People like sardines
Packed in a can
Waiting for Christmas that's made in Japan
And I'm having trouble with my apple flan
Sat in the cafe on the corner
A poppy field near Berkshire
(thanks, Andrew Smith)
“Berkshire Poppies” appeared on Traffic’s debut album Mr. Fantasy
, and was written by what was to become the band’s main song-writing trio: Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood and Chris Wood. Mr Fantasy
was released in 1967, possibly one of the best years for progressive rock music. Many other significant debut albums showcased in 1967, such as the eponymously titled The Doors
, The Grateful Dead
, and Are You Experienced?
by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Other noteworthy albums like Surrealistic Pillow
by Jefferson Airplane and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
(the Beatles) also emerged in one of the most exciting, experimental and prolific periods of music making of the past century. Not to say that other eras did not have their golden ages, but for many people, the albums produced in and around this year have become benchmarks of what music is capable of in both artistic imagination and musical scope. The sheer quantity and quality of seminal recordings produced in this time seems more synchronous than coincidental.
“Berkshire Poppies” tells the story of a disillusioned city-dweller, sick and tired of the depressing rut he finds himself in, dreaming of his ultimate fantasy destination. In an expression of typical English understatement, he dreams not of Honolulu or the Caribbean, but sets his sights on a more realistic place: Berkshire. Anyone that has seen Berkshire poppy fields in full bloom in the summertime knows that this image could definitely compete with a view of the Honolulu shore-line.
Poppies are a fairly regularly occurring feature of the British countryside. These red flowers are often associated with the First World War, as they tended to emerge on tracts of land that had been ravaged by warfare, and were planted in memorial cemeteries for this reason. “In Flanders Field the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place” (from John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Field”).
Berkshire poppies in bloom (thanks, Graham Horn)
Another dark association with this image of fields of Berkshire poppies as a place of escape is that, anyone that knows their flowers knows that the prevalent red Berkshire poppies are of the Papaver Somniferum
variety used to make opium, and its many narcotic children. Of course, a progressive rock band in the late '60s had no chance of escaping the cult of the drug that has become synonymous with this era. Judging from the general zeitgeist, nor would they necessarily want to escape from it – these sorts of allusions would have appealed greatly to the fan base that were buying their records. Taking Chris Wood’s long documented drug addiction into account, as well as the song “Dealer,” appearing on the same album, this not-so-innocent interpretation of poppies as a means of escape may not be entirely inconceivable.
Rather anti-climactically, it is known that Traffic had retreated to a run-down cottage on an estate in Berkshire in order to write Mr Fantasy
in 1967, and we can pretty much guarantee this is the overriding reason for choosing Berkshire as a (very literal) place of sanctuary. The creative hub that they generated there over a three-year period was a source of high musical output, and fond memories for the band. Capaldi said that “Camping out, cooking over an open fire: it was like William and the Outlaws.” It would appear that, sometimes, Berkshire poppies are just Berkshire poppies no matter how hard we look.
~ Douglas MacCutcheon
(Thanks to Dappled for the Songplace suggestion.)Douglas MacCutcheon is a music psychology researcher at a British university (yes, he experiments on people – if you can call musicians people, that is) and freelance music writer. He is interested in popular music, cultural economics and curry. He also plays classical piano for his mother and amateurishly produces ambient electro which nobody listens to Soundcloud.com/douglas-mccutcheon .