Progressive Rock With a Capital P: Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die

Steve Winwood is seldom mentioned in the same sentence as former bandmate Eric Clapton, but this lesser-known legend was making better music than just about anyone during the earliest days of the prog-rock revolution.


John Barleycorn Must Die (Deluxe Edition)

US Release: 2011-03-15
UK Release: 2011-03-15
Label: Universal

One difficulty with talking intelligently about much of the amazing music made in the ‘70s is that it is so often lazily lumped together. Classic Rock, Progressive Rock, Freedom Rock, etc.

This would be okay, or at least tolerable, if these facile generalizations were intended to be laudatory. Too often, they are not, which naturally trivializes the variety and significance of that extended era. More importantly, it shortchanges the historic import of a time when genres and boundaries were, arguably, more fluid and formless (and non-commercial) than ever before or since.

Music and culture were changing at an unprecedented pace as the ‘60s ended, with the margins and mainstream increasingly overlapping. This was when Sly Stone was listening to James Brown (and vice versa), Miles Davis was digging Jimi Hendrix, Ian Anderson invoked Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Neil Young busied himself creating entirely new categories of music, almost singlehandedly inventing grunge, country-rock and a prototype for the New Depression ethos, all in less than three years.

Perhaps only during this time and in this environment could an album like John Barleycorn Must Die be created. Initially intended to be a solo project, the project wound up ushering in the second reincarnation of Traffic. While the ‘60s albums blended acoustic folk and psychedelia and the ‘70s output featured larger line-ups and sprawling, adventurous compositions, John Barleycorn Must Die is a bit of both, an accidental but brilliant product relaunch.

While he may not have been a household name, Steve Winwood was, circa 1970, at the very top of rock music’s second-tier. Only 18 when he sang the ubiquitous ‘60s single “Gimme Some Lovin’”, his vocals were in the service of the Spencer Davis Group. In his next band, Traffic, he shared the spotlight with Dave Mason. After Traffic splintered, he joined forces with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (and Ric Grech) in the uber-supergroup Blind Faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, that collective was a one-and-done affair.

Taking a page out of the Stevie Wonder playbook, Winwood contemplated playing all the instruments himself and making a true “solo” album, tentatively titled Mad Shadows. This would have been impressive for obvious reasons, but in a move shrewd as it was inspired, he turned to two former mates and recruited their services for his new project. Enter drummer Jim Capaldi and multi-reedist Chris Wood and suddenly the second incarnation of Traffic was officially underway.

Six songs, 35 minutes; a short album even by old-school standards, John Barleycorn Must Die manages to pack in plenty of action. There is not a weak song or wasted moment. The first three tunes (Side One for us nostalgic sorts) may not comprise one of the best all-time sides in rock, but certainly one of the most satisfactory. The individual songs are excellent, but the sequence and flow are flawless, with an opening statement, a centerpiece and a reflective, side-closing tour de force.

Album opener “Glad” is an appropriately named jam, jazzy without resorting to noodling, rocking in the right ways and, above all, a showcase for the considerable skills of all involved. Winwood’s (somewhat unheralded) organ playing is supple yet swinging, and Capaldi ably provides a less-is-more panache that is evident throughout the proceedings. The real star (and egregiously unheralded hero of this era) is Chris Wood. His sax work on “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” is as funky and infectious as just about any jazz playing of the time, but his economic style maximizes feeling and eschews any semblance of showboating. When he switches from sax to flute on “Freedom Rider”, his runs are soulful enough to make your head—and ass—shake. This band’s M.O., in short, is very different from the one that made “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. There is a muscular groove that blends rock, R&B and, of course, jazz. The result is an invigorating, effortlessly cool cocktail: progressive rock with a capital P. Nothing else being made at this time sounded anything like this. The album endures due to its unique energy, but mostly because it remains utterly engaging.

The legendary producer Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records, once described Steve Winwood as “Ray Charles on helium”. While ostensibly amusing, it is also an accurate, possibly even perfect depiction. Considering he was barely into his 20s, it is astonishing how mature, distinctive and convincing Winwood sounds on this set. Take the third song, “Empty Pages”. If slowed down a bit you can almost fancy Ray Charles singing this number. The fact that it’s a diminutive, pasty white Englishman only proves that you can’t judge a bloke by his color. In any event, “Empty Pages” may be Winwood’s finest moment. The organ, the bass lines and, as always, those vocals, melancholy cut with resolve—just a 22-year-old making some of the best music of the new decade.

The second side slows things down a little but the intensity does not abate. Lyrically, “Stranger to Himself” is as relevant today as the hour it was written: “Through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing, only well.” He's maybe a hippie, perhaps a politician, probably no one in particular, but certainly someone we all know. The title track, a traditional English folksong, is undoubtedly the best known of the bunch—certainly by music fans unfamiliar with Traffic. Winwood’s delivery is somber, and the acoustic guitar and flute flourishes are appropriately stark for this tale of death (and redemption/revenge). The last song, “Every Mother’s Son”, is as ideal a coda as “Glad” is an opening salvo. The organ swells and sharp electronic guitar chords accompany an extremely emotional—and affecting—vocal performance.

This deluxe edition boasts some bonus tracks, which should satisfy completists. The real draw, for aficionados, will be the second disc’s live set, recorded at The Fillmore East in late 1970. The band is certainly locked in, doing these tunes justice before an appreciative crowd, but these versions (inevitably?) are looser and less focused. They are worthwhile, but not nearly as memorable as the original material. The sound quality is sufficiently impressive that anyone who didn’t already pick up the original remaster from 1999 is advised to make the upgrade from the somewhat muffled original pressing.

Winwood was already on a roll. He would carry this momentum into the first part of the decade, and Traffic would follow up John Barleycorn Must Die with another near masterpiece, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. As noted, Winwood will never be mentioned in the same sentence as former bandmate Eric Clapton (unless it is to mention that they once worked in the same band), but the fact of the matter is this lesser-known legend was making better music than just about anyone during the earliest days of the prog-rock revolution. He makes a compelling case for his legacy when, in “Empty Pages”, he sings, “I’ve been thinking I’m working too hard / But I’ve got something to show”. He has indeed, and it shines on.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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