War is one of those bands that I always liked more than I knew.
I’d enjoyed the sing-along choruses and laugh-along verses of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and the syncopated Latin beat of “The Cisco Kid,” I appreciated the ominous feel of “The World Is a Ghetto,” and though Eric Burdon’s “story” struck me as silly, I bobbed along to “Spill the Wine.” (Great live clip here.)
Later I caught up with “Slippin’ into Darkness” (and noticed that Bob Marley and Peter Tosh borrowed its key hook for “Get Up, Stand Up”), “All Day Music” and “Me and Baby Brother,” and if there’s a more undeniable groove than “Low Rider,” I don’t know what it is.
But it wasn’t until this year that I delved deeper into this multiracial L.A. band’s stew of soul, rock, funk, Latin rhythms, jazz, reggae and more. The “World Is a Ghetto” single is great, but the album version keeps going for 10-plus intoxicating minutes. The same is true of “Gypsy Man,” a galloping single that rides along for 11½ minutes on Deliver the Word.
These guys aren’t noodling. They’re locking into a groove and rolling with it, in no hurry to get wherever they’re going. Listening to the band in its early-mid-1970s heyday, you can hear that these are seven musicians who have played together for years and have an intuitive sense of where each player is headed at every moment.
That their identity was a collective one meant that no one stood out—at least after Burdon departed after two 1970 albums. (The second one has one of those wouldn’t-happen-now titles: The Black-Man’s Burdon.) Maybe that’s why War has been under-recognized despite its artistic and commercial triumphs, such as The World Is a Ghetto being 1973’s bestselling album. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has yet to induct War despite nominating the band three times.
The current incarnation of War, now on tour and playing at Venice Beach on Oct. 30, is led by founding keyboardist/singer/songwriter Lonnie Jordan, the voice behind "Don't Let No One Get You Down" and many others, and has t he backing of longtime producer Jerry Goldstein and the label. Some other original members—Harold Ray Brown, Howard E. Scott, Lee Oskar and B.B. Dickerson (who died this spring)—began playing as the Lowrider Band in the mid-1990s.
Rhino Records has launched an ambitious release campaign to mark War’s 50th anniversary, including new colored-vinyl pressings of the band’s classic first five post-Burdon albums (War, All Day Music, The World Is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word and Why Can’t We Be Friends?) packaged in a box for Record Store Day this summer. It sounds terrific. The two-CD/two-LP set Greatest Hits 2.0 drops Nov. 12.
I was eager to talk with Lonnie Jordan about how War came to create such a lasting, diverse body of work, and he did not disappoint. He’s got stories to tell, most of them illuminating, some of them insane, one involving Jim Morrison atop a piano in a Superman costume. He also gets into why the name War fits a band devoted to harmony, whether the surviving members may ever play together again, and how this band created music that’s as potent now when it was released a half century ago.
I hope you get as much out of this lively, illuminating conversation with Lonnie Jordan as I did. It grooves.