15.6.14

TRAFFIC, A Vietnam Vet & How I Riled Chris Blackwell

The first working trip abroad that I ever went on after joining Melody Maker, in September 1970, was to Holland with Traffic, Free and the Jess Roden Band, all groups signed to Island Records, who were touring together. For some reason or other the manager of another Island band, Quintessance, joined us on the trip, just for the ride I think. His name was Stan Barr, an American rumoured to be a Vietnam War veteran, but he didn't get to sit with the rest of the party on the plane, and when we were airborne he came lurching down the central aisle to talk with us. He stayed there for some time, looking as if he intended to remain standing for the entire flight. Soon he was approached by a stewardess.
“Would you mind going back to your seat sir," she asked politely. "It's dangerous to stand in the aisle."
"Dangerous lady?" scoffed the American. "When you've flown over Vietnam in a plane with no seats that wasn't safe enough to take off in the first place, with a pilot who's drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, when there's napalm going off all around you, when there's a hole in the side of the plane where the door should be and there’s bullets flying in all directions, when the tops of the trees are brushing up against the bottom of the plane and the din's so loud you can't talk to anyone or hear anyone... that's dangerous lady. That's dangerous. This is a piece of cake."
"That's all very well sir, but you must sit down."

I liked Traffic, Steve Winwood’s post Spencer Davis group, and Free a lot and I saw them do three shows together on this trip, in The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and in one of those cities can dimly recall getting up on stage in a hotel bar, alongside various members of Traffic and Free, and playing someone’s Telecaster on a 12-bar blues workout. Paul Rodgers was on vocals. Rodgers could be a bit of a handful but his band had a lovely springy feel, all tension and elasticity, and I'll do a post on them in due course. 
In those days Traffic was a trio with Winwood doing almost all the work, lead vocals, organ and guitar, and I loved their song ‘No Face No Name No Number’ which became a sort of soundtrack to a short-lived romance of mine with a girl called Janet who went off to become an au pair in the South of France.
Then Traffic increased the size of the band with some crack US session guys, but I felt its character had been diluted. In the end they deteriorated alarmingly and I was unfortunate enough to watch them at their lowest, at the Palladium in New York, during 1975. By this time they were playing as a quartet, with Winwood on keyboards and guitar, Jim Capaldi on drums, Rebop on assorted additional percussion and Chris Wood on flute. Wood, evidently not in the best of health, spoilt the show, ambling on unexpectedly and seemingly incapable of figuring out how to operate the electronic pad stuck to his belt which controlled the amplification of his instrument. After a few blasts of piercing feedback which he was unable to control, he was led off by a roadie. The show itself was short, less than an hour and seemed to comprise an endless jam. The audience barely applauded and some walked out before the end.
The next day I felt compelled to take Traffic to task. ‘Pack up now,’ I wrote, or something to that effect. It wasn’t fair on the audience to charge money if the group was incapable of performing a professional show. Traffic had been wonderful in their time but this time had clearly passed. The review was printed in MM and I thought no more about it.
A week or two later I was having lunch with Pete Rudge in the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street when Chris Blackwell, boss of Traffic’s label Island, passed by our table. He’d long been associated with Steve Winwood, managing him as well and running his label and publishing, but I’d never met him.
Blackwell stopped to talk to Rudge and Peter introduced me. It was a bad mistake. Blackwell, who’d evidently read my recent review of Traffic in MM, fumed and raged. ‘What right did I have criticising a musician of Winwood’s calibre,’ he ranted.
My response was to ask him whether he’d been present at the concert I reviewed. He had not. I told him the concert had been lousy and since he wasn’t there, how could he say otherwise?
We argued long and hard, and in the end Blackwell stormed off, threatening to pull Island’s advertising from Melody Maker until I apologised.

I never did apologise, Island never pulled their advertising and I never saw or spoke to Chris Blackwell again.

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