Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" - Nick Lowe / Elvis Costello

Nick Lowe (left) with Elvis Costello.
Nick Lowe wrote "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," and released it on a 1974 album by his band Brinsley Schwarz. Elvis Costello and his lethal band The Attractions recorded it as the B-side of a now-forgotten Lowe single (which Lowe produced but did not play on). Its popularity led to its drafting in the US as the final track on Costello's incendiary 1979 album, Armed Forces, where it replaced "Sunday's Best," which was apparently deemed insufficiently epic. The Armed Forces shuffle over time established the song as a bona fide New Wave anthem.

Power-pop of this kind, including Lowe's and Costello's variants, often had a posy feel to it, and "(What's So Funny ...)" comes across as a kind of postmodern protest song, a posture captured perfectly in its title -- defensive, self-absorbed, yet also gloriously defiant. "I believe that Nick wrote the song as an affectionate parody of various pious '60s peace anthems," Costello recalled in the liner notes to the Rykodisc reissue of Armed Forces.

The lyrics also have a premodern quality, though -- "this wicked world," "is all hope gone," "the strong and ... the trusting," "downhearted ... spirit" -- and their structure is as simple and sturdy as an Elizabethan folk ballad:

As I walk this wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself is all hope gone
Is there only pain and hatred and misery

And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I want to know
What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding
What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding

And as I walk on through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
Where are the strong and who are the trusting
And where is the harmony, sweet harmony

And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I want to know
What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding
What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding 

The song's pummeling assault, with The Attractions' drummer Pete Thomas driving home the groove, banishes any descent into smug self-referentiality. Says Costello: "We certainly attacked the song with little sense of irony and as if it were obvious that no one knew the answer to the question that the song posed." It seems an ideal anthem for this complex age of pro-peace activism, posing a core pacifist question and challenge in a way that miraculously avoids mawkishness.

Here's the original 1974 version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" as rocked by Lowe's Brinsley Schwarz outfit:


Check out also the substantially more raucous 1974 live version for the BBC here. I can't find Elvis Costello and the Attractions' original recording of "(What's So Funny ...)" anywhere on YouTube. But there's plenty of interesting performances of the song online. Here's a 2004 rendering with his band The Imposters:


Wikipedia reports: "In 2004, '(What’s So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding' was regularly performed as an all-star jam on the 'Vote for Change' tour, which featured a rotating cast of headliners. The October 11 concert at the MCI Centre in Washington DC was broadcast live on the Sundance Channel and on radio. This version of the song featured Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, and John Fogerty with Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Keb' Mo', and Jackson Brown[e]."


See also Nick Lowe performing a solo acoustic version of the song on George Stroumboulopoulos's show Whole Lotta Live in 2011.

Other Resources

Song available on Brinsley Schwarz, The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz (1974), and on Nick Lowe, Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe (2009), track 1.

See Rob Jones, "Brinsley Schwarz Plays '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding".

Song available on Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces (1979), track 13 (Rykodisc remaster).

The best-known cover version of the song after Costello's is a jazz interpretation by Curtis Stigers, which appeared on the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston's best-known film vehicle. This was also by far the best-selling version of the song; Lowe had the kind of windfall enjoyed by Dolly Parton when Whitney recorded her "I Will Always Love You" for the same soundtrack album, which has sold well over ten million copies.

The Australian group Midnight Oil, who place two songs on this list, also frequently included "(What's So Funny ...)" as a delirious encore in their eighties and early nineties concert performances (their version was only ever released as a live B-side for the "Put Down That Weapon" single). These renditions are imprinted on my memory, and on various bootleg CDs in my collection, but they don't seem to have left any spoor on YouTube.

There's a Wikipedia page for the song.

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