This Month in Music: Traffic take it to the country

This Month in Music: Traffic Take it to the Country
By Lee Zimmerman

Traffic’s debut album was remarkable in any number of ways, a pastiche that’s still evocative and intriguing practically 45 years on. When the band entered the studio on April 27, 1967, it was the result of a concerted effort to “get back to the country,” a fanciful term for their decision to retreat to a rural Berkshire cottage where they would later combine their creative musings and concoct one of the premier albums of the late ‘60s. The recording that resulted set a new standard for both free-wheeling psychedelia and the long-form, more adventurous instrumental excursions that had been shepherded in by Cream, Jim Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and others of that ilk. It was a fanciful collection, one that also melded Eastern elements, hippie sentiment, British folk and the sound of perpetual pop into an ambitious effort that reset the musical bearings of all those concerned.

Traffic soon became a primary vehicle for Steve Winwood, the one-time teenage wunderkind whose soulful singing – emulating his early idol Ray Charles – propelled the Spencer Davis Group to a series of hit singles — chief among them, “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” But early on, the group was intended as a communal effort, and with flute player Chris Wood, drummer Jim Capaldi and guitarist Dave Mason in tow – the result of an impromptu jam session at a club called the Elbow Room in their native Birmingham– Traffic had both the hype and talent to assure their success. The connections had already been established; Capaldi and Mason had previously played together in a band called Deep Feeling, and at one point, Mason had even served as the Spencer Davis Group’s roadie. Consequently, it took little time for the band to gel. Three singles attained chart status in the UK prior to that first album — “Paper Sun,” “Hole in My Shoe” and “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,” one of two songs the band would contribute to the film of the same name.

When it was released on Island Records in the U.K. on December 30, 1967, Mr. Fantasy made a marked impression, a decided turn in terms of arrangements and instrumentation. Producer Jimmy Miller and engineer Eddie Kramer played a key role in the proceedings, which found guitars taking a backseat to keyboards, flute and in some cases, even sitar, while Winwood, Mason and Capaldi shared responsibility for the vocals. The songs themselves were particularly striking – the dreamy “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” a wistful “No Face, No Name, No Number,” the driving “Dealer” and a whimsical “Colored Rain,” chief among them. The standout, of course, remains the title track of sorts, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” a sprawling, psychedelic ode to a mystical muse and a staple of Winwood’s solo sets even today.

Winwood and Capaldi, and Mason on his own, shared the lion’s share of the songwriting, but when Mason unexpectedly left the group prior to the album’s release, United Artists used his departure as an impetus to significantly alter the American version when it was released in the States in January 1968. And in fact, that’s when things started to get complicated, and rather confusing. Traditionally at that time, British record labels considered albums and singles separate entities, meaning that the British Mr. Fantasy didn’t include the group’s aforementioned U.K. hits. The American album differed significantly from its English counterpart; following the American custom of adding the current singles to the set, those three songs, along with the B-side “Smiling Phases,” became part of the package. Mason’s role was undercut considerably; the American album cover pictured only the three remaining principals and two Mason songs, “Hope I Never Find Me There” and “Utterly Simple,” were deleted as well.

There were other differences too. In America, the song order was rearranged and a short snippet of “Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush” became a segue between several of the songs. What’s more, the final track on the U.S. album, “We’re A Fade, You Missed This,” is actually the ending of the full version of “Paper Sun.” Another drastic difference was in the album title. Early versions of the U.S. LP bore the title Heaven Is In Your Mind, although it was quickly restored to Mr. Fantasy after the initial pressings.

Nowadays, there are actually four different versions of the album if one takes into account both the U.K. and U.S. track listings and the different stereo and mono mixes. All are available on CD. The 1999 U.K. reissue features the original British album in stereo and the U.S. release in mono as bonus tracks. In 2000, the U.S. stereo version was reissued on CD with its original title Heaven Is In Your Mind and added stereo bonus tracks. The same year, the original U.K. mono version was also released in the U.S. as Mr. Fantasy, with mono bonus tracks included.

Confused? Who can blame you?

Mr. Fantasy would go on to reach the number 16 position in the U.K. album charts and number 88 in Billboard. Mason would return to the fold for Traffic’s self-titled second album, and come and go intermitently until their initial split, participating a final time for the band’s obligatory live album Welcome to the Canteen before departing forever. Winwood, Capaldi and Wood would soldier on, reconvening as a trio for John Barleycorn Must Die (now reissued in an expanded and exceptional two-disc editionthat includes outtakes and live material) and then adding supplementary members for a series of well-received albums that continued unabated until the mid ‘70s. Wood died from liver failure in 1983, prior to Winwood and Capaldi reconvening in 1994 and putting together the final take on Traffic. Capaldi passed away in 2005, leaving Winwood and Mason to pursue profitable solo careers on their own.
Other late April highlights in music history:
Shania Twain becomes the first woman to be named as songwriter/artist of the year by the Nashville Songwriters Association International. – April 16, 1999

One of Rock’s first superstars, Eddie Cochran, dies of a severe brain injury and rocker Gene Vincent is seriously injured when their car blows a tire and crashes on England’s A4. Eddie
— April 17, 1960

The first great Rock concert film, the “T.A.M.I. (Teen-Age Music International) Show,” opened in London under the title “Teenage Command Performance.” Partly financed by Phil Spector, it featured The Rolling Stones, Supremes, Four Tops, James Brown, The Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson & The Miracle. – April 19, 1965

Brian Johnson, the 32-year old singer with hard rock band Geordie, joined AC/DC, replacing Bon Scott, who died after a drinking binge. – April 19, 1980

A 13 year-old Dolly Parton releases her first single, “Puppy Love.” – April 20, 1959

The charity record “We Are The World” by USA For Africa goes to Number One on the U.K. singles chart. The all-star cast included Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan plus the composer’s writers of the track, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. – April 20, 1985

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones meet for the first time at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, England. The Rolling Stones opened – April 21, 1963

Jesse Winchester performs in the U.S. for the first time in ten years following his move to Canada to avoid the draft. – April 21, 1977

The Who gave their first complete live performance of the rock opera “Tommy” at a show in Dolton, England. – April 22, 1969

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd made their first ever appearance as The Blues Brothers when they appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” – April 22, 1978

The Who’s “Tommy” opened on Broadway at the St James Theatre. – April 22, 1993

Sid Vicious filmed his rendition of Paul Anka’s “My Way” for the Sex Pistols’ film “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle.” – April 23, 1978

Whitney Houston becomes first artist to hit Number One on the Hot 100 with seven consecutive singles when “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” hits the top. Previous record holders (with six each) were the Beatles and the Bee Gees. She becomes only the second artist to release four Number One hits from the same LP. – April 23, 1988

Ricky Nelson’s first record, “Teenager’s Romance,” was released. – April 24, 1957

Bob Dylan makes his recording debut, playing harmonica on the title track of Harry Belafonte’s LP Midnight Special. He’s paid $50. – April 24, 1961

Apple Records rejects a budding David Bowie. – April 24, 1968

In the midst of a wild birthday party Keith Moon drives his Lincoln car into a Holiday Inn swimming pool. – April 24, 1968

Paul and Linda McCartney spend the evening with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Dakota and watch “Saturday Night Live” on the telly. That night, the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, makes an on-air offer to the Beatles to come on the show and play three songs live. Lennon and McCartney toss around the possibility of making a surprise showing, but decide against it. Sadly, it’s the last time Lennon and McCartney spent time together.

The Beatles refuse to perform for the Queen of England at a British Olympic Appeal Fund show because they say, “Our decision would be the same no matter what the cause. We don’t do benefits.” – April 25, 1968

Elvis Presley records three tracks live (subsequently released on the Moody Blue LP) at the Michigan Civic Center, his last recordings. – April 25, 1977

Denny Laine leaves Wings. — April 25, 1981

B.J. Thomas had the longest title of a Number One song to land at the top of the Billboard pop charts. The song was “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” – April 26, 1975

“Studio 54″ at 254 West 54th Street, the dream of Steve Rubell & Ian Schrager, opens for business. The club grossed an estimated $7 million after one year of operation. – April 26, 1977

Who said he was the least talented of the foursome? Ringo Starr stars in his first TV special in America – an updated version of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” – April 26, 1978

“The Simpsons’” season nine episode “Trash of the Titans” was dedicated to memory of Linda McCartney. – April 26, 1998

The Bee Gees debut on the U.K. charts with “New York Mining Disaster”– April 27, 1967

Ringo Starr marries Barbara Bach at Marylebone Registry Office, prompting a reunion of the three surviving Beatles – April 27, 1981

The musical ‘Hair’ opened at the Baltimore Theatre, New York. The first rock musical, it went on to give 1,729 performances on Broadway and was later made into a movie in 1979. – April 28, 1968

Pink Floyd’s album ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ went to No.1 on the US chart, seeing a record breaking 741 weeks, selling over 20 million copies world-wide. – April 28, 1973

A fourteen-hour “Technicolour Dream” event is held in London at Alexandra Palace with Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Pretty Things and Arthur Brown. – April 29, 1967

Bruce Springsteen climbed the wall of Graceland to meet Elvis Presley. Elvis wasn’t home. – April 29, 1976

Bob Dylan opens his first U.K. tour in Sheffield. – April 30, 1965

BBC TV launched “The Cilla Black Show,” making Black the first British female performer to have her own TV show. The theme song, “Step Inside Love,” was written by Paul McCartney. – April 30, 1968

The Rock against Racism Rally held in Victoria Park, featuring the Clash and Tom Robinson. – April 30, 1978

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