Twenty-six years ago this week a musical landmark was made. Maybe for some there was already a feeling that something big was coming, but when in the first week of September 1987 “Pump Up the Volume” first breached the UK charts at no.35, for most people it was came like a streaking meteor across a clear blue sky.
The track, composed by M/A/R/R/S, a fractious and short-lived collaboration between the two British bands AR Kane and Colourbox, built on the stripped back, electro-infused sound pioneered by DJs in the US who were re-editing disco, funk and hip hop tunes to create more danceable club music; what became known as House.
Almost exactly twelve months earlier in September 1986 the mainstream success of Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley Jackmaster Funk, and in January 1987 Jack Your Body by Steve “Silk” Hurley, had set the stage. Yet where both of these tracks little altered the minimal feel of their House club roots, PUTV added a richer density of sound, crisp production and accelerated sense of purpose that seemed to exist one step beyond anything that had yet been tried.
That its mastermind should be Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of the post-punk indie label 4AD, up to that point best-known for the swirly, atmospheric debut album by the Cocteau Twins, Garlands, and the Goth-inspired “dream band” This Mortal Coil, only adds another unlikely twist to the tale.
PUTV was first released in late July 1987, initially as an anonymous white label distributed to selected clubs in the UK. The following month, on August 24, it received general release as a 12” double A-side with the track Anitina. Yet it was the launch one week later of a 7” radio edit that captured wide radio airplay and helped it achieve massive mainstream success.
In so doing it lit the touch paper, not only for the existing dance scene, but also for the legions of would-be djs, bands and musicians in suburban bedrooms and garages, from the UK to the US, who would go on to create genres such as acid house and rave, among others.
In all, the original UK version contains samples from 25 different tracks. The range of samples was altered for the radio edit and later US versions. And while the basic drum sequencing and guitars were original creations, some of the tracks most recognizable motifs were added by DJ producer Dave Dorrell, not least the vocal sample “Pump up the volume” itself, which is taken from Erik B. & Rakim’s slouchy hip-hop icon Paid in Full, which had been released only weeks before PUTV on July 7, 1987. Both in turn borrowed heavily from Coldcut’s Say Kids What Time Is It? , also released in 1987.
Other defining elements include samples from the Criminal Element Orchestra’s Put the Needle to the Record (1976) and the squelchy moog and drum and cowbells from The Bar-Kays’ Holy Ghost (1979), which is similarly used on PUTV as a mid-track climax. Yet it was the scratch effects contributed by DJ Chris “C.J.” Macintosh that provided the final irresistible lift.
The M/A/R/R/S alchemy was not to last long. A profound clash of styles and approach between Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala of AR Kane and brothers Martyn and Steve Young of Colourbox, ensured that PUTV would be the band’s one and only release. Its effect, however, was far reaching.
While the release of PUTV caught the mainstream music industry looking the other way, it struck an immediate chord with indie labels and artists. Tracks such as Theme From S-Express (1987) by S-Express and Beat Dis (1987) by Bomb the Bass appeared over the following months and bore an obvious similarity. Yet its shadow can be detected in the work of numerous other musicians and DJs over the years that followed, the best known of which range from Voodoo Ray (1988) by A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State’s Pacific State (1989) to Hey Boy Hey Girl (1999) by the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim’s debut studio album Better Living Through Chemistry (1996), among dozens, if not hundreds of others.
Music consumption today has altered beyond recognition. The world has moved on. And while DJs and musicians now are no less inventive it’s debatable that a single track could again achieve such massive impact and influence. Certainly the technology is all there. All that’s needed are the right people, in the right place, at precisely the right moment.