Producer Norman Whitfield is of such notoriety that one could argue that he is an artist in his own right. Although his songs were sung by others, although Gladys Knight, the Temptations and Edwin Starr scored his hits for him, his sound was so recognizable, so distinct, that you're able to pick a Whitfield production out of the thousands. The Edwin Starr single "WAR" might be his biggest triumph. Recorded and released in 1970 it is still the biggest selling protest song of all time, one of the few to hit that much coveted #1 spot on the Billboard charts. Though not the first song to deal with the war in Vietnam, few songs dealt with it so poignantly and blunt as "WAR". It is one of the few occasions where a song spawned a popular phrase; "War, what is it good for" is engraved in our collective conscious and lives a life of its own outside of the smash 45.
Whitfield had been Motown long before the labels main money makers Holland-Dozier-Holland would leave the fold over contractual disputes. Almost single handedly Whitfield would fill the gap that the golden trio left and change the face of Motown. Although Whitfield started with material that fit the label's clean teen image like a glove he would exploit the lessened grip Berry Gordy had on Motown's musical division to the max. Together with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye Norman would give Motown a decidedly more edgy image while Gordy was busy producing movies. The Temptations would be Whitfield's main showcase. As such they were the first to record the classic single that is subject of this post. The song was part of Norman's ground breaking "Psychedelic Shack" album. The title song of that album was filled with implicit references to the hippie movement and conscious expanding drugs. Yet when Norman discussed releasing War with the Temps, the explicit nature of that song proved to be a bridge to far for the group. Being too outspoken in America, with its strong patriotic (almost nationalistic) environment, could costs recording artists their career. The Temps had just broken into the exclusive club circuit and weren't about to put all that on the line. Gordy with his eyes fixed on the green might have had some to do with the Temps decision to decline as well. Next to the Supremes, the Temps were Motown's flagship. He wasn't about to compromise them.
The single was then given to Edwin Starr. Although Star had scored a few hits, he wasn't quite the money machine the Temps were. Putting his career on the line wasn't as big a gamble, Starr had more to win than to loose. Starr would later recall in an interview "It was a message record, an opinion record, and stepped beyond being sheer entertainment. It could become a smash record, and that was fine, but if it went the other way, it could kill the career of whoever the artist was." The gamble paid of. With Edwin's mighty pipes and his ruff and gruff delivery "WAR" struck a very powerful chord at the time. By 1970 the Vietnam war had escalated and the draft was looming over many young men's lives. As a conflict it was unclear what America was doing there in the first place. Though the song's lyrics may seem a little hokey and to straight forward at times lines like "war, has shattered, Many a young mans dreams, Made him disabled, bitter and mean, Life is much to short and precious, To spend fighting wars these days, War can't give life, It can only take it away" hit home hard.
"WAR" is one of those songs that stood the test of times even though its production is undeniably a product of the seventies. Norman was highly influenced by Funkadelic and Sly Stone, a product of his times. Yet when Springsteen revived the song in 2003 (Springsteen had a hit with it in the mid-eighties) after the invasion in Iraq during his Rising tour, the song sounded like it was written to comment on that colossal blunder. Still 5 years in the Iraq war has yet to find its own anthems. The war has striking parallels to the war in Vietnam. America again got itself in a senseless conflict it doesn't seem able to win. As the Dixie Chicks controversy proved protests is still a high risk to one's career. But I don't think that is why there's hardly any base for protest. The big difference between today and Vietnam is that there's no more draft. The cannon fodder of Iraq signed up voluntarily.With Vietnam because of the draft the base for protest was broader, the war harder to ignore, because it could easily come knocking on your door. Add to that an almost McCarthy like pressure to support the war, criticism seems to equal anti-Americanism these days, have silenced the popular producers. There have been a couple of high profile protesters like Eminem and Springsteen. But none of them have been as poignant as Norman Whitfield or have the reach Motown had. "WAR" is still king of all anti-war songs and I suspect it will stay that way for quite some time.
"WAR" The Temptations