December 21, 2014
We asked 11 artists to looks back on the influence and legacy of avant garde cellist and downtown disco sensation Arthur Russell.
Where do you begin with Arthur Russell? One of the most universally respected figures in underground music, Russell embodied the spirit of invention, dance and dissonance that defined New York city in the ’80s. As a cellist he lent his services to friends and collaborators on bitter sweet pop tracks and avant garde improvisations at The Kitchen for releases which are just now being revisited for the first time. Under his own name Russell saw just three albums released in his lifetime, Tower Of Meaning, a set of instrumentals, and his definitive (under-)statement World Of Echo. A collection of recordings under the name Another Thought surfaced two years after his death, but these amount to just a fraction of the music he produced during his tragically short life.
On the dancefloor over at the Loft and then with Larry Levan’s blessings at the Paradise Garage, Russell the producer was all about the groove. Hits like ‘Go Bang #5!’ and ‘It Is All Over My Face?’ were jangling, serpentine underground disco cuts that wriggled between the genre’s culture of extended mixes and the genesis of house music to incorporate his avant garde orchestrations, an uncompromising post punk attitude and the foot loose hedonism and sexual politics of downtown NYC.
Unlike our recent features on the legacy of Kraftwerk and Sun Ra, Arthur Russell’s discography at first seems relatively modest. Certainly the impact of a small number of releases out-weigh the physical mass of the records he released. However, start counting the collaborations, aliases, production credits and even the odd piece of unreleased material along side releases under his own name and you begin to get a full and varied picture of this versatile and utterly unique artist.
This is exactly the task we set eleven musicians, DJs, producers and artists in selecting their favourite Arthur Russell record, in a year which has seen Audika Records reissue both World Of Echo and Love Is Overtaking Me, as well as the release of the long awaited Arthur Russell tribute album Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. As expected their selections vary greatly, as does the depth with which they share their thoughts. In the spirit of Arthur Russell himself, each approach is very much its own, revealing just how influential this incredible artist has been on a staggering range of musicians.
One half of Glaswegian DJ duo and party outfit Optimo, Keith McIvor aka JD Twitch has offered his own to the growing canon of Arthur Russell remixes and recently toured with Peter Zummo sextet, where they would cover Russell’s ‘Is It All Over My Face?’ as a blistering encore.
(Point Music, 1994)
Most Arthur Russell fans are likely to wax most lyrically over his World Of Echo album, which I also love, but the album that has had the greatest impact on me is Another Thought. I read a review of it in some long forgotten fanzine in 1994 that evangelised about it to such an extent that I knew it was something I had to hear. I eventually tracked a copy down the next year and it was a revelation. For the previous five or six years I had been so immersed in playing and searching out dance records that I don’t think I listened to a single album the whole way through during that period.
When ‘Another Thought’ arrived I couldn’t stop listening and I haven’t stopped listening ever since. The lyrics seemed to speak directly to me. I was a little lost around this time, not entirely sure where I wanted my life to go and this music saved me. It was quite unlike anything I had ever heard and as well as making me want to track down everything else that he ever made (which I did), it made me want to rediscover music that had some sort of “otherness” to it. While I continued and indeed continue to explore the realms of house and techno, I started to realise I wanted to see if it was possible to incorporate a far wider (and wilder) range of sounds into a dj set and still have a dancefloor react to it. Thus the seed of the idea for the club night that was to become Optimo was sewn. Thank you, Arthur!
One of the most astonishing things about this album is that it is a compilation of various Arthur songs that had never been released before, yet it feels like one of the most complete, perfectly sequenced albums I know. No filler. Nothing in the wrong place. The perfect length of time. It contains several tracks now widely regarded as Arthur Russell classics but for me, every single song on it is an all time classic. I realise I haven’t really described the magical music it contains but Arthur created such a unique musical universe that words really can never do it justice. All I can say is that I have never encountered anyone who I have played the entire album to who didn’t have some sort of strong reaction to it.
Steve Knutson (Audika Records)
Steve Knutson is the man behind Audika Records, the label charged with making Russell’s work available once more. This year alone they’ve reissued World Of Echo and Love Is Overtaking Me, reproducing the originals in facsimile editions, with the former charting at number two in our rundown of the year’s top reissues.
(Sleeping Bag, 1986)
Walter Gibbons told me about Arthur while he was mixing the song and presented me with a copy when it was released. He said Arthur was a genius, and a little strange, but that he had made ‘Go Bang’, and I loved that record. To say that ‘Schoolbell/Tree House’ changed my life is an understatement, it was the start of my obsession to hear every note Arthur made. The intimacy of the voice and cello was like hearing pure consciousness, and combined with the descending keyboard (Arthur was an amazing and incredibly funky keyboard player), Peter Zummo’s trombone Bop lines, the interstellar hi-hat integrated with Mustafa Ahmed’s conga, and what sounded at first like a distorted amplified eraser on a balloon for part of the rhythm track, it was unlike anything I had heard before. This was music I had been waiting my entire life to hear. The lyrics, where did the come from? ‘I’m a hundred, and I’m going to school’. Was this House music made by The Jetson’s in 1963? The record was recorded in 1986 but remains completely timeless. It could be released 20 years from now and still be ahead of its time.
Chicago-born, Detroit-connected, but Chez Damier’s muse came from the New York disco underground, hearing the likes of Frankie Knuckles play mind-blowing Arthur Russell cuts like ‘Go Bang’, ‘Is It All Over My Face’ and ‘Wax The Van’. The man behind influential house labels Prescription and KMS, Damier explains below how the lyrics “I wanna see my friends all at once” have stayed with him.
Go Bang #5! / Clean On Your Bean #1
(Sleeping Bag Records)
Half of Metro Area and Environ boss, Morgan Geist’s first disco purchases were Loose Joints records and as he discovered more Russell projects he became increasingly attuned to the delicate, in some respects Buddhist, essence that ties together Russell’s diverse musical world.
Is It All Over My Face
(West End, 1980)
By sheer luck, Arthur Russell’s pink-sleeved West End 12”s were among my first purchases when I began devouring disco. I had just graduated from college, and at the time had no idea who he was. A few years later, I would find myself sitting in the midst of Arthur’s old effects pedals on the floor of Daniel Wang’s Alphabet City studio/apartment. (Danny was in a relationship with Steven Hall, a friend and collaborator of Arthur’s, which explains the pedals.) And when I finally moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey, my new housemate introduced me to an album of shimmering cello called World Of Echo.
I associate each of these AR “discoveries” with vibrant, vinyl-related memories. I can smell the dust of the Boston record store where I found ‘Is It All Over My Face’ for a dollar; I can see Danny kneeling in front of the turntables in his apartment, occasionally scooting over to flick a rogue cockroach off my leg; and I remember my housemate (Dan Selzer, a.k.a. New York Endless) pulling World Of Echo out of its tan cardboard mailer in our living room. For a few years, it felt as if there was only a small group of my generation (too young, or at least too suburban, for the Garage) who could discern Arthur’s delicate thread running through seemingly unrelated projects.
Soon enough, however, everyone was either talking or writing about Arthur Russell. New AR compilations seemed to be coming out each week. I remember feeling vaguely disappointed; indeed, Arthur’s music seemed so sensitive and direct, so intimate, that it felt like a violation to have too many people aware of it (or, even worse, pretending to be experts on the subject). I, of course, was no more deserving of Arthur’s music than anyone else, yet I still felt keenly possessive about it. When Steve Knutsen of Audika Records left the original 24->24 Music cassette with me to transfer into digital format, I carried it home in my hands like it was a baby bird and promptly sent photos of it to all my music friends.
When I was asked to choose my favorite record for this feature, the selfsame desire to prove some imagined, special connection to Arthur’s music returned. Pathetically, I began trying to recall the rarest bits of his music that I had heard. But that only lasted a minute or two before it hit me: my favorite Arthur Russell record is, by far, his most obvious and popular collaboration with Steve D’Acquisto and Larry Levan (and possibly François Kevorkian), ‘Is It All Over My Face?’ by Loose Joints. It was one of those first West End purchases up in Boston, years ago, and I knew deep down no rare nugget of compiled and reissued Russell could ever move me in the same way. Certainly, there was some stiff competition: ‘Kiss Me Again’ sounds as New York City as saturated B-roll footage of a Checker cab looks; ‘Tell You Today’ makes me want to cry simply because it’s so confusingly emotive; and ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ inspires me to surrender control in most situations. But you never forget your first love, to say nothing of the best dollar you’ve ever spent.
Listen to Morgan Geist and Steve Knutson on RMBA radio, discussing the legacy and influence of Arthur Russell below:
Experimental musician, trombonist and Arthur Russell’s friend and confidant, Peter Zummo was an integral member of the downtown scene and his soft, pulsing trombone is heard on a number of collaborations, not least on ‘Kiss Me Again’, under Russell’s Dinosaur moniker. Still touring, previously unreleased work is beginning to see the light of day once more, with his LP Lateral Pass reissued by Foom this year, while Optimo oversaw the reissue of the epic Russell/Zummmo piece Zummo With An X in 2012.
(Sleeping Bag, 1984)
I chose, from vinyl produced during Arthur’s lifetime, a 7” promo copy titled Felix on Sleeping Bag Records.
Side A, ‘Tiger Stripes’, is a crazy editing job with lots of disparate elements. The opening beats give little sense of what key it will be in.
Side B, ‘You Can’t Hold Me Down’, is drum machine and conga, rhythm guitar, keyboard, female refrain and lead vocal, and male chant on “bad little kitten – pounce on you.” There’s no real bass. I like it not only for the way it sounds but also that it shows that you don’t have to follow the rules.
Pantha du Prince
German born producer Hendrik Weber may not have any direct links to Russell’s work, but rather exhibits a similar tendency to stray to the edges of the genres he works in. Embracing liminal spaces with a similarly individual aesthetic that has seen Weber collaborate with The Bell Laboratory on a record he intends to be listened to in one piece – a complete experience that is reflected in his choice below.
World Of Echo
(Upside Records, 1986)
This record is a monument for me, it is a warm place, I feel at home. A source for energy. Contemplative cello and voice echoes sonic landscapes full of heart. I can listen to it over and over again it never looses the magic of the first moment, it is music that will last forever, like nothingness. Pure, time stands still. A divine beauty.
Like many of his ’90s house counterparts, Roger S took inspiration from ’70s – ’80s heroes like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles and of course Arthur Russell. Bowled over by the Paradise Garage, Sanchez went on to define the Strictly Rhythm sound with his sublime The Underground Solution Luv Dancin’ record, borrowing vocals from Loose Joints ‘Is It All Over My Face’.
Go Bang #5! / Clean On Your Bean #1
(Sleeping Bag Records)
My first true connection and experience with the genius of Arthur Russell was through a good friend of mine who was a member of the Paradise Garage at the time and invited me down on one Friday to check out an exceptional DJ who was the resident there: Larry Levan. The Paradise Garage was THE nightclub of New York. The sound system was custom designed by Richard Long, who was famed to create the best systems ever heard. The bass was unbelievable and the midrange and hi end was the crispest I had ever heard. As we were making our way to the floor I heard this unbelievable track mix in laced with congas and percussion. Then the vocal chant exploded “Baaaaannnnnngggg!!” and the entire crowd absolutely lost it! The bass kicked in and I lost it as well. I remember hearing a female vocal chanting “Go bang-a-bang bang- go bang –go!” and couldn’t stop repeating it.
The next day I went to the most exclusive record shop in the city: Vinylmania. All of New York’s most highly rated DJs shopped for their record fix there, including Larry Levan. I asked the shop attendant – Manny Lehman, who was a DJ himself ( he would later on become a highly respected major record label A&R ) if he had the song I had heard at The Garage that went “Baaaannngg”. He pulled out a vinyl on the wall rack and showed it to me. I remember it was a white label with red print and the name Dinosaur L Go Bang in bold print and a little Koala logo representing Sleeping Bag records. He wiped the record and played it and it was as if I had been transported back to the Garage!
When I got it home I read the credits and learned for the first time who Arthur Russell was. Eventually, as I moved into production, I began to sample sounds from him and have always been influenced by his grooves and percussions.
Icelandic singer-songwriter Ólöf Arnalds toured with múm for 5 years before releasing three solo albums and a string of singles including a collaboration with Björk who describes Ólöf’s voice as “somewhere between a child and an old woman”. Her 2012 EP Ólöf Sings opens with a cover of one of her favourite Arthur Russell tracks – ‘Close My Eyes’.
Love Is Overtaking Me
(Audika Records, 2008)
The Love Is Overtaking Me compilation came out around the time when I had released my first record world wide and had started to tour and play in America and was very popular among the musicians of my generation. I chose to cover one of Arthur’s songs, ‘Close My Eyes’, on one of my B-sides, because I was so in love with that song and it fitted well with my way of performing, which then was usually alone with an accoustic guitar.
Later, especially through Skúli Sverrisson, my closest collaborator, who has played me a lot of Arthur´s work, I got to know how geniously inventive, open and free spirited Russell´s work was. I admire how broad his musical vocabulary is and how fearless he seems to have been towards venturing into different worlds of sound, yet at the same time maintaining an aesthetic or essence that is singular only to him. His singing voice somehow always pulls the strings in my heart that are the most fragile, and in my mind his voice as a composer is undeniably historically great.
Another whose work is hard to define succinctly without resorting to journalist shorthand like ‘genre-bending’ or ‘unique’, Bass Clef has also toured with Zummo recently and had the pleasure of playing many unreleased Arthur Russell compositions, one of which he discusses below. By day he’s a producer, label head and modular synth buff with releases on PAN, Public Information and Peverlist’s Punch Drunk as well as his own imprint Magic + Dreams.
I’ve chosen the Singing Tractors, which was recorded several times but never released, really it was a band, which included Arthur amongst others and played a special kind of ‘open composition’: partly scored and partly improvised, with these amazing spiralling melodies that just burrow deep into your brain and heart.
I recently got to play some of the Singing Tractors material whilst on tour with Russell collaborators Peter Zummo, Ernie Brooks and Bill Ruyle, every night I wouldn’t be able to sleep with these melodies just going round and round in my mind.
Music press describe this London-based trio as a drone band that lean towards noise rock, psych and kraut but Vision Fortune aren’t fond of the tags. In the way that it’s difficult to pin down Arthur Russell and his seemingly divergent projects, Vision Quest have an enigmatic quality to their sound.
World Of Echo
(Upside Records, 1986)
We are big fans of AR over at VF HQ. While many might think that Russell’s best work is World of Echo, I’d be inclined to argue that he actually peaked with his subsequent collaboration with a young Vin Diesel – then known as a young West Village-based rapper named Mark Sinclair – which is nearly as good as Diesels’s absolutely stellar performance in Fast & Furious 6.
Photo: Valentine Hennequin
Glasgow-based duo Happy Meals’ latest Apéro EP made our top 100 vinyl releases of 2014. Comprised of Suzanne Rodden and Lewis Cook (of The Cosmic Dead) who are “life-partners since high school finding expression in cosmic form”, Arthur Russell was an early influence on Happy Meals as Lewis explains below.
I was lucky enough to come across Arthur Russell as a fourteen year-old post-rocker – when I heard it, I imagined that if there was an overarching narrative of how music progresses, this must surely be the next step. When I followed up my first taste of Arthur (the track ‘Another Thought’) and I discovered that it was music recorded before I was even born, I was blown away by how contemporary and relevant it sounded to my pubescent ears. Another Thought holds a special place in my heart as a collection of recordings that seem to defy expectations no matter how you approach them; in many ways, the influences are plain to hear, but their tired tropes are gladly spared, allowing the music to take on a form which is uniquely Arthur.