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War – Edwin Starr

‘War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothin’!’

War – Edwin Starr

Gordy 7101 (USA) / Tamla Motown TMG 754 (UK)

Recorded at Hitsville USA, Detroit

Released 9 June 1970

Writers Music – Norman Whitfield Lyrics – Barrett Strong

Producer Norman Whitfield

USA #1   29/8/70   3 weeks    UK #3   11/70′

With the departure of their pre-eminent songwriting team Holland, Dozier and Holland from Motown under a cloud of royalty disagreements in 1968 it was the young Norman Whitfield who delivered the label’s most innovative productions. Marvin Gaye’s record, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, co-written and produced by Whitfield, became one of the company’s biggest ever successes, and Whitfield re-vitalised the Temptations career writing and producing a slew of hits including, ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Ball Of Confusion’ and ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’. As was so often the case at Motown, ‘War’, which owed its’ chord sequence to that much appropriated ‘Louie Louie’ riff, had begun life as just another album track and originally appeared on the Temptations 1970 album, Psychedelic Shack, before soul-shouter Edwin Starr recorded his strutting version of this anti-war classic that has been described as a ‘psychedelic-soul freak-out protest song’. (Whitfield’s even more psychedelic space-age funk material was handled by The Undisputed Truth)

Born Charles Hatcher in Nashville in 1942 (‘Starr’ can at least be constructed from his original name!), he began performing live in his teens and while serving in the US Army in Germany. Signing a solo contract with Ric Tic Records in the early 1960s, he hit the US charts in 1965 with the James Bond influenced, ‘Agent Double-O-Soul’. (Motown in-house session band The Funk Brothers moonlighted on the ‘Agent Double-O-Soul’ session and as a consequence were fined $1000 a piece by an angry Motown chief Berry Gordy) A couple of further singles for the label, ‘Stop Her On Sight (SOS)’ and ‘Headline News’, scraped into the UK charts (and have since become soul classics) before Ric Tic was swallowed up by Motown – hence the later reappearance of these tracks on numerous Motown compilations, even though they were not original “Hitsville” recordings. (In the UK they were first released by Polydor) Starr’s success at Motown was somewhat limited (partly due to extremely lengthy contract renegotiations following the purchase of Ric Tic) until he recorded the rousing, ’25 Miles’, in 1969, a song he had composed earlier with Motown writers Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua. Very much in the mid-1960s Motown tradition of his earlier material, ’25 Miles’ rose to #6 on the US charts and gave Starr’s career a vital new injection of life at the same time as Whitfield was creating a series of psychedelic funk masterpieces for the Temptations.

Though some of Whitfield’s early successes had at first been received less than enthusiastically by Berry Gordy (mainly due to their politically slanted lyrics), by 1970, he was the new Motown golden boy and Gordy had accepted that his company had to change with the times – times that were overshadowed by often violent disagreement over America’s involvement in Vietnam. Though there was no mention of Vietnam in, ‘War’, it was clear that that was what the song was about, but Gordy decided against releasing the Temptations version as a single. However, the track didn’t go unnoticed, attracting a good deal of radio play, and Motown received several thousand letters from students asking that it either be released in edited form as a single, or re-recorded.

Whitfield was also sure the song had hit potential and approached Edwin Starr to see if he was interested in recording a new version, and Starr didn’t let the opportunity pass him by, delivering the performance of a lifetime. There’s no doubt that Starr was eminently well suited to, ‘War’, and his ferocious interpretation full of, ‘Ugh’s’, ‘Good God’s’ and ‘Absolutely Nothing’s’ (all ad-libs according to Starr who claims he nailed it in one take) gave the song the punch it needed to rise to the top of the charts. ‘War’ also features a stunning performance by Motown’s tambourine-shaker – surely one of the best and most underrated jobs at the company! Surprisingly, Starr was unable to consolidate on this noteworthy performance, and he (or more likely Motown) resorted to the old cash-in follow-up routine with, ‘Stop The War Now’, which lacked the stunning impact and integrity of its predecessor.

Regarding the lyric of ‘War’ Edwin Starr has said: “The timing was absolutely totally perfect, because everybody at that point, even the government was saying, ‘What are we doing this for? Is this gonna ever end?’ But thanks to the very creative writing of Barrett Strong the lyrics never ever said what war was being talked about.” Starr left Motown in the mid-1970s and enjoyed more success in Britain, where he later settled, with disco hits such as, ‘Contact’ and ‘H.A.P.P.Y Radio’, in 1979 – he even scraped into the UK charts with a re-recording of, ‘War’, in 1993. In the meantime, the song has been much covered, notably by Bruce Springsteen and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who made a powerful version for their 1984 debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome. ‘War’ is without doubt one of the best anti-war anthems ever written, both musically and lyrically, specifically because there’s no beating around the bush. Ironically, political expediency would seem to dictate that it is one of the first records to be radio black-listed every time there’s an international conflict since the lyric addresses the problem in no uncertain terms from the opening bars: “War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothin‘!”… Say it again…

 

Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton

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