In many ways ‘Pump Up The Volume’ is an archetypal one hit wonder.
The creators of the track M/A/R/R/S were a one-off project that was convened in the studio as a collaboration between two bands: Colourbox and AR Kane. They never played live and released just one record in a shroud of functional anonymity – the name of the ‘group’ M/A/R/R/S was created by taking the initial of each of the members Christian names. ‘Pump Up The Volume’ was also rewarded with the hallmark of all truly great chart records, it reached number one.
Rather than toasted with raised glasses, the record’s commercial achievements merely exacerbated the tensions between AR Kane and Colourbox that had developed during the recording session and led to a breakdown in relations with their record company.
This fractious and mean-spirited atmosphere was further complicated by a seemingly never-ending series of legal problems that were created by the track’s success.
‘Pump Up The Volume’ was the first number one for the band’s label 4AD and also for its distribution company Rough Trade. Although all involved found the experience bittersweet at best, it’s not hard to hear why the song was so popular.
Created at the moment when sampling was on the cusp of becoming a fundamental creative tool, ‘Pump Up The Volume’ is the sound of technology at its most vital, new and unconstrained. Propelled by a bass line suggestive of ominous, late night fun, an irresistible drum pattern and coloured by the occasional sustained piano chord, the track is little more than a stream of random samples that, once put through the alchemy of the mixing desk, becomes impossible to ignore. Released without fanfare as a white label in the summer of1987 ‘Pump Up The Volume’ made an immediate connection at clubs and warehouse parties. Although the track was a hit on London dance floors, 4AD anticipated little more than underground recognition once the single was given an official release.
“This was in the early days of white labels’ Ivo Watts-Russell funder of 4AD told me ‘The accountant asked me for some projections, I remember clear as daylight thinking M/A/R/R/S Pump Up The Volume – ten thousand copies, that’s all we’ll do on that.”
Beyond anyone’s expectations ‘Pump Up The Volume’ would go on to sell over a million copies worldwide. This was an achievement not lost on the new breed of entertainment lawyers who were beginning to wonder if sampling was an illegal act of copyright infringement. The fact that the track contained over thirty samples rendered the possibility that ‘Pump Up The Volume’ was potentially one of the most illegal records ever released.
“We should have been sued by everybody’ said Watts-Russell ‘It was a brilliant record. A lot of the samples were taken from Eric B & Rakim, but they thought it was fine. We even licensed it to their record company 4th and Broadway in the USA. We didn’t get one sample clearance that’s how maverick it was. This was pre De La Soul. Sampling was done all the time on pirate radio in New York, but no one dared put it on a record, the thing you actually paid money for.”
In a fit of grandstanding on which their reputation would soon flourish, the only copyright owners to sue M/A/R/R/S were the production team of Stock Aitken and Waterman. The chutzpah of SAW and their original ‘Sound of a Bright Young Britain’ was revealed in the courts, as it became clear that the piece of music for which they were claiming copyright was itself a sample. 4AD settled out of court with Stock, Aitken and Waterman by giving a donation to charity. In a rare instance of a record company regretting a number one single, Watts-Russell began to try and come to terms with his label’s newly found international chart success. The entire process of releasing ‘Pump Up The Volume’ had convinced him that to continually strive for commercial breakthroughs was not necessarily a philosophy or premise that suited the running of a record company. Instead ‘Pump Up The Volume’ re-enforced his belief in working with artists he found interesting however vague their prospects in the charts might be; a position that would ironically ensure further commercial reward for 4AD.
‘Pump Up The Volume’ was ahead of its time legally, technologically and especially musically. The single is the sound of people in a studio gleefully experimenting, unaware that they are breaking any rules as the rules have yet to be decided. It’s also a wonderful example of working on the fly and seeing what happens next, of putting out a record without any expectations and dealing with the consequences as they arrive. In the case of ‘Pump Up The Volume’ the least of which was having a number one.
Richard King is the author of the recently published “How Soon Is Now, The Madmen And Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975 – 2005” (Faber & Faber) a history of a wayward sector of the music business in which he has served for over twenty years.