Traffic – Classic Music Review – John Barleycorn Must Die

The best thing Traffic ever did was to take a break from being Traffic.

The collaboration with Dave Mason was starting to look like the rock equivalent of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor romance, though Liz and Dick’s first marriage lasted a lot longer than any of Mason’s stints with Traffic. Mason couldn’t even wait long enough to stay for the release of Mr. Fantasy, leaving his mates short of a full lineup when they hit the road in support of the album. Incredibly, Winwood and Capaldi brought him back because they needed material to fill out the second Traffic album, the not-very-cleverly-titled Traffic. Once again, Mason split the scene, and after the patched-together Last Exit, it looked like Traffic was history.

The problem with Dave Mason in the context of Traffic was that he had zero upside potential. He wrote pleasant and catchy little songs in the 60’s and would continue to do so throughout his recording career. Steve Winwood, on the other hand, had plenty of upside potential but needed to mature so he could rid himself of the expectations heaped on a teenage wonder and figure out how he wanted to apply his ample talent. Spending time with Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force was just the thing Winwood needed—especially the time spent with the disciplined Mr. Clapton. Once those experiences had run their course, Winwood began working on a solo effort with Guy Stevens handling the production, but soon realized his work on Traffic was unfinished, and brought Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood back for a reunion.

The first thing you notice about John Barleycorn Must Die is how little “sync noise” you hear. By “sync noise,” I mean the uncomfortable sound of musicians who aren’t in sync with each other. The Dave Mason version of Traffic never felt entirely in sync, and if you really want an obvious example of sync noise, listen to the live version of “Gimme Some Lovin'” on Welcome to the Canteen. Some have argued that the interplay between Mason’s guitar and Winwood’s organ is the problem on that track, but it sounds to me like everyone in the band was out to lunch, on acid or too busy checking out the tits in the audience to bother. On the four full-band songs that appear on Barleycorn, Winwood, Capaldi and Wood sound relaxed and responsive to each other’s cues, and there’s not a moment on the record when I feel they’re getting sloppy.

The second thing you notice is that except for the title song, the album is comparatively sparse on the lyrical side. I figured out you can fit all the lyrics to the five non-instrumental songs on two regular-sized MS Word pages using a Calibri 10-point font. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Traffic—Capaldi and Winwood were generally better at creating moods than stories or epic poetry, and as much as I love hearing his voice, Stevie Winwood (at this stage in his career) was still one of the most unintelligible singers ever. Even if he’d spent his time away from Traffic at Sinatra’s side and learned how to enunciate perfectly without losing the feel of a song, it wouldn’t have mattered all that much—the lyrics on Barleycorn (largely Capaldi efforts) aren’t much to write home about. Some of the lyrical songs contain one brilliant, unforgettable line before devolving into mush.

But the most important change to emerge from Barleycorn is the vast improvement in compositional skills. The songs on Traffic are largely a mess, lacking coherent themes and wandering aimlessly into musical cul-de-sacs with extremely poor resolution. “Don’t Be Sad” is the worst offender, but really, the most stable compositions are the two Mason songs, “You Can All Join In” and “Feelin’ Alright.” Both are rather boring and predictable, but at least they have a recognizable structure and competent resolution. “40,000 Headmen” is decent in this regard, and if you add the tracks from the expanded release, “Medicated Goo” is pretty coherent. Unfortunately, those are the exceptions—on both Traffic and Mr. Fantasy, the Winwood-Capaldi team produced too many experiments that should have remained in the lab.

They weren’t alone in this regard; the psychedelic era opened the door to experimentation with song structures, but few had the talent, musical training or instincts to design compositions that successfully blended disparate themes into a satisfying whole. One of the most daring and successful attacks on standard structure was Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” where the “mother superior” segment seems to be an out-of-the-blue insertion until the shift to the chorus in the final passage makes you realize that it was a stroke of genius designed to build tension leading to a dramatic and satisfying resolution. Lennon had no musical training or the desire to learn, but had instinctively integrated an essential truth in his work: tension must lead to resolution. The early Traffic songs are often oblivious to theme, tension and resolution, full of awkward changes and pointless jams. Whether it was the time with Clapton and Baker or just the logical outcome of growing up, Winwood’s compositions on Barleycorn all possess strong themes, solid balance and sturdy structures that allow for plenty of variation within the theme.

The improvement in compositional skills is obvious from the get-go in the instrumental “Glad,” which opens the album. “Glad” is structured into three sections, with the first establishing the exceptionally strong central theme. The Am-C-D pattern allows Winwood to warm up the fingers with some superbly fluid runs around an embedded melody; meanwhile, he comps himself on the opposite channel with a space-filling organ. The inspired moment in this first passage comes from the change to Bbm, dramatically accentuated by Chris Wood’s entrance on the sax. Wood plays off a Bbm-D7 combo, leading to the daring shift to the fifth for the resolution. The total pattern is repeated three times, each repetition adding a bit more variation; it’s followed by a truncated verse where Capaldi shifts to double time and Wood takes center stage for a long sax solo with some fascinating tonal enhancements courtesy of an electric sax. A shift back to the Bbm signals a return to the main theme for one go-round before the third, slower passage where Capaldi smoothly backs off the double time beat and the band eases into a pattern of Dm7/Dm and E7, providing the foundation for a long and lovely piano passage. Winwood approaches this section modally, integrating a flurry of notes outside the standard scale. Capaldi’s cymbal work here is superb, his shimmery tones complementing the beautiful sounds coming from the piano. After a dynamic peak where we notice Winwood reducing the frequency of the notes, the rhythm slows to a crawl while the organ emerges from deep background and ends the piece on an extended E major chord—leading to the sudden and unexpected turn to Gm that marks the opening blow of “Freedom Rider.”

The impact of that turn is tremendous, because a Gm chord doesn’t belong anywhere near an E major—but Winwood makes it work by providing an equally compelling theme that manages to jolt the strong theme of “Glad” out of center position in your perceptual field. “Freedom Rider” is what George Martin referred to as a “piano song,” meaning songs that are relatively easy to compose on a piano but unlikely to come from a guitar unless you have the fingers of a professional contortionist. When a guitarist confronts the chords of a piano song like “Freedom Rider” (or The Zombies’ Rod Argent composition “I Want Her She Wants Me”), the initial response is “What the fuck?” A pianist will look at the same songs and say, “Easy as slipping into a wet pussy” (well, at least this constantly sex-starved pianist would say that). The difference is that diminished, augmented and certain flatted/sharped minor chords are much more accessible on the piano than on guitar.

Adding to the challenges facing the short-fingered guitarist, the main riff is in a different key (Gm) than the verses (Am). “Shit, man, I got all these weird chords to deal with and now you throw me a key change?” Unfortunately for the blossoming guitar hero, that key change is absolutely crucial to the song’s success. Having already integrated E major into the composition with the seamless transition from “Glad,” Winwood would have been a fool not to reconnect with the E major, and the only way he could pull that off was by shifting to Am on the verses and ending those verses with the compatible fifth chord. Ending the verses on the E major also forces a repeat of the seemingly awkward shift to Gm, and the repetition reinforces the credibility of that curious juxtaposition. When we hear it the first time, it’s a bit unnerving; when we hear it repeated, it delivers a satisfaction akin to an “aha moment.”

And damn, I just love that opening sax riff, a very clever musical figure indeed! It communicates a sense of mystery that I find endlessly enticing, and would rank it as one of my top ten favorite riffs of all time if I kept such silly lists. Better still, Chris Wood’s flute fills and extended solo add up to one of his most vibrant performances, and from a compositional standpoint, the contrast between the joyful flights of the flute and the ominous notes of the saxophone form an intense interplay between moods, adding to the overall interest. As for the lyrics . . . the opening couplet is the flash of brilliance (“Like a hurricane around your heart/When earth and sky are torn apart”); the rest is . . . well, I guess Stevie had to sing something. Here, mood matters far more than lyrics, and “Freedom Rider” is a fantastic mood piece.

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The most noticeable difference in “Empty Pages” is the appearance of a booming bass guitar, handled competently by Mr. Winwood. The opening flourish features the structure that will be used in the chorus, another solid compositional decision. Though the meandering lyrics add little to the piece, the extended instrumental passage is an absolute delight, featuring some strong riffing from Winwood on electric piano, solid organ support from Chris Wood and a deft, diverse performance by Capaldi on the kit.

We flip over to Side Two for one of the two remnants from the planned Winwood solo effort, the Guy Stevens-produced “Stranger to Himself.” The panning certainly has a professional gloss about it, with clean separations between the various locations in the sound field. Winwood handless the lead vocal and all the instruments; the only other contribution comes from Capaldi, who adds vocal harmony on the exceptionally strong chorus. The one-man show aspect of the recording is really obvious, rather like the material on McCartney’s first album, and while Winwood is generally on his game (except for a pretty weak electric guitar solo), Traffic would have been better off re-recording it as a threesome.

The title track is a traditional English folk song, one I covered in my review of Steeleye Span’s Below the Salt:

For those of you who have only heard Traffic’s version, “John Barleycorn Must Die” will seem quite disorienting. Steve Winwood’s version seems a dark and mysterious tale of three murderous, sadistic creeps torturing an innocent man. By contrast, Steeleye Span’s rendition is a joyous celebration of the barley plant that gives us home-brewed ale.

I will say that Traffic’s version seems a more appropriate introduction to the 1970’s, where fear of murderous, sadistic creeps ran wild through the paranoid populace.

The lyrics in the two versions are different, but not as much as you would think given the 180-degree contrast in mood. The tone of Winwood’s voice, the eerie sound of Wood’s flute and the spare production guided by acoustic guitar make these lines in particular seem stunningly cruel:

They’ve hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the way, serving him most barbarously
They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he’s bound him to the cart

Oh, no! My mind is calling up pictures of the cornfield scene in Scorsese’s Casino! I had no idea there was a Kentish Mafia wandering around the barley fields! Poor John Barleycorn! Poor Joe Pesci! Generally, I prefer the jollier version, but in the context of this album, the acoustic darkness provides a welcome contrast that works like a charm.

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Barleycorn closes with the second fragment from the Winwood solo sessions, “Every Mother’s Son,” with its appropriately reflective album-ending mood. This is definitely the superior of the two remnants, with a tighter feel and stronger performances on all the disparate parts (particularly on the delivery of the lead guitar riff). I think it’s also Winwood’s best vocal on the album, capped off by a belt-it-out performance on the final chorus. The lyrics are above par, and Winwood’s heartfelt delivery indicates the song had significant personal meaning for him:

Once again I’m northward bound,
On the edge of sea and sky
Tomorrow is my friend,
My one and only friend
We travel on together searching for the end
I’m a traveling soul
And every mother’s son
Although I’m getting tired
I’ve got to travel on
Can you please help, my god? (3)
I think it’s only fair

Perhaps the northward turn describes a return to his Birmingham roots; perhaps it’s in anticipation of a long over-the-pole flight to the USA to launch another tour. I find the lines “Tomorrow is my friend/My one and only friend” a fascinating admission that our traveler knows that “searching for the end” is a hopeless quest but feels compelled to maintain pursuit. That is sohuman: we search for the grail to the point of exhaustion, know in our hearts that we’ll never find it, but continue the journey all the same.

It also seems an appropriate ending for an album that triumphantly announced Traffic’s return to the journey. John Barleycorn Must Die is the first Traffic album where they put it all together, fulfilling the promise hinted at in the best tunes of their early days. Instead of scraps of this or that, Traffic gave us a series of well-thought-out compositions that formed a satisfying whole, making Barleycorn one of those wonderful albums best listened to in a single sitting.

Sometimes taking a break can make all the difference in the world.

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • Wow – great review! That’s easily the most descriptive and best-informed music review I’ve ever read. It probably helps that I love the subject material (Traffic and John Barleycorn). It probably also helps that I’m a musician, so I truly appreciate things like the analysis of the transition from Glad to Freedom Rider. Really excellent. Make me want to read more of your work.

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