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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Fifty years on: Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die

by Trevor Moore

Our June “fifty years on” album was Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley. Rod, of course, is well known and still going strong. Traffic is probably less well known but nonetheless is an important component of the history of rock ’n’ roll. There are some surprising connections between the band and other well-known artists, including Fleetwood Mac and Dire Straits. And, of course, the preeminent member of Traffic was Steve Winwood who has gone on to release some brilliant albums. Anyone of a certain age will remember his hit single Arc of a Diver, from the 1980 album of the same name, a song that he co-wrote with Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Macman and I have spent many hours discussing the gestation of Traffic and John Barleycorn Must Die and Steve Winwood. Macman’s show will give you some of the sounds, this article will provide some history, and both will be awash with trivia.

Macman’s show takes its name from a lyric in the Grace Jones’ song Walking In the Rain. She sings “Trip the light fantastic, dance the swivel hips” originally composed and recorded by Australian band Flash and the Pan.

The Spencer Davis Group’s sixth single, Somebody Help Me includes the line “when I was just a little boy of seventeen”. You might know it as their second single and you would be forgiven because their first four singles, Dimples (1964), I Can't Stand It (a rerun of an American hit by the Soul Sisters), Every Little Bit Hurts and Strong Love (all 1965) were not particularly strong; Dimples was a John Lee Hooker song but it sank without a trace and the others just struggled into the lower part of the UK Top 50.

I remember Somebody Help Me for two reasons. The first was that, at the age of 15 or 16 the idea that a 17-year-old would be a “little boy” was not something I wanted to hear. The second was that I had loved its predecessor, Keep On Running. Both Keep On Running and Somebody Help Me reached number 1 in the UK. Keep On Running opens with a bass riff that I am sure is a Steve Winwood arrangement. The song was written by Jackie Edwards who was a Jamaican singer with a tendency to ska and reggae. Jackie Edwards covered Keep On Running first and it is worth listening to his version and the Spencer Davis Group’s versions back to back. They are completely different.

Steve Winwood, then with Traffic and now; plus ça change The Spencer Davis Group’s opening bass riff is nowhere to be found in Edwards’ version. The Edwards version is built around a C/A7/Dm chord progression which for the Spencer Davis Group is used only to transition from the verse to the bridge. I am convinced that Stevie Winwood, not usually a bass player, was responsible for the arrangement. It’s worth noting that the bass riff that runs through Somebody Help Me (also a Jackie Edwards song) is a central hook for the song.

The sheet music for Keep On Running (1965)

The first two albums from The Spencer Davis Group are pretty pedestrian productions. The producer, Chris Blackwell who was also the founder of Island Records, knew he had something, but it wasn’t clear what it was.

Spencer Davis Group, c1963 The second album included Keep On Running and a host of other covers though there was one self-penned number, This Hammer. The third album (1966) Autumn 1966 was a significant step forward with vocal performances more usually associated with artists such as Ray Charles and Otis Reading. It included Winwood's reading of the Percy Sledge hit When a Man Loves a Woman and versions of the jazz standard Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out and Elmore James’ Dust my Blues. In fact, after hearing Winwood’s version of Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, Al Kooper (session musician for Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Hendrix and founder of the Blues Project wrote in Rolling Stone “I regard Stevie as the finest white blues singer I have ever heard regardless of age or environment”. Of course, you may take issue with that if you are a Van Morrison fan.

At the end of 1966 Winwood wrote that The Spencer Davis Group’s best-known hit Gimme Some Lovin’ which reached number 2 in the UK. Again, this song is underpinned by a powerful bass line overlaid with sparse but decisive organ licks and Winwood’s pleading vocals almost defying the melody to emerge. They followed this with I’m a Man which did reasonably well, but it was clear that the band was holding back Winwood’s talents. Winwood’s brother, Muff, left and eventually became Head of A&R for Island Records. He also worked in a production capacity with Dire Straits, Sparks, the Bay City Rollers and the brilliant but woefully underrated The Fabulous Poodles. Spencer Davis eventually became Artists’ Relationship Director also for Island. Spencer Davis kept his band together hiring Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray who were later to play with Elton John (you need to listen to Olsson’s drumming on Elton’s Curtains).

Winwood was ready for greater things. At the end of his time with The Spencer Davis group he had played with a short-lived studio group called Powerhouse that included Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Paul Jones. At about this time the seeds of Traffic were being sown. Steve began jamming with Dave Mason (guitar and vocals), Chris Wood (flute and sax) and Jim Capaldi (drums and vocals) at a late-night Birmingham club called the Elbow Room.

Mason and Capaldi had both played for The Hellions and Deep Feeling. Mason had cut his teeth in a band called The Jaguars which was heavily influenced by The Shadows. His feeling and desire for a melodic arrangement probably crystallised in The Jaguars. Capaldi came from a local band called The Sapphires. Capaldi and Mason formed The Hellions. They took an engagement at the famous Star Club in Hamburg, Germany in August 1964 backing the minor celebrity Tanya Day.

Written by Norman Haines who should have been famous but isn't. The Hellions met Steve Winwood when they stayed at the same hotel. They released three singles none of which made an impression. Deep Feeling evolved from The Hellions and released four singles before Capaldi left to join Traffic. One member of Deep Feeling, Luther Grosvenor, went on to form Spooky Tooth and later joined Mott The Hoople. Another famous member of The Hellions was Christine Perfect who went on to join Chicken Shack before she joined Fleetwood Mac.

Chris Wood had played in Locomotive, a band that went through a number of iterations in the late 1960s. Listening to them now, one is left wondering how it was that they never made it. Their Mr Armageddon is a track that sits comfortably against Genesis or Greenslade. They were unusual in not having a guitarist but instead used horns and Hammond organ for their distinctive sound. Wood joined them in 1965 leaving in 1967 to join Traffic.

Winwood, Mason, Wood and Capaldi formed the embryonic Traffic. Capaldi came up with the name of the group while the four of them were waiting to cross the street in Dorchester. They immediately retreated into the Berkshire, UK countryside in a cottage at Aston Tirrold to “get things together”. The country setting is echoed in the title of several songs from the first album which are also peppered with references to drugs. No doubt they had a high old time. The time spent in the cottage was productive. 1967 saw their debut single Paper Sun (composed by Winwood) reach number 5 in the UK and just creep into the US top 100. The follow-ups, Hole in my Shoe (composed by Mason) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush were in the same psychedelic vein. It was, after all, the summer of love. Hole in my Shoe was the band’s most successful single reaching number 2 in the UK charts.

At the cottage, 1967

The first album Mr Fantasy was released in late 1967 and shows the differences between Winwood and Mason. Winwood was inclined to more jazzy numbers while Mason favoured the light melodies he had learned from the Jaguars. Although Mason left the band in December 1967, he returned to play on the second album, the eponymous Traffic (1968). A third album, the appropriately named Last Exit featured Mason for the last time. It’s a collection of bits and pieces; the second side is two cover numbers from a live concert). Winwood was easily lured away in 1969 when he formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Blind Faith was short lived and Winwood eased into Ginger Baker’s Airforce. In 1970 when Wood started work on a solo album Mad Shadows. After Wood and Capaldi were brought in as session men the solo album morphed into the fourth Traffic album John Barleycorn Must Die.

At 34 minutes and 6 tracks, the musicianship on John Barleycorn Must Die is immediately apparent. The opening track Glad features organ and piano, presumably overdubbed by Winwood, with the piano having a Count Basie-like groove to it. Chris Wood’s flute on the second track Freedom Fighter is superb. Winwood plays all the instruments on Stranger to Himself when the technology was not all it is today. Cutting mag tape was a bit hit and miss; it’s much easier cutting a digital audio file. Empty Pages provides a foretaste of the vocal sound that was to become Winwood’s trademark, with a Phil Collins feel to the timing (Winwood played on Collins’ 1989 …But Seriously). The title track is a Winwood arrangement of a traditional English folk song. Wikipedia tells me that “the character of John Barleycorn is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky.” The closing track Every Mother’s Son is, in my view, the only weak track on the album. Over 7 minutes, it seems to lose its way and comes across as one of those pretentious tracks that led to the rise of punk in the mid 1970s.

Overall, the album is very good and listening to it now it has largely stood the test of time. It went gold in the US and set the scene for Traffic’s next three albums; The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (platinum in the US), Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory and When the Eagle Flies (both gold in the US). But most of all, Traffic provided a platform for Stevie Winwood’s subsequent success as a solo artist.

Connections: Macman and I have set ourselves a challenge. We will try to find a connection between the “Fifty years on” albums as we go over the next few months. So, what’s the connection between Rod Stewart and Traffic? After all, Rod is a Londoner and Traffic were essentially Birmingham-based. Well, the connection is Millie Small of My Boy Lollipop fame. Rod is alleged to have played the harmonica solo on My Boy Lollipop. Millie Small sang on I’m Blue (Gong Gong Song) on the Spencer Davis Group’s first album imaginatively called Their First Album. The title of the second album was equally imaginative: The Second Album.


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