The best thing Traffic ever did was to take a break from being Traffic.
The collaboration with Dave Mason was starting to look like the rock equivalent of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor romance, though Liz and Dick’s first marriage lasted a lot longer than any of Mason’s stints with Traffic. Mason couldn’t even wait long enough to stay for the release of Mr. Fantasy, leaving his mates short of a full lineup when they hit the road in support of the album. Incredibly, Winwood and Capaldi brought him back because they needed material to fill out the second Traffic album, the not-very-cleverly-titled Traffic. Once again, Mason split the scene, and after the patched-together Last Exit, it looked like Traffic was history.
The problem with Dave Mason in the context of Traffic was that he had zero upside potential. He wrote pleasant and catchy little songs in the 60’s and would continue to do so throughout his recording career. Steve Winwood, on the other hand, had plenty of upside potential but needed to mature so he could rid himself of the expectations heaped on a teenage wonder and figure out how he wanted to apply his ample talent. Spending time with Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force was just the thing Winwood needed—especially the time spent with the disciplined Mr. Clapton. Once those experiences had run their course, Winwood began working on a solo effort with Guy Stevens handling the production, but soon realized his work on Traffic was unfinished, and brought Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood back for a reunion.
The first thing you notice about John Barleycorn Must Die is how little “sync noise” you hear. By “sync noise,” I mean the uncomfortable sound of musicians who aren’t in sync with each other. The Dave Mason version of Traffic never felt entirely in sync, and if you really want an obvious example of sync noise, listen to the live version of “Gimme Some Lovin'” on Welcome to the Canteen. Some have argued that the interplay between Mason’s guitar and Winwood’s organ is the problem on that track, but it sounds to me like everyone in the band was out to lunch, on acid or too busy checking out the tits in the audience to bother. On the four full-band songs that appear on Barleycorn, Winwood, Capaldi and Wood sound relaxed and responsive to each other’s cues, and there’s not a moment on the record when I feel they’re getting sloppy.
The second thing you notice is that except for the title song, the album is comparatively sparse on the lyrical side. I figured out you can fit all the lyrics to the five non-instrumental songs on two regular-sized MS Word pages using a Calibri 10-point font. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Traffic—Capaldi and Winwood were generally better at creating moods than stories or epic poetry, and as much as I love hearing his voice, Stevie Winwood (at this stage in his career) was still one of the most unintelligible singers ever. Even if he’d spent his time away from Traffic at Sinatra’s side and learned how to enunciate perfectly without losing the feel of a song, it wouldn’t have mattered all that much—the lyrics on Barleycorn (largely Capaldi efforts) aren’t much to write home about. Some of the lyrical songs contain one brilliant, unforgettable line before devolving into mush.
But the most important change to emerge from Barleycorn is the vast improvement in compositional skills. The songs on Traffic are largely a mess, lacking coherent themes and wandering aimlessly into musical cul-de-sacs with extremely poor resolution. “Don’t Be Sad” is the worst offender, but really, the most stable compositions are the two Mason songs, “You Can All Join In” and “Feelin’ Alright.” Both are rather boring and predictable, but at least they have a recognizable structure and competent resolution. “40,000 Headmen” is decent in this regard, and if you add the tracks from the expanded release, “Medicated Goo” is pretty coherent. Unfortunately, those are the exceptions—on both Traffic and Mr. Fantasy, the Winwood-Capaldi team produced too many experiments that should have remained in the lab.
They weren’t alone in this regard; the psychedelic era opened the door to experimentation with song structures, but few had the talent, musical training or instincts to design compositions that successfully blended disparate themes into a satisfying whole. One of the most daring and successful attacks on standard structure was Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” where the “mother superior” segment seems to be an out-of-the-blue insertion until the shift to the chorus in the final passage makes you realize that it was a stroke of genius designed to build tension leading to a dramatic and satisfying resolution. Lennon had no musical training or the desire to learn, but had instinctively integrated an essential truth in his work: tension must lead to resolution. The early Traffic songs are often oblivious to theme, tension and resolution, full of awkward changes and pointless jams. Whether it was the time with Clapton and Baker or just the logical outcome of growing up, Winwood’s compositions on Barleycorn all possess strong themes, solid balance and sturdy structures that allow for plenty of variation within the theme.
The improvement in compositional skills is obvious from the get-go in the instrumental “Glad,” which opens the album. “Glad” is structured into three sections, with the first establishing the exceptionally strong central theme. The Am-C-D pattern allows Winwood to warm up the fingers with some superbly fluid runs around an embedded melody; meanwhile, he comps himself on the opposite channel with a space-filling organ. The inspired moment in this first passage comes from the change to Bbm, dramatically accentuated by Chris Wood’s entrance on the sax. Wood plays off a Bbm-D7 combo, leading to the daring shift to the fifth for the resolution. The total pattern is repeated three times, each repetition adding a bit more variation; it’s followed by a truncated verse where Capaldi shifts to double time and Wood takes center stage for a long sax solo with some fascinating tonal enhancements courtesy of an electric sax. A shift back to the Bbm signals a return to the main theme for one go-round before the third, slower passage where Capaldi smoothly backs off the double time beat and the band eases into a pattern of Dm7/Dm and E7, providing the foundation for a long and lovely piano passage. Winwood approaches this section modally, integrating a flurry of notes outside the standard scale. Capaldi’s cymbal work here is superb, his shimmery tones complementing the beautiful sounds coming from the piano. After a dynamic peak where we notice Winwood reducing the frequency of the notes, the rhythm slows to a crawl while the organ emerges from deep background and ends the piece on an extended E major chord—leading to the sudden and unexpected turn to Gm that marks the opening blow of “Freedom Rider.”
The impact of that turn is tremendous, because a Gm chord doesn’t belong anywhere near an E major—but Winwood makes it work by providing an equally compelling theme that manages to jolt the strong theme of “Glad” out of center position in your perceptual field. “Freedom Rider” is what George Martin referred to as a “piano song,” meaning songs that are relatively easy to compose on a piano but unlikely to come from a guitar unless you have the fingers of a professional contortionist. When a guitarist confronts the chords of a piano song like “Freedom Rider” (or The Zombies’ Rod Argent composition “I Want Her She Wants Me”), the initial response is “What the fuck?” A pianist will look at the same songs and say, “Easy as slipping into a wet pussy” (well, at least this constantly sex-starved pianist would say that). The difference is that diminished, augmented and certain flatted/sharped minor chords are much more accessible on the piano than on guitar.
Adding to the challenges facing the short-fingered guitarist, the main riff is in a different key (Gm) than the verses (Am). “Shit, man, I got all these weird chords to deal with and now you throw me a key change?” Unfortunately for the blossoming guitar hero, that key change is absolutely crucial to the song’s success. Having already integrated E major into the composition with the seamless transition from “Glad,” Winwood would have been a fool not to reconnect with the E major, and the only way he could pull that off was by shifting to Am on the verses and ending those verses with the compatible fifth chord. Ending the verses on the E major also forces a repeat of the seemingly awkward shift to Gm, and the repetition reinforces the credibility of that curious juxtaposition. When we hear it the first time, it’s a bit unnerving; when we hear it repeated, it delivers a satisfaction akin to an “aha moment.”
And damn, I just love that opening sax riff, a very clever musical figure indeed! It communicates a sense of mystery that I find endlessly enticing, and would rank it as one of my top ten favorite riffs of all time if I kept such silly lists. Better still, Chris Wood’s flute fills and extended solo add up to one of his most vibrant performances, and from a compositional standpoint, the contrast between the joyful flights of the flute and the ominous notes of the saxophone form an intense interplay between moods, adding to the overall interest. As for the lyrics . . . the opening couplet is the flash of brilliance (“Like a hurricane around your heart/When earth and sky are torn apart”); the rest is . . . well, I guess Stevie had to sing something. Here, mood matters far more than lyrics, and “Freedom Rider” is a fantastic mood piece.
The most noticeable difference in “Empty Pages” is the appearance of a booming bass guitar, handled competently by Mr. Winwood. The opening flourish features the structure that will be used in the chorus, another solid compositional decision. Though the meandering lyrics add little to the piece, the extended instrumental passage is an absolute delight, featuring some strong riffing from Winwood on electric piano, solid organ support from Chris Wood and a deft, diverse performance by Capaldi on the kit.
We flip over to Side Two for one of the two remnants from the planned Winwood solo effort, the Guy Stevens-produced “Stranger to Himself.” The panning certainly has a professional gloss about it, with clean separations between the various locations in the sound field. Winwood handless the lead vocal and all the instruments; the only other contribution comes from Capaldi, who adds vocal harmony on the exceptionally strong chorus. The one-man show aspect of the recording is really obvious, rather like the material on McCartney’s first album, and while Winwood is generally on his game (except for a pretty weak electric guitar solo), Traffic would have been better off re-recording it as a threesome.
The title track is a traditional English folk song, one I covered in my review of Steeleye Span’s Below the Salt:
For those of you who have only heard Traffic’s version, “John Barleycorn Must Die” will seem quite disorienting. Steve Winwood’s version seems a dark and mysterious tale of three murderous, sadistic creeps torturing an innocent man. By contrast, Steeleye Span’s rendition is a joyous celebration of the barley plant that gives us home-brewed ale.
I will say that Traffic’s version seems a more appropriate introduction to the 1970’s, where fear of murderous, sadistic creeps ran wild through the paranoid populace.
The lyrics in the two versions are different, but not as much as you would think given the 180-degree contrast in mood. The tone of Winwood’s voice, the eerie sound of Wood’s flute and the spare production guided by acoustic guitar make these lines in particular seem stunningly cruel:
They’ve hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the way, serving him most barbarously
They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he’s bound him to the cart
Oh, no! My mind is calling up pictures of the cornfield scene in Scorsese’s Casino! I had no idea there was a Kentish Mafia wandering around the barley fields! Poor John Barleycorn! Poor Joe Pesci! Generally, I prefer the jollier version, but in the context of this album, the acoustic darkness provides a welcome contrast that works like a charm.
Barleycorn closes with the second fragment from the Winwood solo sessions, “Every Mother’s Son,” with its appropriately reflective album-ending mood. This is definitely the superior of the two remnants, with a tighter feel and stronger performances on all the disparate parts (particularly on the delivery of the lead guitar riff). I think it’s also Winwood’s best vocal on the album, capped off by a belt-it-out performance on the final chorus. The lyrics are above par, and Winwood’s heartfelt delivery indicates the song had significant personal meaning for him:
Once again I’m northward bound,
On the edge of sea and sky
Tomorrow is my friend,
My one and only friend
We travel on together searching for the end
I’m a traveling soul
And every mother’s son
Although I’m getting tired
I’ve got to travel on
Can you please help, my god? (3)
I think it’s only fair
Perhaps the northward turn describes a return to his Birmingham roots; perhaps it’s in anticipation of a long over-the-pole flight to the USA to launch another tour. I find the lines “Tomorrow is my friend/My one and only friend” a fascinating admission that our traveler knows that “searching for the end” is a hopeless quest but feels compelled to maintain pursuit. That is so human: we search for the grail to the point of exhaustion, know in our hearts that we’ll never find it, but continue the journey all the same.
It also seems an appropriate ending for an album that triumphantly announced Traffic’s return to the journey. John Barleycorn Must Die is the first Traffic album where they put it all together, fulfilling the promise hinted at in the best tunes of their early days. Instead of scraps of this or that, Traffic gave us a series of well-thought-out compositions that formed a satisfying whole, making Barleycorn one of those wonderful albums best listened to in a single sitting.
Sometimes taking a break can make all the difference in the world.
Having departed The Spencer Davis Group by communicating his resignation through an intermediary, Steve Winwood joined up with after-hours jam session mates Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi to form Traffic. Winwood certainly had a clear vision for the new group: “The original line-up of Junior Walker And The All-Stars was sax, organ, guitar and drums with no bass. That was the Traffic concept. We were determined to make a uniquely British form of rock ‘n’ roll that incorporated or evoked traditional music.”
That determination went up in a thick cloud of marijuana smoke.
I was really looking forward to reviewing this album, as “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is one of my favorite songs, for reasons that shall be explained later. I was hoping to hear more songs like that—songs that reflected Winwood’s vision. This proved to be a naïve error in judgment. In reflecting upon how I my assumptions could have been so far off, I realized that I really hadn’t heard much of what Traffic did during their first phase except for the cuts on a greatest hits collection; the Traffic I know best is the post-John Barleycorn Traffic, a band that successfully integrated jazz, soul, R&B and rock.
I had no idea these guys started out so absolutely fucking weird.
Instead of doggedly pursuing their artistic vision, Traffic took a detour to a gamekeeper’s cottage in Berkshire where they smoked kilos of dope and tried to ignore a fatal flaw in group dynamics caused by the presence of one Dave Mason. While Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi collaborated on songs, Dave Mason would show up with his own numbers and tell the others what to play. That was bad enough, but what made it even worse was that Mason had a different artistic vision than the other three, a conflict that was telegraphed to the listening public through their first two singles. The Capaldi-Winwood-Wood “Paper Sun” is clearly the more interesting and inventive piece, integrating multiple influences à la Winwood’s vision. The other, Dave Mason’s “Hole in My Shoe,” was bitterly and accurately described by Jim Capaldi as “Fucking pop bubblegum.” It was hardly surprising that Mason would leave the band before the album was released. He would return for an encore to fill out the second album and leave again, but really, he never should have been there in the first place.
Unfortunately, you can’t pin the uneven quality of Mr. Fantasy entirely at the feet of the wayward Mr. Mason. The core trio contributed more than a few stinkers as well, probably the result of the cannabis-filled environment in their Berkshire cottage and an overenthusiastic adoption of the rampant experimentation of the time.
The vision does come through in the opening track, “Heaven Is in Your Mind.” Composed by Capaldi-Winwood-Wood, the song opens with an ear-catching introduction of percussive piano and hints of sax that dissolve seamlessly into a sweet syncopated groove that is positively hip-shaking. The free-form panning style of the period is put to good use in this song, with the piano traveling across the sound spectrum on beat and the right-left transfer of the held harmonies on the last syllable of each line. The shift to waltz time in the chorus is executed with finesse, and the gently ironic lyrics point out the imaginative and spiritual limitations of the twenty-somethings who troll the hotspots for validation and attention:
You ride on the swing in and out of the bars
Capturing moments of life in a jar
Playing with children, acting as stars
Guiding your visions to heaven
And heaven is in your mind
Although Dave Mason’s extended guitar solo is pretty predictable, and I wish they’d opted for Chris Wood on sax for the fade, “Heaven Is in Your Mind” is a great opening track that confirms the promise in Winwood’s vision..
What happens next is “Berkshire Poppies,” which is a . . . no, it’s more like a . . . shit . . . let’s try this. It’s like you have opened the door to Traffic’s Berkshire cottage, and navigating your way through the smoky haze and around the beer cans, cigarette butts and food scraps that litter the floor, you plop your ass on a filthy paisley pillow and notice the band members fiddling with their instruments. What comes next is a series of starts and stops followed by a passage where Steve Winwood, a British national, sings like an American black guy trying to pass for a Cockney. Meanwhile, Chris Wood is fiddling with his horn, paying no attention to rhythm or melody. Then Mason does a guitar lick that sounds like the dying moans of a cat that has just been run over by a bus, and for some reason, this is a cue to the band to speed up the song and launch into a call-and-response vocal that clearly demonstrates the corrosive effect of cannabis on human motor skills. The rhythm then shifts to a striptease bash, but by this time you’ve already made a mad dash for the exit. As horrible as it is, “Berkshire Poppies” deserves recognition as the song that best epitomizes the micro-genre, “Self-Indulgent Stoner Garbage.”
Don’t believe for a minute that your escape from the hippie pad was in any way successful, for now you have to listen to Dave Mason’s “House for Everyone,” a bizarre, sugar-plum fairy tale where Dave Mason tries to position himself as the keeper of eternal wisdom. The climax of this clunker involves Mason having to choose between two doors: one labeled “truth” and the other “lies.” Dave passes on “lies” because it’s crumb-a-ling inside, then picks “truth” because the door “was very plain and stood up very strong.” Wow! That is so heavy, man, I can hardly get my head around it! Deep! Deep!
Steve Winwood then tries his hand at meaningful symbolism and comes a cropper. “No Face, No Name, No Number” is a ballad that Winwood sings in the broad dramatic style of an American Idol contestant, making you yearn for the understated vocal and string arrangement of “Yesterday.” The subject is the faceless girl, an image recycled by several bands of the era, including The Doors and It’s a Beautiful Day. Stevie’s faceless girl is simply a girl he hasn’t met yet, so the symbolic meaning can be summed up in a more succinct phrase: Stevie’s still looking for the perfect piece of ass.
With great relief, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” fills my headphones with its swaying groove, signature riff and Steve Winwood in the soulful vocal style where his sweet spot lies. Jim Capaldi wrote the lyrics after drawing a Mr. Fantasy cartoon character, and while they’re not bad, let’s face it: this is “Mr. Tambourine Man Redux.” The song works because of the feel, not because there is any enlightenment contained therein. It’s one of my all-time favorite posing songs.
That statement will require some explanation for the majority of my readers who are vanilla sex practitioners.
A BDSM sexual encounter is called a “scene.” Because I dominate, I structure the scene. Not the entire scene is choreographed, as I do enjoy following my impulses, but I usually have a clear idea of the fantasies I want to bring to life. During the day I’ll muse about what I want to experience during that night’s scene and then give my partner specific instructions that she is to carry out to the letter. I always specify what music I want and what I want her to wear in the scene (yes, we dress for sex). I give very specific orders as to how I want the scene to begin, usually with one of us posing to the music I’ve selected.
Posing involves making an alluring entrance and then either moving to the music or using a particularly dramatic moment in the music to strike a certain pose designed to raise the sexual temperature of the viewer. It may or may not involve stripping, depending on how I’ve decided we will dress for the scene. Without getting too graphic and offending my more sensitive readers, posing allows a woman to display her assets in an enticing way, and music is essential to providing both mood and rhythm. Great posing songs always have a strong groove and sexy hooks. Some of my favorites are The Stones’ “Spider and the Fly,” Tull’s “A New Day Yesterday,” Cream’s “Strange Brew,” Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” Candy Dulfer’s “Lily Was Here,” Miles Davis’ “So What,” Oasis’ “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” and, as mentioned “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” I have several playlists that I’m always tweaking for scenes, allowing 20-30 minutes up front for posing songs. As a scene can last two to three hours, the balance of the playlist is filled with strong rockers, R&B, Chicago blues and modern jazz.
What makes “Dear Mr. Fantasy” such a great posing song is the series of contrasts between subtle and strong, between titillation and explosion. During the slow, bluesy verses, my moves are more graceful and teasing; during the faster segments more aggressive and dramatic. The best part comes in the last verse—I try to time it so that I start jacking myself off at the start so I can come to climax when Capaldi breaks rhythm and shifts to double-time snare hits, mirroring the onrush of an orgasm. That move always makes my partner cry out in delight, and by the time I’m done posing to the rest of the song, she is so ready to rock.
Sorry, but there are no videos of me posing to “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” You’ll have to settle for this 1972 live performance and let your imagination run amok.
The rest of Mr. Fantasy is pretty disappointing with faint hints of greater potential here and there. “Dealer” features a dual lead vocal with Capaldi and Winwood and one of the worst examples of wordplay in rock history: “As the evening sun goes down/The Dealer shuffles into town.” The song has an Andalusian flavor to it that is more apparent in the Phrygian opening passage than in the verse structure; the flute marks it as a precursor to “Hidden Treasures” on Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, a far superior piece. Dave Mason then tries to cement his status as an up-and-coming guru with “Utterly Simple,” a childish sitar song that shows only that Mason played hooky when he should have been applying himself to lessons in English syntax, narrative flow and Cartesian logic:
Everything really is stupidly simple
And yet all around is utter confusion
Fairy tales written may help you to see it
Do you understand about Lewis’s Alice?
We fit all our lives into regular patterns
All that we really know is that we’re really living
Let me try to grasp that: “all that we really know is that we’re really living.” Does two “reallys” in one line count as an esoteric form of the double negative? Or did Dave just run out of vocabulary words? The repeated rising melody gets really, really irritating, and that is not a double negative but a really, really nice way to say that this song is fucking awful. Fortunately (or not), the next two verses are spoken. I’m puzzled as to who is doing the narrative, as the voice is American and Traffic was 100% British . . . but really, really, I couldn’t care less.
In “Coloured Rain” Winwood finds his perfect piece of ass, but he sure has a hard time explaining it: “Till you came along there was nothing but an empty space and a pain/Feels like coloured rain/Tastes like coloured rain/Bring on coloured rain.” So, she feels and tastes like coloured rain, whatever the fuck that means. The music is at least halfway interesting and the most Junior Walker-ish track of the lot; Chris Wood finally gets some decent solo space and gives a yeoman’s performance. Unfortunately, we make a u-turn back to Masonland with his flanged vocal and equally distorted lyrics combining to create the disaster called “Hope I Never Find Me There.” I guess it’s supposed to be a lament of some sort about losing touch with the natural world . . . or the past . . . or life before TV dinners . . . Dave covers it all without bothering to connect the dots:
The horse I ride has lost a shoe, the buttercups are dry
The car I drive, has broken down and the blacksmith trade is dying
The meals I eat, have changed into a concentrated vacuum
We finally wind up back at the stoners’ cottage for “Giving to You,” an instrumental that opens with a barrage of bullshit pickup lines and period phrases like “where it’s at.” The musical section is similar to some of the work on Tull’s first album, with Chris Wood’s flute playing a prominent role establishing the main riff. Sadly, Dave Mason’s solo is way too predictable and way too long, though, and Capaldi drums like a man who wants to wrap this sucker up ASAP.
And so do I. Traffic would eventually find their groove, but on Mr. Fantasy, they were still lost in the woods.