November 27, 2023

War and 50 Years of The World Is a Ghetto


I’ve got 30 minutes on the phone with War co-founder Lonnie Jordan and the band’s longtime producer Jerry Goldstein. Naturally, we spend the first half of it talking about the time Jordan got into a fight with Jim Morrison at Goldstein’s mansion in Los Angeles. “I have my part of the story, and Jerry has his,” Jordan proclaims. “I think Jerry was a little bit more clear-minded that night.” There’s a pause. “They were both drunk,” Goldstein declares. “I mean, really drunk.” Jordan and original WAR bandleader (and former lead singer of The Animals) Eric Burdon were workshopping “Spill the Wine,” trying to figure out the groove, in real-time at a big Hollywood shindig.

The Beach Boys were there, the Rolling Stones were there. Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane were there and skinny dipping in the pool. Three Dog Night was in attendance. Neither Jordan nor Goldstein are sure if Hendrix was there, but it was straight out of a West Coast fairytale, a “magical night,” as Goldstein puts it. Jordan grew up in Compton and only had real access to R&B radio. He knew about the British Invasion, of course, but he didn’t know who Jim Morrison was; he knew James Brown, Little Richard and Otis Redding. He had no idea he was fist-fighting the guy from The Doors.

“Lonnie is playing and Jim Morrison starts singing—and Lonnie has no idea who Morrison is,” Goldstein explains. “He goes to Jim and he says, ‘Just cool it man, I’ll tell you when to sing.’ Eric is working, trying to figure out what to say and what to write, and Morrison’s singing [Goldstein mimics the Doors frontman’s low, slurring vocals] and Lonnie went ‘I’ll tell you when to sing.’ All of a sudden, Morrison takes the top of the piano and slams it down. Lonney pulls his hands out just in time, and now there’s a confrontation. Now, they’re looking at each other, pointing at each other. The next thing I know, it looks like an old black-and-white cowboy movie; they’re rolling over the couch and they’re swinging at—but they’re not hitting—each other. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen—”

Jordan interrupts him. “It was definitely black and white,” he says, laughing.

“It was totally crazy,” Goldstein continues. “And the next thing we noticed was that Jim Morrison was in a fetal position in front of the fireplace.”

“I didn’t do anything to make him do that,” Jordan responds. “And I said to myself, ‘Whatever he is on, maybe I should get some of that so I won’t feel any pain, either.’ Eric ran upstairs and got his gun, he was so pissed off. He just thought he would shoot the chandeliers out and try to end the party, because he was pissed off. And he shot the gun at the chandelier and no one moved, except me—because, you know, me being young, dumb, full of fun and from Compton, I thought it was an ambush! And all it was was Eric shooting the chandeliers out. When he did that, everyone just looked at him and laughed.”

War The World Is a Ghetto

After co-writing hit songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Come On Down to My Boat” and “I Want Candy” and co-producing “Hang On Sloopy” earlier in the decade, Goldstein, in 1969, discovered the members of War when they were a nameless backing-band for Deacon Jones at the Rag Doll in North Hollywood. But that party at his house was the beginning of the War we know best—a celebration of his, Burdon and Jordan’s new venture, a pivot away from the Animals that saw Burdon graduate from the clutches of the British Invasion and take a spin down the roads of funk, soul, latin and psychedelic rock.

That night is also where Jordan met Marc Bolan for the first time, and the two men would further collaborate on the T. Rex album Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow. Jordan played organ on the song “Teenage Dream,” but insists that most of the time the two men spent in the studio together was spent drinking Southern Comfort whiskey. “He was wild!” Jordan exclaims. Truly, that party at Goldstein’s was a night of drinking, jamming and fighting—all because seven men came together and were on the precipice of an idea.

“Spill the Wine,” which would go on to be a #3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, hadn’t even been written yet. Eric Burdon Declares “War” didn’t exist. But Burdon was signed to MGM and had been performing with War for a while before they ever cut a record, instead performing other people’s songs they’d made their own. “We convinced [MGM] that this was the new thing: It’s Eric Burdon and War, his new band. And they went ‘Fine’ and they went along with it. I’m not sure they could even say no,” Goldstein explains.

Burdon and War wrote “Spill the Wine” because Jordan knocked a cup of wine onto Wally Heider Studios’ analog console and destroyed it. They’d cut Declares “War” and The Black-Man’s Burdon together and, when they’d tour both albums (and War, the Eric Burdon-less album the band cut at the same time as The Black-Man’s Burdon) and play gigs that would stretch, sometimes, as long as three hours. They were a superband doing Springsteen-length shows before it was commonplace for all-time acts, even writing new songs on stage every night—which prompted Goldstein to have a remote recording truck built so they could record all of the concerts and make certain no new arrangement would get missed or lost in the sands of gigging.

War’s real gig with Burdon came at Newport Pop Festival in August 1969. Hendrix was headlining, and folks like Marvin Gaye, the Byrds and Ike & Tina Turner also performed. Burdon was billed as a solo act on the poster, but he introduced War to the 100,000 people in attendance. Prior to the event, he and War only had completed one practice gig together in San Bernardino. It was the epitome of playing it as it lays.

Jordan mentions that Newport was where he got to meet Bonnie Bramlett, though he could never understand why she and her husband (and musical partner) Delaney fought so much. “I think that made me start fighting with my first wife,” he says, laughing. “But [Bonnie] was cool, a scorpio like me. She’s still alive, she’s somewhere around. I just haven’t touched base with her in a long time, I don’t know if she’s still doing concerts or not but, hey, we’ve all reached a peak. I take that back—not we all, some of us. We still have albums out, we still have new records out, like The World Is a Ghetto. I haven’t stopped.”

The World Is a Ghetto came out in November 1972 via United Artists Records. Earlier that year, their single “Slippin’ into Darkness” off All Day Music charted as high as #16 on the Hot 100. But War had failed to really capitalize on the same momentum that “Spill the Wine” had garnered for them two years earlier. The World Is a Ghetto changed everything, going on to become the best-selling album of 1973 and Billboard’s Album of the Year (beating out Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, just to name a few).

The project went gold, selling 500,000 copies and producing two Top 10 singles—the title track and “The Cisco Kid,” the latter of which hit #2 on the pop chart. Thinking back on what Jordan was saying about only having ever listened to R&B radio, that was a big division in the 1960s, 1970s. Radio segregation was immense and made the pop and R&B spheres feel like separate universes. Black and brown bands finding success on the mainstream charts wasn’t an everyday achievement, but War got lucky —because they had Burdon, who’d scored 14 Top 40 hits in the United States with the Animals.

War The World Is a Ghetto

It would be easy to chalk War’s successes up to that, but it would significantly undercut just how indescribable but genius their sound was at the time—and that loss for words was a catalyst in them getting airplay everywhere near and far. When Burdon left the band, All Day Music started to generate some buzz. Back then, a Top 20 hit was getting as much favorability on the streets and in clubs as a Top 10 hit. The disparity in access, in that sense, was minimal.

When Goldstein says that “Slippin’ into Darkness” blew up in early 1972, he means it. The track moved 2,000,000 units and was certified platinum. Both “The World Is a Ghetto” and “The Cisco Kid” would find gold certification from the RIAA and push War into the stratosphere. It’s crucial to understand that all of this was happening two years before their most recognizable pop hits—“Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”—even came out. “From that point on, we were a pop act as well as an R&B act,” Goldestein adds. “Sly and the Family Stone did it before us, actually making the crossover.”

But what separated War and Sly and the Family Stone was the former’s integration within Latin countries—because of the band’s percussive instrumentation and the fact that some of its members throughout the years have been Latino musicians. Those communities played a crucial role in War’s initial successes and still do 50 years on. “We would play places like El Paso and get more pesos than dollars at the box office,” Goldstein says. “People would come up from Mexico for the show and go totally insane. And they’re still there. We still have that culture and they’re still there.” When they were shooting a video in Venice Beach a few years ago, 200 low-riders showed up.

The World Is a Ghetto boasted samba-style arrangements done up in War’s signature Long Beach style. For a concept album to achieve such heights was a monumental moment in rock ‘n’ roll. From the kaleidoscopic horn jam on the title track to the stomp of melancholy ensconcing the magic of “Where Was You At” to the “na na na” singalong jubilancy of “Beetles In the Bog,” the record drapes itself in a mirage of tones and turns. War were even deemed an Afro-Cuban-jazz-rock-blues band by trade magazines just because they couldn’t decipher what category the group should fall into. And yet, none of that mattered. The World Is a Ghetto blew the gates open regardless—and everyone in America had turned their ear towards what Jordan, Howard Scott, B.B. Dickerson, Harold Brown, Papa Dee Allen, Charles Miller and Lee Oskar had put together.

“We don’t fit into other situations,” Goldstein proclaims. “We have our own sound, we have our own style and, unlike a lot of groups that just had singles, our albums always outsold the singles—because our albums had hits in them that we never released as singles.” He’s talking about the 13-minute “City, Country, City” and the eight-minute “Four Cornered Room,” both of which found a lot of airplay via late-night DJs in good-sized markets all across the US. The album was huge, emphasized by a story Goldstein tells about how Maryland became one of many epicenters of buzz for War in 1973. “In Baltimore, there was a one-stop that would sell to mom-and-pop stores,” he continues. “One one-stop went through 150,000 copies of the album. It was totally crazy, I’d never seen sales like that in my life. And I had made a lot of hits before, but I had never seen the kind of success we had with The World Is a Ghetto.”

War The World Is a Ghetto

The era of streaming that we’re in clouds the realities of certifications and record sales. A song getting played on Spotify a million times is a feat, yes, but it can’t quite capture the magnitude of selling a million copies of a single. Having a massively streamed song in 2023 doesn’t buy you anything (it certainly doesn’t get you enough streaming royalties) more than pockets of exposure. But for War, having the Album of the Year in 1973 put them into bigger stadiums like Shea Stadium in Queens and The Spectrum in Philadelphia. It blew them up into a huge rock band and gave them the star-power to send “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” straight to the moon.

The World Is a Ghetto came from an idea that Papa Dee had for a character called “Ghetto Man.” He wanted to write a book or a play around Ghetto Man, and War found themselves in their rehearsal room laying down jazz instrumentation and soundtracking Papa Dee’s idea. Eventually, the arrangements became bigger than that (Jordan contends that they, basically, lost the plot of the original concept) and it evolved into “The World Is a Ghetto.”

“The more we played it, the more we liked it,” Jordan says. “Every day, we would come back and start adding on and on and on until it evolved into what you hear now. But we still didn’t have the total concept yet until we took it into the studio. We were still playing around with it, trying different things. It sounded totally different once we got into a real studio that wasn’t the recording truck. When we got there, we broke it down again. We were close to it on the recording truck, but something different happened—we tried to recreate it in the studio.” “The original recording was almost twice as fast as it wound up,” Goldstein adds.

The entire album took, from the first note to the final mastering, 29 days to make. Prior to that, War had never made a record in less than a year. It was such a moment in time for them—the right time, really—and they were ready to seize that creativity at full-speed. It was only War’s third album after Burdon left, yet they’d conceived a masterpiece.

The World Is a Ghetto’s commercial and critical cornerstone endures as “The Cisco Kid,” which was inspired by the TV show of the same name. It wasn’t the attire or the aesthetics—the flair of gunslingers and the Wild West—but the vibe of the Cisco Kid that felt like a world that War was also a part of. “He was an ethnic hero of his time,” Jordan says. “We looked at him as a hero of the Latino world. I looked at it, personally, as him being dressed to kill and his horse looked like a low-rider car. Even his gun looked like bling-bling. He was the original low-rider of the Wild, Wild West and we loved it. We loved his vibe and his sidekick Pancho. We said, ‘Hey, man, this would be a great song.’ We could have taken anything else, but there wasn’t anything else out there. The Cisco Kid, he was different and, in our minds, we were different and unique.”

Jordan considers “Low Rider” and “The Cisco Kid” to be two songs cut, emotionally and historically, from the same cloth—as The Cisco Kid didn’t play in every city or state, and much of the United States had no inkling what a low-rider car even was. The tracks were War’s way of saying “This is Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo, the desperados of syndicated television” and “This is the kind of car roaming the streets where we roam, too.” It was a means of giving the folks who didn’t hear their culture projected onto rock and R&B radio a voice in contemporary spaces. “When they say ‘The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine,’ they mean ‘The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine,’ the non-Anglo superhero,” Goldstein adds. The band actually would take scenes from The Cisco Kid and project them during concerts and, later, meet Renaldo at his house in Santa Barbara and merge the two worlds together forever.

Something that continues to awe me about The World Is a Ghetto is Charles Millers’ horn and woodwind work, especially on the title track. His solo during “City, Country, City” is a perfect representation of how, quite possibly, he remains the greatest American saxophone player whose name isn’t household. The work of Miller’s that you hear on “The World Is a Ghetto” is, largely, from the original first take. On the 26-minute The Making of “The World Is a Ghetto” EP that came out last week, you can hear that entire take from beginning to end, and it’s an indescribable vignette of sheer triumph. “When he was doing it, I sat down because I couldn’t believe it,” Goldstein says. “And it wasn’t written. He built the solo from just vibing. The band was working with him, going up and up and up. That’s what got me, I couldn’t believe it. It was such a magic moment in our history.”

War The World Is a Ghetto

Every year, when the winter breaks and temperatures rise, I listen to “Summer” on repeat. It’s, in my opinion, one of the grooviest chapters of the Great American Songbook, and Jordan lifted the melody from the Burger King “Have it your way” jingle. But it’s a song that—much like War as a band—signifies the promise of better, more joyous days. I think often about the different bands that California has produced over the last six, seven decades—be it the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean singing about surf culture or hot rod racing, or War singing about low-riders and neighborhood kids in the streets—and it’s clear that a record like The World Is a Ghetto helped make Southern California a part of the world as complex as ever. War wrote about low-riders because Miller had one and the band understood that culture; they wrote about Compton and Long Beach because that was their neighborhood. It was the West Coast’s answer to Funkadelic’s East Coast formula.

The album that changed War forever was built on the premise of sharing stories of class, hope and equity—about everyone coming from the same place. It was this idea that a junker car can be worth as much in one neighborhood as a luxury sports car is in another that was so damn universal. “I knew we met each other this morning for a reason,” the band goes on “Four Cornered Room.” “Thinking, talking, we’ve worked out our problems. Looked like should have better days in front, just because we took our time to think and talk for a much better understanding.” The world continues to spin, and our neighborhoods, our ghettos and our people endure all the same. We hold each other close. Happiness is here, have your share. Paradise is love, to be sure.

Most of The World Is a Ghetto is, if you can believe it, first-take stuff. There are other takes, which you can hear most of on the 50th anniversary collector’s edition that’s forthcoming on Record Store Day. The “making of” recordings are extra-special, as listeners get an opportunity to hear all six songs evolve from the first note to the master. And when Goldstein and his crew get ready to put the collection out on streaming, even more takes are likely to come with it that just couldn’t fit on LPs.

But diving into these snippets and start-to-finish documents, it’s a real treasure trove of one of the greatest American bands making one of the greatest American albums—and it germinated from impromptu energy stabilized by a real hodge-podge sense of genius. But Jordan is humble about it all. “Most of the time, while in the studio, we never knew what we were doing,” he concedes. “And that was the best part of our creativity, that we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. There was no thinking, it was just feeling in the moment. And, if Jerry didn’t turn the machine on or push that record button, it all got lost. Try to duplicate it again? No way.”

War’s The World Is a Ghetto: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition will be available on Friday, November 24 at select record stores across the United States and is limited to just 4,000 copies. More info can be found here.

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