Mr. Fantasy (mono)

Released 1967 on Island
The Seth Man, January 2001ce
Housed in the earliest UNIPAKs I can think of with an evocative cover photograph that captured the newly formed group’s hearthside vibe experienced during the writing of this album, “Mr. Fantasy” was created by multi-instrumental masters who wove myriad forms into an enduring of head trip both carefree and loose. Traffic were a band more than comfortable with their abilities in both songwriting and performance as they executed brief jams within pop songs with equal flair. No longer just ‘Little Stevie,’ Steve Winwood appears here in full force on vocals, guitar, organ, piano, bass and percussion while Jim Capaldi smashes snares behind a simple, small and ever-belaboured drum kit. Meanwhile, Chris Wood, always with a twinkling of the eye and grinning satyr-like, woodwinds it up in every space that feels right on saxophones and flute as Dave Mason rounds it out with guitar and a vast array of exotic instruments. This was a lineup so entirely synchronised through their time spent playing, writing and living music in a cottage on the Berkshire Downs, they were probably finishing each other sentences by the end of their first week together. Traffic’s exuberance of newfound freedom from their previous band experiences in straight R&B, jazz and pop run throughout this embarrassingly rich debut. And because of their respective groundings in these idioms, they were able to mix and match elements thereof freely. Taking themselves and their music for an extended trip out-of-doors, they conceived an eternally charming and supremely supernatural album that was multi-faceted to the extreme -- made even more so by the fact that there are literally four separate versions as both UK and US releases were issued in both mono and stereo. And the mono versions differ greatly from their stereo counterparts not only in terms of mix, but in the addition of completely different passages as well. Jimmy Miller’s production captures all of Traffic’s live spontaneity and accents it with a bounty of arranged percussion while engineer Eddie Kramer’s acute sense of ambient miking captures Winwood’s Stratocaster playing within the same audio framing devices he would employ several months later on The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland.”

The exploratory tone begins with “Heaven Is in Your Mind,” a piano-led whimsy laden with percussion that holds the lyric “capturing moments of life in a jar” which describes what this album so successfully does. Jim Capaldi puts his severe cheekbones behind every loudly cracked snare as the entire song directs into a jam that would be faded far too early in its stereo counterpart. Winwood’s vocals here are more phased than on its stereo counterpart, with a completely different guitar break during the outro jam. The mono version of “Berkshire Poppies” is no less a revelation as there is only one false stop (not two) at the beginning of this boozy piss-up with stumbling music hall horn blats and general in-the-studio background ravings from a bevy of well-oiled Small Faces as Winwood’s ale-soaked piano runs louder over the whole thing than it ever would in stereo. The winding of the clock that starts up Dave Mason’s “House For Everyone” interrupts the opening organ and mellotron drones in startlingly different patches. Capaldi’s hi-hat thrashing is wetly phased by the end of this ergot-induced fairy tale, grinding to a halt with the unspoken pun of ‘rude car horn in traffic’ sax blast. The vocals by Winwood on “No Face, No Name And No Number” are so achingly compelling and speak of a quest for love so beyond his years it’s a crying wonder while the drum-less, mellotron-dominated arrangement becomes gently collected by Chris Wood’s lilting flute coda. Ending the side is “Dear Mr. Fantasy”: the mono version here presenting the ominous, high-pitched organ with far more prominence as Winwood’s vocals beseech in this ode to Traffic’s muse of creativity who was every bit as mysterious as the ever-turning and perennial ‘paper sun’ symbol that would adorn this and every Traffic album. Winwood issues forth with a series of brutal Stratocaster solos that scrape into the feedback zone as the whole band are soon riding an express train as windy harmonica strands part into a fading sunset.

Side two opens with Capaldi’s “Dealer,” evocative of Mexican sundowns and footsteps upon moonlit Spanish tiles as devil cowbells and lively Caribbean trident percussion continue over Winwood’s echoed repeat the of the title, echoing further and further into the distance as the galloping pace of the jam extends far beyond the time of its stereo counterpart. Almost breaking the mood is Dave Mason’s “Utterly Simple,” switching to the Subcontinent with a sitar-based piece interrupted by a one-sided collect call of cosmic advice. “Coloured Rain” follows, with Winwood’s stentorian vocals hollering “YESTERDAY I WAS A YOUNG BOY” and again it’s strange for a voice so powerful to issue forth from someone not yet twenty (then again, Winwood cut the vocals on The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man” when he was at the very most eighteen!) Yes: Steve Winwood was ahead of his time, literally and figuratively and his embankments of Hammond organ against mellotron and Capaldi’s strident skin and cowbell bashing are all mustered with a force frightening for one of his age -- the far longer fadeout here than on the stereo version shows his playing never flagging in its purposefulness within an ever-tight ensemble. “Hope I Never Find Me There” is the other Mason composition of the album side, with all the post-trip weariness that several photographs from this time betray with his heavily lidded features (Just prior to “Mr. Fantasy” he would depart for the first of three times.) In its mono incarnation, the entire song was overlaid with severe phasing, as well as an additional guitar line. “Giving To You” sees completely different jazzbo freak out gibbering at both beginning and end of the amped-up R&B instrumental that features Winwood guitar soloing in a near-Hendrix manner; switching between that and trademark overdriven organ. This jam is the finale to an album that was one of the brightest and most creative bursts, ever. And even for a year known for that sort of thing, “Mr. Fantasy” is a singular perfection.

To make matters even more confusing than a high altitude Appalachian family reunion, parts of “Mr. Fantasy” are scattered beyond the confines of its four different album versions: a “shared foundation” of 8 tracks appeared on both UK and US versions are joined by 6 tracks that were unique to either British or American pressings, compounded further by differences in mixing great and small. Not forgetting the B-side version of “Giving To You” and the three tracks from the “Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush” soundtrack.

Unfortunately, Island missed a great opportunity to corral all the loose tracks into a definitive collection, although in 1999 they did issue on a single CD both the UK stereo and US mono version (with the US mono of “Giving To You” represented by its B-side version, and not the LP, for some reason). And while the majority of the “shared foundation” tracks are present in both mono AND stereo, there are five and a half tracks missing: the mono versions of ”Utterly Simple” and “Hope I Never Find Me There” as well as the stereo versions of “Paper Sun,” “Hole In My Shoe,” “Smiling Phases” and “We’re A Fade, You Missed This” (the slight return of “Paper Sun” that really isn’t a separate song, so it counts for half.) And none of the three tracks from the “Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush” were included to augment it into a consistent package, either. However, the US division of Island recently issued the original US version of “Mr. Fantasy” under its original title of “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” adding “Utterly Simple” and “Hope I Never Find Me There” in stereo at the end of the original running order. Although they did include “Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush” and “Am I What I Was Or Was I What I Am,” off the soundtrack, the different version of “Utterly Simple” was left off. Why oh why oh why...Now forget all of this and just listen to the album.