As Yep Roc and AIDS charity Red Hot release a new tribute record to cellist, composer and disco pioneer Russell, the two men closest to him remember the man who so desperately wished to bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the populist
Entrenched in contemporary music history, we are consistently (and banally) reminded of the punk/disco standoff that once supposedly polarised the growth spurts of alternative music in the 1970s. It was shredded clothes, studded jackets and “disco sucks”, or it was sharp suits, cocaine and Studio 54. Under reflective retrospection the lines are a little more blurred; numerous groups (chiefly Talking Heads and Blondie) are attributed as being visionary crossovers, fusing the ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ of punk with the sass, sex and groove of disco and flavours of art-house funk.
While the Velvet Underground blended the most potent and perfect mix of pop and avant-garde a decade earlier, it is perhaps Arthur Russell to whom the ’70s are owed when it comes to amalgamating seemingly contradictory musical forces in such revolutionary ways. However, while the old story goes that only a handful of people bought Velvet Underground records but those that did started bands, Russell never reached that status or influence in his lifetime.
Russell cast his net far and wide, spending much of his early musical days not simply experimenting but radiantly flourishing in various genres: pop, classical, folk, repetitious dance grooves, stark minimalism, avant-garde and charged disco. If the glistening purity of the musical movements taking place in the 1970s was based on fresh sounds, anti-conventionality and progressive ideas, then Russell was unquestionably its acne-scarred angel.
Russell sadly died in 1992 from AIDS, survived by his partner Tom Lee who now runs his musical estate. Whilst only releasing one full solo LP during his lifetime (1986’s ‘World of Echo’ – Rough Trade) Russell has, in the last decade, become an almost constant presence in underground music circles, and increasingly over-ground ones, too.