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“Dear Mr. Fantasy” is the final track on Side 1 of Traffic’s debut album. Running at 5 minutes and 44 seconds, it’s the longest track on the album. The sound is moody and atmospheric, bordering on eerie.
Traffic member Jim Capaldi wrote the lyrics. Bandmates Steve Windwood and Chris Wood wrote the music. Lyrically, the song is a simple sketch of a tortured artist who sacrifices his own happiness to make the audience happy. That’s how it appears, anyway. Some lines, though, are loaded with subtext.
“Do anything, take us out of this gloom” implies that the audience lives in a perpetual, or at least persistent, state of unhappiness. Whether that was an observation of the era, of the permanent human condition, or just a random choice of words, isn’t clear.
“Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy” suggests some level of maliciousness in the audience’s demands on the artist. They’re ordering him around like a servant, compounding his apparent misery. It creates the impression that he’s a slave to his listeners.
Despite the interesting subtleties in the lyrics, the song’s haunting, mysterious power comes primarily from the foggy music itself – as well as, perhaps, from less earthly places.
Like the rest of the album, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was written in a cottage on a 19th-century Berkshire farm named Sheepcot Farm, outside of London. The actual recording took place in Olympic Studios in London, but the creative process all went down in the relatively remote Sheepcot location, where the band took up residence on April 1, 1967. A champion jockey and horse-breeder named Sir William Pigott-Brown rented it to them.
In describing the farm in his piece “Fantasy and Reality,” Kris Needs (Shindig, March 2017) wrote, “Stables and out-buildings had long since rotted away, leaving only The Cottage, a two-story stucco building hidden from the road by trees and bushes, with huge fields of barley sweeping behind it into the distance… A large cement platform in front of the house served as a stage on which the band could jam through the spring and summer nights, illuminated by a vivid liquid light show projected onto the front of the building.”
The countryside surrounding enhanced the aura of ancientness and mystery. Prehistoric tribes had once farmed the land and filled it with religious monuments and earthworks. A Celtic chalk drawing from 20 BC named the White Horse of Uffington was located nearby, as was Uffington Castle, Dragon Hill, Roman Hill, and many other locations stretching way back into early English folklore.
In the book that comes with Chris Wood’s box set Evening Blue, Windwood wrote, “We all felt there was some mystery in the landscape and we wanted to see if we could get the same mystery into Traffic’s music and somehow be influenced by that mystery. We didn’t really know how, but we were influenced by that mystery.”
Not all the mysterious forces in the Cottage were benevolent, though, and not everyone remembered them fondly. When the band dissolved a couple years after Mr. Fantasy, Capaldi said, “There was something evil in that cottage.” He blamed it, in part, for the breaking up of the band.
Capaldi recalled the exact moment that spawned “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
One early morning at the Cottage he was coming down off LSD, sketching in front of a log fire. Bubbling out of his acid-fired subconsciousness and through his pencil came a the image of a man hanging on puppet strings and wearing a spiked hat with the words, “Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune, something to make us all happy” scrawled under him.
Wood found Capaldi’s sketch and set a bass line to it. That evening they drove into the city and recorded the song at Olympic Studios. They burned incense in the recording room and turned the lights low to capture the mood the song had been borne from.
During recording, producer Jimmy Miller was so excited by what he heard that he jumped into the room playing maracas, eagerly driving the band on. It’s the only instrumental credit he has on the album.
During a show at the London Saville theater in 1967, Wood dedicated this song to Frank Zappa. (Keith Altham, New Musical Express, September 30, 1967)