Certain Songs #403: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

Elvis Costello Armed Forces Album: Armed Forces
Year: 1979

Or as I like to call it: “Nick Lowe’s Retirement Fund,” thanks to its inclusion on the zillion-selling soundtrack for The Bodyguard.

I’d say that The Bodyguard soundtrack helped with Dolly Parton’s retirement fund, but anybody who has their own theme park probably doesn’t need a retirement fund. I guess neither did Whitney Houston, come to think of it.

ANYWAYS, this is one of those covers that is so totally identified with the artist who covered it that it’s almost shocking to find out that there was actual source material. But of course, there was: Nick Lowe’s original version with Brinsley Schwarz, which would probably have eventually discovered as some kind of lost classic by now.

And it’s pretty great, that original version. But Elvis Costello & The Attractions just fucking steamroller it.

Of course they keep the big ringing chords, reminiscent of “Sweet Jane” or “Baba O’Riley.” Anthem chords like when you want the whole world to stop and pay attention to what you are saying. Which makes sense because what Elvis Costello is saying — after three albums of songs of revenge and guilt — is this:

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin’ 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 ’bout peace love & understanding? Ohhhh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?

Here’s the thing: in 1979, you’d expect that witty and bitter Elvis Costello would sing this song absolutely drenched in irony. Like he knew exactly what was so funny about peace, love and understanding, and was rolling his eyes at every word.

But of course, part of his genius is that he knew that he needed to keep it straight: even the tiniest bit of irony would derail the song, make it a novelty song and not the anthem that it’s deservedly become.

And as I walked 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.

‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away
Just makes me wanna cry:
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding? Ohhhh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?

Nothing. That’s the fucking answer. And it’s driven home by drummer Pete Thomas, who kicks off the song with a sit-up-and-pay-attention snare roll, and propels the song throughout — rolls and fills and stop-times and double-times and fills and rolls and so much kinetic energy that it’s enough to guide anybody straight out of even the most troubled of times.

And it’s all topped by his fill at the end of the last chorus, which is so potent and life-affirming that Keith Moon bumped his head on his coffin wondering what the hell he just heard.

At some point, Elvis — or maybe it’s Billy Bremner or Dave Edmunds, but it’s probably Elvis — takes a bell-ringing chordal solo that seemingly comes out of nowhere and quickly gets subsumed in the chaos. But it’s a moment of breath, a moment of reflection, a moment of truth and it’s absolutely beautiful.

Of course, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” wasn’t just the third great single in a row that Columbia tacked onto the U.S. version of an Elvis Costello album, it wasn’t even originally released under his name. Instead, it was the b-side to Nick Lowe’s “American Squirm” 45, which automatically makes that single one of the greatest ever released.

It’s a note of grace that while Elvis is known primarily as a songwriter, he realizes that this is a song that is completely tied to him, and he’s often performed it in lieu of one of his songs in big events, because he understands that it never gets old, never goes out of fashion and remains as perfect and true as ever.

Official Video for “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

Brinsley Schwarz – (“What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”

Elvis Costello & The Imposters perform “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

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