Indestructible grooves and still-valid sentiments.
Daryl Easlea 2009
Why Can’t We Be Friends? is War’s fifth and greatest studio album. Playing in LA since the early 60s, the band – then called Nightshift – was spotted by ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon at the decade’s end and they became his backing band. Named War as a protest against Vietnam, the seven-piece group backed Burdon for two albums and kept a fiercely political agenda.
Theirs was no po-faced preaching, however. Steeped in Hispanic influences, the band perfected a loping, good-time muscular funk-rock, built from studio jams and then developed live. The nine-track Why Can’t We Be Friends? captured the band at their peak: there is the lengthy Latino funk work-out of Leroy’s Latin Lament, the suffocating intensity of Heartbeat, the African chanting on Smile Happy.
However, three tracks stand out. The mellow, low-key opener, Don’t Let No One Get You Down, is a tender call for peace and unity, sung sweetly by Lonnie Jordan, before the chorus vocal – one of the group’s trademarks – takes over.
The title track was a US top 10 hit. Although written after a fight broke out at a festival the band was playing at in Japan, they turned it into clever tale conflating post-break-up reconciliation with a plea for racial harmony and ultimately a call to quell post-Watergate paranoia. All wrapped in a deliciously sloppy, reggae-fied summertime groove with an infectious chorus.
Inspired by cruising in East LA, Low Rider is the reason War are still known in the 21st century. From Papa Dee Allen’s propulsive cowbell to the nagging, slightly skew-whiff, car-horn aping keyboard and brass riff, this is three minutes of premier Latin funk. War signed to Island in the UK, Low Rider became a number 12 hit in 1976, and it became something of an anthem. Drab UK inner cities throbbed to a pulse suggesting something far sultrier. The Beastie Boys later sampled it for Slow Ride on Licensed to Ill.
Beyond Low Rider, Why Can’t We Be Friends? is, sadly, largely forgotten today – but its groove remains indestructible, and its sentiments are still valid. It was the last truly great album by War, who continued to enjoy success long into the 80s.