Earlier this month, the seminal funk-jazz-rock combo War issued their first album of new material in twenty years. Evolutionary features original lead singer and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan and a pretty good lead single in “That L.A. Sunshine.” But the other news coming from War is that bundled with this new album is an important old one.
War’s Greatest Hits album was originally released right as the band peaked in 1976 but was never remastered and put on a CD until now. This was long overdue, as — along with other “greatest hits” compilations of the time such as those from Elton John and Seals & Crofts — soaking in War’s Hits is like taking a time machine back to 1975 and listening to AM radio. Realizing this makes it a wonder they’re not mentioned as often as other classic rock acts from the 70s, because this stuff was good then and sounds great now.
The secret to War’s goodness was that like Santana, they were able to incorporate Latin and jazz elements into rock and give it a crossover appeal. But unlike Santana, they also made it utterly danceable by giving their music a heavy dose of Sly and the Family Stone, right down to the ensemble vocals. No one’s been able to do all that as successfully since then, and their formula worked to the tune of six top ten hits and ten top 40 hits between 1971 and 1976. Greatest Hits itself topped out at #6 on the US Billboard album chart.
Ordered on the CD just they were on the vinyl, the songs are sequenced chronologically, which flows fine that way, starting with 1971’a “All Day Music”,” an update on the Rascal’s “Groovin'” all the way to 1976’s “Summer.”
“Slippin’ Into Darkness” is, looking back, probably the first reggae song most anyone in America has heard even though it wasn’t called that; War just blended everything together without much thought as to what to call it. Right after that is “The World Is A Ghetto,” making this the pair of songs that discussed topics that weren’t as sunny as most of the their well-known tunes like “Cisco Kid,” “Me and Baby Brother” and the happy-go-lucky “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” And you best believe that infectious Chicano anthem “Low Rider” is on here, too.
The compilation ends with a song that was new with the release, “Summer,” featuring a breezy groove and great harmonies remindful of their first hit “All Day Music,” showing that even at their peak of popularity they didn’t abandon the ingredients that propelled them into a hitmaking machine in the first place. That song later fulfilled the promise of the album title, scoring War’s final top ten spot in the pop singles chart.
I can’t really complain about a lineup of songs that are all killer and no filler, the way these compilations are supposed to be in the first place, but it would have been nice to have had their first hit “Spill The Wine” on there. Technically, that groovy, left-field hit is Eric Burdon’s tune but with War backing him up, it signaled the beginning of the band where most people are concerned.
Nonetheless, if the only problem is what was left out and no problem with what was put in, that’s about as close to perfect as one can get. The rekindling of War’s Greatest Hits is a welcome reminder of a band that was a force in its day and the music that remains very much potent today.
And let’s get War in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, already.
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