1967 – 1974

Traffic

Track analysis for “You Can All Join In

In many ways, the original Traffic was a sort of British counterpart to Buffalo Springfield. Both groups got together in 1967, both released three albums, both titled their third albums to intentionally be their last, both enjoyed multiple singer/songwriters, both had talented multi-instrumentalists (both of whom were named “Steve”), both made excellent music, and both had members who went on to greater fame and fortune as parts of super groups.

You can read the details about Buffalo Springfield on their page. In the case of Traffic, their third album was entitled Last Exit. The original group consisted of Dave Mason on vocals and guitar, Steve Winwood on vocals, keyboards, guitars and bass guitar, Chris Wood on flute and saxophone, and Jim Capaldi on drums. Dave Mason composed songs on his own, while Winwood, Wood and Capaldi often collaborated with each other on their compositions. Mason and Winwood both sang lead vocals, generally on their respective compositions.

As with Buffalo Springfield, Traffic had an abundance of talent, and this was reflected on their albums, especially their self-titled second one. Listeners enjoyed lots of variety in style and pacing of the songs, vocals, and instrumentation. Unfortunately, as with Buffalo Springfield, there was not enough cohesion to keep all this talent together for more than a few albums. Dave Mason struck out on his own, much like Neil Young with the Springfield. Winwood left briefly to become part of Blind Faith, along with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (2/3 of Cream).

The group eventually reformed, without Dave Mason, and continued to record and tour under the Traffic name, but never with the original group’s same richness of talent. It was a stretch for the three remaining original band members to compose enough quality material for each album. Partly in order to compensate for this deficiency, the group evolved a recording style that included lots of loose, jazzy improvisation, and eventually included other players so that they could duplicate this sound on stage. While the best of this material was pretty good, it was never quite as much fun as their original work.

The original configuration of Traffic had a unique sound. The group lived communally in a cottage in Berkshire, England, and the resulting music reflected this democratic spirit of collaboration. The band’s oft-expressed motto was “to sound like the same group but never to sound the same,” and they generally succeeded in this ambition. Lyrically, they were innovative. Their first three albums had the notable distinction of not containing a single cut that could be mistaken for a love song. Instead, they sang about failed relationships (“Feelin’ Alright”), dream-like allegories (“Forty Thousand Headmen”), and the foibles of their contemporaries (“Medicated Goo”).

Every composition was distinctive, and their recordings were equally creative. Like The Beatles, the group had a sense of spatial composition while recording. They had the courage to leave enough space in their music to contain abundant instrumental coloring. Their unusual instrumentation, relying heavily on Winwood’s organ and Wood’s flute, gave their recordings a jazzy sound, yet the music was always in support of the song, and never simply there to impress or to fill out the track. Although I’ve compared them to Buffalo Springfield, they were also like The Band in their ability to use a variety of unusual instruments, their focus on making each track a unique recording, and their insistence on fashioning each track around the particular characteristics of a specific song.

The group was not afraid to sound quirky or idiosyncratic, and while this resulted in some dispensable nonsense on their first album, it also gave them the freedom to express an unusually broad range of feelings and images.

The group’s first two albums benefited from the production talents of Jimmy Miller, who was also working with such notables as The Rolling Stones during this same period, and with equal success. Miller had a wonderful talent for layering instruments on a recording in such a way that each could be clearly and distinctly heard, yet complementing each other so as to make the whole much greater than the sum of the parts. His production strengths were a perfect match for the instrumental abilities of the group.

Recommended CDs

Album Title: Smiling Phases

Original Release Date: 1991

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is a good 2-CD collection of Traffic’s best efforts. It is fairly evenly divided between their early and later periods.

Album Title: Feelin’ Alright: The Very Best of Traffic

Original Release Date: 2000

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is a good single CD collection of their best stuff, again about evenly divided between early and late periods. Since this album contains 15 tracks, compared to 26 on the double-CD package above, this might be seen as a better value.

Album Title: Mr. Fantasy

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Traffic’s first album was released in differing English and American versions, with and without their early singles, and this confusion has carried over into some of the CD editions as well. No matter what it is called — Mr. Fantasy or Heaven Is In Your Mind — make sure it includes fifteen or sixteen tracks, as both of these recent versions do. Some of the material here is dispensable, but the title cuts and others are classics, and there is lots of good stuff here. Includes “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “No Face, No Name, No Number,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Dealer,” “Coloured Rain,” “Paper Sun,” and “Smiling Phases.” Produced by Jimmy Miller.

Album Title: Heaven Is In Your Mind

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This is an alternate version of Mr. Fantasy, described above.

Album Title: Traffic

Original Release Date: 1968

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is really their best album, and it can stand alongside any rock group’s best work. Mason was still recording with them, giving them a broad range of interesting songs along with his distinctive folky vocals, and the group had developed its instrumental abilities to perfectly showcase each unique song. Every cut on here is a classic. Includes “You Can All Join In,” “Pearly Queen,” “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring,” “Feelin’ Alright,” “Forty Thousand Headmen,” “Cryin’ to be Heard” and “No Time to Live.” Produced by Jimmy Miller.

Album Title: Last Exit

Original Release Date: 1969

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

This album is really surprisingly good, considering that it was thrown together at the last minute to satisfy some contractual commitments. Side one of the original album (the first five cuts) were recorded in the studio, and include some great material. Side two (the last two tracks) were recorded live, with the group performing as a trio. Neither of the live songs are the group’s compositions, nor are they any sort of rock or blues standards. They are both longish tracks, with soulful vocals from Winwood and interesting musicianship, especially from Winwood on organ and Wood on flute. The group succeeds fairly well on both of these outings, and these live cuts stand testimony today to the group’s extraordinary ambition at the time. Includes “Shanghai Noodle Factory” and “Medicated Goo.”

Album Title: John Barleycorn Must Die

Original Release Date: 1970

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This started life as a Winwood solo effort, with Steve playing most of the instruments, then ended up as a collaboration with Wood and Capaldi. This album began what I think of as their later phase, without Dave Mason, and with a more jazzy, meditative feel to the music. Their were only six cuts on the original album, all of them semi-lengthy, with lots of instrumental work. While this is the most consistent of their later albums, and is definitely worth a listen, I tend to prefer their earlier period. There is a sort of emotional barrenness to much of their later work that contrasts starkly with the rich, full emotional range expressed on their earlier albums. And while the early albums sounded collaborative in the best sense, with a group that was much more than just the sum of its parts, the later stuff often sounds like it was conceived and composed by a single mind. Includes the title cut and “Empty Pages.”

Album Title: Low Spark of High Heeled Boys

Original Release Date: 1971

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

The title cut is a 12-minute jam that is hypnotic and entrancing, and is a good example of early rock/jazz fusion. “Hidden Treasure,” “Rainmaker” and “Many a Mile to Freedom” are pleasantly folksy, in the vein of “John Barleycorn.” “Rock and Roll Stew” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” are intended more as rockers, and are the least interesting of the album’s offerings. Jim Gordon on drums (from Derek and the Dominos) and Rick Grech on bass (from Blind Faith) fill out the sound.

Links

The Official Steve Winwood Web Site

Includes a summary of Winwood’s career, including all the various configurations of Traffic, plus lyrics to apparently all of the Traffic songs.

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