Graded on a Curve:
War, Best of

Has there ever been a band as balls-out funky, that actually got played on the radio, as War? The horns, the inimitable percussion, the great group vocals—War had it all, to say nothing of some of the chillest songs of the rock era. Every time I hear them I think of the opening of the great “Summer”: “Riding ‘round town with all the windows down/8-track playin’ all your favorite sounds/The rhythm of the bongos fill the park/The street musicians trying to get a start.” I don’t know about you, but in my imagination it’s War I’m listening to on that 8-track, and if the 8-track player eats it there’s going to be hell to pay.

The L.A. band had something for everybody: soul, funk, R&B, jazz, reggae, and last but far from least, the Latino sound of the Mexican-American barrios of East L.A. From their start with Eric “Spill the Wine” Burdon to their later mostly upbeat takes on the life in the barrio, War was the dopest commodity around. Their songs spoke not only to their community but to everybody, as is demonstrated by the fact that if you don’t like “Low Rider” or “The Cisco Kid,” you are an ignoramus.

When it comes to packaging, Best Of is a less-is-better proposition, and I like it that way. No losers, you know? “Spill the Wine,” “Cisco Kid,” “Low Rider,” “The World Is a Ghetto,” and even the smooth grooves of “All Day Music” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” are all irresistible, as is every other tune on this compilation, with the exception of “Gypsy Man,” which I can’t listen to without seeing flashing disco balls.

The band’s recorded history opened with two LPs fronted by the white English bluesman Eric Burdon, and they gave us the great “Spill the Wine,” with its supercool organ riff, thank-you-Jesus percussion, and far-out monologue by Burdon, who calls himself a gnome. Oh, and did I fail to mention the funky flute? Or the chorus, which breaks up the song’s repetitive riff quite nicely? There’s even some Hispanic chick chattering away in the background. “All Day Music” is as smooth as good champagne, a pacifying tune featuring some great vocals that will, in the vocalist’s words, “soothe your mind.” The organ is cool, as is the breakdown in the middle, and while I tell myself this one is a bit too laid-back for my likings, I can never turn it off, perhaps due to the fellow who shouts, “Hoy!” and, “Uhh!”

“Slippin’ Into Darkness” opens with horns, one fantastic organ riff, and the vocalists, and it’s one funky number indeed. The organ vamps are great, the horns throw in at exactly the right time, and the drumming and guitar are a pure delight. And did I fail to mention the melody? Can’t forget to mention the melody. Because it’s copacetic, my friends, a thing of beauty and a joy forever as some dead fop poet once said. “The World Is a Ghetto” is one slow-baked loaf of funk on which the vocalists take it smooth and wish they were far, far away from the violence all around them. “Don’t you know that it’s true,” they repeat, “That it’s true/That for me and for you/The world is a ghetto,” until they give way to one wiry guitar solo.

“The Cisco Kid” is a stone-cold classic, what with its funky and irresistible syncopation, natty horn arrangement, bad as in great percussion, and incredible vocals. The guys talk, laugh, and howl, and the choruses are a lark, and if follow-up “Me and My Baby Brother” isn’t as well known it’s great too, a rollicking organ- and percussion-driven number that utterly refuses to slow down, its hydraulics lifting you up and down like a classic low rider and its vocalists refusing to stop, red lights notwithstanding. “Southern Part of Texas” is great too, for all the usual reasons, not the least of which is an irresistibly funky melody, one cool harmonica riff, and lots of high-spirited chatter between the members of the band. It’s a tune about a sister busted in the wrong place at the wrong time: “They told her freedom was expensive,” they sing, “She couldn’t post no bond or bail.”

“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” is a wonderful ode to racial harmony, with individual vocalists happily tossing off the verses while the whole band throws in on the chorus. This is the type of song I would normally find mawkish, but the lyrics are too damned weird (“I know you’re working for the CIA/They wouldn’t have you in the maf-I-A”) and the spirit of the tune is irrepressible to be denied, even by the cynical likes of yours truly. As for “Low Rider,” what can I say? It’s only one of the greatest car radio songs ever. It captures the low rider culture of East LA by means of a funky sustained bass line, one of the most happening horn riffs ever, and the band’s usual stupendous percussion. Once you’ve heard that horn riff you’re never the same, and as for the vocalist, he’s the epitome of cool as he talk-sings, “Take a little trip, take a little trip/Take a little trip and see/Take a little trip, take a little trip/Take a little trip with me.” For once I don’t think he’s talking acid, and as for the sax that takes the song out? Pure genius.

The fast-paced groove that is “Galaxy” opens on an appropriately intergalactic note, before one super-fuzzed bass comes in along with a piano and the vocalists, who are joined by yet another fantastic horn arrangement. “It’s out of sight/”It’s out of sight/It’s ought of sight/It’s out of sight/It’s gone,” sing the vocalists, who add the occasional vocal whoosh. And then there’s the twisted vocal distortion that occurs midsong, about which I don’t know what the hell to think except it’s cool. As for the aforementioned “Summer,” it’s slow and will free your soul and spirit as the guys in the band ride around the barrio on a summer day with the windows down and tell us what they see. This is one lovely tune, thanks to the great vocal harmonies, the horns, and the addictive percussion.

War may be the most inaptly named band in the history of rock, because their songs spell peace, harmony, and the power of pure funk to make you feel better, happier, and a star in a world where everybody is a star. Oh well, blame Eric Burdon who came up with the name only to split after two LPs. Which was for the best. With Burdon at the helm, the band may never have developed its unique Latino identity. Burdon would most likely have kept them in the blues-jazz ghetto, and stifled the pure joy of their barrio-inflected sound. The blues tunes like “Tobacco Road” off their 1970 debut (Eric Burdon Declares “War”) would never have distinguished them from the pack, and while the band’s sophomore LP with Burdon (1970’s The Black-Man’s Burdon) is one freaky slab o’vinyl, it was too free form and flat-out weird to ever win the band anything approaching mainstream popularity (still a funky listen though).

Whereas “Low Rider” and “The Cisco Kid,” on the other hand, well let’s just say they’re songs no one but War at its prime could have produced. This is the record I put on when I want to feel good, and that there’s some slight hope for a color-blind mankind. War was a racially mixed group that set out to prove color didn’t matter, and for that—and for all of the great songs they produced—they deserve both our thanks and royalty checks. Buy this Cabrón slab of chido vinyl now, brothers and sisters! And a low rider while you’re at it!


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