NOW 10: M/A/A/R/S – Pump Up the Volume

Fraser McAlpine did not disagree with my choice for the playlist from NOW 10 (the podcast discussion is here: https://soundcloud.com/jonny_brick/nowpod2-9-to-16-with-fraser-mcalpine)

Pump Up the Volume still sounds like the sound of now, whenever now is. This song makes me go the Full Morley: I could compare it to Kirkegaard (somehow), but I will content myself with saying this is one of the more Important number one singles. One word: sampling.

Within Pump on the Volume by M/A/R/R/S we hear James Brown grunting, the shout of ‘Brothers and Sisters’ used on a Public Enemy record, a scratcher scratching, the phrase ‘Pump It Up!’ later used by Joe Budden, birds screeching, a singer ululating in a pentatonic key and what sounds uncannily like the bass riff from the title track of Michael Jackson’s big 1987 release Bad. It sounds like the future, sent from the past to warn the present, which is another sentence Morley would write.

Tom Ewing is slowly writing about every UK number one at his site Freaky Trigger, and marking each one out of 10. As of May 2018, he is up to 2004. His piece on Pump Up the Volume cleverly sampled other reviews and linked to them, but Tom himself noted that the track is ‘a wild hybrid made by intrigued outsiders’ rather than house music DJs using their expertise to sample many tracks. At the time Tom didn’t get the M/A/A/R/S track: ‘I despised it. Its rejection of structure, of tune, of identification points’ almost scared him. Without Pump Up the Volume, however, Chemical Brothers, Moby and Fatboy Slim would not have had a career. Out of 10, Tom gives the track a perfect score. He is correct.

It is a perfect piece of popular music. If you played it to an alien they would be amazed; if you played it to a five-year-old child they would dance, especially to the part at 1.48 in the 7” mix, just before we hear the title intoned three times. If I were a DJ I’d just put this on for an hour. Perhaps somebody did that…

NOW 10 is the Christmas 1987 set. It begins with Freddie Mercury and soprano Montserrat Caballe warbling about Barcelona. It sounds like a cross between Queen and Verdi and was a UK top 10 hit. You don’t hear it so often now, as radio goes for the big Queen classics. Ms Caballe has just turned 85 and her daughter also sings opera. Pet Shop Boys have moved into opera themselves in recent years, but in 1987 were still keen on making astonishing pop music.

Rent is from the perspective of a rent boy who appreciates that his lover keeps his head above water: ‘You dress me up, I’m your puppet’ is an amazing opening line. When it comes to British lyrical pop writers, Neil Tennant is up there with Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley, Alex Turner and some other lyricists not from Sheffield (Neil was born in North Shields, near Newcastle).

When writing this essay I got stuck on Labour of Love by Scottish duo Hue & Cry. The song uses vocabulary from the picket line in a love song: ‘I withdraw my labour of love/ Gonna strike for the right to get into your heart/ Ain’t gonna work for you NO MORE!’ Wow, and very topical what with the politics of the left espoused by many popstars through the Red Wedge movement. June 1987 saw a UK General Election, which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won with 43.3% (13.76m votes), though they lost 20 seats to Neil Kinnock’s Labour (10m votes). The Social Democrat Party took 7.34m votes despite being relatively new but won 22 seats thanks to the figures of Roy Jenkins and Clement Freud who spearheaded the PR campaign.

Musically, there were two distinct sounds of 1987. Neither was anything to do with hiphop, which was still an underground concern which would shortly explode thanks to Vanilla Ice (which is not a joke). White-boy soul like Labour of Love dominated the charts: Johnny Hates Jazz (I Don’t Want to Be a Hero), Curiosity Killed the Cat (Misfit), The Style Council (Wanted, or Waiter, There’s Some Soup in my Flies), Level 42 (It’s Over) and Wet Wet Wet. I love the Wets, as I’ll explain later on when I discuss that song of theirs from 1994, and Sweet Little Mystery still makes me dance, even though it sounds like 1987 with its funk guitar. You seemed to be guaranteed a hit if you had a funk guitar on your song. Even in 2015, when funk went Uptown.

ABC were still a hit act, and When Smokey Sings borrows heavily from the catalogue of Smokey Robinson (homage isn’t theft). I caught the band at Camden’s KOKO venue a few years ago and was astounded by how many great songs they had. Martin Fry is still on the eighties circuit, while Marti Pellow is on a summer 2018 tour which takes in London’s Royal Albert Hall. Carol Dekker from T’Pau (which I always say results in T-Pain…) is on the same circuit as Fry, singing China in Your Hand until she can no longer ‘push too far’. I love the sax on the song, which is present and correct on NOW 10 beside another power ballad, Alone by Heart, which is far better than China in Your Hand.

Kiss give us Crazy Crazy Nights (a UK top 5 hit but not even top 50 in the US) and Whitesnake offer Here I Go Again, two songs which must have delighted viewers of MTV, those like Wayne Campbell and his friend Garth, who must have found these hard-rock tracks ‘most excellent’…

Catalogue on NOW 10 comes from Billy Idol which, along with Whitesnake and Kiss represents the other strain of white music (as opposed to hiphop and club music) that was the key sound of 1987. Mony Mony was Billy’s MTV-friendly version of the Tommy James and the Shondells track; he actually released it in 1981 first but reworked it for 1987. Nina Simone appears with her slinky My Baby Just Cares For Me, another tune which benefitted from a Claymation video from Aardman and a sync with a Chanel No. 5 perfume advert. Can Aardman do M/A/A/R/S next?

Los Lobos, meanwhile, brought back La Bamba, a summer smash and Transatlantic Number One which revamped Ritchie Valens’ original. Their version featured in a biopic of Valens, who died in the same plane as Buddy Holly in February 1959, which was inducted into the Library of Congress in 2017. Los Lobos gave real credence to the ‘arriva arriva!’ line. In 2017, Watford fans sang the song to celebrate the Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami and, when Behrami left, Brazilian forward Richarlison, proving that the song has life on the terraces.

Bananarama had another SAW-assisted hit (I’ll deal with Stock-Aitken-Waterman in the next essay) with Love in the First Degree, which was one of the bonus questions I answered correctly when I appeared on BBC Radio 2’s Popmaster quiz in 2016 (I still have the One Year Out t-shirt!). Erasure had another Vince Clarke-assisted hit with The Circus, while Build by The Housemartins was an early stab at the Beautiful South sound. Dave Rotheray took the chorus while Paul Heaton sang the verse.

A similar tactic was adopted by Squeeze, who shared the singing between melodist Glenn Tilbrook and lyricist Chris Difford. On Hourglass, from their Babylon and On album, Glenn sang a Motown pastiche superbly while Chris helped him out with the chorus (‘take him to the bridge/ Throw him overboard’). The best part of that song, though, is when the lyrics drop out for four bars and we hear a sax and some bongos.

An entire song without words appears in Crockett’s Theme from the hit TV show Miami Vice. Jan Hammer was born in Czechoslovakia and played keyboards for the cult band Mahavishnu Orchestra after studying at the famous Berklee College of Music. He went on to play with fellow muso Jeff Beck, and turned 70 years old in April 2018.

Whoever had the idea to put the Fat Boys and the Beach Boys together (and not call them the Fat Beach Boys?!!) was a genius. That same man must have had the idea to get the white guys to add their magic to the famous instrumental Wipeout. Fun fact: the three Fat Boys were called Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock-Ski and Buff Love, who was also known as The Human Beat Box and died of a heart attack in 1995 (he was too Fat a Boy). Fat Joe, Fatman Scoop and Big Narstie would not have a career without the Fat Boys bringing their sense of fun to music in the 1980s. Try not to smile at the absurdity of Wipeout!

In format news, NOW 10 was the first to be released on CD, with 15 songs on each disc. Disc 1 ends with Sugar Mice by Marillion (Kayleigh is the one that’s always played on radio) and Disc 2 ends with a song featuring the lyrics ‘You scumbag! You maggot! You cheap lousy faggot!’ Everyone hollers those words every November and December; Shane MacGowan need never work again, while Kirsty MacColl’s family receive proceeds from her contributions. One of the most shocking deaths in pop came in 2000, when Kirsty passed away in a tragic accident.

Fairytale of New York was never a number one, nor has it ever been despite charting every year since downloads and streaming infiltrated the sales chart. Perhaps 2018 will be the year that another song to have ‘scumbag’ in its lyrics will top the charts. The other one? When the Sun Goes Down by Arctic Monkeys.

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