HIS chic and utterly unique brand of blue-eyed soul may have made him one of the biggest stars of the Eighties, but Steve Winwood originally found his musical feet fronting what is now widely considered to be the ultimate hippie rock band, Traffic.
Formed in 1967 after Winwood – who had had huge hits including Keep On Running and Gimme Some Lovin’ as the teenage frontman of R&B outfit, the Spencer Davis Group – decided he wanted to make more sophisticated album-orientated music, Traffic famously moved into a remote cottage in the Gloucestershire countryside.
“You would probably think that rock music is an urban phenomena, but the main reason for doing it in ’68 was so that we could play music very loud any time of the day or night without getting complaints from the neighbours,” recalls Winwood, laughing at the memory.
“People were complaining constantly when we were living in a flat in West London, so we moved out to this place which had no electricity and where we got water out of the well. I suppose the first Traffic album was what came out of living and working together at the cottage.
“We worked very hard, and all we wanted to do was make music, but we had a great time doing it. A lot of musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton used to come down there all the time just to hang out. Although drugs were freely available, it wasn’t our mission to bring drugs to the world; we were there to bring music to the world.”
The story of the Sixties is often re-written in an absurdly over romantic light, but the harsh reality is that many of the decade’s most talented and iconic stars didn’t get to live beyond their late 20s, something that Winwood is all too aware of, looking back with the benefit of hindsight.
“Here we were supposedly changing the world for the better in the Sixties, but as we get 40 years further down the line, we realise that some of those changes such as the drugs probably weren’t all that great or sensible,” he says, shaking his head.
“It was all about social experiments. I was very lucky that I didn’t end up going down the same dangerous road as some people I knew, because many of them ended up dying as a result of their over-indulgence.”
One of the highest profile casualties of that hedonistic counter-culture was Jimi Hendrix, who unlike Winwood, didn’t come out on the other side. In between his duties with Traffic, in 1968, Winwood found time to appear on Hendrix’s classic song, Voodoo Chile.
“I was in New York at the time, and Jimi asked me to come down and play on this song. We talked it through and played it three times, and that was it. I was only in the studio for a couple of hours. It was a great buzz, but you don’t always think ‘wow’ at the time you’re actually doing these things. Make no mistake, Jimi was an amazing musician, but I wasn’t sitting there thinking – Oh gosh... we’re all going to be millionaires or this is gonna be remembered in 50 years time.”
Having released three albums, Traffic disbanded in 1969, leaving Winwood time to form the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith with Clapton. Winwood immediately began work on what was originally intended to be his first solo album, although somewhere along the way, it turned into Traffic’s comeback, 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die, now widely considered to be their definitive album.
“Most of the Traffic stuff stands the test of time pretty well. All of those albums are like my children, so I really can’t pick a favourite, but in many ways, John Barleycorn is the core of what Traffic is, and it could be the most definitive album we did.”
After a handful more albums, Traffic called it a day, leaving Winwood to finally embark on a solo career in 1977, just as punk was taking hold. “Well, punk was really a reaction against people like me, wasn’t it?” he chuckles. “Punk was more based on social change than on music, so it didn’t bother me too much. It wasn’t really a musical threat.”
He proceeded to release records every couple of years from that point, and although he enjoyed continued commercial and critical success in equal measures, nobody could have predicted what happened by the time it came to 1986’s globetrotting Back In The High Life album.
“Funnily enough, I had actually been thinking of giving up music altogether and doing something else around that time in the Eighties. I was 38 or something, I’d been doing music all my life and I’d had a lot of success, so I think I really just fancied a change. I suppose it’s like – does a footballer quit when he’s ahead in the game, or does he start to play down the lower leagues?”
Needless to say, Winwood didn’t retire, and Back In The High Life’s perfectly formed fusion of blue-eyed soul and polished pop went on to become by far the biggest album of his career: “Although I think there was a perceived change in direction, in fact, I was still doing what I’d always done – trying to incorporate elements of jazz, rock, folk and ethnic stuff into the music. Back In The High Life did sell millions and my record sales are definitely down since then, but it’s not just me... everyone’s record sales are down.
“Obviously, the Sixties was a time when everyone wanted to experiment, and then everything became very formulated and corporate, so artists tended to get pushed into a kind of pattern. Now, I think that has continued with the emergence of televised talent shows like X Factor. They certainly help sell millions of records, and it’s very easy for the TV stations and the record companies because they’re getting free coverage, but I think they’re doing themselves a disservice because they’re actually destroying the quality of the music they’re promoting.”
The record industry may have changed beyond all recognition since Winwood first burst onto the airwaves in 1965, but after a couple of hours in his company, you are left in absolutely no doubt that he is still fizzing with the same enthusiasm that he started out with over 40 years ago.
“I wouldn’t say I’m so enthusiastic about the music business itself, but I am still incredibly excited by music,” Steve Winwood beams as we say our goodbyes. “I’m still learning, and it never really ceases, and I think that’s why I still have such an interest in it even though I’m now in my 60s. I still haven’t cracked it, and there is no such thing as perfection, and that’s what keeps me going. Music is my life... it’s running through my blood.”
The Deluxe Edition of Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die is released through UMC/Island Records on February 28 in the UK and March 8th in the USA.
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