Traffic: Traffic / John Barleycorn Must Die

[26 February 2001]

By Simon Warner

Traffic
Last Exit
(Island)
US release date: 27 February 2001 (original release, January 1969 )

Traffic
John Barleycorn Must Die
(Island)
US release date: 27 February 2001 (original release, January 1970)
by Simon Warner
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The digital re-mastering arm of the music business carries on along its merry way and without it, it’s hard to see how the industry would have been in such rude health to fight the Internet battles of recent times. The compact disc provided a magnificent pot of gold to majors and minors alike, particularly during the first half of the decade as classic rock and pop recordings were re-sold to customers who had grown up on the vinyl versions, now worn and ready for replacement. The archives, laden with 40 years of hit albums, offered a treasure trove without the need for companies to dirty their hands in the messy and unreliable process of spotting and investing in fresh talent.

The CD effect, by now, is fading—even seams of gold run out. But the multi-billion dollar machine that popular music represents will find new ways to meet challenges to its profits. It always has—at least so far. When the Depression hit the US, people stopped buying 78s, but the jukebox proved a saviour. When cassette copying threatened to cripple earnings in the early Eighties, video and MTV came long and re-generated the ailing corporations. Digitalisation was the bonus prize 10 years on. Now, the five majors are investing heavily in MP3 file schemes of their own in a Napster-busting exercise.

It seems a long way from the hippie dream and few groups made that vision flesh more vividly than Traffic. From 1967 to 1974, a maddeningly erratic line-up—members came and went with frustrating regularity—still produced a substantial body of work and this trio of re-mastered albums provides a bridge between the early days—when psychedelic pop singles à la Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd came easily—to the post-Dave Mason phase, when the original quartet slimmed to a three-piece, struggling somewhat to present themselves as a genuine rock band.

In fact, the title of their third LP, Last Exit tells its own story. That recording had been presented as the group’s swansong. Stevie Winwood, the combo’s crucial talent, had said his farewells with the intention of recording an album alone. He had already signalled intentions that Traffic’s format was unlikely to hold him—Blind Faith, Eric Clapton’s post-Cream supergroup, had briefly recruited him.

But a solo project that began as Mad Shadows changed tack. As Winwood—voice, guitar and keyboards—sought other players to complete the piece, his Traffic colleagues Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood stepped into the breach. The result was, instead, another Traffic album, re-titled as John Barleycorn Must Die.

Again, the title of the record gives something of the game away and questions whether Winwood and his collaborators even saw Traffic as a rock band by now. The results were mostly nearer to folk—the “Barleycorn” track is a traditional English song which exists in over 100 versions, all decrying the debilitating power of a barley-derived beer—and connected more closely with the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention than the technological excesses of the post-Barrett Floyd.

But to return to the eponymously named Traffic, the band’s second release in 1968. This set still exhibits the blues/rock influences that Winwood had demonstrated so precociously as a 16-year-old with the Spencer Davies Group. But the favours of hippiedom—musical pictures of rural idylls, a kind of bucolic escapism—have infused the work. The Summer of Love has left its imprint lyrically and musically: mystical poetry, dreamy sax and flute, edgy distortions on guitar and keys. And therein lies in nature and its problem: a period piece locked in its kaftan capsule.

Last Exit, the following year, doesn’t even provide that lame a defence. It’s a disjointed, end of the road, affair. “Just for You”, a slight composition by Mason, already looking to a career on his own, augurs badly enough, “Shanghai Noodle Factory” is a bright spot, but half the album is little better than padding.

It features over a quarter an hour of a Traffic-trio, shorn of Mason, at the Fillmore West, and principally an over-extended version of “Feelin’ Good”, which only serves to confirm the brilliance of Nina Simone’s matchless interpretation. The live performance exposes the limitations of a bass-less three piece mercilessly, and the record overall appears to be metaphorically imprinted with the legend “contractual obligation”, with the group seemingly on the point of disintegration.

Barleycorn, 1970’s outing, would prove that analysis premature and the folk-rock that offers the bedrock of what would become the group’s fourth album is a dramatic improvement, quite possibly Traffic’s finest studio work. The restrictions that the trio suffered at the Fillmore are forgotten, as multi-tracking means Winwood’s multi-talents are given full sway.

The breathy instrumental “Glad” and the sweet vocalising on “Freedom Rider” set the stage for a tune I still feel is perhaps the band’s most potent. “Empty Pages” is simply four and a half dazzling minutes, as Winwood fronts a gospel-tinged ballad, interweaving voice, percussion and an array of keyboards, in quite majestic manner. Subtle, understated, yet quite thrilling, this track runs far closer to white soul than folk, and it’s a style that would dominate the singer’s later work when his disrupted solo schemes eventually, and successfully, took shape. The title tune is an authentic nod to Traffic’s trad concerns, while the sign off, “Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ of My Love”, is a tender love song that rings with a nostalgic, Anglo-pastoralism.

Traffic’s life was uneven and lacking in stability. After Barleycorn, larger ensembles would fly the flag as Winwood, Capaldi and Wood linked with American, even African, musicians. Yet, over their full career, even up to the 1994 renunion, Far from Home, there are a number of jewels in the box worth searching out. Traffic and Last Exit are less rewarding, however, reflecting a band with ideas a plenty, but insufficient artistic consensus to produce a truly consistent collection. In short they represent something that is rather less than the potential sum of its parts; John Barleycorn Must Die, however, reverses the adage.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/traffic-st/