Elvis Costello and the Attractions
This Year's Model
(Radar; US: May 1978; UK: 17 Mar 1978)
As mentioned in the previous installment of this feature, “Pump It Up” is one of the most outdated songs on This Year’s Model. It’s also the biggest hit off the record (in America anyway, due to “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”‘s indefensible omission from the original US pressings, which we’ll get to in a bit), and is the song many casual listeners single-handedly associate with “early (New Wave) Costello” (although, as most hardcore adherents would have them know, there are far better and perhaps more representative songs than “Pump It Up” from this part of Elvis’ career).
But the song thrives in the LP context of This Year’s Model most of all. The majority of its lyrics could effortlessly be interpreted as allusions to masturbation and male sexual frustration, and its coupling with the equally frustrated (and suggestive) “The Beat” enhances both songs’ impact. And despite being overplayed and stylistically somewhat confined to its time, it’s an essential piece of the larger puzzle, at the very least serving as an arch between the lyrically-effusive “The Beat” and melodramatic “Little Triggers”, a transition that otherwise wouldn’t be as fluid.
Bruce and Pete Thomas’ contributions are in no small part responsible for making the song iconic—the drums and bass intro is arguably the cut’s most “classic” and unmistakable section. After a little over a single measure of just bass and drums, Costello enters with swanky guitar embellishments on odd beats (that foreshadow the song’s general swankiness). There’s a drum build-up, the guitar and bass play a chromatic ascending figure, and the song blossoms into the propulsive verse. The guitar and keyboard harmonize with each other on a rhythmically irregular and somewhat dissonant riff until the vocals enter. Leave it to Costello to enlist—for use in the opening line, no less—a literally antiquated word: “I’m on tenterhooks / Ending in dirty looks”. “Tenter hooks” refer to the hooks woolen cloth were hung on to dry, and the word alternatively describes an intense feeling of anxiety. Its etymology hasn’t really been relevant for centuries. “Pump it up, until you can feel it / Pump it up, when you don’t really need”—in a sense, “Pump It Up” could be considered a bizarre ode to abstinence. Masturbation is celebrated here as a risk-free alternative to the comparatively treacherous and nerve-wracking “game” of securing a mate.
In the second-verse, Costello’s flair for sexual innuendo is in full force: “Down in the pleasure center / Hell-bent or heaven-sent / Listen to the propaganda / Listen to the latest slander / There’s nothing underhand / She wouldn’t understand”. Then, in the second chorus, Elvis inverts the two lines, singing “Pump it up / Until you can feel it” first and then “Pump it up / When you don’t really need it” second, a pattern he curiously retains for the remainder of the song’s choruses. In the third verse, Costello compares the allure of a girl to that of a narcotic. “Pump It Up”‘s lyrical highlight is contained within this verse, with the brilliant misdirection and frighteningly audacious line “You want to torture her / You want to talk to her”. Costello is juxtaposing sadistic desire with the desire to simply go up and greet an attractive girl, maybe suggesting, self-deprecatingly, that they’re one in the same. During the fade out after the final chorus Costello changes the melody of the line “don’t really need it”, and before the song completes fading out, Pete Thomas switches to a more frantic, hi-hat-oriented beat.
Like several of the songs on This Year’s Model, “Pump It Up” appears on both Live At Hollywood High and Live at the El Mocambo, with both renditions featuring significantly extended instrumental intros, although they’re otherwise faithful (yet slightly faster, per usual).
“Pump It Up”‘s significance to the overall album lies mostly in its position in the track sequence: in between “The Beat” and “Little Triggers”, two tracks which could not effectively be placed side-by-side. But in another sense, “Pump It Up” doesn’t add a lot to This Year’s Model—it’s essentially a “dick joke” and that’s that. Not to say that Costello doesn’t inject humor into his songs, but it’s rarely the focus like it seems to be here. It feels like the sort of song written with a hit in mind—and, incidentally, after “Pump It Up”, This Year’s Model takes a much darker turn.