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Classic Tracks: MARRS 'Pump Up The Volume'

Co-producer: Martyn Young • Co-producer/Engineer: John Fryer By Richard Buskin
Published August 2012

The unlikely result of a collaboration between two 4AD bands, the release of 'Pump Up The Volume' by MARRS was a great day for house music and copyright lawyers alike.

MARRS aka Alex Ayuli, Rudy Tambala, Steve Young and Martyn Young. MARRS aka Alex Ayuli, Rudy Tambala, Steve Young and Martyn Young. Photo: 4AD

A record company-arranged collaboration between two of its groups that resulted in the recording and release of a solitary single. The first UK chart topper to contain samples from other people's recordings. The subject of litigation to ensure that some of those samples were removed for the version issued in America. And a Grammy-nominated, British house-music landmark whose blatant use of unlicensed material led to a pile of copycat releases and a short-lived bonanza for copyright lawyers. All of this was no mean feat for what's commonly termed a one-hit wonder.

The double A-sided single 'Pump Up The Volume'/'Anitina', released on the independent British label 4AD, was credited to MARRS, an acronym for the first names of the artists involved: Martyn Young of Colourbox, Alex Ayuli of AR Kane, Rudy Tambala of AR Kane, Russell Smith — a part-time contributor to AR Kane — and Steve Young of Colourbox. Featuring sampling and scratching by the DJs Chris 'CJ' Macintosh and Dave Dorrell, as well as a title lyric lifted from Eric B & Rakim's 'I Know You Got Soul' (which took its own title from the identically named 1971 Bobby Byrd song that it heavily sampled), 'Pump Up the Volume' was the track that attracted all the attention, and it did so by sampling no fewer than 26 records for its original UK release.

These included drums from the Bar-Kays' 'Holy Ghost' and Kool & The Gang's 'Jungle Jazz', as well as vocal snippets from the Afrika Bambaataa/James Brown duet 'Unity', Brown's 'Super Bad (Part One)', Public Enemy's 'You're Gonna Get Yours', Run-DMC's 'Here We Go (Live At The Funhouse)' and, most problematically, Stock, Aitken & Waterman's 'Roadblock'.

"All of the guys in America, all of the hip-hop guys, were flattered to have their stuff sampled,” says John Fryer who engineered 'Pump Up The Volume' and co-produced it with Martyn Young. "But then Stock, Aitken & Waterman — whose studio was just up the road from Blackwing, where 'Pump Up The Volume' was recorded — decided to sue, and at that point a number of American artists thought, 'Well, if they're suing, we're going to sue as well'. ”

Fryer didn't mix the version of the song that was released on the 4th & Broadway label in America. In addition to 'Roadblock', this excluded the James Brown "watch me” sample from 'Super Bad' as well as vocal snatches by Lovebug Starski, Montana Sextet, Whistle, Fred Wesley & The JB's and Grand Mixer DST with Jalal Mansur Nuriddin. In their place: an "Oh yeah” by Choice MC's and Fresh Gordon, an "Oh” by Nuance, George Kranz going "Din daa daa,” and the title line from the trailer to the 1967 schlock sci-fi movie Mars Needs Women.

"James Brown's lawyers were waiting for the track to be released in America, at which point they'd sue to high heaven,” Fryer remarks. "So his material had to be excised right away.”


Engineer John Fryer at the time of the recording of 'Pump Up The Volume'. Engineer John Fryer at the time of the recording of 'Pump Up The Volume'.

John Fryer launched his career at South East London's Blackwing Studios in 1980, working as a tape-op/tea-boy after having recorded demos there with a friend's band, and during the next nine years he recorded artists on indie labels such as Rough Trade, Beggars' Banquet and, mainly, Mute and 4AD.

"I took to it like a duck to water,” he says. "Within a year I was engineering, and then producing a year after that. When I started at Blackwing, it was an eight-track studio — believe it or not, the first Depeche Mode album [Speak & Spell] was done on a TEAC eight-track. That was a good education. We had to be disciplined, recording things in the right place at the right time in the right tuning, and so I'm glad I started back then. I've gone from using no computers to projects that are now totally computer-based — from total analogue to total digital — and it's been very interesting to participate in the evolving process of making things work.”

Depeche Mode, Yazoo, the Cocteau Twins, Peter Murphy and Modern English were among Fryer's production and engineering credits before he became involved with MARRS. And so was This Mortal Coil, the goth-rock/-pop outfit of which he was one of two official members, along with 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell. Meanwhile, Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, who produced some of the projects with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, was an early mentor.

"Daniel was at the forefront of working with synthesizers and he had one of the first LinnDrums,” Fryer explains. "Roger Linn developed it and, after driving to Devon or Cornwall to get it, Daniel brought it straight to the studio so we could use it on the next Depeche track. He also had one of the first Fairlights and actually bought me my first sampler, an Akai, as a Christmas present. As the technology changed, we devised ways of pushing it as far as we could, often beyond what it was supposed to do.”

'Pump Up The Volume'

John Fryer today. John Fryer today.

By the time of the MARRS project, Blackwing, housed within a deconsecrated church, was equipped with an Amek 2500 console and Studer 24-track machine, and it was there that John Fryer engineered 'Pump Up The Volume'. This was after Ivo Watts-Russell's bright idea of uniting electronic outfit Colourbox with dream-pop duo AR Kane to cash in on American house music and the burgeoning underground UK dance scene. This had resulted in the recording of the latter's 'Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)', featuring drums programmed by Martyn Young's brother, Steve.

"Beforehand, Martyn had become disillusioned with the whole music industry, feeling that the chart position of Colourbox's [self-titled 1985] album didn't reflect its true sales figures and that things had somehow been rigged against the band and 4AD,” Fryer explains. "So Ivo's plan to put Colourbox together with AR Kane was, as I remember it, really devised to get Martyn writing again, and that's what happened with 'Pump Up The Volume', even though that track didn't really involve AR Kane at all.”

This was aside from the addition of some overdubbed guitar, for which Fryer may not have been present.

"Given my hectic schedule of working on so many different projects at that time, I was actually in another studio with another artist while some of the parts were being recorded for 'Pump Up The Volume',” he says. "You have to understand, it was just one project among many for me back then. I'd finish one session at six o'clock in the morning, clean up the studio and then the next guys would be loading in at around 10. Still, I was there for most of the 'Pump Up The Volume' sessions, despite nearly every engineer in London saying, 'Oh, yeah, I worked on that record,' as soon as it hit number one. It's funny that their names didn't appear on it.

"When the sessions commenced, our starting point was the bass drum. Martyn was meticulous about what he did — he could sit there all day just listening to a bass drum and EQ'ing it. In this case, I recall him listening to it for a couple of days, coming out of an Akai S1000 sampler or an Emulator, after which the next thing he did was add the bass line. I gave him some sounds for that out of the Akai and was credited on the back of the record for doing so. Then, at some stage, he brought in his DJ friends CJ Macintosh and Dave Dorrell, who were winning awards at that time for their scratching. This was all kind of new and very interesting to me, because it had never been done in the studio before. Some of the scratching was sampled after we'd recorded it, whereas other bits were done live.

"Between the DJs' scratching and the insertion of samples, with Martyn adding effects and taking them back off, it took days to put the track together. Previously, working with other people in other bands, we had sampled stuff and then applied plenty of effects so that you couldn't tell what had been used. This one, however, was quite up-front with all the samples.”

Copyright Capers

MARRS 'Pump Up The Volume'

Initially released to dance clubs in July 1987, 'Pump Up The Volume' was issued as one half of a double A-sided 12-inch single on 24th August of that same year. This was followed by a more sample-laden remix a week later incorporating snippets of recordings by the Bar-Kays, Criminal Element Orchestra and Public Enemy. A 7-inch edit enjoyed plenty of air time on UK radio, and it was while this single stood at number two on the singles chart that an injunction by Stock, Aitken & Waterman resulted in the record's distribution hitting its very own 'roadblock'. After five days, an agreement was reached whereby the offending seven seconds of a background voice wailing "Hey” was to be removed from all overseas releases. However, while this happened for the version that reached number 13 in America, the hit version in Australia retained the 'Roadblock' sample.

Not that SAW had much to gripe about from the perspective of MARRS, John Fryer and 4AD. After all, while Pete Waterman penned an open letter to the British music press, asserting that the unlicensed use of his non-musical material was nothing short of "wholesale theft”, several publications noted that his own production of Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up' — which immediately preceded 'Pump Up The Volume' in pole position atop the UK chart — utilised the bass line from Colonel Abrams' 'Trapped'.

"Soon afterwards, Stock, Aitken and Waterman also produced a Blue Mercedes track that used exactly the same bass line as ours,” Fryer says. "So it was one rule for them and another rule for everyone else. In fact, I remember Pete Waterman appearing on TV and saying he was going to sue me for sampling the sounds. But I didn't sample his sounds; I gave Martyn other sounds.”

As it happens, DJ Dave Dorrell actually took some of the blame for the legal problems surrounding 'Pump Up The Volume', by pointing out that if he had not crowed about the use of 'Roadblock' during a radio interview, SAW might have never even noticed it was part of the song.

"The way he often told it, you'd think he did most of the song,” Fryer says about Dorrell who, in the book 1000 UK Number One Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, stated that the track "provided a link between the retro sound of rare groove and the sample-heavy nature of much of the new US dance music.”

In the same book, CJ Macintosh recalled, "It was all done very quickly. They called me in the morning, we went to Blackwing Studios at London Bridge and stuck all the samples on that day and I got a £200 fee.”

"Martyn had been listening to a lot of hip-hop at that time and getting influenced by it,” Fryer now explains. "So he basically took what they were doing and did it himself alongside the DJs. 'Pump Up The Volume' was based around the groove — the drums and the bass line — and adding the samples on top was like putting the icing on the cake. The drums and the bass provided the rhythm, there was also some piano, and then it was just a case of putting the samples in the right place so it all worked. I was kind of mixing as I went along, making sure the bass and drums were kicking ass so that the track was banging as it came out of the speakers, while the samples then helped to transform it into a song.”

Rise & Fall

After topping the charts in the UK, Canada, Holland and New Zealand, as well as going Top 10 in several other countries, 'Pump Up The Volume' would subsequently receive a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Performance (losing to David Sanborn's 'Close-Up'). Yet, when working on it, John Fryer had no idea of the success that the track would attain and the impact it would have on the contemporary music scene, inspiring the likes of S'Express's 'Theme From S'Express', Bomb The Bass's 'Beat Dis' and Coldcut's 'Doctorin' The House' before imitators across Europe and the United States also jumped aboard the sample-crazy bandwagon.

"I worked on so many things at that time,” Fryer remarks. "With some projects, I'd sit there at the end and think, 'Oh, this was absolutely amazing, it's going to sell shitloads,' and then it would do nothing. And then there'd be other stuff where I would think, 'That was OK,' and it would end up selling millions. You can't second-guess the general public; if we could, we'd all be millionaires by now.”

Thanks to the deluge of litigation and air of over-familiarity bred by the eventual recycling of the same samples, the craze for assembling sample-based tracks like jigsaw puzzles didn't last beyond the end of the 1980s and the rise of acid house. By then, MARRS was no more, AR Kane's Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala having made it perfectly clear in press interviews that they had no intention of collaborating with Colourbox ever again; not least because their own contributions to the iconic hit single had been virtually nil. For their part, Martyn and Steve Young weren't about to pay the £100,000 that AR Kane were demanding for full rights to perform under the MARRS banner. So, 'Pump Up The Volume' remained their solitary success on the singles charts... and the aforementioned musicians were virtually never heard of again.

"Like a lot of the stuff we were doing at Blackwing Studios back then, that track was pretty groundbreaking,” says the Oslo-based John Fryer, who left Blackwing in 1989 and spent much of the 1990s commuting to America. His work then reverted to the other side of the Atlantic where, in 2010, he embarked on a collaboration with Stripmall Architecture singer Rebecca Coseboom that has resulted in the Dark Drive Clinic album Noise In My Head. "We were pushing the technology as far as we could. If anything made a noise, it was an instrument. We'd record it and process it through all the effects, constantly thinking outside the box — instead of going for the standard drums, bass, guitar and vocal, we were looking to take things to another place, and I'm glad to say that's what we achieved...”