Sometimes you hear someone described as a "writer's writer" or a "musician's musician." The idea is that the subject might not be the most famous to the general public, but people who are in the industry have immense respect for him or her.
Well, Nick Lowe is a songwriter's songwriter. The people who love his songs -- and who perform his songs regularly -- include Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Daryl Hall.
And he says that "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" was the first proper song he wrote, for his band Brinsley Schwarz.
Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe's band since the late 1960s, playing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" in 1974.
From an interview with The AVClub:
I always think of that song as being the first original idea I had. I can remember writing it quite clearly. I remember actually being really kind of shocked by the title. I came up with the title, and I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it up myself. I’d never heard it before. It wasn’t something I’d heard off another record and changed the words slightly to suit me, which was how I’d written songs up until then, while I was sort of learning. And then one day this title popped into my head: “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” and I thought, “Great, great title, and I can’t believe you would come up with it.” [Laughs.] I always would ’fess up that there is one lick in the tune I did steal from Judee Sill. She had a song called “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” at about that time that I really thought was a super song. I haven’t heard that song for many years, but I always think I took a little lick in “Peace, Love, And Understanding” from Judy’s song. But apart from that, yes, that was my first original song.
Here's Judee Sill, "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" with the "oh-oh-oh" vocal hook (pay attention around 0:35).
Back to the interview:
AVC: Once you had the title, how long did it take you to write the rest?
NL: Oh, not very long at all. I think it really came very quickly. Because the original idea of it was that everything was changing. The old hippie thing was changing. I wrote the song in 1973, and the hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink. Alcohol was coming back, and everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, “Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’” And that was the idea of the song. But I think as I started writing it, something told me it was too good idea to make it into a joke. It was originally supposed to be a joke song, but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up. Just to keep it real simple, and don’t be too clever with it. Because I thought I was hot stuff back then, when I really, really wasn’t. I had a lot to learn. As I said, this was my first decent, proper, original idea I’d had, and something told me just to take it easy. And I’m glad I did, because otherwise that song would have died when Brinsley Schwarz died. Not the guy, the group. [Laughs.] Had it not been for Elvis Costello, who used to come and see us when he was a kid and really liked that song… well, he brought it to the world, so to speak. Because when he recorded it, he gave it that anthemic quality which everyone reacted really well to.
The song, as Lowe says, could have just died off when his band did. Luckily, he was working in the studio producing his friend Elvis Costello (Lowe was kind of the house producer for Stiff Records, Costello's UK label). Costello and the Attractions recorded the song and it was released in the UK as the b-side to a Nick Lowe single. When the song caught on, it was added to the end of the US pressing of Costello's album Armed Forces.
Costello still performs this song, even though he's got a pretty deep catalog of songs he's written himself. That says something about the respect he has for the song. Here's Elvis Costello on Letterman from 2003.
Not the best sound, but here's jazz musician and singer Curtis Stigers performing the song live.
Stigers had recorded a version of the song for a solo album and Stigers' recording was also included on the soundtrack to The Bodyguard -- an album that sold 44 million copies worldwide. Lowe has never been a superstar and always seems to be fairly modest, so this was a great boon for him as a songwriter. He told the Telegraph, “It was a tremendous piece of good fortune. I made an astonishing amount of money from that." Reportedly, he had no idea that the money was coming until the check arrived in the mail.
From Wikipedia: "According to Will Birch's book on pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island, the royalties from Curtis Stigers' version of the song, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding", made songwriter Nick Lowe independently wealthy."
I suppose a 5 cent royalty on each album would be 2.2 million dollars. This website suggests that a songwriting royalty might be as much as 8 cents a recording sold.
Lowe apparently spent the money paying a backing band for a tour. More recently, he's been performing solo, so that may not have worked out so well financially.
Here's a clip from a 2013 performance at MassMOCA as part of Solid Sound, the festival that Wilco curates. Wilco toured with Nick Lowe recently and frontman Jeff Tweedy expressed a lot of admiration for the elder songwriter. I think Tweedy's a pretty great songwriter himself, but again, his hat's off to ol' Nick.
Wilco's version is closer to the acoustic solo rendition Lowe has been giving more recently. For a 2011 appearance on the radio program Q in the CBC studios in Toronto, Lowe gives a beautiful performance, altering the melody slightly from recorded versions:
Okay, this doesn't have "Peace Love and Understanding" on it, but if you don't know about this web show, I need to introduce you to Live From Daryl's House (LFDH.com). Daryl is Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates and he has a beautiful house that seems to be on the west side of the Berkshires in upstate NY. He invites people to come over and they play some of his songs, and some of their songs and they eat a meal together. It's fun to watch; I especially appreciate watching great musicians figure out arrangements ("You want to take the second verse and I'll sing the harmony?") before they sing together.
So, in the 8th episode, LFDH makes a radical detour to film Daryl's visit to England where he sings with old friend Nick Lowe. There's such a great mutual respect between the two men, and the setlist leans heavily to the Lowe catalog. If you don't have time to see the whole show, I recommend "Shelley, My Love." The man can still sing.
Also, that third guy playing with them is T-Bone Wolk, a great musician and Daryl's best friend (sorry John Oates), who passed away a couple of years ago.
Lowe's catalog is deeper than "Peace Love" (and "Cruel To Be Kind"), of course. A recent live album, Untouched Takeaway, also plays like a greatest hits collection and is highly recommended.
Finally, Nick talks about writing "Peace Love and Understanding," about the many cover versions, the money that he made from it, and his feelings about the song now, starting around 10:15 in this public television interview:
His songs are undoubtedly great, but Nick Lowe just seems like such a decent fellow. Nothing funny about that.