An album that became a Top 10 hit in the UK and a Top 20 hit in America cannot be described with that overused phrase “underrated”, but Traffic‘s self-titled album is a low-key addition to the classic records of 1968, a year when a sense of place distinguished the latest releases from the UK’s premier league bands.
After following the Beatles down the psychedelic rabbit hole in 1967, the Rolling Stones re-established their critical standing with Beggars Banquet, a record firmly rooted in Americana. The Kinks, banned from touring in America since 1965, were now the quintessentially English Village Green Preservation Society. While it cannot be seriously argued that The Beatles (White Album) had a sense of place, 19 of its 30 tracks had been written while they were on retreat in India. During the recording of Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix could just as well have been beaming his guitar by satellite from outer space.
Traffic, meanwhile, came from Birmingham. For much of the 20th century, Birmingham was England’s unofficial second city. Its musical identity would come to be defined by heavy metal upon the surfacing of Black Sabbath. Beneath the radar, it had boasted of a music scene that had flourished in the wake of rock ‘n’ roll, reputedly with more working bands than in Liverpool. Still, by the middle of the 1960s, it had not established the national profile of Liverpool or London.
In 1968, there was a handful of noteworthy album releases by Birmingham-based groups, including the Moody Blues, the Move, and Traffic. All three shared some psychedelic common ground, as per fashion circa 1967, but only in so far as psychedelia equated to pushing boundaries, and the bands would sooner differentiate their musical identities than did the Merseybeat and London blues bands. So, while the Move took their cue from Sgt. Pepper‘s era art-pop and the Moody Blues worked orchestral textures into their proto-prog, Traffic, whose line-up emphasized keyboards and horns, with guitars often pushed back into a supporting role, gradually distinguished themselves as a premier jazz-rock band.
Traffic occupied a plum position on rock’s family tree. Steve Winwood had sung and played keyboards as a teen prodigy with the Spencer Davis Group (and he was only 19 years old when Traffic’s debut record was released in 1967). From that group, he brought along Jimmy Miller, a producer who had “got that art of being able to put music into words” and would start work that same year with the Rolling Stones, working with them through their much-vaunted golden period until 1973. Many Traffic members would feature on Electric Ladyland, and all four would play with Jimi Hendrix at one time or another. Winwood would go on to collaborate with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith, while Clapton would also cross paths with Dave Mason as part of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, a coterie of blue-eyed soul musicians.
Yet still, the competition Traffic faced was massive. In a music industry flush with the Beatles’ success, the array of new, established, and emerging talent in the UK at this time was dizzying. The year 1968 saw significant debut records in blues-rock (Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull), folk-rock (Fairport Convention, Pentangle), heavy rock (Deep Purple, the Jeff Beck Group), and progressive rock (Soft Machine, the Nice). What was more remarkable still was how so many of these acts could distinguish themselves.
What somewhat improbably helped the most talented artists to make their mark was that, amidst this wave of talent, there remained a vital element of purism, where only the most prominent names, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were mixing genres freely. Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac was the most expressive British blues guitarist, but his band was still playing many Chicago blues covers and originals based on the rhythms and tonality of the blues. Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention would sing stirringly both on her original songs and on Fairport’s many Bob Dylan covers, but would also be influential on the group’s future decision to record only covers of British folk standards. Rod Stewart, too, was a fervent singer, but there were no gentle moments within the blues-derived proto-metal of the Jeff Beck Group.
Traffic were relatively less constrained. Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood liked to jam. With Wood’s distinctive array of horns and Capaldi’s exciting, meticulous drumming, this dimension formed their reputation as a 1970s jazz-rock band. They would later fit neatly in with the American jam-band aesthetic and were galvanized by the American “underground” scene of the time, where “all the groups just live for their music, and jam sessions are a pretty regular thing, with everyone getting up on stage to have a blow”. Dave Mason, however, wrote concise songs. Traffic, the album, is therefore split roughly between two distinct sides of their character, with Dave Mason’s songs typically delivered in a relaxed, amiable manner and the Steve Winwood/Jim Capaldi collaborations reaching into more progressive territory. However, Winwood’s remarkable talent and soulfulness as a vocalist, organist, and guitar player unites all of the material.
Among the self-contained rock bands of the period, only the Jimi Hendrix Experience were as soulful as Traffic. Hendrix’s firsthand experience of playing with the Isley Brother aside, his pioneering work in psychedelic soul was aiming for the stars. In the Small Faces, Steve Marriott was another powerhouse vocalist, and the band had mod pedigree, but on Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, they would dilute their soulfulness with English whimsy. Traffic is shot through with down-to-earth soulfulness, with each song covering new ground and side one of the original vinyl record, especially being one winner after another. It’s a post-psychedelic record that retains the adventurous spirit of its predecessor, Mr Fantasy, while reconnecting with the roots of rock & roll. “Drugs show you the door, but they don’t open it, they don’t take you there. Music is getting honest, real, and natural,” said Winwood in an interview with his American counterpart, Al Kooper. Unlike many other groups of the time, Traffic did not see their record as a conceptual piece, with Winwood seeing it as “really ten songs rather than the concept of an album. They’re compositions. Or exercises, if you like.”
The Mason-written album opener, “You Can All Join In”, is an up-tempo rocker in which Winwood’s flowing call-and-response guitar licks meet Mason’s vocal melody. Contemporary music critics heard some country-rock flavor in the guitar, in the vein of Duane Allman, then a session guitar ace at Muscle Shoals studios, and later of the Allman Brothers Band.
“Pearly Queen”, written by Winwood and Capaldi, could be Traffic‘s most rock-orientated piece, but features a rousing, soul-inflected vocal melody, punctuated by Winwood’s stinging rhythm guitar, ala Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs, and vast, echoing production on the instrumental sections, giving the piece a strong Atlantic Records vibe.
“Don’t Be Sad” is a wistful, gentle ballad written by Mason, in which Mason and Winwood take turns to sing verses and harmonise on the bridge, further enriched by Mason’s harmonica and Chris Wood’s saxophone accompaniment. “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring”, written by Winwood and Capaldi, is the funkiest cut on the record, driven by Winwood’s organ, which continuously pushes and pulls against Capaldi’s drums with an elastic groove in the manner of a soul-jazz organist like Jimmy Smith.
“Feelin’ Alright”, written by Mason, became the LP’s most well-known song, covered many times by soul and rock performers, and is bolstered by Winwood’s lolling piano, drawing on the New Orleans R&B of Allen Toussaint and the Meters, with some fantastic tenor sax soloing by Wood.
Starting side two of Traffic, “Vagabond Virgin” and “Roamin’ Thru’ the Gloamin’ with 40,000 Headmen” diverge from the overall character of the record, both tracks harkening back to the whimsical acid-folk of Traffic’s debut, although they are both worthy compositions. “Vagabond Virgin” is the album’s story song, telling the well-worn tale of a London groupie based on a Latin American rhythm and has Capaldi playing claves.
“Cryin’ to be Heard”, written by Mason, has powerful dynamic shifts and multi-part vocal harmonies, deepened by Winwood on organ and harpsichord, which brings a gospel flavor to the record. “No Time to Live”, written by Winwood and Capaldi, intensifies the melancholy of Cryin’ to be Heard, with Winwood’s vocals yearning and pleading over a desolate backdrop dominated by piano, spare ornamental saxophone, and Capaldi on the tympani. “Means to an End”, written by Winwood and Capaldi and featuring only the two performers, closes the Traffic in the most straightforward manner, with a rock ‘n’ roll rave-up. Capaldi plays drums on this track, while Winwood overdubs all the guitar and keyboard parts.
Traffic’s debut, released in 1967, had been entirely in thrall to the psychedelic craze of the year and musically a very different affair to this self-titled release. Still, lyrically, Mason and Capaldi continued to write in unadorned hippy platitudes, and by opening Traffic with a song called “You Can All Join In”, there could have been no more direct way to say that this record was going to have no secret messages. While it is fair to say that neither writer is as comparably shrewd as Ray Davies or Pete Townshend, the amiable and uncomplicated sentiments of songs with titles like “Don’t Be Sad” were, in their own way, as distinctive as the music within the late 1960s rock canon.
The aforementioned musical purism, prevalent in late 1960s British rock music, also placed limitations on the lyrics. Blues and heavy rock bands trapped themselves with blues clichés that could be either menacing or misogynistic. Folk-rock bands’ reliance on folk standards meant their lyrics were usually pastoral or anachronistic. Progressive rock bands enlisted the help of poets whose words required literary analysis to be appreciated.
After five years of relentless upward progress, the Beatles’ music and lyrics had come plummeting back to Earth. Still, because they were the Beatles, one could never be sure whether songs about monkeys, piggies, and raccoons were actually postmodern spectacles or just children’s rhymes. On the other hand, Mick Jagger would continue to push at the edges of taste and respectability with stories of sex and violence before walking the tightrope between artifice and sincerity as a London boy playing with imagery of America’s South. With Traffic, there were no such pretensions.
An explanation for why Traffic did not establish an enduring reputation for themselves to match other groups emerging in the late 1960s was their intermittent lifespan. Mason would quit only to rejoin twice later, and in between times, Winwood disbanded the project altogether before resuming around the turn of the decade. Amongst various explanations for Mason’s frequent disappearance and re-emergence was that his solo songwriting was at odds with the other group members but that without him, the band ultimately struggled to write enough quality material. It has to be noted that in 1968, Winwood was just 20 years old, and no other group was writing an album’s worth of all-original material with a 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist at the helm.
Mason’s independence is borne out by Capaldi’s recollection of “there are two kinds of songs: those that we wrote together and those that Dave wrote on his own. ‘Hope I Never Find Me There’, is the only exception and the first time we really all got together on the same wavelength!” Lest Mason be viewed as intransigent, it should be noted that Winwood would disband Traffic on a whim in 1969 when he had the opportunity to join Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in Blind Faith. Mason’s comments in the wake of Traffic’s inauguration into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 suggest that he and Winwood found each other strong-willed. Capaldi would find an astrological explanation. “(Bob) Dylan is a Gemini-Taurus, and so is (Paul) McCartney. Stevie is a Taurus, and so is Dave Mason. One of their major characteristics is supposed to be their unpredictability.”
Paul McCartney found himself at odds with the other Beatles on several occasions in 1968, and the comparison between himself and Steve Winwood, both multi-instrumentalists who got comparatively young starts in the music business, provides an interesting perspective on band dynamics within the most successful rock groups.
Despite the band’s intriguing internal struggles, Traffic were not a writer’s band. Their overall lack of a dominant character or an incisive songwriter probably didn’t endear them to the music press. But Steve Winwood was a musician’s musician. As Capaldi would say, “Stevie lives inside his music. That’s the way he communicates. He’s like an absent-minded professor. I rang him up about his brother Muff’s marriage on Monday, and he was absolutely convinced it was Saturday he was getting married.” The band was signed to Island Records, the most successful UK independent label, whose owner, Chris Blackwell, attributes Winwood as the magnet who attracted the hottest talent of the period to record for Island.
One such group was Free, of “All Right Now” fame, a group whose members, including gritty vocalist Paul Rodgers, were all teenagers when they were to release their first record on Island in 1969. Free, alongside other bands like Faces and Humble Pie, would all walk the line between the Rolling Stones’ raunchiness and Traffic’s breeziness. In tune with Traffic’s jazzier inclinations, another Island signing was King Crimson, whose original band line-up featured lush woodwinds and nimble jazz-influenced drumming.
In the post-punk era, the music of Traffic could hardly have seemed less happening. The pub rock upon which the musical foundations of punk had been built showed that R&B music would never lose an audience, but the aura of progressive rock would see Traffic consigned to the hippy music dustbin. Its members spent the best part of the 1980s recording solo albums in a mature adult-contemporary vein, having no interactions with the new generation of musicians save for one curious encounter. In 1986, having previously scored a substantial synthpop hit with “It’s My Life”, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk wanted to abandon synthesizers entirely and enlisted Steve Winwood, along with other top session players, to contribute organic textures to his new project. The result, The Colour of Spring, is an underestimated art-pop gem, which, in retrospect, is the starting point of post-rock, a term initially coined to describe Talk Talk’s next record, Spirit of Eden.
Then, in the 1990s, Britpop brought a wave of nostalgia crashing through British popular music. In the wake of the success of Oasis, groups who had previously been experimenting with dance music were free to focus on earthy, guitar-based rock. These groups were never fashionable, even as they scored chart hits, but are essential in demonstrating the everlasting appeal of what, in marketing speak, came to be known as British trad-rock. Steve Winwood appeared on Paul Weller‘s album Stanley Road, which more straightforwardly showed the influence of Traffic than The Colour of Spring. Meanwhile, Stanley Road also featured Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene, an archetypal trad-rock band who, like Traffic, came from Birmingham.
This essay has been an attempt to reappraise Traffic as a band, and specifically Traffic as an album, not only as one of the outstanding British rock records but also as one of the best British soul records, which is how it distinguished itself amongst the many great LPs of the 1960s. It is often categorized as blues-rock, or folk-rock, or jazz-rock. Why should these labels matter, aside from the whims of a music writer trying to stake a claim to an original point of view? Well, the music and lyrics are bright and optimistic, not brooding, like blues rock. The prominence of keyboards and horns was forward-thinking rather than sharing folk-rock’s concerns with tradition.
At this point, the songs, their licks, and grooves were on point and to the point, not winding and improvisatory like jazz-rock. These broad categorizations appear to be founded on the basis that the rock music of the 1960s and 1970s was a hearty, revitalizing stew of roots musical styles that had become commercially dormant or moribund. This is illustrated by the famous recollection of Keith Richards of when the Rolling Stones visited Chess Studios for the first time in 1964 and found one of their idols, Muddy Waters, painting the studio walls.
Unlike blues, soul music was alive and kicking in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. Contemporaneously, and in retrospect, soul artists have competed with rock bands for commercial and critical attention. It is also the case, however, that popular music has continued to be commercially and culturally segregated and that these labels carry racial connotations. In the 1960s and 1970s, marketing labels such as psychedelic soul and progressive soul continued to set apart Black musicians who drew influence from psychedelic and progressive rock. Conversely, marketing labels like blue-eyed soul and brown-eyed soul would separate white and Hispanic musicians whose music was considered to be closer in spirit to soul music than to rock or to Latino popular music.
Britain would eventually have a recognized soul scene of its own, but for many of its stars, the way to establish an authentic soul voice was to make the pilgrimage to America, as did the Rolling Stones, as Dusty Springfield did to Memphis, and as David Bowie would do Philadelphia. Traffic’s intermittent lifespan, lack of a dominant voice, and a misapprehension of their music have somewhat diminished their stature for posterity. Still, amongst its peers, no record was able to better synthesize, through the sheer dynamism of its performance, the warmth, energy, and funkiness of New Orleans R&B, Southern Soul, and rock music better than Traffic’s 1968 self-titled album.
Welch, C. (1968) “Traffic: Traffic (Island)”. Melody Maker.
Altham, K. (1968) “Traffic: Traffic Without Dave”. New Musical Express.
Boltwood, D. (1968) “Traffic and the US Underground”. Record Mirror.
Kooper, A. (1968) “Traffic: Stevie Winwood, A Calm, Shy Superfreak”. Rolling Stone.
Nelson, P. (1969) “Into Traffic with Steve Winwood”. Hullabaloo.