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

This song is a prime example of the richness that just a few chords can hold. Nick Lowe wrote it in 1974 for the band he was in at the time, Brinsley Schwarz, but it didn’t take off until 1978, when Elvis Costello’s version climbed up the charts as a single and was subsequently added to the American version of his album “Armed Forces.”

It quickly became a rock standard and in the 80s and 90s, as a musician friend of mine commented, “very few young bands didn’t cover the song.” Its iconic status was helped by the scene in “Lost in Translation” (2003) when the Bill Murray character sings a karaoke version. The following year, writes Wikipedia, it was “regularly performed as an all-star jam on the Vote for Change tour, which featured a rotating cast of headliners. The 11 October concert at the MCI Centre in Washington DC was broadcast live on the Sundance Channel and on radio. This version of the song featured Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, and John Fogerty with Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo’, and Jackson Browne.”

There’s something about this song. I posted on Facebook that if I had to pick one song I don’t get tired of, no matter how many times I hear it, this is the first one that comes to mind. And–amazingly!–the first several people to comment on the post actually agreed with me.

What accounts for the appeal? As noted, the harmony while sturdy, is pretty simple: four chords or five at the most. I’ve got to think Lowe’s lyrics are key. They begin:

As I walk on 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 ’bout peace, love, and understanding?,

It feels like a latter-day Pilgrim’s Progress–an account of a journey through a dark moral forest, “searching for light.” What makes it work, in part, is the contrast between the sentiments, which can and should be read absolutely sincerely, and the palpable hipster irony Lowe and Costello wear on their sleeve. You can see what I’m talking about in this clip where Costello “introduces” himself, heavy on the irony, and then performs the song with absolute conviction.

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