For those of us into cars, it should seem obvious that War’s 1975 funk-rock-fusion masterpiece “Low Rider” referenced the rich Southern California lowriding culture. The recent release of the track’s re-mastered music video—which features plenty of panel-painted full-size GM cars and one prominent Vega station wagon on hydros—should make that sufficiently clear. And yet, there’s this persistent theory that the song’s about nothing more than getting high on drugs.
“The lowrider is a little higher,” Charles Miller’s reverb lyrics state before eventually inviting the listener to “take a little trip with me.”
Granted, even in the hazy Seventies, artists often resorted to coded language to refer to recreational drugs (“Hotel California” certainly wasn’t about the hospitality industry in the golden state), so recreational drug users were primed to hear what they wanted to hear in every popular song. Nor did it help that songs that celebrate cars have typically been relegated to the novelty bin despite the deep influence automobiles have had on American history, society, and culture.
But War was never a typical American band. Drummer Harold Brown and guitarist Howard Scott founded the band (initially as the Creators, then later as Nightshift) in the mid-Sixties and, though heavily influenced by producer Jerry Goldstein and former Animals frontman Eric Burdon, they began to chart their own path after Burdon left the band in the early Seventies, soon discussing racism, poverty, and the spirit of brotherhood in their lyrics. The band’s lineup seemed ever-changing as more members from a variety of backgrounds accreted around Brown and Scott and brought with them a wide range of musical influences—jazz, Latin, rock, r&b, reggae, and more—all plucked from the mix of Hispanics, Southerners, Blacks, Texans, and more who migrated to Los Angeles after World War II
The band also probably wouldn’t have made it as anything other than a Los Angeles cover band were it not for Brown’s day job. “I had my own business, because I didn’t want anybody telling me when I had to come to work and when I left,” Brown told Songfacts in a 2007 interview. “So I went into the body and fender auto detail business. So I always had transportation, and had money—cash flow. So then that way the band, we could go for auditions and stuff.”
Not only did Brown’s job cover the band’s expenses at the time, it also provided a crucial contact, music producer Marshall Lieb. “Well, when I had my body and fender shop and detail, he had Ferraris, and he only trusted me to take care of his Ferrari,” Brown said. Lieb did not directly influence the formation of War, but as Brown told the story, a meeting with Lieb turned into a meeting with Sonny Charles, which led to the gigs that would put the band in front of Goldstein.Nor was Brown the only band member into cars. This was Los Angeles in the Sixties, after all. In their cover band days, the band members played hot rod clubs at a time when they hot rodded and modified their own cars.
My brother KB and I had a 1953 Dodge. We’d chop our springs with torches—this would lower the car a few inches. It made for a hard ride up until homies started putting hydraulics on them. If you were driving a truck with lift gates on the rear, you’d better check to see if someone has stolen your hydraulics—it happened to me.
We would drive from Pomona California to South Los Angeles taking side streets and main drags through El Monte, Whittier, Watts, and Compton, then eventually into Long Beach/San Pedro, California. When they finally built freeways in Southern California we would cruise in the slow lane just in case we had to pull over and do some repairs. There wasn’t any AAA for us folks.