These Midlands men had strong local roots. Stevie Winwood was the teenage prodigy in the Spencer Davis Group and could pretty much do anything while drummer/vocalist/lyricist Capaldi and guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Mason were friends from the Helions and Deep Feeling. Woodwinds player Wood had been in the jazzier Locomotive. In total they created a heady sound from the outset. Naming themselves after the thrum of London streets Traffic soon decamped to a small Berkshire village seeking to do the proverbial getting their heads together. It paid dividends since their first single “Paper Sun” was a 1967 sound of the summer. Mason’s “Hole in My Shoe”, a more lighthearted acid rock piece, was even bigger and once they’d teamed up with producer Jimmy Miller to create Mr. Fantasy (much of it jammed to perfection in their idyllic country garden) it was obvious that Island Records had signed themselves a British wonder.
Boasting a rustic sensibility on “Heaven Is in Your Mind” and the elegiac “Berkshire Poppies” this disc also majors in the hippy freedom movement of the times on Mason’s “House for Everyone” and the bittersweet “Coloured Rain”.
This eclectic beginning was nearly derailed when Mason quit but he came back in time to feature large again on Traffic (1968) where the potent if sometimes stylistically troubled combination of the guitarist’s pop flair and the others different ambitions caused friction. That didn’t prove to be a bad thing. The opening “You Can All Join In” morphed into “Pearly Queen” with such charm that only those within the camp would have suspected the members didn’t always see eye to eye. Here are also signs of sounds to come on “(Roamin’ Thru the Gloamin’ with) 40,000 Headmen”, one of Capaldi’s most brilliant compositions.
The hit single duly arrived via Mason’s fertile pen on “Feelin’ Alright?” a song that has become a rock standard.
Making progressive ground the original quartet all feature on Last Exit (1969) recording in Willesden and at the Fillmore West (sans Dave). Here you can marvel at Traffic gems like “Medicated Goo” and a terrific version of the standard “Feelin’ Good.”
John Barleycorn Must Die (1970) finds Traffic moving firmly into progressive folk territory, albeit with a tough electric sheen. The arrangements are Avant Garde in places and the instrumental passages are spectacular. Look out for this huge American hit album with bonus cuts on the Deluxe 2011 reissue overseen by Winwood with extra alternative versions and more live from the Fillmore material that captures the band at its ambitious peak.
Welcome to the Canteen reunites them with Mason, while adding drummer Jim Gordon, allowing Mason more space at the microphone for his vocal harmonies. Former Family bassist Ric Grech is also a welcome addition (Winwood had covered most of that position previously) and the extra percussion of Rebop Kwaku Baah, a Ghanaian specialist much in demand on the 1970s British art rock scene, gives this set real light and shade. Recorded at a London festival and inside the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, Welcome to the Canteen covers some classics from the previous discs as well as the Spencer Davis smash “Gimme Some Lovin’”.
By 1971 the new line-up is settled enough to make the wondrous The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, an album that is completely recommended today for its fusion of spaced rock and jazz-fusion. Exciting and soothing by turns this disc is notable for the solo passages on the title track and the deep production job afforded by Winwood. It repays repeated listening.
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section add a lively punch to Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, one of those albums that was damned with faint praise on release but still passes muster. As with all Traffic releases look out for the remasters, these are brilliantly crafted. The same ensemble graces On The Road where all the magic of Traffic can be heard on lengthy versions of their stage favourites: this time captured for posterity live in Germany with Muscle Shoals man Barry Beckett adding a second layer of keyboards while Winwood excels on lead guitar.
The final album before the reunion is When the Eagle Flies, a darker and more introspective moment in their history but still an album packed with good things, notably during “Dream Gerrard” where Viv Stanshall’s lyric adds a poetic frisson. Twenty years on we arrive at Far From Home, a disc that delighted those with Traffic-withdrawal symptoms. The core of Winwood and Capaldi handle nearly all the instrumentation though mention should be made for Davy Spillane’s uilleann pipes on the sensational “Holy Ground”.
The collections on offer include the ever popular Best of Traffic (1969), a fine summary of their acid rock hits, and the Revolutions anthology where Winwood’s career is given a magnificent setting with solo, Traffic, Spencer Davis Group and Blind Faith material all jostling for attention on either a 4-CD set or as a single CD. Other compilations you might want to check out include The Definitive Collection and The Best of Traffic – The Millennium Collection (20th Century Masters series). Taken as a piece these should give you everything you need although in the case of Traffic there is no substitute for starting at the beginning and then getting caught in the flow.
Though quite a modest bunch – not your average rock stars at all, in fact – Traffic were revered on both sides of the Atlantic. The Grateful Dead were staunch fans while Keith Richards and Tom Petty have linked arms with Winwood over the years as has his lifelong friend Eric Clapton.
Winwood is pretty much the mouthpiece now since the sad passing of Wood and Capaldi but anyone with the slightest interest in classic British rock will be keen to discover the magnificent music bequeathed to us by these Midlands maestros. Historic sounds abound within.
Words: Max Bell
After dispensing with his services in December 1967, the remaining members of Traffic reinstated Dave Mason in the group in the spring of 1968 as they struggled to write enough material for their impending second album. The result was a disc evenly divided between Mason's catchy folk-rock compositions and Steve Winwood's compelling rock jams. Mason's material was the most appealing both initially and eventually: the lead-off track, a jaunty effort called "You Can All Join In," became a European hit, and "Feelin' Alright?" turned out to be the only real standard to emerge from the album after it started earning cover versions from Joe Cocker and others in the 1970s. Winwood's efforts, with their haunting keyboard-based melodies augmented by Chris Wood's reed work and Jim Capaldi's exotic rhythms, work better as musical efforts than lyrical ones. Primary lyricist Capaldi's words tend to be impressionistic reveries or vague psychological reflections; the most satisfying is the shaggy-dog story "Forty Thousand Headmen," which doesn't really make any sense as anything other than a dream. But the lyrics to Winwood/Capaldi compositions take a back seat to the playing and Winwood's soulful voice. As Mason's simpler, more direct performances alternate with the more complex Winwood tunes, the album is well-balanced. It's too bad that the musicians were not able to maintain that balance in person; for the second time in two albums, Mason found himself dismissed from the group just as an LP to which he'd made a major contribution hit the stores. Only a few months after that, the band itself split up, but not before scoring their second consecutive Top Ten ranking in the U.K.; the album also reached the Top 20 in the U.S., breaking the temporarily defunct group stateside.
Since Traffic's debut album, Mr. Fantasy, has been issued in different configurations over the years, a history of those differences is in order. In 1967, the British record industry considered albums and singles separate entities; thus, Mr. Fantasy did not contain the group's three previous Top Ten U.K. hits. Just as the album was being released in the U.K., Traffic split from Dave Mason. The album was changed drastically for U.S. release, both because American custom was that singles ought to appear on albums, and because the group sought to diminish Mason's presence; on the first pressing only, the title was changed to Heaven Is in Your Mind. In 2000, Island reissued Mr. Fantasy in its mono mix with the U.K. song list and five mono singles sides as bonus tracks; it also released Heaven Is in Your Mind, the American lineup in stereo with four bonus tracks. Naturally, the mono sound is punchier and more compressed, but it isn't ideal for the album, because Traffic was fashioned as an unusual rock band. Steve Winwood's primary instrument was organ, though he also played guitar; Chris Wood was a reed player, spending most of his time on flute; Mason played guitar, but he was also known to pick up the sitar, among other instruments. As such a mixture suggests, the band's musical approach was eclectic, combining their background in British pop with a taste for the comic and dance hall styles of Sgt. Pepper, Indian music, and blues-rock jamming. Songs in the last category have proven the most distinctive and long-lasting, but Mason's more pop-oriented contributions remain winning, as do more light-hearted efforts. Interest in the mono mix is likely to be restricted to longtime fans; anyone wishing to hear Traffic's first album for the first time is directed to Heaven Is in Your Mind.
At only 22 years old, Steve Winwood sat down in early 1970 to fulfill a contractual commitment by making his first solo album, on which he intended to play all the instruments himself. The record got as far as one backing track produced by Guy Stevens, "Stranger to Himself," before Winwood called his erstwhile partner from Traffic, Jim Capaldi, in to help out. The two completed a second track, "Every Mother's Son," then, with Winwood and Island Records chief Chris Blackwell moving to the production chores, brought in a third Traffic member, Chris Wood, to work on the sessions. Thus, Traffic, dead and buried for more than a year, was reborn. The band's new approach was closer to what it perhaps should have been back in 1967, basically a showcase for Winwood's voice and instrumental work, with Wood adding reed parts and Capaldi drumming and occasionally singing harmony vocals. If the original Traffic bowed to the perceived commercial necessity of crafting hit singles, the new Traffic was more interested in stretching out. Heretofore, no studio recording had run longer than the five-and-a-half minutes of "Dear Mr. Fantasy," but four of the six selections on John Barleycorn Must Die exceeded six minutes. Winwood and company used the time to play extended instrumental variations on compelling folk- and jazz-derived riffs. Five of the six songs had lyrics, and their tone of disaffection was typical of earlier Capaldi sentiments. But the vocal sections of the songs merely served as excuses for Winwood to exercise his expressive voice as punctuation to the extended instrumental sections. As such, John Barleycorn Must Die moved beyond the jamming that had characterized some of Traffic's 1968 work to approach the emerging field of jazz-rock. And that helped the band to achieve its commercial potential; this became Traffic's first gold album.
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys marked the commercial and artistic apex of the second coming of Traffic, which had commenced in 1970 with John Barleycorn Must Die. The trio that made that album had been augmented by three others (Ric Grech, Jim Gordon, and "Reebop" Kwaku Baah) in the interim, though apparently the Low Spark sessions featured varying combinations of these musicians, plus some guests. But where their previous album had grown out of sessions for a Steve Winwood solo album and retained that focus, Low Spark pointedly contained changes of pace from his usual contributions of midtempo, introspective jam tunes. "Rock & Roll Stew" was an uptempo treatise on life on the road, while Jim Capaldi's "Light up or Leave Me Alone" was another more aggressive number with an unusually emphatic Capaldi vocal that perked things up on side two. The other four tracks were Winwood/Capaldi compositions more in the band's familiar style. "Hidden Treasure" and "Rainmaker" bookended the disc with acoustic treatments of nature themes that were particularly concerned with water, and "Many a Mile to Freedom" also employed water imagery. But the standout was the 12-minute title track, with its distinctive piano riff and its lyrics of weary disillusionment with the music business. The band had only just fulfilled a contractual commitment by releasing the live album Welcome to the Canteen, and they had in their past the embarrassing Last Exit album thrown together as a commercial stopgap during a temporary breakup in 1969. But that anger had proven inspirational, and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" was one of Traffic's greatest songs as well as its longest so far. The result was an album that quickly went gold (and eventually platinum) in the U.S., where the group toured frequently.
Following the success of John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic planned a concert album for the fall of 1970, and it got as far as a test pressing before being canceled. A recording was necessary to satisfy the terms of British label Island records' licensing deal with American label United Artists, which had provided for five albums, of which four had been delivered. With Island starting to release its own albums in the U.S., the UA contract had to be completed, and hopefully not with the potentially lucrative studio follow-up to John Barleycorn Must Die. Thus, Traffic tried again to come up with a live album by recording shows on a British tour in July 1971. Joining for six dates of the tour was twice-dismissed Traffic singer/guitarist Dave Mason, who had subsequently scored a solo success with his Alone Together album. The resulting collection, Welcome to the Canteen (which was technically credited to the seven individual musicians, not to Traffic), proved how good a contractual obligation album could be. Sound quality was not the best, with the vocals under-recorded and stray sounds honing in, but the playing was exemplary, and the set list was an excellent mixture of old Traffic songs and recent Mason favorites. "Dear Mr. Fantasy" got an extended workout, and the capper was a rearranged version of Steve Winwood's old Spencer Davis Group hit "Gimme Some Lovin'." Welcome to the Canteen's status as only a semi-legitimate offering was emphasized by the release, after a mere two months, of a new Traffic studio album on Island (The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys) that undercut its sales. But that doesn't make it any less appealing as a summing up of the Winwood/Mason/Traffic musical world.
In January 1968, United Artists Records released a reconfigured American version of Traffic's debut album Mr. Fantasy under the new title Heaven Is in Your Mind, but after the first pressing reverted to calling it Mr. Fantasy. In 2000, Island reissued two CD versions, one titled Mr. Fantasy containing the British track listing in mono, the other titled Heaven Is in Your Mind with the U.S. track listing in stereo. Both albums contained bonus tracks, making their contents similar (but not quite identical). Actually, the album originally called Heaven Is in Your Mind was the superior version even before this development brought the two editions into stark comparison, since the changes actually improved the record by adding strong singles. But just as important as the substitutions was the sequencing, which banished the British-flavored novelty songs to the middle of Side Two; "Dear Mr. Fantasy," which would turn out to be the best-remembered song on the album, was moved to a climactic position as the penultimate cut on Side Two. The result de-emphasized Traffic's pop-psychedelic style (a hangover from the influence of Sgt. Pepper) and promoted its abilities as a jamming blues-rock outfit, talents that were abetted by Jimmy Miller's production and that helped launch them as an album act in the U.S. The 2000 reissue includes as bonus tracks the two deleted Dave Mason songs and two songs from the Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush soundtrack. Island's decision to reissue both versions could easily confuse consumers; the U.S. stereo version, once again known as Heaven Is in Your Mind, is really the one to own if you're only buying one.
Since Traffic originally planned its self-titled second album as a double LP, the group had extra material left over, some of which saw release before the end of 1968 (there was a new, one-off single released in December, "Medicated Goo"/"Shanghai Noodle Factory"). In January 1969, Steve Winwood announced the group's breakup. That left Island Records, the band's label, in the lurch, since Traffic had built up a considerable following. As far as Island was concerned, it was no time to stop, and the label quickly set about assembling a new album. The non-LP B-side "Withering Tree," "Medicated Goo," and "Shanghai Noodle Factory" were pressed into service, along with "Just for You," the B-side of a solo single by on-again, off-again member Dave Mason that had been released originally in February 1968 and happened to feature the rest of the members of Traffic as sidemen; a short, previously unreleased instrumental; and two extended jams on cover songs from a 1968 live appearance at the Fillmore West. It all added up to more than half an hour of music, and that was enough to package it as the posthumous Traffic album Last Exit. Actually, Last Exit isn't bad as profit-taking products go. "Just for You" is one of Mason's elegant folk-pop songs, including attractive Indian percussion. "Medicated Goo" has proven to be one of Traffic's more memorable jam tunes, despite its nonsense lyrics, and the equally appealing "Shanghai Noodle Factory" is hard not to interpret as Winwood's explanation of the band's split. And while the cover material seems unlikely, the songs are used as platforms for the band to jam cohesively. So, Traffic's third album, thought at the time of its release to be the final one, has its isolated pleasures, even if it doesn't measure up to its two predecessors.
After two exemplary releases, Traffic released Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, which begins with the title track, based on a guitar riff reminiscent of the recent Deep Purple hit "Smoke on the Water," and continues through the lengthy "Roll Right Stones," the folkish ballad "Evening Blue," reed player Chris Wood's instrumental "Tragic Magic," and the uncertain self-help song "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired." Lyricist Jim Capaldi was co-credited with Steve Winwood as the album's producer, and he may have contributed to the cleaner mix that made his words easier to understand. Meanwhile, the rhythm section had been replaced by Muscle Shoals studio aces David Hood and Roger Hawkins. Capaldi sings no songs here, and Wood's flute and saxophone, so often the flavoring of Traffic songs, are largely absent.
Words: William Ruhlmann
Reportedly released as an effort to undercut bootleggers following a world tour, Traffic: On the Road was the band's second live album in three years. The album chronicled a late edition of the band in which original members Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood were augmented not only by percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, but also by a trio of session musicians from the famed Muscle Shoals studio, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Barry Beckett. The studio pros lent a tightness and proficiency to their characteristic free-form jams, and though they sometimes sounded like they couldn't wait to get the songs over with, the tunes went on and on, four clocking in at over ten minutes. That might have been okay if the choice of material had been more balanced across the band's career, but 1971's Welcome to the Canteen had treated earlier efforts, and the 1973 tour was promoting Shoot out at the Fantasy Factory, from which three of the six selections were drawn. Unfortunately, that album was not one of Traffic's best, and the live versions of its songs were no more impressive than the studio ones had been. Traffic: On the Road featured plenty of room for soloing by some good musicians, but it was the logical extreme of the band's forays into extended performance, with single tunes taking up entire sides on the original LPs. It's not surprising that, after this, Traffic shrunk in size and returned to shorter songs. [Though best known in its two-LP version, Traffic: On the Road was initially released in the U.S. as a single LP containing only four tracks.]
In its second manifestation, Traffic displayed an affection for jazz-like improvisation over shuffling rhythms, and that tendency was never more indulged than on When the Eagle Flies. Having dispensed with the trio of session musicians who had accompanied them on tour, the remaining band members, led by Steve Winwood, jammed over long-lined musical structures. Still, this was nominally a rock album, with lyrics and vocals, and Winwood often seemed to be improvising his melodies over the music, paying little heed to the meaning of the words, especially on the title track. Jim Capaldi's lyrics touched on the ups and downs of romance and the vicissitudes of capitalism and politics, and warning of apocalypse. But he sounded most assured reflecting on his past and future in "Memories of a Rock 'n Rolla." The most intriguing lyric was a blank-verse effort from the Bonzo Dog Band's Vivian Stanshall, "Dream Gerrard," which took off from 19th-century French poet Gérard de Nerval's speculations about the relationship between dreams and reality. But Winwood treated the words and his singing as another musical element rather than fashioning the songs to emphasize them, so that When the Eagle Flies, not unlike previous Traffic albums, was really a mostly instrumental collection that happened to have vocals. That wouldn't have mattered if the music had been more compelling and effectively played, but rather than seeming like a fresh start for the band, the album was listless and remote. Although it became Traffic's fourth consecutive studio album to reach the Top Ten and go gold in the U.S., the group broke up following the American promotional tour in the fall of 1974.