Where is the Harmony?: Nick Lowe’s ‘What’s So Funny (’bout Peace, Love and Understanding)’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 69)

The world currently seems to be descending into an abyss of alternative facts, ruled over by a terrifyingly ignorant spray-tanned buffoon with access to nuclear weapons. In that context, Nick Lowe’s song ‘(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ might be even more powerful as an expression of hope than when Lowe wrote it in the early ‘70s.

But given the abject misery and desperation of the past few decades, maybe there’s never been a time when ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ was irrelevant. That’s tremendously depressing to acknowledge, but it also helps to explain the song’s enduring popularity. Pete Curry of Los Straitjackets, who cover the song on their new album What’s So Funny About Los Straitjackets, describes ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ as having “a great sentiment. Even the most cynical person gets it.”

Lowe has described ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ as “the first actual original [song] idea that I had”. He wrote it at a time when “a mass of hippies were leaving the cult in droves and rediscovering booze, alcohol, amphetamine and, I suppose, cocaine. There was this new cynicism.” He placed himself into that category, and thus the song took “the point of view of an old hippie, seeing his commune leaving and starting to cut their hair and make fun of him. And he was saying, ‘You can laugh at me all you like, but what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? You can’t argue with it.’”

‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ was first recorded by Lowe’s band Brinsley Schwarz, on the ‘74 album The New Favourites of…Brinsley Schwarz. The bright, poppy number included the suitably hippie-ish mid-song declaration that “we must have peace, more peace and love, if just for the children of a new generation”. When Brinsley Schwarz’ career reached the end of its road, Lowe moved on to become a solo artist and producer – and, fortuitously, one of the acts he worked with was Elvis Costello, a big fan of Brinsley Schwarz. Costello “pulled the song out of the rubbish bin” and begged Lowe to let him record it for the ’79 album Armed Forces. What emerged was a game changer; while the arrangement clearly referenced the Brinsley Schwarz original, Costello’s heartfelt, idealistic vocal, in Lowe’s words, “gave the words a dignified, hymn-like thing” and transformed something vaguely sarcastic into something “anthemic”.

Ironically, however, Costello’s ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ also came perilously close to falling into obscurity. Costello’s version, with a Lowe vocal, appeared on the B-side of Lowe’s ’78 single ‘American Squirm’, credited to Nick Lowe And His Sound. But ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ only got onto Armed Forces after US record executives quibbled over the running order of the tracks on the UK album. It was only because the US label decided to pull ‘Sunday’s Best’ that ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ was added to the US release of Armed Forces. The success of that album on both sides of the pond brought attention to the song, and it became a regular feature of Costello’s live shows.

Lowe then gradually slipped into something of a career downturn. He had a hit single with ‘Cruel to be Kind’, but struggled with marital and substance abuse problems and found himself at loose ends, without a recording contract.  And then the game changed again. In ’92, a relatively unknown vocalist named Curtis Stigers recorded ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ for the soundtrack album of the movie The Bodyguard. Rolling Stone writer David Wild considered Stigers’ rendition “a musical war crime” – but, thanks to scads of people wanting to hear Whitney Houston declare that she would always love yoooooouuuu, the album sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. The resulting financial windfall gave Lowe the “cushion” to rebuild his musical career at his own pace and without the pressure of commercial expectations.

Lowe guested on a Los Straitjackets album in 2001, which was when he first met the Mexican-wrestling-masked instrumental combo. Curry, the Straitjackets’ bassist, says that the band got to know Lowe better when they crossed paths again in 2014, after the release of Lowe’s Quality Street Christmas album. Los Straitjackets became Lowe’s backing musicians for the subsequent Quality Holiday Revue tours, and that led to the idea of the band doing an album of instrumentals of Lowe songs.

The Straitjackets started out with a list of around 50 Lowe compositions as potential choices for the album. “Some songs just don’t make good instrumentals,” says Curry, “especially story songs, which is one of the things he’s really good at. And also we wanted to find songs we could do something to. What we tried not to do is to make them sound like his versions without vocals. We tried to change as much as we could while still retaining the essence of the song. But it was hard to pick.”

Lowe gave his blessing to the project, but didn’t participate in the song choices. “He seemed to just kind of want to see what we would do.” The band also had the assistance of the album’s producer, Neil Brockbank, who engineered most of Lowe’s recent albums. “Neil recorded many of the songs in the first place, and he had a lot of good suggestions. The whole project was really fun and smooth. It was one of the better experiences I’ve had in recording.”

‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ made the cut not only because it worked so well as an instrumental, but because it offered a change of pace amidst the album’s musical smorgasbord. The 13 tracks range from Lowe’s earliest Stiff Records releases (‘Heart of the City’) to his more recent, contemplative numbers (‘I Read A Lot’). “On most of our records,” Curry explains, “we have one or two songs without bashy drums, and [‘Peace, Love and Understanding’] has a lighter touch to it. We did it mostly with acoustic guitars, I think there’s some electric bass on there too.  I got to play bongos on it, and that made me really happy.”

When asked how the Straitjackets approached recording such an iconic song, Curry becomes thoughtful. “So many people have done it and it’s been in at least a couple of movies. So we were just trying to make…you know sometimes when you hear instrumentals and you’re not sure what it is and it takes you a while to figure out the song? We were trying to do that, but everybody knows Nick’s stuff so well that I don’t think we succeeded [laughs]. Even if we did the most completely different kind of sound, it still sounds like his song.”

The band’s respect for Lowe’s work is also evident on the cover of What’s So Funny about Los Straitjackets – a hilarious tribute to Lowe’s Jesus of Cool album cover. The Straitjackets are portrayed in outfits and guitars mimicking those of Lowe’s characters on that classic sleeve. Online “guitar geeks” were horrified that the photos of the Straitjackets showed them with something other than their trademark DiPinto guitars, but, Curry assures us, the guitars in the photos were only there to recreate the look of the original cover.

Los Straitjackets are touring with Marshall Crenshaw this summer, and will be rejoining Lowe for some dates in the fall – when ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ will likely be on the set list again. “The first time that we toured with Nick,” Curry recalls, “I was surprised that he did the song so slow. This might just be my imagination, but it felt like it changed the meaning of the song – Elvis’ version has that little bit of a sneer, and it’s gone. I think that has something to do with how Nick arranged it. With the words in it, it’s like calming it down. It makes it more melancholy. It’s a good song all the way around.”

With thanks to Pete Curry

What’s So Funny About Los Straitjackets is out now on Yep Roc Records

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