Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Traffic

Traffic: (left to right) Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, Steve Winwood (bottom) Dave Mason (ca. 1968)

It's been a while since I've done a band profile, so I thought it was time to write on about one of my favorite bands of the late 1960s/early 1970s: Traffic. Known mainly as the band that brought Steve Winwood to prominence, Traffic were one of the best and most influential bands to emerge in the latter half of the 1960s. Blending British psychedelic rock with folk, jazz, R&B, and blues music, the first half of their career from 1967-1969 saw them release three excellent albums and several hit singles with their original line-up. After a short break-up, they regrouped in 1970 to embark on the second phase of their career which saw them evolve into a jazzier, free-form style, going through several line-up changes until a final split in 1974. What they left behind was a legacy of great music that influenced many of their contemporaries, as well as future musicians.



Traffic formed in 1967, emerging from the Birmingham rock scene. Steve Winwood (guitar, bass, piano, organ, keyboards, vocals) was the eighteen year old prodigy who had fronted the Spencer Davis Group (whose hits included "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man"). Through sessions at The Elbow Room in Birmingham, he jammed with Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, keyboards), and Dave Mason (guitar, sitar, vocals). They decided to form a band, named it Traffic, and were signed by Island Records. Decamping to a Berkshire cottage for several weeks, they wrote the songs that would become their debut singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe." Both were hits in the UK and were a harbinger of things to come in terms of their composition: Winwood and Capaldi (and often, Wood) wrote together and developed the songs in a band setting, while Mason wrote alone and presented finished songs to the others, dictating how he wanted them to play. Additionally, Mason was fond of more traditional British pop song structures, while the other three tended to be more experimental and drew from wider influences. The blend worked musically, although the personality clashes between Mason and the others made things difficult. Their debut album Mr. Fantasy was released in 1967 and included the rock radio staple "Dear Mr. Fantasy" in addition to several other very strong tracks ("Heaven is in Your Mind," "Coloured Rain," "No Face, No Name, No Number"). Even on this first album, one can hear the jarring dichotomy between Mason's songs and those by Winwood/Capaldi/Wood. After the album was released, Mason left the band for a short time before returning to record their second, self-titled album. Released in 1968, Traffic was another strong album that actually featured a fair amount of collaboration between Mason and the others. The biggest song from that record was Mason's "Feelin' Alright," which would go on to be covered by numerous other artists (most notably Joe Cocker). The record had less psychedelia and featured a more stripped-down rock feel as was common in 1968 (see, for instance, the Beatles' 1968 self-titled album as another example). Other standout tracks included "Pearly Queen," "40,000 Headmen," and "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?" At this point, though, the conflicts between Mason and the others came to a head and he left the band for good. Traffic decided to split up shortly thereafter, most notably due to Winwood joining forces with Eric Clapton (of the recently split Cream) to form Blind Faith. A final album, Last Exit, was released in 1969. While it was clearly a record-company cash-in "farewell album," it contained several strong non-album singles and B-sides such as "Medicated Goo," "Withering Tree," and "Shanghai Noodle Factory." It also had two live cuts featuring the three-man Mason-less band that were quite interesting. During the late 1960s, the band members were also in demand to play on sessions with their friends and peers, most notably Jimi Hendrix, whose 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland featured contributions from Winwood, Wood, and Mason. This now brings us to phase two of the Traffic story...



After one hugely successful album and US tour, Blind Faith split in late 1969. Winwood decided to write and record a solo album and asked Capaldi and Wood to contribute. One thing led to another and it instead ended up becoming the next album from a reunited Traffic. John Barleycorn Must Die was released in 1970 and was one of Traffic's biggest and most acclaimed albums, with many people to this day claiming it as their best. The album saw Winwood handling all of the guitars, bass, keyboards, and vocals while Capaldi would drum on a Traffic album for the final time until 1974. The opening salvo of "Glad/Freedom Rider" became a radio mainstay and one of their most well-known songs, and the rest of the album didn't contain any weak tracks. "Empty Pages" and the title track are stunning while the remaining songs are excellent and cover a variety of styles. Shortly after the album's release, Traffic once more expanded to a four-piece configuration by bringing in former Family and Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech. Later on in 1971, the band further expanded by adding drummer Jim Gordon (formerly of Derek and the Dominos), percussionist Rebop, and Dave Mason (for a third and final stint in the band). This line-up played six concerts in the UK which resulted in the live album Welcome to the Canteen. While this album divides many Traffic fans, in my opinion it's a solid and enjoyable document that showcases some of Mason's strongest solo material and Traffic's more extended jamming. However, Winwood made it very clear to Mason that he was only back in the band for these six shows, after which he left; the remaining line-up then went on to record The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Released in late 1971, this album is, depending on who you ask, either Traffic's best or second-best album. The eleven minute title track was (and still is) a regular presence on FM radio, but the tracks bookending the album ("Hidden Treasure," "Many a Mile to Freedom," and "Rainmaker") showcase the best of the band's writing and musical interplay with their perfect blend of guitars, keyboards, and woodwinds. The line-up continued to turn over, however, with Gordon and Grech being dismissed from the band after the tour supporting the album due to their drug habits, while the Muscle Shoals rhythm section of David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums) were brought in to replace them.  This incarnation of the band toured in 1972 and recorded 1973's Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, an album that has always felt like a sequel of sorts to Low Sparks. Much of this is down to the similar album art, as well as the overall feel of the songs. The writing and performances are a bit more understated (apart from the aggressive title track) and overall the album is a bit overlooked, although "Roll Right Stones," "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired," and "Evening Blue" stand alongside anything else they recorded. It was during this period that Steve Winwood was suffering from complications due to peritonitis, while Chris Wood was sinking deeper into alcoholism and drug addiction.  A European tour followed in 1973, for which the band was augmented by Hawkins and Hood's Muscle Shoals bandmate Barry Beckett on keyboards. The resulting document from this tour was the 1973 album On the Road, showcasing material from the previous three studio albums in extended versions.  By the end of the tour, Steve's health was poor and Wood's addictions were becoming a liability, so Winwood dismissed the Muscle Shoals guys and brought Rosko Gee in on bass for the final Traffic line-up. This version of the band recorded 1974's When the Eagle Flies, which would prove to be the last album for the band. The songs were more somber and moody, most notably "Dream Gerrard" and "Graveyard People," while "Walking in the Wind" and the title track sounded more upbeat but had fairly bleak lyrics. In the midst of a UK tour in 1974, the band quietly split up.





After the 1974 split, the four original members of Traffic embarked on solo careers of varying success. Mason had success throughout the 1970s and continues to be in demand as a session player. Winwood started his solo career in the late 1970s and found megastardom in the 1980s and early 1990s with a series of hit singles and albums. Wood recorded solo albums although his addictions continued unabated, tragically leading to his death from pneumonia in 1983. Capaldi released some successful albums and continued his songwriting with and apart from Winwood. The two even recorded a final "Traffic" album, 1994's Far From Home. Capaldi eventually succumbed to stomach cancer and passed away in 2005. Musically, however, their legacy as Traffic remains intact and influential. In Winwood, the band had one of the most talented singers and instrumentalists of his generation. While he is rightfully highly regarded as a singer, piano/keyboard player, and songwriter, his talents on bass, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar are equally exceptional. His writing partner, Capadli, wrote many great lyrics for their songs and while he abandoned drumming from '71-'73, his talents behind the kit were excellent and augmented their songs. Chris Wood may be the most overlooked of the three core members, but his contributions should absolutely be appreciated for what they were. He was a great saxophone and flute player who always played to the song and functioned almost in the same way as a rhythm guitarist, supporting the song and emerging to the spotlight when it was his turn. The various members who drifted in and out of the band over their career (including founding member Mason) all brought something positive to their sound, but the core three of Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood were what gave Traffic its soul.



Getting personal now, Traffic were one of those bands that not too many people I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s knew about, but I sure did. As far back as I can remember, my dad (who had been a Traffic fan since the 1960s) played their records. I grew up hearing songs from Mr. Fantasy, John Barleycorn Must Die, and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys on a regular basis, as well as a lot of the earlier tracks on the compilation LP Heavy Traffic. I also recall being a bit confused/surprised that the Steve Winwood who was all over the radio and MTV with these slick AOR songs in the 80s was the same long-haired "muso" on all of those Traffic records from the 60s and early 70s. What drew me to them, besides Winwood's soulful and powerful vocals, was the instrumentation. I was used to listening to guitar-driven rock music, so to hear a band where the main driving force was piano/keyboard and where even the guitar-based songs weren't as in your face as other bands...this was something quite interesting to me. I was also really intrigued by the prominence of woodwinds as one of the main instruments in the band, and in a different manner than, say, Jethro Tull. Ultimately, what drew me in beyond all of this were the great songs and the juxtaposition of tight instrumental arrangements coupled with loose groovy improvisation (especially on their live stuff). Simply put, Traffic had a wholly unique and identifiable sound that captivated me the way it had captivated my dad and countless others in the 1960s. The fact that their music is still enjoyed and influential is a testament to their impact. If you haven't ever heard their music, I encourage you to check it out...as you can see, I think it's fantastic and I don't think you'll be disappointed. They continue to be one of my favorite bands of all time and I constantly find new things of interest and enjoyment in their songs, which I don't suspect will ever change.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: LENNONOLOGY: Strange Days Indeed (A Scrapbook of Madness)



With all of the words that have been written about the Beatles, both collectively and individually, I usually find myself asking if there's really a need for yet another book about them. While there have been many excellent well researched and well written books on them, those are vastly outnumbered by others that are little more than cash-in hack jobs. However, from the minute I heard about Lennonology several years ago, I knew it would be in the former category. For years, Chip Madinger and Mark Easter's book Eight Arms to Hold You has been an indispensable volume in my Beatles library, so when I heard that Chip was working on a new book, it was at the top of my list for  books worth checking out. As you'll gather from the following review, the book was more than worth the wait.


In a similar vein to excellent books like Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Chronicle (which I will be reviewing at a later date), Doug Hinman's All Day and All of the Night, or Glenn Povey's Echoes, Lennonology is a day-by-day diary. However, for this book the authors have focused on John Lennon's life from the moment he met Yoko Ono in late 1966 until his murder in 1980. With their meticulous research, the authors have detailed just about every day in their lives during this fourteen year period. The entries for each day contain not only the big events that were happening in the lives of John and Yoko, but contemporary press accounts, media appearances, record releases, recording sessions, and even documents (notes, letters, memos, etc.) that they wrote, mailed, and published. There are even entries where the authors have determined the dates that John or Yoko wrote postcards, notes, and other scribbles. Through all of these entries, the evolution of John from latter-day Beatle to wannabe avant garde artist, solo musician, and political activist can be traced in real time as it happened.



This book took me a long to get through for the simple fact that there is so much information contained within that I read it very carefuly, going through it with a fine-toothed comb so as to not miss anything. At more than 500 pages, Lennonology is a staggering work of reference and information on John and Yoko's life and career. Going through the book, what struck me was the difference in contemporary public and media perception of John and Yoko versus how those events have been portrayed since his death.  While the conventional wisdom since 1980 has been that John and Yoko's exploits were hugely influential and covered enthusiastically by a press that waited with bated breath for their every move, the contemporary information presented by the authors shows that after the initial confusion, interest, and ridicule their relationship garnered, by late 1969 most of the press and fans grew weary of their constant need for attention. Furthermore, their somewhat egotistical chronicling of the minutiae of every aspect of their life, whether via record, film, or interview seemed to wear thin fairly quickly. Even John's status as a Beatle couldn't shield him from the press and fellow figures in the music business taking swipes at him (most strikingly DJ John Peel, who rightly sneered at John and Yoko's call for peace and activism while they rode in limos, flew on private jets, and lived in an enormous mansion). Indeed, by the time the Beatles officially split up in 1970, the press (and many fans) were quite tired of John and Yoko's media oversaturation.



Lennonology also gives some fascinating insight and context into the end of the Beatles. While much of the information has been known for a long time, here it's presented in chronological order to the exact day. Furthermore, there are a lot of little nuggets of information that were new to me, most surprising that John and Paul were still working on songs together and bouncing ideas off of each other as late as the spring of 1969. In addition to the Allen Klein problem, it's also shocking just how much the lack of effective communication between the four of them was to blame for the disintegration in relations. Even though John stunned the other three by declaring that he was leaving the band in late 1969, the door didn't seem to be completely closed until Paul issued his statement in April 1970. While it surprised George and Ringo, it infuriated John and ensured that any chance at further band discussions were remote, if not impossible. The naivete and silliness of much of John and Yoko's politics is also on full display through contemporary media coverage, especially in their early-to-mid 1970s period. John was well-known for finding a new craze or idea, jumping wholeheartedly into it with all-consuming enthusiasm, and then quickly losing interest and moving on to the next thing. His activism was no exception and as a reader, I felt embarrassed for him...no doubt he would be as well were he still alive to read Lennonology.  John's immigration battle to remain in the USA and gain permanent resident status was described in fine detail and sets the record straight on a lot of things regarding the motivations, political and otherwise, behind his nearly six year battle through the court system. As the 1970s progressed, it was interesting to track how John's life settled down after he spiralled out of control during his Lost Weekend of 1973-74. Once his son Sean was born in 1975, he took his hiatus from the music business, finally got his Green Card, and embraced getting older and being a father. However, it was also sad to read of the events in 1980, especially with how fulfilled and happy John seemed to be as he approached 40. Since we all know what happened on December 8th of that year, reading the events leading up to that moment have an almost fatalistic sense of doom that makes it very emotional and difficult to get through. The authors do a nice job of sticking to the facts and letting John and Yoko's words tell the story. The chronicle ends right as John steps out of his limo and onto the sidewalk outside the Dakota that evening, which is as tasteful (yet melancholy) a way to end the book as there could be. The final sections of the book consist of several appendices detailing John and Yoko's discographies as well as a plethora of information such as all of their residences, hotels, and the like during their time together. As an added bonus, there are more than 150 pages of electronic indices available at www.lennonology.com for further research and insight.



The long and short of it is that, if you're a serious fan of the Beatles and/or John Lennon, this is an essential and valuable book for studying their life and career together. The attention to detail is exceptional and while it's densely packed with information, it's very readable. In fact, I would recommend a thorough beginning-to-end reading of the book. Even though it can also be used as a reference book for looking up specific events and dates, the telling of their story and career predominantly in their own words is really enjoyable. There are many new tidbits of information throughout the book that, when read in their proper context, help certain events make more sense than they ever have. Simply put, this is an excellent book that no serious Lennon fan should be without. The true challenge is now waiting for volume two to be released in order to see what new information the authors have unearthed. Lennonology is an exceptional work on the life and career of one of music's true geniuses and his equally interesting (and misunderstood) partner.

LENNONOLOGY can be purchased at www.lennonology.com

MY RATING: 10/10