed recently, couldn’t understand any of it … they were about to start the first SDG American tour when Blackwell pulled the plug. Davis was convinced they would have been huge, and he’s right, but it would have been by hanging onto Winwood’s coat tails.
    The first two Traffic songs I’d select are Dear Mr Fantasy and Feelin’ Alright. I felt Dave Mason had a good popular ear, and his compositions Feelin’ Alright and Hole in My Shoe were both early Traffic 45s. Hole In My Shoe had such impact at the time that I’d be tempted to include it as a prime example of hippy-dippy-trippy, but Rob Millis mentions Nigel Planer’s send-up version (a #2 hit in the UK in 1984), in the character of Neil from “The Young Ones” and I admit that’s probably finished the song ever being taken seriously again.

  2. Rob Millis
    Aug 12, 2013

    Peter mentions the picture sleeves early in the Traffic catalogue, and it prompts me to mention just how lavish the original package of that wonderful second LP was: gatefold sleeve, but with a booklet stapled inside with various in-concert and at home in the country shots of the band. As just a nice thing to own it is worth every penny of whatever the going rate is for an early copy (in fact the early batches of palm-tree label Island pressings still had the booklet so it needn’t be a wallet-emptier as a pink label copy would be).
    Peter, I’m surprised that you haven’t been on the phone to me for NOT including Dear Mr Fantasy in the top 10. I just thought that there is so much lesser known stuff there that represent other reasons to buy that debut album, in which case folk would hear it anyway!

  3. Peter Viney
    Aug 12, 2013

    I nearly did, Rob, but Toppermost had saved the day with the Dear Mr Fantasy video. I was discussing this issue with two friends last night and asked them for their first Traffic choice, and they came up with No Face, No Name, No Number which shows the riches in there.
    Yes, Blackwell more or less bet the company on Traffic, with no expense spared.

  4. David Powell
    Aug 12, 2013

    Randall Bramblett, who played with Steve Winwood for over 15 years, also toured with Levon Helm twice in the ’80s. He also contributed to Robbie Robertson’s Carny soundtrack and appeared in the film as a member of the band backing the “fat man”. When Traffic was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Randall sat in on the organ when they performed “Dear Mr. Fantasy”.
    In 1966 Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton were part of a one-off studio recording project for producer Joe Boyd for an Elektra Records compilation entitled “What’s Shakin'”. Accompanied by Jack Bruce & Paul Jones from Manfred Mann and Pete York from Spencer Davis they contributed three songs, including a version of “Crossroads”.

    • Rob Millis
      Aug 12, 2013

      David: Yes, “Eric Clapton & the Powerhouse”.
      Peter: I had suggested that video of them at Christmas On Earth Continued mainly because live footage of the original incarnation (with OR without Mason) is so rare. But yes, Dear Mr Fantasy from Santa Monica isn’t a bad rendition at all.

  5. Ian Ashleigh
    Dec 29, 2013

    Christmas has been a good time to browse some of the older postings. I used Glad as a voiceover track when I did hospital radio in the early 1980s it is quite simply an exquisite jazz-rock track. Our author makes no mention of the double live album Traffic On the Road which I ‘borrowed’ from my older brother and is a fine example of their live material. I have the vinyl and have never sought a CD or download, maybe I will …

    • Rob Millis
      Jan 2, 2014

      Ian, “On The Road” did get mentioned but nothing selected from it for my Topper Ten. If you look, hardly anything post Blind Faith was picked but I agree with you on Glad – which to me also includes Freedom Rider as one choice 😉 hence its inclusion. Truth be told, there is so much great, great stuff in the first three LPs that I couldn’t bear to sacrifice any of them hence the post 1970 catalogue is somewhat skewed in lack of representation. Had Traffic have been called a different name from John Barleycorn onwards, this would be my Topper Ten for that band:

      Song (Source)
      Glad (John Barleycorn Must Die)
      Freedom Rider (John Barleycorn Must Die)
      Every Mother’s Son (John Barleycorn Must Die)
      Stranger To Himself (John Barleycorn Must Die)
      Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave
      (Welcome To The Canteen)
      Rock & Roll Stew (Low Spark of High Heeled Boys)
      Light Up or Leave Me Alone (Low Spark of High Heeled Boys)
      Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (Low Spark of High Heeled Boys)
      Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory (Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory)
      Something New (When The Eagle Flies)

  6. Peter Viney
    Jan 2, 2014

    I like the “later list” too, but would prefer the Dave Mason solo version of “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” from Alone Together.

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