"Fire"-man Arthur Brown The God of Hellfire
For better or worse, when The Crazy World of Arthur Brown released "Fire" in 1968 it immediately made Brown familiar worldwide as "The God of Hellfire." In the three decades that followed, "Fire"'s hook, refrain, and the stage show that accompanied it have been borrowed, appropriated, and outright stolen by scores of popular musicians - with glowing admissions of larceny coming from Genesis, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Kiss, and even George Clinton. And while "Fire" proved Brown to be the proverbial "one-hit wonder," the 53-year-old musician can claim an unparalleled radio legacy in the song's redefinition of psychedelia. It can also be convincingly argued that without Brown's lavish live productions, the concert theatrics that Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, and U2 now deliver as routine might never have been.
In just the last few years, "Fire" has been covered by Pete Townshend, techno sensation Prodigy, and shock-metal's Marilyn Manson. And what about the Red Hot Chili Peppers' fire-capped Lollapalooza finale? A tip of the hat to Arthur Brown. "I'll have to send those folks my address," quips Brown, who retains a quarter of "Fire"'s publishing rights - a business luxury rare for Sixties hitmakers. And the address where those royalties are sent? Austin, Texas. Had Brown accepted Jimi Hendrix's enthusiastic offer to team forces or kept Townshend's guitar tracks on the original "Fire," things may have turned out different. But at Robert Fripp's suggestion, Brown decided 15 years ago that Austin was the best place to concentrate on his family, and find sanity away from fame. And this year, Brown is preparing for his first real attempt at an Austin-based return, with a new album, re-issued records, an autobiography, poetry book, and overseas tour that will take him to Russia and the prestigious Glastonberry Festival. Given that in 1973, when Brown's drummer called the afternoon before a gig to say he was 400 miles away with the bass player's wife, Brown pre-impacted hip-hop by becoming the first-ever musician ever to use a drum machine in a live show, and it seems only fair to paraphrase LL Cool J: Don't call it a comeback, the influence has been here for years.
"When we started, there were no books about rock and its history, so we never considered that people would later look at our work in any context," says Brown. "We considered music to be the objective, not fame, so my interest was always on the next project. But time to time, people will remind me of the influence of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. A guy that recently discovered my music just told me he immediately realized that many of his favorite hard rock bands got the falsetto thing from me. And it's odd, because heavy metal expanded on both the music and the theatrics despite the fact we never had a guitarist in the Crazy World."
Brown devotee and ex-Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson has been so impressed by Brown's oft-overlooked influence on his peers that he's taken it upon himself to compile a BBC documentary tracking Brown's legacy. As was the case with Dickinson, the most direct reminder for Brown of his influence often comes from the artists themselves. Peter Gabriel once told Brown before a show, "You'll see a lot of yourself in me tonight." With pre-stardom acts like Genesis and David Bowie supporting both The Crazy World and Brown's next band, Kingdom Come, Brown says it's no surprise they picked up on at least one of Brown's musical, mime, performance art, theater, or poetry elements. "With so much going on, influence was only natural," Brown says.
Brown's own story of influences is much the same as that of most British acts of the Sixties; the discovery of American blues on the BBC. Brown says that although he kept abreast of early rock pioneers like Fats Domino and Little Richard via imports, it was the field recordings of blues legends like Robert Johnson that eventually led him to find Muddy Waters and Champion Jack Dupree with the informal blues fraternity of his college dorm. By living in a quadrangle, with sides that only played the Beatles, New Orleans jazz, and Bob Dylan, Brown was exposed to genre-crossing musicians and their fans before he had begun to play out himself - let alone settle into a genre. Eventually, Brown discovered James Brown's Live at the Apollo, and found inspiration in just hearing the crowd response. "It was incredible in that the fans and music put our English music to shame by dealing so heavily in emotion," says Arthur Brown.
By 1966, Brown was a struggling musician unable to pay his bills at a Paris hotel, days away from lowering his possessions out a sixth story window and skipping out on his bill. But in his last days there, Brown hooked up with a soundtrack producer working on a project for a Jane Fonda film. "It was horrible," Brown says, "My voice comes out from behind her while she's naked in the shower. But it paid my debt, got me out of Paris, and sent me back to England with an idea for the Crazy World." With a degree in philosophy under his belt, Brown created the Crazy World as a vehicle to explore social and political issues within sprawling free-form rants and jams. Track Records, the British label that discovered Hendrix and rejuvenated The Who, saw potential in Brown's ability to complement the jams with the gloomy theatre of the stage show, and secured the rights to the audio half of Brown's Crazy World.
"The make-up and fire got people's attention," explains Brown, "but I started to write songs that were pretty weird for the times and we'd be playing to audiences of stockbrokers accustomed to bluesy lyrics. They wouldn't listen any further without a hook so we needed another dimension to communicate the feelings. At the time it was new subject matter - good and evil and all that shit, as well as a fair amount of comedy on politics. It wasn't props and things just to get people to look, it was us asking ourselves what this is about and finding the lighting and dance that can match it. Because if you are going to talk about social commentary, it doesn't work as well if you're just spouting while standing straight up.
"We were able to paint different contexts with different costumes. In a way, I was rather sad it didn't develop more. Alice Cooper took it and I think his early stuff was rather good, only he fell into the same traps we did for a while. Kiss, as well. It's dangerous to overly concentrate on the theatrics. You must start with the music. Too many images are too cumbersome and don't work. What works in rock theatre is streamlined image, not so much impressionist but basic images. The challenge is to get images that are abstract enough not to be too defining but still able to display a concrete image."
Brown's most influential image/theatric was the "God of Hellfire," an extension of "Fire" for which the British press would vilify him, and the Italian police jail him, considering the routine satanic since the singer would typically conclude the set by lighting his head on fire. In the never-ending game of trace-the-influence, Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton says "Fire" was directly responsible for P-Funk's own stage circus. "He'd set fire to his fuckin' head! That told me a lot. I knew where I was heading from then on," Clinton told Soul CD.
And even without a guitarist, Brown's stage show was confrontational enough to make a fan out of his touring partner and label-mate, Jimi Hendrix. Brown says Hendrix eventually got to the point that he wouldn't allow The Crazy World to support him for fear of being upstaged. And when the two acts were inadvertently paired, Hendrix would invariably light his guitar on fire - this being a full year after Brown had begun his own on-stage flametricks.
"It was partly due to Jimi that `Fire' was such a big hit," notes Brown. "Track had given him the single, he liked it, and gave it to a lot of the black stations around America and said `play this'. He didn't tell them I was white. He used to come down to gigs and we'd occasionally get on stage together in New York. He'd play the bass and I'd sing. For some reason he liked my singing, and one day while touring, I'd been called over to Jimi's hotel. I went and he told me he thought we should get something together with projection screens and taped Wagner. He was looking for something radically different to do and never found it, so he went back to the Band of Gypsies. I told him I would think about it, but I wasn't very impressed by him then. It wasn't until much later that I listened to a lot more of him and realized it was an honor I couldn't have realized at the time."
Shortly after passing on the Hendrix gig, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown began to collapse on the road, with one member actually being institutionalized. With the trappings of instant fame and the pressure to deliver his show to mainstream audiences, Brown also started to show signs of mental fatigue. Brown put an end to the Crazy World when he began to believe his own hype. "It started with theatrics and finding a dynamic word-image fit, but when I got into dope I began to read things into it," he recounts. "For a while, I didn't necessarily believe I was the devil, but felt as if I was supposed to lay things open for people to see. Thank goodness that side of myself disappeared. After a while you think `God, how could I believe this?'"
Because The Crazy World was essentially Brown's dictatorship, his next project was a communal experimental band that paid roadies and management the same cut as the band. Not surprisingly, the band never recorded and lasted but a year. With a more conventional wage system, the band eventually spilled over into the modestly successful Kingdom Come. "My visions of reality was at the center of the Crazy World and I thought I needed to become the opposite," Brown says, "But hiding my name on the bill was just the opposite end of the same crap."
Brown continued to tour and record throughout the Seventies, appearing briefly inTommy, and turning in guest studio performances with Cat Stevens, Alan Parsons, and Hawkwind. At the time, Brown's modest successes had him so frustrated with the music business that he defiantly broke Music Biz 101's cardinal rule and acted as his own manager and publicist. But without formal career guidance, Brown gravitated back to school to study dance, discipline, self-observation, and the correlation of music and movement. Eventually, Brown's experimental work in using music to heal, typically through improvisational songs, took him as far as Israel where he met with wounded soldiers in the infirmaries.
By 1990, Brown had returned to academia at Southwest Texas State University, in pursuit of a counseling degree. "In many of the sessions during my internship, I found it more effective to sing than talk," says Brown. And thus, an idea was born: Brown would join local counselor Jim Maxwell for "Healing Songs Therapy." Each one-hour session with Maxwell would conclude with a Brown song that addressed the patient's problems. By integrating music and therapy, Brown had managed to combine both his loves. But even today, as the healing and soul-searching continue professionally, its also reminds him of how much he enjoyed performing. A 1987 blues record with former Mother of Invention player Jimmy Carl Black, Brown, Black, and Blues, was both Brown's highest-profile Austin outing to date and definitive proof that Brown's voice had survived the downtime. Around the same time, Brown would launch a short bi-coastal tour and appear on Solid Gold with a band of Austin musicians that featured a pre-Poi Dog Bruce Hughes and Susan Voelz. Yet, even with the occasional live or recorded action, Brown says his Austin experiences have been essentially about choosing peace of mind over money.
"At one point, my case necessitated the old Austin standby of going into construction," says the singer. "I was a carpenter for a while and had a house painting company with Jimmy Carl Black that at one point had painters for keyboards, bass, drums, and guitars. It was funny because around Jimmy Carl Black, if nobody recognizes you, he'll tell them `I'm a rock & roll legend and painting your damn wall.'"
Today, the success of entire Brown-inspired genres like techno, metal, and industrial music has laid a strong foundation for Brown to return to a younger audience. And although Brown says he's a bit embarrassed by chunks of the mid-Seventies records that will be re-issued one-per-month starting next January by One-Way Records, they'll also provide historical perspective for new fans who can only find The Crazy World of Arthur Brown's "Fire," and have perhaps confused Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come for the Eighties Zeppelin rip-off. Additionally, Brown is in pre-production for a new record he hopes to release in time for next year's international touring.
"It's exciting because there's some African rhythms, experimental funk, and electronics I've been toying with to get as wide of a rhythm base a possible so there's more to inspire new dance opportunities. There will also be a little blues and folk that will place more accent on the lyrics, with an a cappella track and various degrees of instrumentation." As for the new stage show, Brown says he's got some ideas of his own but is also finding inspiration from those he's influenced.
"Sure, I'm influenced by Peter Gabriel," he says. "I know one artist who won't go see certain films in case he's influenced, but sometimes I hear records I think I couldn't do any better than, and I'll find its influence and something wonderful can come out of it. When I was young, I'd watch travelogues about African tribes on British TV and later find that when I did the dancing with the Crazy World it was a lot of the same movements. I didn't practice them, all I'd done was watch it on television. It's the same way today if you're listening to the radio."
Earlier this year, Brown tested the new material on audiences throughout a small European tour that
culminated in a Russian Festival that also included Joe Cocker and Sheryl Crow.
Putting aside the influence of "Fire," potential album sales, or even his
work with "Healing Songs," Brown says the touring reminded him that returning to the studio and stage is simply the best therapy
"I have spent years finding stability in my life and family, and now I'm back to being the irresponsible artist," he beams. "And I have a lot more experience now to put in the music. I'm 53, but it gives me a certain pedigree. I can't dance like I could at 23, but I know more about it.
"I remember on the tour last year suddenly finding myself in mid-air, upside-down with my hand just about to hit the stage and saying to myself, `How the fuck did I get here?' It was lovely, music just takes you away and your body responds." n