what’s so funny about peace love and understanding? *

I ENTERED COLLEGE in Sep­tember 1969. Nixon had been in of­fice less than a year and the war in Vietnam was on­going. The draft was also on­going but I had a stu­dent de­fer­ment. I was, of course, op­posed to the war and made my opinion and feel­ings known when­ever op­por­tu­nity al­lowed. Such as in my choice of attire.

My stan­dard dress in­cluded a pair of Lee’s boot-cut jeans ($2.99 at the Army-Navy Store) and black shirts. Over this, I wore my Uncle Bill’s dress white jacket from his stay as an of­ficer in the US Navy during the Ko­rean War. Around the left sleeve of that jacket, I at­tached a black arm­band as a state­ment against the war in Vietnam.

Among many other things I was called, I was known as a “long-haired peacenik,” be­cause de­spite what the movie Wood­stock makes America look like in 1969, re­ally long hair was un­usual in most of the country.  This made me im­me­di­ately pop­ular with some fellow stu­dents on the Wilkes Col­lege campus—surprisingly, with a group of older Vietnam vets.

 

Most people who were op­posed to the Vietnam War did nothing about it—not even wear an arm­band, let alone join a protest or a demonstration.

 

It also made me un­pop­ular with the rightwingnut stu­dents, who never grasped the ab­sur­dity of their po­si­tion while sit­ting out the war with a stu­dent de­fer­ment. I stood out be­cause so few other stu­dents looked or dressed sim­i­larly, re­gard­less of their beliefs.

De­spite how much we ro­man­ti­cize this era, most people who were op­posed to the war did nothing about it—not even wear an arm­band, let alone join a protest or a demonstration.

As for rock music, there re­ally weren’t that many anti-war songs or songs about peace and uni­versal broth­er­hood in the ’60s, es­pe­cially on AM radio. There were a few records that ad­dressed some as­pects of the coun­ter­cul­ture that re­ceived AM exposure.

The first big one was Barry McGuire’s Eve Of De­struc­tion reaching #1 in 1965. While critics founded its mes­sage heavy-handed, it was also ac­cu­rate: “You’re old enough to kill but not for voting. You don’t be­lieve in war but what’s that gun you’re toting?”

 

ElvisCostello ArmedForces UK 600

This is the rather dumb cover art used for the UK ver­sion of ARMED FORCES (Radar RAD-14).

I don’t give a damn

Jump ahead to 1967 and the Summer of Love: John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas gave the song San Fran­cisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) to his friend Scott Mackenzie. It em­braced the “flower power” as­pect of the time and McKen­zie’s sen­si­tive reading of it was a Top 10 hit. Re­put­edly, it was a song that the au­thor­i­ties of San Fran­cisco (jus­ti­fi­ably) hated, as it lured run­aways to their Baghdad by the Bay.

An­other recording from 1967 was Country Joe & the Fish’s The Fish Cheer & I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag, which was just a track on an ob­scure album few people had heard. Then the Wood­stock movie brought it to local the­aters and mil­lions of viewers fo­cused on the first part of the medley (“Give me an F!”), not so much the mes­sage in the second half (“What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn—next stop is Vietnam”).

In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono sug­gested we Give Peace A Chance and it was also a world­wide hit record. There were a few other songs, but none were truly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of my con­cep­tion of the “spirit of the six­ties.” 1

There is a recording that does cap­ture that spirit but it wasn’t is­sued until the end of the ’70s: Elvis Costel­lo’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Un­der­standing.

 

Elvis Costello & The At­trac­tions - (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding

Through this wicked world

In 1973, Nick Lowe wrote the song with the un­gainly title of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Un­der­standing and recorded it with his band Brinsley Schwarz. Their ver­sion is good, with a smart arrange­ment fea­turing chiming gui­tars and shared vo­cals on the cho­ruses. But their ver­sion also has also a brief spoken part in the middle that makes the whole sound ab­surd, even cynical.

Lowe was born in 1949 and was a teenager in the ’60s. He wrote the song when it was just starting to be “cool” to look down at hip­pies with their pot-smoking, free love, and “do-your-own-thing” thing.

 

“If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliche that must have been left be­hind in the ’60s, that’s his problem.” – John Lennon 

 

As Brinsley Schwarz didn’t progress much be­yond being a crit­ic’s and cult fave, few people heard the song. Then, in the latter part of 1978, Lowe was pro­ducing Elvis Costel­lo’s third album at the same time that he was recording his own second album.

Things over­lapped: in De­cember, Lowe is­sued a new single that was is­sued as a solo record. The A-side was Amer­ican Squirm and was cred­ited to Nick Lowe. It fea­tured an un­cred­ited Elvis Costello on backing vo­cals and mem­bers of the At­trac­tions were in Lowe’s band.

The B-side was What’s So Funny, ‘Bout (Peace, Love And Un­der­standing) and was cred­ited to Nick Lowe and His Sound. It’s ac­tu­ally by Elvis Costello and the At­trac­tions with Lowe as the pro­ducer. Here are the lyrics as Elvis spat them out: 2

As I walk through this wicked world,
searching for light in the dark­ness of insanity,
I ask my­self, “Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and ha­tred and misery?”

And each time I feel like this inside
there’s one thing I wanna know:
“What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”

And as I walk on through trou­bled times,
my spirit gets so down­hearted, sometimes.
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the har­mony, sweet harmony?

Be­cause each time I feel it slip­ping away,
just makes me wanna cry:
“What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”

 

ElvisCostello ArmedForces US DJ 500

This is the not-quite-so-dumb cover art used for the US ver­sion of ARMED FORCES (Co­lumbia JC-35709). This jacket has a pro­mo­tional title & timing strip af­fixed to the front cover, giving disc-jockeys more in­for­ma­tion on the tracks avail­able for play. The record within could be a white label promo or a reg­ular red label pressing.

Is all hope lost?

I don’t know Lowe’s mo­ti­va­tion for writing the song—it could be ex­actly as he claimed. But it doesn’t matter what Lowe in­tended; what mat­ters is what Costello de­liv­ered.

And that Costello de­liv­ered could be read as a slap in the face of the self-righteous punks and their con­de­scending at­ti­tude to­wards any­thing older than last week. 3

When ARMED FORCES was is­sued in the UK, it did not in­clude this ex­tra­or­di­nary track! Peace, Love And Un­der­standing was ap­par­ently added to the US ver­sion of the album by the decision-makers at Co­lumbia Records—and what a great de­ci­sion it was.

So I am making Elvis Costel­lo’s ver­sion of Peace, Love And Un­der­standing the un­of­fi­cial an­them and theme song for The End­less Six­ties blog. I feel groovier just saying that!

Nick Lowe wrote ‘Peace, Love And Un­der­standing’ when it was just starting to be cool to look down at hip­pies with their pot-smoking, free love, and do-your-own-thing thing. Click To Tweet

ElvisCostello 1979 1500

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page of Elvis Costello was ap­par­ently taken on Feb­ruary 19, 1979, at the Palomino Club, a pop­ular country bar in Hollywood.

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   Give Peace A Chance be­came an an­them for many anti-war demon­stra­tors and was chanted by half a mil­lion demon­stra­tors at the Vietnam Mora­to­rium Day on No­vember 15, 1969, in Wash­ington, DC. They were led by Pete Seeger, who in­ter­spersed phrases like “Are you lis­tening, Nixon?” be­tween the cho­ruses. While Nixon prob­ably lis­tened, he paid no heed to the song’s mes­sage. (Wikipedia) And maybe what the world needs now ain’t love sweet love but a little bagism.

2   The title as it ap­pears on the orig­inal Radar Records single in the UK is What’s So Funny, ‘Bout (Peace, Love And Un­der­standing). I as­sume that the odd (mis)placement of the first comma and the paren­theses around what should be the main clause is some kind of in-joke.

3   I know that punks don’t think of them­selves as self-righteous, but nei­ther do any other self-righteous people I know.

 

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