Posts Tagged ‘Jim Capaldi’

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When Steve Winwood entered the studio in February 1970, time and technology were poised for his graduation from front man in a rock band to full-fledged solo artist. At 21, the Birmingham native was already a seasoned veteran who had played pub gigs at 8, taken center stage with the Spencer Davis Group at 15 and helped pioneer rock’s progressive wing with Traffic before joining Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in Blind Faith. His soul-drenched vocals had reaped hits for all three groups, while his frontline prowess on organ and piano were matched by solid chops as a guitarist, bassist and percussionist. The evolution of multi-track studio recording would enable him to roll his own songs by layering instrumental performances as a one-man band.

Accompanying him to his first sessions was producer and Island Records A&R director Guy Stevens, whose confidence in Winwood was assured by the artist’s role in establishing Island as a preeminent British independent label. Founded in 1958 by Chris Blackwell, Island’s growth relied upon Blackwell’s embrace of Jamaican music, nurtured from his childhood on the island. While promoting his first major hit act, ska pioneer Millie Small, Blackwell witnessed the Spencer Davis Group at a Birmingham television taping and saw a fresh direction in its teenage lead singer and organist.

“He was really the cornerstone of Island Records,” Blackwell would later assert. “He’s a musical genius and because he was with Island all the other talent really wanted to be with Island.” Island’s founder would bankroll Winwood’s departure to form Traffic and would prove an ardent supporter for decades to come.

Blackwell and Stevens were confident that Winwood was ready to stand alone and suggested an album title, Mad Shadows. Initial studio sessions followed the original one-man band premise for the first completed song, “Stranger to Himself.” Written by Winwood with lyrics from Traffic’s Jim Capaldi, the track featured Winwood on piano, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums and percussion. His instincts as an arranger had already been honed extensively with Traffic, enabling him to craft a satisfying dialogue between guitars and keyboards, anchored by in-the-pocket bass and drums.

Next up was “Every Mother’s Son,” with Winwood again covering keyboards, guitars and bass, and Capaldi sitting in on drums and percussion. If producer Stevens was happy with the results, however, Steve Winwood chafed at the isolation of self-contained performances. With Capaldi onboard as drummer and vocal partner, Winwood invited fellow Traffic alumnus Chris Wood to join in on reeds, percussion and organ, effectively reuniting the core trio that had been Traffic’s more durable configuration during an initial two-year run in which guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Dave Mason had proven a fickle partner in his on-again, off-again ties to the band.

At this juncture, Stevens departed the project, presumably on good terms, while taking the tentative album title with him, which he would recycle for Mott the Hoople’s second album, produced and released that same year. Blackwell, meanwhile, stepped in as nominal co-producer while clearly allowing Winwood to retain a dominant role in shaping the material, which still showcased his versatility while reveling in the trio’s interplay. That focus was punctuated by “Glad,” a Winwood instrumental that would open the album with a full-throttle keyboard romp reflecting his enduring affection for jazz and R&B in a hard-driving, uptempo workout with echoes of ’60s soul jazz classics from Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Les McCann as Winwood traded rippling piano flourishes against textured Hammond B-3 organ. Wood’s tenor sax deepens the groove and adds a prescient funk element by using a wah-wah pedal to electronically mute his horn lines.

Apart from the saxophone and flute parts that signified Traffic’s jazz elements, Wood also brought the band vital exposure to material it might otherwise have missed. Winwood would credit the reed player with turning them on to jazz, world music and classical pieces that opened their ears to new directions, but for this album, Wood’s gift would come from deep British roots—the renascent interest in British folk music that emerged during the ’60s. Wood’s interest in the movement had led him to the Watersons’ a cappella recording of “John Barleycorn,” a ballad that can be traced to its earliest Scottish incarnations in the 16th century, its title character linked both to pagan Anglo-Saxon myths and a personification of the hardy grain used in producing whiskey.

Traffic’s arrangement of the song jettisons keyboards, electric guitars and bass in favour of a haunting lattice work of acoustic guitar, flute and spare hand percussion. Winwood’s vocal is by turns hushed and mournful as he presents the allegorical fate of its title protagonist “ploughed,” “sown” and “harrowed in” by efforts to kill him. As men continue to harvest, dry, mill and process their victim, they carry him toward reincarnation and revenge—by the song’s end, “little sir John with his nut-brown bowl proved the strongest man at last,” mortal men now dependent on its distilled  essence.

Winwood’s delicate performance was both dark and sardonic, ancient in its source yet timely in its allusion to addiction—an inevitable nod to a countercultural subculture which Traffic had once romanticized with a psychedelic palette. With its timeless minor-keyed melody, spare setting and Winwood’s pure English vocal intonation, the track is the album’s most distinctive, yet Traffic would otherwise revert to its prior jazz, blues and rock influences, leaving a deeper excavation of British folk rock for Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Incredible String Band and other homeland folk-rock pioneers to explore. It’s fascinating to contemplate how Traffic’s stature as a major rock act might have elevated and influenced Britain’s spin on fusing folk tradition with rock innovation had Winwood and his partners committed more fully to the style.

As Traffic’s lyricist, Capaldi alternates between emotional impressionism and oblique romantic salutes, the latter yielding the album’s lone single, “Empty Pages,” released only in the U.S. By the time of the album’s early July 1970 release, the rise of FM radio and rock’s evolving focus on albums over singles vindicated the trio’s disinterest in mainstream single hits, eventually carrying John Barleycorn Must Die to No5 on Billboard’s album chart, the highest position in the band’s career.

Critics were more divided over the album’s emphasis on loose-limbed jamming, with Robert Christgau complaining that Mason’s exit had weakened their songcraft, leaving them to depend on Winwood’s “feckless improvised rock.” Fans, however, were kinder: Beyond its album chart ranking, John Barleycorn Must Die would earn gold record status, teeing up the band for even greater success with The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys the following year.

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Between their formation in 1967 and implosion seven years later, Traffic was as mercurial as their music was mesmerizing, thanks to the members’ unstable chemistry. What had begun as an on-trend exercise in post-Sgt. Pepper psychedelia turned toward a darker, more idiosyncratic synthesis of jazz, blues, world music and English folk elements as the band’s founders—Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and Dave Mason—fluctuated from quartet to trio and back. Mason quit and then rejoined (twice) in revolt over his partners’ more esoteric instincts. Winwood, meanwhile, scuttled the band in late ’68 to join Blind Faith, the short-lived supergroup he fronted with Eric Clapton.

Traffic’s subsequent return was less conscious relaunch than casual reunion. At 21, Winwood was already a veteran of three successful bands, a precocious multi-instrumentalist who landed as the de facto star of the Spencer Davis Group in his mid-teens. He began work on a solo debut in February 1970, but after tracking two songs as a virtual one-man band, he longed to interact with other players, enlisting Capaldi (drums, percussion, vocals) and Wood (reeds). The resulting album, John Barleycorn Must Die, pared the group’s ensemble sound to a sturdy spine of Winwood’s keyboards and guitar, and added a more pronounced British accent in its title song, a traditional English ballad that moved the band toward British folk-rock spearheaded by Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

On their fifth full-length studio album, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”Traffic cast aside commercial wisdom to build the album around an epic title track that looms as their creative apogee. At just under 12 minutes, the tune draws from the full range of the British band’s influences and then steps beyond them with an exploratory intensity that nearly eclipses the set’s other originals, yet its power was sufficient to bring them the strongest sales of their career without a competitive single hit.

That reconciliation reaped Traffic’s highest U.S. album chart performance ever, along with a gold record, as they reinforced the line-up with bassist Ric Grech (Family, Blind Faith), drummer Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos) and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah. Entering Island’s London studios in September 1971, the newly aligned sextet leaned into its more layered rhythm section as it tracked new songs.

Where Traffic’s earlier albums teed up with radio-ready singles candidates, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boyopened quietly. “Hidden Treasure” points back to “John Barleycorn” in its modal melody and spacious acoustic arrangement, interweaving Winwood’s acoustic guitar with Wood’s delicate flute lines. Punctuated with spare percussion, the song is one degree removed from Pentangle’s intersection of folk and jazz, with Capaldi’s pensive lyrics invoking water imagery and evoking a pastoral atmosphere.

That song’s languid close leaves the listener in a silence that lingers beyond the usual between-tracks interval, as the title song doesn’t so much begin as lay in ambush. After 13 seconds, a faint pulse begins to surface, distant percussion setting a glacial pace as a five-note piano figure anchors the arrangement in D minor. Hand percussion and tolling piano march slowly forward, as if moving from darkness into a half light. At 1:21, a vibraslap strikes, ominous as a rattlesnake’s lunge, jolting us fully awake.

Having taken so slow and deliberate a path to capture the listener, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” has us in its grip as soon as Winwood begins crooning Jim Capaldi’s feverish lyrics:

If you see something that looks like a star, and it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it will happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys…

The lyrics’ sense of dislocation and distraction, set against the hypnotic languor of the rhythm section’s deliberate pace, suggests nothing so much as a drugged torpor that quickens as Winwood’s piano and Wood’s saxophone shift into double-time figures between the sung lines.

The gauzy euphoria teased in early Traffic songs from the late ’60s was by now a distant memory; Winwood and Capaldi would be all too familiar with the harder drugs clouding rock’s early ’70s demi-monde, while Wood would struggle with drugs and alcohol for much of his adult life. Capaldi’s wistful allusion to childhood reveries leads inevitably to a sense of lost innocence and even betrayal as the song swells into the chorus, modulating to D major:

The percentage you’re paying is too high a price, while you’re living beyond all your means
And the man in the suit has just bought a new car with the profits he’s made on your dreams…
And the sound that you’re hearing is only the sound of the low spark of high heeled boys

Who those “boys” are remains a mystery beyond the certainty that they’re no longer children. (Capaldi reportedly took the phrase from a casual remark by a friend, actor Michael J. Pollard.)

With the band members stretching out on solos, clocking in at 11:41, “Low Spark” can stand favourably beside those fusion standard-bearers. Winwood adds keening synthesizer lines that diverge from more familiar chordal and arpeggiated synth voicings of the era. Instead, he shapes monophonic riffs answering Wood’s sax, moving Traffic’s ensemble sound closer to the contemporary fusion of Miles Davis’ electric bands and Weather Report’s next jazz-rock wave.

From that point onward, Traffic lightens the tone with “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” an atypically uptempo rocker featuring a lead vocal from Capaldi, who has sole writer credit. Usually content to add baritone harmonies below Winwood’s soulful tenor, Capaldi offers a good-humoured takedown of a lover that teases the title’s easy implication of something other than tobacco, aided by Winwood’s mocking electric guitar figures. That the track would find FM airplay more easily than the album’s title song is no surprise.

“Rock & Roll Stew” likewise hews to more familiar rock tropes as a mid-tempo ode to life on the road, written by new members Grech and Gordon, with Capaldi’s lead vocal and Winwood’s electric guitar again grounding the band in foursquare rock in another track more readily added to radio playlists. The album’s two remaining songs, “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Rainmaker,” were deep cuts that worked within the atmospheric terrain familiar to fans, yet, on balance, Low Spark would ultimately remain defined by its risk-taking title track. With FM rock radio stations still on the cusp of more freewheeling playlists, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” would earn significant airplay from savvy stations despite its extended length.

Even as the November 1971 release went gold, personnel changes once more roiled Traffic as Grech and Gordon left and Winwood was sidelined with peritonitis. Capaldi recruited Muscle Shoals Sound house band aces Roger Hawkins (drums) and David Hood (bass) to the line-up that tracked their next studio album and a live set captured during the band’s 1973 tour before a final studio album, When the Eagle Flies, was recorded by Winwood, Capaldi (back on the drum stool), Wood and bassist Rosko Gee. The original trio’s core sound survived, yet none of those later recordings would surpass the high bar set by Low Spark on its defining performance.

Traffic Sessions: The Low Spark of High Heeled 1971 Recorded at Olympic Studios, London

00:00 The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys – Alternate Take – 2/9/71 11.46 11:41 Rock And Roll Stew – Different Take – 5/19/71 3.20 14:57 Rainmaker – Different Take – 5/19/71 7.29 22:22 Rock And Roll Stew – Different Mix – 8/25/71 6.19 28:35 Light Up Or Leave Me Alone – Different Mix – 8/25/71 5.03 33:34 Command Performance – Traffic Jam #1 Take 2 5.04 38:26 Crispy Duck – Traffic Jam #2 W/ Muscle Shoals Horns 3.34 41:55 Steal From A King – Traffic Jam #3 W/ Muscle Shoals Horns 5.19 47:10 It’s So Hard – Demo #1 – Capaldi And Gordon 7.41 54:48 It’s So Hard – Demo #2 – Capaldi And Gordon 9.42 1:04:26 Easter Weekend – Demo #1 – Capaldi 3.26 1:07:55 Easter Weekend – Demo #2 – Capaldi 3.46

 A DELUXE 4 DISC CLAMSHELL BOXED SET FEATURING ALL OF JIM CAPALDI’S SOLO RECORDINGS FOR ISLAND RECORDS ISSUED BETWEEN 1972 & 1976
• NEWLY REMASTERED FROM THE ORIGINAL MASTER TAPES
• MATERIAL FEATURES GUEST APPEARANCES BY STEVE WINWOOD, CHRIS WOOD, DAVE MASON, PAUL KOSSOFF & THE MUSCLE SHOALS RHYTHM SECTION
• WITH 6 BONUS TRACKS DRAWN FROM SINGLES & A DVD FEATURING JIM CAPALDI’S APPEARANCES ON BBC TV OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST FROM NOVEMBER 1975 (featuring STEVE WINWOOD) AND A 50 MINUTE OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST TV CONCERT FROM MARCH 1976 – All Previously Unreleased.

Esoteric Recordings is pleased to announce the release of Open Your Heart – The Island Recordings 1972 – 1976, a new re-mastered four-disc clamshell boxed set (comprising 3 CDs and a DVD) by the legendary Jim Capaldi.

Aside from his work as a founder member with the acclaimed band Traffic (a group for which Jim co-wrote most of their classic songs with Steve Winwood), Jim Capaldi was also a successful solo artist, enjoying a series of hit albums and singles in his own right. His solo career began with the album Oh How We Danced, recorded whilst Traffic was on hiatus whilst Steve Winwood was recovering from peritonitis. Mainly recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, the album featured the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section of Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass) and Barry Beckett (keyboards), along with a host of guests such as Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Paul Kossoff, Dave Mason, Ric Grech, Jim Gordon, Mike Kellie (Spooky Tooth) & Trevor Burton (The Move / Steve Gibbons Band). Featuring tracks such as Eve, Don’t Be A Hero and Open Your Heart, Oh How We Danced was a superb debut solo release.

Jim’s second solo album was the 1974 release Whale Meat Again, an album that tackled a variety of lyrical subjects, including environmental issues. Once more he utilised the services of Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Barry Beckett, along with Steve Winwood. Featuring tracks such as It’s Alright, Whale Meat Again and Summer is Fading, the album was another classic.

With the disbanding of Traffic in 1974, following a troubled US tour, Jim embarked on his next solo project (and final album for Island Records of the 1970s), Short Cut Draw Blood. The album would prove to be one of his most successful, featuring the singles It’s All Up to You and Love Hurts (a cover of the Everly Brothers hit), both of which enjoyed chart success. Aside from these tracks the album also featured the emotive Boy with a Problem, featuring Paul Kossoff on guitar, and other classics such as the album title track, Goodbye Love and Seagull. Once again Jim Capaldi assembled a stellar cast of musicians to contribute to the album such as Steve Winwood, Chris Spedding, Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Barry Beckett and Chris Wood.

This boxed set has been newly re-mastered from the original master tapes and features an additional 6 bonus tracks, (four previously unreleased on CD), all drawn from single releases and also includes a bonus DVD (NTSTC / Region Free) featuring previously unreleased live appearances by Jim Capaldi on BBC TV’s “Old Grey Whistle Test”; a session from November 1975 (featuring Steve Winwood on piano) and a 50 minute concert by Jim Capaldi & the Space Cadets at the BBC TV Theatre in March 1976. The boxed set also includes an illustrated booklet with a new essay. Open Your Heart – The Island Recordings 1972 – 1976 is a fitting tribute to a fine and much missed musician.

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Two stunning BBC sessions from the heyday of the british band fronted by Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. One shot recorded before the release of the debut album on Island Mr. Fantasy, the second – December the 11th – right after. Facing the beginning of a new groove revolution after the blues explosion.

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Things are getting more sophisticated down here. The band just released his debut album and is ready to roll. Second self-titled album is almost there, so a number of key tracks like Pearly Queen,Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring and Feeling Alright. Three different radio sessions from winter and the hot summer of ’68.

Classic Radio Broadcasts: On their formation in April 1967 Traffic experienced instant success and rapidly expanding popularity. That they accomplished so much in such a short space of time attests to the talent of the band s particular blend of creative forces, but also might explain why the first few years were so tumultuous. Although Steve Winwood was already a widely respected figure due to his time with The Spencer Davis Group, the strength of Traffic’s debut single, Paper Sun, took many observers by surprise. A number 5 hit in the UK, the song signaled that Winwood had matured into one of the most significant figures in British music and, as further material appeared over the course of 67, that Traffic were a major arrival on the scene – Dave Mason’s Hole In My Shoe gave the band a UK number 2 in August and November s Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush their third successive top ten hit. When the group s debut album, Mr. Fantasy, arrived in December, it was to rapturous acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic; but trouble lay ahead. In early 68 Dave Mason quit, citing artistic differences. Although he briefly re-joined the band during sessions for their second album, Traffic, he left again shortly after and Traffic never really recovered. Winwood exited in early 69 (to the shock and surprise of Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood) and formed Blind Faith alongside Eric Clapton & Ginger Baker.

Despite their eventual reformation in 1970 (minus Mason), 67- 68 thus stands alone as the original pure era in Traffic s history. With the impact that the band made on British music at the time, they fast became fixtures of radio programming, on John Peel s Top Gear show in particular. Collected here are the complete BBC performances by Traffic from across 1967-68, a fascinating journey that traces the evolution of the band over the course of its quintessential period, from Paper Sun in September 67 to Feelin Alright in July 68, Dave Mason’s last great gift before he walked.

The Limited Edition image 1

In celebration of the life and lyrics of Traffic’s drummer, poet and founder – the late Jim Capaldi over 70 of his handwritten lyrics are illustrated with images of Traffic, and illuminated with the recollections of 40 legendary contributors.

Mr Fantasy is a limited edition of only 900 copies. Signed by Steve Winwood, Aninha Capaldi and Robert Plant.

Traffic’s songs and the imagery of Jim Capaldi’s lyrics brought us adventures and characters that vibrated through the psychedelic underground.’ quoted Robert Plant

‘The Sixties to me were the most important years in humankind! Traffic became a reality in 1966. I’d already started writing songs in the previous bands so I naturally took the role of lyricist.’ Jim Capaldi

Read all about the making of this classic album in the limited edition book and record set, Mr Fantasy, which explores the lyrics and music of Jim Capaldi . Jim was the lyricist behind Traffic’s 11 albums, including the hit songs ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’, ‘40,000 Headmen’ and ‘Paper Sun’. Originally inspired by The Beatles, Jim also wrote for the Eagles and played alongside George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix

His handwritten lyrics have been reproduced in facsimile, complete with doodles, typos and alterations to reveal the process behind the words that changed the face of music. ‘As you read these lyrics, ask yourself if anyone in rock ever wrote better. The pirate poet indeed. Jim was a real rough diamond… I loved him.’ Tom Petty

Jim began work on this book before his death in 2005. He provided us with text, giving insight into his inspiration and describing his prolific 40-year song writing partnership with Steve Winwood.

‘I’d had this idea for a lyric and that evening while half asleep I managed to finish it off in my head. I got up, wrote it down and went and woke up Steve; it must have been around 4.30 or 5.00 in the morning. Then we went in to the little living room where there was an old upright piano and finished it. It was the first song we wrote together.’ Jim Capaldi

‘All these bits of paper would be knocking about and while we were jamming, if I could find a way to sing something that was written down I would just sing it. That’s how we created our songs… He was a life-long brother-musician to me and we spent a lot of time together, had a great affection for each other, and understood each other and the way we worked. It’s slightly sad, but, for me, Traffic can never be without Jim.’ Steve Winwood

Jim was one of the most influential songwriters, not only of his generation but in the history of popular music culture. He attacked life with an energy and passion and left a rich legacy. He leaves a benchmark for today’s writers and musicians to emulate.’

This Dynamic broadcast recording from the band Traffic in 1972 featured Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood who met at a nightclub the Opposite Lock in Aston, Birmingham in the mid-1960s. At the time Winwood was still performing with The Spencer Davis Group, but when he quit in April 1967, the quartet formed Traffic.

Traffic signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and their debut single “Paper Sun” became a UK hit in the summer of 1967. Further hit singles followed and their debut album, “Mr. Fantasy”, was successful in the UK. Dave Mason left the group by the time Mr. Fantasy was released, but re-joined for a few months in 1968, long enough to contribute to their second, eponymous album. The band however was discontinued following Winwood’s departure in early 69. He then formed the supergroup Blind Faith, which lasted less than a year, recording one album and undertaking one US tour. After the break-up of Blind Faith, Winwood began working on a solo recording, bringing in Wood and Capaldi to contribute, and the project eventually turned into a new Traffic album, “John Barleycorn Must Die”, their most successful record of all.

In 1971 the group released The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971), a Top 10 American album but one which did not chart in the UK. They toured America in early 1972 to promote the LP, during which they performed an extraordinary concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on 21st February, which was broadcast across FM radio along the West Coast, and is featured in its entirety . The quite superb performance includes cuts from their two finest albums.

recorded at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1972, this concert seems to kick off with a somewhat spacey, mildly exploratory version of the title tune of the band’s then-current LP, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”; Steve Winwood and Chris Wood get to stretch out nicely on this one, on piano and electric sax, respectively. “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” comes next, on which former drummer Jim Capaldi gets to do his white Sammy Davis, Jr. thing while Stevie offers up some wicked guitar licks. (Until his recent collaborations with Eric Clapton, many seemed to have forgotten what a fantastic guitarist he’s always been!) A straightforward yet tasty as can be rendition of “John Barleycorn” follows, featuring some terrific work by Chris on flute; “Rainmaker” makes for a perfect segueway after this one, highlighted by more lovely flute work from Chris and a rousing percussion interlude from Reebop Kwakubaah. The classic Traffic diptych of “Glad”/”Freedom Rider” comes next, accompanied by some psychedelic light FX, and then Stevie sings effortlessly and beautifully on “40,000 Headmen.” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” closes out this set in rousing fashion, featuring some more staggering guitar work from Winwood.

In 1967, when the still-teenaged keyboardist Steve Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group (for whom he’d sung lead on hits like “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man”) to start a new band with guitarist Dave Mason, few observers thought their idea of blending pop, rock, and jazz would work. Immediately, though, Traffic scored giant hits with Winwood’s east-meets-west “Paper Sun” and Mason’s acid-jazzy “Hole in My Shoe”. Between those songs, the smoking-guitar driven title track, the swinging instrumental “Giving to You” and the haunting ballad, “No Face, No Name, No Number”, Traffic’s debut established both players as elite members of the new guard of late 60s British rock.

“I knew it wasn’t just a good piece or a good track for a record,” Traffic drummer and lyricist Jim Capaldi once said of their song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” the pseudo-title-cut from the band’s kaleidoscopic debut LP. “I knew it was going to be a real milestone-type piece.” His hunch was spot-on.

The British quartet never cracked the pop charts with the spiraling psych-rock song. (In fact, they never even issued it as a single.) But the six-minute long “Fantasy” was designed more as a deep, mind-expanding bong hit than a quick joint puff: Steve Winwood’s bluesy howl and the group’s live-in-the-room exploration tapped into the same jam-sprung freedom flourishing at that time from America’s West Coast.

Fittingly, since much of Traffic’s early repertoire reveled in whimsy, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” originated from a doodle. “I’d drawn this character playing a guitar, with puppet hands instead of his own hands,” Capaldi recalled in a video interview celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mr. Fantasyin 2017. “I wrote a letter next to it: ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune.'”

At the time, the band Capaldi, Winwood, multi-instrumentalists Dave Mason and Chris Wood were holed up at Sheepcote Farm, a rural cottage in Berkshire, England, owned by baronet Sir William Pigott-Brown, a friend of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. Experimenting with weed and LSD, and living among the filth of their own dirty dishes and laundry, the young men cooked up much of Mr. Fantasy at this ragged sanctuary.

“There was no running water, there was a well and no electricity,” said WinwoodBlackwell took the gamekeeper’s cottage down the lane so he could make sure we rehearsed and wrote material. It was a place where we could make as much row as we liked – and we certainly did.”

During one ordinary vice-filled afternoon, “Fantasy” emerged.

“I was asleep upstairs in the cottage, and I heard this nice little bass line going and some guitar,” Capaldi said “I woke up, went down — we’d jam all time of the day, and we’d all take breaks, do whatever.”

“[I] found that they’d written a song around the words and drawing I’d done, I was completely knocked out by it. Chris wrote that great bass line. We added some more words later and worked out a bigger arrangement too.”

“Dear Mr. Fantasy” “was done on impulse with practically nothing worked out, because it was almost jammed,” Winwood told Rolling Stone in 1969. “The initial spirit of the whole thing was captured on record — which is very rare. That was one of the things, because it’s not specifically an outstanding melody or an outstanding chord sequence or anything. It’s basically quite simple. They’re very simple lyrics and they’re repeated three times. … It wasn’t half so strong after we’d done it. It was time that gave it a lot of meaning.”

Armed with a batch of songs that sprawled from psych to blues to soul to Beatlesque Indian nods, Traffic eventually moved to London’s Olympic Studios with producer Jimmy Miller, with whom Winwood had collaborated as part of his previous band, the Spencer Davis Group.

Miller was crucial in capturing the song’s free-flowing vibe on tape, which they only achieved after scrapping the traditional recording booths and tracking as a live four-piece: Winwood on electric guitar and vocals, Mason on bass, Wood on organ and Capaldi on drums. A surprise fifth member was Miller, who augmented the groove by rushing from the control room to lay down some extra percussion.

“We were in the middle of a take and there’s a part where the tempo changes it jumps and I look around, and Jimmy Miller’s not in the control room,” by the side of engineer Eddie Kramer. “The next thing I see out of the corner of my eye is Jimmy hauling ass across the room, running full tilt. He jumps up on the riser, picks up a pair of maracas and gets them to double the tempo! That, to me, was the most remarkable piece of production assistance I’d ever seen. They were shocked to see him out there, exhorting them to double the tempo. Their eyes kind of lit up. It was amazing.”

“Fantasy” thrives on that anything-can-happen energy: Capaldi’s thumping kick drum accents and tumbling fills, the double-time grooves, Winwood’s Jimi Hendrix-like solo, that tempo-shifting finale. From 1967 onward, it became a staple of Traffic’s live show performed more than any other song in their catalog.

And kindred spirits followed suit onstage. Grateful Dead introduced a faithful cover in 1984, a showcase for keyboardist-singer Brent Mydland, and continued to perform it up through 1990. (Jerry Garcia even joined Traffic for a version during their 1994 reunion tour, documented on the live set The Last Great Traffic Jam.) Several other rock legends have paid tribute, including Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, mid-’90s Fleetwood Mac (featuring a briefly tenured Mason), Peter Frampton and Eric Clapton (alongside Winwood).

“Dear Mr. Fantasy” “was done on impulse with practically nothing worked out, because it was almost jammed,” Winwood told Rolling Stone in 1969. “The initial spirit of the whole thing was captured on record — which is very rare. That was one of the things, because it’s not specifically an outstanding melody or an outstanding chord sequence or anything. It’s basically quite simple. They’re very simple lyrics and they’re repeated three times. … It wasn’t half so strong after we’d done it. It was time that gave it a lot of meaning.”

  • Steve Winwood – guitar, lead vocal
  • Dave Mason – bass guitar, harmonica, backing vocal
  • Chris Wood – organ, backing vocal
  • Jim Capaldi – drums, backing vocal
  • Jimmy Miller – maracas

Traffic / The Studio Albums 1967-1974

This 6LP vinyl box set due in May, Universal Music are set to release a new Traffic vinyl box set, the snazzily titled, The Studio Albums 1967–1974.
The six-LP set collects together the Island-released Mr Fantasy, Traffic, John Barleycorn Must Die, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory, The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys and When The Eagle Flies. 1969 odds ‘n’ sods compilation Last Exit isn’t included.

Traffic were originally formed in 1967 when Steve Winwood fled the Spencer Davis Group at the ripe old age of 18, and joined drummer/singer Jim Capaldi, singer/guitarist Dave Mason and reed player Chris Wood. The quartet soon rented a cottage out in rural Berkshire to ‘get their heads together in the country’.

While the group were quickly successful with the singles ‘Paper Sun’ and ‘Hole In My Shoe’, they were more at home on the album format, and also enjoyed considerable success within the U.S., scoring four consecutive top ten albums from 1970 to 1974.

The Studio Albums 1967-1974 is released 17th May 2019.

The LPs have been remastered from the original tapes and presented in their original and highly collectable ‘first’ Island pressing form (gatefold sleeves, pink eye labels etc). The set also includes a related and rare facsimile promo poster for each album.

Traffic - John Barleycorn Must Die front

1969 was a tremulous year for the band Traffic. After a successful tour in the US following their second album, Steve Winwood left the band for the short-lived super group Blind Faith. In the meantime Island Records released the album “Last Exit”, a mishmash of leftover studio cuts and live performances Traffic recorded in 1968. Blind Faith recorded one excellent album but broke up shortly after, leaving Winwood then free to start working on a solo record suggested by Island Record’s manager Chris Blackwell.

The plan was for Winwood to play all the instruments using tape overdubbing techniques in the studio. Winwood is a fine multi instrumentalist who could certainly perform such a feat, but he found the process difficult: “I began trying to make music all on my own with tape machines and overdubbing and stuff. It was a very good way of writing, but it was a weird way of making music. The whole thing that makes music special is people. I was getting to the point that I needed the input of other people. It seemed inhuman to make records just by overdubbing.”

Steve Winwood started calling on his friends from Traffic to help him in the studio. First to join was Jim Capaldi who helped writing some of the songs and contributed drums and percussion tracks. Next was reed man Chris Wood who brought his jazz and folk influences, and the three worked for a few months on the album. It became clear that the solo album, with the planned title name of “Mad Shadows”, was really a Traffic record.

Chris Wood was influenced by the folk revival that swept the British Isles in the late 60s. One song he suggested to the group was John Barleycorn, which he heard on the 1965 Watersons record Frost and Fire. The Watersons’ version, like most of their material from that period, was an unaccompanied vocal group performance.

Winwood applied himself to the song and played a wonderful guitar part on it. Capaldi added tasteful and sparse percussion parts and more importantly a brilliant vocal harmony starting on the fifth verse. Wood’s flute accompaniment is the icing on the cake on this great take on the song, which has been performed by many British folk artists over the years including Martin Carthy and John Renbourn. The Mainly Norfolk site has a good page chronicling many of the song’s covers. It is interesting that amidst the great activity that took place at the time in the British folk rock scene by bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Fotheringay and many others, one of the most memorable songs remains this performance of John Barleycorn by Traffic, wnot considered a folk rock band.

The album was engineered by Andy Johns, younger brother of Glynn Johns. Between them the two brothers recorded classic rock’s royalty. Before working with Traffic, Andy Johns recorded Jethro Tull (Stand Up, Living in the Past), Spooky Tooth and Blind Faith. After Traffic his career soared with Led Zeppelin (II, III, the legendary IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti) and the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street). Quite a resume, and this is just within a span of 4 years.

Johns had a deep respect for Steve Winwood. In an interview he mentioned an experience he had when working on the Blind Faith album: “I came back from a lunch break one day and the soundproof door was cracked a little bit, and I could hear him playing the Hammond. He’s playing both manuals and the bass pedals and he’s singing. I look at him and he’s looking at the ceiling. Not only is he playing the top manual, the lower manual, the bass pedals, and singing, but he’s also thinking about what his old lady’s going to make him for dinner. So he’s doing four or five things at once and the music was just stunning. I hate to use the word genius, because it’s bandied about so much, but that guy, in the end of his little finger, has more than a whole tribe of musicality— he really does. It’s just unfair.”

When you first listen to the song you may think that you landed in the midst of a Middle Ages inquisition session. The lyrics describe all kinds of brutal methods inflicted by three men upon a poor fellow named John Barleycorn. However a closer look reveals that the distressing lyrics are actually a metaphor to the process applied to barley in order to produce beer and whiskey. While it has its roots in old folklore tales about the Corn God and religious symbolism, it is really a satire on legally prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages while still needing the drink to get on with everyday life, as revealed in the last verse:

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn

In short, John Barleycorn is a drinking song. Maybe the best of them all.

Steve Winwood performs a solo acoustic version of Traffic’s John Barleycorn (Must Die).

Image of Traffic 'First Exit' blue vinyl LP

Steve Winwood formed Traffic with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood in 1967. In the spirit of the times, the group was intended to be a cooperative, with the members living together in a country cottage in Berkshire and collaborating on their songs. Signed to Island Records their single “Paper Sun,” peaked in the U.K. Top Five in July 1967 and also spent several weeks in the lower reaches of the charts in America. Traffic toured Europe in the summer of ’67 and the live recording that comprises this album was made for radio broadcast in Sweden at Radiohuset, Stockholm on September. 12th, 1967. It has been newly mastered for vinyl and pressed on blue vinyl.

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• Restored and newly mastered audio
• Historic live radio broadcast available for the first time on LP
• Includes the hits ‘Paper Sun’ and ‘Hole In My Show’
• Complete live show from 1967
• Limited edition blue vinyl

Image of Traffic 'First Exit' blue vinyl LP

TRACK LISTING
1. Giving To You [live] / 2. Smiling Phases [live] / 3. Coloured Rain [live] / 4. Hole In My Shoe [live] / 5. Feelin’ Good [live] / 6. Paper Sun [live] / 7. Dear Mr Fantasy [live]