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Traffic were formed in 1967 by Steve Winwood, a successful multi-instrumentalist and solo artist over the last three decades or so, but at that time known as the former vocalist with the chart-topping Spencer Davis Group, guitarist Dave Mason, drummer and vocalist Jim Capaldi, and sax/flute player Chris Wood. Over a seven-year career and several line-up changes they went from psychedelic progressive pop to a hybrid of blues, folk and jazz, completely turning their backs on chart-oriented music.
This compilation takes material from their first five albums, recorded between 1967 and 1970. The 17 tracks are in totally random order, so to try and maintain some kind of logical thread I'll look at the singles first.
The first two are by far their best known, and still regularly crop up as oldies on the radio. 'Paper Sun' (highest position No 5), their debut, followed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in its use of sitar as a lead instrument, and the combination of this and Winwood's soulful voice made for one of the summer of 1967's most recognisable hits.
Its success was eclipsed by 'Hole In My Shoe' (No 2), written and sung by Mason. Sent up mercilessly by Neil (Nigel Planer in 'The Young Ones') in 1984, it always was something of a hippie joke. I mean, can anybody take someone seriously who sings of dreaming about an elephant looking at him from a bubblegum tree while his feet are getting wet as he has put the wrong pair of shoes on, and this little girl suddenly interrupts about climbing on the back of a giant albatross? Far out, man, and pass the joss sticks. But for all that I rather enjoy its period charm. The other members of the band never liked it as they felt it was unrepresentative of their usual style, but they doubtless welcomed the royalties.
One more hit single followed at Christmas 1967, the theme song to the movie 'Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush' (No 8). This was even more odd. It had a singalong chorus tacked on to an ethereal verse or two, with one verse sounding like the volume has been turned down by accident, interspersed by some Beach Boys-like organ, followed by a largely single note coda that, as with that weird ending to the Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields Forever', seems to have nothing to do with the song. All of this happens within only three minutes or so.
That was their hit parade career over, unless you count an album track which was extracted as a single and made No 40 a few months later. The gentle 'No Face, No Name, No Number' doesn't really have 'hit single' stamped on it, though it made a good album track. A subsequent flop single on here, the funky 'Medicated Goo', has some OK staccato piano chords and guitar on the intro, but the song is rather dull.
That leaves an additional eight tracks from the early 1967-68 period, after which they temporarily disbanded when Winwood formed the shortlived Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. When Blind Faith fell apart Winwood began what was intended to be a first solo album, but it turned into a set from what gradually became a reformed Traffic. That therefore leaves us four numbers from the less interesting 1970-71 era.
From those early days, probably the best-known is 'Dear Mr Fantasy'. Almost six minutes long, it's a slow, anguished, almost bluesy number with vivid organ, strong drums and wailing harmonica, culminating in a rich guitar solo. For all that, I think the version which Winwood played in his recent concerts with Clapton (immortalised on a 'Live at Madison Square Gardens' CD and DVD, and shown on TV) is stronger and more spirited than this.
'(Roamin' Through The Gloamin' With) 40,000 Headmen' is pleasant in a dreamy way, with nice touches of flute. 'Coloured Rain' and 'Pearly Queen' both sound a little like Cream, as if Winwood had a presentiment that he was shortly to find himself working with two of their members. Less inspired are 'Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring' and 'Am I What I Was Or Am I What I Am' rather lack interest - well-played and pleasantly funky, but with not much else to draw attention to them. The cheery 'You Can All Join In' is cute and almost childlike - their version of 'Yellow Submarine', perhaps?
Finally, there's the quite out of character 'Berkshire Poppies'. A cheesily semi-drunken singalong around the pub piano is the best way of describing this, as if the Small Faces had joined Chas and Dave. I read somewhere that an uncredited Steve Marriott of the Small Faces can be heard bawling along on this - if so, it wouldn't surprise me.
Of the four late-period Traffic songs, they have their good and not-so-good moments. 'The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys' opens promisingly with some jazzy sax and organ, with a fairly catchy hook on the chorus before drifting off pleasantly into a soft jazz piano section until the chorus comes in again. But at over ten mintes long, it would have been improved by gentle editing.
The traditional 'John Barleycorn Must Die' is closer to Fairport Convention than Traffic, with its flute, acoustic guitar and folksy vocal harmonies. 'Freedom Rider' is driven nicely by piano, sax and flute, though the song is nothing special. Finally there's 'Rock And Roll Stew', written by bassist Ric Grech and drummer Jim Gordon, who as a member of Derek and the Dominos had previously been responsible for co-writing the classic 'Layla'. There are no Winwood vocals to be heard here, and the result sounds rather like a third-rate Slade track. It's not Noddy Holder singing, although it sounds not unlike him.
Traffic had their good moments, but they were few and far between. This was the age when bands were breaking down the barriers of the four-minute single and doing their own thing, the results of which were often rather undisciplined, not to say almost boring for the listener. I've loved a good deal of Winwood's solo work - from the mid-1970s he certainly discovered his songwriting muse, albeit often with collaborators - but on the whole Traffic were better musicians than songwriters, and they would have benefited from a strong producer to keep the more indulgent tendencies in check. Improvised open-ended psychedelia seemed right at the time, but hasn't always aged that well. If you can pick this one up cheaply as I did - it is a budget price compilation, around £4-£5 new - it's OK, but some tracks you might not play that often.
A two-page foldout with one small rather fuzzy picture of the band on the front, and a concise comprehensive biographical note inside next to the track listing. Amazon and dooyoo seem to have inadvertently used the picture from their second album for the image above - my copy, and I think it only has been issued with one design, shows a different group picture with white lettering against a light green background superimposed over part of the photo.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys - Chris Blackwell, Steve Winwood, Traffic
2 Hole In My Shoe - Jimmy Miller, Traffic, Dave Mason, Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood
3 Dear Mr. Fantasy - Chris Wood, Dave Mason, Jim Capa