Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S (1987)

When I first heard this song, I was going through some kind of irrational ‘no hip-hop’ phase. I don’t really know why – it was probably hip-hop’s best ever era, and here I was more or less refusing to listen to it (though oddly I seem to know all of the era’s greatest hip-hop tracks – somehow.

What I was listening to was all kinds of arty English music – you know, playing the part of suburban Canadian sophisticate. My wardrobe wasn’t entirely black, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the songs I was listening to.

Anyway, suddenly there was ‘Pump Up the Volume’. To somebody with the musical rigidity of a North American radio station, ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was uncategorisable and thus did not compute. It was on 4AD, home to the artiest of the arty and the Britishest of the British, and had a cover that looked like it. It was by a band that technically didn’t exist (M/A/R/R/S were a one-off collaboration between two bands I’d never heard of and would never hear from again), it had about a million different remixes (okay, probably 5 tops, but that was revolutionary back then), and best of all, it wasn’t really a song at all.

It may not seem like such a big deal now, but that fact that ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was actually bits of a bunch of different songs cobbled on top of each other completely amazed me. I mean, I’d heard plenty of songs with samples and/or with scratches (and I’d heard ‘Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ and tried – and failed – to me impressed by it), but this was somehow more compelling. I immediately gave myself over to silly rhetoric about how all songs would sound like this in the future (for a brief moment, they did, first and foremost the Coldcut remix of ‘Paid in Full’, which might as well be the same track). What they call the ‘magpie’ aesthetic appealed to me conceptually, while still sounding good. It's a rare beast that, as they say, appeals to the mind as well as to the body.

Now, of course, songs like this are illegal (for the most part)… It’s easy to get overly swept up in the politics of sampling – it is an interesting discussion where things really aren’t clearly black-and-white – but what I miss about song constructions like this is how they manage to be both arty (thus appealing to my teenage self) and undeniably visceral as well. It seemed like people really were pushing the boundaries of what music was, all the while creating product that was genuinely enjoyable and danceable (not that I would have been caught dead dancing back then…). It isn’t often that you hear songs that are genuinely ‘prophetic’ – giving you a sense of what the future will be like – but listening to Ofra Haza trilling exotically over a flood of breakbeats, chants, soundbite phrases, scratches, guitars (how déclassé!) and kitchen sinks back in the day really did give you a sense that music was somehow changing.

Even if it turned out to be a false prophecy in the end…

Incidentally, if you ever doubt the arty credentials of this song, consider this: I have never seen it since or even found reference to it online, but I am absolutely sure that I can remember, when the song was popular, seeing its ‘sheet music’ for sale in a music shop. Picture, if you will, ‘sheet music’ for this song. Has there been a better conceptual-joke objet d’art since the glory days of dada?

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