Arthur Brown Interview: ‘The God of Hellfire’ & ‘Mastermind of Theatrical Rock’
May 22, 2014
By Ray Shasho
Exclusive Interview with Arthur Brown
British theatrical rocker Arthur Brown has influenced innumerable music artists, especially lead singers in bands who searched for an edge or gimmick to enhance their stage presence. ‘Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ and his ensuing band ‘Kingdom Come’ became the creators and his disciples would soon follow suit … Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, Kiss, George Clinton, and Marilyn Manson to name just a few.
ARTHUR BROWN: has had a fascinating music career. His first big gig was with a band called ‘The Ramong Sound’ where Brown shared vocals with Clem Curtis. He left to start his own band before the The Ramong Sound signed with Pye Records and eventually changed their name to ‘The Foundations.’ The British soul group went straight to Top 40 heaven with their releases “Baby Now That I’ve Found You,” and“Build Me Up Buttercup.”
Leaving behind those successes hadn’t deterred Arthur Brown. His new psychedelic/progressive rock band had become extremely popular while earning creative and experimental endorsements from the likes of Track Records Kit Lambert& Chris Stamp, and The Who’s Pete Townshend. A music festival favorite, Brown’s bold and astonishing theatrical antics onstage became extraordinary and left audiences across the globe often flabbergasted. Arthur Brown became notorious for wearing a silver mask and extreme makeup while balancing his trademark flaming headdress on top of his head.
In 1968, Arthur Brown and his ‘Crazy World’ scored huge with a song that seemed to perfectly fit in one of the darkest and disturbing years of the decade. Even today, the intro of the song captivates our subconscious as Arthur Brown shouts out the immortal words … ‘I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you …Fire!’ His song “Fire” reached #1 in the UK and #2 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Also in 1968, Brown’s “Nightmare”was featured in the movie ‘The Committee,’ a British satire with soundtrack by Pink Floyd.
After 'Crazy World' disbanded, Arthur Brown formed the progressive rock group'Kingdome Come.' The band is credited with recording the first rock album to incorporate a drum machine. Brown’s wild onstage theatrics endured. One of his many onstage props included a giant hypodermic syringe with white powder and Arthur Brown inside. Brown has collaborated on recordings with Alan Parsons, Hawkwind, and numerous other legendary artists. He also portrayed ‘The Priest’ in The Who’s rock opera movie ‘Tommy’ in 1975. Arthur Brown is not just a theatrical rock phenomenon; Brown delivers commanding and unprecedented vocals covering an exceptionally wide range of tonality. He may even be called the 'Einstein of experimental music.' I fondly called Arthur … ‘Doc Brown’ (as in the movie ‘Back to the Future’) because of his latest brainchild called the brain hat helmet. You think and the thing plays what you’re thinking, you actually create a melody from your thoughts. It’s a bold new journey for music.
‘ZIM ZAM ZIM’ the new album by ‘Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ will be officially released on July 28th, thanks to an extremely successful pledge campaign. Brown and his ‘Crazy World’ will also be touring various dates in Europe in support of the new album. Favorite tracks on ‘ZIM ZAM ZIM’… “Want to Love” a very Bowie-like rendition, exciting melody and amazing lyrics …“Jungle Fever” exhibits Brown’s impressive vocalizations, an absorbing old-time blues rendering … “Assun” just one word Bravo! A beautiful & mesmerizing track, Brown never ceases to amaze! ... “Muscle of Love”a bit wacky and avant- garde ala Frank Zappa with sexy horns, Brown again spotlights his commanding voice (there’s no way this guy is 71)… “Junkyard” is a remarkably catchy and intoxicating blues ditty … “Light Your Light” an alluring and tender track that substantiates Brown’s diverse musical ingenuity… “Touched By All” a very interesting progressive/jazzy piece with Moody Blues overtones.
‘ZIM ZAM ZIM’ … Innovative! …Extraordinary! …Masterful! …Awe-inspiring! … (5)Stars! ‘Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ is … Arthur Brown (Lead Vocals/Songwriter) Jim Mortimore (Musical Director), Samuel Walker (Drums), Lucie Rejchrtova(Keyboards), Nina Gromniac (Guitar), Angel Flame (Dancer), Z Star (Guest Vocals),Malcolm Dick (Artist), Neeta Pendersen (Artist),Paul Harrison (Artist), Pearl Bates(Artist in residence).
I had the very rare and wonderful privilege of chatting with Arthur Brown about … The amazing brain hat helmet … The inception of his mega hit “Fire”…Pioneering theatrical rock … Touring & creating a new ‘Experience’ with Jimi Hendrix… Pete Townshend’s influence … Lambert & Stamp… The latest album entitled ‘Zim Zam Zim’ …Frank Zappa … and much-much more!
Here’s my recent interview with lead singer & songwriter for ‘Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ … theatrical rock pioneer, and the ‘god of hellfire’ …ARTHUR BROWN. Ray Shasho: Arthur it’s so good to hear you, thank you so much for being on the call today. Arthur Brown: “Hi Ray, I’m driving back home and just pulled over into a place, I think it will be okay here … I’ve been doing some experiments on the brain hat helmet.” Ray Shasho: Well, let’s begin about talking about the brain hat helmet. Arthur Brown: “It’s one that allows you to monitor the rhythms of the brain and use to make music. You can use it to trigger things, and that’s kind of one thing, but this one is more like becoming a Theremin, so you think and the thing plays what you’re thinking and you can create a melody from your thoughts. So it’s actually kind of a brand new direction for music.” Ray Shasho: That’s an impressive apparatus, are you the inventor? Arthur Brown:“As far as the equipment that monitors the brain, I didn’t invent that obviously, they’ve been inspecting it for years, but the idea for having it in use this way was mine, I’m just using technology that’s around.” Ray Shasho: Creating music using brainwaves is astonishing; this could be the birth of the next big thing for the music industry. Arthur Brown: “I think it will be. Even with the speed of the internet, it’s going to take about 10-15 years. Triggering things with it, that’s very simple, but making music with it is another thing, without the use of hands and then it will all depend on what you attach to it, and how you do it.” Ray Shasho: Have you already recorded music using the device? Arthur Brown: “We’re in the process and sort of working hard on that at the moment. In the early 70’s when we were the first band to use the drum machine as a live instrument, and it was kind of a new direction, of course that was a Bentley Rhythm Ace, which at that time was part of a keyboard setup and we just tore it out and used it. Then of course out came LinnDrums, Oberheim, and then you could file and sample your own drums etc. Then people who were drummers started using them. At that time, I announced in the paper that I was going to use brainwaves and have it where anybody could play it, of course anybody that could think. For instance we could get on one of his visits, the Pope to come and think a solo (laughing).” Ray Shasho: Arthur, you may be the real ‘Doc Brown,’ as in ‘Back to the Future.’ Arthur Brown: “Yes indeed, ‘Doc Brown’ or the ‘Nutty Professor’… that’s why it’s called the ‘Crazy World!’ Ray Shasho: After ‘Crazy World’ … you experimented with the psychedelic/progressive rock band ‘Kingdome Come’ becoming your next significant music venture. Arthur Brown: “It was a kind of a multimedia setup. There was one point in the set where I had made a fourteen foot high hypodermic needle and I sang inside it, while it filled up with white powder (All laughing).” Ray Shasho: You’re the pioneer of theatrical rock and influenced so many legendary music artists. In ‘Kingdome Come’ all the band members painted their faces … influencing ‘Kiss’? Arthur Brown: “‘Kiss’ are big fans of the ‘Crazy World’ and probably ‘Kingdome Come’ as well. It’s all good, and it’s probably the same way that I used to listen to all the old blues guys which affected my music. I’d seen a lot of theater, and I’ve seen a lot of African Travelogues with dancing witch doctors, and all of that had become an influence on me. So it’s kind of natural if you’re in the music field, everybody’s being influenced by something.” Ray Shasho: I thoroughly enjoyed the You Tube video of you and Alice Cooperperforming onstage together in London. Arthur Brown: “Yea, Alice is an honest guy, very generous, and cool to work with. He said if you’re in my neck of the woods stop in and we’ll play a round of golf, any morning that I’m passing by his place to pop in, but I’m not exactly passing by his place often, it’s not like I could walk out of my house in Sussex and walk over to Alice Cooper’s place.(All laughing)” Ray Shasho: ‘The Committee’ was a movie where you actually played yourself and sang “Nightmare,” while the majority of the music in the movie was performed by Pink Floyd. Talk about being in that 1968 British flick. Arthur Brown: “Yea, it was a good movie, and they took a lot of care getting the right visual aspects. Of course it had Paul Jones from Manfred Mann in it … very enjoyable. As I remember there was a couple called Fran and Jay Landesman who were part of the beginning of the underground in England. They were friends with the producer Max Steuer. We’d go out to dinner occasionally and I struck up a nice relationship with them.
“On performing “Nightmare” …we had played the night before somewhere in Europe and our equipment got held up at the border. So at the last minute… Jay, Max, and his team had to rustle around and find some new equipment. It was a film that didn’t get the big push like ‘Tommy,’ ‘If’ or all of those, but it was still a good movie. I think it’s gotten more popular now than when it came out.” Ray Shasho: Arthur, you were a brief member of the British soul group ‘The Ramong Sound’ which became ‘The Foundations’ (“Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” “Build Me Up Buttercup”). Arthur Brown: “I was co-lead singer with Clem Curtis.” Ray Shasho: So you were also influenced by R&B? Arthur Brown: “Oh yea, and in those days R&B was Ike & Tina Turner… and a completely different style than it is today. But it had a kind of energy and the dance grooves that I loved. I was also influenced by early James Brown and even then was phenomenal. I used to love all the old country blues too … Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes and all those people, brilliant music!” Ray Shasho: Let’s talk about “Fire” your huge hit in 1968, which I believe reached #1 in the UK and #2 on the U.S. charts. Arthur Brown: There were some charts in the U.S. where it reached #1… but was generally #2 behind “Hey Jude.” In fact, when The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s they spent some time running around the studio with candles on their heads. (All laughing)” Ray Shasho: What was the writing and recording scheme behind “Fire” … who would have ever thought that shouting … “I am the god of hellfire” in an intro to a song would be so successful commercially? Arthur Brown: “In those days, yea …nowadays you’ve got all the rap guys taking on that kind of personality. I suppose it came out partly because in the war my parents both suffered. My mother was at a hotel with her mother on Whitby bay that was blown to dust. Then moved to London and that was blown to dust, and her father was blown across the street and developed Parkinson’s. Her brother was killed in a submarine. My father was out shooting planes down and taking speed to stay awake, that’s what they gave him in those days. So when they both came back to the family, it wasn’t the easiest emotional family to be in. When I was around 11-12 years old, my father brought in this guy one day and said this guy is going to teach you how to empty your mind, so you can handle the family better, so I learned a form of meditation. By the time I was 16-17 years old, life was different.”
“When I began writing stuff, I didn’t really want to write about cars or let’s do it baby, so I decided (here’s the first album) to write a story about a character’s inner journey. It starts with “Nightmare” which is kind of the world how it is, and that drives him to go on the inner journey. In that journey, I wrote the songs and knew I couldn’t just stand up and sing it alone because people wouldn’t understand it …so I decided that I would need to add characters that carry the movement of it. There was the god of hellfire, the god of pure fire, the god of wisdom … a series of deities. So that was the background of it. Having done that it was obvious that if I was going to sing those in normal clubs, then I was going to have to again vindicate that this was a character thing. I was going to have to put on costumes and so I did. I had the costume for the god of hellfire which was a silver mask and I had the makeup under it with the body paint, robes, cloaks, and men that were different characters. The god of pure fire wore these gowns with ancient symbols that were just enormous and very beautiful under the light, and it was a different mood. So that’s how it grew.”
“I recently went down to Salvador Dali’s house and what struck me was that a lot of the things he did was the kind of things you think about in certain moods but you never do, you just think oh, that’s a great idea. But the difference was Dali did it. I think that’s just what I do. Ideas that some people might think …oh I can’t do that … I just do.” Ray Shasho: Arthur, did you receive any kind of resistance by management for creating an avant-garde/ theatrical/ concept album? Arthur Brown: “Lambert & Stamp (Track Records) loved it because they were themselves film makers and saw it as performance art. There was resistance by Lambert about doing the whole story on an album; he said nobody’s going to be interested in album all about fire. So we had a big argument over a few weeks and eventually decided, okay look, I Arthur will keep the one side totally about fire, on the ‘B’ side we’ll put a couple of songs about fire and then three stage numbers. So that was Kit’s side and how the album became what it was. It was originally all about fire.” Ray Shasho: Was Pete Townshend involved with the record at all? Arthur Brown: “He was indeed. Pete was the one that introduced us. He came down and said we want to sign you, my record company just lost a couple of people that I thought we should’ve signed including the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with Vivian Stanshall. So he rushed us into the studio and we made demos. On some of the demos he played guitar but were taken out because it was going to be an organ based band, a trio. So he was very helpful and creative in the studio and helped us a lot because we didn’t know anything about recording. That’s why we went with Track. Track Records with Lambert & Stamp were the only ones who had some connection with any idea to what we were actually trying to do as oppose to trying to make us a Pop Band. Pete Townshend was the one who actually brought us in there, so he was very instrumental in starting my career.” Ray Shasho: The single “Fire” was such a cool but ominous tune, but I guess it fit perfectly in 1968 culture, an extremely horrifying year brimming with turmoil … but an incredible year for music. Arthur Brown: “We were on tour in America when the single was put out. I got a letter from Pete … we really considered this hard, and for us it was a choice between “Give Him a Flower” which was a song about taking the piss out of the hippie thing, and it was funny and the audience loved singing it, but that would have put us down the comedy route. We thought the god of hellfire, a much darker image; we were really going to be able to push into the market. It was a time of the Bobby Kennedy assassination and all of that … The French Revolution …it seemed to be right for the time. I opened the act with a crown of flames singing “Nightmare” and the closing number ended with smoke. In the TV performance video, all of it was put together into the one number. The fire helmet was in one number, and the smoke in another number, but for the sake of TV, it was all put into one. That was one of the reasons it was such a blockbuster.” Ray Shasho: Did Ronnie Wood (The Rolling Stones) play bass on any of the versions of “Fire”? Arthur Brown: “We did a live version for John Peel and Ronnie Wood indeed was the bass player, he played the whole set. I remember the drummer Drachen Theaker, an excellent and very discriminating musician saying that he thought he was the best one we’d ever come across.” Ray Shasho: Talk about touring with Jimi Hendrix? Arthur Brown: “What actually happened was … in the earlier days before “Fire,” that was when we were first proposed to go on tour with Hendrix. We had the first single out “Devils Grip,” and in the stage act we were already using the flame. We had the pictures and Lambert & Stamp proposed to Hendrix that we go on tour together. Hendrix took one look at the visuals and said, hmm, I’m not going to go on after that. So we were cancelled out of the tour. But later we played with him, by then he started to light his guitar on fire and then felt it was okay. So we did go on to do concerts with him and did TV shows… and swap numbers.”
“There was a point where we forming a band together. It was going to be the ‘Experience’ with Vincent Crane on organ. Jimi was at a point where he knew he had to do something new or something different. So his idea was that we all get together and there would be tapes of Richard Wagner in the background and visual projections. Jimi liked my singing and we used to jam together. He liked to play bass and some absolutely beautiful music came out of that. So we had a good friendly relationship.” Ray Shasho: It seemed that Hendrix was experimenting musically while branching out into other genres towards the end of his life; I think you and he would have musically conspired very well in a band together. Arthur Brown: “I think so. John Coltrane started with jazz and all the normal things and then decided … well obviously blues and jazz were influenced by classical, so I’ll explore classical music. So he did that. And then decided that his roots were deeper than that and went off and did Indian music. Hendrix was just starting to explore classical music, hence the Wagner and the idea for the band we were doing. I’m sure he would have gone off to find all kinds of musical roots and would have found them everywhere …it’s a pity.” Ray Shasho: I’ve interviewed Eric Burdon and followed his career for quite some time, so when I heard your version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” it was a very nice surprise and enjoyed it immensely. Arthur Brown: “I was probably listening to it at the same time as Eric, I think we both heard Nina Simone’s version and that was a killer song. I remember she was upset that Eric’s version got to be a hit and hers wasn’t. Eric was a great singer in those years and would experiment with phrasing while he was singing.” Ray Shasho: Arthur, you’re an awesome singer! You have an incredible range and I really dig the way you wail out a song. I’ve been very fortunate lately to be able to interview so many legendary lead singers from the 60’s and 70’s. Arthur Brown: “Music doesn’t quite have the same pull as it did in the times of the 60’s, when everything was just beginning to do the kind of change that happened, when it was a beacon for all the future changes that was going to happen. Now we’re in the middle of them, so music doesn’t have the same function at all. In that time the voices were very important, whether it was someone who went kind of mainstream like Tom Jones … it didn’t really matter. If you think about the underground scene in California in the 60’s, all of those people had listened to Elvis Presley, and what most people don’t realize was that he was on a spiritual journey. So he influenced all of those people just by the feeling he presented in his music, and it was all done through his voice.” Ray Shasho: Did you connect with other experimental musicians such as Frank Zappa? Arthur Brown: “Frank was an amazing fellow …more especially because he never took any drugs. He really didn’t have to, but surrounded himself with people that did. (All laughing) He’d shut the studio door and record what they’d say, then put it on the record. (All laughing) I spent some time with Frank and we did play together at one point. At the Miami Pop Festival, and Frank and I went down to a Go-Go place where the dancers were dancing on the tables. We had quite a wild time then. He was into theater; he was into politics … yea, extraordinary. But it’s just reminded me, there was a time when John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix was on the festival and so we ended up with a jam with Hendrix, me, John Lee Hooker, and it might have been that Frank joined in on that jam. It was just an amazing event … I’m standing there saying ‘Good God,’ I’m singing with John Lee Hooker, particularly being one of my greatest influences.” Ray Shasho: The early blues players were certainly the roots for rock and roll … but the Brits sort of reintroduced their incredible music back into the public eye. Arthur Brown: “We took it and couldn’t quite make the looseness of the rhythms, just a little uptight, and became our version of rock and roll. I remember when Alexis Korner, who of course was one of the original people who employed the Stones, he and Alan Lomax went out into the field in America and found all these guys working there … laborers, and recorded them. Alexis went around and then found other people and brought out a series on the English radio called ‘Kings of the Blues’ and that just turned everyone around, because at that time most people were into ‘Trad,’ New Orleans & Modern Jazz, and a sprinkling of Folk. Also one of the ones who discovered a lot of the early blues was Alan Lomax in the field with a lady called Shirley Collins. She was England’s prime folk singer at the time of Fairport Convention and all of those. She was the one they sort of modeled themselves under.” Ray Shasho: I think the British label ‘Pye Records’ was also instrumental in introducing the world to amazing artists. Arthur Brown: “Yea they did, as I recall they started the Skiffle craze with Lonnie Donegan, who was the only English artist in the 50’s to have a hit in America. Some of the songs he’d sing, you’d swear it sounded a bit like Dylan. But he was before Dylan. It was because he used to do a lot of Woody Guthrie songs. Of course Dylan loved Woody Guthrie. So ‘Pye Records’ started all kinds of stuff, yea.” Ray Shasho: I ask a lot of artists about different ways they relax and release tension … and meditation is usually a popular answer. Arthur Brown: “I kind of arrived at a place where life itself is a meditation, just living, it’s not a separate thing that I do. I think when you get to the root of your consciousness; everything is there and includes creation. At the point that appears, there’s kind of an observer up there, and that is the real meditation. Some people kind of express it in the moment or in the now, and watching it unfold… that’s meditation.” Ray Shasho: Arthur what do you think about UFO’s, have we been visited by extraterrestrials? Arthur Brown: “Probably everything that has been imagined has existed and there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be beings everywhere around us that we don’t see. And there’s no reason why they wouldn’t have visited here. There’s also a good likelihood that any government that wish to hold on to power would not let people know about that. So I think it’s highly likely.” Ray Shasho: Arthur, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be? Arthur Brown: “There was a guy in ancient England called Caedmon and I think he made up songs, and one of the things I love is the improvised art of music. Indian music uses a lot more of that then we do except in jazz. So the fact that he was someone that improvised music on the spot, which is something that I’ve kind of developed as well. Apart from that it would have been fun to work with Mozart.”
“In a more modern era … one of the people that actually agreed to produce an album of mine and then got all strung out with management was Stevie Wonder. He’s somebody that I would love to work with. Nina Hagen, the female singer is another one … that would be a pairing. A band I’d like to sing with is the Gipsy Kings. I really like the passion in their music.” Ray Shasho: Arthur, thank you for being on the call today but more importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given us and continue to bring. Arthur Brown: “Yeehaw! Thank you so much Ray.”
Purchase the latest CD by ‘Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ entitled ‘Zim Zam Zim’ very soon at amazon.com … the official release date is July 28th
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