1969 was a tremulous year for Traffic. After a successful tour of the US in support of their self-titled second album, Steve Winwood left the band for the short-lived super group Blind Faith. In the meantime Island Records released the album Last Exit, a mishmash of leftover studio cuts and live performances Traffic recorded in 1968. Blind Faith recorded one excellent album but broke up shortly after, leaving Winwood free to start working on a solo record, suggested by Island’s manager Chris Blackwell with the planned title of Mad Shadows.
The plan was for Winwood to play all the instruments using tape overdubbing techniques in the studio. Winwood is a fine instrumentalist, capable of playing multiple instruments. He could certainly perform such a feat, but he found the process difficult: “I began trying to make music all on my own with tape machines and overdubbing and stuff. It was a very good way of writing, but it was a weird way of making music. The whole thing that makes music special is people. I was getting to the point that I needed the input of other people. It seemed inhuman to make records just by overdubbing.”
Winwood attempted a few cover versions to some of his favorite songs, including Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna, with producer Gus Stevens. They found the results unsatisfactory. Winwood started calling on his friends from Traffic to help him in the studio. First to join was Jim Capaldi. Winwood remembers: “Jim Capaldi had just returned from the States and was just hanging around not doing anything so I asked him to come and play in the studio. There was immediately a nice feeling about the music. Jim is really into writing words and he helped me to finish off the material I’d began on my own.”
The first song recorded for the album was Stranger to Himself, intended for the solo album. Winwood wrote the music and the lyrics and plays all instruments, including piano, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums and percussion. Something in the opening riff and the arrangement of the song reminds me of Midnight Rider by The Allman Brothers Band from their album Idlewild South, released the same year.
One more song completed during the early sessions for the album was Every Mother’s Son, with Capaldi on drums and Winwood on all other instruments.
Things started to pick up when reed man Chris Wood joined the recording sessions. Well versed in multiple musical styles, Wood introduced the band to new music. Winwood recalls: “Chris Wood was very instrumental, because he would bring us music to listen to that we’d never heard before. He used to play us Japanese classical music and incredible jazz stuff.“ But it is was a traditional folk tune that made all the difference and became the song that defined the album to come.
Chris Wood was influenced by the folk revival that swept the British Isles in the late 60s. One song he suggested to the group was John Barleycorn, which he heard on the 1965 Watersons record Frost and Fire. The Watersons’ version, like most of their material from that period, was an unaccompanied vocal group performance.
Winwood applied himself to the song and played a wonderful guitar part on it. Capaldi added tasteful and sparse percussion parts and more importantly a brilliant vocal harmony starting on the fifth verse. Wood’s flute accompaniment is the icing on the cake on this great take on the song, which has been performed by many British folk artists over the years including Martin Carthy and John Renbourn. The Mainly Norfolk site has a good page chronicling many of the song’s covers. It is interesting that amidst the great activity that took place at the time in the British folk rock scene by bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Fotheringay and many others, one of the most memorable songs remains this performance of John Barleycorn by Traffic, not considered a folk rock band.
When you first listen to the song you may think that you landed in the midst of a Middle Ages inquisition session. The lyrics describe all kinds of brutal methods inflicted by three men upon a poor fellow named John Barleycorn. However a closer look reveals that the distressing lyrics are actually a metaphor to the process applied to barley in order to produce beer and whiskey. While it has its roots in old folklore tales about the Corn God and religious symbolism, it is really a satire on legally prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages while still needing the drink to get on with everyday life, as revealed in the last verse:
The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn
In short, John Barleycorn is a drinking song. Maybe the best there ever was.
At the beginning of 1970 recording sessions resumed for the album, resulting in what musically I consider its crown achievement – its two opening tracks. The opener Glad showcases the band in a jazz rock instrumental with a brilliant solo by Chris Wood using a wah wah pedal on his saxophone and wonderful piano lines by Winwood. This track was a vehicle for extended jams in live concerts later on. Winwood commented on the relationship between jams and songwriting within the band: “The contributions of Jim and Chris were massive. Jim and I wrote a lot of the songs. We never sought out to be songwriters; we were musicians. We mostly wanted to jam and play. So the songwriting grew out of a need to actually have material because of our record company commitments and the nature of records, and just so we could play. It was more of a means to an end, for us, rather than what we set out to do. So that’s how Jim and I developed our songwriting relationship.”
It quickly became apparent that
the quality and productive time the trio was spending together in the studio goes
well beyond recording material for a Steve Winwood solo album. Melody Maker
made this official on February 21st when it announced ‘Traffic to
roar again’. The next track to be recorded was Freedom Rider, again a feature
piece for Chris Wood, this time on flute.
Here are the two tracks combined as one long piece of music, together forming one of the best sequences to open an album:
The album was engineered by Andy Johns, younger brother of Glynn Johns. Between them the two brothers recorded classic rock’s royalty. Before working with Traffic, Andy Johns recorded Jethro Tull (Stand Up, Living in the Past), Spooky Tooth and Blind Faith. After Traffic his career soared with Led Zeppelin (II, III, the legendary IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti) and the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street). Quite a resume, and this is just within a span of 4 years.
A key aspect to the high level of artistry on this album is the musicianship of Steve Winwood. Involved in the writing of all the songs spare the traditional title track, he plays multiple instruments including organ, piano, acoustic and electric guitars and bass. And of course that wonderful voice. Andy Johns had a deep respect for Steve Winwood. In an interview he mentioned an experience he had when working on the Blind Faith album: “I came back from a lunch break one day and the soundproof door was cracked a little bit, and I could hear him playing the Hammond. He’s playing both manuals and the bass pedals and he’s singing. I look at him and he’s looking at the ceiling. Not only is he playing the top manual, the lower manual, the bass pedals, and singing, but he’s also thinking about what his old lady’s going to make him for dinner. So he’s doing four or five things at once and the music was just stunning. I hate to use the word genius, because it’s bandied about so much, but that guy, in the end of his little finger, has more than a whole tribe of musicality— he really does. It’s just unfair.”
John Barleycorn Must Die was released on the Island Records label in July 1970. It entered the UK charts a month later, reaching no. 11. In the US it did even better, and was the band’s first Gold album, peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard charts. A look at the top 10 on that chart the week of August 22nd 1970 can only make any music fan drool with envy. What a crop.
The album cover was designed by Mike Sida, who worked on the visuals for previous albums by Traffic including Mr. Fantasy, as well as albums by Free and Spooky Tooth. It is wonderful in its simplicity, a lone hay stalk with the band and album titles at the edges.
The album received positive reviews in the trade magazines, including one by Melody Maker: “As a whole it’s almost impossible to fault an album which is so full of that overlooked word, love. Traffic are back and this time they don’t look like blowing it. No matter how long they last this time, they’ve produced one very solid achievement.” Indeed, this is one of the best albums of its time. No better man is qualified to summarize it than Steve Winwood, who was asked which is his favorite Traffic album: “Most of the Traffic stuff stands the test of time pretty well. All of those albums are like my children, so I really can’t pick a favorite, but in many ways, John Barleycorn is the core of what Traffic is, and it could be the most definitive album we did.”
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this one about another project that Steve Winwood was involved in: