In 1969, Eric Burdon had a vision: a band that could speak out against the turmoil of inner-city violence and fractured race relations by providing an inclusive, utopian view of the world. This band could blend any genre, play any song, and write any lyrics that they pleased.
In order to assemble this band, former Animals man, Burdon, turned to experienced producer Jerry Goldstein, a music industry ace who had recently seen a talented group of musicians called Nightshift back up football player Deacon Jones when he sang at a Hollywood nightclub. Goldstein believed that this band, with its members of mixed races and expertise in multiple styles, would be the ideal group to bring Burdon’s vision to life.
The first record from the group, Eric Burdon Declares “War”, is a fairly hippie-dippy affair, keeping in line with Burdon’s peace-driven vision. A bluesy amalgam of futuristic funk and revivalist soul, songs like ‘Tobacco Road’ and ‘Blues for Memphis Slim’ stretch out to prog-rock levels of indulgence. There aren’t many hooks on the album, but one song had a strangely alluring power to it.
As far as hit songs go, ‘Spill the Wine’ is among the more bizarre. A mostly spoken-word piece with psychedelic and abstract imagery following a rest in a field, a dream of a Hollywood movie, and a quasi-orgy featuring girls of all shapes and colours, the rest of the band hang back as Burdon recites his monologue, only to explode with pent up exuberance during the chorus. It’s a slow burn, but one that pays off with a euphoric release.
‘Spill the Wine’ was the turning point for both parties, but their trajectories would turn in opposite directions commercially. When Burdon decided to leave the band the year following ‘Spill the Wine’, War decided their chemistry was strong enough to continue, even if they didn’t have a traditional lead singer. With each band member taking a turn at vocals, War continued exploring R&B and funk with Latino influences and soul power throughout the 1970s, notching the best selling album of 1973, according to Billboard, The World Is a Ghetto, which also gave the band their biggest chart hit in ‘The Cisco Kid’, which reached number two on the Hot 100, one position higher than ‘Spill the Wine’. Most of the band’s best-remembered material appeared on 1975’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?, with the title track and ‘Low Rider’ continuing to permeate in the pop culture lexicon.
The ’70s weren’t as kind to Burdon. After passing out on stage due to dormant health issues, Burdon left War in 1971 and continued on a solo career, putting out a number of albums that never quite achieved commercial or critical success. Burdon rejoined The Animals in 1975, but their one record together, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, was delayed until 1977, by which time, it was sorely out of place among the punk and disco trends of the day. Burdon attempted to kickstart a new band, Eric Burdon’s Fire Department, but the group fizzled before the start of 1980.
The visibility of ‘Spill the Wine’ was boosted by a prominent feature in the 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson film Boogie Nights, and has since become a classic shorthand for the indulgences and haziness of the early ’70s. The song represents a singular moment in time when a famous singer could pluck a talented band out of obscurity and propel them to commercial heights. As it turned out, Burdon needed War more than War needed Burdon, but their brief alliance produced some incredibly memorable results, the height of which could very well be this nearly seven-minute version of ‘Spill the Wine’ on German programme Beat-Club.