"Here's a Little Song .... Traffic" Trouser Press, January, 1978
By Jonathan Morrish
By Way of Introduction
And so it came to pass that in the beginning Steve Winwood (born May 12, 1948) was grateful as a thirteen-year-old just to get a gig. By that tender age he'd already absorbed rock 'n' roll and gotten hooked on Charlie Mingus and Ray Charles. He could play piano, organ, guitar, bass .. you name it, and sing with the best of them too. In short, young Stevie was a prodigy, and to him the chance to play music in pubs and clubs in his home town of Birmingham, even though it meant "stretching" the English licensing laws forbidding anyone under 14 from entering those establishments, was a welcome one.
Music was in the family. His father was a semi-pro sax player who, ironically, used to play pubs and weddings with an accordion player by the name of Capaldi. Their sons would come to know each other a bit later, but for the time Steve worked regularly in a trio which featured his brother, Muff, on bass and Peter York on drums.
That was in 1963. In the early summer of that year, Spencer Davis, professor of German at Aston University, folk-enthusiast and musicologist, happened to come upon the band at a place called the Ale House. After speaking with them, Davis took them under his wing and The Spencer Davis Group was born. The rest of that episode is, as they say, history.
Meanwhile, in nearby Worcestershire, a young Dave Mason was getting smitten by the rock 'n' roll bug through listening to Shadows records. He formed a band called the Jaguars, and because none of the others could play he was, naturally, the leader. "I'd go home, listen to the records, learn all the parts, and then teach everyone else. We recorded an instrumental at the local YMCA where we had to use mattresses to get the sound right."
Down the road in Evesham, Jim Capaldi was strutting his stuff as lead singer of the Sapphires, doing a kind of imitation Elvis Presley, replete with black shirt and white jacket, tie and shoes. "I had a bad name," Capaldi recalls, "particularly with Dave's parents. They thought I was a gypsy, a gangster."
Soon, Mason and Capaldi were playing together, along with Poli Palmer (later in Eclection and Family) and Luther Grosvenor, in a band called the Hellions. By this time Capaldi was playing drums as well as singing. They based themselves in Hamburg and were, by all accounts, "Liverpool influenced". As an early indication of what was to come (for Dave, anyway, with his continuing saga of business hassles), they managed to attract the notorious Kim Fowley, and recorded a Jackie DeShannon number ("Daydreaming") under his auspices.
With Grosvenor's departure, the Hellions became Deep Feeling; Jim, Dave, and Poli being joined by Gordon Jackson and Dave Meredith. Eventually Grosvenor returned, ironically, as a replacement for Mason, who had departed to join Julian Covey and the Machine, a gig which lasted only until he was late for rehearsal one day and fired. Out of work and in need of money, Mason landed a job as a roadie for none other than The Spencer Davis Group.
Backtracking briefly, we introduce a fourth character, Chris Wood, an art student who knew Winwood from the jamming circuit of the Birmingham clubs, where he had played sax, flute, and keyboards in various bands including Locomotive and a very early line-up of Chicken Shack.
Slowly the threads which would become Traffic were being woven together, and just as Tolkien drew his Hobbits from the Black Country, these four souls were being meshed together in that famous "all which ways circle."
Meanwhile, Dave Mason was upsetting his boss no end. Not only was he failing to do his job of setting up Spencer's gear, but he was also distracting the star of the show. "Spencer used to get mad with me. I'd get an amp and two guitars out of the truck, and me and Steve would have a blow."
Although the exact circumstances under which Traffic was first conceived are blurry to all involved, it is agreed that its first manifestations took place back in Tolkien country, in a club called The Elbow Room, probably sometime early in '66. This, of course, was before Winwood had left The Spencer Davis Group. There is an unconfirmed rumor, which Dave Mason is fairly certain is true, that the Traffic line-up actually appears intact on Spencer Davis Group's big hit, "I'm a Man". At any rate, by that time another very important figure in the story of Traffic had arrived on the scene: Island Records' president Chris Blackwell.
Berkshire Poppies and Paper Suns
The English countryside has naturally been a source of inspiration to all kinds of artists for a long time and just as you can, say, explore the nearby county of Dorset through Thomas Hardy's novels, so too do Berkshire and Oxfordshire come to life in Traffic's songs. The link between Traffic and this area was provided through the now famous "Berkshire Cottage" at Aston Tirrold, where the band spent their formative days, living communally, pooling ideas into a group which would combine strands of pop, rock, folk, rhythm and blues, and jazz under one unique, eclectic umbrella.
It was through a certain William Pickett Brown via Chris Blackwell that Steve got the cottage; for the grand total of fifty pounds per annum, if Steve's memory serves. Brown was a young, wealthy racehorse trainer/gambler who, it seems, felt it would be a groove to have a rock band - though Steve was the only permanent resident, the other had a flat on Cromwell Road inLondon - living on his estate. Its effect on Traffic's music was enormous.
By mid-1966 the idea for Traffic was well under way toward becoming a reality. The name? It's always seemed so ironic that a band which destroyed itself by just being what it was should have a name which so perfectly and unwittingly captured that self-destructive flair. "Take the day we named the band. We had just left a tube station and were trying to cross the road but couldn't because of all the cars and busses. Capaldi yelled out, 'Traffic - that's what we'll call the band!' and everyone started laughing." In reality though, they couldn't stand the stuff (traffic, that is) and sadly in the end it was the road work and touring that would lead to their demise.
Due to contractual reasons, the band was forced to wait until the summer of 1967 before issuing their first record, although they had played some dates on the Continent in the spring.
"Paper Sun", their first single, was released in mid-June, although the first song they had actually cut together was "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", for the film soundtrack of the same name (which also featured the post-Winwood Spencer Davis Group). Actually, those two singles plus "Hole In My Shoe" and the rest of the Mr Fantasy album, were all recorded at about the same time at Olympic Studios in London under the auspices of a young American producer Chris Blackwell had handpicked for them: Jimmy Miller.
"Paper Sun" went to number five in the UK charts, "Hole In My Shoe" hit number two, and "Mulberry Bush" reached eight. However, by the unconventional, unorthodox fashion in which they chose to operate, the British Mr Fantasy LP contained none of the singles. Yet it too reached the charts at number 16! Displaying the band's eclectic approach to their music, the songs ranged from Capaldi's folky "Dealer", to the R&B tinged "Giving To You", to the vaudeville camp of "Berkshire Poppies", to rock songs and pop tunes.
Mason Does the Splits
With Mr Fantasy highly acclaimed and selling well in Britain, all should have been well within the group. Unfortunately, however, that was not the case. A glance at the American version of the LP (which was released a while after the British one, with a different cover, and different song selection) tells the story. There is no trace of Dave Mason at all on the cover, either in the photos or the credits, except where he had written a song. Indeed, at the time Mr Fantasy was released in America, Mason was no longer a member of Traffic. In short, he had split the group for the first of many times.
Talking to the band members about actual events years after they happened proved difficult. Harder still was discussing the "splits". There's no doubt that for the four of them, the formation of Traffic was an achievement imbued with a sense of spirituality; something almost religious, like a rite - certainly in keeping with some of the past deeds that haunt the Berkshire countryside. (Steve is the most expansive on this theme, though you must bear in mind that even at his most talkative, he is less than vociferous). Yet I'm sure this feeling was the reason that the others were prepared to accept Mason back each time.
Mason rejoined Traffic in time for the second album, Traffic, split again in 1968 before the tour on which the live songs on Last Exit were recorded (he does appear on the studio side), and rejoined again for six dates in 1971 during the Welcome to the Canteen tour before splitting for good. Comments Steve:
"No, it wasn't really a problem the first two times Dave came back, but after that it was clear it wouldn't work. I definitely felt that 'Hole In My Shoe' wasn't the kind of direction Traffic should be taking ... Dave and I see things differently." (At the time, it appears that while Winwood, Capaldi and Wood wanted "Coloured Rain" as the follow-up to "Paper Sun", Mason was championing "Hole In My Shoe" strictly because it was a more commercial song. In fact, according to Dave, only through Jimmy Miller's persuasion was he able to get the others to finish recording the song!)
Jim continues: "Dave's thing got out of hand. Steve isn't likely to say 'hey, man, let's do this, let's get that', he just quietly says what he's got to say on piano. You can't get him to talk about the policy of the band and agreements and stuff. He's never done that. Chris Blackwell had always done it for him in Spencer Davis. So when Dave started coming on strong, Steve couldn't handle it and there was a clash of personalities - especially musically. Dave had reached that stage where he thought, 'well, I've done my apprenticeship. I've got 'Feeling Alright' - I'm Dave 'hole-in-my-shoe' Mason. I know I can't play as well as Steve, but I can do so much.' Which is true and it's one way to look at it. He made ripples that had bad effects. Dave might argue, which he has in the past, that it's the rest of us and not him.
"It happened after 'Hole In My Shoe', he suddenly turned into a Jekyll from a Hyde, then he realized it and went away to Greece. He wrote 'Feeling Alright', and came back mellow. Suddenly he was super mellow - he'd gone to the other extreme. I used to say, 'Dave, you don't have any tact. You're like a bull in a china shop!' He so desperately wanted to be cool, to be the jamming musician with people like Hendrix. (Incidentally, Mason appears on the Electric Ladyland sessions and also on Beggar's Banquet.) He's an incredible song-writer - a strength unto himself and all I can say is I'll never hate the guy."
Dave's view is, not surprisingly, a bit different. "It became a communal thing. We actually became Traffic and I couldn't handle it. It became a lifestyle I didn't want. I wanted to create within that context, but I wanted another life out of it. I had to write on my own. There was a conflict between me and Steve. I think Steve was threatened by me.
"Of course I can't talk to him about it and can only talk about it from my point of view, and I suppose I've got to be careful because I'm going to say something that's going to appear in print which he'll read, but since you asked I'll try to answer. My feeling is that he not only doesn't want to make music with me but I don't think he wants to make music with himself. I'd love to play with Steve - he's a great talent, but he should learn to give more. I can't forgive him for not using his talents more fully."
Obviously the chemistry of four people is a lot more complex, delicate affair than outlined above. Chris Wood - and this is more conjecture than anything else - would have gone along with anything, as in fact, he did when Steve split the band in 1969. Chris was happy to trundle around with Dr John and Airforce - two undisciplined outfits that perfectly suited his personality. Chris was just happy to play.
It's really the other Chris - Blackwell - who appears to be the important figure. Because, while Mason feels that he threatened Steve, it also seems that he threatened Blackwell, as well. After all, Mason was not just the one with the commercial head on his shoulders, but also the strongest member of the band - the brashest and the most volatile, the one most independent of Steve and the one with the clearest picture of what he wanted Traffic to be.
Another reason why Blackwell figures prominently lies somewhere in the shady world of contracts, about which facts are hard to obtain. What is clear is that Dave made very little money from any of his songs. (In an interview in the English magazine Zigzag he says, "The royalty we were on was shit. In America it was worse - it was half of the English one. The deals Blackwell made on behalf of us as a manager were ridiculous. I don't even get my full writer's money for 'Feeling Alright'." Though it suffers from poor sound reproduction - it was recorded on a cassette player - it is a magnificent testimony of the empathy and musical vision of the band. And from what Jim can remember, they were all tripping at the time.)
Getting back to our chronology, Dave returned from Greece with, among other songs, "Feeling Alright". He went into the studio to cut a song he'd written at the cottage called "Little Woman" on February 23, 1968. However, come March, Dave had rejoined the others in the States and they quickly went into the studios and cut Traffic, their magnificent second album. Finally, the four heterogeneous forces combined as one. Really, it was to be the only time.
I always feel that Dave was egged on, almost goaded into writing the songs he did - as if they resulted directly from the clashes at the cottage. "Seems I've go to have a change of scene / Cause every night I have the strangest dream / Imprisoned by the way it could have been / Left here on my own or so it seems / I've go to leave before I starts to scream / But someone locked the door and took the key". There's no doubting the inferences to the group situation.
Like the first set, Traffic is a remarkably eclectic collection of songs that benefits (in comparison) from the band's having gathered a style within the whole they had established. The album opens and closes on a similar note - two celebratory numbers (one, Mason's, the other by Winwood/Capaldi). Minstrels for the festive season or harvest gathering. Music-for-the-people: "You Can All Join In". Musician as doctoring spirit, confidant and comforter: "I'm a means to an end and everybody's friend to a rich man, poor man, beggar man or thief / From my heart I send a messenger to band and take your mind from agony and grief".
In between lies a kind of sermon. We are addressed as a vicar might have spoken to his congregation centuries ago - telling stories with morals ("Pearly Queen", "Vagabond Virgin", "Forty Thousand Headmen" - a sophisticated re-write of "Hole In My Shoe"), advising ("Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring"), comforting ("Don't Be Sad", "Feeling Alright", "No Time To Live"), and warning ("Crying to be Heard"). The music endorses the lyrics - the piano in, say, "Vagabond Virgin", the flute in "Forty Thousand Headmen", the guitar in "Pearly Queen".
However you look at the album, listen to it, respond to it, it's unique in the way it extends the usual limitations of a "rock" album.
What's that Symbol?
Traffic's symbol: no article would be complete without some reference to the symbol that was in evidence on every one of the band's releases. According to Steve, it was the creation of a lady called Carol Ruskin and the band adopted it because they liked it and there was really nothing more to it than that.
A simple explanation that could be true, however a few facts should be pointed out. Among other things it's a Celtic representation of the Wheel of Fortune (something which crops up in several songs including "No Time To Live" and "Dealer") and it's also connected with the Hindu swastika, the three legged Isle of Man design and is later to be found on Irish crosses. Also Myrrdin, later to metamorphose into Merlin, the councilor and magician of medieval Arthurian fantasy claims the symbol. So another pattern emerges; evidence of Traffic's folkloric passions.
Talking to Steve and Jim, it's quite clear that, from a live point of view, they both preferred the trios of '68 and '70. Steve even goes so far as to say that John Barleycorn came closest to capturing what he envisaged Traffic's capabilities at the outset.
In 1968 trios were very much a part of what was happening. There was Cream and there was Hendrix - though his was very much a one-man band. Though Clapton and Hendrix were better guitarists than Winwood, neither had his sense of phrasing. And neither Hendrix nor Bruce has his voice. No, Traffic were unique. They'd formed without a bass player which meant that Steve played a pedal bass on stage, but it was his uncanny lead work on keyboards (piano was his first instrument) which in the early days had made "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Loving" such compulsive listening and which now made Traffic such a unique outfit. Chris' sax and flute gave them a color and texture Cream didn't have and which only Hendrix could provide in his outfit. And Jim - well, he's the Timekeeper of the Universe.
Of the live performances as a trio, what remains on record is side two of Last Exit with Bricusse-Newley's "Feelin' Good" and Malone-Scott's "Blind Man" - two personal favorites of Jim's.
Now Winwood Quits
A chill wind blew through the cottage at the beginning of 1969. Steve had had enough. He told Chris Blackwell, asked him to phone the others, then split for Holland. Later he intimated that the Traffic of '67-'69 wasn't as fulfilling musically as he'd originally anticipated but in the light of several previous quotes, that would seem untrue. Nonetheless, all of them still hung out together.
While Winwood geared up for Blind Faith, Mason, Capaldi, Wood & Frog (or Wooden Frog for short - the 'Frog' was organist Mick Weaver, a.k.a. Wynder K Frog) came together for a short while. Blackwell presumably put some of his weight behind them and got them several gigs (one of which was supporting Hendrix at the Albert Hall). He even put them into the studio, but unfortunately some hash cookies got the better of them and it wasn't to be. Mason split for the States and Delaney & Bonnie followed by Capaldi, while Chris lent his weight to the medicinal brew of Dr John.
So while Blackwell and Stigwood anticipated their next rush of dollars, Steve was writing songs for Blind Faith; writing lyrics for the first time without the help of Jim. And sombre, gloomy works they turned out to be. Even "Sea of Joy", a song as sparse as Blind Faith's existence.
Getting Steve to elucidate on Blind Faith today is not an easy task. Suffice to say that its bust up had nothing to do with personality problems. Steve had played with Clapton in Powerhouse and the two were old friends anyhow. (In the preceding months Ginger Baker had become a frequent visitor to the cottage - so much so that apparently it was doing Capaldi's confidence as a drummer no good at all. When Traffic reformed in 1971, Capaldi switched to percussion and Jim Gordon joined on drums.) Blind Faith's problems were not merely those of musicians meeting big business.
Steve: "It reached a saturation point because we were always on the road. We weren't ever given any chance to develop our potential."
Speaking at the time (in a Rolling Stone interview in December of 1969), he said, "I knew it was a hype as soon as it was called Blind Faith. It was just a rush and as soon as Robert Stigwood got a hold of it, we sort of played where he put us." After leaving the short-lived supergroup, Winwood, Wood, Ric Grech and future Traffic member Reebop joined forces in Ginger Baker's Airforce and cut two highly unsuccessful albums.
In the meantime, Island tried to maintain some kind of vinyl momentum for Traffic. Last Exit as released in May 1969 and featured a somewhat ragged collection of songs; "Medicated Goo" made a fine single but nothing else really held together.
March 1970 saw Island release a not-too-surprising "Best Of ..." set.
Traffic Is Back
It's not too surprising in retrospect that Steve was going to title his first solo album Mad Shadows. Never the most self-confident of people, hie morale must have been at a new low and the despair of his lyrics on the Blind Faith set is continued in the two numbers he recorded with Guy Stevens for the aforementioned album. "Stranger to Himself" may offer a hint as to Steve's feelings about Blind Faith:
"Struggling with confusion, disillusionment too / Can turn a man into a shadow crying out from hell / Through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing only wealth / The man with the beggar's mind is but a stranger / He's but a stranger to himself."
Plans for the solo LP, however, were discarded when Wood and Capaldi rejoined Steve in the studio. Instead, the sessions turned into John Barleycorn, the album they all feel captures Traffic's spirit best. It was the last one they did from the cottage and it's plain earth, harvest connotations (the printing on the English covers is far superior to the American) captures the simple but rejuvenating quality heard in the opening track, "Glad". Even in its more solemn moments, there is a striking sense of uplifting affirmation.
With the contemporizing of "John Barleycorn" and the spare, simple treatment of its magical theme (the triumph of Good over Evil, the fact that Barleycorn never dies), Traffic continued to endorse themes and ideas, fuse past and present and re-investigate the old truths of folk-lore in ways similar to the earlier albums.
Someone once said the Winwood was capable of writing great music, but couldn't write great songs. Perhaps Barleycorn was the bridge between songs, as such, and his music, as represented on the albums following Barleycorn. With the exception of "Hidden Treasure" he didn't write any short 'songs' at all for the next two-and-a-half years.
Anyway, with pulses racing once more, a tour was proposed, but not as the trio because it was felt that Steve's multitude of roles - that of vocalist, keyboards, guitar, and pedal bass - were just too demanding on him. Ric Grech was brought in to play bass, making Traffic a quartet one again. But the mix still wasn't right as evidenced by the non-release of a very mediocre live album that was nearly put out at the end of 1970. In England it was even given a catalogue number (ILPS 9143), though its purpose may have, in fact, been to satisfy U.S. contractual requirements.
There were still more changes to come. Capaldi was getting more and more neurotic about his drumming, claiming that he wasn't a sufficiently reliable platform for Steve and that he wanted to return to singing. Jim Gordon was then brought in on drums with Reebop handling percussion. That band recorded Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys and did their annual tour before Steve collapsed for five months at the beginning of '72 with what turned out to be appendicitis.
Prior to that, however, Dave Mason reappeared on the scene for a short time, appearing at a total of six dates - which rightly included a couple of benefits. Though the album that followed - Welcome to the Canteen - wasn't strictly a Traffic album, it still bore the symbol of the band. With credits and royalties evenly shared - two Mason tunes, "Mr Fantasy, for Chris, "Medicated Goo" for Jimmy Miller - no doubt everyone was happy.
Low Spark was born out of a trip to Morocco, made for the purpose of doing a film called Nevertheless - under the direction of Anton Coyas. Like so many of the group's projects, however, nothing came of it. In a moment of shifted consciousness, Michael J Pollard, who was also supposed to be appearing in the film, came up with the phrase, "the low spark of high-heeled boys" and it stuck. ("Shoot out at the fantasy factory" is also attributed to an actor - Ben Carruthers.) The bulk of Low Spark continued to explore that nether region of the mind where the outside world takes on a different hue. "Low Spark", the song, is a supreme example of the intuitive nature of the minds of Jim and Steve; where word matches melody, chord captures image. Out of the (inferred) context of the music biz ("If you see something that looks like a star / And it's shooting up out of the ground / And your head is spinning from a loud guitar") Traffic create their own stories, Fantasies, Myths, Folklore.
The rest of the album - apart from the Grech/Gordon "Rock 'n' Roll Stew" and Capaldi's "Light Up Or Leave Me Alone", also focussed on the habits and customs of people more primitive than Western Man; a strange blend of North African and Celtic, "Rainmaker" is an invocatory chant; "Hidden Treasure" with its electric guitars shimmering like the heat haze over the Sahara, a celebration to the countryside; "Many a Mile to Freedom" illustrates the communion between man and nature. Not surprisingly, all the songs concern themselves with water. Rivers. Life-giving forces. Dave Mason, however, couldn't find it in himself to praise the album: "A lot of Traffic's instrumental things just meander, which has become a kind of trademark of the group. I'd like to hear something a bit more tangible. There's a kind of cast your fate to the wind attitude. Low Spark lacks punch - it would be nice if everybody could get their head back together again because it was the differences in the people that made the music so interesting to begin with."
On the following tour Grech and Gordon quietly left; Grech for drug reasons, Gordon because, well, no one else really drums for Traffic except Jim, who in December of that year went off to Muscle Shoals, got his confidence back, and cut his fist solo album, Oh How We Danced.
It was Jim who knew all the Muscle Shoal crew from cutting the album there ("I felt I got the best out of them that anyone's done") but it was Chris Blackwell's idea to bring them into Traffic. Steve had been ill all year (1972) and despite promises he was making "an album-per-week" when he recovered, still nothing was forthcoming by the end of the year. So Blackwell got his freedom riders together with the hottest, most professional studio guys in the game and got them all to do an album in three days: that was Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory.
The band had moved a long way from the early days when it was an accomplishment to get up on stage and play. Steve commented in a Rolling Stone interview in May, 1969: "To us music was a fantasy because we used to think in terms of it, but we never got to play together so playing was a fantasy." Take Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory. For Chris Blackwell - who must have paid a lot of money to keep the Muscle Shoals-augmented band (with Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins and David Hood) on the road.
Then the Eagle Flew
Apart from Bowie and Roxy Music, '72 and '73 were poor years for English rock music. Shoot Out and the live On the Road set that followed were highlights in barren years - statements of a band that had arrived somewhere, that was still prepared to explore where modern music could go - for more than just the gain of a quick buck.
After the European and English section of the tour - Traffic's first gigs in their homeland for more than 18 months - the Muscle Shoals crew went back to the studio. Jim cut his second solo album and the edition of the band was 'retired'.
Soon they brought in Rosko Gee from Gonzales on bass, and when he arrived, the band went into the studio to record When the Eagle Flies (for, in some places, the second and third time).
Jim: "I love 'Dream Gerrard' - the melotron overdub sounding like strings that no arranger could have written better. It takes you through a classical thing. There aren't many English albums that have got the inventiveness contained in just that one f*cking track. And we just don't get no f*cking encouragement, no f*cking praise, nothing from England. Not a f*cking thing since the early days.
"'Graveyard People' showed the direction we were going. It was our personal favorite. To me it broke new ground - not just the Moog, but the riffing, the way it went in and out of things. It was done on the 8-track at Steve's place - it has a very loose feel. He overdubbed the Moog. For musicians, too, that was the track. Steve's a genius - that's where Chick Correa is going, that's where those semi-jazz-change-over-to-rock-bands are going - Cobham, McLaughlin."
Certainly with When the Eagle Flies and Steve's preoccupation with keyboards, there was a jazz intonation more pronounced than on any other record. Capaldi was criticized for his lyrics, particularly on "Memories of a Rock 'n' Rolla". But talking to him makes you appreciate his uncertainty of possessions. "Whenever you write a song, it's about yourself. That song was a little about all of us and mostly about me. I was playing in semi-pro bands in Evesham. I never thought I would make it. I can't quite believe it now - that I've made something, even though people say I'm stupid not to feel proud about Traffic. But still the weight of possessions. You can build yourself a prison of possessions and it becomes difficult to justify what you do."
The tone of the album is mournful, doleful, with a much more imminent sense of departure than on Last Exit, as if they knew that the Eagle, the spirit of the band, was going to depart soon; it was strange, because the arrival of Rosko and the paring down to basics again had uplifted the other three enormously.
Like Capaldi's second solo album, When the Eagle Flies had strong ecological overtones harking on social dissatisfaction and malaise ("Walking in the Wind", "Graveyard People"). Apart from the surreal lyrics of "Dream Gerrard" (from Viv Stanshall, on whose first solo album Winwood had worked), there was a strong autobiographical feel.
Despite, or rather because of, the title's gently muted tones, you have the apotheosis of Traffic's themes, overtly and powerfully warning of the impending holocaust in the way that their music has suggested over the years. "When the eagle flies you'd better watch your eyes / He's gonna sweep everything in his path / And when the heavens cry it's gonna drown the sky / And you'll get caught in the aftermath / When the mountains move it's no good trying / To prove that you've been doing what you can / And don't you start to cry / When you're about to die ...."
There's irony is Steve's imploring "do you hear me, Mother Nature". Throughout the band's six bona fide albums and the other sets, they've always endorsed the spirit of Nature, praised her powers. I can't escape the notion of Traffic being guides, opening up doors, invoking spirits, completing a puzzle, adding the final ingredient. Shifting perspective. Taking you to the 'backdoor of the universe', showing you that 'old moon dust', being 'every mother's son', flying through the 'crack in the sky, to a place where happiness reigns', being the 'means to an end'.
You get it from the music too. Where has the music from Low Spark come from? Where does it go to? The loping sensuous rhythms warn of "Roll Right". Mr Fantasy is invoked by Steve's guitar; so too is the Rainmaker.
Yes, in there is the 'message in the deep of a strange eternal sleep, that is waiting there for you like hidden treasure'.
There were no big announcements when the band split up. It just was. I don't think Jim will ever forgive Steve for blowing out the South American leg of the final tour because it's a country for which he feels much affinity (witness "Keep On Trying" on the Short Cut Draw Blood set) and where he desperately wanted to play. Steve can only say of the illness: "Being on the road, physically gets to me. It was probably psychological." So you can read into that what you want.
Come the end of '75, Jim not only released his third solo album but found himself with a hit single - "Love Hurts" got to number 4 in the English charts, which deep down must have been some gratification. Two years on, at the end of '77, Steve has finally released his first solo album, but despite promises in the summer that he'd have another out by November followed by a tour, he's retreated back into his shell.
Jim has left Island (who are sitting on an unreleased album). He's split from Chris Blackwell and is now manages by John Clover (and I should think there's a story there).
Chris is as chaotic as ever. he made a brief appearance last summer on the Crawler album. Recently the police raided his London home and found nothing. In entering, though, they destroyed the front door and when Chris tried to repair it, he succeeded in locking himself out.
Dave with much perseverance has at last got himself a hit single with "We Just Disagree". Maybe, if he'd held back on all those commercial songs he was writing in the Sixties, he'd never have left Traffic. Who knows?
Winwood: "It was important for me to keep Traffic together, but Traffic kept me going at some points as well. It wasn't as one-sided as that."
Capaldi: "Traffic was always coming and never arriving."
Wood: "Traffic's a name not a group. Every move we've made might have seemed self-destructive at the time, but it's because of those very moves that we are where we are today. Sometimes I get the feeling that things aren't going to last much longer but more often I think that we'll go on for some time - as long as we've got the courage to keep together through strong decisions and remain honest about how we feel."
Mason (on Winwood): "He knows too much about music. He can't reconcile himself working in the format of rock 'n' roll."
Thanks to Steve, Jim, Dave, Chris, and Dick Polak, Dave Oxtoby, and Rick Brewer.