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 known whenever opportunity allowed—such as in 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.
“If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the ’60s, that’s his problem.” – John Lennon
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?”
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.
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.
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?”
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!
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.
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.
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)