The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Burn After Reading:
Arthur Brown’s Still Crazy, All Fired Up and Ready to Go
One of the most remarkable singles in a year full of remarkable music, 1968’s “Fire” was unlike most anything else on the radio. Backed with malevolent swirls of organ and brass punctuating a hard-driving arrangement, the operatic vocals of Arthur Brown made quite an impression on listeners. Opening with the memorable spoken (well, shouted) introduction – “I am the god of hellfire! And I bring you …” – The Crazy World of Arthur Brown figuratively set the pop music world alight. The single hit #1 in Brown’s native U.K. as well as Canada, and made it all the way to #2 in the USA, no mean feat for an unknown artist.
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown would release but one (self-titled) album, but its members would go on to subsequent success in other bands. And Brown himself would continue on a critically acclaimed career, one filled with innovative stylistic twists and turns. Today at 74, Brown remains vital and active; he recently completed a short North American tour with his current-day lineup of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and took the time to speak with me about his life of music, then and now.
In the mid 1960s, Arthur Brown’s original idea wasn’t even to have a band. “My career started in Paris,” he recalls, “and I went down to Spain playing as well. I came across a lot of surreal clubs, with stalactites coming down from the ceiling, all kinds of strange objects.” He decided he would do something similar back in London.
“I wanted to open a club with art and statues and theatre, but I couldn’t get the money,” Brown says, “so I decided to put [those ideas] in a band.” His goal was to create a group that “shock[ed] people into thinking in or looking at things in a different way.” He teamed up with Vincent Crane – a classically trained organist on a par with jazz-rock great Brian Auger. “Vincent could conduct an orchestra, he could arrange, and he was an accomplished improviser indeed,” Brown says. One thing Crane was not interested in, however – and this set him apart from other major keyboardists of the era such as Keith Emerson – was playing synthesizers. Instead, his Hammond organ would form the musical centerpiece of the new group.
Brown’s background was in rock, soul and jazz. “I had my own jazz quartet,” he says. “I was bass player.” But for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, he would fold in elements of soul, jazz, rock and – thanks to Crane – classical music as well. Brown’s astounding vocal range – four and a half octaves, he says – was all but unknown in pop music. The group’s original, guitar-less lineup – the one that would make the band’s sole album – also included drummer Drachen Theaker and bassist Nick Greenwood (billing himself as Sean Nicholas).
The band’s singles and LP were released on Track Records, the label formed by Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, managers of The Who. Brown and his band were discovered by Who guitarist Pete Townshend. “Pete was talent spotting for Track in the period when the underground was the big thing,” Brown recalls. “He decided that – in order to persuade the record company – he took us into the studio to cut some demo recordings.”
Townshend felt that demos were essential; he had already failed at convincing Lambert and Stamp to sign another band he had his eye on. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was a quirky comedy outfit fronted by the inimitable Viv Stanshall; that band would go on to a sort of underground fame, appearing in the Beatles’ television special Magical Mystery Tour, singing an original tune called “Death Cab for Cutie.” (Yes, that’s where the Pacific Northwest-based band got its name.)
“They missed out” on the Bonzos, says Brown, “and Pete decided that he wouldn’t let that happen with us.” Brown had only been in a recording studio once before, so the experience was quite unfamiliar to him. But he had ready songs and/or concepts. “That was ’67,” Brown says, “and we were already into the story of a guy going on his inward journey.”
One of the songs Brown brought to the demo studio was “Spontaneous Apple Creation,” an unfinished tune. “I was working on it, developing the melody for all of the verses,” Brown says. “I said to Pete, ‘This one we can’t really finish, because all I’ve got is the spoken parts.’ So he said, ‘Well, do the spoken part.’” The band did exactly that, and Townshend liked what he heard. “Why don’t we just keep that?” he said.
Brown credits Townshend with helping to “form” that and other songs. “He was able to move us in a certain direction because of the sounds in the studio, which we didn’t have the experience with.” Somewhere there exists – or did exist – a demo from those sessions featuring Pete on rhythm guitar. “That would be interesting,” Brown admits. “But I’ve never seen those since.”
Once the band was signed to Track, they would return to a studio, but this time the producer would be Kit Lambert. Brown says that “Kit’s father was a great composer, so he had extraordinary creative ideas about how to do the sound. He had no compunction about overloading the sliders, which later became popular.” Lambert would add distortion into the mix in a subtle way, Brown says, “So that you couldn’t even tell what you were listening to. We tried later to remake that sound, and we couldn’t do it, even with modern technology.”
Brown says that Townshend was, however, “involved with all the major decisions. They were deciding which tune would become the single.” The choices were “Fire” and a sort of comedy track called “Give Him a Flower.” Brown notes that “Fire” provided “a much darker image, one they felt they could make register.” So “Fire” it was, the band’s second single. (“Give Him a Flower” was in fact the B-side of “Devil’s Grip,” the first single by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.)
The first side of The Crazy World’s album was thematically unified, but Brown is uncomfortable with calling it a “rock opera.” He’s long looked a bit suspiciously at the idea, and not without reason. When The Who’s Tommy was about to come out, Lambert confided in Brown. “He said to me, ‘I’m going to con the bastards, the general public.’” Brown says he had no idea what Lambert was on about. “I’m going to appeal to the audience’s snobbery,” Lambert continued. “This thing that Townshend’s writing, I’m going to call it an opera, which it isn’t. But you’ll see: They will take it as an opera, and it will become something they have to see, because there’s a move to make pop music very serious.”
Arthur Brown says that Townshend’s original idea for Tommy was to feature Brown as the story’s lead figure, but Lambert overruled him: “No, let’s keep it for The Who.”
Brown believes Tommy is “an amazing piece of work. But rock opera? I don’t buy it. There just isn’t a real name for it.” And so it was with the suite of songs on Side One of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, with “Fire” as its centerpiece. Brown thinks of that suite as a dream piece or poem rather than any kind of rock opera. “My thing was a whole piece of sides about a journey inward, with fire as the basic symbol,” Brown says. Fire “was a portal through which somebody could get to an inner world that had figures in it.” The featuring of characters was something Brown felt essential to the concept.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m singing about this journey, I need to put characters in. Because your average audience are not going to relate to just abstract stuff,” Brown recalls. One of the main characters was the God of Hellfire. But Brown says that Lambert had reservations. “We can’t do it a whole album of this silly thing about fire,” Lambert told him. “Nobody’s going to want to listen to that! We’ve got to put some stage numbers on this album.” So the two men agreed: writing with organist Vincent Crane, Brown would be creatively in charge of Side One, while Lambert would oversee the second side full of stand-alone tunes. The centerpiece of Side Two would be a melodramatic reading of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic “I Put a Spell On You.”
Predating shock-rock and the theatricality of groups like Alice Cooper, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was, to coin a phrase, absolutely incendiary onstage. For “Fire,” Brown appeared in ghoulish face paint, and headgear that shot flames out of it. And while that’s the most memorable visual image of late-sixties Brown, there were others, some of which threatened to overshadow the band’s music. “There was a point in about 1969,” Brown admits, “when the visuals got so elaborate that they impaired the performance. My relation with the audience was slightly sidetracked.”
Brown relates an amusing story, one that could easily have found its way into Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 film, This is Spinal Tap. He describes his costume for the performance of “Time,” one of the album’s tracks from the “Fire” suite. “I had a UV gown, and then strapped to my back a motor. On the front I had this huge, shall we say, an astrological clock.
“But the clock was from the ground to my chin – a huge disc – so all you could see was my head,” Brown continues. “And on my head there was a helmet with wings and the turning planets. There was wonderful color and everything else, but that kind of costuming really kind of got in the way. I couldn’t really move!”
Still, Brown defends the multimedia focus of his shows, a quality that endures to this very day in sets by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. “The music was just so strong and theatrical itself,” he says. “The visuals and music complemented themselves.” Early concerts made extensive use of strobe lighting, but concerns about inducing epileptic seizures meant those were eventually phased out, says Brown.
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown toured in support of its album, to great acclaim. But drummer Theaker’s aversion to flying meant that he would exit the group, replaced by Carl Palmer. When the original group split circa 1969, Palmer would form Atomic Rooster with Crane before decamping to join forces with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in ELP.
Brown retired the Crazy World label in 1970, going on to release a series of quirky yet intriguing albums under his own name, leading the groundbreaking and constantly style-shifting Kingdom Come. He reunited with Crane for a one-off 1979 album, Faster Than the Speed of Light. Brown also lent his talents to recordings by The Alan Parsons Project, and worked with artists as diverse as the Pretty Things, Die Krupps, Hawkwind, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and former Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black.
Amid his ongoing musical activity, in the 1980s Brown made what might have looked like an odd career choice. Moving to Austin, Texas, he enrolled in college and earned a Masters degree in counseling. Brown doesn’t view his counseling work as inconsistent with his musical pursuits; in fact there’s a direct connection between The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s emphasis on an inward journey, and his counseling work. “They kind of both span some of the same root, really,” he says.
Brown was born in England in 1942, while World War II was still raging. Like most Britons, his family suffered during the war. “My grandma had a hotel that was blown into dust while we were in the basement,” he recalls. Because Brown’s father was in the Royal Air Force, the family moved to London. He recalls that one day, “my mother took my brother and I out to a walk. We got about 400 yards away from the house, and then it was blown to dust. People were killed.”
His father was apparently a modern-thinking individual; “quite a remarkable man,” Brown says. He brought a mental health expert in to counsel the family, helping them cope with what today is known as PTSD. One of the things the man taught young Arthur was meditation. “That, of course, set me on an inner journey right there,” Brown says. So when he started writing his own songs, his lyrical emphasis “was less concerned with cars and all that stuff, and more with what was going on inside.”
In the last decade, Brown has released a number of albums, including a 2011 live set (the vinyl-only The Crazy World of Arthur Brown Live at High Voltage), and 2013’s studio album Zim Zam Zim. His 2017 tour features a “new” lineup of TCWOAB, though most of the band members have been aboard since 2000. And Brown’s exploration of inner worlds continues apace.
“I love checking out new things and finding new, different ways to do things,” Brown says. “It makes me feel alive.” And the man who arguably brought theatricality into rock – and was among the first to use a drum machine on a recording, with Kingdom Come’s 1973 album Journey – continues to innovate. In recent months he’s begun a new recording project. “I’ve just done the first mix of a track using just my brainwaves,” he says. “No hands touching anything.” As the 50th Anniversary of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown approaches, The God of Hellfire continues on his journey, musical and otherwise.
Photo by Barbara F.G.