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Oct 11

Elvis Costello and the Attractions/Brinsley Schwarz: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”

Elvis Costello

Although this is the cover I originally knew on the U.S. release, in the U.K. it was a herd of massive elephants. Apparently the record company thought this would sell better?


Back for another Cover Friday, today I’ve chosen a song that is perhaps one of the “least-known-to-be-a-cover” cover songs: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” It would seem that just about everyone who listens to radio on a regular basis must have heard Elvis Costello’s version of the song at some point, and certainly, it’s considered among his greatest songs and among the Attractions’ best performances. But I suspect that the majority of people who have heard the song — and probably even a good number of Elvis Costello fans who never happened to check the credits on Armed Forces, the 1979 album that it appears on (although it started life as a B-side in the U.K.) — aren’t aware that the song is actually a cover.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was actually written by Nick Lowe for Brinsley Schwarz, the band (named for their lead guitarist) that Lowe was part of at the time, and released in 1974 on their final album, The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz. Brinsley Schwarz were the primary initiators of what became known as the English “pub rock” scene, which laid the groundwork for punk rock and without which we might never have heard the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Rockpile, Graham Parker, Stiff Little Fingers, and others. Although they were well-known for that in England, however, Brinsley Schwarz never really got through to America. Only later, when he went solo, did Nick Lowe have success in America as well.

Brinsley Schwarz’s version of “(What’s So Funny)…” is quite similar in many ways to Elvis Costello’s, but is a bit more laid back and lacking the sense of underlying anger that Costello brought to it. Where the Attractions attacked the song with the full force of their musical powers, Brinsley Schwarz played it with more of a country influence, along with a cheesy spoken section by Lowe that made it seem maybe slightly less than sincere, a touch more tongue-in-cheek.

Here…listen for yourself:

If Elvis Costello had never covered the song, it would have been thought of (when thought of at all) as simply a very good example of Nick Lowe’s earlier songwriting, but would have remained a relative obscurity. Thankfully, Elvis and the Attractions, as they did so often with Costello’s own songs, found the full power of the song and made it the potent anthem for level-headedness in society that it’s known as today. Oh, and guess who produced Elvis Costello’s version of the song? That’s right: Nick Lowe (he produced Costello’s first 5 albums). I think Lowe knew that Brinsley Schwarz hadn’t recorded the definitive version of the song, so, armed with that knowledge, he helped Elvis realize its full potential.

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