Saturday, 16 August 2008

‘DEAR MISTER FANTASY, PLAY US A TUNE…’

Album Overview of:-
‘MR FANTASY’ by TRAFFIC
(Island IMCD264 546 496-2)

The close of 1967. ‘The Skyline Ballroom’ perched atop the main Co-op supermarket in Hull city centre. And Traffic are on stage. Pale frail Stevie Winwood stooped protectively behind the keyboards. Chris Wood off to the right blowing flute, the hulking form of Jim Capaldi behind a barrage of drums… which restricts Dave Mason to centre-stage. He’s singing “Hole In My Shoe”, and when he gets to the mid-point little-girl poem about riding on the back of a giant albatross through a crack in the clouds, he hopefully extends the microphone down into the audience so that someone can grab the opportunity-of-a-lifetime to recite it live – but there’s no takers. Eventually he retrieves the microphone and does it himself, hesitatingly, as though a little self-conscious. When the vinyl gatefold ‘Mr Fantasy’ album was originally issued in December 1967 its ten tracks did not include the time-related singles. Now, with the expanded CD version drawing in the altered track-listing of the US revision, the singles are there, making this the perfect package telling the full tale of that first Traffic phase, while constituting one of the most evocative albums of that strange adventurous era. Flip open Chris Wood’s soft-red lens-filter artwork of the band sitting in the bohemian sparsity of their rehearsal retreat in Sheepcott Farm, Aston Tirrold on the Berkshire Downs, roaring log-fire in the grate, candles, and the pierrot figure intended to represent the title character. And the stylus hits the side-one groove with honking sax buffeting into “Heaven Is In Your Mind” through stereo pulsations rippling from speaker to speaker. The lyric advocates the cod-philosophy of the George Harrison “Inner Light” school, a god of simple things, ‘water the flowers that grow at your heel… an apple is simple and real’, truth is found in these anti-materialist things, ‘capturing moments of life in a jar’ and ‘playing with children’. “Berkshire Poppies” extends the mood, set to a faltering beat, interrupted by the ignition-flare of someone lighting up – presumably a joint, and eloquent burps. A day in the city, ‘oh what a pity’, it’s a phoney over-crowded place where ‘murderers crawl after girls in the dark’. A sing-along paean to the simple-life, its drifts of random half-audible conversation suggest that other elements are also at play. Isn’t there a connection between ‘Poppies’ and narcotics, or is that to take it one step too far? “House For Everyone”, the first of three Dave Mason songs, is followed by Winwood’s stark acoustic “No Face, No Name, No Number” about his yearning to find a lover who will answer his deep spiritual needs, limned by Chris Wood’s sympathetic flute. The side closes with the 5.42-minute title track, again utilising Stevie at his most vocally pleading across an improvisationally stoned pastoral vibe. Whether the ‘Mr Fantasy’ figure is an escapist high, a heightened level of consciousness, or just dream-escape from reality, it’s free-flowing and powerfully inventive. Jim Capaldi’s “Dealer” opens side two with nimble-fingered Spanish guitar and flute, de-romanticising – but by doing so, romanticising ‘the man who feels nothing deep inside’ just as certainly as every other druggie anthem of the period by Lou Reed, Arthur Lee, or Steppenwolf. Then Dave Mason’s “Utterly Simple” recapitulates the album’s arcadian rural theme that truth is found in fairy-tales, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and the back-to-nature hermit sitting in his cave, but despite the repeated assertions of simplicity there’s cluttering sitar and portentous telephone voice-over effects. “Coloured Rain” is the perfect jazz-literate antidote, an intuitively tight musical organism built around strong soulful Blues lines. After Dave Mason’s third dose of whimsy with “Hope I Never Find Me There” the album closes with a stoned jive-talk jazzy instrumental “Giving To You” with passages of wide-ranging effortlessly-fluid telepathic extemporisation periodically reined back to Chris Wood’s signature flute-phrase (‘a bouncy rhythm’ comments ‘NME’ ‘with modern-jazz overtones’). This is probably where Winwood feels most at ease. In total, ‘Mr Fantasy’ is wistfully psychedelic in that very specific English sense of the term. If it’s indefinably flawed, that’s part of it too. An aspect of its time. They were charting unpaced sound. Making up the genre as they were evolving it. Traffic’s was an accidental art. They would survive through a number of future incarnations, but they would never sound quite like this again. Produced by Jimmy Miller (who would go on to work on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggars Banquet’), on its first release for the pale-pink Island label the album reached no.8, the highest album chart placing Traffic would ever achieve. The expanded CD-version valuably draws in the singles and omitted ‘B’-sides too. Collecting the quintessential “Paper Sun” which clocks in at 4:10-minutes. ‘New Musical Express’, struggling to come to terms with the new music, and still a decade away from its ‘Bible of Hip’ mantle, called it a ‘humdinger’ with ‘a steady mid-tempo beat, and a tune with a strangely haunting quality’, as though it was the latest by Herman’s Hermits. It broached the chart 8th June 1967 – the week “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” made no.1. Propelled by heavy-rotation pirate radio-play it peaked at no.5 three weeks later. “Hole In My Shoe” followed into the chart 13th September, and it went higher, all the way to no.2 within a month. Its ‘B’-side, “Smiling Phases” is a close fit and powerful link to “Coloured Rain”. A third single (not included on the CD) – the title song of the likeable teen-movie ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ made it to no.8 the second week of December, with the Beatles “Hello Goodbye” at no.1. It had actually been one of the first pieces the group worked on together, its release delayed to coincide with the movie premiere. A celluloid girl-chasing romp based on a story by Beatles-biographer Hunter Davies’, cinema-goers could watch Barry Evans and Judy Geeson, and hear music by both the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic, who also contribute Dave Mason’s “Utterly Simple” to the soundtrack. Finally, the haunting “No Face, No Name, No Number” was belatedly spun off as a single, to climb no higher than no.40, making it Traffic’s last hit. They performed it with spine-tingling intensity on Alan Freeman’s short-lived all-action TV show, wearing headphones. Dave Mason hung out around the ‘Skyline’ bar, wearing soft suede boots and an embroidered Cossack jacket, talking to fans. By the time the album emerged, and just seventeen days after this gig, he’d quit the group, although he’d periodically return. The Winwood-Capaldi-Wood triumvirate were embarrassed by the whimsical “Hole In My Shoe”, buoyed up by six-year-old Francine Heimann reciting the poem (she was the stepdaughter of Island Record’s boss Chris Blackwell). Of course, the lyric was a distant relation of ‘semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower’ or ‘skipping the light fandango, turning cartwheels ‘cross the floor’, but tipped over into lysergic-cartoon nursery rhyme buffoonery which doesn’t require much of a nudge for it be redone by ‘Young Ones’ Neil as a comedy send-up. Although the album contains other tracks almost as floridly skewed. “House For Everyone” opens with a neat clockwork wind-up device, with Winwood singing Mason’s lyric about a ‘pop-up book village with treacle roads’. The song goes on to relate a fairy-tale journey from his ‘bed made of candyfloss’ in a ‘house made of cheese’ to finally confront a choice between two doors, plain ‘truth’ or florid ‘lies’. Well, it was the close of 1967. Stevie’s first visibility had come with the Spencer Davis Group, a band that – as writer Brian Hogg points out in the insert, ‘bore his character, but not his name’. The day after he appeared on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in a check lumberjack shirt, I recall every Mod in the Hull ‘Gondola’ club wore a check lumberjack shirt. And it’s indicative that he achieved such status under the auspices of another’s name. An immensely talented musician, one of the most exceptional in an exceptional period of time, he would never feel easy with frontman status, preferring to work within a band structure. Traffic was, in theory at least, an egalitarian collective. Even later, following a highly successful arc of solo albums, in 1994 he re-teamed with Jim Capaldi to tour and record under the ‘Traffic’ brand (Chris Wood had died 12th July 1983). As a footnote, Stevie Winwood’s single “Valerie”, became a 1982 American Top Ten hit, but failed to chart in the UK until DJ Eric Prydz took a vocal sample from it, ditching the rest of the song, looped the single phrase over a dance-track, and it became no.1 for five solid weeks in 2004. The first and only time Stevie would top the charts, since his Spencer Davis Group beginnings. So much for musicianship! Back on 6th December 1967, ‘The Skyline Ballroom’ date - promoted by the College of Technology, was part of Traffic’s first national tour. Their set also included “Coloured Rain” with Chris Wood switching flute to sax, a song I wrote down as “New Day, New Dawn, New Life” which I can’t subsequently place, and a standout “Mr Fantasy”. Support was by the Victor Brox Blues Train. My ticket number was 276. Traffic would survive through a number of future incarnations, but they will never again sound quite like they do this night.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON

MR FANTASY’: THE RECORDING HISTORY
‘in memory of Len Tibbits / brother of Harry Tibbits / he died shuvling(?) gravel…’ (on-sleeve graffiti)
‘Paper Sun’ c/w ‘Giving To You’ (Island WIP 6002)
‘Hole In My Shoe’ c/w ‘Smiling Phases’ (Island WIP 6017)
‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ c/w ‘Coloured Rain’ (Island WIP 6025)
‘No Face, No Name, No Number’ c/w ‘(Roamin’ Thru the Gloamin’ With) 40,000 Headmen’ (Island WIP)
Original LP ‘Mr Fantasy’ (Island Mono ILP961)
Expanded CD ‘Mr Fantasy’ (IslandLC00407)

6 comments:

David Caddy said...

Great review, Andy. I saw Traffic a few times and also
when several members played with John Martyn in 1978. I remember that gig more than the Traffic ones!

Lookafar said...

Thank you so much, Andrew, for a poignant and empassioned review of all things Traffic. How extraordinarily fortunate you are to have been there, and to have remembered it all so well, and to still be here now to share it with us.
I was not even fifteen on the date of that concert, and in far off Dunedin (New Zealand) where all of the glorious music of the 60's came out of the radio with no cover notes. I loved it all without discrimination or analysis. It will forever resonate in my soul.
What brough me here is my sudden obsession with finding the enigmatic Francine Heimann. I'm insanely curious to know who she is now, and where she is. Where did her life take her after that tiny brush with rock-and-roll fame?
Anyway, thanks to you for you wonderful review. People DO read it!
I shall now continue my quest.

nsalisbury said...

Andrew/Eeveryone else who I'm sure's interested --

( It's a ) "New Dawn,New Day, New Life " --- is THE line from the song 'Feelin' good' which you can find on Traffics' 'Last Exit' album.
A jazz classic, also notably performed by Nina Simone.

Anonymous said...

Great review of a fantastic album and a fantastic band. Just one correction, it's actually Dave Mason singing on "House For Everyone", not Steve Winwood.

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