Originally published in 2016 at Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict
Although rock iconisim seemed to have passed him by, British musician Arthur Brown has become known by rock n’ roll aficionados as the god father of shock rock. With his face painted in garish makeup, Arthur would screech like a banshee, set the stage on fire, dance like he was in a voodoo trace and wear a trademark helmet that would shoot flames from his head. In the summer of 1968, when Arthur rolled out his elaborate rock n’ roll stage show The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, there was nothing quite like it. When he released his debut album in June 1968, the biggest songs in the world were Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson and Herb Alpert’s This Guys in Love With You. In a few months Arthur Brown would change the face of rock n’ roll when he captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic by screaming a new message: “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU FIRE!”
While studying philosophy at the University of London and the University of Reading in the mid 1960’s, Arthur Brown walked amongst intellectual circles, but found himself drawn to the music scene that dominated the culture of the era. Finding himself drifting in and out of various bands, Brown eventually found himself as a member of the popular pop band The Foundations that were on the edge of signing a major music contract. However, Brown was not satisfied with playing nice music for the mass audience. Highly influenced by a year spent in Paris in 1966 where he studied theater, Brown had a vision where he would be more cutting edge than the Beatles, more deviant than the Rolling Stones and scare the shit out of Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies. Leaving The Foundations after only a few weeks, Brown developed his own stage act called The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Incorporating art, music, poetry and theater, Brown combined African mysticism with Faustian imagery and Greek mythology to develop a musical act like nothing known before. Shocking audiences with his onstage antics and provocative appearance, Brown became the first music star of the British underground when he released his first LP The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Clearly an acquired taste, Brown defied the odds as his debut single, Fire, rose to the top of the charts in October 1968 (ironically, The Foundations Build Me Up Buttercup placed on the charts at the same time). Shocking censors when he appeared on popular European music shows Top of the Pops and Beat Club, Brown wasn’t a music star that you’d see in 16 Magazine, but he surely made an impression. His screams and wails were unforgettable, and his eerie act was unlike anything in the British music industry.
Arthur Brown would never see the same chart success as he did with Fire and would quickly be deemed a British novelty act. But his influence would continue to be felt in the budding heavy metal scene that was still barely in its infancy. Elements of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown could be seen in the music and stage shows of acts and artists such as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, KISS, Kings X, Gwar and Marilyn Manson. Before shock rock was even a genre, Arthur Brown had unknowingly created an entire genre of musical expression that would delight alienated youth and scare their parents.
Since discovering his album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, I have been fascinated with Brown and his legacy. However, in reality Arthur Brown is as mystifying and as surprising as his stage alter ego. Thoughtful and soft spoken, Brown relived his career with me in a lengthy conversation filled with stories and philosophies. But often the real surprises were not in the stories we expected, but those we did not know. What were the origins of his elaborate stage show, where did he disappear to in the 1980’s, and did Arthur Brown really set his head on fire at a show in 1967? Surprisingly candid, Arthur Brown reveals so much to me. Both on and off stage, Arthur Brown has the ability to inspire and fascinate.
Sam: When you first developed The Crazy World, there wasn’t anything like shock rock. How did you come up with the crazy idea create the crazy world of Arthur Brown?
Arthur Brown: Well, it was really a product of a few different things. I came up with the idea when I was living in Paris and I was around a lot of art and Jazz and blues music. I had this idea to have a multi-media club with statues, paintings and that kinds of stuff, but I had just gotten back to England and I had no money, so I thought that I’d put that multi-media idea into a band. The multi-media stage show happened bit by bit and by chance usually.
Sam: I know you found your first real success in Paris, and also became very popular in Germany.
Arthur: When I was in Paris it was a really wild scene. You got to be on TV three or four weeks in a row in France. Nobody knew me in England. A lot of experimental people would come to see us perform, and there were a lot of beatniks. The hotel I was staying in was where a lot of ladies of the night would be, and they’d have a lot of wild parties. We were playing three sets a night every night, and two of those on a Sunday. After a while you get a bit bored and you start to experiment and improvise. So I brought in lots of skits into the act, like General DeGaul cutting the Popes hair, and stuff like that. The audience liked it, so when I got back to England I met Vincent Crane and Dracaena Theaker, who made up the band that would eventually become The Crazy World, and we decided to try this multi-media thing with costumes. But in those days most people didn’t really go for it.
Sam: You were obviously a lot different than the established acts at the time. How did you finally find your place in the music scene?
Arthur: Well, we just happened one time to play The Speakeasy, and Joe Boyd, who was instrumental in starting the British underground, was looking for bands to play in the newly opened UFO Club. The UFO Club became very popular in the music world. There were all kinds of altered states in there. And there were all kinds of experimentation with people doing experimental dance. There was this one lot called The Exploding Galaxy who were quite adventurous. There was alternative politics, alternative lifestyles and all kinds of stuff and all kinds of different music and technology bursting out. We got the first ever sampler. It was inbuilt sounds, but it could only take six sounds. It was very primitive. In the course of those concerts, at that time, I used the first radio mic in rock n’ roll. I’d fly from the ceiling, with my head on fire. Also, I met an artist in the communal place I was staying, who was into paganism and all the symbols of that and all the mythical traditions of the world. So I started wearing the capes and gowns and it all came together gradually.
Sam: Your original incarnation of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown show had a real Faustian theme running through it. Was that in your head when you were putting together the act?
Arthur: Well there were two inspirations really. One was my interest in tribal stuff and there were a lot of TV documentaries about African tribes and they’d show this footage of African witch doctors and their mask and their dance.
Sam: I can see the influence of that in the way you would paint your face and that voodoo dance that you do.
Arthur: Yeah. I looked to them and learnt from that and used what I could. I did my version of it. Also, our drummer had a whole collection of African music on records, and we used some of those rhythms into The Crazy World. But also, I had quite an interest in Japanese Noh Theater, which was very ritualistic theater with masks. But a lot of it was a product of the residual tension left over from the Second World War. My family had been through the war, and the first house we lived in, which was a big hotel from my mother’s half, was bombed and reduced to dust. So we moved to another house, and that was also reduced to dust. We a had a few family members killed. So by the end of the war my family was fairly traumatized. A few family members were killed. So my family was pretty tense with PTSD. But my father was kind of an adventurous man, and also very interested in the different areas of the human spirit. So, one day, when I was about twelve, I came home and I found another bicycle in the front hall, and I said, “What’s that for?” He said, “I’ve brought a man home that is going to teach you how to empty your mind, because I know you are having a hard time in this family.” But it meant by the time that I got to the age where I was writing songs, where most of the songs were about cars and women and all of that, I was more interested in what went on beneath the surface. All the fire stuff had to do with that. The fire had to do with the unconditioned spirit. That became the imagery for that first stage act. It was very shocking. It was a departure from every day thinking.
Sam: There truly wasn’t anything that looked or sounded like anything like the music you were creating. You were such a departure from your contemporaries like The Beatles or The Who. When you were listening to the radio and you suddenly heard that scream – “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE” – it was jarring.
Sam: When you were doing your act, did you have a lot of people who didn’t get it? Did you get a lot of push back?
Arthur: Well a lot of people got very upset. Some people got very violent. We had our equipment kicked down the stairs. We had people jump on the stage to beat us up. Some people didn’t get it. They resented it. Some people, like members of the Hells Angels, would say to us “So you think you’re the god of hellfire, do you?” On the other hand we had people who thought we were Satanic. There were a lot of people who thought it was so strange, because in England it was the beginning of the underground scene, and they were so used to straight forward pop music that didn’t ask questions. They’d hear us and go “What?” We had them storm the stage. I had to get out of the floor of a van so nobody could see me and find me. We had people run up and punch me on stage in the middle of a song. I wouldn’t see it coming and next thing I’d know I’d be waking up on the floor with blood pouring from my head. It was just a very strange time.
Sam: Were you at least a bit of a tough guy? Could you defend yourself?
Arthur: I’m not a street fighter, but I remember on time where a promoter came up to us and said “Why don’t you just go home. Here is the money. Don’t play the second set.” I said, “We came all the way from the South of England up here to the North so we will play.” So he took me out to the balcony and he said “Look. See those people down there? They are going to storm the stage in the second part of your act and they want to destroy your equipment and beat you up. I don’t want that, so why don’t you go home.” I said “No. We came to play so we’ll play.” So I went upstairs and I found a glass case with a fire axe. It was silver, double headed Viking axe with the curved blade. It was a very fearsome looking blade. So I went on stage with that, with my makeup and my head on fire and waved the axe at these people and they didn’t dare come on stage. (Laughs) Not until we got off anyways. We were in our dressing rooms and they tried to break down the door and we had to escape through the back window.
Sam: It’s just a testament to how you were doing something so interesting. I mean, this type of stuff wasn’t happening to Herman’s Hermits.
Sam: So who were your fans? Obviously you had a fan base.
Arthur: Well for one thing we became popular with the hippie audience. It was the beginning of all that, so I originally became credited as a hippie. But when Fire came out it was not exactly a hippie thing. So we had the support of the hippies, but the punks who later came on liked us. The intellectuals, because Fire and the album and the show were thoughtful, gave us a lot of support. We got the support of people who liked wild dancing and rhythms. So it was the more progressive people who liked us.
Sam: Do you feel like you were ahead of your time? I mean a few years later heavy metal would happen and the guys like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were doing the exact same thing you were.
Arthur: It’s been said that my place in music has been to be kind of a pioneer of theater and shock rock and gigantic stage performances. Well, gigantic in those days. It wasn’t gigantic like it is now because now they have technology that can take it a lot further. Yeah.
Sam: Well I know performers like Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Bruce Dickinson have cited that you were a huge influence on them. You can see the influence of your stage makeup and costumes in groups like KISS, The Misfits and Kings Diamond. Do you often hear from performers like these in regard to your influence?
Arthur: (Laughs) When I first met Bruce Dickinson, which was in 1994, the first thing he ever said to me when I walked into the room was “You will never know how many millions I’ve made out of what I’ve copied from you.” He’s always been totally honest and has made his own way with it and developed it in his own way. It’s nice that something valid came out of what we explored. It’s cool. For me it was almost like a shamanic ritual show in a certain way. The fact that it developed in all those directions, but not have had that same root or intention for the act, is interesting. Initially I thought “Oh goodness” but then it’s all for entertainment. But I’m astonished to find that the hippie philosophy and language has become incorporated into heavy metal as a result.
Sam: In which ways would you say that that has happened?
Arthur: Yeah. All that gothic past and lots of English poetry. Those big romantic worlds. Lots of that imagery was from there.
Sam: Let’s talk about the big head dress that you would wear, which you would set on fire. Who built it? Where did you get it?
Arthur: It started as a crown which was really made out of really hard cardboard with candles on it that I found in the hotel in Paris. But that burnt out by the time I got back to England. So I got a vegetable colander and wore it upside down, and the candles were on it. But the wax used to come through the little holes and would get stuck on my hair. So we put a pie dish on top of it with petrol in it, and a strap around my head and under the chin. But that wobbled and I would get burns. So we ended up putting wings on the side. This was all developed with an artist friend of mine called Mike Reynolds. He lives in Canada now. Well, then we put on the pagan horns. Some people thought they were horns of the devil, but they were actually supposed to be the horns of Pan. So that was metallic, and we had the petrol in there, and we’d put strips of webbing up the horns and put com gum on them. We’d put cow gum on them, which actually had a really disgusting smell. But the flames would go quite high. The flames could get up to six feet up from my head. However, I don’t use that headdress much these days.
Sam: You know I have to ask this one. There is a famous story about your head catching fire during a performance. Is that true or an urban legend?
Arthur: Yeah. It did catch fire. That was in 1967 at the Windsor Jazz Festival. People poured their beer on me to put it out. There were also times where my clothes caught fire. Yeah. It’s dangerous. It’s not an easy thing to, especially if you’re dancing as well. You have to try to keep your head still and just move your body.
Sam: It’s amazing that you didn’t hurt yourself worse or kill yourself.
Sam: You folded up The Crazy World after one album and then eventually moved to a new project called Kingdom Come. Was that a natural move for you?
Arthur: Well in 1968 Fire was a hit in the United States, and things there were a lot different than they are now. I would get off stage and there would be fourteen people in my hotel room. They’d talk themselves in, because things were a bit more free form. Because of the nature of Fire they may ask me questions about life and death and the meaning of everything. I would give them all these great answers. (Laughs) But one afternoon I sat down and I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about these things and I was really quite ignorant. So my decision was to go out and find the answers to these things. I started a spiritual journey through all the different traditions of the world and took things from them. So that changed my attitude towards a lot of things. I also took some LSD, which was what people did in those days, and that gave me some visions and experiences I suppose. So I didn’t really like the idea of hierarchal leadership anymore. So I decided in my next band that I didn’t want to use all the theatrics, and I don’t want to use costumes or masks or do a stage act. So I formed another band I had called Puddletown Express which was an experimental band and I’d perform naked quite a lot.
Sam: Yes. I read about this. That act got you arrested, didn’t it?
Arthur: Yes. Well that was a little bit later in 1970. It really depended on where I was performing. In France they asked me not to do the nakedness by the French communist party. In England I didn’t seem to have any problem. The band was an improvising band, so it was kind of the opposite of The Crazy World. But The Crazy World kind of just wound itself down. It’s kind of hard to keep an act like that going financially. Well Puddletown Express was a little too radical for people who came expecting Fire and all of that. But we were down in Glastonbury with Dennis Taylor, and I went off and did a kind of vision quest thing and decided that it had a choice between going to a Tibetan meditation center or starting a new band as a way to move forward spiritually. I decided to go with the band. So I told Dennis about this and he said, “What are you going to call it?” I thought about it and said why not call it Kingdom. He said, “Well if you are going to call it Kingdom, why don’t you call it Kingdom Come?” So we did. Then we kind of brought people into the studio and tried out various musicians together. We just improvised and put out what came from it. From that came one complete song of the first album. A song called Sunrise. Then we just spent three months rehearsing every day, all day and all night, and wrote the rest of the album which was basically all the kind of expirations of the sixties. What happened when it met the world of guns and money.
Sam: Are you still on that spiritual journey? Did you ever find the answers?
Arthur: Well, all of those traditions have answers to everything. If your very lucky you’ll find, in amongst the “so called” teachers, and there are lots of them, you find someone who kind of goes beyond all of that. It takes you to where there is no journey and no answers. You end up living in the moment.
Sam: You continue to be active. You are still performing music. I saw a video of you doing a recent performance in a Goth club and the kids are going crazy with what you do. It’s amazing. Is it wild to go into these clubs and have the kids get into what you do?
Arthur: Oh yeah. These young people are open to experiment, open to new ideas and open to energies. It doesn’t really matter to them what band is there, as long as the energy is there. That’s what they respond to, and especially if they can dance. There is something real about it, and they respond to it. It’s lovely for me. I’ve got a young band now and they have a kind of different attitude to music. Because I’m with them, I’m absorbing some of the younger values of music and finding that it is a great adventure. I love finding new music
Sam: Well there are so much interesting performances featuring you online. There are acoustic performances, and a lot of blues influenced stuff. Such a departure from the way audiences might initially think of you. Again, it’s all very recent. You seemed to have disappeared during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Were you making music at all during this period? Was there a time where you didn’t make music?
Arthur: Yes there was. I got married to a lady from Texas, where things are big and wild. We went to live there after we spent some time living in Africa.
Sam: Wow. From Africa to Texas. That’s a wild change.
Arthur. Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah. Well Texas seemed fairly tame compared to where we were in Rwanda. They were just having the first wave of slaughters there, so Texas seemed quite sane. But now when you look at with the rattler snake churches where they prove that they love Jesus by bending down and picking up a poisonous snake. The rodeo guys who are completely wild. Yeah. It’s an interesting place. But we had a son there, and I was more interested in bringing up the family. So I took up carpentry and had a house painting company. I kept doing music on my own. I wasn’t so much into the industry or the touring though.
Sam: What got you back into touring?
Arthur: After a fair amount of time doing the painting company, my then wife was about to become principal of this spiritual university and we had classes together. So that kind of led into doing counseling and I became a qualified therapist with a degree and everything. But I decided not to do the traditional counseling and instead relied on people writing improvised songs and jingles. That was quite successful, and I was transplanting into the federal prison with really good results.
Sam: Wow. That must have been wild.
Arthur: (Laughs) It’s not what they normally do in prisons. (Laughs) But I was in that sort of phase of improvisation with music, and I went over to a friend and she said that I should go and play Glastonbury. So I put together and American band and we went over there and I hadn’t played in years. Well it went over well, and we kept touring for a couple of years. But during one performance in a very hot club, during a performance of Fire, I got a brain hemorrhage. That finished that particular band. I was out of commission for a couple of years. While I was recovering I had to be out of the heat of Texas, so I came back to England. Well after a couple of years I tried to gig with some local bands, and I realized I was okay. I eventually came back in and I did a pretty heavy regime of touring up the hills and getting my strength back. I’d sing every day in a church. The vicar said, “Yes you can sing here, as long as you don’t sing that Fire song.” It was a wonderful small church where my voice sounded incredible.
Sam: Well that would really bring out that banshee wail that became a trademark of yours. Arthur, where did that scream of yours originate from? It’s so unique, and so haunting.
Arthur: Lots of bands screamed, but I knew that I could actually sing in that register. I could not just scream but sing in that voice. So I had taken classical lessons, and I just practiced singing in that register and found a way to do it. I’d imagine that note and just practiced and practiced until I did it.
Sam: It’s just a haunting sound that rips through the ear drums. I know you’ve worked with so many rock icons. You worked with Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa. Do you still stay in contact with other musicians?
Arthur: Some of them. It’s really more or less when you bump into them. My so lives in Austin, Texas and I go there every year at Christmas. Last Christmas I just happened to be crossing the road and I ran into Robert Plant.
Sam: What’s Robert Plant doing in Austin?
Arthur: He lives in Austin now. Well, he invited me to his Christmas party. I keep in touch with Peter Gabriel, and I bump into Jimmy Page occasionally. It’s like that really. They are not part of my daily life, but you go to awards ceremonies and you see them all again. If you got a friend and you don’t see them in thirty years, it doesn’t matter. You pick it up.
Sam: I read that you have been doing speaking engagements throughout England now. Is that a new type of gig for you?
Arthur: I am developing it so it’ll be a two-person thing, and there will be some music in it as well. It’s not just sit-down talk. I tried the sit down talk and its okay, but it’s nicer if there is music. The little touches and details come out in the stories. It’s like sitting around a fire with friends. Even if you heard the stories before it doesn’t matter.
Still considered to be underground nearly fifty years after his success with Fire, in recent years Arthur Brown has embraced his title of the godfather of shock rock. Now in his early 70’s Brown continues to make appearances throughout Europe bringing his brand of sinister mirth to both old and new audiences. However his message still rings true. He still wants to teach us to burn. Although he primarily stays close to home in Europe, Brown will be bringing his act for a brief stay in Las Vegas in the summer of 2016. Don’t miss your chance to see a true rock n’ roll pioneer and a fascinating performer. For more information on Arthur Brown and his crazy world visit his website at http://www.arthur-brown.com/