Motown hitmakers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote this song. Starr began his career recording for Ric-Tic Records, a Detroit label that was a rival to Motown. In 1968, Motown bought Ric-Tic, which gave Starr access to their writers and producers.
This is a protest song about the Vietnam War, although it makes a broader statement of the need for harmony in our everyday lives.
"War" was one of the first Motown songs to make a political statement. The label had always been focused on making hit songs, but around this time Motown artists like The Temptations and Marvin Gaye started releasing songs with social commentary, many of which were written by Whitfield.
The Temptations were the first to record this; it was included on their 1970 album Psychedelic Shack. Motown had no intention of releasing it as a single, but many in the protest movement, especially college students, made it clear that the song would be a big hit if it was. Motown head Berry Gordy had other plans for The Temptations and didn't want them associated with such a controversial song, so he had Starr record it and his version was released as a single. Starr didn't have as big a fan base to offend.
This song has a very distinct tambourine part, played by percussionist Jack Ashford. He was one of the Motown Funk Brothers who played on the track; bass player Bob Babbitt and guitarist Dennis Coffey were also part of it.
Coffey came up with the psychedelic guitar sound Norman Whitfield used on "Cloud Nine
" by The Temptations, which marked a musical shift for the label. In a Songfacts interview with Coffey
, he said: "Norman wanted to change the sound of Motown, and I was the guy that helped him do it. He wanted to get into that protest and social consciousness stuff, so I did that fuzz tone thing up high on 'War.'"
Starr added the interjections "good God y'all" and "absolutely nothings," which became some of the most famous ad-libs in music history.
Starr won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Male Vocal for this song.
This is a very sincere song about the horrors of war, but it has been used for comic effect in a number of movies and TV series. It appeared in Family Guy ("Bigfat" - 2013), The Simpsons ("Treehouse of Horror VIII" - 1997) and two episodes of Seinfeld ("The Marine Biologist" - 1994, "Highlights of a Hundred" - 1995). Movie uses include the 1988 blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and the 1998 film Rush Hour with martial arts star Jackie Chan and comedian Chris Tucker. Here are some others:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
Grudge Match (2013)
Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)
Rush Hour 3 (2007)
Guy X (2005)
High Heels and Low Lifes (2001)
One More Saturday Night (1986)
Pacific Inferno (1979)
Xena: Warrior Princess ("Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire" - 2000)
Boy Meets World ("Cutting the Cord" - 1999)
The Wonder Years ("The Journey" - 1990)
Bruce Springsteen's version was a hit in 1986. It was the first single released from his boxed set, Live 1975-1985, and reached US #8 and UK #18. Springsteen first performed it on September 27, 1985 during his Born In The U.S.A. tour. He taped the lyrics to his arm so he wouldn't screw them up.
The Jam released this in 1982 as the B-side of their single "Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero." Other artists to cover it include Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Joan Osborne and Maria Muldaur.
Starr died of a heart attack in 2003. He was 61.