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Home News Off the Beaten Tracks: Traffic Report, Part 2

Off the Beaten Tracks: Traffic Report, Part 2

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LAST week we left Traffic in a jam after Steve Winwood decided to break up the band in 1969. He joined forces with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker from Cream, who had also disbanded recently, and Family bassist Ric Grech to form the supergroup Blind Faith.

On June 7, 1969, they played a free concert in Hyde Park. Although the audience of 100,000 was appreciative, Clapton was unimpressed by the band’s performance and stayed at the back  of the stage in the shadow of his amps. The setlist comprised the six tracks from their forthcoming album along with cover versions including Traffic’s Means To An End and the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb.

The eponymous LP provoked controversy with its cover picture of a naked 11-year-old girl holding a silver space ship, which many took to be phallic. If the intention was to attract publicity it did the trick, with the record topping the charts. It was banned, however, in the US, where a substitute sleeve had to be used. ‘At the time I didn’t think anything of it at all,’ says Winwood. ‘But now I can see how controversial it is, because I have children of my own.’ The girl, Mariora Goschen, posed with her parents’ permission. For a fee, she demanded a horse but settled for forty quid.

The band was jointly run by Winwood’s manager Chris Blackwell and Robert Stigwood, who managed Clapton and Baker. Stigwood demanded instant results and quick money, putting him at odds with the musicians, who wanted time to write songs and develop as a unit. Blind Faith was recorded in a hurry, and it shows. Although there were two hit songs in Clapton’s Presence of the Lord and Winwood’s Can’t Find My Way Home, the overall feel reflects the band’s disjointedness.

After a few appearances in Scandinavia, they embarked on a lengthy US tour supported by Free, Taste and Delaney & Bonnie. It soon became apparent that Clapton preferred the company of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and he sat in on several of their opening sets. He was also going through an anti-stardom phase and ruled out lengthy solos, meaning that Blind Faith struggled to fill an hour-long set with their limited repertoire and had to resort to Cream and Traffic songs to make up the numbers. Slowhand’s dissatisfaction with his colleagues was increased when he said he wanted to play at Woodstock, which came in the middle of the tour, but was outvoted by the other three.

Following a final gig in Hawaii, Clapton and Winwood told Grech that they had decided to end the project. Baker, who had left for a short holiday in Jamaica, was devastated when he arrived back in England for Winwood to tell him Blind Faith was brown bread. He immediately formed his own band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and recruited both Grech and Winwood but after a few shows the latter left to record what was intended to be his first solo album, Mad Shadows.

Back in the studio in 1970, Winwood realised he needed the comfort blanket of his old friends Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, and together they recorded what would become Traffic’s fourth and best album, John Barleycorn Must Die (Mad Shadows was appropriated by Island teammates Mott The Hoople as the title of their second LP).

Opening with the jazzy instrumental GladJohn Barleycorn continues with Freedom Rider and the excellent Empty Pages,  which could almost pass for a single by the great Small Faces

The title track is a folky nod to the likes of Pentangle and Fairport while the closing song, Every Mother’s Son, is a belter.

In late 1970 Ric Grech joined the band and soon afterwards American drummer Jim Gordon and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah came aboard. Dave Mason returned for his third stint with Traffic and in July 1971 they recorded a live album at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. This was released in September as Welcome to the Canteen, notable for extended versions of Dear Mr Fantasy and Gimme Some Lovin’

Before the year was out came a studio album, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, prior to which Mason had beetled off for a final time.

Standout clip is the 11-minute title track  although Many a Mile to Freedom is also well worth a listen. The LP eventually went platinum in the US but flopped in Britain.

Squabbling among band members remained a problem and in December Grech and Gordon handed in their notice, to be replaced by Roger Hawkins and David Hood from the house band at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama.

Released in 1973, Traffic’s sixth studio album was Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, which again did well in America and nothing in the UK. The title of the final track, Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired,  prompted some obvious barbs from the critics.

Traffic On The Road, a live double LP recorded during a world tour, came out that same year and although the new musicians earned praise, there was disappointment that few tracks improved on the studio originals. There is enjoyment to be had, however, from extended versions of Glad/Freedom Rider and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

At the end of the tour there was, surprise surprise, another upheaval when Hawkins, Hood and Reebop made their exeunt. Capaldi, who had been concentrating on vocals and percussion, returned to the drums and Rosko Gee became the new bassist.

That lineup recorded the 1974 album When The Eagle Flies, which went gold in America but featured in the British charts for one week only. Graveyard People and Walking in the Wind were seen as the highlights.

Wearied by a recurring bout of peritonitis plus the pressure of constant touring, Winwood decided he’d had enough at the age of 26 and walked off stage half way through a concert in Chicago. The following day he flew home but neglected to inform his bandmates, who turned up for that night’s performance and waited in vain for him to appear. Without him, they decided the band could not continue.

Winwood concentrated for the next few years on session work and reinventing himself as a blue-eyed soul singer. In 1977 he released his debut solo album Steve Winwood, which contrary to Traffic experience did far better at home than in the US although its two singles, Hold On and Time is Running Out both failed to chart.

All the instruments on Arc of a Diver, which came out in 1980, were played beautifully by Winwood at his home studio in Gloucestershire. This proved to be his breakthrough as a solo artist, reaching No 3 in the US LP charts and No 13 in the UK. A single from it, While You See a Chance, reached No 7 in America and the title track also charted. The album went platinum.

The 1982 release Talking Back to the Night, again home-recorded and played entirely by Winwood, consolidated his position as a major pop star. At about this point he went off my radar – so little time, so much to listen to – and I hope readers will say if I missed anything amazing.

Summing up, I think the best word to describe Traffic’s oeuvre is ‘patchy’. A couple of albums which smacked of contractual obligations, a lot of ordinary tracks but at their best they were brilliant.

Few have had such an influence on British rock music as Winwood, and at 71 he fully deserves his honorary degree from Aston University, doctorate from Berklee College of Music and a comfortable lifestyle divided between Nashville, Tennessee, and a 300-year-old manor house in the Cotswolds. Not a bad outcome for the boy of eight who had to play with his back to the audience.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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