Friday, December 23, 2011

Song #59 of 9999 - (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Song #59 of 9999

Title: (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
Artist: Elvis Costello & The Attractions 
Year: 1978
Album: Armed Forces

Recently caught Wilco at Meriweather Post Pavilion and was treated to a fine opening acoustic set from songwriter Nick Lowe. Lowe began singing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and my friend Erik and I just kind of looked at each other blankly and asked "Why's he doing a cover of this Elvis Costello song?" What made it even more weird was he had just played a cover of Costello's "Allison" and we had to kind of remind ourselves that this was Nick Lowe and he had a gigantic catalog of songs and what's going on? I even thought for a moment that maybe Elvis Costello was going to surprise us all by walking out on stage, but that would have been a pretty brash move for an opening act.

A couple of clicks on my phone later, Erik and I were astounded to learn that the song wasn't written by Costello at all and that (surprise, surprise) it was a Nick Lowe concoction. Which brings me to tonight's cover that improves on the original. Go hunt down the 1974 Lowe version, released originally under the band name Brinsley Schwarz, and you'll find that the arrangements are almost identical: the same tempo, the same jangly guitar, the same drumbeat (excepting the chorus) and Lowe does an acceptable job with the lead vocal. But the song gets bogged down by the outdated message, coming across as naïve and precious in the post-Vietnam era. Just four years later, when Costello releases his version (subsequently produced by Nick Lowe), punk has arrived and Costello's anthem is laced with as much irony as his stage name and Buddy Holly glasses. Musically, the lush harmonies and syncopated drums in the chorus of the original are replaced with the now-familiar wail of Costello and the persistent driving backbeat of The Attractions. It's a great song (in either version, really) and a perfect catalyst for Costello's post-punk ascent.

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