from The Independent Magazine – 3 December 1994
Anna down our road is having a garden party. It’s a warm day, but hardly sweltering; nonetheless, one of the guests is stripped to the waist, clad only in pale purple loon pants that hang slackly from his bony hips. He’s piling lettuce onto a plate but such is the frailty of his exposed physique that one is tempted to guide him discreetly to the potatoes – his ribs protrude from his pallid flesh like railway lines dusted with snow. Shoulder-length greying hair falls from a balding dome and his long, aquiline nose is balanced by a neat black goatee. The effect is imposing but serene. A chat under a tree elicits the fact that the topless stranger is a musician with 17 albums to his credit. With a slow gentle delivery made even softer by a faint drawl, he starts to talk about his life. He reveals that he lives in Austin, Texas, that he is 52 years old and his name is Arthur Brown.
A misty veil is wiped from the mind’s eye. Suddenly, it’s 1968 and young people wearing curtains are waving their arms in a pagan manner in a darkened hall. On a podium before them a man in a silver mask has just hollered “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!” with some menace. He is wearing a particularly striking curtain and his hair is in flames. The opening chords of “Fire” burst from the amps and the hippies flip.
Arthur Brown’s song is a major chart-topper, a nation is transfixed by hokey pop diabolism and adolescents conduct earnest debates on the merits of hairsprays that style, condition and fireproof in one application.
A few years and no more hits later, Arthur will be a rock legend. Serpent-sucking megastar Alice Cooper will say that he is indebted to the lanky Englishman for introducing him to rock theatrics. Proto-metal pompists Deep Purple will pay tribute to Brown’s fine bluesy voice. But where did Arthur go after all that fame? Indeed, what was he doing before it? Well, it’s a long story and here are some of the good bits.
Back in ’62, the God of Hellfire was studying sociology and philosophy at Reading University. He had already mastered the banjo and the double bass, and was making the transition from metaphysics to rhythm and blues. After gigging around in small clubs and not studying much, he was fired from a band called the South West Five, which was rather unfair considering he’d just convinced them to change their name to the Arthur Brown Union.
Arthur was moping in the Kilt Club, a hip Soho boite, when a sound engineer who worked at the Marquee asked him if he’d like to form a rock empire in Paris. Of course he would, and by 1965 their band was the toast of Montmartre, appearing nightly in the Ange Rouge, a club owned by Baron Lenur, who dressed like Louis Quatorze and kept a troupe of tame beatniks in the house for atmosphere. So unlikely was the spectacle of long-haired Britons playing the blues that Salvador Dali himself dropped by regularly to catch the act. “It was a very, very wild scene,” Arthur recalls fondly, “naked girls being passed around the club. I used to do audience diving.” Some nights he dived out of the front door and led the entire clientele round the block, spearheaded by a blaring saxophone.
The woman who owned the nearby strip clubs was impressed. She opened the Crazy Gambas, near Marbella in Spain and invited the Arthur Brown Set to be the house band. The management turned out to be white slave traders; they used to take their female employees’ passports, then fail to fix up their visas. “Two weeks later, they’d tell the girls the police were making enquiries and that they had to get out fast. Then they’d fly them to Africa and that was it.” One of the musicians objected to the imminent enslavement of his French girlfriend so the villains sealed off the club and sharpened their stilettos. Luckily, one of the Crazy Gambinos had some dirt on the slavemaster and turned him over to the police. Close one.
The band moved on to another Marbella club. As clubs do, it closed down, and when it did, the boys hadn’t been paid. “The band come to me and said ‘We’re going to set fire to it.’ I said ‘Count me out fellas!’ They didn’t burn the whole club down though, just the front of it.”
Strange, this aversion to arson, given what was to come, but a few clubs later Arthur had an experience in a Paris hotel corridor that marked his transition from lounge lizard to pyrotechnic legend. “I found a crown outside a door. It had candles on it. Somebody had thrown it out after a party. I went and lit the candles. It was the beginning of the ‘Fire’ thing.”
The “Fire” thing also saw Arthur blacking out his teeth, wearing big wigs and women’s dresses on stage. The reverse costume was a witch doctor’s outfit made of newspaper. Rock theatrics had taken a great leap forward. In 1967, at London’s highly psychedelian UFO Club, Arthur cut through the haze of paisley with an outfit that would etch itself in the memories of all those who escaped from the late-Sixties with unmelted synapses.
“I’d come on with the flaming helmet, and a huge orange Tibetan kind of robe, which would flare out like a whirling dervish when I turned fast, then at the end I’d take that off and there was a black velvet outfit under that.”
Helmet work had its drawbacks. “The earliest one was the crown with candles on; then we moved onto a colander with candles on, but that used to stick to my hair. So the next thing was a pie dish with a hole in the middle with a screw in it and a leather strap under my chin with gasoline on top of the whole thing. The problem was that the heat used to come down through the screw onto my skull; so we devised a thing to hold the plate and from that we arrived at the final solution – the Viking helmet.”
Cow gum and other flammables were daubed on the helmet’s horns, between which was a shallow dish to hold the petrol. “It was quite comfortable, but the lights man used to get drunk and pour petrol over me as well as into the hat.” The accident waiting to happen took place at the 1968 Windsor Jazz Festival. Arthur was about to go on stage when he burst into flames: “Zoot Money – you remember him? – he put me out with beer.”
A few months later the band, known by now as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, was spotted by Pete Townshend of The Who and introduced to Track Records. In no time at all, they released the show-stopping “Fire” and burned up the pop charts. Despite being voted the Most Undanceable Band on the scene, the Crazy World rapidly became a top, if controversial, draw: “Managers used to throw our equipment downstairs because we were so outrageous. People would slug me on stage – they’d never seen anything like it.” Antipathy was so advanced at one club that Arthur was compelled to smash the glass enclosing a double headed fire axe and brandish it defensively throughout the show. Those were the days.
Fuelled by fame, the band toured the States as support for the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention and Jimi Hendrix. The latter had his reservations. “He initially refused to let us support him because he’d seen our press photos,” Arthur remembers. “He was worried – he knew about the fire and everything. Of course, after he’d played with us, he started setting fire to his guitar!”
Arthur, who has been winningly modest so far, cannot suppress a smug giggle at this point. However, life with the Sixties rock giants was not entirely a bowl of electric prunes: “It was a very traumatic tour. The keyboard player had been a manic depressive all his life and someone spiked his drink and he had to go into a mental home. The drummer was blown away by the culture and ended up right over the top.” At one big festival the drummer made a curious error of judgement, “He started to think he was Keith Moon but, whereas Moon would have roadies to catch the drums, this guy kicked all his off the stage and it took us 25 minutes to get the thing back together – by which time, of course, the impetus had gone.”
Arthur was not impressed by success. Despite being known as His Psychedelic Majesty and sharing the top of the UK charts with Tom Jones, it was, he felt, dull playing the same set over and over again and uncomfortable being regarded as a spiritual force by the more credulous fans. So he gave it all up, signed away his rights to “Fire” and went to live in a commune in Dorset. His managers were appalled.
It wasn’t long, though, before the deep need to make bands surfaced again. Equipped with the suitably bucolic name of the Puddletown Express, he and his colleagues set off in 1969 for France which, was still reeling from les evénements of May 1968, when students and workers had taken to the streets of Paris and de Gaulle’s government seemed set to be toppled by revolution. Rifle-toting police were everywhere and the Ministry of the Interior sent observers to the Paris gig. “The Communist Party had booked Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and us to tour France to show that they had control over the young people. Well, I came on naked and incited them to revolution.” Arthur had had his kit off before, at the Marquee back in London, and a reviewer from the Melody Maker had reported that his girlfriend had fainted when confronted with the bony spectacle. The Communists were less pleased; they lost a seat in parliament – as a result, they were convinced, of the scandal surrounding Arthur’s self-revelation. They begged him not to take his clothes off again: “Gomelsky (Arthur’s new manager) said ‘If it’s a moral statement you’re making, then go ahead, but if it isn’t please be kind to these people who’ve booked the tour’. Well, it wasn’t a moral statement, it was part of the act, so I stopped. We came home and the band folded.”
That might have been it, had Arthur not seen the angel. He was standing in a field when it appeared, four miles high, wearing a gold loincloth and holding a huge sword. It had been a question, at that point, of whether to go to a Buddhist monastery in Scotland or to form another band. Arthur gathered from the angel that he should take the path of rock. He returned to the world of tours and studios and over the next three years cut a couple of albums under the nom de guitare of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come. And then, once again, came the spiritual call. This led him first to a centre in Gloucestershire, and then on to a succession of other retreats where he picked up Buddhist meditation techniques. Eventually, and bizarrely, he travelled in 1971, at the invitation of the Israeli high command, to Tel Aviv, stayed in the Hilton and played songs to raise the morale of wounded troops. Mission accomplished, he returned to Britain and spent a year and a half at a Sufi school in Scotland before cutting an improvised album called Chisum in My Bosom. Then in the mid-Seventies, Africa beckoned. Arthur went to Burundi and taught music history. One of his odder tasks involved demonstrating to the local people that the American blues they admired so much actually originated in Africa.
Back home again in 1980, Arthur’s music featured a synthesiser, and Britain, he says, just wasn’t ready for it. He moved to America with his second wife, a Texan, who guided him to Austin. After a year doing carpentry in that congenial city, he fell in with Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers of Invention, who were negotiating the post-fame thing by means of house painting. They called themselves the Gentlemen of Colour (Brown and Black) and made a decent living from their brushwork. So many of the guys in the paint team were musicians that Arthur, never one to pass up a band opportunity, managed to put out two more albums. By 1985, he’d succeeded in assembling a lucrative deal for a blues album that would bring together Jack Bruce, Carl Palmer, Keith Emerson and others. The deal fell apart, and Arthur had visions of struggling on in this not-quite mode until he was 90. Something had to be done.
At last, at the end of the Eighties, Arthur found the perfect way to reconcile his lust for rock with the increasing tranquillity of his inner life; he qualified as a counsellor and invented a new therapy. How does it work? A colleague leads the counselling session, while Arthur sits in silence and listens to the client unburdening him or herself. Then, taking up his guitar, “I improvise a song or a poem which brings out the unspoken undercurrents of the session”. The customised calypso is recorded onto cassette and given to the client to play at leisure in his or her home. Eminent psychiatrists were impressed; so much so that the singer was able to take his therapeutic guitar into a special unit for six months and work with young women drug addicts and their families.
The spontaneous song part of the process worked so well that Arthur wondered if it would work on stage. He’d always had a yen to do the Glastonbury Festival, so he asked an agent to fix up a British tour. The agent got 38 gigs in 42 days, but couldn’t clinch Glastonbury. Arthur stormed around the UK anyway, and all kinds of people came to see him: teenagers, grizzled fans who knew all his lyrics and a stream of ex-members of his innumerable bands. One night, he developed a terrible headache halfway through the set and had to stagger off, leaving the fans wide-eyed and feckless in the auditorium. Such was the level of abandon already generated that within minutes the rumour began circulating that Arthur had been abducted by aliens and whisked up into a hovering mothership.
That was last year. Now Arthur’s back again, recuperating from a second British tour, working with Lene Lovich, and writing an opera with a Latvian composer. Which is why he’s in Anna’s back garden. So what is the name of the band this time around, Arthur? The God of Hellfire smiles sagely. “Ah! That was the agent’s idea – it’s called ‘The Even Crazier World of Arthur Brown’.”