The dense and hugely varied musical legacy that Arthur Russell left behind following his death in 1992 can feel dauntingly difficult to approach. Like listening one of his wistful solo compositions, trying to build a comprehensive understanding of everything he did can feel tantalisingly out of reach, but all the more addictive for it. A driven perfectionist, he was constantly revising previous works as well as applying himself to seemingly disparate styles, from the leftfield folky songs that make up his seminal World Of Echo album to the wildly unhinged disco tracks that wreaked havoc on the dancefloors of 70’s and 80’s New York, via collaborations with Allen Ginsberg and Talking Heads.
To mark what would have been his 65th birthday today, we’ve put together a selection of some of our favourite pieces he was involved with, steering clear of the classics and heading for some that possess a deep and strangely alluring quality, thus making them curveball contenders for a receptive dancefloor.
Arthur Russell – ‘Keeping Up’
Taken from Corn (Audika, 2015)
A considerably more fleshed out and better known version of this track exists beyond 2015’s Corn compilation (it also featured on his Another Thought LP, and was recently edited and extended by Anthony Naples, for those of you who were quick enough to catch that.) Like Russell at his frequent best, it’s a transient, memorable and wistful ode to the passing moment. “Just trying to keep up, with the feeling”, as Russell sings, can seem an intimidating prospect, but in just over two minutes, and using little more than strings, rough drums and his own vulnerable falsetto, he makes uncertainty feel like a much more palatable reality.
Arthur Russell – ‘Make 1,2 (Gem Spa Dub)’
Taken from Let’s Go Swimming (Audika, 2011)
Uniting the gentle spirituality found in his classic ‘In the Light of the Miracle’ with the balearic keyboard funk of Wally Badarou, the Gem Spa Dub of ‘Make it 1,2’ perfectly encapsulates Arthur Russell’s quest to make what he described as “Buddhist Bubble-gum music”. A record that is mystical, otherworldly and transcendent, yet created with the intention to connect rather than confound.
Felix – ‘Tiger Stripes’
Taken from Tiger Stripes (Sleeping Bag Records, 1984)
Produced by Nicky Siano, Arthur Russell supposedly disliked ‘Tiger Stripes’ so much that he refused to be directly credited for writing it, choosing to appear instead under the alias Killer Whale. His aversions show the high standards that he set for himself as the song is a deliciously off-kilter, spacious disco track filled with unpredictable left turns that make it still sound fresh today, more than twenty years after its first release.
Peter Zummo – ‘Song IV’
Taken from Zummo With An A X (Loris Records, 1985)
The post-minimal composer and trombone player Peter Zummo wrote this piece to accompany a dance piece entitled ‘Lateral Pass’, and features Arthur Russell on cello and vocals. In fact, the general sound and feel of the piece has a lot in common with some of Russell’s own solo pieces, albeit in a more drawn-out, abstracted form and with the addition of accordion and marimba. The piece hypnotises as it builds, ebbing and flowing through its 15-minute duration until it peaks with the inclusion of Zummo’s chord-playing with his trombone in the final stages. The kind of piece of music you can hear over and over again and find something new about it upon every fresh listen.
Lola – ‘Wax The Van (Jon’s Dub)’
Taken from Wax The Van (Jump Street Records, 1987)
Released in 1987, this electronic disco track was penned by Arthur Russell and produced by Bob Blank. The dub version on the B-side of the original release keeps Russell’s love of spacey atmospheres and treated vocals intact, whilst its heavy, straight drums give it a proto-house feel that highlights his influence on dance music ever since. For further evidence, just wait until the keyboard comes in near the end.
Arthur Russell – ‘See-Through’
Taken from World of Echo (Upside Records, 1986)
One of the shortest songs on the landmark World Of Echo album, ‘See-Through’ is a psychedelic haze of shimmering vocals and cello fed through reverb and delay effects. It typifies the sound of the whole record condensed down into its two-minute duration. Russell’s effortlessly affecting singing and often-indiscernible lyrics moving in and out of focus whilst the titular echoes give the music a cavernous, blurred feel.
Thanks to John Thorp and Charlie Towler for their additions with the list.