Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Rock and Roll is often associated with excess; and by the end of the seventies, this image was clearly in the air. Even the outsider, cool young artists of Stiff Records found themselves lured into its temptations. In the midst of Punk’s musical revolution in England, stripping rock down its barest essentials and attitudes, a young Elvis Costello stepped into the spotlight with his own ironic take on rock and roll indulgence – “Pump It Up” – and in doing so, kicked off his own musical revolution; on which would take the form of New Wave and carry across the following decade.
Elvis Costello was born Declan Patrick MacManus in Paddington, London in 1954. Music was in his blood; and Costello learned from the example and experiences of his jazz-trumpeter father. His first time on a broadcast recording involved singing backup for his father for a TV commercial. He formed his earliest bands as a young teenager, and in 1976, was signed to the newly formed Stiff Records label. Both his first single, “Less than Zero,” and first album, “My Aim is True,” were released in 1977. Later the same year, he formed his first permanent backing band: The Attractions.
Costello has a particular talent for capturing (often with a wry sense of humor) the world around him. When Costello wrote “Pump It Up” while sitting on top of a fire escape in Newcastle, he was reflecting on the cliche of excess – “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” Costello was in the midst of Stiff Records Live Tour – a package tour of the label’s biggest and most promising artists. The newly formed record label was known for its clever, off-beat, and often sarcastic lineup of musicians, from Nick Lowe to Ian Drury and the Blockheads; but even this group of musicians would find themselves drawn into the fantasy of the rock artist lifestyle. Costello wrote in his autobiography: “All it took was some gin, some tonic, some blue pills, and a red pen to write ‘Pump It Up’ during my first exposure to idiotic rock and roll decadence… I thought myself above and beyond it, but quickly found it easier to indulge than to sit in judgment.” The lyrics use double entendres and irony, highlighting the temptations faced by the young celebrity.
Costello leaned into past songs when writing this tune, particularly Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Of course, Dylan noticed this connection, as Costello later recalled: “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 realize 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’.”
“Pump it Up” is an example of how artists may draw on the music of the past to find their own sound. Despite resembling a more-than-a-decade-old song (at the time), “Pump It Up” was incredibly modern; Punk was in the midst of its fast-burning musical revolution, and “Pump It Up” fits right into that moment. In many ways, we can hear “Pump It Up” as the start of New Wave, with its punk-attitude mixed with ironic humor and a cleaner, more-polished sound.
“Pump It Up” has a rough, powerful, and outspoken energy. The fact that it was recorded so quickly also speaks to the punk-like spirit found in the song. Two days after writing the song, Costello and the Attractions debuted it in a high school cafeteria. A week later, the song was on tape, recorded in only a few takes at Eden Studios in Acton, London.
Fellow Stiff Records artist, Nick Lowe, produced the track. All the parts were played by Costello and his Attractions bandmates: Bruce Thomas (guitar), Steve Nieve (organ), and Pete Thomas (drums). The guitar part, recorded by Costello, delivers the majority of the song’s punk-energy and sound. However, unlike the pulsing bass lines usually found in punk, Bruce Thomas’ bass line carries an infectious groove. Likewise, the organ part also separates the song from being “strictly” punk.
“Pump It Up” was released by Stiff Records on June 10, 1978. It hit number 24 on the UK Singles Chart, and number 55 in Australia. The song remains one of Costello’s most popular tunes, still playing in the ears and minds of the newest generations of musicians. In fact, just in 2021, listeners were quick to point out that Olivia Rodrigo’s hit song “Brutal” draws on Costello’s ‘Pump it Up” for inspiration – to which Costello famously replied: “This is fine by me … It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did.”
Its punk guitar and drum sound – combined with a grooving bass line, organ, and wit – reveals the song to be one of the true predecessors to the soon-to-emerge New Wave; a crucially-transitional moment in time where Costello would undoubtedly reign as one of the most important leaders.
Watch the full video on Elvis Costello and The Attractions – Pump It Up Below