Listen to this track by Animalistic, leaping gnome-like singer Eric Burdon as backed by Latin-influenced Long Beach L.A funkateers War. It’s “Spill The Wine”, a 1970 hit as featured on the collaborative and self-referentially titled album Eric Burdon Declares War. It was initially released as a single, scoring a top ten chart result.
The song bridges the gaps between British rock, R&B, and Latin music, with a long portion of it being something of a spoken-word short story. That story is a rather dreamlike excursion, filled with images of tall grass, afternoon naps, dreams, Hollywood movies, and visions of “every kind of girl”. There aren’t too many tunes like it. Since its release, it’s been featured on soundtracks in movies and on TV, and covered by a number of artists from The Isley Brothers, to Michael Hutchence.
War was an outfit that started out as a socio-political concern, with statements against racism, crime, poverty, and other negative forces that were becoming serious issues in their native Los Angeles. Eric Burdon had moved to the West Coast from Britain after having dissolved the second incarnation of the Animals, with the original group having split by the mid-60s. In some ways, it was kind of an odd pairing, with Burdon being a student of Chicago blues, and War being more of a funk outfit who’d left the blues behind for a more contemporary Latin R&B funk hybrid sound.
But, “Spill The Wine” consolidated their success, and with an approach that was stylistically off the map in many ways. Here are a few of them.
First off, this song takes its time, and kicks the traditions of pop immediacy to the curb in favour of pure rhythmic pulse. It’s languid pace relies on a laid-back, humid groove that carries Eric Burdon’s lazy drawl of a voice, which is not sung so much as it is dreamily spoken. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this tune foresaw rap. But, it does rely on the contrast between the subtle rhythm of the spoken voice, against the steadfast feel of a funk rhythm section. That is certainly a forward-looking approach to songwriting, and arranging that would feed a similar approach to hip hop later in the decade.
Second, the musical melange of sounds on offer here is extensive, from Latin percussion, to jazz flute, to bluesy harmonica, to funk bass and drumming, to Burdon’s rock bark of a voice by the time he hits the chorus. This tune flies in the face of genre, in a decade when pop/rock and R&B were diverging into a number of stylistic streams that would only become more diverse. It’s impossible to put a distinct label on it, which may be one of the reasons it works so well.
With all of the musical reference points, as a listener you want to know where it’s going. This is a fine balance to strike, and maybe on paper it shouldn’t have worked. But, it does.
Third, this song and the band itself were among the few who broke through strict racial lines in pop music at the time. Some movement had been made in this regard by the end of the 1960s, with Love, Sly & The Family Stone, the Equals, and Santana being contemporary examples of multi-racial bands. Multi-racial line-ups would later become more common in the disco era. But, this incarnation of War would number among the few that built a mix of cultures into the music itself in this earlier period.
I think in terms of social implications of this, it must be remembered that early on and during a time when there was still great tension between communities in L.A in the air, with the Watts riots still a pretty fresh memory, this is a song about gathering together. It’s about idealized womanhood in all of the forms that womanhood takes, regardless of race, or shape. But, it’s also about a certain kind of unity in general, put forth by a band who were interested in tearing down the walls between musical styles, and the ones between the communities that appreciated them.
But, the band in this form would be reasonably short-lived. Eric Burdon would discontinue his work with War after recording Black Man’s Burdon, also in 1970. But, the band would soldier on, scoring at least two smash singles well associated with the era; “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, which is another call to unity, and “Low Rider” which would accentuate the band’s stellar command of pure, interlocked groove while referencing Latin rhythms in an R&B context.
Years after this song became a hit, Eric Burdon would indeed become the star of a Hollywood movie; Comeback, in 1982. Well, actually, it was a German film.
After many a line-up change, War is an active band today. Check out War.com for more information, and tuneage.