This story I’m telling, it starts in the middle. But this is a story that loops and circles in on itself, like a cloverleaf roadway; you’ve got to start where you are, and go forward to the beginning.
Imagine you’re Steve Winwood. As the Sixties turn into the Seventies, you’ve already made your bones with the Spencer Davis Group, formed Traffic and broken it up (twice), and headlined the supergroups Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Now you’re in the studio, laying down tracks for what is supposed to be your first solo album.
And you are twenty-two years old.
Faced with a head-on plunge into rock superstardom and its pressures, and with the druggy chaos of Blind Faith still a fresh memory, perhaps it’s not surprising that you shy away. You retreat back to old collaborations, and even older musics — absorbing the sounds of English folksong and ’50s cool jazz. Moving forward, you loop back to where you started; Steve Winwood’s solo career goes on hold, and Traffic is reborn once more.
You know what? Let’s skip ahead to the beginning.
Origins and Early Singles
It was American producer Jimmy Miller who brought the members of Traffic together — and who defined the sound to which they would hew even after his departure — in sessions for Winwood’s first band, the Spencer Davis Group. Miller remixed the SDG’s “Gimme Some Loving” for American radio, bringing in journeyman musicians Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, and Dave Mason (who had been the SDG’s road manager) to add percussion and vocal overdubs. The remix cracked the US Billboard top ten, and Miller took the three into the studio with the Davis Group to record the follow-up, “I’m A Man” (download). The elements of Traffic’s sound are all in place; predominant keyboards, gang vocals, and kitchen-sink percussion bubbling through a deep, layered stereo mix.
Leaving Davis in 1967, at nineteen, Winwood threw his lot in with Capaldi, Wood, and Mason — turning the winning sound of late-period Spencer Davis Group towards more psychedelic rock-oriented material. Three lead singers, four songwriters, all proficient in multiple instruments — with an embarrassment of riches, the new group, dubbed Traffic, began a period of intense collaboration, decamping from London to an isolated cottage in Berkshire where they would live, write, and play together.
Some benefited more from the arrangement than others. Winwood, never much of a lyricist, found in Capaldi a writing partner with a distinctive poetic voice — phantasmagoric, playful, committed even to its whimsy. Psychedelic pop doesn’t get much better than Traffic’s debut single “Paper Sun” (download) — its day-glo swirl founded on a rock-bottom R&B framework.
But from the beginning, the group was fractured. Where Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood wrote songs together in the true hippie-communal style, Dave Mason was the odd man out; he preferred to work up his material alone and present it to the others on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Sometimes this left them feeling pressured to accept material they found subpar. “Hole in My Shoe” (download) was Mason’s follow-up to “Paper Sun,” and aims for the same lysergic vibe; but its lyrics, with their giant albatrosses and bubblegum trees, seem weirdly bogus — like a marketing man’s idea of psychedelia. Worse yet, Miller’s secondhand Beatle-isms push the song into self-parody. Though “Hole in My Shoe” ended up as Traffic’s biggest UK single in the UK, reaching #2 on the charts, the other three hated it.
Although Traffic never wrote about current events, they were always political in the larger sense that the hippie movement was political — more concerned with personal liberation (either through drugs, mysticism, or simply opting out of a conformist society) than with specific policies. In that light, Traffic’s first full album, Mr. Fantasy, amounts to a manifesto. Capaldi’s lyrics promote spiritual freedom with a strong agrarian slant, and the title track holds up escapism as a perfect response to a grim world situation. Musically, what’s most exciting is the ramshackle, anything-can-happen quality, from the out-of-tune upright piano of “Berkshire Poppies” to the frenzied babbling that closes the anthemic “Heaven Is in Your Mind” (download) The long blues jam “Dear Mr. Fantasy” keeps threatening to fall off the rails completely, with Winwood’s ghostly vocals and harmonica playing hide-and-seek dissolving into a massive fuzz guitar coda that lurches unsteadily into double-time before the fade, like a locomotive steaming out of sight.
Mr. Fantasy has been reissued in several different track configurations; the American edition includes “Paper Sun” and “Hole in My Shoe.” For some pressings, the album was retitled Heaven Is in Your Mind, and packaged with an alternate sleeve photo — from which Dave Mason is conspicuously absent.
The tension with Dave Mason proving untenable, the band fired him in late 1967, only to rehire him months later when they found themselves short of material for a follow-up album. It must have been humbling, but it paid off in spades; with Miller again at the controls, Traffic and Mason knocked out a genuine classic in “Feelin’Alright?,” later covered by Joe Cocker. The sound is a little tighter than the debut, but still playful; the punchy rocker “Pearly Queen” (download) keeps the tension and release nicely under control, while the R&B groove of “Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring” turns the promise of a communal, egalitarian lifestyle into a come-on. Capaldi, meanwhile, continues to explore the outer reaches of epic lyrical nonsense in “Roamin’ Thro’ the Gloamin’ with) Forty Thousand Headmen”; Chris Wood’s flutes hover like hash smoke.
Traffic could have marked a fresh start with Dave Mason; but the group looped back again, dismissing Mason again before the record was even released.
When Winwood took off for his stint in Blind Faith, taking producer Jimmy Miller with him, Traffic looked like a dead proposition. The label rushed to release this odds ‘n’ sods compilation, an uneven blend of live tracks and studio cuts. If nothing else, it’s a terrific showcase for Miller; he and arranger Larry Fallon (who had just done the charts for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) receive co-writing credits on the chunky soul-rocker “Shanghai Noodle Factory” (download), indicating perhaps their more active role in shaping studio leftovers into completed songs. “Just for You” (recorded for a mooted Mason single, with the other three members of Traffic as sidemen) is packed with ear-popping production touches without sounding overtly gimmicky, and the b-side “Withering Tree” (download) is pleasantly eerie — but the material is pretty thin on the ground.
After the implosion of Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force (in which Winwood and Miller were joined by Chris Wood), we find ourselves back where we started, with Winwood reconnecting with Capaldi and Wood, and sessions for a proposed solo album turning into the foundations for the next Traffic record. Jimmy Miller’s association with the band was over, but the sound he had been instrumental in forging was intact. Traffic’s sound was always based on studio overdubs, but what surprises about John Barleycorn is how organic, how alive it sounds. The opening instrumental “Glad” (download) rides in on lively beds of percussion, unfolding into a deep groove. The occasional fumbles — Wood misses a couple of entrances, and his wah-wah saxophone frankly gets away from him — humanize the sound. Elsewhere, the band’s style is expanding in several directions, from straight-up blue-eyed soul to the sprightly slide guitar of “Stranger to Himself,” landing somewhere between bluegrass and raga. The songs are longer but no more through-composed; the soul-rock vamping points towards Traffic (rather than, say, the Grateful Dead) as the true godfathers to later generations of jam bands.
Then there’s title track (download), which Chris Wood brought to the group after hearing a recording by the English folk ensemble The Watersons. Though Traffic’s take is today the most familiar version, “John Barleycorn,” like all folk songs, exists in many versions, with variant lyrics and spins on the content. While it’s possible to read the song purely as a temperance parable (the name “John Barleycorn” was often used as a shorthand for the evils of drink), the lyric is ultimately more ambiguous — and more disturbing. Hearing about the tinker who “can’t mend kettle nor pots / without a little Barleycorn” — presumably to steady his shaking hands — it’s hard not to hear the song as Winwood’s troubled response to the rampant drug abuse that he saw during his stint with Blind Faith. Ironically, Chris Wood was himself in the early stages of drug and alcohol addiction by this point — a condition that would destroy his health and ultimately lead to his early death.
John Barleycorn Must Die was Traffic’s biggest US hit, reaching #5 on the charts, and a series of live shows followed. The touring band was expanded by the addition of Blind Faith bassist Rick Grech and L.A. session legend Jim Gordon — then fresh out of Derek and the Dominos — and the exuberant Ghanaian percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah. Even Dave Mason rejoined the fold for a handful of British dates, preserved on this live disc. Despite its foggy sound, Canteen documents the band at its peak, applying it new jam-based approach to material new and old, climaxing in a towering version of “Gimme Some Lovin'” (download), recast as an extended funk shuffle.
When the new six-member configuration of Traffic (the reunion with Mason was predictably short-lived) headed into the studio, they were on top of the world. But an air of fatigue and disillusionment hangs over hangs over the resultant album; it is a masterpiece, but a melancholy one. The long high of the Sixties was fading into a brutal hangover, and the sweet hippie spirits of Traffic’s early work were growing cynical. Jim Capaldi’s lyrics showed a new anger; the gentle pleas to get together implode into a demand to “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” (download). The thematic center of the record consists of two songs directly addressing the grind of the music industry, Grech and Gordon’s sarcastic road diary “Rock and Roll Stew,” and the epic title track (download), which finds Winwood lamenting the commercialization of the counterculture over a bed of Miles Davis-style minimalist jazz. The Byrds-y guitars of “Many a Mile to Freedom” flirt with optimism — but the album winds down with the enigmatic parable “Rainmaker,” its astringent vocal harmonies and Grech’s bittersweet violin recalling the English folk tradition.
After the beautiful bummer of Low Spark, Grech and Gordon jumped ship and Winwood, in a nod to his R&B roots, turned to the legendary Muscle Shoals house band of bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett, and drummer Roger Hawkins. It’s simply not a good fit: studio vets Hood and Hawkins wind up a little too in-the-pocket, and the sense of controlled chaos that enlivened earlier Traffic records is gone. The title track (download) is a high point, both daft and menacing — cartoon icons, riddled with bullets, standing for innocence lost — but the title of the closing number, “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired,” makes an irresistible straight-line; Traffic had clearly reached a point of diminishing returns.
Yet another live disc, On the Road is not particularly essential, simply reprising most of Low Spark and Shoot Out in extended versions. The stage take on Chris Wood’s instrumental “Tragic Magic” (download) is a curiosity, but mostly the jams plod when they should crackle; Hood and Hawkins vamp gamely, but they just can’t make the songs take flight.
1974 found the band stripped back to the core of Winwood, Capaldi (back behind the drumkit), Reebop, and Wood, with the addition of Rosko Gee in on bass. The sprightly New Orleans funk of Eagle‘s opening cut, “Something New,” makes an implicit promise, but the album can’t deliver. Capaldi’s lyrics, which had always flirted with self-importance, are sometimes painful here — but Winwood, for the most part, seems barely aware of what he’s singing; on the title cut and “Dream Gerrard” (download), an eleven-minute stomp with lyrics by Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band, he sounds as if he’s singing in a foreign tongue that he’s memorized phonetically. Only “Walking in the Wind” (download) really connects, with its supple groove underpinning a lyric of astonishing bitterness.
After another tour in support of Eagle, Traffic hung it up. Reebop Kwaku Baah and Rosko Gee joined up with krautrock pioneers Can in that band’s waning years; Rosko ended up in the house band for a German late-night show, while Reebop did session work and solo albums before his untimely death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1983. Chris Wood died of pneumonia just six months after Reebop, having kicked around the session scene for a while before his failing health forced him into retirement. Jim Capaldi began an occasional solo career, and so, eight years behind schedule, did Steve Winwood.
And that should have been the end of Traffic.
Except, of course, that it wasn’t.
We can’t know what possessed Winwood and Capaldi to revive the Traffic brand name in the mid-’90s, but even in a story so filled with circles and doublebacks, it comes off as a wrong turn. It was hinted at the time that Winwood digitally sampled the late Chris Wood’s flute and saxophone from Traffic master tapes to create the synth tones for several tracks — a stunning bit of musical necrophilia, if true. But the end result is too dull even to be tacky; listening to the leadoff single “Here Comes a Man” (download), all I could think was, “Wow, what a cheesy, obviously-synthesized flute sound.” Overall, the record’s gummy keyboards and tasteful pan-Caribbean rhythms make it indistinguishable from Winwood’s contemporaneous solo work, except that the songs are longer and the lyrics much, much worse. Anyone who feared that Jim Capaldi had lost his gift for pomposity will be reassured by the cod-Irish environmental harangue “Holy Ground” (download) — perfect listening for those who find Sting too subtle.
The reconstituted Traffic took to the road with Rosko Gee and a handful of ringers from Winwood’s touring band, opening for the Grateful Dead and even playing the Woodstock 25th anniversary festival. But the lightning was out of the bottle, and by the following year Traffic was again in the past tense.
With Capaldi’s death in 2005, another incarnation of Traffic seems unlikely. That said, Dave Mason is still alive and gigging regularly, so the road might come around yet again — it wouldn’t be the first time. Let’s hope not, though. Traffic was one of those groups that was utterly, wonderfully of its time. A spin around the old cloverleaf is great fun, but it’s not going to take you anywhere new.