War: 50 Years On, Still Making Friends
Multiracial American funk band War got its start backing British singer Eric Burdon, formerly of the Animals. “Spill the Wine” from 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares “War” effectively captured the zeitgeist of the era: a brotherly-love hippie ethos that was as sexy as it was hopeful. Though the group parted ways with Burdon after two albums, War’s distinctive Latin-funk-soul vibe continued to reap dividends. Hits like “The Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and “Low Rider” only scratched the surface; War’s fifth release, The World is a Ghetto was 1973’s top-selling album.
War’s impressive run of pop hits ended in the 1980s, but the group would continue to score singles on the R&B charts well into the mid ’90s. Inevitably, the classic lineup would splinter; today only keyboardist-vocalist Lonnie Jordan remains from the original group (though three other band members have been with War for at least fifteen years).
The group has long exemplified peace and love in songs like “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Against that backdrop, the name War seems an odd choice. Jordan explains how it came about while the then-unnamed band was in Tokyo, with its manager at the time, Steve Gold. “Steve was talking with a promoter; we were walking behind them in this alley,” he recalls. “We all had our bell bottoms and afros, and I guess were kind of loud. So Steve turned around and looked at us and said, ‘Wow! You guys look like you just came off a battlefield!’ And then the idea flashed in his head: War!”
Jordan says that at first, he and his band mates thought the name was too radical, especially in 1970 when the U.S. military was still deeply entrenched in the Vietnam conflict. “But Jerry knew – and we eventually realized – that the music we were creating had a lot to do with rebelling against war,” he says. Jordan believes that with its music, the band was “actually fighting a war against war.”
Today War bills itself as “the original Afro-Cuban jazz rock blues band.” And while that’s an unwieldy label, it’s accurate. Jordan says that the band’s pan-cultural musical approach is central to its appeal. “It was definitely a part of our success to ‘the street,’” he says, because War makes “universal street music.”
Jordan admits that even in the anything-goes musical culture of the early ’70s, a band casting such a wide musical net did face some challenges. “It did generate a problem as far as trying to get awards or anything like that,” he says. “Because a lot of the people that were involved in award give-outs back in those days didn’t understand our category!”
But awards aren’t the way in which War measures its success. “We kept our fan base,” Jordan says. And he’s proud that War’s legion of fans draws from many cultures. That means that even now – 47 years after releasing its first record – War can entertain most any kind of audience. Jordan mentions sharing bills over the years with Little Feat and the Beach Boys. “And then we can do a “Low Rider” show for a Latino audience, “followed by a gig at a reggae festival!”
For Jordan, beholding the diversity of War’s audience is the most rewarding thing about playing in the band for all these years. He says he loves to see “those beautiful smiles, the old – not too old – blended in with the young, and they’re singing along to our music.” He admits that sometimes the younger people in War’s audience aren’t as familiar with the band, so they look up the group on Google. “And then they say, “Oh, that’s them!” Jordan says with a laugh.
And he insists that playing for audiences in 2017 isn’t all that different than it was in 1970. “It’s the same as it was back in the day,” Jordan says, “except that I’m having more fun than I did then. Because – I have to admit it – back then, I was high.” As a result, he says, a lot of important things escaped his notice. “I didn’t acknowledge the greatness that was around me. But now I do, and I feel blessed.”
After all these years, the secret to War’s longevity is simple: “We’re having fun with each other,” Jordan says. “And when our fans see us happy, then they’re happy. And that’s why I always say at the end of the show, ‘Thank you for being our rock and roll hall of fans.’”