In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In June of 1969, Life published a cover story called “The Faces Of The American Dead In Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It’s nothing but photos: page after page of black-and-white images of young men with military uniforms and blank expressions, 242 of them, all doomed. It represented a single week’s worth of the war’s American death toll. (It’s hard to even imagine how a similar portrait of the Vietnamese dead might look.) This was a controversial story when it was published, and it remains sobering and horrifying today.
Vietnam was such a pointless, bloody absurdity of a war — a clusterfuck with no clear objective and no reason to keep spinning on beyond general national embarrassment — that its continued death toll made for an urgent, visceral crisis. And Edwin Starr’s “War” might be the greatest musical document of the movement that sprang up against a war — a hard, intense stomp-chant, as visceral as what the moment demanded.
“War” didn’t start out so visceral. The song came from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the songwriting team behind Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You.” They’d written the song for the Temptations, and it had been an album track on that group’s 1970 LP Psychedelic Shack. The Temptations’ version of the song is nasty and funky, but it’s not the vein-throbbing wail that it would eventually become.
When the Psychedelic Shack album came out, a whole lot of earnest young college students wrote letters to Motown asking the label to make “War” into a single. Whitfield, who was also the Temptations’ producer, was into the idea. But Berry Gordy, the label’s founder, was worried that a nakedly political single like that would hurt the Temptations’ image, and the group wasn’t too into the idea of making that strong of a stand, either. Edwin Starr, a journeyman soul belter who was low on the Motown totem pole, heard about what was going on with the song, and he volunteered his services.
The man formerly known as Charles Edwin Hatcher didn’t really have an image to put at risk. Edwin Starr had found his way to Motown by accident. He’d been born in Nashville and raised in Cleveland. After starting out singing doo-wop, Starr eventually went to work with Ric-Tic, a smaller Detroit label that mostly served as an off-brand Motown. Recording for Ric-Tic, Starr honed his raspy preacher’s howl and landed a few minor hits. Then, in 1968, Motown bought Ric-Tic and absorbed Starr into its roster. Starr did make one big hit for Motown: the riotous 1969 barnstormer “Twenty-Five Miles,” which peaked at #6 and which would’ve been a 9. But Starr wasn’t exactly a priority on Motown, and he knew it. So when he got ahold of “War,” he did everything possible to make sure that it left an impact.
With Whitfield, Starr recorded a new version of “War” that strayed a bit from what the Temptations had done with it. In Starr’s hands, “War” was harder and choppier, all its power coming from that merciless rhythmic march. It opens with a big drum roll, like the 20th Century Fox logo coming up before a movie, and then interrupts that with a hard horn stab. The groove is huge and all-consuming. We hear little accents of guitar or saxophone in between the beats, but every instrument on the song, including Starr’s voice, is part of the rhythm section. There’s fuzz all over the guitars, and a nervous tambourine tingles all through it. This is weaponized music, music that’s impossible to ignore.
Starr’s vocal on “War” is a thing of wonder, but also a transparent imitation. Funk was a young genre in 1970, and Starr handled a track this huge by imitating the one person who’d really figured it out. Starr doesn’t give a James Brown impression on “War,” exactly; there’s more churchy baritone in Starr’s voice than Brown ever had. But Starr does swipe all of Brown’s affectations, right down to that perfectly placed “good God, y’all” on the chorus. Brown himself never got to #1. (Brown’s peak was 1965’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” a 9, which peaked at #3.) And the abject style-biting is the only thing that holds Starr’s “War” back from all-time status.
But James Brown imitation or no, “War” made its impact. People chanted the song at protests, just as they did with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” a few years ago. It became a catchphrase and a rallying point. Starr followed it up that same year with “Stop The War Now,” which didn’t land as hard but which made his intentions even more plain. Starr never got anywhere near #1 again. A few years after “War,” Starr parted ways with Motown and moved to the UK, where he was already a legend. The Northern Soul scene had embraced the singles that Starr recorded for Ric-Tic in his pre-Motown years. And over there, he found appreciative audiences until the end of his life. Starr died of a heart attack in 2003, when he was 61. His primal anti-violence roar outlived him. May it live forever.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 1994 Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes tells a Russian novelist the incorrect bit of trivia that Tolstoy’s original title for War And Peace was War: What Is It Good For?:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1998’s Rush Hour where Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker bond by dancing to “War”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Speaking of the cinematic works of 1998, here’s the truly puzzling version of “War” that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Henry Rollins, Flea, and Tom Morello contributed to the Small Soldiers soundtrack:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s socialist hero Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) virally dancing to “War” (the Temptations version, for whatever reason) outside her office last week:
I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous.
Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too! 💃🏽
Have a great weekend everyone :) pic.twitter.com/9y6ALOw4F6
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 4, 2019