Arthur Russell was a journeyman in the truest sense of the word. His relatively short adult life saw him jaunt from Iowa to San Francisco and finally to New York. With each new point in his life came a different obsession, a new way to explore and make sense of the world through music.
In San Francisco, at 18, it was Buddhism, north Indian classical music and cello studies at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music. As a young adult, his interest in linguistics and electronic music saw him enrolling at both the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University. Eventually, though, he would abandon his studies and take up directorship of The Kitchen, a downtown avant-garde performance space. By his thirties, Russell was moving and shaking among the bright lights and rambunctious dance floors of New York's underground disco scene.
You could argue that it's this constant shifting from pillar to post that left so much of Russell's work unfinished and relegated to posthumous compilation. But at every step of the way he picked up a murderer's row of mentors, collaborators and contemporaries. Take even the scantest glance at his Discogs page and you'll see the rap sheet of a man in a near constant state of creative flux—moving from woozing compositions with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, to horn arrangements for a nascent Talking Heads and work with legendary producers like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Peter Zummo. At one point even Vin "Fast and The Furious 1 through 7" Diesel cut a dub with the guy.
The list of people who champion Russell's music is just as extensive. Fellow cellist and musical chameleon Blood Orange regularly cites him as a major influence and Kanye West samples him extensively on The Life of Pablo's "30 Hours." Russell's also been an inspiration for filmmakers—"A Little Lost" popped up on in Aziz Ansari's Netflix dramedy Master of None—while Matt Wolf's beautiful documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell paints a better picture of Russell's life than any rattled-off think piece ever could. His work lives on even after his death, at the age of 40, in 1992.
And so, as often happens with cult musicians, there's always a new piece of the story that has to be told. Enter The Necessaries, Arthur Russell's forgotten power pop quartet and their album Event Horizon, the latest in a seemingly bottomless collection of Russell ephemera to be shown the light of day. Though it's existed in various corners online, the album is now being given a physical release by Be With Records, due on September 15.
Russell might be best known as the man that gave the world Dinosaur L, Sleeping Bag Records and World of Echo, but his work with The Necessaries was a brief, brilliant attempt at something altogether more conventional. Featuring Ed Tomney on lead vocal and guitar duties, Ernie Brooks (The Modern Lovers) on bass, Jesse Chamberlain (ex-Red Crayola) on drums and Randy Gunn on guitar, they had more in common with groups like The Cars or Big Star than the kind of music Russell later became renowned for. But one thing they did share with the rest of Russell's output is just how hard to pin they were. They were scrappy and melodic, minimal yet expansive—conceptual in the way all good art is, but punchy and direct, like all good punk should be.
Released in 1982, Event Horizon is actually a reworking of Big Sky, The Necessaries first LP. Committed to wax by Sire Records a year earlier, the original album was a few tracks lighter and sonically a lot more straightforward. But the group were unhappy with the results, so they withdrew the release and reformatted it with Russell as a principal songwriting. The result is an amorphous blend of pop, post-punk and new wave.
It's hard to miss Russell's standout turn on "More Real," a jangly, thrusting four-to-the-floor number underpinned by his characteristically plaintive vocals and and wistful lyricism. Slow burners like "Detroit Tonight" are reminiscent of the folky, guitar driven work on his solo compilation Love Is Overtaking Me. However, it's on "Driving and Talking At The Same Time" where Russell takes the genre conventions of early 80s power pop, post-punk and new wave and contorts them to his own will. Even in the songs where his soft-spoken twang doesn't shine through, you can hear his stylistic ticks bumbling to the forefront. Pastoral cello stabs ring out against a raw din of jangling guitars and heavy drums. Minimalistic keyboard arrangements lay moody groundwork for snappy verses and hook-laden choruses. Though it's by no means his best work, Event Horizon showcases an artist not simply finding his voice, but striving to make it stand out from the crowd.
Perhaps in another world The Necessaries could have been one of great formative post-punk outfits, the kind of band you'd namecheck alongside The Replacements and Wire. Unfortunately reality, tells another story: right in the middle of a small US tour, Russell stepped out of their van, took a walk across the Holland Tunnel underpass and left to find another new obsession.
Sudden departures like this weren't unusual for Russell. A wanderer all his life, he was well known for the hours he'd spend traipsing the streets of New York. Armed with a Walkman and a pair of headphones, he'd search the alleys and avenues of the Lower East Side and beyond for new sounds, sights, and means of expression. His time with The Necessaries was just another one of these outings and by that point it had come to an end. From there he'd go on to compose, record and compile reels and reels of boundary-pushing music, much of which still remains unheard.
Since Russell's death 15 years ago, a spate of reissues and compilations has elevated him from obscurity to latter-day sainthood. He now stands as a cultural touchstone for a new generation of performers and music fans the world over. Nearly two decades after his death, the very same tapes that spun in his Walkman are archived at the New York Public Library for The Performing Arts.
The folk lore of Arthur Russell's prolific life and premature death is a compelling one, and probably plays some part in his posthumous appraisal. It's tempting to wonder what impact he would have had on music had he not died so young, but it's his music that continues to carry him forward. Whether it's the freak funk he made as Dinosaur L, or Love Is Overtaking Me's wide-eyed folk songs, Arthur Russell's back catalogue is so vast that there really is something for everyone to take home and make their own. The Necessaries and Event Horizon represents another piece of his story, another unearthed gem for fans to listen to as they wander through alleyways and avenues of their own.
You can find Charles on Twitter.