Updated: Monday, June 26, 2017, 8:40 AM
Nick Lowe wrote the most pertinent concert-closing political protest song of 2017.
And the British songwriter and producer, then the bass player for pub-rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz, penned it partly as a joke. He imagined an aging hippie on a bar stool, frustrated that an uncaring world had given up on 1960s idealism.
“It was supposed to sound like this pretentious old goof,” Lowe said, speaking before a show in Sellersville this month. “I wanted it to be overwrought, with this old hippie coming out with all this nonsense: ‘As I walk through, this wicked world…’”
The song poses a timeless question, though its title does not include a question mark: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Since Donald Trump’s election, its shouted-out-loud query has frequently been heard at rock shows from singers insistently “searching for light in the darkness of insanity” and looking to go out with a cathartic anthem that addresses these “troubled times.”
At the Hoagie Nation fest last month, Jeffrey Gaines closed the set by In the Pocket — the group led by Hooters drummer David Uosikkinen that otherwise specializes in songs with Philadelphia connections — with a rousing version.
This month, the song was an encore for Lowe at his Sellersville show and for Elvis Costello, who put his inimitable stamp on it when he recorded his definitive take in 1979, transforming it from a charming character study into a righteous rampage.
Costello’s show last weekend at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby focused on 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. But he closed by asking “What’s So Funny’s” essential questions that, then as now, call out the spineless and corrupt: “Where are the strong, and who are the trusted?”
The Nashville instrumental rock band Los Straitjackets have a new album of Lowe covers called What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets? After playing the World Cafe Live on June 22, the Mexican wrestling-mask-wearing outfit swing back through to do Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pa., on Aug. 23 and Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth, Del., on Aug. 25.
Country-roots songwriter Lucinda Williams has been performing a mournful “What’s So Funny” live of late. St. Louis songwriter Bhi Bhiman recorded a lovely, hopeful version for 1000 Days, 1000 Songs, the ongoing Trump protest project born as 30 Days, 30 Songs in the run-up to the election in November. And Wilco, the Jeff Tweedy-led Dad Rock exemplars, cut Lowe’s song in a Spotify session last month. Go to wilcoword.net to request the Chicago band play it at the Xponential Music Festival in Camden on July 28.
“What’s So Funny” has been durable over the decades. Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Midnight Oil, the Wallflowers, and the young Irish throwback rockers the Strypes have played it. On the 2004 Vote for Change tour, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band got help from the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., John Fogerty and, Dave Matthews.
Earnestness comes through even in jokey, smarmy versions. Bill Murray passionately delivers a karaoke take in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Lost in Translation. In his 2008 Christmas special, Stephen Colbert led a love fest with Costello, Toby Keith, John Legend, Willie Nelson, and Feist.
A defiant, pugnacious tone distinguishes “What’s So Funny” from other protest perennials, like John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine,” Marvin Gaye’s sorrowful “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and Curtis Mayfield’s hopeful “People Get Ready.”
It doesn’t deliver the certainty of, say, Edwin Starr’s “War” or the militant rage of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” but an impudent attitude has helped it age well. The Socratic method is employed sarcastically as our better nature is appealed to. Just what is it that you don’t like about caring and sharing, you selfish lout?
It’s not all about the lyrics. “We weren’t concerned with the message,” says Pete Curry, bass player for Los Straitjackets, who have toured extensively as Lowe’s backing band. “We picked it because the song has such a strong melody, and also because it’s one of Nick’s biggest hits.” The Straitjackets’ take transforms the driving rocker into a bossa nova. It’s wordless, but one of those songs, says Curry, “that we can see people mouthing the words to as we play it.”
“I always cite that song as the first original idea I had,” says Lowe. “When you start writing songs, you copy your idols. You rewrite their catalog.” Then, by combining elements of your heroes, Lowe says, “you start to develop your own style. There’s nothing new under the sun, but it becomes your own particular recipe. I remember being really surprised when I had the idea. I thought I hadn’t heard anyone say that before. I remember thinking: Don’t mess it up.”
In the 1960s, Lowe’s British subculture of choice was the Mods, the well-dressed rockers obsessed with American rhythm and blues whose most famous adherents were The Who. The 68-year-old gentleman rocker says he and his mates briefly embraced “the hippie thing” but “it didn’t take long for us to return to our ways with our feet more on the ground.” The “What’s So Funny” idea was to portray a Summer of Love true believer who refused to let go. Though the song was meant to gently mock, it also grants its subject his dignity. “He’s saying, ‘You can laugh at me, but there’s one thing you can’t get round: What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’ So I was saying to myself, ‘Don’t make this too much of a joke, even if he is an old hippie. Don’t let the verses get too wordy. Let the title do the work for you.’”
For all that, “the song would have disappeared” had not Costello, “or Declan McManus, as we called him back in those days,” saved it, Lowe says. When the angry young man was recording with Lowe as producer in 1979 — a time of strife in England, as Margaret Thatcher came to power and the far-right National Front grew in strength — he had the idea of covering the Brinsleys song.
“It was not my idea, I promise,” Lowe says. Costello’s commanding version was released only as a single at first, then added to the Armed Forces album when it became an instant hit.
Since then, “What’s So Funny” has taken on a life of its own, including as a cash cow for Lowe, who literally made a million bucks in 1994 when soul-pop singer Curtis Stigers’ version landed on Whitney Houston’s mega-selling sound track the The Bodyguard.
“It’s been covered by, I don’t know — hundreds of people,” its author says in astonishment. “It’s a very strange sensation, like I haven’t had anything to do with it. So many different versions, in different languages. I’ve even got a version of it by Tahitian fisherman. A field recording! It’s kind of a miracle what that song does to people. It really is out of my hands.”