Can a band that released the number one album of 1973 and multiple top-10 singles across a decade-plus career justifiably be called “underrated”? When it comes to War, the unequivocal answer is “yes.”
While many of War’s ‘70s funk peers — such as Kool & the Gang, The O’Jays, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, just to name a few — were able to make the transition to disco, persist through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and tap into the lucrative 21st century oldies circuit, War’s lineup fractured (in one case, tragically) in the late-’70s, and its creativity waned. Today, its original members are divided between two competing touring outfits: one using the band’s name, but featuring only one original member; the other going by the “Lowrider Band” moniker, but counting all of the other surviving band members.
Despite this, War’s music is omnipresent in modern American culture. War is one of hip-hop’s most–sampled artists, and its best-known tracks, like “Low Rider” and (with Eric Burdon) “Spill the Wine,” have become soundtrack fixtures.
Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that War hasn’t quite received its 21st-century due. Tracks like “Low Rider” showcase the band’s infectious hooks and goofy sense of humor. But War’s music is so much broader and deeper.
Sonically and socially, War arguably had more in common with ragged ‘60s funk pioneers Sly and the Family Stone than with slick ‘70s FM staples like Kool & the Gang. Like the Family Stone, War’s integrated lineup and syncretic approach produced music that blended audiences and crossed genres. But while the undeniably groundbreaking nature of the Family Stone’s music and Sly’s otherworldly star power helped translate its diversity into a commercial strength in the ‘60s, War’s unassuming eclecticism and down-to-earth image arguably put the group at a disadvantage in the increasingly fragmented and image-focused ‘70s. As War’s harmonica player, Lee Oskar, explained in a 2020 interview.
The thing about marketing is…. when you went into Tower Records… they’d have pop, soul, jazz, opera, [and] whatever [other] categories. People would judge [what albums to buy] based on the category…. It was really counterproductive in sales. For example, with War… some tunes were actually on rotation on three different format radio stations: pop, jazz, and R&B. If anybody walked into [the] R&B [section in the record store], they would see War records. But if anybody walked into the pop [section], they would not see War. If they walked into the jazz [section], they would not see War. But [on the radio]… the same tune — say “Cisco Kid” or “Ghetto” — would be playing on all three formats. And you would hear guys say, “Man, I hate jazz. Man, I hate R&B. But I heard this really cool pop song on this rock station called ‘Cisco Kid.’” Another person would say, “Man I hate rock and R&B, but there’s this really cool jazz tune called ‘Cisco Kid.’” And the same thing with the R&B. “Man I love R&B, but don’t like pop or jazz. You should check out a great new tune called ‘Cisco Kid.’” So the fact that it’s been claimed on three different formats’ rotations. means that enough people had… respond to that music. [But] when they’d go into Tower Records, the only ones who’d see the record, unless you asked for it, would be [people who looked in] the R&B section…. So there’s a lot of money that was lost [because people market music by genre].”
While it might be folly to argue that War (or almost any ‘60s or ‘70s artist) was Sly’s equal, remembering War for “Low Rider” or “Spill the Wine” alone would be like reducing the Family Stone’s output to “Dance to the Music” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” However, while it’s now critical and cultural common sense that, as brilliant as the Family Stone’s singles were, the true measure of Sly’s genius is evidenced by There’s a Riot Goin’ On (which didn’t even birth a song included on the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits), there’s little recognition that War was primarily an album artist.
War’s work is even more underrated in audiophile circles. The band’s catalog wasn’t even available on CD until 1992. As Mojo’s Lloyd Bradley quipped in 1995, “Given the choice that exists in the Golden Earring department, it’s scandalous that we’ve been forced to wait this long to hear War on CD. These [CD reissues] are conclusive evidence that they were among the most innovative funk bands of their time.”
Few albums of the era can compare sonically to the handful of albums War released during the band’s post-Burdon peak. The first two albums in this run — 1971’s All Day Music and 1972’s The World Is a Ghetto — are the focus of the TBVO.
While All Day Music and The World Is a Ghetto aren’t traditionally included in rundowns of the era’s audiophile records, they should be. Sonically, they surpass widely celebrated contemporary releases like All Things Must Pass, Sticky Fingers, Electric Warrior, Tapestry, Led Zeppelin IV, and Harvest, and they should be mentioned alongside hi-fi classics such as Every Picture Tells a Story, Sextant, Close to the Edge, What’s Going On, Blue, Who’s Next, Thick as a Brick, Innervisions, Madman Across the Water, At Fillmore East, Countdown to Ecstasy, On the Corner, Tubular Bells, Backstabbers, Ziggy Stardust, Birds of Fire, and even Dark Side of the Moon.
All Day Music and The World Is a Ghetto possess a clarity that’s often sonically closer to that of recent back-to-the-first-generation-multitrack remixes of ‘70s classics than to two-track master tapes from the era. Beyond loving the music, I wanted to write a TBVO about these albums in order to find out from engineer Chris Huston exactly how he got these releases to sound so good. I found that out — and much more.
But first, some history.
The seeds of War were sown when Long Beach teenager Harold Brown (drums) and Compton teen Howard E. Scott (guitar) crossed paths on the Southern California rhythm and blues circuit in the early-’60s.
According to Brown, the black church first piqued his interest in music. “My mother was in a Holiness church on Martin Luther King and Anaheim Avenues,” he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2017. “She played piano. All the sisters would beat on their tambourines, and that’s where I heard my first rhythms. Those rhythms were what the slaves would play with their broomsticks. They would shuffle in a circle. It was called the ‘eternal circle.’ That rhythm came from West Africa [to the Americas], and that was the rhythm in the churches, and it kind of goes through our music ‘til this day.”
But, as he explained to Blues Network in 2019, it took SoCal’s eclectic popular musical milieu to inspire him to pick up the drums:
When I was young growing up in Long Beach, California, I could always hear a musician somewhere in the neighborhood practicing his or her instrument. The flowing music from local churches, local clubs, and live music — the same music that you would be hearing on the radio or jukebox…. [W]e would be hearing blues, gospel, Latin, folk, Middle Eastern, and Native [music]. We would be hearing Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Doris Day, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Nat King Cole, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Tony Curtis, James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and so many more. Our radio stations here in Southern California at the time were not “race music” stations, meaning they did not just play blues or country and western. They played everything! I can remember listening to “Texas Tiny” on KFOX…. I would lie in bed make believing I was the drummer in the band.1
Like Brown’s mother, Scott’s father was musical. “My people were from Texarkana, Arkansas, before joining the great migration and relocating to Southern California,” he told Blues Blast magazine in 2019. “I was born in San Pedro, California. My father played that old folk/country blues guitar. As a youngster, I couldn’t get behind that. I was too young to understand what he was doing and playing.”
But when Scott’s cousin, Jack Nelson, visited from Texas, his interest in guitar was piqued. “He had a Gibson Les Paul guitar and proceeded to teach my cousin [nephew] B.B. Dickerson and I to play the bass, because he needed a bass player behind him,” Scott continued. “So B.B. Dickerson and I started playing bass at the same time. At that time, since I was older and more mature than B.B., I took it more seriously.”
Soon, the teenage Scott was playing bass in Nelson’s blues cover band, a decision that drew mixed reactions from his parents. “My father was very supportive because he was a blues player — the guy that did the drinking in the house,” he told War biographer Bob Ruggiero:
But my mother was a church lady who called it “the Devil’s Music.” And if you played “the Devil’s Music,” you had to go to church on Sunday. She would make me go to church. She was very religious. And I had to play in the church too!… I wasn’t playing “the Devil’s Music,” I was playing music that I liked. If someone wanted me to play with them, they would have to come talk to my father first about taking his son out of the house and to a nightclub — somewhere where they are drinking and shooting and cussing all night — and bring me back safely. He had my back because he wanted me to play and do well. He really appreciated me playing, and it made him proud to see his son up there. He didn’t know about the music business, but he knew enough about business that you got paid for what you did. And a lot of times, my father was at the back of the club. I knew he was always there watching me. He never let me know.
Though they can’t agree on the precise club, date, or even year in retrospect, Scott and Brown were brought together when they each received a call to provide one half of the rhythm section behind a piano-and-sax combo.
“I used one of my father’s shirts and took some mascara to color in my mustache to make me look older!” Brown recalled to Ruggiero. “I go down there, and when I get there I set up my drums. I get up on stage, and I see this young guy, about my age on the other side of the stage. And I found out later he was only two days older than me, and he’s playing bass…. So after that was over, a couple of weeks later, I wanted to put a band together, and I asked my father would he take me up to Compton where Howard lived, because I couldn’t drive.”
Together with Dickerson, Brown and Scott formed The Creators, an R&B group that opened for the likes of James Brown, Rufus Thomas, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and Bobby “Blue” Bland at clubs like Johnny Otis’s Harlem Spot.
“Howard’s father, B.B.’s father, and my daddy used to take us to gigs because we were too young to drive,” Brown reminisced to Songfacts’ Carl Weiser in 2007, “We were doing our first gig in Compton, and we were taking our equipment on some wagon to do the show. It was just wild.”
With Brown on drums, Dickerson on bass, and Scott on guitar, the ever-changing Creators eventually settled on a lineup that also included Charles Miller on saxophone and Lonnie Jordan on keyboards.
Older than Brown and Scott by seven years, Miller happened to walk by the Brown family home when he heard Harold practicing drums in his garage. Like Brown and Scott, Miller had been playing around the local music circuit. But as a married father of four, it was already a more serious pursuit.
Two years younger than Brown and Scott, Jordan shared their diverse musical tastes. “Gospel music, the blues, and calypso music was my main inspiration that I used to listen to all the time,” Jordan told Dave Lawrence in 2017, “and a lot of a lot of bootleg African music. A lot of bootleg Latin music was actually Afro-Latin music. That didn’t have a category then. I would listen to it, and it was like totally different from anything I ever heard…. I was nine years old… when I actually started playing organ.”
The Creators landed a steady gig at Jefty’s in South Central. The group honed their chops by playing four sets between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Per the owner’s instructions, the group focused on the popular soul and R&B hits of the day, but they also snuck in a few originals. “We were the first black band doing casual dates up on Sunset Strip,” Brown told the Blues Highway podcast in 2018:
We went up there in June 1964. I started my own business… [and] I made everybody join [American Federation of Musicians] Local 47 in Hollywood on Vine…. We were playing the Whisky a Go-Go, the Black Velvet, the Palladium, and everything up and down Sunset. We opened up for Ike and Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers…. And guess what? To this day, I get a check every month for my retirement from the musicians union, along with Social Security, my royalties, and SAG-AFRTA. So all those guys who walk around don’t like the union? Wake up!
With the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam escalating, the draft wasn’t far from the minds of The Creators’ members. According to Ruggiero, Scott tried enrolling first at Compton College then at Allan’s Beauty College to avoid the military, but neither panned out. When Scott showed up for his Selective Service physical, he was inducted immediately.
“They was taking everybody. People with casts, back braces, false legs, kids, dogs, chickens! It was like being kidnapped!” Scott told Ruggiero. “I got there [at] maybe two or three in the morning and all these guys come screaming around you and calling you names, throwing stuff at you. And now you’re really scared because you left from this peaceful thing to this military thing. I wanted to die man, to cry.”
Ultimately, Scott avoided Vietnam with an assignment in Germany. However, his service put The Creators’ career on hold. “We had this date, and we were going to be booked on the [strip] in Las Vegas,” Brown told Scott Goldmine in 2017. “I’ll never forget that. They were gonna pay us $500 each a week. Then all of a sudden Howard got drafted into the army… and Bobby Nicholson, our trumpet player at the time, he got drafted [too].”
While Scott was overseas, the remaining members continued working in music before drifting into nine-to-five jobs. Brown, Dickerson, and Jordan recorded some tracks with Bobby Womack for R&B disc jockey Magnificent Montague’s Soufflè label, but they went unreleased until after War hit it big. Miller had more success with Señor Soul, an all-African American group whose fusion of Latin and soul music reflected the cultural milieu of Miller and Brown’s integrated Long Beach neighborhood (and pointed the way for War’s own stylistic syntheses). The group signed with Los Angeles independent label Double Shot in early-1967 and released two albums of mostly instrumental covers of songs as varied as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Sunshine Superman,” “Psychotic Reaction,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” Serving as the band’s “leader of the pack,” Miller played sax and flute and contributed original songs like “Poquito Soul.”
When Scott returned to California in late-1967, Brown convinced the scattered Creators members to give music another shot. The reformed group was rechristened The Night Shift in honor of Brown’s work schedule at American Hoist steel yard.
The Night Shift lacked Dickerson, who’d moved to Hawaii following the Creators’ breakup, but it also added a crucial new member. Following a serendipitous encounter at Pomona’s Signal Gas Station, Brown recruited Thomas Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen — a jazz multi-instrumentalist who’d played with Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter, and the Jazz Crusaders — as The Night Shift’s percussionist.
Initially, the Creators-turned-Night Shift’s second attempt to make a career out music was shaping up to be worse than its first. “It looked like we were about to not make it,” Brown told Weiser. “I was going behind on my house note. They were getting ready to kick me out. I had three kids, and stuff — and I went looking for a job.”
The Night Shift’s fortunes improved after hooking up with soul great Sonny Charles and Los Angeles Rams defensive end Deacon Jones, who was moonlighting as a singer with his novelty single “Lovin’ a Pro.”
“He was happening, man! This was Deacon Jones of the L.A. Rams, and everybody knew him. And he was paying us!” Scott told Ruggiero. “You have to remember, Rosie Grier made a transition from football to being a singer, and so did Muhammad Ali from boxing. So all these athletes after they finished doing what they were in sports, they tried singing.”
Jones’s shtick of doing pushups on stage may have slightly undermined the artistic credibility of The Night Shift’s performances, but his celebrity drew crowds, and the band expanded to include a full horn section. One night in April 1969, that crowd included former Animals lead singer Eric Burdon. As Brown recalled to Weiser:
[Night Shift bassist] Peter Rosen kept telling me, “I got a good friend, his name is Eric Burdon, and he’s gonna come and watch us one night.” And then I had another guy, Jaye Contrelli, he used to play with the group Love. It just so happened this was our last night [at the Rag Doll in North Hollywood], and he says to me, “Eric is coming.” So the word started going around the house, “Eric is here. Eric Burdon is here.” I’m sitting up there behind the drums, and I see this wiry guy…. Now, all the time when I was working in machine shops and stuff and drilling all them, making all them, parts, I was hearing this [Animals’] song, “Sky Pilot.” I’d just hear it over and over and over. I didn’t really know what Eric looked like, but I seen this wiry, thin guy coming up with this huge afro, and I said, “Oh, that must be Eric.” Well, he had a harmonica — key of C or something of that nature — and he wanted to jam with us…. It went on for about 30 minutes. We just played straight through. When we finished, everybody was standing on top of the tables, clapping and cheering, they were going crazy.
The man on stage wasn’t Burdon. Instead, it was Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar, who’d accompanied Burdon and Burdon’s management team to the club.
The music-crazed Dane had left his home country for New York in 1966 with his harmonica and little money to his name. Oskar found his way to the Bay Area and, in a Forest Gump-esque series of events, found himself rubbing elbows with San Francisco rock and counterculture royalty, including the post-Animals Burdon.
Following The Night Shift’s jam with Oskar, Burdon’s management team, Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein, invited the group to a meeting in Hollywood the next day. There, they proposed that The Night Shift become Burdon’s backing band. Among other changes, that meant losing the band’s entire horn section besides Miller and adding Oskar. “The horn section,” Scott told DJ Medina on Funk Fellas Radio in 2016. “Eric Burdon had this concept that happened — harmonica and tenor sax. I give all that [credit] to him, because that was his way of using a different type of horn section. So that’s what we did.” It was a perfect fit for Oskar, who’d spent his youth learning how to play horn lines from Ray Charles records on his harmonica. “I just was always wanting to play with somebody else, to play a melody or come up with a melody and [have] somebody played with me,” he told Neil Warren in 2020:
And so it was very exciting to think about saxophone and harmonica, flute and harmonica…. I didn’t care who it was [playing with me]…. So I was very fortunate when I finally got to exercise my dreams. When I got with Eric Burdon, he embraced my ideas. Me and Charles Miller, the saxophone player for War, it was like a love affair, man, just to have harmonica and saxophone playing together. I was like, “Wow.” It was just dream come true.
Hoping Burdon represented the break they’d been waiting for since their days as The Creators, the group signed to Gold and Goldstein’s management and production company and were placed on a $200 per member per week retainer.
The next order of business was a name change for the group that, even at this point, Gold and Goldstein assumed eventually would break away from Burdon. Depending on who’s telling the story, either Gold or Oskar threw out “War” as a potential moniker. In Brown’s recollection:
Steve Gold was sitting there, and he started saying, “We’re going to take Eric, and we’re going to build on top of him.” He used the analogy of the Sputnik, how Eric was going to be the missile to take us out, and then we were going to be released from there and launched like the Sputnik. Now, this is where Lee and everybody come up with different things. I was straight, I was not into drugs, so I know my mind is real clear. I don’t know what everybody else is doing, I can’t speak for them. Steve got all red in the face, snot started coming out of his nose, he says, “You guys are really a motley crew. I’ve got a great idea, let’s just call you War”…. Lee says that before that him and Eric was riding along, [and] they see a billboard with Yoko Ono and they were talking peace — the direct opposite with the War — [and that’s where the name came from]. But the way I remember it, Steve Gold sat there and said, “We’re gonna name you War.”
Regardless of which name origin story is true, Eric Burdon and War was born.
Eager to move on from The Animals, Burdon made clear that he didn’t want to include any of his old band’s music in War’s repertoire. As a review of Eric Burdon and War’s first gig put it:
War is Eric Burdon’s name for his new group, which had its first engagement at the ball. “We’re gonna win because we’re all on the same side,” Burdon told the several hundred area youths who were present on opening night. A busload of Eric’s Hollywood friends and record people also made the trip inland to catch his act – the bus being a bright red double-deck open air vehicle more at home on the streets of London. The sounds of War are a long step away from Burdon’s previous group, The Animals, for which local radio stations devoted considerable airtime last week. It’s probably too early to say where War will go since they’re still getting it together — they’ve been rehearsing only a week — but the base is an integrated group of five black and two white performers heavy on soul and jazz. To the traditional guitars and trap drums have been added a conga drum, flute, harmonica, organ and saxophone.
Entering Burdon’s orbit meant hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Joe Cocker, Grace Slick, and Paul McCartney. Not that War’s members were always impressed. In a 2017 interview, Jordan recalls one party where Morrison, dressed as Superman, tried to get Jordan to punch him. “I didn’t know who he was,” Jordan recalled. “I didn’t know who Jim Morrison was from Van Morrison or the Morrison Steinway piano. I had no clue. I knew who the British Invasion bands were. But I didn’t know who Jim Morrison or Lydia Pense or any of the other American bands or any artists that were at the house at the time.”
As the above story suggests, hanging out with Burdon also meant access to large volumes of drugs. “We were talking about incredible parties at Steve and Jerry’s house, man! The whole Hollywood experience,” Scott told Ruggiero, “I remember coming into parties, and they would have a bowl with reefers already rolled. Drugs were introduced to us at a level we hadn’t seen before. We’d go to a party and there would be an album full of cocaine on it. Red Devils, booze, whatever you wanted, you had it.”
While, in Brown and Scott’s telling, most members of War (at least initially) avoided the worst of these excesses, Rosen didn’t. As a result, Rosen — the member directly responsible for the group’s fortuitous encounter with Burdon — was ousted from War, and former Creators’ bassist B.B. Dickerson was reinstated.
Less than a year after hooking up with Burdon, War entered Wall Heider Studios in San Francisco with Goldstein serving as producer and Chris Huston as engineer.
Hailing from Liverpool (by way of a North Wales orphanage), Huston first made it to the states with his band The Undertakers. The Undertakers were signed by Americans Bob Gallo and Bob Harvey in the Merseybeat frenzy that followed the success of The Beatles, whose John Lennon Huston befriended during their time at the Liverpool College of Art. The Undertakers traveled to the states and recorded an album’s worth of tracks — which wouldn’t be released for three decades — before going their separate ways. The band’s bassist, Jackie Lomax, eventually became one of the first signees to The Beatles’ Apple Records, while Huston began working at Gallo and Harey’s Talentmasters Recording Studio in New York. “I told Bob Gallo I wanted to learn how to be an engineer, because I wanted it to be a producer,” Huston told me:
I didn’t want to play anymore, but I loved to see these people working, and I thought I could do a good job doing that. But I realized that in order to be a good producer, back then you had to have an understanding of how records were made. So I asked Bob if he would teach me to engineer, and he said, “Of course.” So I started mopping floors and setting mics up and assisting him on sessions. Then I started to bring in groups myself, and in no time, within, like, four or five months… I had The Who, I had Mountain…, [and] The Vagrants (actually Leslie West and The Vagrants). I [also] did “Groovin’” for The Rascals. I hadn’t been doing this for a year, and I had the number one record with The Rascals! I did The Who Sell Out album, right? I mean, I was really doing well. And, of course, I worked with all of the R&B artists for Atlantic. Bob was producing a lot of them. So I got to engineer a lot of them, too.
The latter proved to be the perfect training for working with the jam-oriented War. “I was very fortunate to learn how to record live in the studio when everybody played live,” he recalled. “Like we did James Brown ‘It’s a Man’s World,’ right? Everybody’s live in the studio: the horns, the strings, the vocal. I did Ben E. King, The Drifters, Solomon Burke, Pattie Labelle, Mary Wells, people like that. All live. All the vocals live in the room. You know, you could redo the vocal later, but everything was tracked live to four-track. I was very fortunate to learn how to use the room, because we only had 12 microphones [at Talentmasters].”
Already a known quantity to Goldstein, Burdon, and Oskar, Huston was a natural choice to engineer Burdon and War’s first studio work. “Jerry just asked me if I would work with War and him, and I said that I would love to,” Huston told Ruggiero. “I had met Eric before in England when I was with the band The Undertakers, several times actually. And to me, it seemed like it would be an interesting project. The sessions were so productive, and the energy was great. It was never taxing or tiring. They were productive creatively, and it was magic. And you could tell that the sessions were live. There was no way to overdub.”
From the beginning, Goldstein and Huston decided to keep tape running throughout War’s studio sessions. As Brown recalled in 2019, “Jerry Goldstein, our producer, and Christopher Huston, the engineer, would have everything ready to roll [when the band arrived at the studio]. Jerry was very brilliant, because he knew how to have everything set up and the environment that sparked our creativity. He would say that, ‘Tape was cheap, but the moments were priceless!’”
“We are band that jams — a jam band — because we could never play the same way twice,” Lee Oskar explained to Tom D’Antoni in 2020:
We all took credit for writing everything without mentioning who wrote on this or that. We evenly split it seven ways. Because we knew that whoever brings something in that inspires us, that the process and the development and the chemistry and all those things… is what makes this thing come across and sound like us. So we start with a jam. Always recording. Always running tape. You record. You don’t say, “Okay, let’s do this.” You record, and we’d have hours of recording. [When we played back the tapes] we’d hear something in a jam. “Hey, man, that is a cool, that groove right there.” Then we might take that grove and isolate that, and somebody might start writing lyrics or the melody….
“[War] were great from the start,” Huston told me:
They really had something going between them. So if there were rough edges, it was just the fact that they hadn’t gotten used to working in the studio to the degree that we ended up doing. But by that time, they’d evolved into a fabulous studio band who knew how to use the studio. Lonnie was a fabulous piano player. Papa D, you couldn’t ask for a better percussionist. Howard was very deceptive, because he played so simple, but what he played was right always. I mean, they fit together so well, right? And then you have Lee and Charles who were doing something totally original by having a horn section that consisted of a harp and a saxophone. That was the first time, wasn’t it?…
They’d jam for hours, and there’d be a tape machine running at 7 ½ [inches per second] recording everything that happened in the room, everything that came through the speakers. And then there’d be a cassette made, and everyone would get a copy within a day. So Lonnie may come in the studio a year later or two years later, and say, “Hey, Chris, listen to this,” and he’d play the cassette, and he’d sing something along. I’d say, “Great idea, yeah,” or something like that. Then I’d ring Susie, and [she’d] ring up Bekins [storage company, where the multitrack tapes were stored], and they’d send the tape over. Then Lonnie would work on it…. And we’d end up — or not end up — making a new song out of a jam.
The band’s first album, April 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares “War”, included the single “Spill the Wine,” War’s only hit with Burdon. The track, which critic Richie Unterberger has called a “goofy funk, shaggy-dog story [and] one of the most truly inspired off-the-wall hit singles of all time,” reached number three on the Billboard and number one on the Cash Box charts.
Despite the success of “Spill the Wine” in the pop/rock market, it failed to make a dent on the R&B charts, setting in motion the band’s uneasy association with a recording industry that, following the more wide-open ‘60s, was becoming increasingly micro-targeted according to listener demographics. “Even though most of the band was black, we weren’t considered a black band,” Brown told Ruggiero. “It was weird. We were a weird group. We would go to our hometown, and people thought we were white on record!”
Released in December of 1970, Eric Burdon and War’s double-album follow-up, The Black-Man’s Burdon, included several compelling cuts — not least among them a sprawling cover of “Nights in White Satin”— but it failed to spawn a hit single, and Burdon left the group during the subsequent tour in the hopes that he could parlay his music fame into a career in Hollywood.
Released just three months after Black-Man’s Burdon, the Burdon-less War’s self-titled debut was a solid, though commercially unsuccessful effort. “That first War album was sort of lackluster because we weren’t really weren’t ready for it,” Scott told Medina. “They put us out there way too quick. You know me, as a writer, I had to come up with some more things…. The first War album, we were still doing songs from The Creators — songs that we wrote in The Creators days that didn’t fly.”
That all changed with the band’s next two releases, All Day Music and The World Is a Ghetto. Released exactly one year apart — in November 1971 and November 1972 — the former was produced by jointly by Goldstein, Huston, and the band, and the latter was produced by Goldstein, Jordan, and Scott. Both were engineered by Huston. All Day Music was recorded at Wally Heider’s Studio 3 in San Francisco and Crystal Studios in Los Angeles, while The World Is a Ghetto was recorded entirely at Crystal.
Already established as the favored studio of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, among other luminaries, Heider’s new Studio 3 was designed to replicate Western Recorders legendary Studio 3, Brian Wilson’s studio of choice. “Wally and his carpenter…booked an hour of studio time at United Western 3, measured it and figured out it would fit into the space that was available,” CSN engineer Bill Halverson told Sound on Sound in 2010. “So, that’s how Heider came to build his own Studio 3. He never did have a Studio 2. He actually had the balls to name it Studio 3.” Studio 3 was outfitted with a custom Frank DiMedio‑designed 16-track console made with Universal Audio parts and two custom hybrid 300/350 Ampex two-inch tape machines.
While newer and less heralded than Heider, Crystal Studios would soon become known as the recording location for hit albums by Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, and, of course, War. “Crystal was a real good studio,” Huston told me:
We did a lot of working in Crystal. [It was] very creative — great room and a great sounding recording console that the owner, Andrew Berliner, had designed and built. It was better than anything else he could buy. And [the band members] were very comfortable there. So we recorded there a lot. And it was also convenient. Because it was in Hollywood, just off just off Vine at Santa Monica…. It was a great place to work. The nine-foot grand piano, Yamaha Grand, belonged to Stevie Wonder. He just left it there to use when he came. So we used that, and several times Stevie Wonder would come down, and we’d stopped recording and they’d all jam with Stevie in the studio. We couldn’t record it because they were on different labels, of course. But we just sat around, and they jammed. It was great. Great! We did a lot of creative work there.
Crystal was outfitted with cutting edge technology, including Berliner’s console. “I actually met Andrew when he was building the studio,” Huston continued: .
The studio was an old post office…. It was one big room. They also had a smaller room that became Studio B, but it was more of a mastering room type thing. It was very open and had big heavy drapes all the way around. So the room could be live or dead. You know, I got used to it, and I was very comfortable. And the recorded results were phenomenal. Because the console was so good and quiet….
The whole concept [for the console] was designed and built there. Of course, he had the chassis and metal work all done outside, but it was all custom. And it was phenomenal, if you’ve seen pictures of the studio. It was so quiet, the electronics…. I’ll tell you about the faders he designed and invented. What he had was they moved in a quarter of a decibel…. It was effectively controlled with a voltage control, but it was analog. What he had was like, say you have a resistor, and it was half a dB, say, or whatever. And then to get one dB, you add another one, right? Then you add a third one…. It’s a ladder, and it keeps building. But it was all analog control by voltage control. And it was so clean, because it wasn’t a huge electronic circuit, you see? It was just basically a ladder of resistors. He patented it…. He could have leased them — he wouldn’t sell them— he could have leased them to Studer, and they would have snapped them up, I heard. He was a brilliant, brilliant guy….
[The console] was solid state. But like I said, the EQs and things like that, parts of them were ladder bridges, where you stepped up in analog, but it’s controlled electronically. You could [also] group things together with a VCA [Voltage Controlled Amplifier]. You can group these analog faders together with the VCA control. So I could have the drums [together] if I want to, or all the keyboards or… the background vocals. Things like that….
[Crystal] had the Ampex MM-1000, which was called the “master muncher.” That was the original 16-24 track that they had. It was actually a converted video deck. What Ampex did, they took the video deck and used the motors, setups, and things like that and just took the helical scan head off and put in tape heads — ERP erase/record/playback heads. The problem was, the way it was set up, there was 13 inches of unsupported tape going through that the head block. So they were very prone to flutter. They had to be constantly set up and checked. And then he had 3Ms. I think they’re M-79s. They were great. Then we went 24-track. He got Studers, two Studer 24-tracks. He had all the best equipment’s, and his console had the best equipment.
Former Crystal engineer Barry Ober agrees. “Berliner’s effort may have started as a hippie studio fantasy but soon turned into an electronic design laboratory right on the cutting edge of what anyone in the industry was doing,” Ober writes on his website:
From “Doctor My Eyes” by Jackson Browne in 1972 to an enormous string of hit albums by Stevie Wonder, Crystal was on the map as one of the hot L.A. studios. A further appeal was that it was a one-stop shop: you could record and mix and master your album all in one building, and the main recording room was also big enough to hold an orchestra. In the mid 70’s Andrew’s ideas and eventual implementation actually far surpassed the cutting edge; for their day, all three consoles he built had many industry firsts and absolutely unique circuitry. He and various engineers and techs at the studio also highly modified the industry standard Studer tape recorders and the Neumann disc cutting lathe, and the clean, tight punchy sound you could get from this studio was fast becoming an industry legend.
Even 50 years later, the albums that Huston engineered for War, both at Crystal and elsewhere, possess a level of clarity — low background noise, tonal accuracy, instrumental separation — that’s remarkable. “I didn’t use lots of EQ. I just used [Berliner’s] console EQ,” Huston told me:
I didn’t over-EQ anything. I came from a school where you use mic’ing more than equalization. I’d adjust a microphone before I’d EQ it. That’s what they did in the old days. The key to everything was getting the correct mic’ing, because you didn’t have the sophistication that we have now. Nowadays, people put so much EQ on it, they take all the dynamics and the energy and the dimension out of the sound. In the old days, you put a mic up, near the amplifier, and you’d pull it backwards and put to the side a little bit and then it ends up, “That sounds great. I can hear the room and hear the amp. Great. We’ll use that.” And that was it. No EQ. Just record that. Of course, you’re getting less noise on your tape, because it’s one less set of electronics you’re not using.
I used outboard equipment, you know, but not EQ…. I used a limiter-compressor for vocals and bass. Nothing else, ever. I always put them on the bass, and I put them on the vocals. That way, you know, you can record live and make sure you don’t saturate the tape. And I always put the fastest release [on the compressor] so you didn’t hear it. But I gave myself two or three dB extra headroom that way.
Huston also went to great lengths to avoid the loss of fidelity that occurs when a final mix includes tracks that have been bounced from one tape machine to another. “We had 24-tracks [for All Day Music and The World Is a Ghetto],” Huston explained:
But the thing with War was, we’d record the tracks on a 24-track, okay? Then we’d put on vocals and everything. Then we would copy that tape. We would never mix down those tracks. They were the master tracks. We would sub-mix to another 24-track — maybe a rhythm track on two tracks and do the rest of the things on another machine. Then when we came to mix, we would link the two machines together, lock them together [with] SMPTE time codes. Then we will be able to use the original recording of the tracks and the original vocals. Sometimes we’d mix down maybe twice, and we’d have a third 24 track. [Laughs]…. What I’m saying is we would do the actual basic tracks on one machine. Then we’d do overdubs on there — maybe pilot vocals, ideas, and some overdubs, right? Then if we needed another machine — if we need to have [more] tape — I would do like a two-track mix of the rhythm tracks to two tracks of the [second] 24-track. We’d also download, say, a pilot of vocal and anything else we thought was important [to the second 24 track machine]. Then we’d do all the overdubs and the other vocals on the second 24-track. And then when we came to mix, we would simply lock the two machines together with SMPTE timecode. Then we’d have the original tracks of everything….
Today, albums by The Beatles and others are being remixed using the original pre-bounce multitrack tapes. By scrupulously avoiding generational loss, Huston’s early-’70s mixes often sound more like these 21st-century remixes than like 50-year-old two-track masters.
The first of these sonic masterpieces, All Day Music, opens with the title track, which unfolds at the sedate pace of a fall stroll. Scott’s acoustic is panned center-left, Jordan’s organ is panned far right, and Allen’s bongos are panned far left. Brown’s drums, pushed to the back of the soundstage with natural room reverb, sit in the center of the mix. Dickerson’s subtly busy bassline, also panned center, works in tandem with Brown’s hi-hat to keep the leisurely rhythm moving forward. Meanwhile, Oskar’s plaintive harmonica is panned center-left and washed with reverb, creating a sense of depth in an otherwise dry mix. This prepares the ear for the cavernous layered background vocals that enter at the :40 mark and define the song’s sonic landscape.
“What I liked a lot about ‘All Day Music’ and several other songs… were the background [vocals],” Huston told me. “We’d utilize doing very, very lush backgrounds. Lots of lots of layering. Doubling, then doubling again, and then [adding] different parts. ‘All Day Music’ is like that. The key part of the arrangement, in many cases, they would almost be like a horn or string part when you’re doing the ‘oohs’ and the ‘ahhs.’ There’d be lots of energy there, but it’d be way back. You knew it was big, but it was way back. I enjoyed doing that sort of stuff.”
Like many War songs, “All Day Music” evolved out of a jam, which Jordan fashioned into a fully realized track. “Lonnie had an excellent ear. He could hear a melody and if he wasn’t careful, he could walk right into a studio and play what he just heard,” Brown told Ruggiero. “Lonnie came in and said he had this idea for a song, and that became ‘All Day Music.’”
The straightforward lyrics delivered by Jordan seemed to be a description of the band’s calling:
Music is what we like to play
All day all day all day all day all day
To soothe your soul, yeah
Down at the beach y’all parting down
Making love or lying around
To soothe your mind
Music is what we like to play
All day all day all day all day all day
To soothe your soul, yeah
Lets have a picnic go to the park
Rolling in the grass ‘til long after dark
To soothe you soul, yeah
Both lyrically and sonically, “All Day Music” seems to owe a debt to Huston’s hit with The Young Rascals, “Groovin’,” which Ruggiero says was on the band’s mind at the time. Less obviously, “All Day Music” was inspired by Pharoah Sanders’s “soul jazz” classic Karma (the subject of a previous TBVO).
Released as a single in July of 1971, “All Day Music” preceded the album by four months and, after the false start of War, helped establish War’s commercial viability without Burdon. The single spent 11 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 35, and 18 weeks on the Billboard R&B charts, peaking at 18. “‘All Day Music’ was just a killer song,” Scott recalled in a 2017 FunkNStuff interview. “Got everybody into that. It was a summer song. Came out at the right time.”
The second track on All Day Music is the funky “Get Down.” Mixed in stereo from the audience’s perspective by Huston, Brown’s kit carries the track. “[I recorded Brown’s drums with] two overheads, kick and the snare, and then toms…,” Huston told me:
It’s all live, and you can actually hear the drums in the room. You don’t put reverb on ‘em, because actually I can hear them in the room through the other mics. And that’s part of the secret of being able to mix live, because they’re playing in the room, and the room is part of the sound. So that’s why I wasn’t worried with War playing live, because I knew that there was a way around all that or a way to work with it. But the drums [with War], basically Harold set up the way he wanted to play. I never asked him to do anything special. Back then you put your wallet on the snare to stop the tubbiness of the top skin, the top head. So you put your wallet on there, or taped a piece of foam on there just to deaden the top so you got a snap out of the top head. And that’s about it. He’d tune his drums, and I’d just mic them. I never spent hours on drum sounds, because he played very balanced. He was very simple in style, and he was complex in his simplicity. He had sort-of a feel that he used to get into. It was very simple. I thought of it simply and recorded it simply.
Brown’s show-stopping drums are supported by Allen’s percussion and Dickerson’s bass mixed center. The rest of the band, meanwhile, take a back seat for the first minute-and-a-half of the track. Scott’s scratchy dry guitar is mixed far left and serves primarily as another source of rhythm. Jordan’s barely audible organ, mixed far right, plays a circular melodic figure, a figure that Oscar’s harmonica — mixed low in the far left and doused with reverb — begins to echo little less than a minute into the song.
Lyrically, “Get Down” is a subtly political song, albeit one with a message channeled through the chill everyday language that characterizes most of War’s best-known songs:
Tell me brother
How do you feel
When the pretty little girl over there ain’t for real?
Tell me sister
How do you feel
When that nappy head brother ain’t for real?
You gotta’ get down
Down down down down down
Down down down down down
Tell me people,
How do you feel
When the president and secretaries ain’t real?
Tell me people
What would you do,
If the running of the world was all left up to you?
You gotta get down
Down down down down down
Come on then
You gotta get down
At the 1:30 mark, the track kicks into high gear. Miller’s sax enters and locks into a groove with Oskar’s harmonica. Scott, Dickerson, and Miller take vocal turns throughout the track. With the next verse, the entire band joins in harmony. The slight echo of the vocal booth hovers around the edges, underscoring the band’s penchant for organic, live-in-the-studio methods, while their loose, energetic delivery creates a party-meets-protest atmosphere. As Scott recalled in 2017, “[With] ‘Get Down’ we were right into that whole political thing — ‘Police and their justice, Laughing while they bust us’ and ‘And if you’re running the country, And you ain’t running it funky’ — under President Nixon.”
All Day Music changes pace with the third track, “That’s What Love Will Do,” which in turn segues into the fourth cut, “There Must Be a Reason.” This mini-suite embodies War’s penchant for delivering vaguely unsettling love songs. With its glacial pace and dramatic stop-starts, “That’s What Love Will Do” sounds as if Vanilla Fudge decided to cover The Delfonics. As Ruggiano notes, “[That’s What Love Will Do]’ might… be one of the most depressing songs of lost love of the entire decade with its trudging, downbeat tone and sax solo as its protagonist walks around with his head down and in misery.”
While the Scott-penned lyrics are straightforward fare of love lost, his vocal delivery and the band’s exquisite harmonies create an ethereal effect. Huston captured the band’s layered vocals by having Scott, Jordan, Dickerson, Miller, and Allen sing around one microphone. Next, Huston would have them change positions, capture another take, and repeat the process. Finally, Huston would mix the various vocal takes together for the final product. The result is what Ruggiano calls “perhaps the finest example of War Harmonies on record.” The other standout feature of “There Must Be a Reason” is Miller’s plaintive sax solo at the 3:44 mark. As the seven-minute “That’s What Love Will Do” transitions into “There Must Be a Reason,” a discordant guitar riff by Scott and an eerie xylophone line from Allen accentuates the song’s subtle menace.
As it opens, “There Must Be a Reason” is held together by simple beat, Jordan’s low-mixed organ in the left channel, and Scott’s barely-there guitar in the right. Above this simple explanation, War’s members coo in harmony:
Lost my soul in ‘68
Where were you?
Lost my soul in ‘68
Where were you?
As the track picks up steam, Brown’s drumming becomes more frantic, the guitar and organ gain volume, and the band’s droning vocal frays as they repeat the title line: “There must be a reason why / I don’t know.” It’s an arresting closing to All Day Music’s first side.
The opening track on the album’s second side, “Nappy Head (Theme from Ghetto Man),” conveys a sound that’s instantly recognizable as War. The track’s parenthetical title refers to an eight-page treatment drafted by Allen for a Blaxploitation film starring the band, but the track was written primarily by Scott. The groove-oriented song primarily serves as a platform for the band’s instrumental facility. Its highlight is a twangy solo by Scott on what sounds like an electric sitar. With its wood block scrapes and prominent organ figure, “Nappy Head” it recalls nothing so much as “Spill the Wine.” Perhaps because of that, the band erroneously earmarked it as a hit. “I said, ‘Man, this has got to be the song [‘Nappy Head’] that’s gonna get War back out there,’ which was totally wrong,” Scott recalled. “But ‘Nappy Head’ was a great song.”
While “Nappy Head” didn’t scale the heights of the charts, the next track on All Day Music, “Slippin’ into Darkness” did. Released as the album’s second single, “Slippin’ into Darkness” reached number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for 22 weeks. Despite its success, the track had a humorously prosaic inspiration and was rejected by Burdon. “When we were playing with Eric Burdon and War, we were on tour in London,” Scott told DJ Medina:
We were walking around, you know? I saw this pair of English riding boots. Pretty boots. I went into the store to buy them. I wanted them, but my foot is size 11. These boots were 10 and a half. So I squeeze my foot in there…. I said, “Oh, they’re too tight, too tight.” So the [sales person] says, “We’ve got to take the boot off.” It’s kind of hard to get off. So he starts pulling and pulling and pulling on the boot to get it off, and he pulled it so hard he pulled my back out. He got the boot off, but he pulled my back out. I was in all this pain. So I went back to the hotel, and they called this doctor in, and his name is Dr. Raymond. I’ll never forget this guy. He came in and said, “Okay Mr. Scott, pull your britches down,” and he gave me a shot at Demerol. Big time shot. It looked like a gallon of it. I said, “Boy that stuff’s kinda good. I like that.” I was slipping. I was slipping into darkness, slipping into darkness, slipping into darkness…. The next day when I woke up I said, “Damn, that was a trip.” [Laughs] So I sang, “Well I was slipping into darkness when I heard my mother say, ‘You been slipping into darkness.’” I said, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” So I started writing this whole song called “Slipping into Darkness.”
In a 2018 interview with the Blues Highway podcast, Brown recalled the same story. “The main writer on that song was Howard Scott,” he said:
Howard Scott and I’ve been hanging together since 1962. Howard is one day older than me…. So Howard and I, we roomed together [on tour], and Howard had this idea. He put on a boot. He was over in London. He liked these really tight, pretty-boy shoes. He’d always tell me my shoes look like Frankenstein shoes. [Laughs] He had on these shoes, and it was too tight, and he tried to get them off. He started hurting, and they gave some medication for the pain. He felt like he was slipping into darkness. That’s where it came from.
Scott offered “Slippin’ into Darkness” to Burdon, but the former Animals singer didn’t have any interest. “I said, ‘Eric, I got a song for you. It’s called ‘Slippin’ into Darkness,’” Scott recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hear that. I don’t like that.’… So I put it on the back burner. I didn’t bring it out for all the first War album because I didn’t think it was ready. Second War album came out? Popped ‘Slipping into Darkness’ out there, and, bam, it hit….”
What could’ve been another hit for Burdon and War instead became the track that established War as viable hitmakers without Burdon. “That song opened up the door,” according to Scott. “[It] broke War. ‘Slippin’ into Darkness’ made War…. [It] made it possible for War to be the band that it is today….”
The track opens with Jordan’s organ and a distant tambourine. For nearly two minutes, Jordan holds a single note as the band delivers the first verse in its signature harmonies:
I was slippin’ into darkness
When they took my friend away
I was slippin’ into darkness
When they took, when they took my friend away
The suggestively allegorical lyrics invited political and social interpretations. “I wanted it so people could read their own message into it,” Scott told Ruggiero. “And that’s what I like to do. Let people fill in their own blanks, and it becomes a more meaningful song to them.”
Given the track’s medication-induced genesis, it’s no surprise that some listeners (and band members) saw it as a cautionary tale about drug abuse. “‘Slippin’ Into Darkness’ was a warning to people who were going overboard in what they were doing,” Papa Dee Allen told New Musical Express in 1973. “If you keep running around the world, you gotta come into darkness sometime.”
Punctuated by whoops, hollers, and claps, War’s delivery of the lyrics gave the song’s intro a spiritual flavor. “That was actually a gospel song of ours,” Jordan said in a 2017 interview. “The fact [is] that we all grew up together, and our parents pretty much helped us, pretty much supported our careers over time, but they would always tell, ‘Be careful down the path…. I don’t want you going down the wrong path. Go down to the light [path].’ So that’s basically where that came from.”
Following a dramatic break and a short bass run by Dickerson, the band locks into a bass-and-guitar groove delivered over a hesitating, hi-hat-driven rhythm from Brown. “I had perfected that rhythm out of a combination of rhythms,” he told SongFacts’ Carl Weiser. “So when Howard came together with certain ideas and time sets of lyrics, I said, ‘The next song that we play, I’m making sure that rhythm fits in it.’ And I was the only one written up in Downbeat for that particular rhythm that took and changed the course of drumming into the ‘70s.”
According Huston, “The key [to ‘Slippin’ into Darkness’] is when it hits the downbeat, [they] start that riff [imitates main riff]…. The whole band comes down on the riff, after the intro, which is a vocal over Lonnie holding a note on the organ for 1:57. Then the song starts…. We had that [riff] early on. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
Beyond propelling “Darkness” up the charts, that riff also inspired Bob Marley to write “Get Up, Stand Up.” Harold Brown recalled spending time with Marley at a show in Atlanta. “Bob nudged me on the left shoulder and said ‘Brown, Brown, your band like my band! You street band! I do song for you!’” he recalled to Ruggiero. “And then you know what? He wrote ‘Get Up, Stand Up,’ and it took [Lee Oskar and Charles Miller’s horn line] from ‘Slippin’ into Darkness!’”
Sonically, “Slippin’ into Darkess” is one of Huston’s standout productions. Brown’s drums and Dickerson’s bass, which drive the track forward, are high in the mix. Brown’s kit is mixed in stereo from the audience’s perspective, with the toms spanning from the far left to the far right. Both the drums and bass are recorded dry, with only subtle stereo reverb on Brown’s snare providing just a little extra punch and depth. Dickerson’s bass has both low-end thump and a hint of treble, which brings out the string articulation on his acrobatic fills. “The bass was direct and live…,” Huston told me:
I had BB’s bass going through a DI [direct input] box, and I also mic’d the bass amplifier. Those came up on two faders next to each other on the console, and I was able to blend them to one track on the multi-track recorder as I was recording it. I used an [Universal Audio] 1176 [compressor/limiter] on it — very, very fast so you couldn’t hear it…. That was actually my favorite limiting device because — if used correctly, not over-used — you could not hear it or what it was doing. With his bass, I wanted to control the overall dynamic range without adding or subtracting from the sound that he was getting. The 1176 was perfect for that…. You know, the bass doesn’t sound compressed, does it? I just did it like we used to do for mastering, just to give myself a little bit more headroom. So if he really hit something I didn’t saturate the tape and cause print-through. I was very careful with that. But it was a mixture of the direct [signal] and the bass amp. And don’t forget a lot of that is BB’s playing, right? You know, I can’t take credit for everything. I mean, BB played fabulously. He’s a great bass player.
Jordan’s organ is mixed far right and Scott’s guitar — with just a touch of overdrive and reverb — is mixed far left alongside a prominent tambourine from Allen. When Oskar’s harmonica and Miller’s sax enter, they’re blended together and set back in the mix with a healthy dollop of reverb. Meanwhile, the slight echo on the harmony vocals place them at a middle depth. The result is a mix that — front-to-back, left-to-right — clearly delineates each part and allows every instrument and vocal to come through.
The final track on All Day Music, “Baby Brother,” was recorded live. The mostly instrumental track, which fades in mid-jam, demonstrates War’s live prowess and gives space for Oskar to showcases his harp skills. When asked about recording “Baby Brother,” Huston recalled:
I had had my own studio where I did Led Zeppelin when I worked on Led Zeppelin II. It was called Mystic [Recording Studios]. It was on Selma Avenue, just off Vine…. It had a 16 track…. Well, War came in early on, because when I when Jerry and I were first talking, he brought War in and actually did “Baby Brother” there. There was a version of that sounded great, and we almost ended up using that on the album. We didn’t, but there were just different versions of it… [The version used on All Day Music was recorded live] ‘cuz at that point, I had designed a remote truck. We had two Stephens 16-tracks in it and a console in it built by Andrew Berliner at Crystal…. It was very, very primitive. I didn’t need much.
If All Day Music showed that War could stand on its own without Burdon, the band’s next album, The World Is a Ghetto, catapulted War far beyond the success it had achieved with the former Animals star. Perhaps owing to the fact that Ghetto was tracked exclusively at Crystal Studios, it sounds even tighter and more consistent than its predecessor.
The World Is a Ghetto opens with the hard-edged funk of “The Cisco Kid,” which as the album’s second single would reach number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number five on the R&B singles charts.
Organized around a recurring five-note riff and punctuated by unpredictable fills, “Cisco” embodies War’s knack for creating seemingly simple songs that turn out to be much more complex upon closer listen. After a count-in, Dickerson’s bass and Jordan’s keyboard (either a Clavinet or a Univox) — mixed center and far left, respectively — play the song’s main riff in unison. They’re supported by Brown’s muscular kick and reverberant rim hits, mixed in stereo, and Allen’s bongos, mixed far right. For the riff’s second round, Jordan drops out. As a Dickerson carries the riff himself, a reverb-drenched Cabasa enters in the center-left. The third time through, Jordan’s keys reenter and are joined by Scott’s wah-inflected guitar panned hard right. Then, just before the vocals begin, the Miller/Oskar horn section make its first appearances.
The core of “Cisco Kid” was written by Scott, while — typical of War’s creative process — the other members contributed individual parts and arrangements. “I was a lead writer as far as, like, giving the storyline and the direction that we should go in the studio,” he recalled in the FunkNStuff interview. “[Sings] ‘Cisco kid was a friend of mine da da da dum’ [and] all those things right there [were my idea]. So I would come up with just a direction, and everybody would fill in the whole thing… and fly with it.”
The song was inspired by a bouncer’s rough handling of a patron before one of War’s performances. “We were playing in this club in Marina Del Rey called Cisco’s…,” Scott said:
And just before we go on to stage this guy came — you know, off the street, a wino type — and he wanted to hear a certain song. He came up to me and he asked me, “Hey, would you play, let’s say, ‘My Wild Irish Rose’?” So the bouncer from Cisco’s came up and grabbed this little guy and tossed him out the room like a wet rag. And I said [to him], ‘Hey, the Cisco Kid was a friend of mine’ from that point on. Then I said, ‘Hmm… Cisco Kid.’ So I went back to my child could hero, Duncan Renaldo, who was the Cisco Kid on TV, and I came up with this whole story about Cisco Kid. So that man outside the dadgum club was a friend of mine.
Back home in Compton, Scott worked out the outline of the song. “I was out making a few runs that took me into South Los Angeles and Compton area and decided to stop by Mr. Howard E. Scott’s place,” Brown recalled to Blues Network. “He was living in some condo apartments at the time, and when I came up on Howard he was setting on his Fender Guitar Amp by the swimming pool, playing this lick and singing this hook, which wound up being one of our biggest hits.”
Brown had been listening to Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You“ and appropriated that song’s “ticky-tacky” rhythm for “Cisco Kid.” “The rhythm…,” he continued, “along with the amazing horn lines that Lee Oskar and Big Brother Charles W. Miller came up with, BB’s bass lines, Lonnie’s keyboard groove, and Papa Dee’s tasty percussion licks made it a memorable, catchy song the moment you heard It.”
The second track on The World Is a Ghetto is the catchy, but slight “Where Was You At?” The Miller-sung track includes few lyrics besides the title. Yet the track works because Huston’s mix makes the most of the track’s winning constituent parts: Scott’s biting guitar riff, Dickerson’s jaunty bassline, Oskar’s keening harmonica, and the group’s sprightly handclaps and chaotic backing vocals. According to Huston, “‘Where Was You At?’ was a jam. It was just, like, a catchy phrase, and that was that.”
The closing track on side one of The World Is a Ghetto is the 13-minute instrumental “City, Country, City.” If that thumbnail summary suggests throwaway filler, “City, Country, City” is anything but. Instead, the track’s distinct sections come across like Yes covered by Curtis Mayfield, proof positive that War could execute “progressive soul“ as well as any of their contemporaries.
Primarily written by Oskar and developed in a studio jam, the track’s thematic movements are, as the title suggests, designed to evoke disparate landscapes. “‘City Country City’ was done in the studio,” Huston recalled. “It was basically a jam, where somebody has something funky to something that’s just the total opposite — you know, sublime — and that was the whole key to that. It was basically the city just jazzin’ away, and then the country just being mellow as ever.”
According to the Oskar, the track was inspired by Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” though that influence is effectively obscured by War’s inimitable sound. “There was something about that melody that resonated with me. And I thought it could be a hit,” Oskar told Ruggiero. “What I came up with was so far from that song. I brought it into the studio, and we jammed and everybody put their stuff behind it, and then it evolved. The concept was like driving from one city to another city with country in between. And that the cities were getting bigger with more pavement and pollution between urban and rural areas.”
Both “City, Country, City” and The World Is a Ghetto’s title track were earmarked for Fred Williamson’s controversial 1972 Western-themed Blaxploitation film. However, War pulled both songs after they saw the film. “We put more realness in our music than they did in the acting. Because we got deeper into it, and they took a lot of the guts out of the movie, and they almost did the same thing with the music….,” Jordan told Sounds in 1976. “‘The World Is A Ghetto’ and ‘City Country City’ was going to be the main theme for the movie but… people loved the album more than the movie, the album sold more than the movie.”
Perhaps the most impressive mix and arrangement on the album, “City, Country, City” opens with Jordan’s organ in the left channel and Scott’s acoustic guitar in the right. Deep-set chimes and sleigh bells help set the pastoral stage, and the song kicks into gear when the rhythm section enters just before 1:00 mark. Oskar’s mournful harmonica provides the song’s melody during the track’s “country” portion, then gives way to Miller’s sax when the band switches gears and tempos in the “city” segments. Every element in the relatively dense arrangement is clean and well-placed, helping listeners direct their attention to various parts as the shift in and out of the mix. Miller’s bongos, for example, simply appear, while Scott’s guitar seamlessly transitions from acoustic to electric.
“Four Cornered Room” opens side two of The World Is a Ghetto. With its eerie “zoom, zoom, zoom” backing vocals and spoken word verses, “Four Cornered Room” is the most sonically psychedelic song on the record. Like several War songs, members point to different inspirations for the track — a fact that’s not surprising given the band’s collaborative jam/writing process. “[That song came from] the first time I smoked some hash, first time I’d gotten high, period,” Dickerson told Wax Poetics. “I said ‘Howard, the water and the trees on that curtain are moving. Zoom, zoom, zoom!” While Scott supports Dickerson’s story, Brown pointed to an emotional low, not a high, when asked by Ruggiero about the song’s meaning. “I was living in Silver Lake, right on the outskirts of Hollywood,” he recalled, “and at that point, I was separated from my first wife. I was single for the first time, and I was living in this four cornered room. Just had a bedroom, little closet, small bathroom, and a refrigerator and an electric stove.”
Huston added to the song’s trippy vibe by phasing several parts of the mix, including the “zoom, zoom, zoom” harmonies, Brown’s spoken word verses, and Brown’s cymbals. Once again, Huston’s experience at Talentmasters, where he’d pioneered the use of phasing on The Nazz’s “Open My Eyes” in 1968, came in handy. As Huston explained in our interview:
A quick explanation on phasing: Basically, say you have two tape machines, and one of them has got the voice going to it regular, right? Then what you do is you take the second tape machine, which also has the vocal going to it, and you put it on a VSO, which is a variable speed oscillator, which allows you to control the speed of that machine. And what you do is you put the two so they sum together, okay? And what happens is that when you get them locked together — that is, running at the same identical speed — you hear the voice clearly, but when you get the speed of the second machine slightly off, they phase each other, and they’ll phase out. …. They’re basically cancelling each other out, but you’re doing it in such a way that you’re catching little frequencies and riding them little bit, then letting them trail off. It was a lot of fun doing. And then what we’d do is we’d edit that back into the two-track master…. I’d done it before. I did it when I did Todd Rundgren’s first album [with the Nazz]…. I think [The Small Faces’] “Itchycoo Park” was the first record to do [phasing], popular-wise. But I’d actually done it months before that with Todd Rundgren…. But, you know, “Itchcoo Park” made it [popular]. I remembered doing that with [The Nazz] when we were doing “Four Cornerd Room.” So I suggested, and we did it, and it turned out great. Or interesting at least!
The penultimate song on The World Is a Ghetto is the title track. Written primarily by Allen, “Ghetto” is one of War’s most famous — and most overtly political — songs. The persistence of poverty in an increasingly wealthy, “middle-class society” like the United States had been a topic of mainstream political concern since at least 1958, when economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s bestseller The Affluent Society drew attention to the paradox of poverty amidst plenty. Four years later, Michael Harrington’s study of the lives of low-income Americans, The Other America, helped inspire President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” At first blush, Allen’s lyrics point to the elusiveness of the American dream for many on the margins of society:
Wonder when I’ll find
Somewhere there’s a home
Sweet and nice
Wonder if I’ll find
Never give it up
Now I guess
Don’t you know that it’s true
That for me and for you
The world is a ghetto
However, in explaining the track, band members stressed that the lyrics were not simply an account of the struggles of the poor, but about the common sufferings of rich and poor, alike. “Papa Dee kind of brought that song around,” Brown told Ruggiero. “Jerry and Steve were living in Malibu. We’re no longer living in Pomona or Compton or Long Beach. We are hobnobbing with a lot of stars, around privileged people [in] Beverly Hills. And we were over in Malibu, and we noticed that the sewage lines were backing up. Just because people live in houses and have things doesn’t mean that things don’t happen to them, too. It didn’t mean that they didn’t have problems. Money can buy you a bed, but it doesn’t buy you sleep. Money can buy you food, but not an appetite. Money can buy you fine clothes, but not class. It can buy you books, but not intelligence. We started having these epiphanies come to us.”
This somewhat unpersuasive equivocation — Even if everyone faces everyday problems, who can deny that it’s better to be rich than to be poor? — suggests that, at least in part, “Ghetto” reflected War’s members’ own discomfort with the contrast between their authentic working-class image and their growing bank accounts. “War was born in a capitalist society,” Brown explained to New Musical Express’s Cliff White in 1976:
Now it’s no fault of mine. I could have been born here as an Englishman, or over in commie territory, but the point is I was born in America, and I came from a working-class family. Now America was founded upon the thing that said all men blah-blah are supposed to be created equally blah-blah, sort of a Marxist type theory, and all that garbage. But the point is my family were working class. Howard’s family were working class. His father worked with the railroad, and his mother worked down at the cannery. Right? My daddy work as a gardener for the city, and my mother worked in the aircraft plant. There were six of us in our family. Lonnie’s mother was a nurse, and she raised five boys by herself. Lonnie didn’t even finish high school. B.B.’s father worked down at the docks, the pier, as a longshoreman, and his mother was a nurse. And you see the point I’m trying to make is — I’m trying to drive it home — we don’t want to sound like we’re materialistic or anything but… look, part of our dream was to be creators and leaders in music that people would get off on, that would ease their nerves, give ‘em a little fruit. But also the fruits of being successful I can’t knock, because I do enjoy being able to have the finer things. We all do. War are just glorified ghetto boys. Dig it?
More recently, Brown has added a contemporary interpretation of “Ghetto” that resonates at a time when America’s levels of inequality dwarf those of the era when the song was written. “If we want to make America great, we need to get back to the basics,” Brown explained in a 2018 interview, just after providing a version of the above Malibu anecdote. “We need to start showing love and respect to each other. Once we get off our cell phones when we’re walking down the street, start looking up, walk more, and start talking to our neighbors… we’re gonna find that we’re more alike inside than on the outside…. Now I understand why people’ve got the [earbuds] in their ears. They don’t want to hear the cries of all the homeless. They don’t want to hear the cries of the people that need help.”
“The World Is a Ghetto” opens with Scott’s wah-drenched electric panning from right to left. “When we did ‘The World Is a Ghetto,’ myself and Papa Dee Allen was at rehearsal in Long Beach,” Scott told Wax Poetics. “Dee came up on a Friday, and I came up with [the intro’s] guitar lick. I was playing that, and Papa Dee said, ‘Keep playing that!’ So I played that, and he came up with the [opening] line ‘Walking down the street. I thought that [all of] ‘The World Is a Ghetto,’ was gonna be [slow and soft] just like that.”
After a short bass flourish by Dickerson and a dramatic cymbal roll from Brown, the band enters, led by Miller and Oskar’s unique horn section. In a moment, Scott, Dickerson, Miller, and Oskar lock together to introduce the track’s forceful main melodic motif. This riff goes on to serve as the basis for Brown’s dramatic lead vocal on the chorus, which is augmented by War’s signature harmonies. However, Scott wasn’t initially enamored with the harder-edged riff of the chorus. “[Papa Dee] took that [the slow, soft opening] home that Friday,” he continued to Wax Poetics, “and when he came back Monday, he had [sings] ‘Don’t you know / That it’s true / That for me / And for you….’ I said, ‘Dee, how could you go and fuck up a [beautiful] song like that, man? That’s horrible!’ So me and him fought over it. I didn’t like it, man. I really didn’t like it. But that was the ticket.”
The song’s emotional climax comes just after the 3:30 mark, when Miller unleashes perhaps his best sax solo on record. “When Charles Miller played that sax solo, I cried,” Goldstein told Craig Rosen in 1996. “I had never heard anybody with that kind of feeling and soul. I sat in the studio at the end of the night and listened to it over and over again until the morning.” Underneath Miller’s sax, the band moves between contemplative soul and staccato funk — transitions that Huston expertly emphasizes by panning Jordan’s ear-catching keyboard hard left and right. “That was fabulous to work on,” Huston told me. “That was written basically in the studio and put together in the studio. I think that we were evolved enough at that time that everyone knew what we were working towards. I mean, you could see the song evolve, and it was a great song to begin with…. The way it evolved was fabulous. It was like being an extra member of the group, because I was so involved in every part of it. Lucky guy, eh?” After a final verse, the band vamps on the chorus four times as the ten-minute track fades to close.
The final song on The World Is a Ghetto is “Beetles in the Bog.” Following the slinky end of “Ghetto,” the discordant opening to “Bog” provides a sonic change of pace. Lyrically slight, “Bog” serves mainly to remind listeners of War’s ability to churn out goofy tunes that, for musicians lacking the band’s dexterity, likely would not rise above a throwaway. Instead, with its mix of wheezing drones, skittering drums, churning percussion, and loose chants, “Bog” sounds like a blueprint for the Talking Heads’ early-’80s experimentation. As Huston told me, “Bog” was an example of War’s willingness to take songs in radically different directions during mixdown. “Basically, that’s one of Lee’s songs,” he said. “And what Lee did is he would sing it, and then the band would repeat it. But his singing wasn’t up to par. So we edited that out, and just ended up leaving the answer [vocals] in…. Very funny, because he sang everything, and they answered, and then we took him out!… But the thing about working with the band is that you have to consider that everything was created basically in the studio.”
Once recording was finished, Huston worked with Goldstein and the band to painstakingly craft the best mix of each track. “We didn’t have automation,” he explained:
Sometimes it would take me four hours or so to learn the mix, to [get it to] sound pretty good. I’d get to the point where I’d be going along, and it’d starting to really sound good, and the guy’s are going, “Yeah, that’s good.” Then I’d pull all the faders down, and they’d go, “Oh, he’s started.” But I knew the mixes. What was happening was as you mix things, and you start to bring things in, you find yourself filling the gaps. It gets too tight. You lose the air, right? You’re trying to be too perfect, you know? So what I do is I’d pull the faders down, and I’d bring up the rhythm track just by itself. By then I was used to what I wanted, the feel, and what we had to do. So I’d have it going, and the guys are, “Oh yeah, that’s great.” Then I’d start to bring in different things, and I’d say, “Okay, now here’s the problem. When I bring in this extra keyboard, Lonnie, notice the way it covers that.” He’d say, “Well, can we bring it down?” I’d say, “We could. Yeah, let’s try it down.” And if it works, it works. But that’s what you’re doing. You’re working on it to get the best out of everything.
But when you’re mixing, what’s happening is your objectivity is always challenged, because you’re spending four or five hours on the same song, and you find yourself packing things in so [that] you’ve got everything [in the mix]. And if you listen to it objectively, you say, “Wow, this just sounds like nothing’s jumping out anymore. There’s no air in it.” So I’d pull it down and pick up the rhythm track, and, of course, with just the rhythm section belting away it would sound fantastic. Then you bring in a vocal, and you bring in whatever, [like] the horns. You do all different ways until you find a way that works where you can get the best of everything. And you may not end up using all the overdubs that you did, because while they sounded great while you were doing them, you find it’s getting in the way of [another element], and it’s that sounds much better if we just have the air there. And then the guys’d go, “Yeah, I think you’re right” — if I was right. Or [maybe] somebody else made a suggestion that was totally valid. So that’s what we did.
Mixing took a while. You could spend a week on a track easily. When you’re doing the mixing, I’d learn the mix — usually in solos — and just put my head down and my eyes [closed]…. I’d perform the whole song. Because I was performing the mix — bringing things in, the vocals in, and the lead vocal and this or that. I’d make marks, but I had to perform. I couldn’t just let it ride. I’d have to work things. And then some takes would be better than others. And then some [mixing takes] would have a part in it [that we’d decide against] — [such as if] we did three keyboards, but three keyboards were too much, you know? We’d mix it, and then we’d say, “It sounds a little mushy, there”…. Whatever it was, we’d try it until it sounded right. The guys were great. They realized that you have lots of ideas, and you try them all, but they won’t necessarily work when you come to mix. Because the end result is the performance of the song where things are supported without dragging it down or covering something else up….
My part in the band was mixing the music together, you know? Lonnie did an interview once, and I saw it, and somebody asked, “Where do you get the sound?” and he said, “Well, we didn’t have a sound until we heard our playback and the way Chris had mixed it.”
The master mix was edited together from the best sections of each mixing take. “We’d spend a month editing, eight hours a night or more, Jerry and I,” Huston told me:
We’d come up with different versions [and] listen to them…. Sometimes, you know, they’d be 20 or 30 mixes of a song with slight [differences]. It would be the same song, but it’d be different mixes, and I got pretty good at editing. I got really good at editing, you know? [There were] tricks I came up with about how you do it. You know, never edit on a downbeat. I edit on four and if I could, you know? One and two and three and four and, you know? If I could edit there instead of the downbeat, I would. And [there were] little [other] tricks. Say if you did an edit because you had to, because you had a perfect part, and in doing it, you chopped off reverb on the vocals, right? Okay, so you’ve got a perfect mix. You’ve got the best of everything, except the vocals at the very end of that section you’re ending, the reverb is cut off. So, what I would do is I’d run that section through the recording console and add reverb on it as it went across the edit, providing an echo tail. Then that piece of tape had to be cut on each side of the echo and put it back in the mix.
Huston, Goldstein, and the band were just as fastidious when it came to the mastering stage. “When we mastered, you’re making lacquers/test pressings, and we would go to two or three or four different places,” Huston told me:
We’d go to Capitol, to their mastering room with Wally Traugott. We’d go to Crystal. They had a Norman lathe, and Andrew [Berliner] would master the same album. We’d go to MGM. And we’d go to Mastering Lab or something. So when the lacquers came back, Jerry [Goldstein] and I would go and we’d sit and we’d spend hours just listening to them — critical listening sessions to select the best A & B side from all the test pressings. They were all invariably excellent, but sometimes one song of a particular pressing might be noticeably different/better than the other samples, so we’d choose that side of the album pressing based on that particular track on the side sounding better. The other album side might come from a different mastering room. It was not uncommon for an album to have different sides from different mastering rooms…. We may say, “Okay, let’s take the A side from Crystal and the B side from Capitol”…. That’s just the way it worked out as we wanted to get the best possible recordings possible.
That said, Huston and Goldstein were proud of their final mixes and preferred mastering with a light touch. “In the old days, a mastering engineer — the guy that makes the lacquers in a mastering room — they prided themselves on the fact that you didn’t hear what they did,” Huston continued:
Their job was to take what you put on tape and get that as near as they could on the lacquer. Now, there were lots of little tricks they had to do — [such as] compression, just a couple of dB, to keep the bass in control… and [not] cause a skip…. So, in the old days, they did the least they [could]. Wally Traugott, actually, we had I forget which album… being done at A&M. And I went down there to make sure they were doing it right, and I got there and the guy was already doing it, and I said, “What did you add?” and he said, “I didn’t add anything. I didn’t need to do anything to it. It sounds it sounded phenomenal”…. He just cut it. So I was very happy with that. But occasionally, the engineer might put in, you know, maybe a dB a 3,000 [Hz] and one at 10 [kHz] just to brighten it, or he may put a high pass filter to cut off below 40 [Hz] just to get to control the bass a little bit, which is something you don’t have to worry about nowadays, because we’re not working with vinyl.
Following this meticulous mixing-and-mastering process, All Day Music was released November 1971, and The World Is a Ghetto hit stores a year later. Besides spawning two Billboard Hot 100 singles, “All Day Music” and “Slippin’ into Darkness,” All Day Music stayed on the album charts for 49 weeks, peaking at number 16. The World Is a Ghetto did even better, reaching number one on both the Billboard 200 and R&B album charts, persisting on the former for a whopping 68 weeks. Singles “Cisco Kid” and “The World Is a Ghetto” also outperformed their All Day Music counterparts, peaking at two and seven, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100.
All Day Music received modest, though mostly positive, attention in the music press. As Soul Sounds’ Vernon Gibbs wrote:
The title tune from their second album, All Day Music (United Artists), was a number one single this past summer, a rare occurrence for any Black group or musical organization not linked to Motown or Stax. The album followed much later and the coolness of reception may have had something to do with the coolness the single had attained by that time. It’s too bad…. With their strongly rhythmic roots in uptempo R&B, their brilliant vocals which has exceptional harmonic blends, a slight touch of Latin and a gospel feel running through some songs, War has created the most progressive Black music in years. And if we are to take them out of that particularly representative confine, their music could stand up with the best of jazz and rock and is particularly exciting because it solidifies the creation of a new genre
The World Is a Ghetto, in contrast, received more publicity. In a reserved-but-positive review, Rolling Stone’s Gordon Fletcher declared, “War has progressed far and fast since they disassociated themselves from Eric Burdon…. With The World is a Ghetto, they edge even closer to total mastery of their music as they attempt to use it to communicate the essence of ghetto life.” Stereo Review’s Joel Vance bizarrely panned the second side of the album, while calling the first half “marvelous, a stunning combination of Latin, rock, jazz, and soul, performed with faultless technique matched with sensitivity and fire.” For his part, Robert Christgau, the “Dean of American Rock Critics,” gave Ghetto a “C+.” In later years, Christgau raised that grade to a “B,” a shift that represented the retrospective critical reappraisal of War’s output. By the 21st century, The World Is a Ghetto would land on both Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
Given Huston and Goldstein’s attention to the mastering of the original vinyl releases of All Day Music and The World Is a Ghetto, it’s incumbent upon modern audiophiles to seek out the best digital mastering of each album.
Despite several CD releases with unique catalog numbers and its presence on streaming services, there appear to be only two digital masterings of All Day Music.
The first mastering appeared in 1992 on CDs with the 71042 and 74321 catalog numbers. It’s also the version that’s currently streaming on sites like Qobuz. This mastering was done by Bill Inglot and Ken Perry for the War catalog’s first appearance on CD.
All Day Music was remastered three years later by Joe Gastwirt for the “Avenue Gold“ “24-KT Gold” CD series. These gold CDs are billed as “20-bit” masters, with the liner notes proclaiming, “Digital 20 is a special 20-bit digital mastering process. Each disc is guaranteed to have been manufactured from the first-generation master tapes. The original producer has assisted in the production to ensure the finest possible sound.”
The Gastwirt-mastered “Avenue Gold” CDs came up in my conversation with Huston when I mentioned that at least several War albums should be considered audiophile discs: “You know, it’s funny,” he said:
I mean, just thinking back over those days and just the trouble we went to to make sure the records came out and sounded the best they could, you know? I don’t know. War’s never been an audiophile record. Although when I used to go to the Rocky Mountain audiophile show, there was a company there — I forget the name of the company — but a guy that worked for them always played War records, and he had a set of the gold CDs, which were made very special. I have a set that was given to me, but they’re very rare…. But I remember I’d walk past the room, and if the door was open and he saw me he’d call me in. And, invariably, he was playing something from Eric Burdon and War or War, you know? He’d be playing “Mother Earth” or something, which sounds fabulous, and he’d say [to the other people in the room], “This is the guy that did this,” you know? And everyone’d go, “Yeah!” And I’d go, “Okay, thanks. Bye.” But, you know, of course, I was pleased to hear it. I must admit, it’s the only time I’ve ever hear it at an audio show, no matter how good it sounds.
Since Gastwirt maintains an active online presence, I reached out to him about his memories of remastering All Day Music and several other War albums for the “Avenue Gold” series. While it’s tough to ask any engineer to remember much about a project from a quarter-century ago, Gastwirt did recall something memorable. “I did work on some War material around ‘95,” he wrote:
I never did any 20-bit mastering. In ‘95 I used the Pacific Microsonics HDCD system, which was a 24-bit system, that when making a 16 bit CD and decoded2 properly during playback, would give 22-bit results. The information on the package was for advertisement and had nothing to do with the way the music was mastered. The War management at that time had no integrity, as they tried not to pay for the work, and I had to hold the master tapes as ransom. I did eventually get paid.
The mastering story for The World Is a Ghetto is only slightly more complex than All Day Music’s. The first version is the 1992 Inglot and Perry mastering. Like All Day Music, all 1992 CDs of The World Is a Ghetto, whether they have the 71043 catalog number or the 74321 catalog number, share the same mastering, and this is also the mastering used for the Redbook version of the album streaming on Qobuz.3 The second version is Gastwirt’s 1995 mastering for the “Avenue Gold” series. The third and final version is a 2012 40th anniversary release mastered by Pete Doell. It’s available both as a CD and a hi-res stream/download and includes four (pleasant but inessential) bonus tracks.
Given the small number of versions, I’m going to combine both releases into one dynamic range table:
Neither the R128 dynamic range number nor crest factor DR scores suggests that any of these versions is significantly compressed or limited. The waveforms do show, however, that the 40th anniversary mastering of The World Is a Ghetto clips in numerous spots on each track. Reducing this version’s volume eliminates that clipping, but it also reveals flat-top waveforms during the loud portions of several tracks. That said, the amount of limiting isn’t egregious, and given the small number of masterings, it makes sense to keep the 40th anniversary mastering in the mix. If it’s a better transfer or features better EQ than other versions, it could still be the best choice.
Next, let’s take a look at each version’s “average power“ frequency spectrum in Har-Bal after using that software’s transparent level-matching function.
Given the limited number of digital versions of each album and the great care that Huston and Goldstein put into selecting the mastering of the original albums, I’ve decided to use a digital rip of the first-edition vinyl the baseline for each version, despite the imprecision of vinyl rips.
First up is a sampling of four tracks from 1992 CD (light blue) of All Day Music versus the original vinyl (orange):
While the differences aren’t perfectly consistent, the vinyl tends to have more upper bass and lower midrange energy than the ‘92 CD, while the ‘92 CD reliably evinces more energy above 2 kHz.
Now let’s look at the 1995 “Avenue Gold” CD (gold) of All Day Music versus the original vinyl (orange):
The differences between these two versions are, if anything, even harder to summarize than the ones between the ‘92 CD and the vinyl. Overall, the ‘95 disc seems to track the vinyl just a little closer than the ‘92 CD does. However, the vinyl still tends to have a little more energy in the 100-200 Hz range. Also, with the exception of the title track, the ‘95 CD has a bit more treble between 2 kHz and 9 kHz, though the vinyl has a bit more above that range. At least part of difference in the title track, though, is an artifact of the fact Gastwirt left in over a minute of tuning and jamming to open “All Day Music,” which is cut out of all other versions. Subjectively, it’s a cool addition, but it makes the title track less than an apples-to-apples comparison across masterings. Editing the ‘95 version of the title track to match the length of the other versions, these differences shrink:
For clarity, let’s also take a look at the ‘92 CD (light blue) versus the ‘95 CD (gold):
The straightforward difference between the ‘92 CD and the ‘95 CD is that the former is brighter. It always has more energy above approximately 2 kHz.
What about The World Is a Ghetto? Again, let’s start by comparing each version against the original vinyl.
First up is the ‘92 CD (red) and the original vinyl (light grey):
The differences here are pretty consistent and straightforward. The vinyl has more low-end energy and the ‘92 CD has more upper-end energy. Depending on the track, the inflection point for this transition falls between 300 and 900 Hz.
Next is the ‘95 CD (gold) versus the original vinyl (light grey):
The differences here are similar to the ones between the ‘92 CD and the vinyl, except that the ‘95 disc seems to have a bit more bass and a bit less upper-treble than the ‘92 CD.
Third up is the ‘12 40th Anniversary CD (green) against the original vinyl (light grey):
Oversimplifying a bit, it looks like the 40th Anniversary disc has a v-shaped equalization relative to the original vinyl, with more treble and a touch more low bass on most tracks.
To make the differences even more obvious, let’s compare the ‘92 CD (red) and the ‘95 CD (gold):
Overall, these two masterings are closer for The World Is a Ghetto than they were for All Day Music. The very small differences are a little more upper-treble on a couple tracks on the ‘92 mastering and a little more mid-bass on most tracks on the ‘95 mastering.
How about the ‘92 CD (red) against the 40th anniversary CD (green)?
Generally, the ‘92 CD has (a little to a moderate amount) more energy above 2 kHz, while the 40th anniversary mastering has (a lot) more energy below 200 Hz.
Finally, here’s the ‘95 CD (gold) compared to the 40th anniversary disc (green):
The differences between the ‘95 and ‘12 CDs aren’t as large as those found when comparing the ‘92 against the ‘12. In general, the ‘92 CD tends to have a small-to-modest amount of energy above 100 Hz on most tracks, while the ‘12 CD has significantly more energy below that cutoff.
Alright. So which digital version sounds best?4
Let’s start with All Day Music, which has only two digital versions.
Aligning the level-matched versions of “All Day Music” in Audacity and switching back-and-forth, a significant difference in channel balance jumped out immediately. Splitting the tracks and using Audacity’s comparison feature, it shows that the right channel is 1.8 dB higher than the left channel on the ‘92 CD, whereas it’s only .6 dB higher on the ‘95 CD. Putting the original vinyl into the mix, it’s difference is nearly identical to the ‘95 CD’s at .5 dB. This difference is audible. On the ‘92 disc, the lead vocal is pulled significantly right of center, whereas it sits where it’s supposed to on the ‘95 CD. The treble boost and bass cut on the ‘92 CD also skew the balance significantly. Allen’s bongos have little-to-know body on the ‘92 disc, for example. All you hear are the skins. The same is true for Brown’s drums. His rim-clicks near the 1:00 mark are all-stick on the ‘92 disc and much harder to hear. Finally, the key thump of Brown’s kick and Dickerson’s bass is neutered on the ‘92 CD.
Turning to “Get Down,” the ‘92 CD fares better. The channel balanced between the two discs is similar, and the EQ differences are much smaller than on the title track. The ‘92 CD is still brighter, but not dramatically so. Throughout the first minute-and-a-half of the track, the two CDs are neck-and-neck, each with minor strengths compared to the other. One can hear a bit more room reverb on the ‘92 disc, while the ‘95 has more low-end thump. However, when the horns enter at the 1:30 mark, the ‘95 disc pulls ahead. The ‘92 CD’s boosted treble renders the horn section thin and tizzy, making it difficult to distinguish between the instruments.
As with the beginning of “Get Down,” the differences on “Nappy Head” aren’t enormous. But, again, the Gastwirt-mastered “Avenue Gold” CD is clearly better. Not only does it have a more balanced low-end and more three-dimensional percussion, but this time the ‘95 disc also offers superior reverb and spatial cues, despite the fact that the graphs show it has less treble energy than the ‘92 disc.
Turning to “Slippin’ into Darkness,” I again noticed contrasting channel balance between the ‘92 and ‘95 CDs. The ‘92 CD places the vocals a tiny bit to the right of center, while the ‘95 CD places them slightly left of center. Examining the tracking in Audacity, the right channel is 1.1 dB louder than the left on the ‘92 CD, while the left channel is .9 db louder than the right channel on the ‘95. Pulling up the original vinyl, the right channel is .3 dB louder than the left. So the ‘92 CD is a bit closer to the original vinyl, and subjectively its vocals sound a bit more centered, even if not perfectly. However, while the EQ and resolution differences on this track are the smallest of the four sampled, I still felt that the ‘95 mastering’s stronger low end suited the track better and was more in line with the original vinyl’s balance. Likewise, the ‘92 CD’s exaggerated treble made elements like Brown’s cymbal crashes too brash.
While the ‘92 Inglot and Perry mastering is far from bad, it’s just not as good as Gastwirt’s superb rendering of All Day Music on the “Avenue Gold” CD. So it’s the winner of the TBVO crown for that album.
What about The World Is a Ghetto?
Lining up “The Cisco Kid” from the ‘92, ‘95, and 40th anniversary discs, I again noticed channel balance differences. Given the multi-tracked, somewhat spread-out lead vocals on this track, it’s hard to say what’s correct just by listening. So I added the original vinyl to the mix and measured the left and right volumes of each. On the ‘92 CD, the left channel is .7 dB higher. On the ‘95, the right channel is 1.8 dB higher. On the 40th, the left channel is 1.2 dB higher. On the vinyl, the left channel is .4 dB higher. This is quite a range. However, subjectively they don’t sound quite as divergent as the numbers would suggest, likely because EQ decisions are somewhat mitigating their differences. All of these masterings sound good to my ears. The main difference I noticed was that the ‘95 and 40th anniversary CDs have a bit of a resolution advantage over the ‘92 disc. The bass on “The Cisco Kid” has a slight fuzz effect that shadows it. It’s not clear to me whether this is an overdubbed keyboard mixed low, or the product of Huston recording the bass both DI’d and through an amp mic. That separate fuzz is harder to make out on the ‘92 disc, but comes in clear on the ‘95 and 40th. But deciding between the Gastwirt’s ‘95 gold CD and Doell’s 40th anniversary mastering for this track is difficult. The Cabasa sounds better on the Gastwirt disc, which overall seems to have a lower noise floor and blacker background. However, the 40th anniversary disc separates the vocals a little more cleanly at points. Meanwhile, they both do an excellent job of rendering the horns, drums, and other instruments.
Turning to “City, Country, City,” I started to come to the conclusion that the ‘92 CD just doesn’t have the resolution of the ‘95 or the 40th anniversary discs. It’s not just that the ‘92 CD is occasionally brighter up top, it’s that even putting that aside, elements like the chimes in the intro to “City, Country, City” or the long sax solo just sound flatter and grainier on the ‘92 disc. Yet, once again, picking between the Gastwirt and Doell masterings is more difficult. Both are supremely realistic, and I went back and forth trying to decide which rendered details better. The Doell seemed to do a better job letting me hear the room around Scott’s acoustic guitar during the intro and other quiet passages. However, when the track gets busier during the “City” section, that same guitar was easier to distinguish on the Gastwirt. I suspect that the 40th anniversary disc fell behind during complex passages mainly because even on relatively bright transducers like the Focal Utopia, its low end is just a bit too much and ever-so-slightly crowds out other elements. But, overall, I still had a hard time saying that the Gastwirt was definitely better.
Moving on to “Four Cornered Room,” the verdict on the ‘92 CD remained. By any standard, it’s a good mastering. But, as on “City, Country, City,” the myriad percussion flourishes at the beginning of the “Room” just don’t sound as three-dimensional or tonally accurate as on the other two masterings. Narrowing things down to Gastwirt’s ‘95 gold CD and Doell’s 40th anniversary mastering, I had a hard time saying which was better throughout the first four minutes of “Room.” Listening to a short segment from the 40th anniversary disc, I’d begin to think that maybe an additional 15 years of analog-to-digital technology improvements might have benefitted the 40th anniversary. But then as soon as I switched back to the ‘95 CD, my certainty in that conclusion evaporated. After all, the Pacific Microsonics system used by Gastwirt remains one of the most lauded converters for a reason. When the louder section of “Four Cornered Room” begins just before the four-minute mark, though, I began to consistently prefer Gastwirt’s mastering. By comparison, the 40th anniversary disc seemed just a bit bloated and harsh. Taking a peek at the waveforms, I noted again how limiting used to make the anniversary remaster louder was having real effects on the tracks dynamics. This wasn’t obvious in any of the previous tracks, which had lower peaks, but could be seen when comparing Gastwirt’s version of “Room” (blue) against Doell’s (red):
As noted above, using Har-Bal to match the 40th anniversary version’s volume to the ‘95 gold CD’s eliminated the aforementioned digital clipping, but also revealed the former’s flat top waveform. In the grand scope of the loudness wars, the 40th anniversary disc’s compression and limiting is far from egregious, but when compared to Gastwirt’s more naturally dynamic mastering, it’s noticeable. Were the 40th anniversary version to feature a definitively cleaner transfer or superior equalization, its slight loss of dynamics might be forgivable. But that’s not the case. The ‘95 CD’s transfer is at the very least neck-and-neck with the 40th CD’s, while Gastwirt’s EQ choices sound uniformly better to my ears, even if the differences aren’t dramatic.
Finishing with the title track, “The World Is a Ghetto,” my sense that Gastwirt’s ‘95 “Avenue Gold” mastering has a small, but consistent, edge over the 40th anniversary disc was confirmed. I found it impossible to conclude that the newer CD’s transfer was any better than the ‘95 CD’s, no matter the benefit of newer A/D technology. If that were the case, “Ghetto” — with its long sax solo, a sound that’s notoriously hard to get right — would’ve been the best track with which to notice. “Ghetto” also solidified my belief that Gastwirt’s EQ choices serve the music better. The slightly v-shaped balance of the 40th anniversary disc pushes the vocals further back in the mix, whereas the ‘95 CD keeps them front-and-center. The 40th anniversary disc also elevates the right-channel snare rim clicks to a level that’s far above that found on the original vinyl, ‘92 CD, or ‘95 CD, and it honestly became a little distracting once I noticed it. Finally, the crescendo of the sax solo between 5:30 and 6:30 in the track again bares the evidence of the 40th anniversary’s extra compression/limiting, whereas the ‘95 gold CD remains naturally smooth and dynamic.
In short, Gastwirt’s ‘95 “Avenue Gold” CD wins the TBVO crown for The World Is a Ghetto, too. However, Doell’s 40th anniversary mastering remains a solid fallback choice for those who don’t want to track down the out-of-print ‘95 disc.
In conclusion, go out and get yourself Gastwirt’s masterings of All Day Music and The World Is a Ghetto. Whether they’ve commonly been known as such, both album are sonic masterpieces that deserve spots in every audiophile’s collection.
1. This interview appears to have been conducted via email. I’ve made some minor capitalization, punctuation, and other edits for clarity.
2. HDCD encoding flags can allow for one HDCD to contain two masterings: One when it’s played on regular CD players and other when it’s played on HDCD players. However, not all discs mastered with HDCD-compatible converters use these features. Based on running the gold discs through my HDCD compatible DACs and attempting to decode them using dBPowerAmp’s HDCD-decoding feature, it does not appear that the “Avenue Gold” discs contain any HDCD flags. So the mastering heard on normal CD players is the only mastering. Not that this is a bad thing, as will be discussed shortly.
3. Oddly, the Qobuz version of “The Cisco Kid” has ever-so-slightly different EQ than the 1992 CDs according to Har-Bal, even though all other tracks are identical. It seems likely that this slight difference is due to the Qobuz version being 10 second shorter than the CD version.
4. For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD. DVDs were ripped with DVD Audio Extractor. SACDs were ripped to an ISO with a PlayStation 3. Then I used Sonore’s ISO2DSD to extract the DSD from the ISO. Finally, I use Sonore’s DSD2FLAC to convert the DSD files to PCM. In order to make sure that Har-Bal’s graphs, which are affected by sample rates, present apples-to-apples visual comparisons, all hi-res files were downsampled to 16/44.1 with XLD. Finally, all files were level-matched using Har-Bal’s loudness matching function. To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching. Finally, more casual comparisons were done in Audirvana. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and the Matrix Sabre Pro. Amplification came from a Bryston 4B Cubed power amplifier and a Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia, ZMF Vérité Closed, and Audio-Technica ATH-ADX500.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit’s “Natures Way” through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin’. He’s written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.