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Covered: “Peace Love and Understanding” & “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down”

Posted: November 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Columns | Tags: ,

Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello at the United Palace Theater

Any song Elvis Costello sings sounds like an Elvis Costello song, so I’m always surprised to find out about songs he didn’t write. Possibly his most well-known song, “(What’s so funny about) Peace Love and Understanding” was written and first recorded by Nick Lowe, later Elvis’ producer on Armed Forces. Elvis recorded it as a B-side to a Nick Lowe single and tacked it onto Armed Forces for the 1979 American release when his cover became a hit in the UK. This was back in the days when a hit single could make a hit record. The album went gold in the US and has been hailed as helping define New Wave by Rolling Stone. Elvis was at the height of his popularity and it’s impossible to know how big an impact the addition of “Peace Love and Understanding” had on record sales. Still, these days you know you haven’t come to the end of an Elvis Costello concert until the short, sweaty man in huge glasses sings “Peace Love and Understanding” (the suit in the above photo began as the same shade of gray).

Also riding a hit song’s coattails, Nick Lowe did his best to use his only US top 40 hit, “Cruel to Be Kind,” in promoting his ensuing album The Abominable Showman to American audiences on David Letterman. (Look, Look! I wrote a song you like. Buy my new album that doesn’t have that song. It’s got 12 more just like it.) He goes on in the interview to call it “an old, wimpy song,” acknowledging it’s not his favorite, but you’ve gotta play the hits. Nick Lowe began as a songwriter and producer and moved into performing as a front man for larger audiences after his work with Elvis. It seemed like more of a natural next step for him as a writer rather than a burning desire to perform. With his success in other areas he had the time and means to give it a shot without trying to become one of the money hungry bands he despised and often ridiculed (Journey and Styx to name a couple).

Elvis’ next album, Get Happy, dug further back to the Sam and Dave soul ballad hit “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” cutting its run time in half by speeding it up to a pace Elvis could awkwardly dance to. The song was written by the Stax co-writing team of Homer Banks and Allen Jones. Banks began his career at Stax working for three years at their record store while also doing some recording for Mint, another label. Stax eventually hired him as a songwriter, but never a singer. In addition to Elvis Costello, his writing provided hits for the Spencer Davis Group,”Gimme Some Lovin’,” and The Staple Singers, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” After Stax, Banks moved on with new writing partner Carl Hampton to a publishing job at A&M records. Banks never matched the success he had at Stax, but he and Hampton were able to record their own album, Passport to Ecstasy, on Warner Brothers in 1977.

Elvis has been able to continue as a performer on the strength of his songwriting as well as showmanship and singing. It’s not an easy racket to break into let alone have a career spanning several decades. For his current tour, Elvis resurrected his 1986 Spinning Songbook, a giant wheel audience members are invited on stage to spin, creating the playlist as the night goes on. The deck is stacked with Elvis’ hits and a few “wild card” spots that allow him to play medley’s of other artist’s songs. He often goes on his own 3-4 song sets, playing whatever doesn’t seem to be coming up on the wheel.
Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello at the United Palace Theater

Some people don’t have the same desire or luck to have a career like Elvis Costello, but songwriting talent continues to have a place in the music industry. It’s a shame more of that talent doesn’t infiltrate the top 40 like it used to.
Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello at the United Palace Theater

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