WENT TO SEE A STANDING STONE

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.

May 1990. Author does his best impression of a Standing Stone

May 1990. Author does his best impression of a Standing Stone

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.

IMG_3171 

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.

IMG_2361

– 6 degrees in Oxfordshire

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).

IMG_3169

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

Pardon?

IMG_3170

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

IMG_2368

The King Stone

SOURCES

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

19 comments

  1. I spent more than a few night’s “Rolled Right and Stoned’ while listening to this album in my youth. I just might have to dig it out and try it out again. That is the album I mean without the medicated goo this time.

    Like

    1. Yes, of course. We’re all responsible grown-ups now! 😉

      Like

      1. Yes, I am grown up.

        Like

  2. Great post! Your review of this album was spot on. Would love to see the Rollright stones myself. Darn that Atlantic Ocean, it just gets in my way. Oh well, one day…

    Like

    1. You bet. Travel dreams are important!
      Glad you enjoyed the piece Marie. I’d wanted to work in mention of Chris Wood’s flute part in ‘Roll Right Stones’ but couldn’t quite make it fit. So please consider yourself (and your instrument) honoured via this footnote.

      Like

  3. Great post, looks pretty chilly.

    I spend a lot of my weekends hiking and chasing down stone circles and Iron Age forts, North Wales is riddled with them.

    Never made it down to these ones though.

    The Cope book is wonderful (as is the European one too) although mine is looking a bit beat up now.

    Like

    1. Are, so the secret of your ramblings is revealed! Fantastic.
      I’m envisaging a 1537 Rock and Roll Heavy Metal Iron Age walking tour. Especially now you have that spunky portable phonograph. Sign me up!

      Like

  4. So noted and thank you very much on behalf of flutists everywhere lol! 😉 Have a great weekend!

    Like

  5. The Prudent Groove · · Reply

    Amazing pictures, and interesting post! You make for a convincing upright rock. I saw Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory a bit ago but passed on it… I’m reconsidering that mistake.

    Like

    1. Thanks. It’s a special place.
      RE: the album, if you don’t already have it, I’d recommend Shoot Out‘s predecessor, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. It’s a real 70s classic.

      Like

  6. […] “Went to see a standing stone” […]

    Like

  7. I too found the Roll Right Stones last time I was home, sat nav did not help we had to resort to a map and asking a wizened local.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Somehow consulting an ancient local seems entirely appropriate. It is a wonderful site, is it not?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great piece, great Band, great album. Being a cover guy. Any history on the this jacket and ‘Low Spark..’? Why the clipped corners? (You ever check out any Neil Oliver programs? He does some interesting stuff and his passion engages you)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry, CB. Missed this comment. If you stand back a pace or two from the ‘Low Spark’ cover (designed by Tony Wright), you can see its three dimensional ‘box’ illusion. Totally cosmic, man. This kind of works for ‘Shoot out’ too – a box in space, maybe. Me? I just love die-cut covers!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries and thanks. Just watched a Doc on Muscle Shoals. There’s a bit in it where Winwood talks about the Shoals guys joining Traffic to play “Headless Horsemen music”. Check it out Neil it’s worth a watch. It ties into this album. (One of CB’s next takes is on ‘John Barleycorn’)

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Renting a car and taking an extended solo road trip through the quiet places, fields of green, and hedgerow lanes of the UK has been a long-held, unrealized dream. The eon-spanning solitary expanses of the “lands” of Ire, Ice and New Zea likewise call to me. I’ve undertaken various such journeys throughout the States and in the high Andes of Peru over the years, so far managing to return from each.

    Savoring solitude, whether among standing stones or elsewhere in nature’s paint, is a siren song that beckons near constantly. Thank heaven – be it in my mind or not — for micro-tribes that bind me to the mast.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The danger on the rocks is surely passed. Or is it?
    Thank goodness for micro-ties, I say, or some souls would simply drift away. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, or wrong, yet the ties that bind are both supportive and constrictive, are they not?

    My quiet fantasy is to travel the UK in a narrow boat.

    If there’s room for a geographical “land” addition, plenty of space in Gondwana too.

    Like

Comments and responses welcome for all posts: present or past. Go on, join in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: