[Review] Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)

The Traffic album that almost wasn’t became the best that ever was.

Kronomyth 6.0: Traffic is dead. Long live Traffic!

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 John Barleycorn Must Die isn’t a complete departure for the band, it is clearly a new chapter, and it’s 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 The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

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.

Original elpee version

A1. Glad (Steve Winwood) (6:30)
A2. Freedom Rider (6:02)
A3. Empty Pages (4:45)
B1. Stranger to Himself (4:05)
B2. John Barleycorn (Traditional, arranged by Steve Winwood) (6:20)
B3. Every Mothers Son (7:05)

All songs written by Jim Capaldi/Steve Winwood unless noted.

CD reissue bonus tracks
7. I Just Want To Know
8. Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ of My Love
9. Backstage & Introduction
10. Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring (live)
11. Glad (live)

2001 Expanded CD reissue
1. Glad (Steve Winwood) (6:57)
2. Freedom Rider (5:24)
3. Empty Pages (4:33)
4. I Just Want You To Know (1:30)
5. Stranger To Himself (3:50)
6. John Barleycorn (Traditional, arr. by Steve Winwood) (6:21)
7. Every Mothers Son (7:05)
8. Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ of My Love (3:24)

All songs written by Jim Capaldi/Steve Winwood unless noted.

2011 Bonus Disc Tracks
B1. Stranger To Himself (Alternate Mix)
B2. John Barleycorn Must Die (First Version)
B3. Every Mother’s Son (Alternate Mix)
B4. Backstage & Introduction (live)
B5. Medicated Goo (live)
B6. Empty Pages (live)
B7. Forty Thousand Headmen (live)
B8. Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring? (live)
B9. Every Mother’s Son (live)
B10. Glad/Freedom Rider (live)

The Players

Jim Capaldi (drums, percussion, vocals, tambourine), Steve Winwood (organ, piano, vocals, percussion, bass guitar, electric piano, acoustic guitar) and Chris Wood (sax, flute, electric sax, percussion, organ). Produced by Chris Blackwell and Steve Winwood, except tracks 4 and 6 produced by Guy Stevens. Engineered by Brian Humphries and Andrew Johns.

The Pictures

The album was designed by Mike Side and features illustrations from the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Photography by Richard Polka.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in July 1970 in the UK (Island, ILPS 9116 on pink label), US (United Artists, UAS 5504 on red/black label pictured at right), Australia and New Zealand (Island, SFL/SILPS-933909), France (Island, 6405 007), Germany (Island, 88 018ET), Israel and Norway (Island, 6339 016) and Japan (Island, ILS-40205). Reached #5 on the UK charts and #11 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record). Original elpee featured gatefold cover.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the UK (Island, ILPS-9116 on palmtree label & on blue label & on sunset label), US (United Artists, UAS 5504 on yellow cloud label pictured at right), Italy (Island, ORL1-9116), Canada (Island, ISM-9116), Japan (Island, 20S-96), and Spain (Island, H25114).
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1977 in Mexico (Island, H25114).
  3. Re-issued on elpee in 1986 in the US (Island, 90058-1).
  4. Re-issued on elpee in 1987 in Korea (Island, OLW-489).
  5. Re-issued on elpee in 1988 in the UK (Island, ILPM-9116).
  6. Re-released on elpee, compact disc and cassette in the UK and Germany (Island, 842 780-1).
  7. Re-issued on compact disc in 1991 in Japan (Island, PSCD-1136).
  8. Re-issued on compact disc in October 1999 in US and Germany (Island, 546 499).
  9. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc in 1999 in the UK and Germany (Island, IMCD-266) and Japan (Island, PHCW-2704) with 5 bonus tracks.
  10. Re-issued on expanded, remastered compact disc on June 13, 2007 in Japan (Island, UICY-9273) with 5 bonus tracks.
  11. Re-released on expanded, remastered super high material compact disc in 2008 in Japan (Universal, UICY-90772) with 5 bonus tracks.
  12. Re-issued on remastered compact disc on February 27, 2001 in the US (Island, 548 541-2).
  13. Re-released on expanded 2CD in 2001 in the UK (Universal, 5332411) with bonus tracks.

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