This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #258: Pump It Up by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
In the whole history of music being made, the way that people have listened to it has evolved to suit the times. This includes everything from Mozart giving private concerts in the Royal Court in Vienna, to the very first, scratchy grammophonic recordings at the turn of the century, to music played live over radio during WWII, to The Beatles making waves by appearing on The Ed Sillivan Show, to the digitization of music on CDs and now, to on-demand streaming via services such as Spotify and YouTube. The story of the song, “Pump It Up” by “Elvis Costello and the Attractions” is an interesting chapter in the evolution of how we interact with those we move and groove to; a story that stretches waaaay back to one of the legendary early figures in Rock n’ Roll and then, waaaay forward to the modern day songs of one of the cool new kids on the musical block. How we consume our music has constantly changed over time, as “Pump It Up” so aptly describes.
In the late 1970s, two men named Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera formed a partnership and started a company called, Stiff Records. This independent record label developed a reputation for discovering new, emerging talent from the Punk, New Wave, Reggae/Ska scene that was exploding in the UK. At one point, they were managing musical acts such as “Madness”, “Ian Drury and the Blockheads”, “The Pogues”, “Devo”, “The Damned”, “The Dubliners”, “Motorhead”, “Graham Parker”, “Nick Lowe”, “Lena Lovich”, “The Feelies” and many more. Arguably, the most successful act in their stable of talent was Elvis Costello. The song, “Pump It Up” was released from his second album called, “This Year’s Model” and became one of his signature songs and one of the biggest hit records released by Stiff Records.
One of the reasons this is noteworthy is that Stiff Records introduced/made popular a distribution concept that we take for granted these days but which, at the time, was quite revolutionary and that was the idea of releasing compilation albums. In essence, Stiff Records would package one or two songs each, from a dozen or so of their acts and release it all as one big album. The idea was based on how jukeboxes were constructed and stocked. In this way, record buyers could buy Stiff Records “best music” all in one album. To support these compilation albums, Stiff Records organized music tours by five groups at a time. These musical caravans became known as “The Stiff Tours” and were unique in their construction. Stiff Records would enlist five singers and sign them for the tour but, they would not sign their bandmates. This meant that a group of session players would often play with multiple singers during the tour in a standardized backup band format. In any case, the Stiff Tours that Elvis Costello appeared on were noted for the extent of the debauchery that occured. According to Costello, each concert on the tour would end with all of the musicians performing “Ian Drury’s” song, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” together on stage. Costello noted that there was no shortage of sex and drugs and alcohol available on these tours and that, after awhile, he would become numb to the stimulation he was experiencing. The song “Pump It Up” is about having to work hard during these tours to maintain his emotional and physical sensory capabilities. The rhythm of the song is hard-driving; which is reflective of the effort it took to stay “up” as the tour unfolded.
But, the story doesn’t end there.
The lyrics to “Pump It Up” were modelled after the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which you may recall was the song where Dylan stands with cue cards in a hotel alleyway, flipping them aside as he sings lines such as,
“Johnny’s in the basement,
mixing up the medicine.
I’m on the pavement,
thinking ’bout the government….”.
The lyrics to “Pump It Up” were built upon the multi-syllabic rhyming cadence that Dylan employed.
“I’ve been on tenderhooks,
ending in dirty looks.
Listening to Muzak,
thinking ’bout this and that.”
When asked about to similarities between the songs, Costello said that music is about “playing new games with old toys” and, as such, he was not upset when “Pump It Up” ended up being the song that became featured in a modern day lawsuit about copyright infringement from one of the biggest YouTube/Pop stars of 2021!
When my girls were a few years younger, they had an after-school routine that saw them come home from school, grab a few snacks and then, settle in to watch a series of half-hour comedies on the Disney Channel. One of the shows they liked to watch was called, “Bizaardvark”. The concept for this show was borrowed directly from the way in which many young people interact with music and media today. The show starred two girls named Olivia Rodrigo and Madison Hu. These girls, along with their castmates, were YouTube content creators. So, in each episode, there was always talk about how many “Views” their taped show has achieved, responding to viewer comments and, of course, the never-ending quest to create new and fresh content to air.
Fast forward a bit, Disney has a long tradition of cultivating stars across multiple media (think waaay back to Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon or Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake). So, it was really no surprise when “Bizaardvark” star, “Olivia Rodrigo” suddenly released an album of songs and started topping the music and video charts. One of the songs she released was called, “Brutal”. I will play this song in the below. When you listen to it, after the first twenty seconds or so, you will note that it uses the exact same musical structure that “Pump It Up” does. It is brazenly obvious that the backbone of the song has been used before. Since sampling is an accepted thing, most people assumed that Rodrigo had received permission to lift the music from “Pump It Up”, from Elvis Costello and from Stiff Records. She had not. There was a lawsuit filed for copyright infringement against Rodrigo. The lawsuit was settled out of court. When asked for comment, Costello merely smiled and repeated his line about music just being “new games with old toys”.
So, as you can see, “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions has been at the centre of much action when it comes to the evolution of how we consume our music. He was involved in first compilation albums and subsequent, supporting tours. His song, “Pump it Up” chronicles what those tours were like. And now, he found himself at the centre of a lawsuit filed against one of YouTube and Disney’s biggest stars, “Olivia Rodrigo”. That is a lot to digest for such a simple, hard-driving, boppy tune! Let’s get to listening, shall we?
Here is Elvis Costello and the Attractions with “Pump It Up”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo, can be found here. ***Note how she uses the same/similar guitar riff after the twenty second mark, as Costello uses in “Pump It Up”.
The link to the official website for Elvis Costello and the Attractions, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Olivia Rodrigo, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.