Colourbox emerged from the diverse mix of musical cultures that formed the post-punk era, almost inevitably incorporating the cutting edge sounds of the time - synth-pop, indie, reggae and funk - into their songs. Unlike many of their peers, Colourbox weren't motivated by the New Romantic style warrior urge to be extrovert performers as well as musicians.
It's a mark of their diffidence that they didn't even send their own demo tape of ‘Breakdown’ to Ivo at 4AD - a friend did it for them. ‘Breakdown’ is a pioneering classic of British dance music. Triumphantly reminiscent of the sort of electro-funk that was prevalent in New York at the time (1982), it achieved something that few other British producers had even attempted. Despite this stylistic success, Colourbox were too restless to stay in one place for long, and they demonstrated their expanding musical ambitions over the course of the next two or three years. A four track mini-album (entitled Colourbox) was followed in 1985 by a full-length album (confusingly, also called Colourbox) which presented several possible new models for state-of-the-art pop music.
In 1986, Colourbox further revealed the extent of their palette, by simultaneously releasing two singles. On the first of these, the cavernous dub tones of ‘Baby I Love You So’ - featuring the bewitching voice of Lorita Grahame - were coupled with ‘Looks Like We're Shy One Horse’, an instrumental excursion into Marlboro Country reggae, decked out with samples from half-forgotten Westerns. Alongside this release, in an entirely characteristic change of tack, they issued ‘The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme’, timed to coincide with that year's football tournament in Mexico. And it damn nearly lived up to its title, too - the BBC seriously considered using it to soundtrack its national TV coverage of the event. In yet another bout of stylistic shape-shifting, the B-side of ‘The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme’ was ‘Philip Glass’, a
homage to the great American minimalist composer. Despite, or perhaps because of, this eclectic approach, Colourbox never expanded their appeal beyond the clubbing underground and into the national charts. All that would change - and arguably all of popular music as a consequence - in 1987.
M|A|R|R|S - an acronym made up of the first names of the members of Colourbox and A.R. Kane - was the brainchild of Ivo Watts-Russell. His idea was to bring Colourbox together with dreampop merchants A.R. Kane, and see what happened. The result was dance track ‘Pump Up The Volume’, one of the most influential 12" singles in history. A.R. Kane contributed that looming guitar feedback arc, which was blended perfectly with scratched drop-ins by DJ collaborators Chris "CJ" Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell. Held together by a timelessly infectious digital riff, 'Pump Up The Volume' took us on a picaresque journey through the hip sounds of the moment - from Public Enemy to Trouble Funk, Eric B & Rakim (whose rap provided the title) to James Brown - all revisited through that latest bit of pop technology, the sampler.
The first independently distributed single ever to reach the pole position. 'Pump Up The Volume' was much more than just a hit single, though - it was a key event in music which wholly reconfigured the way that pop would subsequently be made. Perhaps more than any other track, it ushered the hip-hop and sampling era firmly into the mainstream.
Colourbox's 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. And revisiting their recordings today is an exhilarating reminder of the constant leaps of imagination that make up the Colourbox legacy.