If you look up the definition of ‘headman’ you will find it means ‘chief’ but I think Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi were thinking of the primitive headhunters of colonial Africa when they wrote 40,000 Headmen. Being confronted by 40,000 wise old tribal chiefs would be bad enough but an army of savage warriors bent on adding your head to their trophy cabinet is an all together more terrifying prospect.
Fortunately for Steve and Jim 40,000 Headmen is pure fantasy. (Capaldi said it was inspired by “a hash-fuelled dream” and he should know!) It was the B-side of Traffic‘s 1968 single No Face, No Name, No Number and a track on their second album, Traffic.
Headmen is the sort of song you might sing round the camp fire, accompanied by the strumming of an acoustic guitar and the wheeze of an accordion. In the flickering light the story of a man who walks across the sea, finds unimaginable treasure and flees with it chased by hoards of angry tribesmen wouldn’t seem so strange.
In Traffic’s version the guitar and synthesised accordion are submerged under the vocals, a tumbling bass line, a fluttering flute, rim-shot drums and a rasp of maracas. The tune is simple, the pace relaxed and the overall effect is both comforting and enticingly mysterious.
Headmen is very much a product of the sixties when psychedelic soft rock was the pop music of the day. But it is also timeless, as good to listen to now as it was when it was first recorded. (Roamin’ Thro’ The Gloamin With) 40,000 Headmen, to give it its full title, is my latest Track of the Week.