Today, in the wake of of the whole techno, trip-hop and electronica revolution, it’s almost standard for bands to comprise a pair of faceless technocrats, making the sort of sounds whose breadth and colour exceeds the imagination of most traditional guitar bands.Read more
Today, in the wake of of the whole techno, trip-hop and electronica revolution, it’s almost standard for bands to comprise a pair of faceless technocrats, making the sort of sounds whose breadth and colour exceeds the imagination of most traditional guitar bands. Back in the early Eighties, however, such outfits were thin on the ground. Colourbox emerged from the diverse mix of musical cultures that formed the post-punk era, inevitably incorporating synthpop, indie, reggae and funk. “We started off in little punk bands around London,” says Martyn, “but, coming from south east London, we were also into funk and dub reggae” Unlike many of their peers, Colourbox weren’t motivated by dreams of being heard and seen. “We liked making records but didn’t like being performers. It was a by-product of the fact that we used to programme most of our music. I suppose being a guitarist is a bit of a performance in itself but programming computers certainly isn’t. I never imagined how we’d play live and get away with it.” They didn’t even present their own demo tape to 4AD label boss, Ivo Watts-Russell - a friend did. “I think Breakdown may have been on it. Anyway, Ivo liked it and it was put out as a one-off deal. At which point, we began to take the whole thing a bit more seriously.” Breakdown is reminiscent of the sort of electro-funk that was extremely prevalent in New York circa 1982/83. Few, however, had attempted to emulate the sounds in Britain; “I wish we’d had the equipment that’s around today - it would’ve been a lot easier. We used delay units as samplers back then, but there was a limit to what you could do with them. A lot of what people think was achieved with samplers was actually done with quarter-inch tape machines.” Too restless to stay in one place for long, Colourbox continued to demonstrate expanding musical ambitions with a four track mini-album, entitled Colourbox, and when their debut album (also called Colourbox) appeared in 1985, it presented several possible new models for Eighties dance/pop. The limpid chamber-pop of Sleepwalker, for instance, was followed by Just Give ’Em Whiskey with it’s easy-riding Route 66-style bass riff and cowboy guitars, cutting an escape route through a swathe of movie dialogue, with a rock-gone-techno vibe thrown into the mix for good measure. In 1986, Colourbox further revealed the extent of their palette with the simultaneous release of two singles. The cavernous dub tones of Baby I Love You So, featuring the voice of Lorita Grahame, was coupled with Looks Like We’re Shy One Horse, an instrumental covering similar excursions into Marlboro Country reggae decked with samples from half-forgotten Westerns. Alongside this release, in a characteristic change of tack, they penned The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme for the football tournament in Mexico. It almost lived up to it’s title and was considered for the music to introduce the national TV coverage of the event. It’s Martyn’s own favourite Colourbox track, although, he says, they’d originally intended it as a baseball theme. “I’m not even that interested in football, but I know the BBC came very close to choosing it.” In yet a further shape and style shift, the B side of The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme was Philip Glass, a homage to the great American minimalist composer. “My brother and I had to do that one in a night to fulfil our quota of tracks for 4AD,” recalls Martyn. “We were a bit drunk when we recorded it!” You’d hardly think so from its rigorously mellifluous tones. “We actually got to meet Philip Glass because of that. He said his son preferred the other side but explained the mathematics of the way he put his tracks together, which we couldn’t make head nor tail of.” Despite, or perhaps because of all this eclecticism, Colourbox never expanded their appeal beyond the clubbing underground into the national charts. All that would change, and arguably all of popular music changed as a consequence, in 1987. M/A/R/R/S, an acronym for the members of Colourbox and AR Kane, was the brainchild of Ivo Watts-Russell. The idea was to bring together white noise/dub merchants, AR Kane, and Colourbox for a double A-sided 12-inch single. The result was the now seminal dance track, Pump Up The Volume. AR Kane contributed the looming guitar arc, alongside scratching and drop-ins from fellow collaborators Chris “CJ” Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell. Using a timelessly infectious digital riff, they took us on a picaresque journey of all the prevailing hip sounds of the moment - from Public Enemy to Trouble Funk, from Eric B and Rakim (whose rap provided the title) to James Brown - revisited through the latest bit of pop technology, the sampler. Some 500 copies of Pump Up The Volume were distributed to various DJs and it became a slow-burning favourite. It even began to creep up the UK Top 40. “When Pump Up The Volume charted I was completely gobsmacked. It hadn’t had much radio play and had just come up through the clubs.” says Martyn. To everyone’s astonishment, the single kept climbing the UK charts and eventually spent two weeks at Number 1 in 1987, an achievement that is embellished by being the first ever independently distributed single to reach the pole position. Much more than just a single, it was a key event in music, introducing a new dimension to the traditional pop song. Pump Up The Volume reconfigured the entire way in which pop would subsequently be assembled in the hip-hop and sampling era. With a typical indifference towards stardom, Colourbox refused to perform what was not just their first number one but their first hit of any kind on the weekly UK chart show, Top Of The Pops. “We didn’t want anyone to do any TV appearances. I remember going to clubs and hearing records, but having absolutely no idea who they were by - I like that idea of a record being its own entity. There was a lot of pressure on us, especially when it went to Number Two - people wondered why we were in this business if we didn’t want to double our sales with a single appearance but it was just embarrassing - we’re not performers. It went to Number One anyway” The only drawback was that it appeared prior to the law being clear on sampling and copyright infringement. “We had a few court cases surrounding that single and lost every one of them!” laughs Martyn, ruefully. Nevertheless, Pump Up The Volume guaranteed Colourbox’s place in the musical history books. Following its success, believes Martyn, “things became very abstract. Records that would have been seen as very avant-garde in the mid-Eighties, are now regularly heard in the Top 10.” Ironically, setbacks, haggles and financial recriminations meant that Colourbox themselves didn’t capitalise on their pioneering success. In fact, to date there has never been a follow-up single to their No.1 hit, a unique non-event in the history of chart success. However, their place in the pop hall of fame is secure, not merely as one hit wonders but as a group who refused to take the safe option of finding a trademark sound and sticking to it. They shunned the temptations of egomania, opting instead to broaden the canvas and palette of pop, rock and dance music forever. It’s an achievement we’ve come to take for granted. Revisiting these tracks is an exhilarating reminder of the leaps and bounds of imagination that form the Colourbox legacy.