|"Traffic Is a Spirit", Mojo, Summer 1994|
"Berkshire Downs? It's an odd landscape, really. In some ways it's a kind of arable desert.
that what you mean? What did it look like? Cereal crops, and flowers. Not like East Anglia
where you have miles and miles of flat, kind of prairie landscape. It was rolling hills and
little meadows and tracks."|
Steve Winwood opens his eyes wide at the memory.
"The track ended at our place," Jim Capaldi adds. "It was a long track off the road, down through agricultural land, and then it turned and at the very end was the cottage, in the middle of nowhere. It has a Very Strong Presence," he says meaningfully. "I went back some years ago and it had a terrifically powerful presence."
"I never saw any ghosts but they were there," says Winwood softly.
"Strange comings and goings," Capaldi nods. "People would come and stay - friends - and you'd hear more and more stories. About the doors banging and weird things going on. And all the footsteps going in one direction."
"In one direction," whispers Winwood. Oxford's beautiful old Randolph Hotel, the location for our interview, has ghosts of its own. Here, in the summer of 1991, a ghastly sequence of deaths was set in motion. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms an elderly American woman, Mrs Laura Poindexter from Philadelphia, interrupted a burglar stealing her jewelry and suffered a fatal heart attack. That same evening, a celebrated Oxford are expert was found dead in the river Cherwell. The following afternoon, the wife of a prominent architectural historian was burtally murdered in a phone box at Paddington Station.
It took Inspector Morse the best part of 2 hours to figure it all out.
Well, you know, these are the kind of things that can engross you when you're in a genteel Oxford setting on a quiet weekday afternnon in 1994 waiting for Traffic to return to the Randolph from their pub lunch. And return they do, slightly tipsy, 20 years after their last album, When the Eagle Flies.
"We never announced we were splitting up," Winwood protests. "We just have long gaps between albums."
Winwood, quizzical and charming in a country-green jacket, needs only a brace of pheasant and a gun-dog to complete the illusion of a friendly squire on a visit to the village. Capaldi is more fearsome, with a deep, booming voice inflected somewhere between Windsor Davies' valleys and Long John Silver's forbidding stretch of coast. They have conspired on one of the 90s more unexpected reunions. An album entitled Far From Home had been made for Virgin, recorded in a farmhouse in Newtownmountkennedy (crazy name, crazy place) in County Wicklow, Ireland. A touring line-up has been put together with Rosko Gee (bass) from the last Traffic studio band. Winwood, in a spirit of exaltation, is even hailing the new album as "pure Traffic".
Hmmmm. It's certainly as good as When the Eagle Flies, which then again wasn't the best Traffic album. There are 3 or 4 songs, especially the long title track and the 2 urgent shots of Memphis ("Some Kinda Woman" and "Every Night, Every Day"), that make it interesting. There's loads of Hammond organ - along with flute and sax, Traffic's signature sound - and, at times, a looseness that is pretty amiable.
What it mostly sounds like is a sharp, back-on-the-ball Steve Winwood album, which, Capaldi's drums and lyrics aside, is exactly what it is. Other than an appearance on Uillean pipes by Davey Spillane, Winwood plays practically everything, right down to the sample-generated Chris Wood-alike flute sound on "Here Comes a Man".
"Traffic always embraced technology," insists Winwood. "I mean, Chris Wood had to have the wah-wah sax. And I was using synths on Eagle Flies."
It was to Capaldi and Chris Wood (sadly deceased), along with Dave Mason (sadly now in Fleetwood Mac), that Winwood turned when, aged 18, he fled his pop star role in the Spencer Davis group in 1967. And it's to Capaldi that he has turned now, uneasy about his solo career and the moneyed glibness that it came to represent. Today he looks the complete rural antithesis of the Miami Vice-age New Form of Banking synth-soul he lapsed into in the mid-80s.
"There's too much corporate involvement in music, I think," he says plaintively. "There has been in my solo projects. I have actually written things on my solo projects that I've almost written to order - Well, we need this kind of song. And I've actually done it. In a group you're cushioned from that. It's not allowed."
"Traffic is total freedom," theorizes Capaldi grandiloquently. "Anything else is a project,, and it has connotations to it. You think about structure, that would be more radio, or something. Traffic is, everything goes out the window. Any preconceived ideas from anybody doesn't even enter into Traffic."
So it's a spirit, it's a state of mind, it's a continuum that even a 20-year hiatus couldn't snag. It's a famously loose, open-ended form of musical contact, and it produces a strange, serene gumbo of a sound.
"Aaah, ragamuffin groove," suggests Winwood, "and, ah, intangible subject matter."
"Traffic isn't writing for anything," Capaldi chips in.
Winwood like this. "It's just writing," he agrees.
His words echo the quote he gave Chris Welch back in April 1967 as Traffic headed down to Aston Tirrold: "We're past the blowing stage," he said then, "and getting into writing."
What was the reaction of people around them in 1967 when they announced they were getting out of London and going to live in a cottage in Berkshire?
"Well, you see there was no corporate involvement in music in those days," Winwood says, back on his theme. "A fraction of the extent it is now. You had Ahmet Ertegun writing songs with Ray Charles. Now, I guess there's be a Monday morning board meeting about what are we going to do about this band Traffic? They've moved down into this cottage. What audience are we going to market them to?"
Capaldi: "Can we get press down there?"
Winwood: "None of that existed then. We moved down there because we wanted somewhere to rehearse any time of the day or night - or play or write - where we didn't get complaints from the neighbours."
"It was all unknown," Capaldi stresses. "For us to do that. The territory's all been mapped out now, but then it was all unknown. Rock 'n' roll was still in its infancy. Rock 'n' roll was creating a way out of a working-class background, so we'd end up in Berkshire, where you should be a gamekeeper on some rich guy's estate, and then getting into strange local customs."
"What we were doing was totally revolutionary for the 60s," Winwood agrees. "You'd never have got a rock 'n' roll band in a gamekeeper's cottage in the 50s."
The cottage was called Sheepcott Farm and they lived there for 3 years. In front of the 2-storey cottage they had a cement platform erected, on which they would play for as long as they likes, at whatever volume they likes. There wasn't another cottage for a quarter of a mile and even that was mostly empty. History has over-romanticized only slightly. "I mean, Jim's drums weren't miked," says Winwood. "It wasn't that loud by today's standards." "But the Hammond sounded amazing," says Capaldi blissfully.
When Rolling Stone writer David Dalton paid them a visit in the spring of 1969 he had to stop off at the pun in Aston Tirrold to ask directions. The landlord phoned up to the cottage to check with the band htat it was all right to send visitors up.
According to Winwood now, they didn't even have a phone for most of their time there. Or a TV, or indeed any electricity. Or girlfriends. They did have a jeep, though. And people would visit, delighted by the tales of music and atmosphere that made it back to London: Stephen Stills, Denny Laine, Pete Townshend, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker. Capaldi can't remember if Hendrix visited or not. (You'd think he would.)
"We'd get up and eat muesli," says Winwood, thinking back. "Albert (Radle) would probably have been up all night ratting with a big stick. We'd probably play for a bit. Write. Go out, maybe drive a bit over the Downs. Go to the pub. Come back, write a bit more. Play a bit more. And then evening time, someone would come or, if not, we'd go out at night across the Downs in the jeep and then go back and play some more."
It sound all right, when you put it like that.
"Life could be worse," he grins.
Their first releases were pop songs. Winwood and Capaldi's "Paper Sun" was, and still is, a terrific summer tune, all piping flutes and twangy Indian sitars and tamburas, and fine psychedelic times were shrewdly foreseen by whoever shouts "that's the one!" at the song's fade. It reached Number 5 in the charts. Back at the cottage, however, more ambitious grooves were being nailed out on the concrete platform, with the boy Winwood raging on organ, Capaldi flailing away on drums, Mason tinkering on anything with strings on it, and the maverick Chris Wood adding ingenious breezes.
"He was probably the greatest influence on Traffic, in that in many ways he had the spirit more than Jim or I," Winwood reflects. "He had a way of identifying certain unnoticed elements and touching on them, both musically and in his other interests. He was interested in, you know, geological make-up, earth's crust, astronomy, he'd learn about different constellations, ornithology, he was a keen bird-watcher. And then at the same time he played sax in a soul band. So he had a mixture of not only musical elements but also a way of life which really profoundly influenced Traffic."
That September they released a groovy Dave Mason number and got to Number 2.
"Well, 'Hole in my Shoe' was a bit of a turning point for Traffic," says Winwood diplomatically.
In hindsight, records rarely come much more unintentionally hilarious than 'Hole in my Shoe', unless they're by the Cure, and Traffic were cajoled by Mason into playing the roles of backing musicians on a sweet little fable about bubblegum trees and giant albatrosses. It looked seriously as though Mason might have misread the brief.
Unfortunately, 'House for Everyone' on their first album, Mr Fantasy, with its Masonic gibberish about his bed being made of candyfloss and his house being made of cheese, was even more embarrassing.
At the Randolph, Winwood and Capaldi burst out laughing and start singing 'House for Everyone' raucously - yaaa-da-da-da-daa-da-da-da. Capaldi makes the noise of a toilet flushing.
"What it is," says Winwood when he's calmed down, "is those songs were written by Dave Mason ..."
"You see, Dave lost his way," Capaldi interrupts. "He thought we ought to jump headlong into the swimming pool of psychedelia."
"... and we didn't want to do that. And after doing those songs he left. He just wasn't representing what we wanted to do."
"Credit to him, though," Capaldi laughs. "He said, Whaddaya want? You want groovy? Came back with 'Feelin' Alright'. Very good!"
Having hit singles was a real drag. Traffic were trying to get into some unexplored areas of folk, blues and jazz down in the cottage, happy in the knowledge that Winwood could sing anything, but all anyone knew of them until the album came along was a couple of psychedelic singles. They were already into stuff like 'Dear Mr Fantasy' - still a stunning song if you ask Capaldi - which was knocked up one day at the cottage by Steve and Chris, and laid down in the studio later that day.
One more hit single, 'Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush', from a ribald little film directed by Clive Donner (Winwood: "Yeah, Judy Geeson, it was on of those social comments on what the yoof of today get up to") and that was their lot. Shot of Mason, they toured America as a trio with Winwood dashing valiantly between organ and guitar, Wood on sax, flute and organ, and Capaldi on drums. Phase two of Traffic had now begun.
"In America, they don't know about 'Hole in my Shoe'," says Winwood. "Traffic's seen from a different angle in America."
Originally the Americans assumed they were a drug band.
"The word traffic being tied up with drugs," Winwood nods, "which I don't think we'd even thought of. We took acid a few times, but it was never a part of our ... It was no more than having a pint. It was just an alternative, perhaps, to having a pint."
Traffic became part of the West Coast / Fillmore / Rolling Stone scene, getting constant airplay on underground radio which, as it happened, hadn't much time for singles either. Meanwhile, getting it together in the country was becoming contagious. The Band had gone back to nature, memorably, for Music From Big Pink, and rock starts were buying island retreats, whether they needed them or not.
"Well, yes," Winwood conceded. "But music should be confined to these urban cities, I don't believe."
In 1969, after the wonderful twilit Last Exit album, they split up and Winwood went off to form Blind Faith. He was gone a year.
"I was kind of searching, I suppose, for something. I'm not quite sure what. I mane, 21 years old, you do when you're that kind of age."
(Winwood leaves the room soon after this, so Capaldi is invited to comment on the Blind Faith album. "I thought it was a little under-produced," he says.)
Their 1970 comeback album, John Barleycorn Must Die, was superb, mixing piano jazz, smoky nightclub organ, mellow grooves and the medieval English folk spooks that had spelled bad news for Reynardine and John Barleycorn centuries before. There were also parallels with Far From Home in that Traffic was essentially at an end - Winwood was planning a solo album, the cottage thing had almost petered out, and he, Capaldi, and Wood had simply got together to jam. John Barleycorn Must Die was thus a sort of accidentally great record.
But when Traffic toured they entered yet another phase, getting in Rick Grech, Jim Gordon and Ghanian maestro Reebop Kwaku Baah. The line-up would remain flexible, with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section joining up in 1973 for Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory and the double live album On the Road.
"Well, the minute Dave left it got pretty flexible," Winwood laughs. "Flexibility set in."
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, in 1971, was full of long, jazzy numbers with a cool air and a calm space to them.
"We were testing the boundaries of musical reality like The Doors were testing the boundaries of reality, period," reckons Capaldi.
"Testing the boundaries of audience acceptance," mutters Winwood.
Capaldi was given the album title by the actor Michael J. Pollard, who had played CW Moss in Bonnie and Clyde.
"So I'm like anybody else with the title. I purely wrote whatever I got out of it. I didn't have any problems with thinking it was like, gay men or anything. I just loved the meter. I just loved the shapes of the words. Funny, those days, weren't they?" he chuckles to Winwood. "I'd write something, then you'd write something for it on a piano and then we'd go and hire a studio."
"I mean, such little preparation before the recording, but capturing such a great spontaneity yet not overly investigating a song to a point where the song ain't fresh any more either. You know what I mean?"
They hooked up with Reebop via the Scandinavian jazz scene where a lot of African jazz musicians tended to gravitate in those days.
"Reebop just came and jammed with us," recalls Capaldi. "This is how free Traffic was. That back-in-the-cottage idea. We were almost not like a rock 'n' roll band. I mean, he couldn't have got onstage with The Who."
Winwood: "He brought an African philosophy to everything he did. That's why he loved Traffic."
Capaldi: "All right, the Rolling Stones had, on occasions, a friend of ours, Rocky Dijon, who played on Sympathy for the Devil. Jimmy Miller took a lot of that percussion from us and did a lot of brilliant stuff with the Stones. That was their second coming, really."
Winwood: "Reebop was the master. A master-player, another concept of music altogether. Philosopher-musician, brought up in the jungle."
"And he would smile a lot onstage and ...."
"Cry. He fitted in perfectly with some of the jazzy things we were doing, things like 'Rainmaker'. But I had to say to him, Look, you've got to finish songs when we finish them. Because we'd walk offstage at the end, and he'd still be playing. He would go on all night. So anyway, he didn't do what I told him. And I said, Well, Reebop, I'm sorry but I've got to fire you. So the next gig we did - I think it was Sheffield - he was setting up when we got there. I said, What are you doing here? Reebop, you can't play with us any more. He said, Oh, you don't have to pay me."
For their final album, 1974' Whenthe Eagle Flies, Winwood co-wrote a very long, completely foggy poem-thing called 'Dream Gerrard' with Viv Stanshall, who was also recording at The Manor at the time. Yet again, Traffic had met an unlikely kindred spirit. This one played the ukulele and the euphonium.
"You fastened your straitjacket on," Capaldi laughs.
Winwood: "I always wanted to know if he slept with his beard inside the bed or outside."
"He was still pretty lucid then, Viv. He was entertaining."
"Remember the leg?" Winwood giggles. "You know when you're in department stores, the legs they display in the windows? He made an instrument out of one of them. You blew in the toe, I think."
"The leg horn."
"The leg horn!" Winwood explodes. "It didn't lay eggs, but it was a leg horn!" He collapses on the settee.
Capaldi shakes his head, grinning.
"Good days, they were."
Page created February 11, 1998.
Last updated February 11, 1998.
© 1998 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.