traffic-studioalbums.jpg

For me, the most exciting part of Avengers: Endgame wasn’t when our comic-book pals tumbled through time, or space-punched the bad guys, or saved the world from kingdom plum. For me, it came during the movie’s opening passages, when Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” blasted out of the speakers, its buzzing-bee guitars serving not just as a “Comedy Tonight”-style opening number for the film, but offering, perhaps, a philosophical mantra for what we were about to see—a psychotropic commentary on the power of escapism. I can’t have been the only one who interpreted it as a loving tribute to Stan Lee.

Now, I can’t say whether Traffic’s brief appearance in a Marvel movie has singlehandedly raised the English band’s profile to the highest point it’s been in decades. It’s certainly possible. In any case, here comes a deluxe vinyl box collecting six of Traffic’s studio albums, starting with 1967’s astonishing debut Mr. Fantasy and concluding with 1974’s severely underrated When the Eagle Flies. Along the way, Traffic metamorphosed from an incense-scented psychedelic-pop outfit with heavy soul overtones into a folkier, jammier, proggier, jazzier outfit, trafficking (sorry) in 11-minute songs with lots of saxophone solos. While that trajectory might sound dire, The Studio Albums 1967-1974 reveals it’s anything but, providing ample evidence that in all of Traffic’s incarnations, they were a superlative band of their day—no band bridged the vast gap between psychedelia and jazz fusion as effectively or as enjoyably. And their music, while very much of its era, shows no sign of diminishing; only one of these six albums sounds anything less than terrific in 2019.

Sponsored
Shop Unique this holiday & support local business!
Discover & support PDX's best emerging brands! Shop outdoors in a safe, socially-distanced pop-up.


Vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Steve Winwood remains the group’s best-known member, and it’s easy to cast the rest of Traffic as his anonymous backing band. That’s not even close to fair, even if Winwood ended up playing a lion’s share of the parts on the records, including all the keyboards, many of the guitars and basses, and (usually) singing lead. At the beginning, Traffic was very much intended as a collective, with guitarist/songwriter Dave Mason contributing a good chunk of material to their first two albums, 1967’s Mr. Fantasy and 1968’s Traffic. (Mason quit after the first album, then returned in time for the second, then quit again, then briefly rejoined for a 1971 live album, Welcome to the Canteen, which is not included in this box; more on that in a bit.)

But the other two founding members of Traffic were just as much part of its lifeblood. Drummer Jim Capaldi wrote most of the lyrics, and even stepped up to the lead-vocal mic on a few occasions. And saxophonist/flautist Chris Wood was more than just a contributing performer—by all accounts, he was the mischievous heart and soul of the group, emblemizing its dedication to collectivity and collaboration.

Indeed, Traffic embarked with those hippie-era ideals at the forefront, with all four members sharing a small, isolated cottage in the Berkshire Downs, after meeting and forming in Birmingham, England. With no one around except for miles of wheat and barley fields, the foursome would jam on their patio all night long; the boundaries between work and play no longer existed as the quartet made music a 24/7 pursuit. To revive a cliché, Traffic was the original “getting it together in the country” band, the first significant rock group to retreat to rural isolation in order to focus solely on playing music—this was shortly before Dylan and the Band recorded The Basement Tapes in West Saugerties, and long before Led Zeppelin ever spent the night at the crumbling Headley Grange estate. This was early 1967, just as the Summer of Love was beginning to ripen, and Traffic was very much in tune with the optimism and creativity of the era.

trafficbox.jpg

Their debut, Mr. Fantasy, is a relic of this inspired time, and in some ways is the oddest, most adventurous they ever made. (The crucial early singles that preceded the full-length are not included in this box; more on that in a bit.) It’s a triumph of English psychedelia, with whimsy aplenty—the wind-up music-box effect at the start of “House for Everyone,” the droning tambouras and sitars throughout “Utterly Simple,” the rain-spattered Anglican soul of “No Face, No Name, No Number,” the jazz inroads (and slightly regrettable jive talk) on “Giving to You.”

Mr. Fantasy also includes two of Traffic’s crowning achievements: the aforementioned “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” which presaged the acid-rock movement of the coming years, and the brilliant album opener “Heaven Is in Your Mind,” in which Wood’s sax, Winwood’s piano, Capaldi’s assertive drumming, and producer Jimmy Miller’s studio wizardry dovetail into a psychedelic masterpiece. It’s trippy, elegant, unpredictable, and positively rocking, beginning in one place and ending somewhere miles away.

The second Traffic album was even more of a hodgepodge, yet it held together perhaps even more cohesively. Mason—who had briefly left the band, then returned to the fold—is very much Traffic’s guiding light, writing some of the best work of his career in the form of “Vagabond Virgin” and what became his signature song, “Feelin’ Alright?” The Winwood/Capaldi contingent rises to Mason’s challenge, proffering the acid soul of “Pearly Queen” the ghostly, folk-inflected “(Roamin’ Thro’ the Gloamin’ with) 40,000 Headmen,” and the apocalyptic torch song “No Time to Live.”

As fractured as the band was during this period—Mason split again before Traffic’s release, and the band would break up completely a couple of months later—everything here sounds unified, energetic, and surprisingly mature for a group of pot-addled twentysomethings. (Winwood, a teen prodigy during his days with the Spencer Davis Group, was only 19 when Traffic’s recording sessions commenced.) The loose drugginess that creeps around the edges of Traffic’s first two records would recede in their work to come, althouh they never altogether abandoned the flower-power spark that ignited their first endeavors.

But by the turn of the decade, Traffic was, seemingly, done. Winwood left the band for a stint in the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith; once that fizzled, Traffic’s record label, Island Records, asked Winwood if he’d consider making a solo album. Before long, Capaldi and Wood got involved, and 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die became Traffic’s fourth album. (Their third, 1969’s half-live, half-odd-’n’-sods farewell cash-in, Last Exit, is not included in this box; more on that in a bit.)

Barleycorn marks the start of Traffic’s (mostly) Mason-less second act, and finds the band evolving—as the majority of English groups that survived the psychedelic period did—into something of a progressive-rock band. While Traffic never indulged in sidelong suites about fairies and beasties, their songs began to ramble to longer lengths. And they simultaneously embraced the jazz that influenced the Canterbury prog scene, the nascent funk and groove of the flourishing American soul scene, and the English folk traditions of groups like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band.

John Barleycorn Must Die is probably the most approachable Traffic album. Its first, flawless side unfolds like a soul-jazz suite, as translated by classic-rock radio: The up-tempo instrumental “Glad” gives way to the meandering, melancholy “Freedom Rider,” before the shuffling funk of the glorious “Empty Pages” draws things to a close. (Somewhat incredibly, there’s no guitar on any of these tracks.) The second, more conventional side is only slightly less memorable, highlighted by the trio’s authentic reworking of the old English folk song “John Barleycorn.”

Traffic as seen on the back cover of 1971s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.
Traffic as seen on the back cover of 1971's Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.
Here’s where the Traffic family tree gets tangled. John Barleycorn’s success, particularly in the US, made Traffic an in-demand touring act, so Ric Grech (of Family and Blind Faith) was enlisted as a bassist to take some of the musical burden off Winwood. Not long after, percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and legendary session drummer (and eventual matricidal murderer) Jim Gordon joined the ranks, as Capaldi moved out from behind the drum kit to shake tambourine and sing. (I’ve never been entirely clear on Capaldi’s reasons for doing this—he’s a magnificent drummer.) Mason even momentarily rejoined the clan for a few shows in ’71, although he’d hightailed it again by the time the expanded six-piece recorded 1971’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

Traffic’s commercial peak, Low Spark is anchored by its epic title track, a slow-burning groove of nocturnal menace. It’s one of Traffic’s best recordings and one of the moodiest, most suspenseful songs in the rock canon. The rest of the album contains feints in folkier directions (“Hidden Treasure,” “Rainmaker”) alongside two showcases for Capaldi’s lead vocals: “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock ’n’ Roll Stew,” both of which became staples of FM radio.

The follow-up, 1973’s Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, finds the original Traffic trio (and Rebop) playing with a new bassist and drummer—David Hood and Roger Hawkins from Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Despite that pair’s incredible pedigree and surprisingly seamless integration into Traffic’s far-ranging sound, Shoot Out is essentially a Low Spark retread; it’s the only album in the box that’s less than great. Traffic sounded tired—Winwood had suffered a very serious case of peritonitis the previous year. While the title track and “Roll Right Stones” are solid (even if the overextended “Stones” eventually becomes repetitive), the album’s closing track, the tellingly titled “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired,” is like the part at the end of a mystery novel when the detective explicates the entire crime.

That might’ve been the end of Traffic, but they had one more left in the chamber—1974’s When the Eagle Flies, which found the group slimming down to a four-piece, with future Can bassist Rosko Gee on board and Capaldi, happily, returning to the drum kit. Eagle often gets maligned as a lesser Traffic effort, but I’ve always loved this album, and revisiting it in the context of their full catalog proves it is in fact a fantastic piece of work.

Eagle marks Winwood’s embrace of synthesizer technology, something that would go on to characterize his solo career. Here, analog synths, sine waves, and Mellotron faux-orchestras are perfectly positioned alongside Winwood’s usual piano and organ tones, resulting in Traffic’s most psychedelic music since Mr. Fantasy. The centerpieces are the shining, gospel-inflected “Walking in the Wind” and the mysterious, jazzy “Dream Gerrard,” a meanderingly lovely jam that features surreal lyrics from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall. These tracks are pinnacles of Traffic’s entire career, and the rest of When the Eagle Flies nearly equals them. It’s an album due for reappraisal, and this box set provides the ideal opportunity.

By the end of ’74, Traffic was done, although Winwood, Capaldi, Gee, and a few hired hands would momentarily reunite under the banner in 1994. (Wood, after some difficult years, died of pneumonia in 1983.) Winwood became an unlikely mainstream superstar in the ’80s, but Traffic’s legacy remained a comfortable one—a well-regarded, reasonably successful outfit that never dominated classic-rock airwaves or littered Rolling Stone album countdowns.

That underexposure is part of the reason The Studio Albums 1967-1974 feels so essential. If “Dear Mr. Fantasy” becomes the entry point for a generation of new listeners to dive headfirst into Traffic, the rest of the box has miles of avenues and freeways for them to navigate with joy.

It’s a beautiful package, with replicas of the original UK album sleeves inside a sturdy slipcase. Each album contains a folded-up promotional poster as a nifty bonus, and retail copies of the box also include downloads for WAV files of the music. All of this mitigates a somewhat steep price point, particularly when battered copies of Traffic’s ’70s albums are not all that difficult to find in the used vinyl bins. (The originals usually sound great, too—Traffic’s stuff was always well mastered on vinyl.)

Still, these clean, spiffed-up presentations are worthwhile, particularly for the slightly hard-to-find UK configuration of Mr. Fantasy (the US version had a different track list). The discs are not analog—they were made from high-resolution (96/24) digital files made by Paschal Byrne from the first-generation master tapes, and the vinyl was cut by Christian Wright at Abbey Road, with pressings done at GZ Media in the Czech Republic. But despite not being all-analog, these presentations are full and immaculately detailed. If some of the lushness of the original pressings has been hardened through the digital process, these remasters have a level of clarity that has probably never been heard before.

The pressings are largely excellent, too, with silent backgrounds and minimal issues. There’s some white dust that I needed to clean off of the vinyl for Low Spark and Shoot Out; it appears to be residue left over from the die-cut album jacket and glossy inner sleeve. And my copy of When the Eagle Flies, unluckily, had a nearly invisible but really nasty-sounding gash that clacked throughout the quietest section of “Dream Gerrard” (arggh). Otherwise, these are commendable versions, and you’ve probably never heard Mr. Fantasy sound so good.

Which brings me to what’s not in this box: Traffic’s two-and-a-half live albums, including side two of 1969’s Last Exit, the 1971 Mason reunion record Welcome to the Canteen, and 1973’s sprawling On the Road, which was released in single-LP and double-LP configurations. That’s not a huge loss, but the band’s incredible early singles aren’t here either.

And that sucks—it means the box is missing a crucial chunk of the Traffic story. Their sitar-laden debut single, “Paper Sun,” is one of the most important songs to come out of the Summer of Love, and its follow-up, “Hole in My Shoe,” is vintage English psychedelia at its best. (Overtones of these and other Traffic songs can be heard all over the ’80s psychedelic revival, particularly in the work of the Dukes of Stratosphear.) We’re also deprived other terrific sides from ’67, including “Smiling Phases” and “Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush.”

Some of Traffic’s non-album tracks cropped up on side one of Last Exit, but none of those are here either. In the case of the 1968 “farewell” single—“Medicated Goo” coupled with “Shanghai Noodle Factory”—this is some of the best stuff Traffic ever did. In a perfect world, this box would have included a supplemental disc rounding up these loose ends—there’s a full LP’s worth of studio recordings that are a mandatory part of Traffic’s discography. (Here’s a Spotify playlist of the best of what you’re missing.)

Support The Portland Mercury

The box is also devoid of any kind of liner notes, suggesting that Universal—which now administers the Island Records catalog—didn’t have the freedom to substantially alter or supplement any of the original release configurations. (Online rumors abound of a deluxe collection of Traffic classics and rarities that was caught in the crossfire of a financial dispute between Winwood and Island/Universal.)

But all of this nit-picking is probably looking a gift horse in the mouth, as there’s nothing in this box—except for, maybe, a weak stretch or two on Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory—that is less than worthy of your full attention. As well as I know and love this band, digesting the bulk of Traffic’s catalog all at once only reinforced how impressive they were. And The Studio Albums 1967-1974 is the best road map for traversing Traffic’s many thoroughfares—their broad boulevards of in-the-pocket rock, shady lanes of perfume-scented jazz, busy streets of hot-poker soul, unpaved pathways of cold-meadow folk, and winding trails of candy-coated psychedelic pop. This was a band that could do it all, and Traffic did do it all.