By 1972, it was no secret that WAR was one of America’s best and most exploratory soul-funk bands. Bigger things were at hand.
After establishing themselves with two albums for MGM Records supporting former Animals lead singer Eric Burdon (the first of which included the single “Spill the Wine,” a No. 3 pop hit in 1970), the Long Beach, California-bred septet stepped out on their own. All Day Music (1971), their second LP for United Artists Records, climbed to No. 16 on the pop chart and No. 6 on the R&B side on the strength of the stormy Gold-selling single “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” which cracked both the pop and R&B top 20.
But those accomplishments were mere warmups for their third UA album The World is a Ghetto, which became the benchmark of their career.
Writing on the 20th anniversary of that LP’s release, critic Barry Alfonso said, “If All Day Music was WAR’s breakthrough album, The World is a Ghetto was their first masterpiece. Released in late 1972, the LP went on to top the Billboard pop album charts and reach the 3 million sales mark. By turns celebratory, reflective, gritty, and lyrical, The World is a Ghetto transcended musical, ethnic, and national boundaries in its appeal. WAR solidified their position as a world-class band with the album, spurred on by the U.S. top-10 success of its two certified-gold singles, ‘The Cisco Kid’ and the LP’s title track.”
Debuting on the album chart in late ’72, The World is a Ghetto made a steady climb for two months. After entering the U.S. top five in late January of 1973, it spent three weeks in the No. 2 slot before finally dislodging the reigning No. 1 pop album, Carly Simon’s No Secrets, and moving to the pinnacle of the chart. It concurrently secured the No. 1 position on the R&B albums chart.
The World is a Ghetto — which spent a total of 68 weeks on the chart during its run — listed at No. 1 among Billboard’s year-end ranking of 1973’s top five pop albums, above Seals & Crofts’ Summer Breeze, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, No Secrets, and Diana Ross’ soundtrack for Lady Sings the Blues.
The album attained commercial liftoff with its two unforgettable, classic hits. “The World is a Ghetto” (No. 7 pop, No. 3 R&B), which enjoyed a 15-week chart run, was a somber, socially conscious track that reflected a deep awareness of the then-current racial tension in America; just as certainly, WAR’s seven members were all too familiar with that tension, which had exploded into L.A.’s Watts riots, which received national attention in 1965.
In a 1990 Washington Post story about young, progressive Black music talents, critic Geoffrey Hines called The World is a Ghetto “an [inspirational] example that has never been equaled,” numbering the album among such other socially alert landmarks as Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions.
The album’s second, playful, even bigger hit, “The Cisco Kid” (No. 2 pop, No. 5 R&B), shipped Gold and was a cross-cultural salute to its titular hero, the border Robin Hood created in 1907 by writer O. Henry and memorably played by Duncan Renaldo (with Leo Carillo as his faithful sidekick Pancho) in the long-running TV series of the 1950s. The raucous party-hearty number, a cumbria-inflected tune featuring group percussion work highlighted by Lonnie Jordan’s timbales and Papa Dee Allen’s conga drums, helped cross the band over from its traditional Black audience to a new group of Latino listeners.
In his 1996 book Funk, Rickey Vincent noted, “WAR’s sound represented the focal point in the Latino influence on the fonk, as the band generated anthems of streetwise Southwestern culture, including…the dramatized folktale of a Mexican bandit turned freedom fighter, ‘The Cisco Kid.’”
Producer Jerry Goldstein noted to Craig Rosen in The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, “[The song] was based on the fact that [the Cisco Kid] was the only non-Anglo hero in the late ’50 and ‘60s that they could relate to. Every other superhero was white.”
That song, and The World is a Ghetto’s expansive 13-1/2-minute instrumental “City, Country City,” all bore evidence that the members of WAR were intimately familiar with the surging Latin rock that powered such Santana jams as “Soul Survivor” and “Jingo.” In 1975, WAR achieved their biggest single hit with a sunny, colorful homage to Southern California’s barrio car culture, “Low Rider” (No. 7 pop, No. 1 R&B).
The legacy of The World is a Ghetto isn’t simply about history. The record’s influence has been continuously felt in the mainstream of Black music for decades, thanks to widespread sampling of the album’s songs. Acts as diverse as 2Pac, Method Man, Redman, Cyprus Hill, A$AP Mob, Scarface, the Geto Boys, Janet Jackson, and Insane Clown Posse all powered their tracks with slices from the ’72 classic, and jazz artists such as Ramsey Lewis, George Benson and more all covered songs from the record.
WAR arrived at the apex of the American charts with a decade’s worth of dues paid in full.
Formed soon after Eric Burdon met Jerry Goldstein and a collection of local, live musicians – whose work in and around the scene dated all the way back to 1962 – WAR was assembled by the duo and officially took their name in 1969.
Goldstein — who co-produced The World is a Ghetto and the rest of WAR’s catalog, encompassing 17 studios albums and three live sets — recalls the fateful moment when his encounter with the musicians in a North Hollywood club called the Rag Doll set them on the path to stardom.
“I first saw some of the guys who would eventually become WAR playing at a topless beer bar in the San Fernando Valley, backing Deacon Jones, and knew immediately how potent these kids were,” Goldstein says. “I was friends with Eric Burdon, and he was ready to throw in the towel on the music scene and return to Newcastle. He was tired of the ‘rock’ thing and desperate for a fresh authentic sound. I called him the morning after I first saw the band and made him return to the club the next night with me. Eric was so blown away by what he had heard that he jumped on stage to jam with them. The guys weren’t familiar with Eric or The Animals. I had them in the studio within a week.”
The Alliance between Burdon and WAR commenced on 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares WAR (which featured #1 worldwide hit “Spill the Wine”) and continued the same year with The Black-Man’s Burdon. Though the group was attracting attention — from, among others Jimi Hendrix, who jammed with WAR at Ronnie Scott’s London club the night before he died — the partnership with the mercurial English vocalist ended when Burdon abruptly quit in the middle of a European tour.
Goldstein says, “At the time, I didn’t envision WAR as a separate entity. It was just a band to back Eric. I kind of thought it would change with his musical moods. It turned out to be that constantly evolving device, even without Eric Burdon.”
WAR’s savvy fusion of hard funk, sweet soul, smooth blues, a Latin tinge, and the swing of jazz, which was definitively stated on The World is a Ghetto, translated into half a century of hit records. Besides their ’72 magnum opus, the band has released more than 20 gold, platinum and multi-platinum records. A total of 28 singles reached Billboard’s R&B charts.
Looking back in 1972 on the musical and cultural reverberations of the band’s work of the early ‘70s and their role in American musical culture, Lonnie Jordan — who will continue to put WAR through their paces during a 50-date 2023 tour — said, “Someone had to be the teacher or the preacher back then. We chose to be that.”