140. DELIVER THE WORD – WAR (1973)

Greatest Records

DELIVER THE WORD – WAR (1973)

Don’t mention (the) War? Hardly anyone seems to these days. While many of their contemporary soul/funk siblings – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Gil Scott-Heron – rightly continue to reap plaudits for their complex and intoxicating sorry-state-of-the-union addresses, War have been largely, with one notable exception, been banished to the periphery.

Despite a modest but respectable haul of hits, in both the US and the UK, they’re now as often cited for their supporting roles – as the last musicians Jimi Hendrix played with, at a Hyde Park festival days before his death, and as Eric Burdon’s accomplices in his post-Animals venture.

That one exception is their biggest UK hit, on which their legacy rests most heavily – Low Rider, a sumptuous groove laced with Morse code cowbell and athletic timbales, stoked by a Morris Dwayne ‘BB’ Dickerson bassline which crams every Long Beach street into a hand-held box, the birdsong of Dane Lee Oskar, who proves the real difference between mouth harp and straight harmonica, and the growl of the late Charles Miller, with sidewalk steam in every breath. Yet for many in Britain, this is not even how the song is known; it gained a second life when adapted for the advert for a famous brand of yeast extract. This advertising campaign, in turn, quickly hardened into a cliched metaphor for polarisation (I have no strong views either way on the stuff; give me humous or peanut butter any time) and the song was more recently misused yet again in the name of a leading supermarket.

It was my introduction to War as well when it was a hit in early 1976 and Top of the Pops showed the video, which featured the disconcerting sight of the grinning, gold-toothed cartoon face on the cover of parent album Why Can’t We Be Friends? reciting the verses. Awakened interest in the band prompted the issuing of a Best Of album and the repromotion of their earlier albums, the covers of which captivated my seven-year-old mind in an advert in Sounds. The superficially cheery, albeit satirical on closer inspection, cartoon on the cover of the World Is A Ghetto made me think, blessedly ignorant of the word’s fearsome past and turbulent present, that ghettoes looked like fun places to be, while Deliver The Word intrigued me because of the shadowy figure lurking in the corner. He seemed to be striding down an urban street or alley of the kind that looked so thrilling in Kojak or Starsky and Hutch; getting the album some 16 years later, I found it was a cut-out from the inside sleeve and that he was walking on a otherwise empty (long?) beach. Mistaking tranquility for tension would prove to be significant in a record which has both in abundance.

War’s story had more than its share of drama and trauma, with gangs, death, murder and internal friction all figuring. They’ve also been a fertile source for many insatiable samplers, including De La Soul, DJ Shadow, the Beastie Boys and Portishead. Yet still they’re on the margins; I have no real explanation, except maybe the lack of a truly identifiable leader, but all of this make them prime candidates for the type of reappraisal we specialise in here.

Deliver The Word was their fourth album – or sixth, counting the two they made with Burdon. The 1973 milieu it was released into – a tumutuous ferment of Watergate squall, post-Vietnam agony and increasingly narcotic ghettoes – is so well known that it scarcely needs to be recounted here but suffice to say that War chronicled that endemic madness as acutely and expressively as any of their peers. They depicted their time and place as luridly as anyone I’ve mentioned in the intro and were orators as stirring as any of them.

The first sound heard when Deliver The Word is played may come even before the needle, laser or bytes have struck; it might be groans at the wretched opening pun of H2Overture – water dreadful title, truly (their wordplay would improve; their 1983 album Life Is So Strange included a song titled U-2, in the tit-for-tat traditon of Nick Lowe’s Bowi EP).

But soon it becomes clear that the purpose of this curtain-raiser is to be a show of strength putting War’s full artillery on display. It’s all there: balmy wind chimes; discreet strings; woodpecker cowbell; harmonica and sax simutaneously evoking leisurely twilight strolls and threat-filled midnight returns; glissanding piano which upends I Will Survive to Will I Survive?; a tussle between Hustle flute and Shaft brass, before more discreet strings escort a reprise in. The final note is discordant, not only in itself but in its departure from the preceding, hyper-lush four-and-a-half minutes. This, of course, means that it makes perfect sense.

As I’ve mentioned, War have been extensively mined for samples. I’m not aware of anyone having helped themselves to the intro of In Your Eyes but it screams out for the magpie treatment; a knock-knock-who’s-there pulse straight out of Hitch Hike on wah-wah and flute. The former, in particular, creates a suitably squelchy soundbed for a song at Prince levels of carnality. A lusty chorus of War-mongers declaims in epic and terrifying terms (“In your eyes, I can see the signs of the ages/Staring me, tearing me, almost tearing my soul from me…In my mind, I can see the flames of my destruction”) and soon gives way to what we could call a Birkin/Gainsbourg-style dialogue, where groans and screams readily fill in the gaps of anything unintelligible, on a bed of rimshot shuffles and yet more, agitated this time, wah-wah. It’s intoxicating and more than a shade unsettling, not least as, once again, it ends with discord that’s almost, but not quite, obscured by the fade-out.

At 11:35, Gypsy Man is 44 seconds shorter than Tim Buckley’s distaff song from four years earlier and bears little other resemblance to it. Opening with the sound of wind possibly blown in from that near-deserted beach, the song emerges from the surf – in a manner not unlike Can’s Future Days from the same year (and some Leibzeit drum flourishes soon follow) – pulled by Dickerson’s pirouetting bass, Oskar’s wing-beat harmonica and a tambourine placing itself centre stage like an exuberant child at the front of a parade. Spectral organ, near-comical violin swoops and garrulous congas get in on the act before voices clamber through the door at just under three minutes. What they sing is succint, extending little beyond receiving the title “‘cos I don’t stay in one place too long” and the curious ambition to find “a nice sharp baby to make my home.” You could call it a jam but it’s too restless, too kinetic for that and doesn’t get trapped in a groove – as in rut. It’s a shade too long, particularly after Oskar’s harp takes charge for the final third, but conversely, the sliced-in-half single version – all you get on the album on Spotify – is like a novel with the final pages ripped out. Get the full delivery just to make sure – whatever the opposite of cutting your losses is, this must be it.

Me And Baby Brother became an overdue but comprehensively deserved UK hit on the back of Low Rider’s success. As so often, rhythm is the key, not so much stop-start as repeatedly interrupted, its Trans-Europe Express locomotion studded with potent pauses at regular intervals. The action is much more on the street than on the rails and, unfortunately, the tense of “used to run together” gives Baby Brother’s fate away early on. The song discloses little else but “they called law it and order” tells us all we need to know – a sentiment heard repeatedly in the US and elsewhere from well before the mid-’70s to well beyond. The anguished swell of organ by Lonnie Jordan removes all doubt and the closing chant of “come back, baby brother” stings in its ambiguity over his fate. It was fitting that the song appeared in the third series of The Wire but it does the song, and War themselves, little justice to focus too closely on the gloom; that fantastic, invigorating groove is what prevails.

Deliver The Word itself is the album’s centrepiece, despite being far less frantic and more contemplative than anything around it. Or rather because of it – it’s about as contemplative as pop music gets, as spiritual as Curtis Mayfield at his most soothing-with-an-edge (To Be Invisible, We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue) and, at slightly under eight minutes, this time there isn’t the remotest hint of longueurs. It simmers like the most soothing of Philly sounds and offers a message of healing and balm that’s better understood, and more are receptive to, than would have been at the time: “They don’t dig the urgency that this is an emergency/So make it heard, deliver the word…When that feeling gets to you/And that feeling you ain’t had in a long, long, long, long time…It makes you scream full of joy.” As words get beyond Jordan’s grasp and he resorts, like so many before and since, to rhapsodising “la la la la la la la la la”, the Delfonics are inevitably recalled but the rapture of Deliver The Word is beyond even the thrill of their condensed symphonies.

The groove of Southern Part of Texas rides the same train as Me And Baby Brother but in even harsher conditions, giving the songs a similar relationship – albeit less deliberate – to that of Sly and the Family Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) and Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa. The tempo of Southern Part of Texas is only slightly slower but it somehow seems worn down where Me And Baby Brother is lithe and limber, as if it’s weighed down by the grim story it tells. The song’s subject was “born in a hurricane” but is denied the luxury of everything turning out to be a gas, thrown into jail without bail or remission. Worse still, this comes after “Her mama died for freedom/She got hung by Jesse James.” There’s still a percussive exuberance – this time it’s the timbales’ turn to chatter and the bass drum pounds like blows exchanged by Ali and Frazier, but each of those blows is accompanied by a Chain Gang exhalation that’s all too apt.

The equally exhausted Blisters is tersely announced with its title and sets off on a strange, Depression era-soaked instrumental trudge. Where are the blisters and how did they get there? On the hands, from interminable toil or diligent practice? On the feet, from walking in hopeful search or running in desperate fear? Or simply an instrumental title chosen as seemingly arbitrarily as Last Night or Let’s Go Away For Awhile? Either way, it has a curious echo both of the Stones’ version of You Gotta Move and Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off To (Roy) Harper, each the closest those bands ever came to genuine Delta blues. Oskar applies two layers of harmonica, each vying to be the more sorrowful, (paradoxically, when he arrived in America in the mid-60s, supposedly seeing it as his instrument’s true home, he was making the opposite journey to many jazz musicians who found a far more cordial welcome in Scandinavia than they had ever had at home) and Miller’s sax builds from a mumble to a plea to a demand, as a lengthy fade-out brings Deliver The Word to a weary, though nowhere near wearying, conclusion.

Deliver The Word is a record of strife, fear, anxiety, rage, sorrow. It’s also a record of compassion, hope, empathy, resilience and even some mirth. Amid turmoil, everyday life proceeds and, even as they report on the overarching turbulence, War find magic in the millions of individual episodes involved. We’re all well aware that the subjects dealt with on Deliver The Word are as relevant as ever and that its sound is far more bound to a specific time, but it reaches across and beyond as effortlessly as Innervisions, What’s Going On, Stand! and Roots; that’s the company it belongs in. Word delivered. (PG)

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