A SONG FOR TROUBLED TIMES
Its universal theme makes (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding? an enduring hit
First recorded 46 years ago, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding? is one of those songs that keeps coming back. Its sensitive and insightful lyric remains relevant because the “troubled times” which inspired it persist and transform.
The song can be a lament and an anthemic, in-your-face challenge. And more. The many artists who’ve covered it prove that a well-crafted composition with a universal theme lends itself to many interpretations.
70s new wave singer/songwriter/producer Nick Lowe wrote it in 1973 and Elvis Costello made it famous on his 1979, Lowe-produced Armed Forces album. Lowe wrote the piece at a time when the 60s’ counterculture sheen was fading.
“The hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink,” he told AVClub magazine in 2011.
“Everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, “Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’”
The song debuted on an album by Lowe’s band Brinsley Schwarz, and became a hit with Costello’s version. It’s a staple in both performers’ live performances and has been covered on stage and on record by Wilco, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Simple Minds, A Perfect Circle, jazz player Charlie Hunter, actor Bill Murray (in the film Lost in Translation) and many more.
A Song for These Pandemic Times
The most recent and notable version of the song is the evocative quarantine collaboration issued in May by L.A.-based singer-songwriter Sharon van Etten and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. The uncertainty in their vulnerable, plaintive vocals speak to isolation and existential angst. The well-produced video features each of them at home with their respective families.
There are a tonne of covers of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding. Many mimic the original Lowe/Costello arrangement and offer nothing new. But this batch does. Each entry offers a unique interpretation of a song that floored me when I first heard Elvis Costello’s take on it. After all this time, it continues to hold meaning – and, indeed, multiple meanings as you will hear.
(Note: the Spotify library doesn’t have the versions by Audioslave or Robben Ford and Mavis Staples.)
- Sharon van Etten feat. Josh Homme: This artful and sombre version is in sync with 2020. It features a brief cameo from writer Lowe
- Nick Lowe: Masterful, emotional phrasing in this exquisite piece from his 2004 album Untouched Takeaway
- Holmes Brothers: Giving it a gospel spin
- Los Straitjackets: I had the good fortune to watch this band of Mexican-wrestler-masked guitar veterans back up Lowe at an October, 2018 gig in Vancouver’s Imperial Room. An instrumental interpretation
- Audioslave: Featuring the passionate vocals of the late Soundgarden frontman – Chris Cornell – and Maynard James Keenan from the bands Tool and A Perfect Circle. A spare, live acoustic rendition
- Robben Ford and Mavis Staples: Voices strong and hopeful
- Elvis Costello and the Attractions: We wouldn’t know this song if it weren’t for Costello’s brilliant and big wall-of-sound interpretation. Crank it! Simply one of the most dexterous and intelligent musicians in popular music
07 November 2020