It’s cellist/composer Arthur Russell’s great triumph that his influence became so massively widespread, and his great tragedy that he never knew it. His AIDS-related death in 1992 happened before the world caught up with him, but his vision impacted genres as widespread as acid house, jazz, minimalism, ambient, folk, hip-hop, dub… this could go on, as a concise summation of Russell’s improbable career is just flat out impossible. DM’s Niall O’Conghaile did an insightful post on Russell about a year and a half ago, and frankly, I can’t touch it. If you want to know more, I strongly recommend you have a look at it. Now is fine, I’ll wait.
There’s a lot of GREAT personal and musical background on Russell here in this rarely seen video. It features his friends and collaborators David Byrne, Philip Glass, and Allen Ginsberg, and it was recorded in 1994 as a video press kit for the posthumous Another Thought, a collection of unreleased late-career recordings. Bonus: David Byrne’s heroic pony tail.
There’s just not enough analog dance music nowadays. And I don’t mean analog as in made on real instrurments. No, if you happen to stumble across a “live” dance act these days, the chances are that more effort has gone into making it sound immaculately tight than making it irresistibly funky or attractively odd.
That’s where Golden Teacher comes in, a new all-live disco-not-disco band, as influenced by Arthur Russell’s tangental looseness as by Giorgio Moroder’s synthesized precision.
Hailing from Glasgow (seemingly the home of all things musically interesting in the UK), Golden Teacher are a super group formed around the nucleus of two other acts, Silk Cut and Ultimate Thrush, who I have blogged about here before. In what is almost a scarily perfect meeting of minds, Golden Teacher has been released on Optimo Music, label of the club night Optimo (Espacio), another act I have mentioned here.
Scary, because no other band I have heard have come closer to representing the Optimo “mentality” (if such a thing exists) of playing absolutely anything as long as it gets the people up and dancing, and for seeing genre not as a boundary but something to be pushed and experimented upon.
Golden Teacher started life as a studio collaboration between Glasgow’s noise punk trio, Ultimate Thrush and Glasgow’s all analogue house duo, Silk Cut. The results of their collaboration turned the ears of all who heard them, not least Twitch who after one listen asked if he could release the project on Optimo Music label.
Recorded live, direct to tape at Glasgow’s legendary Green Door studios with minimal overdubbing and editing, the tracks feature various associates of the band contributing vocals and additional percussion. It’s a little hard to describe Golden Teacher’s sound (always a good thing in our book) but imagine Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L jamming with Bobby O, K Alexi Shelby, Liaisions Dangereuses, Imagination, some voodoo drummers and Sly & Robbie. It is in our opinion one of the most original and wildest records to come out of anywhere in 2013. We like to call it hypno-psych voodoo groove.
This is one for all the dance-heads who are attracted to the unusual, and all the noise-niks who just like to get down every so often.
Details on where to pick up the limited edition, silk-screened, 5-track debut 12” of Golden Teacher are here, but hurry, there are only 250 copies being pressed.
Here’s a rejection note for an Arthur Russell demo tape from a Warner Brothers Records junior A&R guy named David Berson. Berson must have been perplexed by Russell’s demo because he wrote: “Who knows what this guy is up to – you figure it out.”
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.
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:
No, this is not a joke. An old audio clip has been unearthed of a teenage Mark Sinclair (aka Vin Diesel) rapping over a beat by legendary NY avant-dance composer Arthur Russell under the name Second Edition. This is bizarre not so much for the music, but for the idea itself. Diesel, the lug head, $20 million action star and Russell, the stoned, gay, downtown disco bohemian trying their hardest to make a primitive rap tune work. It seems like a match made in an alternate universe, but no, it definitely comes from this dimension. It has been discovered on tapes owned by renowned guitarist Gary Lucas, who has this to say on his Soundcloud page:
Fragments of an aborted recording session at Battery Sound NYC in 1986 which brought together fledgling rapper Mark Sinclair—today better known as the actor Vin Diesel—and avant composer/dance music maven Arthur Russell in a project midwifed by Gary Lucas, who discovered Mark Sinclair rapping and break-dancing on the streets of the West Village, and greenlighted by Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records and Barry Feldman of Upside/Logarhythm records.
“I’m the Man of Steel” the teenage Sinclair asserts, foreshadowing his stellar ascent as a worldwide action movie hero (“Triple XXX”, “Pitch Dark”, and most recently the #1 box office hit “Fast Five”)—but even Diesel is no match for Arthur’s crafty diabolical beats, which keep dropping “the one” out from under him, breaking up Sinclair’s delivery and eventually rendering the session useless.
“It’s the white part of me fucking it up!” —Mark Sinclair at the recording session
Unfortunately embedding has been disabled, but if you really are curious to hear it (it’s not amazing to be honest) you can do so here.
Thanks to Steven Hall.