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The Story Behind the Song: Elvis Costello’s scathing classic ‘Pump It Up’

‘Pump it Up’ is one of Elvis Costello’s most well-known songs and the first one he recorded with the Attractions. It has since gone on to typify his breakout sound and demonstrated that the British new wave was already crashing down on US shores. 

A studious songwriter, Costello once noted that he always kept a notebook around with him and would jot down anything he heard in passing conversation, no matter how colloquial it was. This would certainly explain the stream-of-consciousness style of Costello’s lyrical writing and his sense of humour and cynicism, which mesh into a marriage of socially wry observations and foot-stomping good tunes.

His first album, My Aim is True, instantly proved Costello as one of the leading songwriters of the new wave movement and one never to be cornered stylistically or in the subject matter at hand. Costello knows how to write a genuine love song; he knows how to write a scathing punk song with more chords than most punk bands even know, and he also pulled from a wide variety of influences, making him an extremely eclectic songwriter.

His second album and the first that he did with The Attractions, This Year’s Model, is nothing short of a masterpiece. With it, Costello proved himself to be at the forefront of a new emerging music collective of artists who were signed to Stiff Records.

Among those signed to this label were Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Dr Feelgood, Devo, Nick Lowe, Madness, The Dubliners, and Tracey Ullman. After the release of Costello’s debut, he went on tour with fellow Stiff Records artists in 1977.

The entourage that embarked on the said tour included Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, The New Rockets, and Larry Wallis. The label prided itself on representing intelligent, fun, musical satirists, in a way. They were supposed to be too cool and not like the old cliched guard of the earlier part of the decade. You can imagine Costello’s disappointment then when he found out that his road mates took sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll far too literally.

This is what inspired him to write one of his greatest tongue-in-cheek commentaries on the excesses of celebrity life, ‘Pump It Up’.

Costello wrote it sitting on a fire escape when they were on a stop in Newcastle. The song was also inspired by Bob Dylan; “‘Pump It Up’ obviously took more than a little bit from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’,” Costello commented. 

He then delved into what happened when Dylan approached him about this. “One night, many years later, Bob Dylan said to me: ‘U2! How could they do that to you? How could they take your song like that?’ It took me a moment to know what he was talking about, and a moment more to realise that he was putting me on. But then, U2’s ‘Get On Your Boots’ was probably to ‘Pump It Up’ what ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is to Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’.” Another curious piece of pop history that the song infiltrated was the career of Madonna who claimed that she learned to play the drums while listening to the track. All of which adds to the authenticity of the effort’s genre-spanning ability.

Listen to Costello’s ‘Pump it Up’ here, found on This Year’s Model and argubaly one of his finest songs.

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