Monday, March 31, 2008

War -- "The World Is A Ghetto" (1972)

In 2002, journalist Barry Walter pretty much summed up the early 70's War musical phenomenon in Rolling Stone. I can't say it better than this:

It seems unfathomable today that War's The World Is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973, a triple-platinum chart-topping blockbuster back in the days when few albums even went gold. Released in late '72, War's fifth album in three years had only six songs, three of them more than eight minutes long, all recorded live in the studio by six black Americans and one Danish harmonica player, who had the biggest Afro in the band. None were polished singers, and their sound was as much Latin jazz as it was funk or R&B, their sensibility more FM rock than AM pop.

The Los Angeles-based War was all about two things: the groove and the message. Walter talks about this album being six songs with three of them eight minutes long -- that was pretty much the description for every War album. They depicted not only the African American projects experience in a search for peace and brotherhood, but adapted the Latino barrio as their playground too.

Hands down, these guys were one of the all-time great rhythm sections of the decade.

Half the albums were filled with jam session instrumentals, fiercely locked into groove, often ascending with an upbeat mood, like an inner city summer street party. Even some of the songs that became hits were lengthy workouts, edited down for radio play.

While "The World Is A Ghetto" was following all their other hits up the charts, one night I was tuned into WNEW-FM in its progressive rock days and the familiar low wah-wah chords of the song come out. They are ticked off in measures by the snare's rim, the C#m7 flowing into the Dmaj7th chords. But the chords went on a little longer, and I said to myself, "Hm."

This was the first time I was hearing the album version of "The World Is A Ghetto," late one night. While the opening verses and choruses were straight off the single, they proceed to have an ebb and flow jam with Charles Miller's sax going long and slow, giving and taking with the band who gradually grow louder and more challenging, all over that same two chord verse pattern. The beautiful warm bass has that nice simple two note riff then follows the chorus melody, eventually spiraling into the jam's frenzy. Once they take the thing off the roof, they simmer down, for a final verse.

There's no need to search anywhere,
Happiness is here, have your share,
If you know you're loved, be secure,
Paradise is love to be sure.

Don't you know, that it's true,
That for me, and for you,
The world is a ghetto.

War sings that chorus like a mantra over and over as Howard Scott's electric guitar just does crazy rock solos around it. "The World Is A Ghetto" is War's self-proclaimed 10-minute journey to an imagined (or is it?) planet of peace and brotherhood.

Nowadays, you'd never hear a song like this on any rock station, but in the early 70's, these guys were accepted as hip by all radio formats.

Notable cover versions of this song include George Benson on his In Flight record and Ahmad Jamal's lengthy Fender Rhodes excursion.

While I could not find a live video of the band doing this song, I did find one showcasing this mesmerizing album version of "The World Is A Ghetto."


The Ripple Effect said...

Great post. I personally think War is very under rated. I've been browsing your blog awhile now. If you get the chance, please check out what we're doing at the Ripple Effect. Kinda like you, were music geeks writing about the music we love.

Todd (Racer)
The Ripple Effect

Let me know if you'd like to exchange links.

John Hancotte said...

Love the album version and your recollections were a trip back in time. I'm in a band that just started playing this one, emphasizing the Latin-jazz aspect with tenor sax up front and a nice Rhodes patch on the keys. Miss the days of the vinyl from the 70's with 1, 2 or 3 cuts per side.