In 1967 four musicians left the city in order to hole up in an English country cottage, where they immersed themselves in music. Far from the madding crowd, the artists created a fresh new sound that reflected a communal spirit and a penchant for blending genres. The songs they wrote resulted in some early singles that enjoyed chart success in the UK and a first album that was popular on both sides of the pond. The group went on to sell millions of records, and collaborations between different band members with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and others affirm the band’s status during that period. I suspect, however, that some rock fans have no idea how popular Traffic was in the late 60s and early 70s or what a substantial body of work they created. So I was happy to read that Traffic’s first-ever vinyl box set, a six-LP compilation entitled The Studio Albums 1967–1974, was in the works.
And happier yet after opening the box. Some US and UK Traffic albums differ significantly, including song selections, titles, and covers, and UMe/Island wisely chose the UK versions, which more closely mirrored the band’s intentions. Adding reproduced promotional posters for all six LPs helps evoke that remarkably fertile period of rock music, and releasing the LPs in stereo shows them to best advantage. Traffic’s first album, 1967’s Mr. Fantasy, has a thickly-layered sound with enough overdubs and studio effects to rival Sergeant Pepper, which came out earlier in the year. Mr. Fantasy is a well-recorded album, however, and on this pressing the music really comes to life. On later albums, studio tweaking sometimes gives way to a more in-the-moment feel, and The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys and Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory especially impressed me with their clean, open sound.
As you might expect from the 1967 release date and album title, Traffic’s debut LP, Mr. Fantasy, wears its psychedelia on its paisley sleeve. Yet the songcraft is often first-rate, with classics like “Heaven Is in Your Mind,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and “Dealer” demonstrating that the songwriting team of Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi (sometimes in tandem with Chris Wood) was already a force to be reckoned with. Featuring a powerful vocal performance by Winwood, “No Face, No Name, No Number” will always rank as one of the high points of psychedelic folk.
Lyrically and musically, Dave Mason wrote the most psychedelic tracks on Mr. Fantasy, and numerous embellishments (including sitar, tamboura, harpsichord, cross-panning, and heavy reverb) made his songs sound that much trippier. Mason quickly developed a habit of drifting in and out of Traffic, and his decision to return for the eponymous second album, a 1968 release, came at the last minute—and apparently his time off was spent shedding most (but not all) of his psychedelic skin. The opening track of Traffic, Mason’s “You Can All Join In,” is a charming, folksy mood setter so casual and inviting you can picture the foursome performing it while busking on a street corner. Though darker in tone, “Vagabond Virgin” has a similar down-home feel. On “Feelin’ Alright,” every detail of the performance is memorable, including Masons’ acoustic guitar and languid lead vocals and Winwood’s piano, bass, and background vocals. As songwriters, Winwood and Capaldi were also in fine form on Traffic, with highlights including “Pearly Queen” and “Forty Thousand Headmen.”
Mason wandered off again—and so did Winwood, for the short-lived Blind Faith, but when that band folded Traffic regrouped, only this time sans Mason (he resurfaced shortly thereafter, for a live set entitled Welcome to the Canteen). The loss of a principal songwriter and a break in continuity can take something out of a group, but 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die saw a major band in top form, and it became Traffic’s highest charting album in America. Winwood’s arrangement of a traditional folk song, “John Barleycorn” featured one of his finest vocal performances, and “Empty Pages” was a good pop song. Sharing the same nightmare vision as “Forty Thousand Headmen” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Freedom Rider” and “Stranger to Himself” continued Traffic’s journey into the dark corners of the psyche.
No overview of Traffic would be complete without recognizing the contributions of two charter members who, like Steve Winwood, remained with the band during the six albums in this anthology. Sharing songwriting credits with Winwood, Jim Capaldi also sang the occasional lead vocal. To highlight just one aspect of Capaldi’s playing: His drumming on “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” and “Empty Pages” is funky and infectious in a casual and laid-back manner. No wonder Eric Clapton loved Traffic—that mellow groove was also a key component on some of his early solo albums, including what may be his best solo record, 461 Ocean Boulevard. Chris Wood also played an important role in Traffic. On the folk-influenced material, his flute sometimes set the mood, and his saxophone was an essential part of the more jazz-oriented songs. The noirish atmosphere that kept resurfacing in Traffic’s music owes a lot to his embellishments.
On the three albums that followed—1971’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, 1973’s Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, and 1974’s When the Eagle Flies—other musicians wandered in and out of the group, with the rhythm section fluctuating the most. Percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah added a spark to both studio and live albums, bassist Ric Grech and drummer Jim Gordon jelled on Low Spark, and Rosco Gee did some nice bass work on When the Eagle Flies. Traffic remained a strong concert draw throughout this period, and it says something that the last four albums in this compilation cracked the top ten in America. Critics increasingly bristled at the band’s free-spirited ways, and Traffic’s refusal to follow the rules is one of the things that endears fans to the group. The group remained uncompromising to the end—and, with a rich blend of folk, jazz, rock, pop, soul, funk, and psychedelia, made some amazing music along the way.
The Studio Albums 1967–1974 contains a big chunk of Traffic’s overall output, and each of these studio albums belong in the group’s canon. The only other full-length studio LP, Far from Home, appeared so much later (1994) that it would have seemed out of place in this compilation. Half-studio and half-live, the humorously mistitled Last Exit (although it may have seemed so at the time, the 1969 release definitely was not the band’s final curtain call) bundled together a random assortment of songs, but it does contain two of the catchiest pop tunes ever composed, “Medicated Goo” and “Shanghai Noodle Factory,” which were originally the opposite sides of a single. Other singles—including “Paper Sun,” “Hole in my Shoe,” “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” and “Smiling Phases,” all of which preceded Mr. Fantasy and did not appear on the UK version of the LP—are classic Traffic. Welcome to the Canteen (1971) and On the Road (1973), both featuring Rebop, are live recordings; I’m particularly fond of Canteen, where the two songs Dave Mason contributes from his debut solo LP, 1970’s Alone Together, reaffirm his mastery as a songwriter. You can find the odds and ends discussed here on the “Traffic Further Listening” playlist I assembled for Qobuz in order to round out the quintessential Traffic music found on The Studio Albums 1967–1974.