I like to think I was a druid in a previous life. It’s not about the hooded robe or doing despicable things to small furry animals. No, it’s about Neolithic megaliths. You know, standing stones. Yep, if it wasn’t for the absence of sanitation, decent food and (most importantly) electricity, I’d be an enthusiastic candidate for ‘Bronze Age Big Brother’.
Maybe the reason I love the Traffic album Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory so much is that it links a favourite band and this enduring fascination with prehistoric sites. ‘Roll Right Stones’ is the album’s centrepiece, an extended song that weaves a spell of ancient mysticism and cosmic musing.
Space age before my eyes
Opening up the skies
And death awaits with pearly gates
For those who’ve been mesmerized
I was mesmerised. So much so that in my first solo trip to the UK in 1990 I hired a car in Oxford to go find the Rollright Stones and pay homage. Way before the video-game complacency of ‘Sat Nav’ I pored over maps, squinted at weathered road signs and drove in dizzying diminishing circles until, stressed and slightly breathless, I opened an unprepossessing gate on a minor back-road near Long Compton and walked into the Bronze Age.
Went to see a standing stone
Some in circles, some alone
Ancient, worn and weather torn
They chill me to my very bone
Many of these can be seen
In quiet places, fields of green
Of hedgerow lanes with countless names
But the only thing that remains are the roll right stones
All true, all artistically accurate. Except that I was certainly not chilled. In fact quite the opposite. Although the air temperature that May morning made a naked frolic less than appealing, I wandered the circle called The King’s Men alone but content, stopping here and there to savour a solitude spanning eons.
I shan’t bore you with detailed descriptions or stories about this particular ancient site. There are loads of books filled with such things, including one by musician, krautrock überfan and disciple of all things pagan, Julian Cope. His opus The Modern Antiquarian is meticulously researched and beautifully presented.
But you should know that though The King’s Men may lack a little stature when compared to their Stonehenge cousins, they are not alone in this corner of rural Oxfordshire. Across the field are The Whispering Knights, a cluster of taller stones gathered in mute conversation, while a few steps across the road (which, by the way, takes you into another county) stands The King Stone, separate and aloof.
The last visit to the UK by the Vinyl Connection micro-tribe was in the northern winter of 2009. Locals may remember that especially snowy Christmas. Well, forget nativities and carolling, this pilgrim followed a leyline direct to the Rollright Stones, dragging his nearest and dearest behind him through the snow. The morning was bright, clear, and utterly freezing. It had this Aussie gasping with cold and wide eyed with wonder.
The centre of the circle was dappled with frost, the surrounding trees white-dipped and solemnly festive. The ancient stones themselves glittered with diamond shards of frozen snow. It was breathtaking.
There are hundreds of ancient sites in Britain and I have only visited a handful. Yet when the opportunity next arises to connect with my druidic past life you can be sure the Rollright Stones will once again head the list. Who knows, perhaps I’ll run into Archdrude Julian and we’ll share a cup of mead.
If you can’t see yourself getting there anytime soon, get a tumbler of something warming, put on headphones, and let yourself be transported.
A few words about the rest of the album. I’ll keep it brief both to stay roughly in the self-imposed 1000-word zone and because the rest of the album does not have the depth of ‘Roll Right Stones’ (Traffic added the superfluous space between the first two words, by the way).
The album opens with the title track, an extended vamp with rather less melody and variation than Traffic’s best songs. Steve Winwood’s guitar work is a saving grace – distorted and funky. This one has a dirty urban feel suffused with a sense of desperation.
And all I got is trouble and strife to help me on my way
The contrast with the spacious mysticism of ‘Roll Right Stones’, which completes Side One, is marked.
Although Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory reached #6 on the US Billboard Chart and achieved ‘gold’ status, it is generally less well regarded than it’s luminous predecessor. Perhaps one reason is a consistently gloomy cast to the lyrics. There are three pieces on Side Two and the titles give a pretty good idea of the mood.
‘Evening Blue’ is a slow ballad of strung-out loneliness that teeters in the brink of self-pity.
If I had a lover, who’s heart was true
I wouldn’t be alone in this evening blue
Yet if you flow with Winwood’s superb vocal delivery and don’t delve too deeply into the introspection, you’ll get to Chris Wood’s lovely understated sax solo in good shape.
Rebop Kwaku Baah opens proceedings in the instrumental ‘Tragic Magic’ with pattering percussion. The piece is fine despite never quite achieving escape velocity.
Finally we have ‘(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired’, closing out the album in a relentlessly downbeat fashion.
I don’t know who’s losing and I don’t care who’s winning
Hardship and trouble following me
This song is perhaps most notable for including one of the most perplexing double negatives in rock:
There is no reason for not failing
It is tempting to summarize Shoot Out with the title of the last song, but that would be harsh. Well a little harsh.
In the final cosmic wash-up there is something sustaining about connecting with our unknowable past via hunks of weathered rock and there is something nourishing to the collective soul in a song that honours those ancient monuments.
Many a year has come and gone
But progress marches slowly on
In nature’s paint, she hides the stain
‘Cos everybody is going insane
The only, the only thing that will sustain are the roll right stones
Traffic Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory [Island, 1973]
Julian Cope The Modern Antiquarian [Thorsons, London, 1998]
More on the Archdrude here
Photos by writer