Saturday, June 12, 2010

June 12: Edwin Starr, "War"

Artist: Edwin Starr
Song: "War"
Album: War (single)
Year: 1970

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For some artists, the most significant and important aspect of their music is the brilliant way in which they can turn a phrase or create the most beautiful sequence of words imaginable.  It is in such lyrics that one finds the true poetic value within music, and why so many musicians are considered to be among the finest writers of their generation.  Then again, there is nothing wrong with throwing subtlety to the side and laying out your thoughts in clear, blunt fashion.  When it comes to this direct lyrical approach, there are few artists who did it better than Cleveland, Ohio's own Edwin Starr.  Standing as one of the most prolific vocalist of the Motown era, Starr had a handful of hits in both the R&B and soul genres throughout the 1960's.  Powered by an almost preaching, yet unmistakable voice, Starr found success with songs like "Agent Double-O Soul" and "25 Miles," yet for some reason, he was never really given the credit for the early hits, and remains somewhat a "second tier" artist in the overall history of Motown Records.  As the 1970's began, Starr had become somewhat forgotten at Motown Records, and when he was finally given what would likely have been his "last shot," he had been out of the recording studio for more than six months.  This absence becomes clear on the song, as Edwin Starr delivered one of the most powerful and absolutely iconic vocal performances when he was given the chance to record what would become his 1970 classic, "War."

Truth be told, "War" is actually a cover song, as it was originally written for and recorded by The Temptations a few months before the Starr version was released.  The original version is far more "Motown-esque," and has does not have the grit and anger that comes through within Starr's cover.  This is by no fault of The Temptations, as their version fits within their sound perfectly, yet it simply does not carry the impact that the song gained from Starr.  Even the instrumentation is sightly different on Edwin Starr's version of the song, though both recordings feature The Funk Brothers playing an almost identical arrangement.  The latter version is more aggressive, somewhat more bleak in mood, yet strangely, it is also a bit of a brighter overall sound.  Much of this difference in sound is likely due to the presence of producer Norman Whitfield, who made the tambourine more prominent, and also had the band switch over to a "wah" pedal for the guitar pieces.  The urgency that comes through from the band stands as one of the greatest recordings from The Funk Brothers, and it is undoubtedly the best work the group did in the later years of Motown.  Along with Whitfield and The Funk Brothers, fellow Motown legend Barrett Strong played a part in the success of "War," as it is he who wrote the iconic lyrics for the song.  Responsible for many of the biggest hits in Motown history ("I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Money (That's What I Want), etc), Strong clearly knew how to perfectly structure the direct lyrical approach, and "War" remains one of his finest accomplishments.

Perhaps being pushed by the aggressive instrumentation from The Funk Brothers, Edwin Starr became almost instantly a legend with his vocal performance on "War."  One can easily make the case that it is his confrontational vocals that turned "War" into one of the greatest protest songs in history, and to this day, one can feel the hostility towards the Vietnam War that rings so clearly within his voice.  In reality, "War" remains today the only anti-war song to reach the top spot on the charts, and one can argue both ways on whether it was due to the state of society at the time or if it was due to the extraordinary vocal and musical performance found on the track.  Starr is backed by a newly formed group of vocalists who were assembled by Whitfield, called The Undisputed Truth.  Comprised of Joe Harris, Billie Rae Calvin, and Brenda Joyce, the group never really found their own voice as lead performers, but their backing work on a number of songs helped those tunes to become far greater than they would have been without their contributions.  On "War," they present a fantastic vocal contrast to Starr's sound and approach, and it is largely due to their work that the song gains its "sing along" quality.  Lyrically, little is left to the imagination on "War," as the writing team of Whitfield and Strong pull no punches with their outright hatred of the ongoing Vietnam War.  The main refrain of, "War, huh, yeah...what is it good for? Absolutely nothing." remains one of the most iconic lines ever written, and it is still used and quoted for similar situations more than forty years after it was first released.  Touching every aspect of war, from the pain of the families of soldiers to the inherent futility of fighting, "War" leaves nothing on the table, and Starr's vocals make the words completely unforgettable.

Even all these decades later, "War" remains perhaps the finest anti-war song ever composed, and Starr's vocal work is instantly recognizable.  Rising all the way to number one upon its release, the song became an anthem for a generation of youth that had been jaded by the seemingly endless fighting in Vietnam.  As a song that rallied the youth of a generation, and defined what it meant to stand in protest in that time, few songs represent the defiance of youth so perfectly.  Ironically enough, in recent years, "War" was one of the many songs that was placed onto the "do not play" list for radio stations following the terrorist attacks in the U.S. in September of 2001.  Regardless, the song remains absolutely legendary, and one would be hard pressed to find a more powerful and confrontational musical performance from The Funk Brothers.  Clearly proving that they could bring beauty and soul as easily as anger and power, "War" stands as a bit of an anomaly within The Funk Brothers' recorded catalog, yet it simultaneously stands as one of the finest of their career.  Taking the structure from the original Temptations recording of the song, Edwin Starr quickly makes the song his own, and his highly emotional and incensed vocal delivery has become nothing short of iconic over the decades.  While the lyrics hold back nothing, neither does Starr, as there are moments on the song where his voice fails a bit, yet the emotion with which he sings was such that it would have been outright "wrong" to not use this vocal cut.  Unlike any other protest song ever recorded, there is true musical brilliance throughout Edwin Starr's iconic 1970 recording, "War."


Marv said...


Documentary about the late Motown legend Edwin Starr. Filmed at his English country estate, it provides a fascinating insight into the man dubbed 'Agent OO Soul'. Produced and Directed by Pogus Caesar. 1995

JimmyJam said...

I've always loved the tambourine play in Edwin Starr's "War", but only recently discovered that the genius behind the sound (that I'm aspiring to just come close to) is none other than Mr. Jack Ashford. Can anyone out there direct me to online video of Mr. Sanford actually performing for the song "War"?