Disco Fever

Arthur Russell was famous in his day; what happened?

Arthur Russell was a musical wanderer best known as a disco producer, but understanding his place in the history of disco calls for a renegotiation of terms. For one thing, Russell followed an unlikely path to the dance floor. Before moving to New York in 1973 at the age of 22, he had lived in a Buddhist commune and studied Indian music in California. His early years in the city included a stay with Allen Ginsberg, an East Village address shared by punk maestro Richard Hell, and collaborations with Philip Glass and John Cage. He ran with filmmakers, painters, performance artists. His most beloved instrument, then and throughout his career, was the cello—not the first instrument one asks to dance to.  

By the time Russell died of AIDS in 1992, he had already been forgotten; although he played an important role in disco, conventional history of the genre has never accounted for much more than bright lights and big clubs, where opulent dance music served as a soundtrack to showy social scenes. That is now changing, thanks in part to two new collections of Russell’s work. The new discs—The World of Arthur Russell, a survey of his dance music, and Calling Out of Context, a set of previously unreleased pop songs—show Russell to be an artist worthy of rescue. They also shine light on a disco milieu now regarded as a critical flashpoint in music history.

The story of disco in New York usually focuses on the era’s glitzy hits. From the start, Russell’s disco strayed from the bombastic type still alive on oldies radio. It was homey and organic, skewed to a smaller scale. His disco trafficked alongside the classics of the genre, but it traded more in what amounted to disco’s shadow economy, where ideas about music commanded higher premiums and dividends trickled underground. In big-picture terms, Russell’s era marked a time when pop music and art music and dance music had not yet been divided. This was the freewheeling downtown New York where disco was in bed with everything that moved: from the roly-poly pop of Talking Heads to the fitful dance-rock of James Chance and the Contortions to the rhythm-bandit exploits of unsung acts who worked up to the point where rock recoiled from the notion of “dance music” and disco splintered into house, electro, techno, and so on.

The World of Arthur Russell draws from that time and place. As opposed to the well-fed anthems of the uptown sort, Russell’s disco subsided on an unwholesome diet of false starts, wobbly rhythms, and glommed-together experiments. (You get a literal look at his weird logic in the monikers he often took—Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean.) In “Go Bang,”The World of Arthur Russell yawns awake with a dopplerized bass line that plays like a giggle. The brisk hi-hat drums scan as dance music, but they get pulled under by a wash of anxious organ swirl, squeaky guitar, and weird vocals chomping through the nonsense words “bingo” and “bango.” It’s disco, of a sort, but Russell’s version speaks a pidgin dialect compared to a grandiose classic such as, say, “I Will Survive.”

Parsing that disco/not-disco tangle was Russell’s forte. You can hear it in “Is It All Over My Face,” a dance-floor classic set at an off-center tilt. The version on the album, mixed by New York disco don Larry Levan, starts at what sounds like half-speed until keyboards tug the break-beat to attention. Guitar and bass hang out and chat; singers sing about “love dancing” as if they’re thinking about the laundry they have to do. None of the parts sounds promising on its own, but together they congeal into a wondrously lived-in sort of disco —intimate, anthemic dance music that makes you feel almost bashful for listening in. A similar effect flecks “In the Light of the Miracle,” a 13-minute daydream that sifts through glimmers of musical cues—melodic cowbell, gauzy grooves, murmured vocal exaltations—like a sleepy-eyed clubgoer remembering the night before over morning coffee.

Russell made disco strange but also profoundly moving. The different elements of his tracks always sound like they’re meeting for the first time, maybe without makeup and sometimes in a mood. They interact, circle around, size each other up. That habit is uncommon to the well-connected funk and soul components of aboveground disco, but it’s just as unusual in the gawky underground stuff. What makes it all go down swimmingly is the easy agitation of Russell’s musical mind. He was unusual for making dance music sound remarkably casual and organic, but he was more unusual for the way he made its working parts—bass lines and drum beats—sound so intensely personal.

Artistically, Russell always moved in different directions at once, making disco while he was playing cello and singing pop tunes. From somewhere in the middle comes Calling Out of Context, a collection of 12 unreleased songs from 1984 to 1990. The liner notes invoke Russell’s restless working methods—40 of the 1,000 tapes he left behind consist of different mixes of a single song—but Context presents him in a more roped-in mode. It’s gentle pop music, more or less, just a few soft sounds, drum machine, and Russell’s own vocals pushed to the fore. Period-faithful electronics plant Context in the new-wave ‘80s, but Russell sounds even weirder as he hews toward simple song form. In “Arm Around You,” he guides his slightly unhinged, beautiful voice through a sad love song that comes off as goofy and warm as a Charlie Chaplin bit. “The Platform on the Ocean” sets his voice over guitar static and simulated hand drums. The song starts out in a matter-of-fact pop mood, but grows harder to read as Russell sings about drifting out to sea and offers an eerie invocation to “the sound of the whitecaps.”

Russell has earned hero status among a current generation of acts (the Rapture, Playgroup, !!!, Metro Area) who are looking back at fusions of rock, pop, and dance music. But Russell makes for a curious historical idol: He wriggles too much to pin down; he was always too busy messing with style to worry about the connotations of genre. Heard in retrospect, Russell sounds like a ghost both saddened by his fated obsolescence and giddy over its fading away.