What *IS* So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding, Anyway?

The Punk and New Wave movements of the late Seventies represented the complete and utter rejection of everything the Sixties stood for, both musically and culturally. Musically, there was a strong case to be made for radical change, because Rock had grown so tired and bloated and self-important as the Seventies came to an end. Punk/New Wave breathed new life into Rock, even if they threw out the baby with the bathwater by repudiating musical virtuosity too (an attitude that I believe stalled Rock’s progress for at least 10 years).

The rejection of Sixties culture was also understandable, and it too came at a cost. A new, younger generation joined ranks with the over-50s in characterizing the Sixties Hippie movement as a bunch of wankers and losers who accomplished nothing. Of course the world had changed drastically since the late Sixties, generating new attitudes along with it. When times of abundance and growth give way to shortages and tension, you can be sure that cynicism and anger will come to the fore.

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But amid 1978’s musical mire of three chords, safety pins, skinny ties and alienation, Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” came down like a lifeline from the heavens. Many of us believed that while the Sixties may have indeed been a failed revolution, we didn’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater again. The song’s title phrased our sentiment so perfectly, directly challenging the cynicism of the new generation of Rockers.

We were all surprised to learn the song was a cover of a song by English bar band Brinsley Schwarz from 1974. For many of us, it was our first introduction to that band’s lead singer and songwriter, Nick Lowe. Well what a song it is. It brought a tear to my eye in 1978, and it does the same when I hear it today, no matter who is singing it. Its message is as relevant today as it was back then and I’m afraid it will always be so. That’s what makes it so powerful.

The reason I mention all this is not because I’m an old man reminiscing over a bowl of soup at the nursing home, but rather, a new version of the song was released this week by Wilco, and if you can tune into Spotify you should give it a listen. The Wilco guys slow it down a bit, creating the effect of spelling the message out calmly and clearly. It’s not exactly sedate, Nels Cline’s guitar is soaring throughout, but it’s got a loosely controlled intensity that is squarely in Wilco’s wheelhouse.

What do you think? How does it compare to other versions? One of the more famous was Curtis Stiger’s old-time soul take on the 1992 blockbuster The Bodyguard soundtrack. Bruce Springsteen loves the song and occasionally gives ‘er a good rip in concert. Bill Murray’s karaoke take in the movie Lost In Translation was truly unforgettable too. The best thing about this song? Nobody has ever come up with a good answer to the question it poses.



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