(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advises the following:

“Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means of grasping life. Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it, if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. Seek the depth of things: thither irony never descends—and when you come thus close to the edge of greatness, test out at the same time whether ironic attitude springs from a necessity of your nature. For under the influence of serious things either it will fall from you (if it is something fortuitous), or else it will (if it really innately belongs to you) strengthen into a stern instrument and take its place in the series of tools with which you will have to shape your art.” 

Rilke’s words are instructive when considering Elvis Costello at the time of the recording of his third record, Armed Forces, which was recorded in August-September 1978 and eventually released January 1979. It was Costello’s third album after two positively received records. Subsequently, he wielded absolute control of the musical presentation when recording Armed Forces with The Attractions. As Costello recalled later: “I thought I was God’s gift. I was totally convinced. I had no doubts.” Though iron-clad in his musical opinions, the themes in Costello’s writing at the time betrayed a fragile uneasiness as represented by the working title of the album Emotional Fascism. The songs intertwined the personal and the political through in its sentiments, observations, and obsessions. In his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello shares the following about his mindset during this time period:

“Whispered persuasions, ultimatums, and the closing time seductions passed for an emotional life. I was looking to discourage admiration and flirting with a sort of controlled fall from grace.”

Within this maelstrom of ego and fraught emotions was the steady hand of producer Nick Lowe. Lowe was able to translate Costello’s vision for the sound of the album for the musicians and production crew, helping to materialize concepts into reality. It’s no wonder that Costello trusted Lowe, despite Costello’s self-admitted arrogance at the time. Perhaps Costello viewed Lowe as an older brother figure especially since Lowe had been a member of the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz so beloved by Costello. The first cut off of the band’s 1974 album The New Favourites of… Brinsley Schwarz was a song called “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”:

In a 2009 piece for Vanity Fair, Lowe recalled the writing of the song:

“When I thought the song up, I thought of it as the first original idea I’d ever had… I remember having this idea—’What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding’—and almost falling over in astonishment that I hadn’t heard this before, that it really was an original notion…My original concept was that it was sort of a humorous idea, because it was written in 1972, 1973, something like that, when the hippie dream was dying, and a lot of people who had been hippies—I suppose myself included, really—were starting to be rather embarrassed by the fact that they’d been hippies. And the song was written from the point of view of an old hippie, answering the people who had once been hippies and had strayed from the faith. They were all laughing at this old guy, and he was saying, ‘Well, you can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is, ‘What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding, man?’ So that was the idea. But I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Don’t be too facetious here. Let a little air in. Don’t tamp it down too tight, because this is a pretty good thing. Keep it nice and simple and back off a bit.’”

Indeed, Lowe does allow the song breathe as he is economical in his word choice and structure, relying on a series of questions to advance the concept:

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

There is an underlying sense of irony to the song and the performance as it seems as though Lowe and the rest of the band are taking the piss. It’s gentle as there’s a sense of love for the hippie at the center of the song who is asking very important questions and not getting any response. As Costello wrote in the liner notes for the 2002 re-release of Armed Forces:

“I believe that Nick wrote the song as an affectionate parody of various pious ’60s peace anthems.”

There are all matters of songs and musical icons that Lowe could have been teasing with “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding”, including Jackie DeShannon’s 1965 hit “What the World Needs Now Is Love”:

Or 1973’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” by George Harrison:

John Lennon produced the two-headed dragon pinnacle for this type of song over two years, first with The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” released at the height of the Summer of Love in July 1967:

Followed by “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band:

That’s just a small sample of a large selection of “peace and love” anthems that Lowe and Costello knew quite well. But those are the good ones. With the success of those records and the hippie ethos spreading around the world, many opportunistic music companies tried to take advantage of the trend as Costello recalled in Unfaithful Music:

“[That] brief period after flower power when Tin Pan Alley staff songwriters seemed to say, ‘Hey, let’s get in on some of this crazy ‘peace’ and ‘love’ stuff that the kids are digging today,’ and wrote a lot of phony-sounding anthems about brotherly love.”

Despite Lowe fulfilling the original concept for the song, Brinsley Schwarz’s take didn’t go anywhere on the charts and the song was mostly forgotten, except by Elvis Costello. Lowe takes up the story in the same 2009 Vanity Fair piece: 

“He pulled the song out of the dustbin when we were recording [what would become Armed Forces]. He said, ‘Let’s cut ‘Peace, Love and Understanding,’ and I was astonished.”

The track was recorded by Costello and The Attractions during the Armed Forces session and issued as a single on November 23, 1978. It was not included as part of the UK version of the record, but served as the closing song on the American version of Armed Forces:

The recording kicks off with a monstrous drum intro by Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and chiming guitars that summon atavistic feelings of The Byrds and a host of other great rock ‘n roll bands. The rhythm is faster than the original Brinsley Schwarz version, powered throughout by Pete Thomas, who is as much the reason for the track’s success as Costello. Costello’s vocals are deeper than some of the other Armed Forces tracks, making it seem like a stand-alone piece rather than a part of the album. Costello wrote in the liner notes about their recording:

“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.”

Lowe echoes Costello’s perspective:

“He was the one who put that sort of anthemic thing into the song, which it never really had before—or, if it did, it was sort of tongue-in-cheek. He gave it that bit of passion. Our version was arm’s-length.”

Costello is insistent in asking the basic and yet direct questions at the heart of the song. There’s certainly a feeling of desperation in Costello’s stance. The maelstrom that surrounded Costello during the recording of Armed Forces has been garnered and rendered out in his vocal performance. Costello recognizes the ironic perspective that Lowe’s original version offers and drops it. He takes up Rilke’s advice in the quotation at the beginning of this post, treating the song as a “great and serious object” and “seeks the depth of things” not only as a “test” for himself as an artist and a newly made public figure, but for those listening to the song as well. He puts the listener on notice that peace, love, and understanding should not be laughed at and immediately discarded in an attempt to be cool or above it all. He knocks down those who ignore the messages implicit in the anthems of his heroes and joins them on the battlement, yelling about peace, love, and understanding for all to hear. 

In the years since Costello’s recording, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” was recorded by jazz singer Curtis Stigers and included on the blockbuster soundtrack of The Bodyguard. It was subsequently used on the 2004 Vote for Change initiative and many tribute albums and a slew of “good cause” recordings. On his podcast, the singer/songwriter Craig Finn of The Hold Steady referred to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” as a “standard” and even a “modern hymn.” This would not have happened without Costello. He approached the song as a “great and serious object,” to use the words of Rilke again, and dropped any sense of irony as he approached “the edge of greatness.” Costello transformed the legacy of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” from the dustbin of history to simply history itself. 

Image: Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

10 thoughts on “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding

  1. Great Sunday evening entertainment Scott, you just keep on giving. I kinda expected that charming Dylan-What’s So Funny About anecdote though, but perhaps it’s better to leave Dylan out of it (for once, haha). Groeten uit Utrecht!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One minor point. The article implies that Costello issued it as a single but it was actually the B side of Lowe’s American Squirm single in 1978 credited to Nick Lowe and his Sound. I remember buying it and being surprised to hear Costello’s voice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never heard of Rainer Maria Rilke. I looked him up – Put Out My Eyes ( such passion, but OK, to thine own self be true) and some other poem, Fear of the Inexplicable – TLDR. I think there is irony in citing an archaic piece of writing like the paragragh from Letters to a Young Poet to illustrate a point about a song from Armed Forces. The irony, the kick of Elvis Costello’s cover of What’s So Funny… was always clear – the lyrics were taken at face value with a punk delivery. But back to that paragraph, it may have lost something in translation. Still, what a pedantic mess. To all you fair and tender poets, don’t even think about putting a pen to the page without ponderering the gravity and philosophy of irony and the measured quantity of it’s usage. Maybe the young poet fell asleep while trying to decipher it and when he woke up, he would have dreamed his poem. The devil in the details Peace Out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I see. It was about the poems maybe. Fear of the Inexplicable doesn’t sound very lyrical in translation but it’s a good piece of philosophy. It’s true and would make a good sermon. I was being facetious , like Nick Lowe when he wrote Peace, Love, and Understanding because that boring paragragh on irony irritated me so much. Sorry.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I owe you an apology Ranier Maria Rilke, for dishonoring your poetry because I thought too late and spoke too soon. I know you’re dead and you can’t hear me. If I could whisper it out the window of a train that stopped inexplicably in some Austrian meadow, I am sorry. No scholar, but I know your words are fine. Are you a German Expressionist poet? Whatever you are, whatever you were, even in translation, I think you’re five-star wunderbar.
        The Wait, Song, and Black Cat (Schwarze Katze !!!) Katzenliebhaber aller länder, vereinigt euch!

        Liked by 1 person

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