Graded on a Curve:
Greatest Hits

Thanks to Long Beach, California’s War we can all—no matter our race, color, creed, or sexual orientation—be instant Chicanos: just add “Low Rider.” I was a pasty-faced kid growing up in the sticks, but when “Low Rider” came on the dashboard FM my dad’s decommissioned gas company truck was instantly transformed into a flamingo pink 1964 Chevrolet Impala with wire-spoke wheels, whitewall tires, and a bitchin’ hydraulic system perfect for slow-bucking my way down the nighttime streets of the imaginary barrio that was my whiter than Wonder Bread-with-the-edges-cut-off hometown.

With their hardcore funk grooves, which they spiced up with liberal dollops of rock, jazz, Latin, rhythm and blues, and reggae, the multi-ethnic lineup of War created a sound that has been labeled “progressive soul.” Here’s keyboardist/vocalist Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan on the band’s sound: “It was all one big salad bowl. That’s one of the reasons why Jerry (Goldstein, the band’s producer) didn’t know what to do with us. We didn’t even understand what we were doing…” Well, maybe they didn’t, but confusion has rarely sounded so good—War offered a giddy-making and exotic addition to the, er, very pale soundtrack of my teen years. I may have dug Elton John’s “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” but thanks to War I didn’t have to—they may have been sending out missives from a world I couldn’t even begin to understand, but the envelopes they were in were funkadelic.

War got their start with mad dog and Englishman Eric Burdon, the former lead singer of The Animals, with whom they released two 1970 albums and scored a hit with “Spill the Wine.” But Burdon was gone that same year and you won’t find any Burdon-era music on 1976’s Greatest Hits. Rather, it collects songs from their pair of 1971 releases, War and the far more successful All Day Music, 1972’s wildly successful The World Is a Ghetto (Billboard magazine’s Album of the Year as the best-selling album of 1973!), 1973’s Deliver the Word, and 1975’s Why Can’t We be Friends?

The band promoted a message of brotherhood and harmony, sort of like Jesus but with a funkier beat or John and Yoko without the happy horseshit, and it comes through loud and clear on the band’s mellower jams—War had a lot in common with Sly and the Family Stone in that respect. I can’t say—never been to one—but I’m betting no barrio backyard Saturday afternoon barbecue was complete without such laid-back grooves as “All Day Music” and “Summer.” But they were by no means all summer breeze blowin’ through the jasmine in your mind. They knew damn well the world’s a ghetto, and a ghetto’s a dangerous place. The proof lies in the tragic fact that War saxophonist and flutist Charles Miller, who gave us the wonderful vocals on “Low Rider” was stabbed to death in a botched robbery on June 4, 1980.

Greatest Hits opens with the band’s first hit without Burdon, “All Day Music.” It’s a relaxed day in the park (or at the beach, they’re careful to add), but you can skip the trip to either because this one will send your ears to their happy place, namely a hot tub with a glass of white port and lemon juice (don’t spill it!). It works on the strength of a chill organ, some lazy percussion (every damn member of the band plays percussion), one very easy-going harmonica, the supersmooth vocals of keyboardist Lonnie Jordan, and some great vocal harmonies. It’s followed by the radio edit of “Slippin’ into Darkness,” a funk-blues hybrid with a bummer of a message and a slinky B.B. Dickerson bass line, great horn work by Miller, and lots of punchy organ, to say nothing of some rapid-fire handclaps. And the group vocals are as sleek as they are bleak.

The single version of “The World Is a Ghetto” (the album version clocked in at ten minutes plus) is a slow groove with punchy horns, an amazing vocal arrangement that conveys pure yearning, a funky back beat, and some very chillaxed percussion. The boys are looking for paradise, a home “sweet and nice,” but as they sing in unison, “Don’t you know?/That’s it true/That for me, and for you/That the world is a ghetto.”

“The Cisco Kid” kicks things into high gear and Amen saith I. It’s a tribute to Cisco and Pancho, cowboys from the 1950s TV program The Cisco Kid. The Cisco Kid was a hero to Chicanos everywhere–a brown-skinned badass in a black-and-white world—and War certainly finds ‘em worth celebrating in a percussion-heavy funkathon that is punctuated by that instantly recognizable four-note phrase played simultaneously by saxophone, harmonica, and flute. It’s the perfect companion piece to “Low Rider,” a get-down classic that comes with lines of dialogue from the show itself. There’s no beating a stanza that goes:

“The outlaws had us pinned down at the fort
The outlaws had us pinned down at the fort
Cisco came in blastin’, drinkin’ port
Cisco came in blastin’, drinkin’ port.”

Talk about mixing business with pleasure. And with the line “They rode the sunset, horse was made of steel” War even put their heroes in a lowrider, chasing a gringo through a field! Cool as shit, people, as is the fact that when the band were afforded the opportunity to meet Duncan Renaldo, who played the Cisco Kid on TV, they considered it the honor of a lifetime.

The single version of “Gypsy Man” (album version: 11:35) opens with some desert winds and a proto-disco dance beat, then the band comes in collectively to sing, “They call me a gypsy man.” The vocals get wilder as things go on, Lee Oskar rules the roost on harmonica and even plays a long coda at the end as things get bluesier, and need I add that the percussion will percolate your scruples away? “Gypsy Man” is total sonic badassery, and makes for the perfect segue to the in-your-face, straight-ahead with nary a deviation hardcore funk of “Me and Baby Brother,” with its muscular group vocals and seriously cranked-up rhythm section. And there’s simply no denying the moment when everything falls away, a roiling organ takes over, and Jordan goes totally soul man on ya.

“Southern Part of Texas” could just be the most deep-dish funky cut on the compilation—it opens with scratch guitar, then in come a throbbing bass riff, more percussion than your average high-school marching band, and lots of idle chatter from the boys in the band. And from there it’s simplicity itself, a lubricious bump and grind that does nothing but bump and grind as the percussion gets more complex and the vocalists get more and more caught up in things, tossing off asides about the song’s anti-heroine, who was born in a hurricane and ended up prison after the judge “just throwed away the key.” Oh, and I feel obligated to add that her mama was hanged by Jesse James, which may or may not make a lick of sense.

It’s followed by one of the most good-natured songs of all time, the happy-go-lucky plea for brotherhood (takeaway lines: “The color of your skin don’t matter to me, ow/As long as we can live in harmony”) that is “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” It opens with the gang singing nonsense, then goes on to repeat the title, I don’t know, fifty times maybe? Making it one of the best sing along songs out there, and you’ll want to sing along because the song’s so damn amiable you just won’t be able to help yourself. The funk flies, the horns are as good-natured and rambunctious as the singers, and you even get an aberrant touch of (pot?) paranoia with the goofy lines “I know you’re working for the C.I.A./They wouldn’t have you in the maf-i-ay.” I also love the lines “Sometimes I don’t speak right, alright/But yet I know what I’m talking about.” Let’s face it: If you don’t walk away from this song with a silly grin plastered one your face you’re a bad human being, period.

“Low Rider” is nothing less than one of the signature songs of its era. The cowbell that opens it gets my vote for best cowbell in any song ever. White’s deadpan and very deep vocals are iconic, the song’s main riff deserves to be sampled by every damn body, the staccato horn riff that punctuates every stanza is one of the coolest things ever, and the simmering menudo of percussion smells great and tastes even better. All of White’s friends strut the avenue in lowriders, and their lives are as laid back as an early Eagles song: “Low rider don’t use no gas now/Low rider don’t drive too fast.” It’s all about making the scene and being seen, and driving to impress on the old main drag. And when White says (he’s hardly singing) “Take a little trip/Take a little trip/Take a little trip with me” he ain’t talking about LSD, and you’d have to be a fool not to take him up on it.

Closer “Summer” you won’t hear anywhere else but on Greatest Hits, and is a beatific paean to that best of all possible seasons that operates for the most part on percussion, piano power, and smooth as silk, old-school vocal harmonies. War gives shout-outs to 8-tracks playing all your favorite sounds, talking shit with the long-haul truckers on the CB radio in your van, and cooling down in the jet of water shooting from a fire hydrant down the block, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in “Atlantic City or out in Malibu/Or anywhere between,” because “summertime is the best time any place.”

War’s hardcore funk grooves and lazy day anthems were essential inclusions on the mixtape of the seventies. And nobody else sounded anything like them. Or better understood the fact that we all live in one barrio or another and should therefore wake up and be friends because we’re all in this together. They knew it wouldn’t be easy. “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” has a plaintive edge to it—they knew damn well that universal harmony was a long shot. That said, I’ve read that “Low Rider” actually helped to bring the brown and black lowrider communities together, and if true that tells you they were making it possible. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to be friends with the Cisco Kid?


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