Aug 022019

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

Edwin Starr War Temptations

Most know “War,” the anti-Vietnam protest song, by its distinctive and aggressive opening. After a drum roll, Edwin Starr launches into soulful protest: “War, huh, yeah / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing.” Hearing his hurt and anger, you can understand why the song resonated with the anti-war sentiment of the times. Throughout, Starr mixes singing with screaming, matching the tone of the wailing electric guitar and the occasional sassy saxophone lick. Starr’s powerful voice can stand up to the at times cacophonous instrumental accompaniment. The lyrics are not subtle, and Starr emphasizes each line without apology: “Induction then destruction / Who wants to die?”

The song was a massive success; it was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Its message remains potent, its obvious political statement inspiring near-continual controversy nearly half a century after its release. For example, after the September 11th attacks, Clear Channel Communications put “War” on a list of songs to be avoided for radio. However, it is thanks to the political nature of the lyrics that Edwin Starr got the chance to record the song in the first place. 

“War” was originally released in 1970 by The Temptations, on the Psychedelic Shack album they recorded for Motown. The Temptations’ original version starts a little milder, the grunts less forceful. The percussion gives the song the military vibe, but the guitar is less pronounced than in Starr’s version. The instruments are all muted to keep the focus on the Temptations’ vocals. There are background marching instructions (“hup, two, three, four”) that don’t make it into Starr’s version, and the original de-emphasizes the “good God” exclamations. The Temptations’ version has the elements of a political statement, but they pull their punches.

The song was popular in its original incarnation, and fans wanted Motown to release it as a single. However, due to the controversial nature of the song, Motown didn’t want to expose their hit group to any negative fallout. After all, why kill a goose that lays golden eggs if you can teach another goose to lay them just as well? So they assigned the song to a lesser-known talent for the Motown label, Edwin Starr, then released the rerecording as a single. Its success gave Starr the identity of a rabble-rouser; he doubled down on that by following “War” with “Stop the War Now.”

Even the Brits weigh in on “War.” The ’80s British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood were no strangers to protest songs. They released their own anti-war song, 1984’s “Two Tribes,” with a cover of “War” as the single’s B side. They have a much different take on the song. The percussion is less military-sounding and more bossa nova-esque, with the use of conga drums. The synthesizer brings a funk vibe that fits the “Psychedelic Shack” moniker better than the Temptations’ original. Spoken word features prominently across the track, allowing the band to add their own political commentary. Although the cover sounds completely different from the versions by The Temptations and Edwin Starr, the protest spirit remains.

On his “Born in the U.S.A.” tour in 1985, Bruce Springsteen brought this song back into the public ear in protest of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America. Springsteen also played the song on tour in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Springsteen follows Starr’s interpretation of the song, unapologetically angry at the prospect of war. The music video even leads with a Vietnam War montage and a speech by Springsteen: “blind faith in leaders or anything will get you killed.” Springsteen’s voice is raspy and powerful. Like Starr, he pushes the boundary between singing and screaming. The E Street Band provides powerful backup; drums, guitar, and tambourine all play their role emphasizing the cutting lyrics.

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