Paper Sun (1967)


Written by Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood
What are DNA Source Songs™? Suggest a source song for inclusion via Rock Populi.

paper sun traffic coverA trippy song from a trippy year, Traffic’s first release “Paper Sun” is one of those snapshots in time that nabs a moment and keeps it well preserved under glass.

It is a brother song to black-light-and-nickel-bag-of-pot favorites like Cream’s “Dance The Night Away” and “SWLABR” off Disraeli Gears; Sgt. Pepper’s; The Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow”; Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”; “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” by The Electric Prunes, and Eight Miles High from The Byrds.

The psychedelic era seems all excess and tiny droplets of colors pulsing from windowpane acid doses, but the intense creativity, while undeniably inspired by “the scene,” also imbued it with a distinctive stamp. There is a “feel” to the years 1966 through 1969 that marks them as the absolute end of the post-World War II era.

“Paper Sun”

“SWLABR” – Cream, 1967

Donovan: “Hurdy Gurdy Man”

Experimentation in all the arts, in dress, in the way people interacted with their governments, in sexual mores, were all telltale signs. A generation of young people had come of age and it sought something quite a bit different than what their parents had wanted. But the verities remained. Love was still ecstatic – if slightly PaperSunHippies SongMango.combent by the newfound freedoms – and lost love was still dismal and caused tears, choking letdowns, all the grime that goes with broken hopes.

“Paper Sun” has been termed a “revenge” song, but it comes across as much more than that especially now that nearly 50 years have passed since its release. It is a sketch of good times a young man and woman had, a quick watercolor study of the swirling days running around while in the delirium of love. He imagines her doing the same things that he and she and done together. There is a tone of mockery in it, but clearly the singer wants the girl back. It’s not stated, but the undercurrent is real and it is strong:

Paper sun sunSo you think you’re having good times
With the boy that you just met
Kicking sand from beach to beach
Your clothes all soaking wet
But if you look around and see
A shadow on the run
Don’t be too upset because its just a paper sun
Ahh Paper Sun, Ahh Paper Sun

Running underneath, an African/North African rhythm buoys up the song (it dissolves into a tried-and-true backbeat), which, absent the house-of-mirror lyrics, would be a damned great party tune. Dave Mason supplies the requisite sitar – a staple in the British Rock pantry of the mid-’60s – but it seems natural and unforced.


Young Winwood

It’s hard to get your arms around the notion that Stevie Winwood was just turning 19 when “Paper Sun” was recorded. While you can hear the mournful, hurt innocence in his voice, his belly-deep blue-eyed soul sound is also unmistakably rich and authentic. Vocals overall are ethereal with haunted, echoey harmonies streaming around on a surreal seashore like the young people described in the track.

As a whole, “Paper Sun” feels unstructured, very much ad hoc, but there is a glinty cut to the diamond-like production. The song feels organic in that way, too, despite the synthetic, better-living-through-modern-chemistry LSD side of the mini-epoch. There are the sun, beach, sand, water, shadows, and so forth. There is a great sense of the outdoors, of open sky, even when the storyline pops into a London flat for some crying time.

In the room where you’ve been sleeping
All your clothes all thrown about
Cigarettes burn window sills
Your meter’s all run out
But there again it’s nothing
You just split when day is done
Pitching lips to nowhere, hung up on the paper sun

What can be more apropos of an emotionally upset girl than a trashed room? Everything’s going to hell in a handcart – at least in the singer/songwriter’s vision. A slight tempo shift occurs with a similar shift in point of view in and around these lines.

paper sun singles coverStanding in the cool of my room
Fresh cut flowers give me sweet perfume
Too much sun will burn!

The same arrangement closes out the song after another verse, shifting and slowing:

Daylight breaks while you sleep on the sand
A seagull is stealing the ring from your hand
The boy who had given you so much fun
Has left you so cold in the paper sun

Perhaps there is a “told-you-so moment” in here, but it’s got a thick dollop of sympathy, rescuing it from the dark corner of pure revenge art. As the song comes to a howling, star-turn end, Winwood is singing with the best of bluesmen. That is, if bluesmen took a few hits of cherry red.

“Paper Sun” mapped the way forward for Traffic and a lot of other future Progressive Rock ensembles, mostly those out of the British Isles. After appearing with the short-lived, ill-fated Blind Faith, Winwood and drummer/co-writer Jim Capaldi would re-group to issue the miraculous John Barleycorn Must Die album, from which come classics like “Freedom Rider” and “(Staring At The) Empty Pages.” (Winwood was by then a ripe old 22.)

“Paper Sun” stands big and strong, a girl and her two boyfriends come and gone, reminding the listener of a time when there was another level of disharmony and distortion heaped high on the usual adolescent angst, the long slow train of twisted love.

  • On the album Dear Mr. Fantasy on which “Paper Sun” appears, there is a 45-second fade out of the jam that was supposed to appear on the singles version but was cut because of length considerations. It is a separate track called “We’re A Fade, You Missed This.”
  • The image of the paper sun in the song’s name is acid-soaked. Often, on the hallucinogen, objects, bits of nature, and so forth, appear flat and one-dimensional, reduced to their essential “suchness.”