You don't know much about them because they don't have a high-profile lead singer or a Behind The Music tabloid tale. Legal issues have kept them out of the spotlight, and they have a confusing name.
The most dynamic and talented members of the creative community were drawn to War. Jimi Hendrix played with them at Ronnie Scott's in London on the night he died. Bob Marley loved them, as they were what he called "Street Musicians." ("Get Up, Stand Up" is based on the War song "Slippin' Into Darkness"). It's music to expand your mind and help you along your personal journey, but it was made by a bunch of regular guys who were worried about getting drafted and paying their bills. They weren't spoiled and self-indulgent, so they didn't get a lot of media attention. While many of their good friends passed on, War stayed here on Earth because they were grounded.
Before they were War they were Nite Shift, because drummer Harold Brown worked at a steel yard at night. They became the first black band to play the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, and drew the attention of some heavy hitters in the industry. Their quest for exemplary musicians led them to two white guys: Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar and Animals lead singer Eric Burdon. This lineup, renamed "War with Eric Burdon," made "Spill The Wine," a trippy celebration of women ("Long ones, tall ones, short ones, brown ones...") that came together when they spilled some wine on a mixing console. There is still nothing else like it.
Maybe if Jimi Hendrix had lived, War would already be in the Rock Hall. His death was especially hard for Eric Burdon, who left the band after just two albums. The loss of Burdon's star power made it a lot harder to market the band, but it led them to come together as a group. Without Burdon, they created some of their best music, a unique sound fusing Latin with Jazz, Rock and R&B. The slow Funk of "Low Rider" was a departure from the Disco that was coming around. It put a sound to the Low Rider culture, which is based on modified cars that can bounce on hydraulic lifts. While the Hot Rodders were interested in speed (and had The Beach Boys singing for them), the Low Riders were about style. The lyrics, "Take a little trip" and "Rides a little higher" gave the impression that this was a drug song, but most Low Riders had jobs as machinists or mechanics and put their money into the cars. The song is about the pride that comes from riding around in your baby. It puts you in the driver's seat.
While touring Japan in the early '70s, the band realized that people are more alike inside than we are on the outside. Communicating through body language gave them the idea for the brilliant "Why Can't We Be Friends?", a song of unity that succinctly sums up the absurdity of judging others based on our differences.
Other hits include "The World Is A Ghetto," which also addresses how we're all alike despite our differences, and "The Cisco Kid," which is based on a '50s TV show about a Mexican cowboy.
In the mid-'90s, their producer Jerry Goldstein went to court and won the rights to the name War. Under Goldstein's guidance, the band that now tours as War contains just one original member: keyboard player Lonnie Jordan. The other four original living members perform as The Lowrider Band.
War should be in the Rock Hall because they made outstanding music that has stood the test of time. They brought people together through music. Maybe an induction will bring them back together as well.
November 16, 2009
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