The guitarist, sitar player and songwriter behind this frequently covered two-chord classic, talks about its willful simplicity and enduring popularity
Formed in Birmingham in 1967, Traffic was an English rock group that embraced a progressive mix of psychedelia, Eastern instrumentation and jazz sensibilities. But the simple two-chord song Feelin’ Alright? – included on the band’s eponymous sophomore album in ’68 before being released as a single later that year – would go on to become one of their most powerful and enduring tracks.
Over the subsequent half century, the song has also been a hit single for several performers, including Joe Cocker (reaching No 69 on the US chart in 1969 and re-charting at No 33 in 1972), Mongo Santamaria, Grand Funk Railroad, and been recorded by the likes of Three Dog Night, The 5th Dimension, Lou Rawls, Freddie King, Paul Weller, Lulu, Chairmen Of The Board, The Electric Concept Orchestra, Mother’s Finest, The Ohio Players, Diana Ross with the Jackson 5, Maceo Parker, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Widespread Panic, The Black Crowes and Coldplay. Over 50 cover versions of Feelin’ Alright? have been recorded and the song has been featured in dozens of films and television commercials.
Here, Traffic guitarist and sitar-player Dave Mason tells the story of how the band got together, how the song came to be and how he feels about its umpteen versions…
“I’m from Worcester and Jim Capaldi’s from Evesham, which is not that far way. We started a couple of bands together, like Deep Feeling and one called The Hellions which did a Jackie DeShannon song for Pye Records. There were shows that we’d do in Birmingham and I think we all met at a place called The Elbow Room, which was somewhat of an after-hours place that would have bands playing – I think one of the early Moody Blues incarnations were there one night. Anyway, I think that’s where we met and became friends through the different kinds of music that we liked.
“At one point it was apparent Steve Winwood wanted to leave The Spencer Davis Group and do something different, and I was actually a roadie with them for about three months. In fact, I had to stand-in for Steve who didn’t make it to a show one night! When we could, we’d hang out for a year or more before Traffic formed: Steve, Jim, myself and Chris Wood. Then we hid ourselves away out in country in Berkshire, to work out what we were going to do.
“I’d never written anything before, so I decided it that maybe it was time to see what I could come up with. My first attempts were somewhat naïve in some ways, but then I wrote a song called Hole In My Shoe which was our first big hit really. After our first album and the success of it all – I think I was about 19 years old – it came too quick and I couldn’t really handle it. And that’s the reason I left. It was just a little too much for me. Also I thought, if I’m going to be writing songs, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more life experiences to write about.
“So I took off for Greece with a bag and a guitar. I went to a little island called Hydra, which is where I wrote Feelin’ Alright? Musically, it was a kind of exercise in trying to write the simplest thing I could come up with. I’d been playing sitar for a while, which I used for Hole In My Shoe and Paper Sun, and that got me thinking about writing something very simple. There are only two chords in Feelin’ Alright? anyway. Basically it’s an unrequited love song. It’s ‘feeling alright’ with a question mark; the song’s really about not feeling too good about myself – I wasn’t feeling alright! That was what it was about.
“I don’t remember the specifics of how it happened, but it probably just all came together a period of a week or so. At the time it was just another song that I wrote. To be honest, I’d never say I was really prolific – I’m not just writing and writing – but there were a handful of songs that I had and Feelin’ Alright? was one of them. I also wrote You Can All Join In sitting in a café in Athens, and they both finished up being on the second Traffic album.
“If I remember correctly, I went to the US and they were at a studio in New York and I went by the session. They were working on that album and they only had five songs, so I said, ‘Well, I’ve got five songs here,’ and that’s how it started. That’s how I remember it. Frankly, there was no concept of Feelin’ Alright? being a hit or anything; I was just trying to write good songs. I think it was picked as a single, but the song has never really been a big hit, it’s just been done by a lot of people.
“Later on, when Denny Cordell [producer of Joe Cocker’s album Mad Dogs & Englishmen] played me what Cocker had done with it, it was like, ‘Oh my God! This is great.’ Then obviously that version spawned the 50-plus cover versions that almost every garage band and bar band in the world has played and still plays! I think it’s because the song’s so simple but also because Joe Cocker’s version is so damn good! You have to think that the track was made 50 years ago, and it still sounds great; it doesn’t sound dated at all.
“I’m flattered there have been so many, but to me Cocker’s is the definitive version. When I play it now, we use the piano riff from the Cocker version and I up-tempo it. Aside from the song itself, that piano part is another major hook in itself.”