ALREADY establised in their homeland as the leaders of what we call the Rock-Soul syndrome, War is now in Europe to try to become the first of the groups to achieve the breakthrough here.
Firstly, let's take a look at who War is. War is Harold Brown, drums, percussion and born in Long Beach, California, March 17, 1946; Morris "B.B.' Dickerson, bass guitarist and pianist, born in Torrance, California on August 3, 1949; Thomas 'Papa Dee' Allen, percussionist, born in Wilmington, Delaware, July 18, 1931; Charles Miller, woodwinds, piano and saxophone, born on June 2, 1939, in Olathe, Kansas; Lonnie Jordan, keyboards, drums and born in San Diego, California, November 21, 1948; Howard Scott, bass guitarist and trumpet, born in San Pedro, California, on March 15, 1946; and Lee Oskar, harmonica, hails from Copenhagen, Denmark, born March 24, 1946.
With the assistance of Harold Brown, this is how War began: "Well, it was something like 15 years ago that it all began. Howard and I got together and formed a little group back in Long Beach, California. That was around '58, I'd guess. Then we invited B.'B. to join the group as bass player. And we all knew Lonnie — he was the kid with the baseball cap and tennis shoes, you know the son! He lived in our neighbourhood and he was always pestering us to play piano in our little group…and we always chased him away! One time we let him in and he broke the piano stool so we couldn't practice that day.
"And then we met with Charles Miller and he invited us all to go down to this little hall under the railroad tracks in Long Beach and there we could practice. So, all together, we formed a band and called ourselves the Night Shift. All of this took several years, of course, and it wasn't until about '66 that it all really started to get anywhere. We put together a twelve or thirteen piece band.
"Actually, I think that War as you know it was born then, when Charles Miller joined the band. I had been knowing Charles for years and it must have been ten years or so before that that we played in another little group. Anyway, we needed a leader for our horn section and Charles had the right type of temperament and he had the ear for it, too.
"Our break came when Eric Burdon, Lee Oskar and Jerry Goldstein came by this club we were playing. It was called the Rag Doll, up in North Hollywood. We were just gigging there, not making much money and just dividing what we did earn between the twelve of us. We were all doing little jobs during the day and getting the show on in the evenings. And then we would sort out the money, depending on each member's needs.
"Anyway, like I said, these guys came to see us one evening and our vocalist — because we were just the backing group at the time — hadn't shown up. He was a guy called Deacon Jones, and he was a famous footballer, too. Anyway, Lee came on stage and jammed with us, playing harmonica In all honesty, I thought he was Eric Burdon, that's how much I knew about it all then.
"That was in May 1970. Anyway, Jerry Goldstein came backstage after the show and he invited us to come over to his house the next day. And we all thought that maybe this was the big break, the opportunity we had been waiting for.
"So we went the next day, up into the beautiful part of Beverley Hills and as we went into the outside area to the house, we saw this guy laying by the pool, dark shades and the whole lot and then I knew that THIS was Eric Burdon.
"He was just like some kind of movie star. And he started telling us about the Rock business — how you could lose millions of dollars or win that much. At the time, it all seemed so unreal but now experience has shown us just what Eric meant. It really is amazing how much money goes through your hands and how much power you can have — when you think that a really hot group gets far more airtime than most Presidents of countries and the amount of influence groups and artists have on their fans.
"OK, so the meeting went well and we were invited down to their office in Beverly Hills the next day and that was the first time we had really met with Steve. I always remember my first impression of him — as a funny little guy with a low, rough voice. Anyway, we got the formalities over with and set about coming up with a name. We dropped the band down to seven — the same seven guys who are in the group now. And it was Steve who came up with the name of War.
"He said it and fell about laughing but then we thought about it and it was easy to remember, short enough to see on billboards big and clear, you know. So we stuck with it.
"Then we got down to money and we decided again to work out each other's needs. Eric Burdon explained that we needed subsistence until we got going and he said he would pay us $200 (£80) each a week — which we thought was unbelievably good!"
Prior to becoming War, each of the members of the group had been involved in recording but it was something of a shady business, it seems. And now, certain 'unscrupulous' people are making money with sessions that included musicians now with War and releasing old tapes as being original War recordings! But they did legitimately record tracks as the Packers and the Romeos.
"We got paid about $ 10 (£4) each and just cut numbers one after another," Harold now laughs, "and they'd show up as the Packers or the Romeos or whatever."
At this point, I showed them an album called "The Other Side Of War", a double LP that also boasts a guest guitarist — Bobby Womack! The double set was released last year on the questionable Souffle label but immediately everyone said that none of them played on the tracks. There was a definite air of hostility to yet another attempt by an outsider to cash in on War's now-famous name.
The partnership with Eric Burdon lasted eighteen months with War at first merely acting as backing band for Burdon, Gradually over the period, though, the Englishman recognised that his band had unlimited talent and little by little, he would allow them solos and then he gave them their own section of the show before he came on stage.
"The first thing that Eric let us into was doing the background vocals for him," Harold continued. "Looking back, we were really only together momentarily in our musical lives but we learned a great deal and gained a great deal of valuable experience. We agreed unamimously that we would have to undergo a musical separation — not a divorce, but separation.
"At the time, we didn't really know what we wanted to do, just that we had to do our own thing there and then. We had no real direction to follow, our only real aim was to get over to the people. Our first album, which was just called "War", was aimed at a straight commercial market and it didn't do that well. So, for the "All Day Music" sessions, we loosened our concept and extended more into our basic music thought patterns.
"For example, if we were tired one night when we were recording, we just packed in and went home whereas on the first album, we just persevered even when we were falling asleep. The first album was very commercial and now, on reflection, maybe it overshot its target, you know."
From the "All Day Music" album, War's career has been very successful and most readers of B&S will be aware of the ensuing LP's singles. However, one interesting little story surrounds "Slippin' Into Darkness", the group's first Gold Disc winner. It seems that Howard had come up with the lyric some months before the sessions were called and Harold had a basic rhythm pattern that he believed in. Happily, the two ideas were able to merge together and the actual merging came when the group was last in London nearly three years ago.
I asked Harold just how much they had benefitted from being with Eric Burdon for those eighteen months. "Well, the most important tangible thing we gained was the recognition that was accorded us once we played for Eric," Harold admitted. "But much of our success has to be given to Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein, our managers who believed in us all along."
It was really "Slippin' Into Darkness" that set War on the path to real glory and the record caused something of a musical revolution because War became the first Black band to break into the lucrative Rock market. They paved the way for Mandrill, Earth Wind & Fire, Black Heat etc.
"Yes, we were misfits at the time," Harold concedes. "We were somewhere between Rock and R&B and though "Slippin' " broke R&B first, it finally sold better as a Rock record than as an R&B one. We always had faith in our own ability to offer something different and we always wanted to be trendsetters, if you like. At the time, we were playing other people's songs on stage mainly but even then, we'd improvise them to our own ideas.
"It's the same way today — the show we do in Germany will be different from the one we do in London. In fact, the two shows we do in London will be different. That's the way we are."
This European trip is very important to the group's career because they really haven't made the inroads into the European market that they and their managers would like. The problem is that nobody really knows why and War themselves are no exception. The old answers of lack of airtime and TV opportunities came up but perhaps the problem is more basic. Certainly, the group's two London concerts should at least clarify the situation and bearing in mind that they are both sold out, there is obviously a substantial following for War.
At present, it's mainly an underground following but that's the way most successful things start in this country. One thing that Harold said, though, did interest me — we were talking about Alice Cooper at the time and Harold said that he felt that War is closer musically to him than, say, to the Motown groups such as the Supremes. It certainly bears thinking about and there is a lot of logic behind that statement.
One thing that all seven members of War are most definitely agreed on is that their next LP — due for release in July — is their best work to date. "We're really very excited about it because its closer to what we really feel. We've matured as people and I think this shows on the tracks that we've cut so far," boasts Harold.
"Within the group we were a little disappointed with "Deliver The Word" because we didn't really completely deliver our word. This new album will include a song that Papa Dee wrote, called "Mazatlen", which is named after a little town in Mexico and the music really captures the lazy mood of the town.
"You see, Dee reads a lot and he engrosses himself in things. When we go on tour, he reads up about the places we're going to so that he knows something about the place and he manages to really create the right mood on this track. Then there's another track that agrees that you should love the one you're with — but that instead of just literally loving the one you're with, you should find the one you love and hold on to her. Then, of course, there'll be some boogie music on the album, like "Cisco Kid" was an interesting track, too, though, because it's a sort of parallel between the old hero, the Cisco Kid and Black America. You see, in the movies, the Cisco Kid keeps beating the bad guys despite whatever odds he's faced with. It was actually Howard's idea and it underlines one point we always make — we don't claim to be singers. We really are only deliverers of words."
At this point, the group's happiest talker, big Papa Dee Allen took up the story as Harold went off to a photo session. "We haven't actually finished the album yet and we've not come up with a name for it. That's often the last thing we do! Anyway, we may even throw out some of the things we've done. That also happens.
"Some of the songs we have in the can are better than the ones released but just not suitable for our direction, you know. In fact, we have so many songs that we can't record and release them all. We're each considering doing a solo album to use up more of our material. And not just for the sake of it all but because so many of the songs are really good and say something.
"Everybody in the group writes, you see, end that's a problem when you're seven people, I've just finished a song that would be just great for Andy Williams — it's called "All I Have Left Is Memories". We don't really write those straight type of love songs but this one is an exception. Our lyrics are meant to be real and we have a philosophy that if we can get 200 of the two million people that buy our albums to actually listen and take in what we are trying to get over, then we're satisfied."
Another project that will take up time will be the groups efforts to get into soundtracks. Already, they have scored two films but though the music has been good, the films haven't.
"We scored one film called "The Grove"," laughs Papa Dee, "but the film was so doubtful, they had to cut so many scenes because they were just too candid. We heard that it did actually get shown up in San Francisco but only as one of those dirty movies and they even cut our music from it!
"We also did the music for the first "Nigger Charlie" movie but that didn't get far either. One of the songs we wrote for it was "City Country City", which we put on the "World Is A Ghetto" album. But we own all the tracks — in fact, we own everything we record, not the record company. The only ones that we don't have are those that we did with Eric Burdon for MGM and we heard a little while back that someone is negotiating to buy those tapes and run with them again."
One interesting by-product of our discussion with Papa Dee was his excellent explanantion of how 'funky' came into the R&B language. "It all started out when slavery was first abolished," Papa explains, "and the Blacks used to get together and go out into the fields and do a buckdance. That was a simple old 2-4 beat. Then came the Gutbucket, which was more lyrical but still that same solid rhythm. I guess you could say that "Where Was You At" is an example of Gutbucket, really. And Funk is the continuation of all that. It's the earthy approach.
"Songs such as "Cisco Kid" or "Slippin' Into Darkness" and "Me And Baby Brother" fit in there, really. The "World Is A Ghetto" LP is my favourite, though. In my head, I can hear a full orchestra and one day we may try it that way.
"There is talk now that we may do a concert with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra this summer and we would incorporate that whole album. You see, we have never used strings on any of our sessions — every instrument and every noise is us! The only outsiders we use are people who we, grab in when we need them — on "Beetles In The Bog", you can hear the studio janitors, the receptionist's boy-friend and a few stray people we needed at the time.
"Strangely enough, though, the album lead to the only time I've been hurt in this business really. And strangely enough it was by a British journalist who thought that the "World Is A Ghetto" was a Black concept and about injustices to only Black people. I tried to explain that it is not a Black experience to be in a ghetto and that's why we said the world is a ghetto' to make that point clear. It really is a people experience.
"He thought it was just a small-minded song that dealt with Black injustices but the song goes far deeper than that and we certainly don't make that type of racial comment in our songs because, first and foremost, we are people."
At this point, Papa Dee was called to the photo session and I was left to gather my thoughts after an hour's discussion with a different type of person from the ones that we are used to interviewing for B&S. That's not meant in a personal way and neither is it meant as a slight on the rest of the soul world. It's just that these men have a completely different set of values. That may come from their experience within the rock sphere but it was certainly refreshing to talk about subjects that rarely get raised during the normal run of an interview.
All that's left for me to do is remind you to be at the Rainbow either on April 9 or 10 because you will undoubtedly experience a new outlook to our music.