There are some songs that we wish weren’t still relevant, but we’re nonetheless grateful for their existence and the pure catharsis of the truths that they speak. Certainly, if most of us had our druthers, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” would now sound hopelessly dated, as if it were the relic of another time. Instead the song, written by Nick Lowe in 1974 and performed by his band Brinsley Schwarz, is as timely as it’s ever been, its searching questions begging for answers now more than ever.
As Lowe told the A.V. Club in 2011, he originally intended the song to be tongue-in-cheek, only to rethink the tone along the way. “I wrote the song in 1973, and the hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink,” he said. “Alcohol was coming back, and everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, ‘Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’ And that was the idea of the song. But I think as I started writing it, something told me it was too good of an idea to make it into a joke. It was originally supposed to be a joke song, but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up.”
Adorned with Who-style power chords and Beach Boys-flavored harmonies, Brinsley Schwarz’s take on the song charges full-on into the breach even as Lowe begs us to stop and consider his pleas. His narrator attempts to navigate “this wicked world” and “searches for light in the darkness of insanity.” He admits that despair is never too far removed: “My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes.”
“Is all hope lost?” he wonders, and he laments about the ubiquity of “pain, hatred and misery.” Yet he suggests that the only way out of this malaise is vigilance, the kind that constantly presses and pushes for something better than the status quo, which he expresses via a series of queries: “So where are the strong?/ And who are the trusted?/ And where is the harmony?”
By keeping any kind of specifics out of his tale, Lowe ensured that his song would resonate in times of worldly turmoil or personal angst. It all builds to the scorching common sense of the refrain: “And each time I feel it slipping away, it just makes me want to cry/ What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding.”
Elvis Costello’s 1978 hard-charging, heart-on-sleeve version of the song, which was produced by Lowe, brought it to a wider audience and became one of Costello’s best-known recordings. Lowe, however, probably preferred the 1992 version by Curtis Stigers. Why? Because it appeared on the multi-platinum soundtrack to The Bodyguard, thus producing a royalties windfall for the writer.
In any case, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” endures. Hopefully we’ll reach a day where we can appreciate the song based on its artistic merits alone and not because the title sounds like it could be the headline of an editorial in this morning’s newspaper rather than the lament of a songwriter written fortysomething years ago.