So Be It :: Revisiting Pump Up The Volume

(Welcome to latest edition of A Soundtrack Enthusiast. Our latest entry comes courtesy of our friend John Gleason, of Roadside Graves, as he reflects on the music that framed 1990’s Pump Up The Volume.)

The only tape my father ever cracked in half was the soundtrack to Pump up the Volume. He believed the Pixies “Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf Mix)” was an open invitation for kids to commit suicide. Luckily I had just swapped my Geto Boys tape out.

1990 was a good year to discover music. I was 14, Sonic Youth had just released their sixth record, Goo, featuring Chuck D on “Kool Thing.” This collaboration brought me from mall music shops to record stores like Pier Platters in Hoboken and Vintage Vinyl in Fords (NJ) seeking out other SST Records artists. An older High School student began passing along mix tapes with bands like Shudder to Think, Shelter, Nation of Ulysses, and the Wedding Present (thanks Ian). Just months earlier I had been content with my De La Soul and Brand Nubian cassettes. Now I was completely unsatisfied with my musical interests and overwhelmed by the prospect of what was out there. I began playing music in the basement with friends, bothering Shrimper records to release our tapes (he wisely never did but always wrote back with encouraging notes), bought anything the AJAX catalog suggested, and routinely spent weekends at Maxwell’s in Hoboken dressed in acne and cardigan. It was around this time that the movie Pump Up The Volume was released.

Enter Christian Slater as short-wave pirate radio DJ “Hard Harry” or “Happy Harry Hard-On” (a play on the high school’s name Hubert Humphrey High) who inspires the teens of the suburban community of Paradise Hills, AZ each night positing questions and proclamations such as: “Is there life after High School?,” “Everything is on hold?” and   “I can smell a lie like a fart in a car” and the danger of being “but surfed by the system.” Soon there are communal listening crowds gathered   at the local ballfield, Billy Idol punks are fighting to get back into school, teens queens are blowing up their mirrors in microwaves, sweaterless women are writing sexually charged poetry, and chubby outcasts are selling pirate tapes of his late night performances. It’s a teen dream of anarchy. A 90’s version of Over the Edge complete with emergency PTA meeting and insane dialogue like “We are all really scared to be who we really are. I’m not perfect. I’ve just been going through the motions of being perfect and inside I’m screaming!” with glorious and diverse music scattered throughout.

The commercially released soundtrack to the movie is quite disappointing considering the songs mentioned, displayed   (I distinctly remember pausing and trying to write down all the band names on the stack of tapes in one shot that shows Camper Van Beethoven, Henry Rollins, Bad Brains, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Miles Davis), and played throughout the movie. The film effectively mixes the Descendents, Was not Was, Ice-T, Aaron Neville, and the Buzzcocks. Yet the most dramatic impact was introducing me to the music of Leonard Cohen.

While the camera scans Harry’s Blackjack gum, Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi, wind-up erection, and Sgt. Slaughter figure, Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” spins on the turntable. Later after a teen suicide, he mourns with “If It Be Your Will” complete with Cohen’s Various Positions record cover resting against the radio turner. I can pinpoint this as the moment. Amid this clash of music, played against the Descendents and the Buzzcocks, Leonard sounded even better. A throaty wise voice easily more wild and charged in its sadness and desperation.

Listening to Leonard Cohen is comforting, inspiring, and completely frustrating. It’s not unlike hearing Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” for the first time. You want to doubt that one man is capable of writing such precise and universal truths. You want to try your hand at it. Then you listen again and realize that you will never come close. And then you try again. words/ john gleason

MP3: Leonard Cohen :: Everybody Knows
The Pixies Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf Mix)

16 thoughts on “So Be It :: Revisiting Pump Up The Volume

  1. Had to dig out the CD to double check, but yeah – on the soundtrack it’s of course Concrete Blonde that does Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Your praise of Cohen isn’t misplaced, but I do prefer Concrete Blonde’s version, especially when Johnette goes up an octave on the chorus, man – thatit always gave me shivers.

    Looking at it now the soundtrack was pretty weak, but the Cowboy Junkies’ “Me and the Devil Blues”, Sonic Youth’s “Titanium Expose,”the Pixies and a Peter Murphy track redeemed it for me. And made me want to start a pirate radio station.

  2. And weirdly enough today I’ve been listening to the new track by the Feelies called “Nobody Knows.”

  3. DescendEnts. Nice article. I got into a lot of these bands because of this movie.

  4. When I was around 13-14 I had this film on video and thought it was the coolest thing ever. Must have watched it dozens and dozens of times.

  5. Wikipedia claims to have all of the songs played during the movie (in order):

    1. Everybody Knows – Leonard Cohen
    2. Love Comes in Spurts – Richard Hell & The Voidoids
    3. Girls L.G.B.N.A.F. – Ice-T
    4. Wienerschnitzel – Descendents
    5. The Scenario – Beastie Boys
    6. Me and the Devil Blues – Cowboy Junkies
    7. Freedom of Speech – Above the Law
    8. Tale o’ the Twister – Chagall Guevara
    9. Talk Hard – Stan Ridgway
    10. If It Be Your Will – Leonard Cohen
    11. Kick Out the Jams – Bad Brains (with Henry Rollins)
    12. Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf) – Pixies
    13. Titanium Expose – Sonic Youth
    14. I’ve Got a Secret Miniature Camera – Peter Murphy
    15. Why Can’t I Fall in Love – Ivan Neville
    16. Heretic – Soundgarden
    17. Everybody Knows – Concrete Blonde (a small instrumental section of this song also appears in the film between 10 and 11)
    18. Hello Dad…I’m in Jail – Was (Not Was)
    19. Fast Lane – Urban Dance Squad
    20. Stand – Liquid Jesus

  6. i remember being PISSED (upon duping a cassette from my step-sister’s CD soundtrack) that the song i was DYING to get to know better was NOT the same as that in the movie. it wasn’t until years later that i figured out who it was that had performed the haunting version from the movie. yup. it popped my leonard cohen cherry as well.

  7. Love the film…classic. However, the last paragraph of this write up that deconstructs the feeling of listening to Leonard Cohen and hearing Dylan for the first time feels like something else entirely. Kind of poetic in it’s own right. Maybe a Cohen vs Dylan segment in the future? I think yes. kudos.

  8. I agree with the above poster who was initially dissapointed when they got a hold of this soundtrack (on cassette, for me, as well) back in the day! I could not understand why the song wasn’t on there. It was a BIG dissapointment back then and it took me years to figure out it was Leonard Cohen who sung it! I really connected with Pump Up The Volume Back then (definitely in their target audience) and the soundtrack still holds up really well today.

  9. Chagall Guevara was such a wonderful band. I remember buying this soundtrack for their tune.

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