By 1969, Eric Burdon had split with the Animals and was living in San Francisco when he joined California funk rock band War. As Eric Burdon & War, the group scored its biggest hit in 1970 with “Spill the Wine." More than five decades later, fans still debate what the lyrics mean.
“Spill the Wine” was unique in 1970, if only for Burdon’s buzzed spoken delivery. Behind Burdon throughout is a woman faintly speaking Spanish. And those impenetrable lyrics about an “overfed, long-haired leaping gnome.”
The song’s title emerged during a recording session at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. A bottle of wine was passed around and was spilled into a console. The band was moved to another studio, where “Spill the Wine” was decanted.
"Spill the Wine" by Eric Burdon & War
Burdon had already been working on a tune about waking up in a grassy field, but the wine accident seemed to spark the missing piece of the puzzle.
Burdon has said that the recording session was as loose as the finished song sounds. When most of the band members broke for lunch, Burdon stretched out on the floor for a short nap but broke into song. Producer Jerry Goldstein brought over a microphone and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan played a backing track. The rest of the tracks were recorded later.
Burdon says even he’s not sure what the song means. “I guess it was my homage to Mexico (maybe Mexican women) and the feeling I got when I was there,” Burdon told Get Ready to Rock. “It was Old World Mexico, nothing to do with the Americanized version now.
"Magic Mountain" by Eric Burdon & War
“The funny thing was that it was originally going to be the B-side to a song called 'Magic Mountain.' That song was basically about a Californian mountain called Mount Tamalpais, and back in the hippie days we all used to go up there and hang out. But the DJs wouldn’t play the song because they wrongly assumed the lyrics were all about sex and drugs. So as a consequence ‘Spill the Wine’ became the song that they played.”
War's drummer Harold Brown told Songfacts that the woman speaking Spanish was Eric Burdon's girlfriend. "We went back there and we put up a little tent, candlelight, and some wine back there. They were behind there, and Eric was doing things to her and making her talk."
In Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: A Memoir, Burdon explains how the band became identified with the song.
“The song came from a tipped-over bottle in a recording studio and developed out of a jam session. But the spilling of the wine became quite a ceremony with the band. Promoters would leave bottles of red California wine backstage...
“What we never seemed to have was a corkscrew, but I discovered that these bottles were easy to get into if you just plunged your middle finger into the cork. The trick was placing your mouth over the bottle to catch the cheap plonk as it erupted. It soon became a backstage event, this ‘spilling of the wine.’”
Burdon would only work with War for two years; after he left, War continued its success with hits like “Cisco Kid,” “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” “Spill the Wine” was Burdon’s last Top 10 hit.
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022.
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