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Music Review: Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die

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Welcome to a new series entitled "Sounds from the Attic" in which I will attempt to conjure up the spirits of albums of the bygone past. These are albums that while, in some sense are classic, don't always get the recognition they deserve. They generally don't make most peoples top 100 list and quite often unknown by the younger music crowd, but should be.

My basic criteria is that the album is at least 20 years old; although I reserve judgment to highlight something a little newer, if it is more obscure. There should be some compelling reason to conjure up the spirit, if merely for my whim!

In this issue, I am pulling from the attic and dusting off John Barleycorn Must Die , the fourth effort from Traffic. This is an interesting album as, through an interesting twist of fate, it resurrected Traffic from insignificance and set them down the road to becoming future members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2004).

Traffic was formed in 1967 by former member of Spencer Davis Group Steve Winwood, Hellions members, Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason, and Chris Wood. The later three were also reported to have done session work with the Spencer Davis Group. Influenced by the early work of The Band, they retreated to a country house in Berkshire England to write and develop new material prior to making their debut.

They had some minor hits in the U.K. during 1967, but none in the U.S. Tension was already surfacing between Winwood and Mason; the two primary songwriters at the time. Mason did not want to collaborate with Winwood and eventually and this lead to his leaving the band before the release of their first album Mr. Fantasy in 1967.

Mason rejoined Traffic in 1968 for the recording of their second album Traffic. From there, they toured and in 1969 their album Last Exit was released. It was during the tour that Mason was fired and Winwood declared the he was breaking up the band.

After spending less than a year with Blind Faith, what might be considered the first super-group with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Rick Gretch, Winwood found him self in a contractual obligation to do a solo album. This is where John Barleycorn Must Die comes in.

At age 22, Winwood's original concept for this album was to be a solo album in which he plays all instruments and vocals. The record got as far as one backing track for "Stranger to Himself", before he broke down and called on the services of Jim Capaldi. After the two completed a second track, "Every Mother's Son", they brought in Chris Wood and Island Records chief Chris Blackwell to help with the production. Thus, Traffic was reborn.

John Barleycorn Must Die is a mix of genres including folk, jazz, and rock mixed in with psychedelic influences. It starts with the instrumental, "Glad". It has an up-tempo funky feel. You can feel the jazz and folk influences as it makes its way along. "Freedom Rider", is a ballad that showcases Chris Wood's talents on sax and flute. It is lively and upbeat and wonderfully hypnotic. "Empty Pages", showcases Capaldi's drumming skills in a funky, intense sound which is enhanced by Winwood's jazzy keyboard work.

This is one thing that I don't get, when the record companies re-master many of these albums, they feel the need to add "bonus" songs to add value. That is sometimes good, but many times it is bad. This CD has two, previously un-released cuts. There is probably a good reason that they were previously un-released. They weren’t that good. "I Just Want to Know" is one of these. It is a little over a minute in length and basically chants the title over and over. I wish that if they add this kind of drivel, put it at the end, so I don't have hear it when I am trying to listen to the original album.

Then comes "Stranger to Himself", this is the song that Winwood plays all of the instruments. Capaldi helps with some background vocals. It is a folk-funk song that gets you in the mood for the really laid-back folk classic title track "John Barleycorn Must Die". The flute work in this is suburb as the song builds with the acoustic guitar. You can almost imagine a couple of medieval troubadours playing in front of a campfire.

From there we get "Every Mothers Son", this is the track in which Winwood plays all of the instruments with the exception of Capaldi on Drums. It has a bluesy feel with some grinding organ from Winwood. The CD is finished off with the other bonus track, "Sittin' Here Thinkin' of My Love". This song is better than the first bonus, but I would have been just fine without it.

Ok, what makes this album worth pulling out of the attic? Well first, it is a wonderful album that stands on its own in the history of rock. John Barleycorn Must Die transposed Traffic from being just one of those bands who never quite lived up to their potential into a future hall of fame inductee. It became their first gold record (#5 in the US), it set them on their course to three more top 10 U.S. albums (Low Spark of High Heeled Boys at # 7, Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory at # 6, and When the Eagle Flies at #9).

It also changed the music industry in the sense that all of the original songs were in excess of four minutes. In the day, to get radio time, the general thought was that your singles had to be less than four minutes, really around three. It was from bands like Traffic that the new "Album Oriented" stations came about in the late 60s to early 70s and would eventually lead to the acceptance of songs like Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Skynard's "Freebird" to reach the airwaves.

As an added note, Chris Wood died in 1983 of Pneumonia; some say it was related to his drinking. He was 43. Jim Capaldi died in 2005 of stomach cancer at age 60. Dave Mason went on to a terrific solo career as well as joining Fleetwood Mac on one album (Time) and currently performs with The Dave Mason Band. Steve Winwood continues to work on new material; About Time was released in 2003 as well as a possible album this year He has also been working on session sets with the likes of Sam Moore and Christina Aguilera.

If you are in the mood for some freeform fun and to get a better feel for what made music Winwood and company so great, pick up a copy of John Barleycorn Must Die. You'll be glad you did.

John Barleycorn Must Die song listing
Glad (Winwood) 6:59
Freedom Rider (Winwood/Capaldi) 5:35
Empty Pages (Winwood/Capaldi) 4:47
I Just Want To Know (Winwood/Capaldi) 1:32 – Previously Unreleased
Stranger To Himself (Winwood/Capaldi) 4:02
John Barleycorn (traditional-arr. Winwood) 6:20
Every Mother's Son (Winwood/Capaldi) 7:05
Sittin' Here Thinkin' of My Love (Winwood/Capaldi) 3:24 – Previously Unreleased

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.
  • ohiojerry

    Traffic was one of the greatest ’60s bands – check out Blind Faith as well if you love Traffic … I NEVER get tired of this band’s music, so much better than what Winwood has done in recent years.

    So I guess Blind Faith is going to reform for one concert in Chicago this summer at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads guitar fest – sold out, of course.

  • While I liked the conventional music of the time, I found that I was constantly drawn to the more musically innovative music that was going on. The stuff not generally found on the radio.

    Growing up just outside of Chicago, I listened to WXRT which at the time was listed as a “Progressive Rock Experiment” and only came on at night. It was great as we would tune in and they would play all of these groups that never made it on the regular radio.

    So it was here that I would get exposed to Traffic, King Crimson, Eno, Gentle Giant etc. First thing I would do on Friday is run off to Hegewisch Records; a discount record store in a Chicago suburb, to get these albums. All records were $3.25. It was great!


  • d alper

    Traffic was a big influence on my musical tastes growing up. They were important,at least to these ears, in that they brought rock into a more multi dimensional mode at the time of such British peers like Led Zep and the Who. Shootout at the Fantasy Factory was inspiring for its legendary studio jams with instruments like the congas and alto sax. Wow, rock never sounded so good without someone needing to belt out a primal scream!

  • JC Mosquito

    Actually, I found at the public library one of those “Essential….” 2 CD sets of Traffic – pretty good overview of the band.

    Yeah, influences……… fun to track down, but not always possible.

  • Thanks for the comments JC.

    While every group wants people to like the music that they create, there are some groups that would rather make music in their own way and if it clicks fine, if doesn’t they will either go on doing or do something else.

    Neil Young is a perfect example. He has had some hits, but when you compare to the number of albums he has put out, the hit ratio is minuscule.

    I guess my point of the review is that from a musicians stand point, Traffic was a group that should be examined for the change in style that they created at the time and the influence the made in the industry. From a music historians perspective, they were one of the groups that lead the way for groups like Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush, Kansas and Emerson, Lake and Palmer and if you want to follow a style, you have to examine the direction it came from.


  • JC Mosquito

    Traffic was a pretty good group but never seemed to make it off the B list to the A list. Maybe their music was too subtle to sell to an audience that wanted everything simple & loud? I dunno – as a kid, I had one album of theirs I bought in a cutout bin – I enjoyed it, but never bought another.