Arthur Russell

We pay tribute to the late Arthur Russell for his 64th birthday and before a handful of events in memory of his legacy

In 1986, Janette Beckman (Jocks&Nerds New York Editor) photographed the then relatively unknown cellist and composer Arthur Russell for an article by David Toop for The Face – published in January 1987. The image with the paper hat is perhaps one of the best-known of Russell’s and was subsequently used for his Another Thought compilation, released posthumously in 1994 – two years after his death – through Point Music.

While his legacy exists worldwide today – a fact highlighted by an upcoming instrumental concert by Café Oto and Oval Space in London, and a two-day festival hosted by Red Bull Music Academy in New York – Russell only became recognised in the 2000s after a string of compilations, reissues, books and a feature-length documentary.

If you went to him with a crazy idea, he would never say you were mad

Among these, back in 2000, Strut Records posthumously released the compilation Disco Not Disco containing three of Arthur Russell’s productions. Andy Thomas (Jocks&Nerds Staff Writer) then wrote one of the first major features on Russell – since his death in 1992 – for Seven Magazine (edited by Sean Bidder who now heads up FACT and Vinyl Factory). The article is now featured for the first time online ...

As well as being an entertainer, the Paradise Garage’s eulogised DJ Larry Levan was also an educator, who revelled in experimentation; where influences from jazz to dub reggae, punk to electro took disco to a new place. When the owner of West End Records, Mel Cheren, handed him a uniquely chaotic record to remix with a weird off-key vocal, Levan’s eyes must have lit up.

The record proved to be ‘Is It All Over My Face?’ by Loose Joints and the man behind the madness was one Arthur Russell. Along with other pioneers like Levan, Walter Gibbons and François Kevorkian, this eccentric musician helped redefine dance music, influencing and inspiring everyone from Talking Heads to Roger Sanchez.

Arthur Russell was born in Olaskoosa, Iowa in 1951. In the early 1970s he moved to California and studied the cello at the renowned Ali Akbar Khan Indian music school in San Francisco. He then moved to New York where he joined the Flying Hearts avant garde ensemble. While in New York, Russell soon became interested in disco music after a visit to Nicky Siano’s club, the Gallery. Here he met other like-minded visionaries such as Walter Gibbons, and long-time friend and associate Steve D’Acquisto. “When I first met Arthur at the Gallery, he was this crazy, beautiful guy with long hair, who smoked a lot of pot,” D’Acquisto told me shortly before he sadly passed away. “He was also very, very gay.”

Russell’s first 12” was a collaboration with Nicky Siano (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 14) entitled ‘Kissed Me Again’ released in 1979 on the Sire label, under the name Dinosaur. “I played the extended version at Studio 54,” remembered D’Acquisto. “It was early on in the evening, but it was such a different track the whole crowd went crazy.” The track featured David Byrne on guitar and Russell was actually invited to join Talking Heads. But he had his own ideas of where he wanted to take dance music. “Arthur wanted to produce a Beethoven symphony for the dance floor,’ D'Acquisto enthused.

With a vision of making the White Album of disco, Russell and D'Acquisto formed Loose Joints in 1978 and began working on their strangely warped dance music. “Working with Russell was a real-freeing experience,” his musical partner explained. “He was just very open indeed. If you went to him with a crazy idea, he would never say you were mad. To him everything was just wow.”

Not only was it very funky, it also had this incredible dark energy

Mel Cheren recalled the moment he first heard the demo of ‘Is It All Over My Face’. “With that vocal , I thought to myself, are they kidding?” he laughed. However, in the hands of remixer Larry Levan the vocal hook of ‘you got me love dancin’’ would provide a much-used sample for subsequent house producers. The most obvious and successful was the Roger Sanchez track ‘Luv Dancin’ under the name Underground Solution. “I used to play the original out all the time,” says Sanchez. “And when it got to the chorus everyone would sing that line. It gave me the inspiration to sample it for my own Strictly Rhythm release.”

While Larry Levan was mixing this classic West End 12”, Russell was busy taking his voyage into sound to the next stage, with his newly formed band Dinosaur L. "Both myself and Russell were big jazz fans,” recalled D’Acquisto. “Arthur had always had this great desire to create big disco jazz epics” This hunger led to the ground-breaking 1981 LP 24-24 Music on Sleeping Bag, the label Russel had co-founded with Will Socolov. The raw hybrid sounds placed the band (that featured Peter Gordon on tenor sax and Peter Zummo on trombone) alongside other ‘no wave’ groups like ESG and Liquid Liquid. When ‘Go Bang!’ from the album was given to remixer Francois K it would be turned into a massive dub disco classic and another big influence to house producers. “That record definitely moved things along,” says Roger Sanchez. “Not only was it very funky, it also had this incredible dark energy.”

In the mid-1980s, Russell began recording some of his most bizarre yet wildly funky music with the 12” singles ‘Let’s Go Swimming’, released on Logarhythm, and ‘Treehouse/Schoolbell’ released on Sleeping Bag under the name Indian Ocean. These were seriously futuristic records that mirrored the sounds of early house on labels like Trax, with their skeletal template of hypnotic rhythms, sparse percussive beats, and distorted melodies. “Those records were so progressive,” said D’Acquisto. “Although they were stark and off-key, they were also incredibly beautiful – like Yin and Yang.”

To add to the ‘uneasy listening’ came Russell’s strange warped vocal that perfectly complimented the dub techniques used by producer Walter Gibbons. The spatial distortion provided by Gibbons’ percussive mix made the whole sound reverberate into what Russell called, on his 1986 LP, A World of Echo. Russell’s long standing interest in dub, reached its zenith with this incredible album. It saw the composer at his most experimental – with haunting melodies and a discordant cello swirling around in a great sea of reverb.

For Arthur Russell, recording had become something of a spiritual experience as Steve D’Acquisto recalled. “With Arthur, everything revolved around Zen. It was just a matter of going with the moment and letting people create. He only recorded at certain moon times. All the mixing was done on a full moon, overdubs were done on a new moon.”

Arthur was the most far-reaching person in dance music. It wasn’t just disco. It was way beyond that

Always the innovator, Russell often confused people, including an audience at a live performance at the Kitchen in Manhattan. He explained to David Toop how the avant-garde crowd met his use of a drum kit with some derision. “A lot of people turned off. They thought it was a sign of some new unsophistication … of increasing commercialisation,” he began. “Then if you try to do something different you just get branded an eccentric.” This resistance to innovation also came from some DJs who told him no one would ever play ‘Let’s Go Swimming’. Russell replied by saying. “I think eventually that kind of thing will be commonplace.”

How right he was. Sadly he would not see the true extent of his prophecies. In 1992 Arthur Russell died of an AIDS related illness. He was only 40. “People just didn’t appreciate the creativity at the time,” his friend Steve D’Acquisto concluded emotionally. “Arthur was the most far-reaching person in dance music. It wasn’t just disco. It was way beyond that, something much deeper. It was jazz, it was classical, it was house, and it was Cole Porter. Arthur Russell was one of the great songwriters of her 20th century.