WAR – The World is a Ghetto (United Artists – 1972)
By A. Scott Galloway
“To us, the whole concept of the musical idol and the fan has become passé’. We are street people…our music often comes from the street level. It’s an extension of The People and those people identify most heavily with us.The Music is Us and We are The Music. We are simply doing what every musician really wants to do…drawing our music from everything about us.”
– Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen (Conguero y Percussionist of WAR)
If Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in 1971 was the eternal QUESTION about the state of the planet and human relations – scored to a lush celestial soundtrack of rhythm, strings and chorus – WAR’s “The World is a Ghetto” from the following year, 1972,was the eternal ANSWER – a stark statement of universal truth set to music that felt like a hazy shade of sundown. The song was an equalizer – a musical lighthouse of earth blues wisdom that struck a mystic nerve for a pan cultural constituency. And in its full uncut 10:10 glory as the centerpiece and title track of the band’s third album (fifth if you include the two they recorded in collaboration with English rocker Eric Burdon), it was a unifying, moody blues masterpiece brewed from a gumbo of gospel organ, psychedelic guitars, urban horror tenor jazz, Amen corner harmonica and a “smmfh” bottom of have mercy bass, drums and percussion – a sound and a vibration only WAR – known in an earlier incarnation as The Creators – could make.
WAR – a southern California septet – made music that was communal in the sense that while you could completely lose yourself in the mastery, you were more often compelled to add your voice. Their sound was tribal yet nondenominational, connectingto your spirit like a familial embrace. Their songs kicked insight into troubles of the world, empathy for our internal and external struggles, steeled optimism and a freeing funk to shake off the shackles of whatever was ailing ye.
The World is a Ghetto is roundly viewed as both the critical and commercial highpoint of WAR – the crystal distillation of their all-natural essences. Following the breakthrough success of their second album All Day Music which included the serene summer chill of the title track and the ferocious out of body experience of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” (the groove Bob Marley copped the inspiration to later write the revolutionary Reggae anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”), WAR hunkered down in Crystal Industries Studio in L.A. for a now-fabled 30-day lockout, jamming, composing, editing and assembling what would become a mind-altering master stroke of `70s Soul – 30 days to cut a 6-song diamond. Its contents moved seamlessly from outright silly to downright soul-stirring.
The album opens with what would be selected as its lead-off single for radio,
“The Cisco Kid,”largely composed and sung by guitarist HowardScott in tribute to his childhood TV western serial hero (played by Duncan Renaldo). Howard being Howard, he embellished the character with the superpower of being able to ride into town blasting away the bad guys with a pistol in one hand while swiggin’ whisky or port wine in the other! The song is deceptive in its perceived simplicity when, in fact, it is a funky 16-bar blues with Latin and Reggae crosscurrents. Lyrically, it regales the listener with multiple episodes in Cisco’s travels in six catchy, highly repetitive verses, filled in with the group’s infectious background vocal camaraderie,a Greek chorus of harmonica and clarinet, even snatches of Spanglish dialogue. Overflowing with fun, the song actually performed better at Top 40 radio, peaking at #2 on Billboard’s Top Pop Singles chart and #5 R&B.
Next up is “Where Was You At,” a serious admission of abandonment in hour of need made light by drummer Harold Brown’s bouncy New Orleans beat, and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan’s rollicking piano and organ – “real Baptist church stuff,” as Howard Scott describes it. This one was mostly penned and sung by sax man Charles Millerand is eerily prophetic when one listens now knowing the tragic fate Miller met when he was stabbed to death 8 years later in a harrowing ambush/robbery in a motel room. Throughout The World is a Ghettoand, indeed, all of WAR’s albums until his departure, Miller would bring nothing less than the composite, abstract AND absolute Truth to every contribution he made.
That Truth begins in the next selection that closed Side 1, “City, Country, City.”The sprawling 13-and-a-half-minute instrumental that began life as a wistful melody that Danish-born harmonica master Lee Oskar brought in inspired by Bobby Hebb’s `66 Soul-Pop hit, “Sunny.” After WAR met football-star-turned-actor Fred Williamson on Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train” TV show and the band was asked to write some music for his upcoming western “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” WAR used Lee’s melody as the foundation for an audio travelogue that would mirror Charley’s freedom ride through the old west in and out of rapidly developing urban environs. In stereotypical Hollywood fashion, when the film’s producers weren’t offering money nor credits that were right, the band made spiked lemonade outta the bitter citrus to become WAR’s first “Jazz” classic.
Without the confining subtext of the film’s storyline, the evocative instrumental became a movie for the mind. To this writer, the opening of Howard Scott’s tender acoustic guitar against keyboardist Lonnie Jordan’s reverent organ was like the birth of the mythical Seventh Son –a boy destined for a life of epic ups and downs. The harmonica melody becomes the recurring theme of purity and nobility constantly challenged by shape shifting demons and the slaying of dragons set to the soundtrack of Charles Miller’s wailing saxophone lines over a relentless bass-driven groove. Charles’ hot house horn dually conveys the hellish evils of mankind as well as the strength of our underdog’s perseverance to prevail! Then the horn dovetails into a boiling cauldron organ solo and the percussion breakdown that sounds like an underwater pursuit thru Far East Mississippi all the way back to The River Niger where our golden child emerges on the bank: a man…with a stone-cold story to tell in Howard Scott’s now electric guitar blues.
(Note: WAR was not alone in their Hollywood movie music debacle. Billy Preston snatched his theme song “The Legend of Nigger Charley” back, shortened the title to “Nigger Charlie,” slapped it on his Music is My Life LP(A&M-1972) and rode off into the sunset, telling err’body to kiss his happy Black ass! The movie made due with a genre score by John Bennings and songs by Soul man Lloyd Price.)
Side 2 of The World is a Ghetto aridly opens with “Four Cornered Room,”the seed of which was brought in by bassist B.B. Dickerson, conjured by the meditative state he fell into the first time he smoked hashish. Drummer Harold Brown handles the spoken word offering early in the piece, B.B. sings the verses while the background soul shouting came from keyboardist Lonnie Jordan. Engineer Chris Huston used a lot of phasing on the track, lending a hazy, somewhat spooky vibe to the music (especially Lee Oskar’s mournful harmonica ad libs) and WAR’s signature unison/harmony vocals (most terrifyingly the “zoom-Zoom-ZOOOOOM” line). The ringing gong was a recurring WAR effect dating back to their first album Eric Burdon Declares “WAR” which boasted the psychedelic effect of a gong being struck, allowing the sound to slowly dissipate in real time to silence. Then the tape was played backwards, growing louder until it exploded at the original striking point leading into the street corner ballad “You’re No Stranger.” “Four Cornered Room” is a headphone masterpiece about climbing inside one’s own mind for a clearer understanding of his/her “higher” inner self.
This leads into the centerpiece/title track “The World is a Ghetto,” a concept and lyric brought in by Percussionist Papa Dee Allen which was essentially that all people on the planet have the same basic desires and struggles regardless of race, culture or economic status. B.B. Dickerson sings this one with passion and connection unparalleled. Matching him emotion for emotion, again, is the peerless Charles Miller on tenor saxophone. Miller, a June 2 Gemini who practiced his woodwinds and other instruments faithfully 5 hours a day, never merely blew his tenor sax.He breathed through it…a circular, lyrical approach that made his sound another “voice” within the group. Also happening on this recording are two things: Charles overdubbing subtle answers to his own solo in the track, plus engineer Chris Huston panning between one take of a solo with another, sculpting one of the greatest saxophone statements ever recorded – as singular and brilliant in its genius as a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane solo. SO much emotion and blues flow from the horn as Charles animates every word of the lyric into musical form – soft, long-winding lines like the wonder of looking at the sky starry-eyed to crying in the night (more howling at the moon) teary-eyed. Stopping time to build and subside, the solo is a story within the story…Charles Miller had been wailing such profound musical statements since his “Mr. Charlie” solo within the “Blues For Memphis Slim / Mother Earth” suite on their debut,Eric Burdon Declares “WAR.”
Fittingly, “The World is a Ghetto” was covered by jazz legends James Moody (hauntingly on flute) and pianist Ahmad Jamal (who, in tandem with arranger Richard Evans, integrated elements from his own classic “Poinciana”). Guitarist George Benson bumped up the tempo on his to make it a more driving yet no less blues-based rumination. When WAR morphed into it’s The Music Band incarnation in the `80s, they picked up on G.B.’s tip and rocked it faster, too. In 2017, Lowrider Band (the name Howard Scott, Harold Brown and Lee Oskar now tour and record under due to ongoing litigation) perform “The World is a Ghetto” with current saxophonist Lance Ellis taking a fiery solo that builds to a shattering climax only to be handed off to Lee Oskar on harmonica who takes it to Pluto – a beautiful new arrangement that extends the legacy with poignance and glory.
Additionally, vocalists Phil Perry and Will Downing cut club covers. And hardcore Houston rap trio Geto Boys covered it with a funk reggae flip. Unlike “The Cisco Kid” which did better on the Pop chart, a severe radio edit of WAR’s “The World is a Ghetto” hit Black listeners in a deep-deep place, peaking #3 R&B, #7 Pop.
The riveting album cover art work for The World is a Ghetto was created by Howard Miller (no relation to Charles) from a sketch by Lee Oskar (who doubled as Art Designer for most of WAR’s album packages) brilliantly encapsulated the statement being made within the lyrics. The smoggy L.A. street scene depicts everyday people on the avenue and behind windowsills rapping, eating, fussin’, lovin’ and otherwise getting through the day the best they can…including the wary,well-to-do Black man whose Rolls Royce has the misfortune of catching a flat tire in the hood. That brother, his ride and his chauffeur are the only elements in color on this otherwise blue-tinted black & white painting, yet his blues are the same blues as everybody else’s. This gets to the essence not only what this song and album are about but WAR as a manifestation of it. We are One and The Same.
Still, in all its too often underappreciated conceptual depth, WAR was always good for a WTF moment on its LPs. On The World is a Ghetto, that ditty is “Beetles in the Bog” which closes an otherwise mind-blowing album on a confounding and quizzical note. This oddity was brought in by Lee with lyrics penned by his then-wife Keri and feels like a folk song – from what “folk” only they could tell you!The music takes this listener to a crackling campfire in a clearing surrounded by thick forest as darkness falls upon the land and spirits are awakened to get buck wild and free to the soundtrack of a fevered gypsy round rumpus. Adding tropical color is the rare novel WAR inclusion of Caribbean steel pans gayly ringing in the backdrop. Moral: All WAR parties come to a carnivalesque conclusion! WAR would take you to deepest darkest truths but always leave you with light and hope.
WAR’s The World is a Ghetto reached #1 and was on the chart for 68 weeks in industry Bible Billboard Magazine which also named it Album of the Year. It sold over 3 million copies. This month – November 2017 – marks the 45th anniversary of its milestone release.
I leave the last word to one of my greatest musical heroes, Charles Miller, quoted from an interview within the new book “Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR”:
“…what he had in mind when we chose (WAR) as a name for our group was the fact that ‘war’ has deeper, more universally pertinent meanings – the personal and exterior forms of violence we have all felt…the internal, emotional war raging within us…personal, spiritual war…wars of mental and spiritual nature(s) which are personal and idealistic.”
– A. Scott Galloway
(The writer dedicates this essay to the 27th wedding anniversary of Howard & Jennifer Scott, the memories of Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen and Charles Miller, and in homage to the 2017 transitions of L.A.-based percussionists Darrell Harris and Bobby Matos. Respect and Love.)