In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1973: War’s The World Is A Ghetto
These days, we’re used to hearing discussions about the breakdown of genre in music. The popularity of streaming has allowed listeners to freely pick the songs they want to listen to without the industry dictating them. This has led to many of our biggest artists today from Post Malone, Billie Eilish, and Drake releasing music that many aren’t sure what genre it belongs in. Is it pop? Is it R&B? Is it hip-hop? Or is it all of them? And of course, there’s the whole “Old Town Road” incident that we’ll get to eventually.
The thing about this is that it’s always been around. We’ve seen many artists throughout music history who’ve defied genre limitations and crossover to various formats and audiences. One act who greatly exemplifies this is War, the Los Angeles based multi-racial jam band who mixed various musical influences from Latin, rock, funk, jazz, soul, and R&B managing to meld them all together into a sound all their own that didn’t really belong into any one of these genres. For much of the ‘70s, War’s wide musical appeal helped land them several big hits that came to a head with their fourth album The World Is A Ghetto, Billboard’s biggest-selling album for 1973.
War had existed in one form or another since 1962 when high school friends Howard Scott and Harold Brown formed an LA-based R&B band the Creators. After several lineup changes due to its members getting drafted into the Vietnam War, they settled on a lineup that included guitarist Scott, drummer Brown, saxophonist Charles Miller, bassist Morris “B.B.” Dickerson, and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan. The group played constantly on the LA club circuit with their music reflecting the diverse set of influences they absorbed growing up in LA’s racially mixed neighborhoods.
In 1968, the Creators became Nightshift where they became the backing band for football star turned singer Deacon Jones. It was during that time when record producer Jerry Goldstein caught them at a Los Angeles club and immediately took a liking to their sound. Goldstein was a member of the Strangeloves who are behind the 1965 immortal classic “I Want Candy” but he also had a hand in a few other major hits of the time. He had co-written and produced “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a #1 hit for the Angels in 1963 and two years later produced the McCoys’ #1 smash “Hang On Sloopy.” Goldstein hooked the band up with Eric Burdon, the former singer of the British Invasion group the Animals, who took control of the group as its lead singer.
Soon after the change, Nightshift was rebranded as War which Goldstein came up with after noticing the guys walking out of a sushi place in Japan looking like they had come out of a battlefield. As Jordan explained, “We took the name and made sense out of it: the fact that we were waging war against the war that was going on across our waters and the wars in our backyards back in the day — the riots. That was our motto: to wage war and choose instruments as our choice of weapons.” The group soon got a major record deal and went right to work on a debut album with 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares War. The album was a moderate hit but the track “Spill The Wine,” a half-sung and half-spoken ramble, became their big breakout hit peaking at #3 on the Hot 100.
Burdon and War toured extensively worldwide and released a quick followup, The Black Man’s Bourdon, before Burdon quit the group during a European tour due to exhaustion before leaving for good. The now Burdon less War continued on releasing their first self-titled solo album that did nothing but got renewed success with their follow up All Day Music which went gold and spawned the classic Top 20 hit “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” War was able to show it could survive as their own unit. But all of this was an appetizer for what was to come.
Released in November 1972, The World Is A Ghetto outsold their previous albums spending two weeks at #1 on Billboard managing to outsell everyone in 1973 from Seals & Croft, Stevie Wonder, Carly Simon, and Diana Ross. Singles-wise, The World Is A Ghetto also brought War their biggest success with the title track reaching #7 while “The Cisco Kid” would become their biggest hit ever peaking at #2 behind Tony Orlando & Dawn’s smash “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.”
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jordan noted how much of War’s songs were the result of the band jamming out, “They’re all jams. We would go an hour and have to change tapes in the middle of jamming. All we did was edit it down because we saw a section of the tape that coincided with a story that we had, so we toyed around, and you’re hearing a tight section of an hour of music.” That’s exactly how The World Is A Ghetto feels. The album is only six tracks long but half of them are extended jams that run as long as thirteen minutes. The songs don’t follow much of a structure in the traditional way we view songs. The singing mainly consists of the group singing together with no clear frontman. Even on “The Cisco Kid,” easily the most accessible song of the album, it’s still more of a vamp than a song.
There are lyrics and narratives to the album like “The Cisco Kid” being based on the titular ‘50s western outlaw show and the title track being about no matter how hard they try they are still trapped in the cycle of poverty and discrimination that minorities live with for life. (Sound familiar.) But the lyrics aren’t the major focus of the album. It’s all about the sweaty grooves the band produces.
As I mentioned in the beginning, it’s hard to place War in any singular genre. There’s certainly funk but no one was going to mistake them for James Brown or Sly & The Family Stone or Stevie Wonder. There’s rock but no one was going to mistake them for Led Zeppelin. There’s Latin but it’s not exactly Santana. There’s R&B/soul but they definitely don’t sound like the many R&B/soul groups and singers dominating at the time. And while they may have been influenced by jazz, they don’t do much of the complex chords and improvisation that defines most jazz. It’s just War and The World Is A Ghetto is another showcase for the band’s diverse talents.
“The Cisco Kid” is my favorite on the album as an all-out Latin funk banger with the fun shouting singalong vocals and itchy wah guitar scratches throughout. “Where Was You At?” is a rock-leaning track with some Stevie Wonder-esque harmonica. The thirteen-minute epic “City, Country, City” is a well done Santana imitation. “Four Cornered Room” has a hazy stoner vibe complete with phaser vocals and production. The last two songs, the title track and “Beetles In The Bog” are more of the same free-spirited jams. The World Is A Ghetto, on the whole, is a fun album from a band who are clearly enjoying themselves but like a previous album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the extended jams can feel indulgent and boring after a while but that’s clearly the point of War in showing off their musicianship so I can’t complain much. It’s the perfect album to listen to while high and relaxed.
War wouldn’t hit the big heights of The World Is A Ghetto but they kept up their success with their next two albums, 1973’s Deliver The World and 1975’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?. Both were major hits along with the singles, “Gypsy Man,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends?,” and “Low Rider.” The band scored their last Top 10 single with “Summer” a track from their 1976 greatest-hits collection. After that, the band’s chart success would dwindle with the rise of disco putting their brand of sweaty Latin funk-rock out of style. They’ve continued releasing albums with their last one released in 2014. War is still a band today playing the oldies circuit even as much of the circa 1973 era members are no longer in the band. Miller was stabbed to death during a robbery in 1980 at age 41. Percussionist Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen died in 1988 from a brain aneurism at age 58. The rest of the members have all left the band except for Jordan who leads it now.
While War may not have had much success since the ‘70s, their music has continued to live with us in ways you may not think. Hip-hop artists have taken a huge liking to War’s music sampling it a lot whether it’d be Shaggy sampling “Smile Happy” for his 2001 classic “It Wasn’t Me” or Flo Rida sampling “Low Rider” for 2015’s “GDFR.” War’s harmonica player Lee Oskar had his song “San Francisco Bay” sampled in Pitbull and Kesha’s 2014 #1 “Timber” which I’ll get to talking about eventually in my The Ones of the ‘10s column. “Low Rider” was also used as the theme music for the sitcom George Lopez which ran on ABC for six seasons in the 2000s.
With all the royalties coming into their bank accounts, I’m sure the members of War aren’t complaining about not having any more hits.
Honorable mention: Talking Book, 1973’s #3 best-selling album, is often remembered as the beginning of Stevie Wonder’s amazing run of hit albums in the ‘70s known as the classic period and it certainly lives up to its reputation. The album features two of his best-known songs, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and “Superstition,” which were also #1 hits. Both songs tell you what to expect from the album with nasty funk stompers and heartfelt ballads with Wonder playing most of the instruments and utilizing the latest musical technology like synthesizers. Talking Book isn’t exactly the all-time Stevie Wonder album compared to what would come later but it’s a fun listen regardless in hearing a legend enjoying his newfound creative freedom.
Next time: Elton John releases his biggest and best-known record in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road making him one of the biggest hit-making music acts of the ‘70s
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