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Traffic: The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys - Album Of The Week Club review

Traffic’s most restless record, with shades and styles jumbled up in the same pot, shaken into new shapes, then broken down and started up again

Traffic: The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys
(Image: © Island Records)
Traffic: The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

Traffic: The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

(Image credit: Island Records)

Hidden Treasure
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Rock 'N' Roll Stew
Many a Mile to Freedom
Light Up or Leave Me Alone
Rainmaker

If there’s one song that best illustrates the talent and imagination of Steve Winwood, it’s the 11-minute title track of Traffic’s fifth album, a hypnotic jazz-rock masterpiece and a searing indictment of the music industry. 

The song rose up from a lyric Jim Capaldi roused himself to write about the withering effects of the music business on the artist. To this Winwood introduced a musical backdrop that moved like shifting sand: neither solely rock, blues or jazz, but each and more besides, changing almost from one bar to the next. 

Altogether, and elsewhere on this, Traffic’s most restless record, shades and styles got jumbled up in the same pot, shaken into new shapes, then broken down and started up again. “It kind of sums up Traffic in a way,” Capaldi said at the time. “The eclectic-ness – you can’t put your finger on it at all, yet you know it’s familiar.”

"Stevie Winwood and I both grew up in the midlands," Glenn Hughes told us, choosing Low Spark... as one of the records that changed his life. "I was mad about his earlier band the Spencer Davis Group, but Traffic really hooked me in. I adored his Hammond organ playing and the subtlety and drama of his voice. Not many people would know that Stevie was a huge influence upon me whilst I was in my mid-teens, and he continued to be so all though my twenties and early thirties."

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Other albums released in November 1971

  • Hooteroll? - Howard Wales and Jerry Garcia
  • Barclay James Harvest and Other Short Stories - Barclay James Harvest
  • Madman Across the Water - Elton John
  • Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin
  • Nursery Cryme - Genesis
  • Farther Along - The Byrds
  • Gonna Take a Miracle - Laura Nyro
  • A Nod Is As Good As a Wink... to a Blind Horse - Faces
  • There's a Riot Goin' On - Sly & the Family Stone
  • Muswell Hillbillies - The Kinks
  • Fragile - Yes
  • Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be - Sweet
  • Killer - Alice Cooper
  • Deuce - Rory Gallagher
  • Anticipation - Carly Simon
  • "Babbacombe" Lee - Fairport Convention
  • Bless the Weather - John Martyn
  • Bonnie Raitt - Bonnie Raitt
  • Brain Capers - Mott the Hoople
  • Choice Quality Stuff/Anytime - It's a Beautiful Day
  • Do You Like It Here Now, Are You Settling In? - Man
  • Dog Of Two Head - Status Quo
  • E Pluribus Funk - Grand Funk Railroad
  • Flowers of Evil - Mountain
  • For Ladies Only - Steppenwolf
  • Good and Dusty - The Youngbloods
  • Lost in the Ozone - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
  • Nazareth - Nazareth
  • Nilsson Schmilsson - Harry Nilsson
  • Performance Rockin' the Fillmore - Humble Pie
  • Pictures at an Exhibition - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  • Quicksilver - Quicksilver Messenger Service
  • Sanctuary - Dion
  • Sunfighter - Paul Kantner and Grace Slick
  • There's Gotta Be a Change - Albert Collins
  • Whatevershebringswesing - Kevin Ayers
  • Year of Sunday - Seals and Crofts

What they said...

"Almost at their zenith in terms of creative output, The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys is a stunning piece of music which arguably is one of Traffic's finest moments. Everything including the tempo on Low Sparks gels together perfectly from the opening Hidden Treasure and the epic twelve minute title track onwards." (Prog Archive)

"Where their previous album had grown out of sessions for a Steve Winwood solo album and retained that focus, Low Spark pointedly contained changes of pace from his usual contributions of midtempo, introspective jam tunes. Rock 'N' Roll Stew was an uptempo treatise on life on the road, while Jim Capaldi's Light Up or Leave Me Alone was another more aggressive number with an unusually emphatic Capaldi vocal that perked things up on side two." (AllMusic)

"One small, mostly unnoticeable problem I had with Low Spark was the seemingly indecisive way Traffic chose the structure of the tracks. With every song there is a different listen, aside from a small similarity between the title track's climax and the straight up rocker of Rock & Roll Stew, but even then the latter being much more aggressive takes away any prior similarities that you'd hear while scrolling through the tracks. In my opinion, a variegated line up of tracks qualifies as an album that never gives you a dull moment." (Jazz Music Archives)

What you said...

Alex Hayes: The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, the fifth album from Traffic, was released in November 1971. The band were roughly four and a half years old by that stage, but had already been through a lot, including a break-up and reunion. Low Spark... was the second album recorded by the second incarnation of the band, whose career had already become pretty well storied by then.

I've always loved Traffic's earliest output. Between them, the two hit singles, Paper Sun and Hole In My Shoe, and the group's first album, Mr. Fantasy, rank as some of my favourite music from 1967. Traffic's early psychedelic pop/rock is very evocative of its time, and slides in seamlessly alongside the two 'Big P's' from the Summer Of Love (Pepper and Piper). To be honest, this is my favourite period of the band, and I consider that first line-up, Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, to be definitive.

If that initial line-up had a problem, it's that there was just too much talent and ambition in there for one group to contain for very long. Traffic were a collection of musical multi-taskers. Winwood, Mason and Wood were all multi-instrumentalists. Winwood, Capaldi and Mason were all songwriters (Winwood and Capaldi wrote together, the more individualistic Mason alone), and all three were happy to handle vocal duties. Too many cooks in that band, it was never gonna last.

Always the odd man out, it was Mason who eventually bailed, after the release of the band's excellent, self-titled, second album in 1968. This led to to the band's fragmentation. That could have been it for Traffic, but Winwood revived the band in 1970, and they went on to produce several more acclaimed albums in the early 70s.

The core trinity of Winwood, Capaldi and Wood were now augmented by additional musicians, like Ric Grech on bass, Rebop Kwaku Baah on percussion, and Jim Gordon on drums (his is a tragic tale, if a person cared to look into it). This is the line-up present on the Low Spark... album.

The albums created during this 'second phase' of Traffic benefited from the individual members all having more room to breathe, but are more jam-based and improvisational in nature than before. They are also albums where I occasionally wish Traffic would 'find a lane and stick to it' a little bit more.

For instance, the country kid in me loves the band's bucolic version of John Barleycorn. So, he kind of wishes that more of the John Barleycorn Must Die album (1970) followed the same kind of pastoral, wistful path as the title track, as opposed to the jazzier songs with long instrumental sections that actually make up the bulk of the material. Don't get me wrong though, I still get a lot of enjoyment out of that album.

The same goes for The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, every inch the embodiment of 1971 that Mr. Fantasy was for 1967. I'd not listened to it in a couple of years prior to this week, and so was pleasantly reminded just how strong it really is. I could listen to both Many A Mile To Freedom and Rainmaker over and over again and not tire of them. The mood they create is just so compelling.

The title track is probably the album's best regarded song. Its nearly 12 minute length ensures that it's always been a perfect toilet or cigarette break number for DJs. That may help to explain its enduring popularity on classic rock radio down the years. Well, that and the fact that it remains a great song, drawing in your attention and holding it effortlessly.

I'll probably always have a softer spot for those earlier Traffic recordings (and I didn't even get round to mentioning Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush), but The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys is still an extremely worthy effort. Highly, highly recommended and a great snapshot of its time. 8/10

Greg Schwepe: Great choice, really liked this album. A good mix of various styles I like; the long jam of the title track, and the groove of Rock ‘N’ Roll Stew”, just to name a few. This album seems to feature the yin and yang of Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Different styles that really work. 7 out of 10.

First time I have ever listened to this one all the way through. I have a Traffic compilation CD which features a few tracks from this album.

The album kicks off with Hidden Treasure, a folky tune with Steve Winwood vocals filled with standard 1970’s flute. Nothing screams “I WAS MADE IN THE 70’s” like flute! Luckily it quickly steers away from “Renaissance Fair” territory.

Next up is the title track, The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys.” If Hidden Treasure was hanging out in slight folk territory, this is way across town in the “Let’s Jam For 11:41” zip code. Sax, piano, Hammond organ; it’s all here. Then you remember it was Winwood on organ on the 15 minute Voodoo Chile jam on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland.

I saw Steve Winwood on the Roll With It tour back in the heyday of his MTV popularity after that album and Back In The High Life Again. I bet more than half the crowd had not heard of Traffic (besides what they'd been stuck in on the way to the show) or knew Winwood was a member. When he kicked into Low Spark during the show I was “cool!” But I’m pretty sure the rest of the crowd went, “Man…time to go get a Michelob…”, the beer that was the official tour sponsor.

Light Up Or Leave Me Alone brings about a true guitar-fest. Could the Allman Brothers have listened to this?

And then we get to the true “meat and potatoes” track of the album, Rock 'N' Roll Stew. A Jim Capaldi jam that will stick in your head all day. Classic 70’s rock groove.

I listened to this album while on my daily run, leaving the house under threat of rain (which started juuuust after I left). At the heaviest point of the light downpour the next track kicked in. You guessed it… Rainmaker. This eight minute album closer made me forget about the rain; another cool jam with more flute… but this more rock-oriented. This track is moving up my list as my favourite on the album.

Overall, this album doesn’t boil, it simmers…it’s not in a rush to go anywhere. Each track just seems to take its time getting to the point, making for an enjoyable listen.

John Davidson: Well.. this was an unexpected pleasure. Very mellow folk/blues sounding like a cross between early Jethro Tull (without the histrionics) and Wishbone Ash (if they only had one guitar).

A bit 'background' musicy, but very easy to listen to and enjoy the guitars.

I've returned to this a few times this week. Its a real grower, though perhaps more suited to 57-year-old me than the teenage one who listened to Rush, Sabbath and Zep et al through the late 70s.

If Venom were 'Chaotic Evil', then Traffic are 'Lawful Good' .

The music is artfully constructed and beautifully performed. What is lacks in 'danger' it makes up for in sheer talent and manages to avoid the austerity that sometime plagues such well crafted music.

I wouldn't want the club to explore the easy listening section of classic rock too often but when its as well made as this its worth including. 8/10.

Joe Cogan: This is second only to John Barleycorn as Traffic's best album, IMO, and the title track might be the best thing Steve Winwood did with any band.

Roland Bearne: After reading the piece on Jim Capaldi in this page's revered parent magazine, I felt in my water that this week would be a Traffic record. Good, haven't got a scooby about them and never even heard the name Jim Capaldi before the article. 

I'll go with "interesting" overall. Wasn't a great start as I was very put off by the vocals on opener Hidden Treasures, they sounded weak and strained. Surprised as I believe that was Steve Winwood. It got better though and was overall rather enjoyable. Mr Capaldi stated they were "more of a music band." That sounds spot on, lots of muso-ing going on, mixing up textures and voices, noodly guitar excursions and flute. Ahh, the 70s in one instrument! 

Other than the hypnotic Rainmaker nothing really leapt out but I was left with a strong impression of younger years, so I'll go with that: A living room hazy with the smoke of Rothmans, Dunhills and Consulate. Cans of Double Diamond, glasses of Teachers, a sherry for Nan and a bottle of Matheus Rosé on the table. A hum of earnest conversation, Harold Wilson, strikes, Ted Heath, literature philosophy and counter culture. A Tizer or Corona fizzy orange for me (just 1 glass as a treat) and lying bored senseless on the carpet tiles with some toy cars being quiet because this was "grown up time" and something like this album or Keith Jarret-y jazz on the stereo. If I found this on the vinyl stall in our market, it would make a nice addition to our "Sunday morning" records section!

Richard Cardenas: I know this is a revered classic but, other than a song or two, I’ve never been able to get into it. Quite honestly, I hate some of the tunes.

Final Score: 7.70⁄10 (90 votes cast, with a total score of 693)

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