War: WAR AND PEACE... & MUSIC!
Ohio Players; Kool & The Gang; Parliament; Funkadelic; Earth, Wind & Fire... Arguably the names that most immediately spring to mind when the subject of Seventies US funk bands is raised today.
Yet one should not overlook the multi-Platinum mainstream success of each of the above was in fact preceded by that of Los Angeles-based, multi-racial combo War and their landmark triple-Platinum 'The World Is A Ghetto' concept LP. Which, in topping both US Pop and Soul charts back in early 1973, firmly and finally est-ablished the cross-cultural appeal of the self-contained funk band, setting an important musical precedent for the remainder of the decade.
However, despite ensuing global record sales in excess of 23 million (including such milestone Seventies albums as 'Why Can`t We Be Friends?' and 'Deliver The Word' spawning timeless, universally-acclaimed grooves like 'Low Rider' and 'Me & Baby Brother'), War sadly went on to become a major casualty of the disco and easy-listening blandness that plagued the early Eighties black music arena. Thus, the recent release through Avenue/BMG Records of `Peace Sign` - War`s first major-label album in 12 years - is indeed of significance.
Relaxing over afternoon tea in London`s palatial Regent Hotel, War`s now-greying, mustached keyboardist/vocalist Lonnie Jordan explains the significance of the title.
"Well, we`re basically talking about peace on the streets, which is something we all need. And that concept actually came about from an incident that happened one day when we were driving to the studio," he recalls in affable tones: "Myself, along with Howard Scott and Harold Brown - War`s original drummer and guitar-player respectively - happened to stop at a red light and next to us there was this car-load of kids making the gang sign! Now - being that this was LA - if you don`t do the right sign back, there may be a gun pointed at you! So what we decided to do was make the peace sign, which you can never go wrong with. Because it doesn`t mean anything but peace, and it`s also what they know from their parents. So later, as we entered the studio, we started pounding on the drums, conjuring up some lyrics about peace - and the title-track was born! You know, we just figured that, instead of that gang sign, the peace sign always over-rules."
Indeed, with moods ranging from the anti-Vietnam protest-funk of 'Homeless Hero' and haunting left-field balladry of 'The Smuggler' to the tuneful Spanish-tinged community celebration of 'East LA' (the new US single), the new album once more emphasizes the unique cross-cultural musical diversity that has always played such a large part in War.
“Well, it comes from having a multi-cultural group and background and each individual bringing their stories in off the streets and putting it on tape,” explains Lonnie (who co-produced the new set along with long-time War collaborator Eric Burdon): “And a lot of that diversity started back in 1970 with the `Eric Burdon Declares War` album, where every cut was different … And what I love about us is that we don`t just play one circuit. You know, we`re able to hit `em all - the jazz festivals; the classic soul festivals; the blues festivals; the young rock festivals; the Latin festivals; even the rap festivals… And that keeps the excitement in what we do. That`s the main reason why I`m teaching the new, younger guys in the group today to just be themselves and just let go!”
In fact, it would appear that Lonnie and the aforementioned Harold Brown are today War`s only two remaining original members.
“Well, our percussionist Saladro Rodriguez from Tijuana, Mexico has taken the place of Papa Dee Allen, who passed away from an aneurysm to the brain. While on harmonica Tetsuya Nakamura from Japan has replaced Lee Oskar, who is now pursuing a solo career while also manufacturing harmonies”, explains Lonnie patiently: “Then on saxophone - from Detroit, Michigan - we have Kerry Campbell who`s taken the place of Charles Miller, who of course was murdered. Plus, on guitar we have a 26-year-old kid from Scandinavia, Canada named J.B. Eckles. He grew up learning how to play just from listening to Howard Scott who - although featured on the album - has since had to leave due to irreconcilable differences. Then I`ve also added a new keyboard player Rae Valentine, who`s our original drummer Harold Brown`s son! And, while Harold himself is playing drums on `Peace Sign`, on stage he now shares the drums with Ronnie Harmon, who`s actually been with us for 12 years.”
Despite the multi-cultural nature of its eventual line-up, the origins of War however can be clearly traced to Lonnie, Harold and Howard forming the nucleus of the group during the mid-to-late Sixties in their local neighborhoods of South Central LA, Compton and Long Beach. The same areas which, 20 years later, would give birth to gangsta rap.
“Yeah, the neighborhood itself really hasn`t changed, except there`s just more guns now,” relates Lonnie dryly: “Back then there was a lot of pregnant women, and now I`m seeing the RESULTS of all that! You know, I saw a lot of fatherless children on the way. And, while at the time I had no idea how that child would react, I now see a lot of these kids taking the situation really serious and taking their anger out on one another. So my perspective on a lot of the anger is - no parent; no parental guidance; no bonding, except to their fellow brother - the gang-member. And while I feel a lot of the gangsta rap is good music - a lot of it after all is War tracks - there`s only a few of the rappers that I can actually give respect to for what they`re saying. Because almost all the music coming out of South Central LA today is dealing with the negative side. So that`s really what this album 'Peace Sign' is about - cutting through the barriers of all the negative and saying `There is hope!`!”
Nevertheless, while Lonnie may not approve of much of the gangsta rap lyrically, he is quick to acknowledge the important role that today`s hip hop generation has played in War`s current rejuvenation, through their frequent sampling of Seventies War tracks like 'The Cisco Kid' and 'Slippin` Into Darkness'. Most of which will become available once more in September when the entire War album back-catalogue gains its first-ever UK release on CD.
“Yes, I`m honoured that the rappers` interest has enabled us to re-release all our past albums”, he concedes, before discussing the interesting 'Rap Declares War' album. A collection of featured rappers over War tracks, which back in 1992 marked the band`s re-introduction to the public.
“What started that project off was the fact that a lot of other musicians of our gen-eration called us saying `Let`s go to court, man! We`re upset with these rappers `cause we`re not getting paid for our music!`. And so, because we got a bit tired of hearing all these old guys complaining - after all, they`re adults and the rappers are kids - War got together and decided `These kids just aren`t educated. If they knew what they had and what they could really do with it, then it would be a different story`. So we put together that compilation album. Then we took the proceeds and put it back into the community of South Central LA that was torn by the riots, fires and earthquakes. So the political people were then able to take the money and help rebuild LA faster, as well as build some new institutions like a studio. Plus they got some younger teachers in there to teach the kids that there is a positive way of rapping, while also learning the business side of the music industry. You know, `Put away your guns. Pick up an instrument and shoot some beautiful notes out instead of bullets into each other!`. So that`s basically what our goal was there. Our thanks to the rappers, just to let them know `Hey, we`re happy you did this for us!`”
Lonnie however is not so `happy` with the current state of US black radio, which has so far refused to program War`s new album. Partly, he thinks, due to the multi-racial line-up of the group and partly due to the eclectic, label-defying nature of their music.
“I just think the black stations today are quote-on-quote `black stations only` and solely youth-oriented”, he asserts: “So it`s like a clique. But, at the end of the day, they`re only hurting themselves. Because the people do have a right and, once they do all come together, have a lot of power, And they will force the radio to change their format. In fact, I can already see the change starting. In that a lot of the older-oriented stations are now beginning to mix the classic soul with the classic rock… Which is something I`m very glad to see happening again.”
War play the Albert Hall on April 21st and 'Best Of Eric Burdon & War' can be brought from all good stockiest.
Words PETE LEWIS