Category Archives: Traffic

Traffic Discography

Traffic: A Fantasy
Our story begins in a magical place… past strawberry fields, by Penny Lane and Arnold Layne, by car and not by aeroplane, yet oddly on an Island. Stevie Winwood, in the service of Sir Spencer Davis, declared one day “I am a man” and off he went to find his fortune in the woods of that happy hamlet, Birmingham, whereupon he fell in with a band of merry men: masters of wind (Chris Wood), of words (Jim Capaldi) and stone (Dave Mason). Their first creation, “Paper Sun,” caught fire in the Summer of ’67 and the band burned brightly, briefly through the year with two more top 10 singles and a top 10 album (Mr. Fantasy to you).

But masons, it seems, were born to be free, and theirs was gone quite frequently. He’d pop in now and then to join them (“You can all join in,” he sang), check how everyone was doing (“Feelin’ alright?,” he’d ask), then leave to make a little record (“Just for you,” he’d coo). And then, one day (in 1969, let’s say), Stevie Winwouldn’t, disbanding Traffic to follow Cream’s Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker blindly, faithfully… for forty minutes anyway.

Blind no more, and after a short stint in the Air Force, Winwood set about making a solo album, when the Island King whispered in his ear: “Wind and words is what you need for your new venture to succeed” and, just like that, Masters Wood and Capaldi found themselves back in Traffic after a brief detour. But here begins a different tale, of cannabis and barleycorn,  of empty pages filled and torn, their first progressive fairytale, a remedy for all that ales you. After which the band of three swelled up to six, six sticks the number of percussionists, plus a brother of the Faith who came from a different Family. Well-heeled, sparks flew and praises too; both Barleycorn and Boys rang true as steeples in a storied land. Yet dullness soon betook the band. Shoot Out didn’t score a hit, and Eagles was a piece of sh*t, so once more Traffic went to sleep, to wake no more from dreams sown deep. Except for once when, far from home, a pair did dance long-winded. Mason and Capaldi also toured the world with 40,000 headmen for a time (nineteen ninety-eight and ninety-nine).

There are also albums by Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood hidden in the woods, but that’s a different story…

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Traffic: Mr. Fantasy (1967)

This a treasure chest of psychedelic gems, produced with gleeful abandon by Jimmy Miller, with whom Winwood had worked in Spencer Davis. The material is startlingly fresh and varied, featuring psychedelic confections from Dave Mason (“House For Everyone”) and the rest of the band (“Berkshire Poppies,” “Coloured Rain”) alongside deeper numbers done in a progressive folk/blues vein (“Dear Mr. Fantasy”). The album begins with an opening trio of songs that pull nearly every possible trick from its pockets; false starts, madhouse choruses and more instruments than four people could reasonably account for are artfully combined in the pressure cooker of Jimmy Miller’s imagination while the screws are (quite literally) turned on the listener. And turned on they were. Mr. Fantasy is an album that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. How else to describe how “No Face, No Name And No Number” arrives like an oasis of sanity unless you’ve just come from “House For Everyone” and “Berkshire Poppies?” Of course, that experience depends on which version of Mr. Fantasy you own. There is the UK mono version, the UK stereo version, the US stereo version (originally released as Heaven Is In Your Mind and featuring different tracks) and the sundry repackages since then. (I would point you in the direction of the UK stereo version for starters.) This and their next album are high points in the British psychedelic movement and, together with Cream’s Disraeli Gears, provided a technicolor exclamation point at the end of 1967. Of course, the previous singles “Paper Sun” and “Hole In My Shoe” prepared you for some of this, but the emotional profundity of “No Face” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” revealed a new dimension of the band that would be highly influential for artists like Jethro Tull.

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Traffic (Untitled) (1968)

Kronomyth 2.0: TRIFFIC. Dave Mason briefly left the band after Mr. Fantasy, rejoined them several months later and the reconstituted quartet released their second and final album together. This time around, the songwriting is nearly split evenly between Mason and the Winwood/Capaldi/Wood contingent. The effect of two very different songwriters (Mason and Winwood) is more apparent on this record. “Feelin’ Alright” and “Cryin’ To Be Heard” are excellent songs, but they’re not necessarily excellent Traffic songs. It was in the sere, earthy arrangements of “No Time To Live” and “Forty Thousand Headmen” where Traffic’s future lie. There are also throwbacks to the first album’s playful feel on “You Can All Join In” and “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring,” one of my favorite Traffic songs, period. The rest of the album is very well done, although Jimmy Miller seems to intentionally bury a lot of good music; you can hear some of it on “Virgin Vagabond” and the brilliant closer, “Means To An End.” Throw in the powerful “Pearly Queen” and Mason’s Dylandulgence, “Don’t Be Sad,” and you’ve got a formidable bookend to the band’s breathtaking debut. Unfortunately, Mason left again after this album, and Traffic went on hiatus for several years, with Winwood re-appearing in the short-lived supergroup, Blind Faith. Their eponymous second album isn’t as startling as their debut, nor is it as silly. In fact, this is a very serious album much of the time, particularly when you pay attention to Jim Capaldi’s lyrics. But a heavier traffic isn’t a bad thing at all, as listeners would discover when John Barleycorn rolled into town.

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Last Exit (1969)

Kronomyth 3.0: EXIT TU, BRUTE? Well, that was a short ride. Two years after launching Traffic, Winwood had dissolved the whole thing and left it to the labels to pick up (and pick out) the pieces. Last Exit is the first of several compilations intended to honor the band’s remaining contractual obligations. Okay, “honor” probably isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean, especially if you’ve already travelled this road with Cream. Produced by Jimmy Miller (who takes cowriting credits on three tracks), the album is split between studio material (most of it already released on singles) and live performances from a 1968 concert at the Fillmore West. The recent single “Medicated Goo” b/w “Shanghai Noodle Factory” is handily the highlight of the album. A couple of earlier B sides (“Just For You,” “Withering Tree”) and an unreleased instrumental round out the first side of music. The two live songs, recorded without Dave Mason, are interesting from an historical perspective, but no one has ever confused the band with Cream on stage. On its release, Last Exit sold respectably, although I’m sure most listeners felt cheated afterwards. Thirty years on, Island tacked the better bits (Goo, Noodle, Tree) onto their expanded remaster of the band’s eponymous second album, and that would seem the smarter route to take today. In fact, I don’t see any reason to ride out the next few Traffic albums. Take a break, have a smoke and just make sure you’re back in time for Barleycorn.

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Best of Traffic (1969)

Kronomyth 3.5: GREATEST HITS OF ACID. Released a few months after the odds-and-ends Last Exit, Best of Traffic collects the band’s singles up to and including “Medicated Goo” b/w “Shanghai Noodle Factory.” It’s an excellent summary of the band’s first two years, split neatly into two parts: the psychedelic pop songs (side one) and the prog/folk/rock songs (side two). Although Traffic abandoned the psychedelic format quickly, the songs they left behind (“You Can All Join In,” “Hole In My Shoe”) had an influence on a lot of artists, from David Bowie to XTC (in their Dukes of Stratosphear phase). Stereo still being a relatively new technology, the stereo mixes presented here might seem clumsy to modern ears, and they do tend to go heavy on the sitars; personally, I prefer the mono mixes of their early songs. On side two, you can hear the Traffic of John Barleycorn and after, with earthier arrangements that allowed Winwood and Wood to stretch out and play their instruments. In its first incarnation, Traffic produced some of the best psychedelic and early progressive music of the era, but ask someone today to name the great psychedelic bands of the 60s and you’re likely to hear The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Cream and even The Rolling Stones before you get to Traffic. The Best of Traffic sets the record straight, although these days you’re likely to find it only as an expensive import or in a bin of used elpees. You’ll also find most of these songs on the compilation, Heavy Traffic, released by United Artists in 1975.

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Ginger Baker’s Air Force (1970)

Kronomyth 1.0: BAKER’S DOZEN. “During this set we’re going to do a few very, very strange numbers.” So begins one of the more interesting chapters in the storied career of Ginger Baker. At the end of 1969, with no future in sight for Blind Faith following Eric Clapton’s departure, Baker conscripted Steve Winwood and Rick Grech for his next project, a 10-piece jam band featuring Denny Laine, Graham Bond and Chris Wood. The group rehearsed new material plus some of Baker’s bits (“Toad,” “Do What You Like”) and mounted a brief tour, including a sold-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall. That show became the basis for Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a weighty and unwieldy double album with a vertically challenged cover and only eight songs, more than half of which clocked in at over 10 minutes. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given the state of Creamania), the record entered the US and UK Top 40 and even generated a single in Laine’s “Man of Constant Sorrow.” In many ways, Ginger Baker’s Air Force is the quintessential expression of Baker’s muse, mixing rock, jazz and African music in a combustible live setting that covers its sins with showmanship. Given how much Baker was able to achieve in a trio setting, a ten-piece band might seem like overkill. And, of course, it is. That’s the whole idea, really. Baker wanted to play the sh*t out of these songs, and he does. Listening to these versions of “Toad” and “Do What You Like,” Baker’s excessive epics make perfect sense. They were designed as full sonic immersion experiences to be heard long, loud and live. Creation is a messy process, and Ginger Baker’s Air Force is a mess, yes, but also mesmerizing. Far more fun than any of Traffic’s live albums, at any rate.

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John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)

Kronomyth 5.0: TRAFFIC LIVES! In a strange sense, it seems that John Barleycorn had to die for Traffic to live. What began as a Steve Winwood solo album (tentatively titled Mad Shadows) with Jim Capaldi and producer Guy Stevens soon flowered into the new Traffic album with the reunion of Chris Wood and the replacement of Stevens (who took the title to Mott) with Chris Blackwell. While Barleycorn isn’t a complete departure for the band, it is a new chapter, and it’s really on this album that the story of Traffic gets interesting for prog fans. The songs from the Blackwell sessions (“Glad,” “Freedom Rider,” “Empty Pages,” “John Barleycorn”) are the proggiest cuts they’ve committed to vinyl, mixing folk, soul and rock into a flavorful stew that proved far more fortifying than the psychedelic confections of “Shanghai Noodle Factory” or “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?” With the sax/flute work of Wood featured prominently and the guitar all but absent, John Barleycorn sounds like a lost Jethro Tull album much of the time (and Tull is tops in these parts). This and their next album represent to me the height of Traffic; Winwood, Capaldi and Wood have never done anything to equal them. In fact, I’ve been confounded over the years by the fact that Steve Winwood albums have failed time and again to come up to the standards of Barleycorn and Low Spark. The Guy Stevens sessions may shed some light into the mystery; “Stranger To Himself,” “Every Mothers Son” and “Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ of My Love” (included on the expanded CD version) are more in line with Winwood/Capaldi songs before and after, suggesting that Chris Wood was the missing ingredient for greatness. I’ve bought Traffic, Winwood and Capaldi albums hoping to discover the magic of Barleycorn again, and haven’t encountered it outside of their next album, so best to look upon the pair as cherishable anomalies and raise a glass in toast to divine happenstance.

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Welcome To The Canteen (1971)

Kronomyth 4.0: MEDICATED GROUP. Welcome to Canteenaville: population You and 40,000 Headmen and a version of Gimme Some Lovin’ that if five seconds longer would qualify as assisted suicide. This is the last of the contractual obligation albums, a selection of six live tracks from the band’s 1971 Summer tour, which featured a briefly returning Dave Mason and a completely invisible John Barleycorn. The idea of adding Mason to the expanded Low Spark lineup of Traffic is an intriguing one, but someone forgot to bring the sparks. What you get on Welcome To The Canteen are listless versions of three Traffic songs, two Dave Mason tracks and one Spencer Davis oldie. Although some critics have been kind to this album, I would put Canteen near the bottom of the live albums I own. A seven-piece band should have generated far more energy and ideas, rather than these by-the-numbers arrangements. Of course, what Traffic could have used at this stage wasn’t more passengers but a few designated drivers; it’s a near certainty that half of the band (Dave Mason, Jim Gordon, Rick Grech and Chris Wood) was high as a kite on any given night. More to the point, Canteen was walking in the wrong direction. The breakthrough John Barleycorn had just been released, and what Traffic fans thirsted for were live versions of those songs, not nine stultifying minutes of Dave Mason singing solo material accompanied by flute and bongos. I’m surprised no one has added bonus tracks to this album and tried to make a decent historical document out of it. As it stands, Canteen is a dry run through the dusty past that all but ardent Traffickers should avoid.

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The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971)

Kronomyth 6.0: SIX, SIX STICKS. The album cover notwithstanding, Traffic didn’t cut any corners on their followup to John Barleycorn. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys follows the same design: six tracks that wrap psychedelic/rock/folk sounds together into a rich musical landscape. The difference is a saturation in sound versus the dry Barleycorn, possible now that Traffic’s recent tour had left them swelled to a sextet. Jim Capaldi also takes lead vocals on two tracks (“Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” “Rock & Roll Stew”), and he has a heavier voice than Winwood. Subtract those two tracks, and what remains would in fact sound a lot like Barleycorn’s bits: “Rainmaker,” “Hidden Treasure,” “Many A Mile To Freedom.” The album’s centerpiece is the 12-minute title track, which snakes along like a trail of smoke, then crystallizes in its chorus. While the arrangements on this album are richer, don’t expect a linear increase in complexity over Barleycorn; as Canteen showed, even seven players don’t produce twice the music that three did. The percussion of Reebop Kwaku Baah is an added dimension, but Grech and Gordon don’t anything that a Winwood or Capaldi couldn’t have multitracked. Still, Spark may be the better album, a technicolor trip where Barleycorn felt like a sojourn in sepia tones. Although the title track and Light Up garnered significant FM radio play, it was the funky Grech & Gordon number, “Rock & Roll Stew,” that got the nod as the single. Today, all three tracks are considered classic rock staples, and the album stands as the band’s last great album.

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Jim Capaldi: Oh How We Danced (1972)

Jim Capaldi’s first solo album owes as much to abdominal inflammation as inspiration. Steve Winwood had developed peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining, which effectively shelved the next Traffic project while he recuperated. In the interim, Chris Blackwell (never one to miss an opportunity to market Traffic) bankrolled a studio album by Traffic’s lyricist, occasional singer and tambourine player, Jim Capaldi. Oh How We Danced featured Traffic mates past, present and future as well as Free’s guitarist, Paul Kossoff. Despite the heavy Traffic presence, Oh How We Danced doesn’t sound like a Traffic record any more than Dave Mason’s albums did. In other words, if you’re expecting another “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” all you’ll be left is disappointed. Now, that said, a lot of people enjoy this album; I’m just not one of them. Ringo Starr’s records, for example, were a lot more fun than this. I came here expecting great lyrics and dark shadows, and all I hear are middle-of-the-road rock songs with very average (or worse) lyrics. Case in point: “Don’t be a hero, heroes are sad / Don’t be a hero, it’ll make you feel bad.” I’m not saying Capaldi wasn’t a great lyricist, I’m just saying you wouldn’t know it from this album. So if you’re wondering what’s really on Jim Capaldi’s mind, you won’t be any the wiser after Oh How We Danced. I guess that’s my main complaint with the album; it feels like Jim Capaldi trying to make a Dave Mason record rather than a Jim Capaldi record. Subsequent albums followed the same formula, though, so maybe it was just that Traffic’s lyricist didn’t have much to say on his own. I know, that’s not what you wanted to hear. Honestly, it’s not what I wanted to write. I would have loved to tell you that here was a hidden treasure, and maybe you’ll still discover one (if everyone had my taste, record stores would only carry Jethro Tull discs), but you didn’t hear it from me.

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