Saturday, 8 June 2019

Traffic




Some psychedelia followed by folk and jazz-funk rock....

Mr. Fantasy (1967)
                                                      
This was Traffic's debut album and, while it considerably recovers its form in its second half it was, for me, at times, appallingly and unnecessarily pandering to the contemporary comedic, music hall style that seemed to be so prevalent in 1967. It seemed that, post Sgt. Pepper, every British group had to go a bit vaudeville. Yes, this was still a creative, innovative and pretty good album, but in a few places I find it indulgent and irritating. The eponymous second album, from 1968, is probably the better of the two, although most critics would seem to disagree with me. I know what they mean and, being a bit more level-headed, I will concede that there is probably little between the two.

Heaven Is In Your Mind is a hippy-ish piece of psychedelic rock similar to The Beatles' output in the same era, with a rudimentary stereo sound like that on Strawberry Fields Forever. It features an impressive guitar solo near the end and its madcap saxophone sound surely influenced Roxy Music several years later. It is a really punchy, inventive track that launches Traffic's career convincingly as a band quite ahead of their time. Berkshire Poppies is a clumsy, Small Faces-esque observational, kitchen-sink type song. It breaks out into a fast-paced frenetic romp half way through, but it sounds an unlistenable mess to me. Pissing around for the sake of it. They could do better than that but, unfortunately not on the ridiculously indulgent sub-Sgt. Pepper-Satanic Majesties-Kinks-Small Faces tosh of House For Everyone. Some people love this sort of music hall meets psychedelia stuff. Not me. I can't bear it. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh but give me funky blues rock every day. Funnily enough, though, both the tracks have, perversely, grown on me over repeated listens. Musically, they are great, but that whole music hall thing just still bugs me. There is something bizarrely creative and quirky about them all the same. Give me a break - I'm giving them a chance.

No Face, No Name, No Number restores the quality considerably with a sombre, evocative ballad. It was later covered by Bryan Ferry. This was a really good one. Even more like it was the excellent Dear Mr. Fantasy - a proper Traffic rock song with a vaguely funky bass line, great guitar soloing and not a silly, exaggerated posh English music hall voice to be heard anywhere. It is the album's best track, as far as I am concerned, by far. It has that special, unique, distinctly Traffic sound and also features a pre-Midnight Rambler frantic, harmonica-driven ending, two years before the Stones song. Dealer is similarly impressive, very much of its time, but quite ground-breaking in its bleak, cynical, drug-questioning message. It has some excellent rhythmic percussion parts, great bass and flute too. As it was 1967, there must be some Indian instruments somewhere along the line - sitar, tabla and the like - Utterly Simple delivered this in a very Within You Without You number. It is appealing but hardly original. Eastern influences were everywhere by late 1967, man. Coloured Rain is a psychedelic and appealing Beatles-esque number, all very hippy. That pre-Roxy Music saxophone is parping around all over the place. The vocals are in a style that David Bowie would adopt over the next few years. Indeed, the track would not have sounded out of place on The Man Who Sold The World, particularly the drums and lead guitar. Hope I Never Find Me There is another one that may well have influenced the burgeoning Bowie in its ethereal, dreamy hippiness. Giving To You starts off dreadfully but redeems itself a little as it proceeds into a solid enough rock jam - something Traffic would come to specialise in over the years.

** The bonus tracks give us the very sixties pop-psych sound of Paper Sun, which is very "freakbeat". It again features Eastern influences; there was another hit single in the equally Eastern vibe of Hole In My Shoe. This was a song I distinctly remember from my childhood. (I was eight at the time); and finally Smiling Phases, which was a convincing and powerful Traffic rock song, less poppy and more "serious".

The sound on the stereo mastering is superb, as indeed is the mono. There is nothing to choose between either of them, for me.

Traffic (1968)
                                                                                        
From October 1968, this was a bit of a patchwork album, vacillating between Steve Winwood's psychedelic, bluesy rock and Dave Mason's winsome folk rock material. This is a bit of an inconsistent statement, however, as Mason's tracks contain some strong rock parts too. Mason, incidentally left the group after this album. Personally, I much prefer this offering to the previous one, my feelings towards which I have expressed in the above review.

You Can All Join In is a catchy but odd lively, folky opener with vague hints of late sixties Who about it. It has some nice guitar breaks and an unfettered enthusiasm. Pearly Queen is more what you would expect from 1968 - heavy-ish psychedelic rock full of searing guitar and a big, rumbling bass over some crazy drumming, man. This is an early example of the sort of Traffic material that would influence Paul Weller so much some twenty-five years later. Mason's Don't Be Sad manages to merge folk rock with a bassy, bluesy groove in an archetypally late sixties vibe. It is a really good track. Nice harmonica too. Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring features another deep bass line and one of those soulful vocals that Steve Winwood was coming to specialise in. Check out his Hammond organ solo too.

The album contained a Traffic classic in
Feelin' Alright, a song that was covered by many artists, including genuine soul ones such as Gladys Knight, Isaac Hayes, The Undisputed Truth and Diana Ross & The Supremes as well as Paul Weller and, notably, Joe Cocker. It was written by Mason and is another that broke away from the folk sound to produce what was a pretty funky rock groove. It actually sounds more like a Winwood song. Vagabond Virgin is a lively, breezy hippy-ish ditty with some of those nice Chris Wood flute breaks that were often found on Traffic songs. 
Forty Thousand Headmen is a druggy slice of late sixties lyrical indulgence, but musically it has a mysterious ambience and punch to it. Again, you can hear Paul Weller from the mid-nineties in it. It merges seamlessly into Mason's jazzy, psychedelic folk of Cryin' To Be Heard. No Time To Live is a sombre, piano-driven ballad with a bit of an overbearing feel to it. The mood is lifted up again on the infectious funky strains of Means To An End.

** Of the bonus tracks, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush begins like Joe Cocker's With A Little Help From My Friends before it breaks out into a rousing piece of late sixties psychedelic rock complete with circus-y parts; Am I What I Was Or Am I What I Am is also very typical of its era, very psychedelic; Withering Tree is a muscular serving of pre-prog rock; Medicated Goo was actually a single but it is not particularly commercial. It is a solid late sixties mid-pace rocker with a great bass line, particularly near the end in conjunction with brass and the lead guitar; Shanghai Noodle Factory is a delicious piece of comparative nonsense with some fine acoustic guitar, drums and organ. It comes to an abrupt end.


Last Exit (1969)
                                                        
After Traffic's 1968 album had not ended up as the double album it was originally planned as, the group suddenly split and the record company were left with some surplus material. So, they issued this album which, although containing only seven songs. broke the thirty minute mark. It effectively became Traffic's final album. Or so it was thought at the time, before they reformed.

Dave Mason's Just For You is a short, lively, melodic hippy-ish romp given a typically post 1967 Indian instrumental backing. Mixed in with Chris Wood's flute and some rumbling bass, however, it makes for a fine recipe. Shanghai Noodle Factory was a double 'A' side single with Medicated Goo. It is a really strong, captivating track that rocks soulfully from beginning to end. It features great keyboards and that typical Traffic drum and organ sound. The latter, despite its nonsense lyrics is also really appealing and very much sums up Traffic's sound at the time - solid, bluesy but very inventive rock. Check out that bass line, the saxophone and the drums too - great stuff. Don't forget the guitar solo either. Perfect rock-soul.

Something's Got A Hold Of My Toe
is a really enjoyable, kick ass rocking instrumental, with organ breaks galore and great guitar too. 
Withering Tree was a 'B' side and is another robust, muscular rock number, with a slower pace this time and a fetching, slightly jazzy piano backing. It is, as with many Traffic songs, the sort that would seriously influence Paul Weller in the nineties. Feeling Good is a ten minute-plus live cut that suffers slightly from a muffled sound, but only slightly, it is still listenable. The song is probably best known for its Nina Simone version. Here it is given the full extended Traffic "jam" treatment - proggy organ, rolling drums, cutting guitar and occasional vocals. 

The final cut, Blind Man, is also live and features some fine saxophone-drum-keyboard interplay and a soulful vocal from Steve Winwood. This was an interesting little curio of an album. The studio cuts are the best ones, to be fair, the live couple are blighted a bit by their sound.

John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)
                          
This album came about after the demise of “supergroup” Blind Faith had left Steve Winwood at a something of a loose end. Traffic, having laid in the parking lot for well over a year, suddenly found themselves reforming. Initial work with madcap producer Guy Stevens was shelved and previous producer Chris Blackwell was brought back on board, together with drummer Jim Capaldi and reedsman Chris Wood. Traffic were reborn, almost by accident....

....What resulted was the group’s first foray into extended jazz rock, something that would continue over the next few early-mid seventies albums. The tracks were longer (only six on this album), musically inventive and the group showed no interest in hit singles. The album is also notable for its incongruous folk venture on the title track, John Barleycorn, which, impressive although it clearly is, sits completely at odds with the rest of the material. All of a sudden, Traffic sounded like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span or Pentangle. They never did anything else like it. It is a beautiful song, packed full of folky atmosphere.

Glad is a quirky and catchy instrumental that, although it features some jazzy saxophone, harks back somewhat to the group's 1968 work. The track has often received airplay as backing music over the years, particularly its rolling piano break. Its loose, attractive rhythms are a pleasure from beginning to end and it was pretty influential - you hear snatches of other tracks in it. Well I do anyway.

Freedom Rider is the sort of track that would become typical of Traffic's early-mid seventies output, Winwood's distinctive voice floating above a funky flute and saxophone backing, all held in place by Jim Capaldi's solid drumming. Paul Weller's first solo album references this a lot. Also, listen to that saxophone around at 3.40 and tell me you don't hear hear Roxy Music's Andy Mackay from their first album. Once again, this was influential stiff. Empty Pages is a chunky, solid bluesy sort of number with a real atmosphere to it and a great rumbling but melodic bass sound too. It features excellent drum, piano and bass interplay and Winwood's vocal is really soulful on here. Stranger To Himself has some of the Eastern sounds in its intro that were so popular in the late sixties-early seventies. It also has some bluesy guitar and a bit of a funk rock feel to it in places. Every Mother's Son has a muffled, anthemic sound to it and it comes as no surprise to me to learn that this was a song worked on with Guy Stevens (the other was Stranger To Himself). It brings to mind Mott The Hoople's No Wheels To Ride, a track Stevens also produced. Listen to that organ, it could almost be Verden AllenThis was a fine album and one that was a clear bridging point in Traffic's career as the seventies began.

The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys (1971)   
                                                  
As with other 70s Traffic albums, The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys featured different forms and offshoots of rock including jazz rock, progressive rock and often a melodious, funky bass line. Saxophone and piano abound, backing the now usual perplexing Pink Floyd influenced lyrics.

The opening track, Hidden Treasure, as with a fair few others, features some Jethro Tull-inspired flute amongst other flawlessly played instrumental passages. The sound quality on these recordings really is outstanding.

The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys is an eleven minute tour de force, featuring some intoxicating saxophone, addictive bass lines, seductive congas and some piano breaks that surely influenced Bruce Hornsby nearly twenty years later. As with many of these extended Traffic songs, the lyrics are just incidental, rather like on some Santana tracks from the same period. Or indeed the jazz rock of Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears. They just waft in and out of the tracks, like an instrumental solo.

Light Up Or Leave Me Alone features some bluesy guitar breaks and a more blues rock-funk groove than the previous tracks. Again, Ric Grech’s bass is excellent, along with some stunning guitar at the end. Rock n' Roll Stew is a slow burning, insistently rhythmic rocker with some potent drumming on it. It is probably the most conventional 70s “rock” number on the album, but even this has its bluesy moments. Many A Mile To Freedom is a laid back number with some excellent guitar parts either side of those vocal periodsRainmaker sees the flute return in an ethereal opening that puts one in mind of Fairport Convention. All a bit folky-hippy, though, with lyrics about the rain “making all my crops grow” and the like. Once again, though, one can just concentrate on the fabulous guitar-saxophone fade out, which sounds just like one used by Paul Weller on his 1993 debut album. Someone said at the time that Traffic were “relaxed and exciting at the same time”, which would seem to be a perfrect way of describing their 70s output. You can listen to this over and over and still find new bits to appreciate.

Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory (1973)

The opening track, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory, is a marvellous, pulsating piece of Santana meets Hendrix and they do some blues rock, while asking for some Jethro Tull-inspired flute. Great stuff. 

The also Jethro-Tull-ish Roll Right Stones (in places) lasts a full thirteen minutes, but it retains a unique feel with its fantastic bass and conga interplay. You have to say that Traffic overdid it a bit with sprawling workouts like this, but it was within the spirit of the age in 1973, at least some of it. Traffic avoided some of the worst excesses of “prog rock” by never going down the road of fairies and fantasies, lyrically and by always paying homage to funk, conga-driven rhythms and addictive bass lines. There is a touch of Pink Floyd about parts of Roll Right Stones, however. Despite its being over twelve minutes' in length, however, it never gets tiresome. What you always got from Traffic was high quality musicianship. This album, although not seeming to be as critically acclaimed as others, is no different. Listen to some of the guitar and organ interplay on Roll Right Stones, then the congas and piano and saxophone at around nine-ten minutes in.

Evening Blue is a lovely, immaculately-played bucolic number that 1990s-era Paul Weller would have loved, and probably did. Lovely laid back saxophone solo in it too. 
Tragic Magic is a saxophone-dominated instrumental that sounds as if it would be a good backing track for a soul/rock outfit like. Traffic were definitely always on the rock, funk and soul side of things. The final track, though, (Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired, sees Traffic at their most Pink Floyd-esque with an introspective, self-pitying number. Great backing on it, though, as always. Like 1973's Goat's Head Soup by The Rolling Stones, this album was recorded in Jamaica.

When The Eagle Flies (1974)


This is a great album from Traffic. It is one that doesn’t often get mentioned, but it damn well should do. I love it. 


Something New is a short, bassy and vaguely funky opener. It is a really enjoyable track, despite being shorter than most on the album. The bass, guitar and piano are all superb on it. Traffic liked a lengthy song in the early-mid seventies, and Dream Gerrard is an impressive, ten minute serving of rock with a slight jazzy edge to it. Once more the deep, rumbling bass is killer, as too is what sounds like an oboe (probably a keyboard) , and Jim Capaldi’s drums too. Steve Winwood’s vocals are probably the weakest thing about what is otherwise a really fine track. Music like this was far removed from the poppy glam fare of 1974. It was way, way ahead of its time. Prog rock was big at the time, of course, but that involved multiple tempo changes, whereas this just got into a groove and basically stayed there. I like that approach. Give me this over prog any day. It is also well known that Paul Weller was heavily influenced by Traffic, and you can hear snatches of some of his instrumental sounds here. 


It really is a sumptuous serving of improvisational skills.the jazzy, laid-back vibe continues of Graveyard People too, which is beautifully spacey and bassy, swirling attractively around the room. Great saxophone and electric piano. Then we are treated to the glory that is Walking In The Wind, a track I have loved since 1975 when I first heard it. Beneath its infectious rhythm lie some hard-hitting lyrics. I love the insistent, underlying beat on this, it gets me every time. Simply sensational. Memories Of A Rock ‘n’ Rolla sort of reminds me of Mott The Hoople meeting Jethro Tull to tell of the travails of rock ‘n’ roll. I love the bit near the end when it ups the pace and the brass joins in. Love is a short, beguiling number, dominated by some folky-sounding flute from Chris Wood and a captivating percussion rhythm. When The Eagle Flies is an organ-driven early Mott The Hoople-esque slow rock ballad that put me in mind of their track The Journey. It is strangely shapeless, however, despite having an appeal. After this album, Traffic disbanded, which was a shame, but their contribution over the previous seven or eight years had been immense and extremely influential. 
I have loved revisiting this album. I shouldn’t have let it be so long between listens.

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