WAR / “Slippin’ Into Darkness”
I was born in 1971. That same year, War dropped All Day Music, which is either their second or fourth full-length album, depending on how you do your counting. Their ‘debut’ self-titled album—which had been released earlier in ‘71—followed two albums that they recorded with Eric Burdon of the English rock band the Animals. The albums that Burdon and War recorded together are a schizophrenic, rambling mess. The music can range from good to great to embarrassingly awful…and during the same song, no less. (Think “Spill The Wine,” except separated into parts and extended so that it runs fifteen minutes long.) The lack of coherence in the band’s sound shouldn’t have been a surprise. A year before the first Burdon/War album came out in 1970, neither party had heard of the other.
There was obvious talent there though. Sources agree that ‘Eric Burdon & War’ were considerably better live than on record and, to whit, they toured relentlessly. Eventually though, the hard pace got to Burdon and one day somewhere in Europe, he quit. The members of War—all of whom were considerably younger than Burdon—finished the tour without him, came home to Los Angeles and started recording. In February of 1971—when I was about the size of a pea, I suppose—War released their first ‘solo’ album. (An eponymously-titled album that I enjoy a lot but would recommend for hardcore fans only.) Seven months later, I was born; a month or so after that, so was All Day Music. If I’d been born as music instead of a man, I like to think that “Get Down” or “Nappy Head” is what I would’ve sounded like.
Much is made of War’s multi-racial and multi-cultural mix, both musically and in terms of personnel. For example, this is the intro paragraph to Wikipedia’s extensive entry on the band:
War was a multiracial, multicultural American funk band of the 1970s from Southern California, known for the hit song "Low Rider.” Formed in 1969, War was the first and most successful musical crossover, fusing elements of rock, funk, jazz, Latin music, R&B, and even reggae. The band also transcended racial and cultural barriers with a multi-ethnic line-up. The band's diverse musical influences have made it an enduring influence….That’s pretty much the standard line on War and after reading descriptions such as Wikipedia’s, one expects to hear in War’s music, oh, I don’t know, a mix of rock, funk, jazz, Latin music, R&B and reggae. I have to admit that I neither see nor hear anything of the sort. Instead, War sounds like a classic soul/funk band of the Seventies, a time when damn near every soul/funk band had guitarists and percussionists and the like.
I’m not saying there’s no multiculturalism in War’s sound. Hell, two of their biggest hits give a nod to SoCal Chicano culture (“Cisco Kid” and “Lowrider”) and the vocals of another of my favorite War tunes (“Hey Señorita”) is entirely in Spanish. But the ‘classic’ War lineup (meaning the cats responsible for 99% of what we love about the band) is: Howard Scott (guitar), Harold Brown (drums), Lonnie Jordan (keyboards), Lee Oskar (harmonica), B.B. Dickerson (bass), Papa Dee Allen (percussion) and Charles Miller (sax). Other than Lee Oskar (who is from Denmark and joined the band when they teamed up with Eric Burdon), every one of War’s original members are black men who grew up in working-class neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles and San Diego. Note the complete lack of Latinos or any other racial group. Hardly the “multi-ethnic lineup” promised by countless bios.*
As promised in last week’s Dennis Brown/Al Green post, I’d intended this week’s write-up to detail how the cross-pollinization of R&B and reggae worked both ways. How R&B not only helped to inspire reggae musicians, but how reggae musicians also helped to inspire R&B musicians. More to the point, I was going to talk about how War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” had been inspired by Bob Marley & Peter Tosh’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” I knew that to be the case because ten years or so ago I saw War play at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. During the show, they played a ten-minute version of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” which, midway through, segued into something that sounded remarkably like “Get Up, Stand Up,” except that the band also sounded like they were still playing “Slippin’.” Over the “Get Up”/”Slippin’” groove, Howard Scott launched into a monologue detailing how he and his bandmates had heard “Get Up, Stand Up” while touring with the Wailers and how the Wailers’ reggae riff had inspired “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” Listen to the instrumental portion of “Slippin’” and you can sing the refrain “get up, stand up / stand up for your rights” right along with War’s tune. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but it was an exciting moment for me. As anyone who reads BoL knows, I love to play connect-the-dots with the music. This was a big one.
Well, it’s funny how we remember what we want to remember as opposed to what actually happened. While I was gathering information for this post, I came across this factoid:
Did you know that Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" was inspired by WAR's "Slippin Into Darkness"? A young and rising Marley toured as WAR's opening act in the early seventies, and often sat on the skirt of the stage groovin to WAR's jam of their hit "Slippin."Even after reading the above, so strong was my belief in my ‘memory’ of that night at Tipitina’s all those years ago, that I thought, “Man, that’s sloppy. These cats got the story backwards.” But a little later, I noticed that Burnin’, the Wailers album that “Get Up, Stand Up” first appeared on, was released in 1973. And when did “Slippin’ Into Darkness” come out? That’s right, 1971. Whoops.
WAR's Lee Oskar, Lonnie Jordan, Howard Scott, and Ronnie Hammon in 1992. (photo: Peter Sherman)
Now that this post has gotten to be both as long and as incoherent as one of those ill-fated ramblings from the Eric Burdon & War sessions, I’ll make mention of a few of my favorite songs from the All Day Music album and call it a day.
“All Day Music” – The prettiest War song ever recorded. (And they recorded plenty of them.) This song is like an audible version of a day in the park. Listen to it with your eyes closed and you can feel the grass tickling your bare feet while the sun warms your skin.
“Get Down” – The counterpoint to “All Day Music.” A song about fakery and falsehood in all its versions. The travails of romantic love, the duplicity of Presidential politics, the ugliness of police brutality, the emptiness of pharmaceutical escapism — it’s all in here. In 1971, ‘get down’ meant ‘get real.’
“Nappy Head” – A song from a soundtrack to a movie that never got filmed. If “All Day Music” is a happy song and “Get Down” is an angry song, “Nappy Head” is a reflective song. Mostly instrumental, it’s a piece about the spaces between happiness and anger. “Nappy Head” has only one lyric. “You can be free just like me,” the band sings, “If you want to be.”
“That’s What Love Will Do” – The first of what would be become a War trademark: the long, mood-filled ballad. This song also exemplifies another surprising fact about War: six of the seven members could (and did) sing lead. They also harmonized flawlessly.
“Slippin’ Into Darkness” – War’s first big hit and still the first song I think of when someone mentions their name. These days, “Slippin’” is a fairly well-known ‘oldie but goodie,’ but on the radio, you’ll never hear it with the powerful and evocative intro. The radio version is cool, but trust me, the seven-minute LP version is the one you really want.
—Mtume ya Salaam
* It occurs to me that the vague ‘multi-cultural’ tag is a (unconscious) minimization of not just War’s identity as a black band from Los Angeles, but also a minimization of the influence of Mexican people and Mexican culture on Southern California culture as a whole. When the so-called ‘Latin’ influence in War’s music is evident, it is evidence of the deep and consistent way that Mexican culture has seeped into and enriched not only black culture in Los Angeles but all of the many things we refer to as ‘culture’—meaning food, dress, speech, music, etc.—in Southern California in general. Even so, I’ve never read a War bio that uses the word ‘Mexican’ or ‘Chicano.’ Strange, because both terms make a lot more sense than the virtually ubiquitous description of multi-whatever.
Watson makes a contribution
Two small things.
By definition, Black music is multicultural. Just the fact that most of the lyrics are in English. English is not our traditional mother-tongue. Indeed, metaphorically speaking, it is our master’s tongue, our father-tongue, forced on us and which, to this day, we resist and twist, subvert and transform.
The music we call Black music mainly uses European instruments played generally in non-European styles.
We interpret European melodies and harmonies and infused them with African aesthetics…. I could go on, but I think the point is clear.
Sherlock, check your library. You have the Marley book. It is probable that “Get Up, Stand Up” was written long before being released on Burnin’. Doesn’t prove one way or the other which song influenced the other, but a case could be made either way. Indeed, given how some songs develop on the road, the riff may have morphed into a song over the course of a tour but recorded months or even years later. So if they were on the same tour, it’s possible that the one set of musicians heard the song long before it was officially a song. Sort of like knowing a teenage Billy Strayhorn when he was in high school in Pittsburg, at 16 he had already written “Lush Life” but it would be years later before it was first recorded. The date of initial documentation is not necessarily the same as the date of origin. Check it out.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. For some reason, in my head, Chicago is associated with “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” Perhaps I was riding on the Southside when I first heard it on the radio—used to frequent Chi back in the seventies. Good call on this War write-up.
I checked it out. According to Bob Marley & The Wailers: The Definitive Discography, the first appearance of "Get Up, Stand Up" was in April of 1973 when it was recorded as a demo for Island Records. The more I think about it, the more sure I am that I'm remembering Howard Scott's story backwards and that the War song inspired the Bob Marley/Peter Tosh song, not the other way around. As I was checking through the discography, it's readily apparent that the pre-1973 Wailers rarely (if ever) recorded stridently political or revolutionary material. Their songs tended to be either topical or romantic. Then, once they got signed to Island, the Wailers' music suddenly became much more pointedly political. Also, their view seemed to expand past the island of Jamaica to the 'sufferation' and struggle of the downtrodden all over the world. I'm not saying that Island Records had anything to do with the change, but the change is noticeable. Also, pre-'73 Wailers songs often used parts of American R&B tunes or were outright covers of American R&B. If you think about it in that way, Marley and Tosh picking up on a groove and a riff from War makes a lot more sense than the other way around. Kalamu's point about release dates not necessarily being relevant to when a song was actually written or conceived is valid, but given the level of detail in The Definitive Discography and given that the War cats tell the story the way they do, I think it's unlikely that "Get Up, Stand Up" existed before 1971, when War first released "Slippin' Into Darkness."
One other quick point. As I reread what I had to say above at War, I think I may be guilty of overstating a good case. There certainly is a consistently Latin (or more specifically, Mexican or Chicano) flavor to War's music. I guess the point I really wanted to make is that the 'multi' designation, in my opinion, goes way overboard and is much too general to actually mean anything.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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