music reviews

the low spark of high-heeled boys

by Peter Grainger


"By the time ”The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” was released just before Christmas 1971, the band had expanded and contracted several times."

"The phrase, “low spark of high-heeled boys”, came courtesy of character actor Michael J. Pollard"

The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys

by Peter Grainger

Traffic was among the first of the British bands in the late 1960s, to “get it together in the country”, retreating to a communal cottage in Berkshire, where they lived and breathed music all hours of the day and night, for months, over a period of years, enlivened by copious quantities of cannabis and LSD and frequent jams with high-flying visitors like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Stephen Stills. By the time ”The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” was released just before Christmas 1971, the band had expanded and contracted several times, putting out four other LPs. There is a melancholic, experimental, dreamy atmosphere to all their records, a wonderfully strange meld of music: Rock, Pop, Folk, Jazz, Soul, Afro-- you name it, they played it. “Low Spark” remains both an artistic and commercial peak, especially in North America; the album arrived just as free-form FM radio was peaking, gaining significant airplay to help the album become Traffic’s biggest seller.

Fresh off the mid-career reboot of the moody, autumnal top ten album "John Barleycorn Must Die" in 1970, lead singer/keyboardist/guitarist Steve Winwood, singing drummer and principal lyricist Jim Capaldi and flautist/saxophonist/bassist Chris Wood decided to expand the line-up. Original lead guitarist and singer Dave Mason was invited back for what would be a brief return; African percussionist Reebok Kwaku Baah had turned up to jam at a concert in Stockholm and stayed on in both Traffic and Ginger Baker’s Airforce, ditto for ex-Family/Blind Faith bassist/violinist Ric Grech, who was retained from the 1970 “John Barleycorn” tour and drummer Jim Gordon at loose ends after Derek And The Dominoes disintegrated, muscled his way in. This was the version of Traffic that did a modest tour of the UK, to record the contractual live album, “Welcome To The Canteen”.

By this point all was not well in the Traffic camp. Capaldi was stricken with depression and suffered a severe loss of confidence after a friend's suicide and the accidental death of his infant son. Capaldi abdicated the drum stool, preferring to sing, tap a tambourine and snap the ‘donkey jaw’ vibra-slap heard to such novel effect at the beginning of the title track. Chris Wood stepped up strongly in the studio, especially with his flute flourishes on LP opener "Hidden Treasure" and closer "Rainmaker", yet his talents were slowly being eroded by alcohol and hard drugs, which soon helped ruin his marriage and shorten his life. The new Traffic rhythm section was in even worse shape; both players were fighting serious drug and alcohol addictions; Grech spiralled down, finally succumbing to liver & kidney failure in 1990; Gordon developed schizophrenia, made worse by heroin and cocaine, who ended up bludgeoning his mother to death in 1983, after which the American was given life in a California prison.

Winwood was plagued with undiagnosed health problems in this period; prolonged fatigue was followed by a burst appendix, resulting in peritonitis, which almost killed him. Still, he triumphed on “Low Spark”, in spite of the setbacks. The 12-minute title track is a spooky, plaintive exploration of the vagaries of the touring rock n’ roller; Capaldi wrote the lyrics with all his bandmates in mind. The phrase, “low spark of high-heeled boys”, came courtesy of character actor Michael J. Pollard, who you might remember as the sidekick of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the doomed bank robbers in the 1967 blockbuster “Bonnie & Clyde”; it is the vibe Pollard felt after meeting Traffic in Morocco in 1970; Capaldi didn’t forget the description. Winwood vamps on stately piano throughout, with an incredible organ solo that dominates the back half of the song. Gordon’s drumming is amazing too; it is chock full of impromptu rim-shots, rolls and cymbal accents, lifting the whole thing higher than it might have been otherwise. Reebop is no slouch either, his congas beautifully augment Gordon’s detailed drumming.

There are plenty of references to the countryside and nature in Capaldi’s lyrics, which is understandable given Traffic’s rural back story. It is said he had Chris Wood in mind when he wrote “Hidden Treasure”; the sax man was known for his bird-watching, landscape sketches, love of maps and guided tours of the ley lines, shrines and stone circles of Ancient Britain:

Take a walk down by, take a walk down by the river
There's a lot that you, there's a lot that you can learn
If you've got a mind that's open, if you've got a heart that yearns
If you listen to, if you listen to the water
You will hear the sound, you will hear the sound of life
There's a million different voices, there is happiness and strife
Message in the deep, from a strange eternal sleep, that is waiting there,
That is waiting there for you, like hidden treasure.

Wood’s melodic flute phrases were rarely bettered than on this song and the lengthier tunes “Many A Mile To Freedom” and folky closer “Rainmaker”. The reed man is a colourist, weaving unique, never-to-be-played-the-same trills into the sonic tapestry that is Traffic. Even Ric Grech is given the opportunity to play a violin solo (his first learned instrument), deepening the mesmerizing mystery of “Rainmaker”.

Capaldi handles lead vocals on two other punchier workouts, “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock & Roll Stew”, both stylistic indicators of the solo career muscles he would soon be flexing in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for his own debut album.

Musically, you can’t pin “Low Spark” down. Is it Rock? Blues? Jazz? It is a unique fusion of so many disparate styles, which is half the joy; the other half is the wonder in how they pull it off so beautifully from start to finish.

The low spark of high-heeled boys

Steve Winwood: Vocals, piano, organ, guitar
Jim Capaldi: Vocals, percussion, lyrics
Reebop Kwaku Baah: Percussion
Ric Grech: Bass, violin
Jim Gordon: Drums

Released By Island Records, July 1970

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