ARTHUR BROWN: OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
illustration by nathan morse
First of all, this fellow has an endearing wheezing laugh. One you’d expect to hear from some pub-crawler out of Dickens or one of the cheerier depictions of the Buddha. The pages of Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics are full of people decidedly less interesting than this seventy-four year old Godfather of Progressive Rock. Rakish, free-spirited and better educated than most of his compeers in first and second wave of the British Invasion, Arthur Brown was equal parts leader of two notable rock groups and surrealist heir to the bandleader tradition of Glenn Miller and Harry James. By jumbling these idioms and others while overlaying the whole with Arthur’s comically rendered angst and cartoony variable voice, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and prog were born. Their Daliesque live show prefigured the theatrics of the Doors and Alice Cooper and the 1967 self-titled debut LP twists heads around to this day. Opening with Brown’s bloodcurdling shout – “I am the God of Hellfire and I bring you -,” the single “Fire” was a worldwide hit that summed the artists’ lifelong obsession with the red stuff and kicked off a long and irregular career as recording artist. Here I catch up with this Lord of Misrule at the outset of a short tour with more dates rumored later in the year. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s self-titled LP will be reissued for Record Store Day. This interview by Ron Garmon.
What was your most memorable accident with the fire helmet?
Arthur Brown: [loud snorting and a long pause, then rising chuckles] Well, there’s nothing like the first time. The time I remember it was the first time we did the Windsor Festival—the first big gig we were doing. The lights man in those days was inclined to drink quite a lot and he filled the pie dish so full that by some means it lit! If I moved slightly the liquid would spill out and began to burn my clothes. People in the audience poured up pint glasses of beer and as much else as they could get over me until it was out. At the time I was sitting in a metal chair that was being raised by a crane. The first fly-in entrance at a rock concert. I was supposed to be flown in with my hair alight but my clothes were soaking, my hair dripping, water dripping off like I was some kind of drowned badger. Not so grand an entrance.
Your first album was a journey into the mind of someone retreating from reality, which would go onto become a common theme in rock music. A raw disturbing theme for a trans-Atlantic culture raised on normality and tranquilizers, wouldn’t you agree?
Arthur Brown: [prolonged wheeze] Yes! Indeed. We’d have had enough with the war and much else. My family was messed up with the war and my childhood wasn’t always a happy one. One day when I was very young—I think fifteen-fourteen—my father brought in this guy who said he was going to teach me to empty my mind, so I could handle all the emotional rubbish that comes out. So I did. When I started writing my first stuff, you write about what was going on for you. That led me to look beneath my normal emotional patterns and normal thinking patterns. When it came to doing to the first album, it was me—how I’d really lived. It was what I felt. I was on a journey inside asking ‘Is this who I am?’ And I’ve always loved fire! Even looking at the fire in the grate, I’d be transported into a different world altogether. It would take me into a sort of trance. So it was natural for me that I should write about fire.
I’d imagine the collective memory of the Blitz had something to do with it being a hit.
Arthur Brown: Yes-yes. Well, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. [prolonged laughter]
You’re from a musical family, I understand?
Arthur Brown: My father was an Art Tatum-style pianist.
And your mother a singer?
Arthur Brown: Yes. My career started in Paris, 1965. There was a club on Rue Fontaine, right in the middle of the city. It was very wild club. Because we were playing three sets a day and then six on Sunday, I got to feel I had to do something different, so I began incorporating skits and theatrical sketches into the act. I was staying at a rather seedy hotel where people had lots of strange parties. After one, outside my door I found a crown with candles on it. I decided I would wear it onstage and of course lit the candles. Later a woman came back into the dressing room with a seven-year-old child and the child said ‘You should black out your teeth.’ What a thing from a seven-year-old! So of course I did, using makeup. They loved it at the club, then I moved down Spain for a while and played in these clubs that had stalactites hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites coming up from the floor. Salvador Dali and Roland Kirk would come and I got the idea for a wild act. I learned how to stage dive and astound the audience and all that. I was lucky enough to meet people like the artist Mike Reynolds, with whom I had many long conversations about the occult and metaphysics—so those images became part of the act. The fire helmet became a helmet with horns. Things just grew and grew until we hit the Info Club, the underground club in 67 London. There the audiences wanted you to explore—so we did.
You went to university, which is somewhat unusual for rockers of your era. What were you studying and why?
Arthur Brown: [prolonged giggle] The first thing I studied for a year—before being asked not to go back—was law at King’s College in London. It was there a young lady introduced me to Gauloise cigarettes, modern jazz, traditional jazz and taught me the facts of all those things. I went to the underground film theater where Eisenstein movies were going on. It was just being open to exploration that was taking place in the art and theater world.
You worked with Vincent Crane, who is also a cult figure now. Remember him for us.
Arthur Brown: Ah… Vincent. He was an extraordinary funny man. He could improvise beautifully and not repeat himself, just an amazing fellow. He could conduct and write classical music. He was also kind of bipolar and manic-depressive so life was a physical torment for him. The kind of things that happened while touring in those days were very upsetting to him.
Thanks to you, a large element of theatricality entered rock music—the result of which we see now at every Super Bowl and Grammy ceremony. What role do you think spectacle plays in human culture?
Arthur Brown: Spectacle is one thing … well, one thing famously used by the Romans to keep people from thinking about what was actually going on with all their money and the way the so-called Gods were behaving. Spectacle one thing, ritual another. All the old cultures were based on ritual—they’re what held societies together. They join people on a family level as well as a shared communion. It would also tie people to the universe—to whatever was visible. If you take theater from that, then it’s more stories—a way of bringing vision to a culture. It is a necessary and most wonderful way for humans to communicate. When the Church decided to change all the Biblical things into facts instead of wonderful images, everything seemed to go on hold and in the end, some people rejected it. The mind works by analogies, and images are wonderful ways of explaining things you can’t.
Your first band had an unusually jazzy turn that was not at all standard in rock music at that time. Your next band was Kingdom Come, which dropped Galactic Zoo Dossier in 1970. By this time, psychedelic rock seems to have caught up with you. What were the genesis and concept behind the new band and this record?
Arthur Brown: I lived over here for a short while in that period and while I was here the assassination of Bobby Kennedy happened. When I was queued up at the Apollo to see the Temptations, someone behind me in the queue was shot. Apart from that, the experience was wonderful!
Before the end, Kingdom Come became very likely the first rock act to use a drum machine.
Arthur Brown: We did the drum machine thing for a year and a half and we got to open—I think in Belgium—for Duke Ellington which was kind of nice. But I wanted to go further on the journey that ‘Fire’ started and I did and the band … we just kind of broke up. I only just in the last four years got back into the kind of experimentation we had with that band in the electronics. The use of the helmet, which allows you to play music just by thinking notes. Just in real time, as if you were whistling. You get points for that because you’re not copying anyone’s existing ideas. Once in the studio after a few minutes of playing we stopped and the producer realized something was changing the mix. Finally we realized my brain was still attached to the mix and it was doing it by itself!
Arthur Brown: I thought raw sewage! [laughs]
You seemed to slip easily into the rock legend category after Kingdom Come, working with the likes of Hawkwind, Alan Parsons Project, Bruce Dickinson and others before reforming Crazy World of Arthur Brown. What did you do in between times to feed your muse?
Arthur Brown: When it came to like about 1979, I went to live in Africa and checked out some of the rhythms and things. Then I met a lady from Austin, Texas, and we had a son and I decided I don’t want to go touring but spend time with the family. I got together a house-painting company with Jimmy Carl Black, drummer for the Mothers of Invention. In those days, there were lots and lots of musicians and there were fair audiences but you couldn’t make much money unless you were out touring so you had some other … go into construction, painting, whatever. When that ended, I went to live in a yurt on a hill in Portugal.
Splendid! I’ve spent time in yurts and they’re fine things.
Arthur Brown: [prolonged cackling] Yeah. Oh, God. Unfortunately the last year I had a solid one built. I liked the meditation, that kind of journey. After a certain point, there isn’t any more inward to get—after that I decided I was going to do my music.