Listen to this track by progressive rock collective Traffic. It’s ” The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”, the title track to their self-same 1971 album. It would be one of their career highlights of the second phase of their career, coming back from a break-up in 1969 that turned out only to have been temporary.
This phase of the life of the band featured an expanded line up that included Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah who had previously played on Nick Drake’s “Three Hours”, former Family/Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, and Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon. After a comeback record in John Barleycorn Must Die, scoring critical acclaim, this record that followed it up was a million seller as well as being critically praised. It reached platinum status by the middle of the decade. With those new members added to the talents of core members guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood, woodwind player Chris Wood, and percussionist-vocalist-lyricist Jim Capaldi, the band were able to explore the deeper territories where rock, jazz, and soul connect.
But this particular track owed something not only to those musical threads, but to another medium entirely – cinema.
Jim Capaldi and character actor Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie & Clyde, Melvin and Howard) were friends, often talking about proposed film plots with an option to actually pursue a project together. None of them ever came to fruition. But, in the brainstorming came this phrase, or was it a title, from Pollard; “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”. What does that actually mean? Well as much as this tune was inspired by a possible film project, that phrase has more to do with rock ‘n’ roll than it does with mis-en-scene, at least where cultural lenses and generational attitudes go.
The emergence of rock ‘n’ roll was antithetical to the staid conformity of the time out of which it came. It called out the rules of polite society around the issues of sex, race, class, and many other societal norms that made it a positive and powerful social phenomenon even more than it was a musical trend. And it was embodied largely by the images of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, which in turn was a reflection of how film interpreted visually what rock ‘n’ roll music seemed to evoke aurally, at least for white people.
Further, it seemed to rally teenagers against the paths laid out for them by their parents, helping to define the teenager as a key social group. This led quite handily into the ’60s, when a counterculture really began to take off, and when the holes in the American Dream and in stiff-upper-lip post-war Britain began to become more and more apparent. Even if there was still a lot of doubt as to where the future might go, the ideal and the figure of the rebel remained, an avatar for a generation to aspire to. This is what this song suggests; the spirit of rebellion, and its usefulness, its tendency to transform, or at least its challenge to the status quo. Maybe this seems kind of high-minded for a rock song, even if this one stretches out for twelve minutes completely with jazzy jam passages to make it cinematic in its scope.
But, perhaps this song was something of a reaction of its times, as well as being about looking to the avatars of the past. By the early ’70s, there were holes forming in the hippie dream too, with Altamont, Charles Manson, and Weather Underground revealing the dark half of the peace and love generation. Perhaps reaching further back to the leather jacketed ’50s rebel was just the thing to try to get themselves back to the garden. This was reflected in film around this same time, too, with Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, Jeremiah Johnson, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid all exploring the lone figure of rebellion and the shaking off of social norms to follow one’s own “low spark” as observable patterns in cinematic storytelling. Yet, with those films, the outcomes of the rebellion were cloudy, and even hopeless, out of reach, and ultimately doomed.
As it happens, The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys album would be the height of Traffic’s second incarnation. And by the end of their life as a band in 1975, the embers of the ’60s counterculture were cooling off steadily, with former hippies taking straight jobs, well on their way to becoming the yuppies of the 1980s. But, that wouldn’t be the end of the spirit rock ‘n’ roll rebellion as an idea. Because meanwhile in Forest Hill Queens New York, a quartet of low sparked, leather jacketed misfits who were less high-heeled and more just a bunch of punks decided that they should form a band. As the song says, “spirit is something that no one destroys”, even when eras move on.
Gabba Gabba Hey!
You can learn more about Traffic by visiting Steve Winwood’s official site.
Also, to read more about the cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s of which Michael J. Pollard was a part, I highly recommend reading Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, in which a new generation of filmmakers and actors attempt to become low sparked, high-heeled boys themselves and actually manage to change the industry as a result.