December 18, 2023

The World Is a Ghetto: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition

The new reissue of a landmark album of 1970s funk restores the Los Angeles group’s reputation as multi-cultural pop savants and unstoppable improvisers.

It was a simple idea: Combine the everyday music of Long Beach and nearby Compton with the ascendant sounds of funk, soul, and R&B, and shape it all into something that would sound right coming out of a radio anywhere in the United States. By the time they released The World Is a Ghetto in 1972, War had the levels dialed in perfectly.

The Long Beach party band had spent 1969 banging around Los Angeles County playing heavy R&B as the backing band for future NFL Hall of Famer Deacon Jones when producer Jerry Goldstein caught their live show. He thought they’d be a perfect match for English singer Eric Burdon, who was just beginning his solo career following the dissolution of the Animals. The interracial band—Burdon and harmonica player Lee Oskar were white, the rest of the band was Black—had a hit by mid-1970 with “Spill the Wine,” a talky pastoral funk song that set Burdon’s Kinks-indebted lyrics against a snapping rhythm. The singer would leave the group following 1970’s regrettably titled The Black Man’s Burdon, but the spirit of multicultural brotherhood—and the freedom from genre expectations it would provide—remained. Working closely with Goldstein, War became both a heavyweight live band and a sophisticated pop machine, slicker than Sly and the Family Stone and more down to earth than Funkadelic.

Five decades later, War are primarily remembered for 1975’s “Low Rider,” an all-time great song that’s been licensed so frequently and decontextualized so thoroughly it now feels like something of a novelty. Rhino’s new reissue of The World Is a Ghetto—the best-selling album of 1973, with a single that shipped a million copies—not only restores War’s reputation as some of the savviest and most omnivorous pop composers of the 1970s; its bonus disc of in-studio jams suggests they might have rivaled Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters as one of funk’s greatest groups of improvisers.

The World Is a Ghetto was originally intended to be a stage play that War percussionist Papa Dee Allen was developing about a character named Ghetto Man. One night, while the band was jamming in their Long Beach warehouse, he hit upon a revelation, as co-founder and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan recalls in the reissue’s liner notes. They’d been playing around in Malibu and Santa Monica, and had seen firsthand that wealth and privilege didn’t necessarily guarantee a great life. In their view, Ghetto Man wasn’t any different from the guy with the beachfront property who still struggled with addiction. And that changed how they saw the world: “The world is a ghetto.”

This was only one year after Marvin Gaye reached toward a better world on What’s Going On, a year after Isaac Hayes stepped out with Shaft. Singing about oppression and personal confusion, and finding inspiration and power in Blackness, was clearly artistically and commercially viable. But War were more dedicated to interracial harmony than Black liberation. Their debut album depicted two disembodied forearms connected at the bicep, one Black and one white, each flashing a W sign. “Our mission was to spread a message of brotherhood and harmony,” the band said.

For them, to declare that the world was a ghetto wasn’t a political statement, it was a reminder of the universal nature of suffering—or, as drummer Harold Brown once put it, rich people’s toilets clog up, too. “Wonder if I’ll ever find happiness,” B.B. Dickerson sings on the title track. He draws out his verses over glowing stacks of soul harmonies, singing like he’s measuring the distance to a future he can almost glimpse. When the chorus comes, his voice hardens and the melody flattens into a simple statement of the present: “Don’t you know that it’s true, that for me and for you, the world is a ghetto.”

While their music isn’t as emphatic in its politics as some of their contemporaries’, their emphasis on a collective brotherhood of man allowed them to recontextualize virtually all music as street music. Doo-wop harmonies, marching-band cadences, Latin percussion, country guitar, banging salsa piano, front-porch harmonicas: If it can be played by one person outside of a studio, it has a home on The World Is a Ghetto. “Where Was You At?” is an earthy, shuffling funk song in the Meters’ lineage that, appropriately enough, began life as a jam on the New Orleans band’s home turf at Tipitina’s. But as Lee Oskar honks away at his harmonica over a bed of handclaps, the song shifts subtly into mid-’60s R&B and Chicago blues, drifting in the direction of the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk” as it crests. “Beetles in the Bog” struts at a parade pace, with Funkadelic-style gang vocals, steel pans, and snares all moving in sync over Dickerson’s cyclical bassline; a flourish of prog-rock keys lights up the song’s bridge.

While the fluid nature of the music makes The World Is a Ghetto feel loose and spontaneous, it’s often meticulously crafted. On the set’s bonus disc of alternate takes, the band works out different approaches to “The Cisco Kid,” the album’s opening track, which moves atop a chassis of conga, kick drum, and bass. One attempt is dismissed as sounding too much like “Shaft,” leading someone in the band to suggest they call their version “Shift.” The version that made the record is one of the era’s definitive rhythms. Jordan matches the groove with his keyboard, which he runs through distortion, and picks out notes one by one. Together, it feels like a thousand little stipples of percussion ducking effortlessly in and out of one another, a minor miracle of precision played with the good-time vibes of a few guys jamming in the sea breeze at Bluff Park on a Saturday afternoon.

“City, Country, City,” which was originally composed for the 1973 film A Name for Evil, shows War at their most conceptually ambitious. As the title suggests, the song rambles back and forth between a cowpoke country-gospel mode and a long funk jam played at freeway speed. The former might be the album’s best moment. It feels bathed in the glow of a long sundown, with Oskar playing a slack harmonica line over clip-clopping drums. When the band bursts into pacier sections, Charles Miller’s reverb-drenched saxophone takes the lead. He doesn’t match the battering of the rhythm section so much as smooth out their chopping, gesturing toward overblowing without ever quite getting there. It’s a strange mix—it makes the song feel plump at the edges and thin in the middle; one wonders what a more active sax player might have done with it.

While The World is a Ghetto is a collective triumph, the individual band members’ personalities come through more strongly on the jams collected on the bonus LP. While “L.A. Sunshine” would eventually find its way to 1977’s Platinum Jazz in dramatically different form, the embryonic version here is a showcase for Jordan’s piano playing. In a flourish, he moves from an absurdly fast and mechanically precise salsa rhythm into a solo that flits through R&B triplets, hammered chords that nearly predict house music, and an eloquent run of notes that begins as Debussy and resolves into the blues. Behind him, Dickerson’s bass and Howard E. Scott’s guitar chase one another around a palindrome of a riff, nearly oblivious to the rest of the band. It’s an incredible moment, more inventive and sprightly than anything that made its way onto the final album. Jordan lets loose again on “Lee’s Latin Jam” with a waterfall of notes, while on “War Is Coming,” the whole band generates a hazy desert blues and basks in its heat.

The reissue package also includes three LPs of side-long tracks that stitch various jams, work sessions, and studio chatter into more or less coherent chronologies of how each of the original album’s six songs came together. While it’s interesting to follow the album’s evolution, and the production makes the narrative flow of each song’s history surprisingly easy to engage , it’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t already living deeply inside of these grooves returning to them after a preliminary listen.

War made themselves singular by celebrating the many cultures that surrounded them—not synthesizing diverse inspirations into a perfect union so much as giving it all equal space to shine. The World Is a Ghetto is a landmark album of ’70s funk, one that deserves to be remembered alongside the best work of the Meters, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Sly and the Family Stone. The group’s signature sound was amorphous, and the depth of their impact isn’t as obvious as that of those bands. But the syncretic funk they forged, which reached its pinnacle on The World Is a Ghetto, is a personal and musical realization of the social harmony they spent their career fighting for.

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