So 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 it's just a paper sun.
Ahh paper sun, Ahh paper Sun.
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 then again it's nothing;
You just split when day is done--
Hitching lifts to nowhere,
Hung up on the paper sun.
Standing in the cool of my room.
Fresh cut flowers give me sweet perfume.
Too much sun will burn! (2x)
When you're feeling tired and lonely
You see people going home;
You can't make the train fare
Or the six pence for the phone.
And icicles you're crying
From your cheek have just begun.
Don't be sad, good times are had
Beneath the paper sun.
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.
At this point, Psychedelic Masterworks introduces Steve Winwood, but this is not the first American audiences had heard of him. He first appeared as the organist and lead singer of the Spencer Davis Group with which he recorded two American hit singles, Gimme Some Lovin (#7 November 1966) and I’m a Man (#10 February 1967). The Spencer Davis Group had enjoyed an even greater success and a longer line of hits in the UK before the U.S. audience ever heard of them. Steve Winwood’s electric organ and blues inflected voice made quite an impression on pop music from the start—the boy was only 16 or 17 years old when he became a sensation. He was almost a child star, being only two years older than Stevie Wonder. But, at first, Winwood’s output wasn’t what one would call psychedelic.
Evidently he fell under the sway of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, because Paper Sun, and much of the album from which it is drawn, Mr. Fantasy, participates in a similar aesthetic. Of course, many groups at the time fell under the spell of Sgt. Pepper—I have written here about similar influence on the work of the Rolling Stones’ Satanic Majesties Request, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, the Doors’ Strange Days, the Jefferson Airplanes’ After Bathing at Baxters, Bee Gees’ 1st, and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. What distinguishes Traffic’s first album is that Steve Winwood’s blues and jazz influences are already evident on several tracks, and hint at the new direction that psychedelia would go in during the following year, in league with the blues-inflected psychedelia of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
When Paper Sun was recorded in April 1967 it was probably heard as fairly current, and it was a single on the BBC before the release of Sgt. Pepper. The song was a good sized hit in the UK. However, when it was released to the U.S. in December of that year on the Mr. Fantasy album it didn’t make much of an impression. After six months, the Sgt. Pepper aesthetic was already wearing thin. Winwood had taken a chance in forming a group that sounded nothing like the Spencer Davis Group, and Traffic didn’t pick up on his previous audience. This was a time also when audiences were not accustomed to group members leaving to form other bands. Only Eric Clapton had attempted it, leaving the Yardbirds to form Cream. In 1969, Clapton and Winwood would leave their groups again to work together in Blind Faith. By that time the Beatles were breaking up, Simon & Garfunkel were breaking up, and the Rolling Stones had lost Brian Jones and replaced him. The audience by 1969 had less expectation of permanence.
Paper Sun uses an actual sitar, but it is played as if a guitar in a repeated phrase and scales much simpler than the Beatle’s first attempt with the instrument in Norwegian Wood. (Actually, the traditional sitar in the song is used much as the “electric sitar” was being used.) It is not so much the sitar that gives the song its distinctiveness as the use of reed instruments. Very few popular groups at the time had someone in their membership with any talent on horns and flutes--though the Stones' Brian Jones was willing to give any instrument a try; when used at all, winds were most often the work of session musicians. The major exception was John Entwistle of The Who, but until Tommy, released in 1969, Entwistle tended to use horns as a novelty. He is better known as a bass player. Traffic was the first group to feature a reed player, Chris Wood. Wood turned out to be a pioneer in the field, with a distinctive style, particularly in his use of the flute. He brought popularity to the instrument in a rock group context that it had rarely enjoyed previously, and paved the way for other talented flautists like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. It is Wood’s buzzing horns and peripheral flutes that give Paper Sun its most distinctive sound.
The song form of Paper Sun is a standard eight line ballad, with rhymes on the even lines. A one line refrain breaks up the verses. Between the second and third verses a four line B section comes in with rhymed couplets. Near the end of the song a C section comes in that is similar in structure to B but carries a different melody in a minor key. It has something of the effect of the reprise section at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever, though without the engineering feats.
The lyric of Paper Sun seems to be somewhat a warning against living a life of pleasure. I say “somewhat” because the line “Don’t be sad, good times are had” echoes Dear Mr. Fantasy, the concluding song on the album. The song Dear Mr. Fantasy carries the lines “Don’t be sad, if it was a straight mind you’d had / We wouldn’t have known you all these years.” Given the larger context of the song within the album, it seems the message is that though chasing after pleasure is illusory, it also provides cherished memories. This is not the sort of encouragement toward hedonism that psychedelic music usually supported, but it isn’t fully a condemnation either. Criticism about the hippie lifestyle was rare before this (Dance the Night Away by Cream and All Tomorrow’s Parties by Velvet Underground come to mind), but soon there would be quite a bit of self-criticism on psychedelic records. Paper Sun points to the poverty in a life of pleasure; that such a life doesn’t get the girl in the story anywhere. The metaphor of the paper sun is not a clear one. Much of the time the sun is real in these verses; however, in memory that sun perhaps only exists on paper. It is not the same sun under which people toil (as a “pay person”) to get ahead.