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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Spill the Wine," an early 70s gem that comes from just about everywhere

Eric Burdon and War prove to be the perfect soundtrack for a lazy weekend day near the start of the school year.


I had initially planned to make today’s addition to my Senior Year Soundtrack the topic of yesterday’s post, but I decided to delay it so that I could write and get my feelings out about Hurricane Ida. I have a friend at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the last I’ve heard, he’s without power, but managing for now.

 

This past weekend in Berkeley got pretty warm. Saturday was the peak, with a high of 88, but I still felt the heat persisting Sunday. Throughout the day, I felt hot and tired, and I was having trouble staying awake. It’s fitting, then, that a song that depicts a dream on a hot summer’s day popped into my head. It’s a somewhat strange track, but it’s one I’ve always enjoyed: “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon and War, a track I recently found out was recorded at a studio on Hyde Street in San Francisco. As if I didn't already love this song enough.

I had actually alluded to Burdon’s previous work in yesterday’s post, when I mentioned the Animals’ cover of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Burdon’s soulful, howling delivery fit the bluesy rendition and its bleak lyrics. We hear his signature rasp in the chorus of “Spill the Wine,” but for much of the tune, Burdon displays an entirely different side of himself as he narrates his “overfed, long-haired leaping gnome’s” “Hollywood movie” daydream.

…that character description never fails to make me laugh. It’s simultaneously fantastical and just self-deprecating enough that its humor is right up my alley. It somewhat seems to fit Burdon too; looking at this excellent live performance, he at the very least was long-haired.

I can’t help but wonder how Burdon’s spoken-word verse delivery was received in 1970. From a modern standpoint, I think of it as a psychedelic sort of ultra-proto-rap. Burdon’s War bandmate Lonnie Jordan, who played organ on “Spill the Wine,” agrees to an extent; in a 2008 interview Jordan said that Burdon “sang the first Latino rap song ever to be on pop radio.” Fair enough, Lonnie, considering the Latin-inspired backing.

And what backing it is. I can’t believe I’ve gone around 2000 characters before talking about the "and War" part of the band's name. The song opens with Jordan's organ playing, which remains static throughout the verses. Jordan is soon joined by Harold Brown's drumming and Dee Allen's infectious conga playing, which combine to form a groove that I can't resist dancing to. While Lee Oskar's harmonica is right down the center of the mix, the other members of the rhythm section are panned hard to either side: Howard Scott's guitar is to the left, while Bee Bee Dickerson's bass is to the right. I had always noticed this panning while listening in my dad's car when the song came on the 70s XM station, but I didn't realize how cool and impactful hard panning could be until I got really good headphones. As I mentioned in my post on Marlena Shaw's "California Soul," panning gives a record space, room to breathe. That room to breathe works wonders for War, as the record sounds light and sparse to an extent it may not have with a less spaced out mix.


As much as all the aforementioned instruments contribute to "Spill the Wine," Charles Miller does the heavy lifting on the flute. His call-and-response with Burdon in the verses adds so much character and liveliness to the record. My single favorite moment of Miller's playing is his big tongue roll in response to Burdon's line, "I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back." It's one of my two favorite instrumental flourishes in any song, along with "shivers down my spine" moment in "Bohemian Rhapsody" (which Brian May achieved by playing his guitar strings above the fretboard).


I've always been fascinated by "Spill the Wine" because it sounds so eclectic, taking inspiration from so many different sources and genres. It's funk, it's Latin, it's spoken word, it's psychedelic rock... and it all works. Perhaps that's fitting for a band that broke down racial and national barriers in its lineup, with members ranging from a Black multi-instrumentalist born in San Diego (Jordan) to a White blues rock singer from Newcastle (Burdon). Like the band that made it, the track is an expertly organized melting pot of cultures and styles, topped off with a healthy dose of playfulness and originality.

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