October 8, 2009

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Peace, love & understanding
Nick Lowe discusses his anthem
By Wade Tatangelos music@hippopress.com

“I always think of that song as being the first original idea I ever had as a songwriter,” said Nick Lowe of his classic anthem “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” The English singer-songwriter, producer, post-punk icon and, most recently, alt-country hero spoke by phone from a hotel in San Francisco. Lowe launched his latest U.S. solo tour there about a week before his Oct. 10 date at Londonderry’s Tupelo Music Hall, where he will undoubtedly perform “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

The song is one of numerous highlights on the artist’s excellent, double-disc hits collection Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe, which came out in March on the venerable indie label Yep Roc.

Lowe recorded the initial version of  “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” while he was a member of the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz. It appeared on their final album from 1974, The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz. By no means a hit, the song went pretty much forgotten for years by everyone except a young man born Declan MacManus.

“I remember that when I thought of this title, ‘(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.’ I couldn’t believe I had thought it up, I thought it was so great,” Lowe said with a chuckle. “But the original idea of the song was sort of funny. It was written from the point of view of an old hippie.”

The hippie Lowe had in mind responded to clever-minded, “cocaine-snorting” youngsters who had all the answers and viewed him as a joke. “When I started writing the song I thought, ‘This is really a great notion — don’t make it too jokey,’” Lowe recalled. “Then we recorded it and when the Brinsleys broke up that song would have gone into the dustbin along with all the other ones no one remembers that we did [laughs], but for that guy who walked into The Grapes Pub in Liverpool.”

“That guy” was Elvis Costello, then Declan, the name Lowe called him during our interview before quickly correcting himself. Costello was a huge fan of Brinsley Schwarz. The two men met at what is now called The Famous Grapes Pub — The Beatles used to drink there — and, according to Lowe, he recognized Costello from attending so many Brinsley Schwarz shows and bought him a pint. This meeting led to one of the most famous and fruitful friendships in all of music. Lowe produced Costello’s first five albums starting with his 1977 landmark debut My Aim Is True.

Originally recorded as a B-side of a single, Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was added as the last track on the U.S. edition of his third album Armed Forces. Rolling Stone has Costello’s definitive version at 284 on its list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

“I remember the day we were in the studio recording,” Lowe recalled, and [Costello] said, ‘I’ll tell you what I want to do, I want to do a version of ‘Peace, Love and Understanding,’ that old Brinsley song.’

“Up to that point he didn’t record anyone else’s songs,” Lowe continued. “So I was surprised, to say the least. We did an extremely high-energy version of it and he was the one who put that anthemic thing into it which touched everybody so much.”

Over the years, countless artists have covered Lowe’s plea for peace. Punk revivalist Down By Law and alternative metal supergroup A Perfect Circle have done two of the more unusual renditions. A version of it — by Curtis Stigers — even appears on the The Bodyguard soundtrack, one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Although the song has been very good to Lowe, he wishes its message weren’t remain ing so relevant. “Everyone except my publisher hopes that a day will come when it won’t be necessary to sing it anymore,” Lowe said.


Nick Lowe
Who: Nick Lowe with Bill Kirchen
When: Friday, Oct. 9, 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road in Londonderry
Tickets: $55, $60
Info: 437-5100 or go to tupelohall.com.