Stop the War Now - Edwin Starr
It's been 5 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, and my blog thread of the annual spate of January obituaries seemed irrelevant in the face of the large number of casualties from the war. So I stopped.
From my teenage years onwards I have believed myself part of a culture that did not believe in war if it could possibly be avoided. The idea was that if you made the effort to get on with people or other nations, any chance of war could be averted before it reared its ugly snout. Perhaps this accounts for a feeling of guilt that I have with regard to the present conflict. While it seems obvious that I could not have averted it, I know I am part of a populace that has been voting in elections for for nearly 50 years (in my instance),and can't rid myself of the feeling that in those fifty years maybe I could have done something about it, done more. So it goes.
Interestingly, the people in my lifetime who for the most part have most consistently opposed war are artists, especially musicians, from the fifties folk boom and Bob Dylan onwards. It also is no coincidence that artists are always high on the list of targets of totalitarian or extremist regimes. Interestingly, and worryingly, the arts are currently being savagely reduced in the UK education system from primary schools through to universities, despite the fact that, prior to the onset of COVID, the creative industries were the fastest growing economic sector in the country. Some suggest that this is because students of the arts learn to think for themselves, and that people who think for themselves are much less likely to vote against their own interests, but I couldn't possibly comment on this. I'm sure the government has its own reasons.
19 Years ago today on April 2nd 2003, Edwin Starr died of a heart attack at the age of 61. In the fifties and sixties the anti-war song was almost the sole preserve of the American folk music fraternity such as Pete Seeger's "Where have All the Flowers Gone" from 1960 or Dylan's "Masters of War" of 1963. Though these were melodious and sincere they were all lacking the dismissive anger of Edwin Starr's classic "War" which reached number one in the US in 1970.
Motown, despite being at that time the most successful business owned and run by black people in the US, possibly even the world, were loath to risk public disapproval by taking what could be interpreted as any kind of political stance for fear of damaging their sales. So when songwriting and producing team Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong composed and recorded the song "War" with the top selling Temptations in 1970, and advised Motown boss Berry Gordy that this should be their next single, Gordy turned them down on the grounds that the song was too controversial.
He was, however, quite happy for Motown journeyman Edwin Starr to record it. After all, up to that point, Starr had had only one US Top Twenty hit as opposed to the Temptations' eighteen. Starr had no reputation to be ruined.
The song reached number one and was a worldwide hit, expressing as no-one had before, anger and frustration that wars should still be fought in a so-called civilised world. Starr emphasised this anger, in a vocal full of furious contempt, as he sang:
"War! What is it good for?"
and his backing singers responded in the same vein with an emphatic "Absolutely nothing!"
As was often the case with Motown, Whitfield and Strong tried to milk the success of "War" by following it up with a soundalike sequel "Stop the War Now" which, if you'll forgive the phrase, bombed in comparison to its predecessor. While Starr tried to broaden the message of "War" to include all wars, as opposed to the Temptations' version, subsequently released on their album "Psychedelic Shack", which more directly targeted the war in Vietnam, the single's success emboldened him, so that "Stop the War Now" is definitely a demand for the withdrawal of American troops from the far east. While not as immediately catchy as its predecessor, could it be that people were uncomfortable with its honesty and the breathless urgency of Starr's vocal as he demands that they
"Stop the war, now! - Don't put it off another day!"?
Basic, simple, and hardly great poetry, the words are trenchant and straight to the point. They apply now as much as they did in 1970, angry and urgent. Which goes to show that not much changes. One could argue that Motown were just repeating a formula, trying to make money, but, especially today, who isn't? This song grows on you, and is my current theme, as I wake up each morning, clean my teeth, turn on my shower taps, get dressed, hope. And then I turn the radio on.
As the song fades out, Starr urgently says, as though the mic is just about to be forcibly taken away from him:
"This is a message to the leaders of the world!"