"Back in the Highway Life" RH, June 1994
By Patrick Humphries
Zombies still haunt the Louisiana bayous outside the city and voodoo queens hold down the rent on any number of looming Gothic mansions. The residents of New Orleans are used to ghosts returning to stalk their streets - and today that includes Traffic.
Twenty years after their final gig at Reading Festival, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi have reunited to produce a new album and make their first ever video in the winding French Quarter of New Orleans. You can't, they say, keep a good thing down, which judging by the mossy cemeteries dotted around the town is a message New Orleans can easily understand. As the city is situated below sea-level, its dead keep floating to the surface. Not, perhaps, the metaphor Winwood and Capaldi were seeking.
Traffic occupy a special place in the annals of pop. They were a band who broke down the barriers of rock 'n' roll, effortlessly incorporating pop, jazz, R&B, folk, rock and soul. Their influence was in evidence most recently on Paul Weller's Wild Wood (Weller's people asked for a meeting with the Traffic camp), EMF and Middle Earth.
The precociously talented Winwood formed Traffic with Brum chums Capaldi, Chris Wood and Dave Mason in the early, heady months of 1967, after his success with the Spencer Davis Group. Twenty-seven years on, Capaldi and Winwood are back together for the new album, Far From Home. Capaldi remembers his first impressions of the 16-year-old Winwood.
"I was playing with this band, Deep Feeling, at this club in Birmingham called The Elbow Room. We were starting to do what was really 'acid rock', having dropped this large capsule of stuff that came from America, courtesy of this rich kid who came from Bromsgrove. No one in England really knew about acid. I was talking to George Harrison; that was in 1965. He said it was the same batch that he and Lennon were trying to get McCartney to try out. We started writing songs with titles like 'Pretty Colours', 'The Ruin'' .... So, we were in the club, and Steve used to come and jam with us. We'd met in music stores and record shops. Me and Dave hitched up to Birmingham once to see Spencer Davis, and we were totally destroyed by this 16-year-old kid. Steve was the man. He was Number One in America with 'Gimme Some Lovin' ' when he was 16 years old; Number One in the black charts as well. Spencer Davis were coming to an end, covering R&B stuff. They were good songs, but they weren't writing them - Jackie Edwards wrote quite a few. They came up with 'Gimme Some Lovin' ', but that was a borrowed riff, from a Homer Banks record. Steve wanted to experiment, and I don't think the others wanted to go that way."
Traffic were the first group to "get it together in the country'> They leased a cottage in Berkshire, where they played to an audience of crows and field mice, and came up with Dear Mr Fantasy, a beguiling debut in late 1967. Their reputation was cemented by their second, eponymous album, og 1968. But the band's volatility contrasted with the peace and love vibe their music gave off - Mason was in and out of Traffic like a fiddler's elbow.
Traffic effectively called it a day before the 60s drew to a close. Their success in Britain related very much to their first 2 albums, and the quintessentially psychedelic single "Hole In My Shoe", which neither Winwood nor Capaldi has particularly fond memories of.
"The dreadful 'Hole In My Shoe" ... fucking pop bubblegum. You can't listen to The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys then listen to 'Hole In My Shoe'," says Capaldi. "It wasn't representative of Traffic; it wasn't Steve singing. E were against it. Dave stood on one side of the room with the Island A&R people, we were on the other side ... It wasn't so much the quality of the song, it was the psychological thing in the band. It was: 'I've got my own came now,' and we'd say: 'Well, we don't want two camps, man, we're a band.'"
Winwood passed through the supergroup Blind Faith, played on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and then began drifting back to Traffic. The band's second phase began with 1970's John Barleycorn Must Die, which led to subsequent American success with albums such as The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory.
Traffic's "final" album was 1974's Where [sic] the Eagle Flies. Attention then focused on Winwood, who sought sanctuary in the anonymity of session work (for Toots and the Maytals, Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Marianne Faithfull, George Harrison and Viv Stanshall among others) before launching a solo career that peaked with slick US successes Back in the High Life and Roll With It.
Then, 18 months ago, Winwood and Capaldi - who had enjoyed solo success with a cover of 'Love Hurts' in 1975 - started talking about a Traffic reunion, and began recording in Ireland. Winwood recalls: "We went to Ireland because we hopes it would give us the same sort of vibe we had had back at the cottage in Berkshire, which has changed so much in the past 20 years. Ireland probably has as well, but it still seemed to be a good environment. It is a special place, it has its own muse. We had been talking about a Traffic reunion for a long time. The first couple of tracks we did came out sounding so Traffic-y, which was off, because the stuff we'd done together, on Refugees of the Heart, didn't sound like Traffic. We were thinking that maybe somewhere down the line we'd do a Traffic album, but we thought, well, this is it right here ... We're staunch members of the Anti-Metrication League, so we're not into anniversaries. It was only when somebody pointed it out that we realized it was 20 years ago this summer that Traffic broke up."
So just what is it about Traffic that is so special?
Capaldi: "We wanted to shake the music business up. Solo-wise, we weren't giving people what they wanted. Traffic is freedom. A spontaneity of pure music, rather than writing something for the radio. I mean, you can say I'm doing it because I don't have an illustrious solo career, but that's not why I'm doing it. That's certainly not why Steve's doing it."
Winwood: "You're much more at the mercy of the market forces. You're easier prey for people to come along and say, 'You should be making this sort of record.' In those days, A&R departments didn't exist. If you wanted to make an 8- or a 10-minute track, you did it, nobody came and said, 'It's too long for the radio.' No one ever said that to us. I think we probably felt that this was missing in our solo careers, and probably in music generally. My solo albums never came out od improvisation, which Traffic always did."
As the new album Far From Home is prepared for release, the question has to be asked; why is there a new Traffic album?
Winwood: "Well, I felt the record industry had changed an awful lot in the past 25 years. There's been a lot less freedom for the artist. There's probably much more investment needed in the artist and therefore the people doing the investing want more control. There was a lot more freedom in those early days. I think that is missing now and perhaps it was missing, to a certain extent, in some on my music in the mid-80s. A kind of freedom .... I felt I might have been seduced into being a bit more formularised, a bit more commercial, perhaps. I think Traffic embodied a kind of looseness that was the opposite of all that, and Jim and I had been talking about doing a Traffic album for a long time. We had already written 'Far From Home', which was, for my money, a perfect Traffic song. We wanted to make an album that would be what Traffic would have done had they not stopped making music all this time. That's the only real way: anything else was going to be a bit fake, a bit false. We've tried to make the kind of album that had the integrity of Traffic with, perhaps, the maturity that has been gained in the meantime. We wanted to make sure that the music has that loose feel, that raw ingredient which Traffic had. I was going to work with other writers, but then Jim and I got on this writing roll, and it just seemed to make sense."
Two of the original line-up were missing from the Ireland studio: Chris Wood, Traffic's flautist and saxophonist, who died in 1983, and Dave Mason, who is currently with Fleetwood Mac. What difference did their absence make?
Winwood: "Chris is really the unsung hero of Traffic. He brought to Jim and me a way of life, like at the cottage. He has all these interests he brought to us. He was interested in theology, astronomy, bird-watching, burial mounds, and all that became enmeshed in the music and in the writing. So although there were all the different chapters of the 7-piece or the 3-piece - all the time it has this core, and there was this common thread which ran through every chapter. When we did this Far From Home album, we could have got a flute player in, but we knew just what Chris would have played, how he would have done it. He was never James Galway."
Capaldi: "When Mason left, he left. And the only way he would be involved would be to come up and have a jam and he's welcome to do that. He wrote some great songs, you know ... 'Feelin' Alright' ... and that sitar on 'Paper Sun'! I remember at the cottage saying: 'Stop playing that bloody sitar and come and have your tea!' But he'd already left by the time we went to America, we only ever toured as a trio. America only ever knew Traffic as a trio."
Winwood: "Mason's welcome to come up and join us if he wants, which is pretty much what he did throughout the life of Traffic anyway. Traffic were never a 4-piece band. Traffic were always a flexible thing, in all their different chapters; they grew and shrunk and grew again."
Traffic albums used to have "File Under: Popular" printed on the sleeves. But with the new album, had their thought on categorization changed in any way?
Winwood: "Eclecticism. Folk, rock, jazz, R&B, Celtic stomping ... pure unadulterated self-indulgence."
As well as Winwood and Capaldi, Traffic 1994 constitute Roske Gee (a veteran from Traffic 1974) on bass, Mike McEvoy on keyboards, Randall Bramblett on flute and sax, and Cuban percussionist Walfredo. All six, plus special guest R&B veteran Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, are on the set of the video shoot for 'Here Comes a Man' at Tipitina's club, New Orleans.
Mobile phones give off beeps, as if warning that something dangerous is about to happen. During the endless set-ups and re-locations of lights and camera tracks, Traffic run through a loose-limbed jam of 'Green Onions'. Outside, the 18-wheeler trucks rattle along, leaving New Orleans on their way to America.
Even under the harsh camera lights, Winwood makes a convincing case for rock's Dorian Gray. There is a hint of grey around the temples, but at 46, he retains the fresh-faced intensity so familiar from Spencer Davis, Traffic, and Blind Faith. Surely in the attic of Winwood's Gloucestershire mansion, there's a crumbling, decaying portrait of Stevie? Between set-ups, Traffic ponder the differences between the music industry since their first time around.
Capaldi: "There's about 60 feet of glitz and gloss that wasn't there before. Massive money supermarkets. They're fond of labels. You've got to call it something. It's like trying to get some more juice out of a dead carcass. Let's call it a new name - 'hip-hop tech', that's not hip-hop, see, that's a whole new thing happening."
Winwood: "I think there was a time, soon into the 70s, when it was realized that music was serious money. And so it just became more corporate. Demographics, market research, that kind of thing, tends to influence music, I think. That said, there's so much of it around, perhaps there's room for everything. There were 5 or 6 different trends going on at the same tie, whereas in the 70s you had punk rock or disco, one at a time."
Over the years, Traffic's cottage nestling in the Berkshire Downs has taken on a mythic status. What was the real story behind the country jam sessions?
Capaldi: "It was a gamekeeper's cottage, near Lambourne in Berkshire, and it belonged to William Piggot-Brown, a friend of Christopher Blackwell at Island Records. There was a nasty gamekeeper who used to have a go at us, leave spiked logs lying in the lane on the way up to the cottage."
Winwood: "There was no electricity when we first went there, so we had a generator. We had a stage set up outside the cottage. It was really so we could go out of town to play without disturbing anybody. It was fantastic out there, just like camping out, really. Cooking over an open fire. It was very primitive, all chocolate biscuits and tea, baked beans. Just like William and the Outlaws."
Capaldi: "We had all sorts of illustrious names coming down to see us. Pete Townshen, Stephen Stills, Leon Russell, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Chris Welch, John Bonham. Jimmy [Page] never actually came to the cottage - I think wading through the mud would have made an awful mess of the velvet trousers he was so proud of. Bob Dylan and The Band never made it to the cottage, but we did meet up with them at Whitley Court, this old ruin just outside Birmingham. A fantastic, palatial Victorian ruin, 60-foot fountains, huge holes in the floor - you'd go get stoned and wander around. Steve and I spent the whole night with Dylan there, without a clue of what we talked about, mainly because we fell asleep, and he talked all night."
Was there a camaraderie among the groups at the end of the 60s, more friendly musical partnerships convened out of a love of music rather than in the boardroom?
Winwood: "Yeah, it was, really. I mean, I remember Jimi [Hendrix] just ringing me up and saying: 'Let's jam,' so I just went down and played 'Voodoo Chile' while he was recording Electric Ladyland. A tour was a special thing. We didn't actually go out on tour, we'd go out on long weekends - Manchester, Scotland, Plymouth. You'd see bands more. The venues were important, the bands would meet up, and play together at the clubs ..."
Capaldi: "They jammed. You didn't sit around with a machine at home. You had to admit; you either had it live, or you didn't have it at all. There was word of mouth, bands building up a reputation. Now, they zoom straight in from nowhere ... nice video, nice packaging, and not only can they be successful, they can sell 6 million records. Paul Abdul, a choreographer, unheard of, never did a gig, never paid any dues ... good dancer probably .. comes out with this Hollywood package and sells 6, 7 million records."
Winwood: "We never shunned technology. We're not the Luddites of rock. Traffic always embraced the technology of the time. Compared with Berkshire, recording in Ireland was a step up - we had electricity this time! With this album, we were able to put the improvisation straight on to the record, which we had never been able to do before. For a start, there's much more equipment involved, and we probably wouldn't have been able to get all the equipment into the cottage. What we used to have to do was improvise, then we'd have to go to the studio to somehow try and re-concoct the improvisation."
Which was Traffic's most successful album, and of which do you have the fondest memories?
Winwood: "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys."
Capaldi: "The High Flame of Low Toed Girls."
Winwood: "Oddly enough, something happened in America with Low Spark. We were making these long drawn-out tracks, and what happened, completely unknown to us, was that America switched from AM radio to FM radio, and album radio was born. They suddenly wanted to play these 11-minute songs, and Low Spark fitted in with that. John Barleycorn was very special. The first one, the second one ... and On the Road was good."
Capaldi: "Have you left any out?"
Winwood: "Barleycorn was special, though. It was our first gold album, our first one with the 3 of us. I'd been planning to work with Guy Stevens on a solo album. He had me cutting covers of bizarre things, like 'Great Balls of Fire', which just wasn't working. So I went to Jim and said, 'Let's make a Traffic album', so Barleycorn was always a Traffic album from the start. Chris came back from America after working with Dr John, so he came back in, and he brought us the 'John Barleycorn' track, which I think he knew from the Watersons, this folk-singing family from Yorkshire. We were like family, it was a relief to get back, like it's a relief to get back now."
Capaldi: "There was something special about the John Barleycorn album. We'd all been through a lot, survived the first round. We were, like, shell-shocked. It was a moment in your life, something special ... age, circumstances ... We'd start the intro to 'John Barleycorn' in these stadiums, and they'd go mad, and I'd think: 'Fucking hell, there's only the 3 of us.' "
Winwood: "You'd feel a bit vulnerable, with just an acoustic guitar and a tambourine in front of 20,000 people."
Capaldi: "We didn't try to do it folky-folky ..."
Winwood: "I'd sing 'John Barleycorn' the same way I'd sing 'In the Midnight Hour'."
Just before John Barleycorn - and right in the middle of all the Traffic activity - came Blind Faith, one of the first of that strangely late-60s phenomenon, the 'supergroup'. It seemed to be spontaneous at the time, but, in hindsight, wasn't it all just manufactured?
Winwood: "No, it wasn't. It was only when we got on the road that it became like that. I knew Eric and Ric Grech from Family. The album was good, but when we went on stage, it was suddenly, like, we were in these big stadiums, and it was almost like the audiences refused to let us have an identity of our own. They were still living on the fact that Cream has been so big in America ..."
Capaldi: "It was a good album; 'Presence of the Lord', 'Can't Find My Way Home' ... there were some great things on there."
As we speak, Traffic have just begun a 4-month American tour, obviously designed to heighten awareness of the new album. How much old stuff will there be?
Capaldi: "We might have broken up and reformed by the time we get to rehearsal."
Winwood: "Keep the tradition going!"
In Traffic, it was Capaldi who supplied the words to Winwood's melodies. Did the partnership work?
Winwood: "Jim and I were never a songwriting team as such. We're not people who could go and write a song for Ray Charles or Michael Bolton or Tina Turner. Although we did - on Refugees of the Heart we wrote this song that was really written to order, which was a surprise, because it didn't sound like Traffic."
Capaldi: "Anybody can write songs. I've done 10 albums. Steve's done loads. But I don't consider myself a professional songwriter. I've been in groups since I was 14; groups were groups, and writers were Tony Hatch or Les Reed."
Like a magnet, Traffic draws them back. Capaldi's solo career has been, to put it politely, sporadic, while even the mighty Winwood watched 990's Refugees of the Heart fail to reach previous heights. Traffic offers them both sanctuary. Good as Far From Home is (and parts of it are excellent the moody 'Holy Ground', with one of Winwood's most heartfelt vocals; the ethereal 'State of Grace', recalling the spirituality of 'Presence of the Lord'), Dear Mr Fantasy it ain't.
But it never could be. Traffic were very much of their time, and while times have changed, there is a security in the past. As Traffic tour the rich pastures of America, they still offer a refuge.
Capaldi: "When you're cast out of a group, and you're wandering around LA, and they offer you a tape of songs by Dianne Warren, who's just had 4 Number Ones in America, you go: 'What am I doing here?' ... I'm thinking of the flute and the corn on the Berkshire Downs, and asking myself what I am doing here in this music factory. It's difficult to put a name on what Traffic is, but we call it the Headless Horseman vibe ..."
-- Patrick Humphries