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Listed: Arthur Russell

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Every Friday, Dusted Magazine publishes a series of music-related lists compiled by our favorite artists. This week: Audika Records founder and Arthur Russell archivist Steve Knutson on his favorite unreleased songs by the legendary musician.

Listed: Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell needs no introduction. The New York visionary, felled by AIDS in 1992, transformed every musical genre he touched. From his country-pop beginnings with the Flying Hearts to his avant-dance music as Dinosaur and Loose Joints, the native Iowan developed a history of modern music unto himself. His voracious appetite for new sounds was matched only by his gentleness and grace. The unceremonious nature of his death at age 40 was rectified by his partner Tom Lee and admirer Steve Knutson in 2004, when Knutson’s Audika Records reissued Russell’s masterpiece World of Echo and compiled some of his best unavailable songs on Calling Out of Context. London’s Soul Jazz Records also contributed to the renaissance with the dance anthology The World of Arthur Rusell. The revival continues in 2008 with Audika’s new compilation of pop songs, Love is Overtaking Me, and the feature-length documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which arrived on DVD via Plexifilm last week. In this week’s edition of Listed, Knutson selects his favorite unreleased Russell songs. Note: Faithful Dusted readers likely know that we always publish two Listed features conjointly. In this case, we simply couldn’t imagine a worthy partner.

For the last five years I’ve spent untold hours at home and at various studios previewing the multitude of tape configurations from Arthur Russell’s never ending recorded music library. In compiling the various Audika releases, I generally start with Arthur’s work cassettes, based on clues and suggestions from Tom Lee. Once the songs are selected, years, weeks, months and days are spent looking for the appropriate tape reels. The tapes usually need to be baked as they have deteriorated over the years. It’s a long process. Sometimes I use the cassette. There remain many songs I’d love to release commercially, but in general either the tape quality is so poor that they best remain unheard or the performance is drastically incomplete.

These are my Top 10 Arthur Russell songs you will never hear.

1. “Anti-Gravity Soap”
Hands down the oddest, most unique, unreleased rhythmic track. Speed Disco. No recording date, but certainly the very late ’80s or early ’90s. It’s clearly unfinished, but sounds like it was recorded in some unspecified future. Crisp, loud drum machine with a hammer kick. Arthur manipulates the speed of the drums from a Ramones pace to speed metal thrash. A voice (not Arthur’s) squeals and screams a cowboy rant of multiple gulps and yee-haws. Arthur’s cello kicks in with one his funkiest bass lines to propel the track into overdrive.

2. “The Difference Is”
Early ’90s, recorded on DAT at home. Listening through the DAT tapes from Arthur’s last years was very painful for me. He’s clearly ill, but as Ernie Brooks (of the Modern Lovers and Arthur’s late ’70s band Flying Hearts) so rightly states, his gifts as a writer were increasing as his life was leaving. “The Difference Is” is an extremely catching, commercial dance song. One of my favorite vocal performances from Arthur: confident, hopeful, and a great chorus (“The difference is that I don’t think about it.”) I have a finished version in my head and I wish I could play it for you.

3. “Rock On”
Arthur loved hip hop, and one of his favorite things to do was watch (Uncle) Ralph McDaniels “Video Music Box” on WNYC TV with percussionist, and key collaborator Mustfa Ahmed. “Rock On” is an ode to the pocket rocket and its multiple uses, and believe it or not, features Arthur rapping. Well, not quite Rakim, more like a Beat Poet he was friends with. It’s maybe the only song of Arthur’s that I don’t like, and for that reason alone it makes my Top 10.

4. “Iowa Dream”
It starts with a common guitar run and the music quickly turns into one of the best Modern Lovers tracks you’ll never hear. The voices bark, howl and woof. A Farfisa organ and Jonathan Richman guitar riff drive the track. Arthur’s cello provides the depth and melody. Arthur sings about riding his bike in his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, and mentions his father when he was the mayor.

5. “Big Stone Lion”
A song about drugs, and the harshness of inner city life. A couple years after moving to New York, Arthur was robbed and tied up in his apartment. The only possession that remained was his beloved cello, and only because he threatened to kill the robbers if they took it. The lyrics are dark, but the music is bubbly with reverb-drenched hand claps: “Well the big stone lions are guarding the door as the sirens go past … my best friend is out cold on the floor.”

6. “Hop On Down To Pet Land”
While compiling Calling Out Of Context, Tom Lee continually teased me about this song. It was a track that Arthur worked months on. I came across a cassette with multiple versions of the song. Arthur compiled it, of course, and it’s the complete evolution of the song from a scratchy bare demo into a full on ensemble with metal themed guitar lines, backing vocals from his sisters, and the funkiest keyboard line he ever wrote. True bliss. But it is also an incomplete mess, and the various takes end mid-riff with no resolution. Tom would joke that he was hiding the finished version from me, as the DATs he provided were all incomplete. But one night I found this cassette, and at the end of the tape Arthur had subtracted nearly everything dub style, and that version ended up on Calling Out Of Context. The keyboard funk was sadly gone. Give it up Tom!

7. “Ballad of the Lights”
Not technically unreleased. This was slated for Love is Overtaking Me, but it didn’t feel right in the sequence. However, you can hear it in Matt Wolf’s film, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (now on DVD!). The first time I heard the tape, I almost wept. The intro vocal from Arthur is just so beautiful, and of course, Allen....

8. “Make 1, 2 (Extended Version)”
Clocks in at almost 12 minutes. Slower tempo than the shorter, better version released on Calling Out Of Context. Sexy, funky keyboards and synth throughout, subtle Zummo trombone line, live percussion mixed with drum machine. Screams for a collaborator to mix and edit. At this juncture, Arthur was really keen to work with either William Orbit or 808 State. It’s a pity, as I worked with 808 State at that time.

9. “I’ll Be Fencing”
A brilliant Flying Hearts-era pop song, but no complete tape exists, only tracking and pieces. While compiling Love is Overtaking Me, Ernie Brooks was convinced we would find one. We never did. The title alone is genius.

10. “The Only Usefulness”
An incomplete Loose Joint outtake. As Black Gospel as it is Disco. Arthur’s guide vocal is sublime. Same musicians as “Is It All Over My Face” with added Gospel vibe. “Really, the only usefulness of all these places to be yeah, the only usefulness, is to be in love, yeah who would give a dime for a world of misery? But I would give my life just to be with you one last time.” True that.

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