At the time of his death on April 4th 1992, Arthur Russell could barely get arrested. There’s a moving scene near the end of the Wild Combination documentary on his life, which was filmed at one of Russell’s last ever gigs before he passed away. It’s a beautiful performance made all the more moving by the short time he has left, but painfully sad as it is obvious from the weak cheers that not many people are there.
However, twenty years later things could not be more different. Today Arthur Russell is widely recognised as being one of the most important composers and performers of his generation, and one of the most influential artists of the past two decades. From house to hip-hop to folk, dub, ambient and jazz, there are not many acts about today who could claim not to have been touched by his skewed genius.
Buddhist, cellist, cruiser, prodigious pot smoker - Arthur Russell was a genuine outsider artist, but without the usual negative, cynical connotations that term brings to mind. He didn’t—couldn’t—play the industry game as his muse was too strong, and he was known to obsessively re-record his signature compositions and melodies, often in wildly different styles. His music was genuinely years ahead of the curve and accordingly it took the world a while to catch up to his unique talents.
Russell’s music touched on many genres, but he is still best known for his work in the field of disco (and later what would go on to be called “house”.) The man pretty much invented “alternative disco” (“post-disco” is perhaps a better phrase) and the Larry Levan remix of his Loose Joints track “Is It All Over My Face” is one of the most influential—and sampled—tracks of all time. If anyone one artist could be said to have given the maligned genre of disco some credibility and kudos, then it is Arthur Russell.
I vividly remember the first time I heard “Is It All Over My Face” and simply being blown away. After a couple of years of casually liking disco as a sunny, kitsch reaction to the overbearing, vapid gloom of 90s alternative rock and Britpop, I had started to pick up bits and bobs on vinyl to play around with on my newly-purchased turntables. The track was near the end of a disco compilation on Strut records called Jumpin’, that featured uptempo, funked-fuelled productions by the likes of Patrick Adams and August Darnell. Great tracks for sure but this was something else completely. It was breath-taking.
Here was a track as heavy and funky as anything by Daft Punk but whose bizarre vocal and chattering arrangement marked it as coming resolutely from the left field. It sounded like nothing else I had ever heard, yet felt like a record I had been waiting my whole life to hear. Instantly house music made a lot more sense, and disco became a real proposition, a serious genre that demanded more respect and closer inspection. To anyone who still insists on disco being plastic/shallow/conformist/blah blah blah, simply put this track on and warm yourselves up a nice big cup of STFU.
But there is a lot more to Arthur Russell than just four-to-the-floor avant funk. His music has a genuine other-worldiness that can only be a product of a singular imagination. Where his disco productions were propulsive and off-kilter, his folk and acoustic tracks have a delicate beauty to rival the tenderness of Nick Drake. The minimalist cello-and-vocal compositions on his World Of Echo album may have faint traces of Terry Riley and the Velvet Underground, but they still sound like nothing else. In a world where music seems to be going in ever more decreasing circles, and where careers are getting shorter and shorter, it’s not hard to see why Arthur Russell now commands such serious respect.
If you are new to the man and would like a crash course in his music, then the Soul Jazz compilation The World of Arthur Russell is the place to start, and once you are done there, move on the album re-issues on the Audika label. If you have the music but want to know more about the man himself, then Tim Lawrence’s biography Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973- 92 is recommended, as is the previously mentioned documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (whose trailer you can see here.)
But for now here are two of my favourite Arthur Russell songs. Two to show the many sides of this incredible talent—the first is a short ballad, the second a full-blown psychedelic epic—and two to mark the two decades since this extraordinary artist left our sphere:
Arthur Russell “A Little Lost” (fan video)
Arthur Russell “In The Light Of The Miracle”
Thanks to Kris Wasabi for the reminder!