Arthur Brown tells a story about the time he brought his son to an Iron Maiden concert. The year was 1995, and having not recorded music in over a decade, Arthur was living under the radar in Austin, Texas where he was working as a carpenter. But when word got to the members of Iron Maiden that Brown was going to be attending the show, he and his son were led backstage to meet the band. According to Arthur, when lead singer Bruce Dickinson came out to meet him, he shook Arthur’s hand and with a grin said ““You will never know how many millions I’ve made out of what I’ve copied from you.”
Although he was living a quite life in the 1990’s, some of Arthur’s neighbors may have been surprised to find the laid back and thoughtful Brit that living amongst them was the original godfather of shock rock. At the end of the 1960’s, with his face painted in garish make up and with flames sprouting from the top of his head, Arthur found brief international fame with his hit “Fire” from his 1968 debut album “The Ceazy World of Arthur Brown.” The first musician of the new era to combine the midnight horror show with rock n’ roll, he became the ominous “Lord of Hellfire.” He’d scream like a banshee, dance as if in a voodoo trance, and wearing a trademark helmet that would shoot real fire from his head, bring the audience on a Faustian tour through the depths of hell. No one had ever seen anything like it before, but it’d open the doors for a long line of shock rockers and performance artists to come. Alice Cooper, David Bowie, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel, Marilyn Manson and King’s Diamond would all credit Brown as inspiring their aesthetics, and his influence can be seen in the stage antics of Ozzy Osbourne, KISS, Gwar, Slipknot and Insane Clown Posse. Although rock iconisim seemed to have passed him by, Arthur Brown was the original architect of shock rock years before heavy metal was even a concept.
Behind the makeup and flames of burning fire, Arthur Brown is a highly spiritual intellect who started practicing mediation at the age of twelve when his father introduced the family to the practice as a way to battle the PTSD they collectively suffered from the London bombing’s during WWII. Around this time Arthur began writing songs, but instead of writing about the normal things that the British kids discovering American rock n’ roll were writing about, like girls and cars and such, Arthur was more interested in writing about the human condition and alternative spiritualism. Arthur went on to study philosophy at the University of London but began to gravitate to music.
It was during a visit to Paris in the summer of 1966 that Arthur began to come up with the concept of what would be his elaborate stage style. Roaming around the city’s underground art scene, Arthur came up with the idea of creating a multimedia art show which would include music, costumes, theatrics, and other on-stage spectacles. He wanted to go far beyond just performing music but bring a fully immersive experience to an audience.
By 1967 Arthur had found himself in and out of various bands, and he was currently playing bass and singing back up for a little group called The Foundations but realized that he was bored and no longer wanted to play nice music for nice people. It was time to shake things up a little bit. He had an idea that would make him more cutting edge than the Beatles, more deviant than the Rolling Stones and scare the shit out of Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies. Arthur began to write a show he called “The Fire Suite” in which Arthur would bring his audience through a terrifying tour of hell through song. Knowing that the idea was too horrific and cutting edge for the members of The Foundations, Arthur quit the band to go in his own strange direction. Weeks later The Foundations were signed and would go on to hit success with the classic sunshine pop song “Build Me Up Buttercup,” but by that point Arthur Brown was on his own bizarre journey.
Now was “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” the name of the show, the band, or the album to come? Its sort of bled together, but the band Arthur brought together to develop the music would often be referred to by that name. For his band Arthur brought together Nick Greenwood on guitar, Vincent Crane on keyboards and Drashen Theaker on drums. Meanwhile, Arthur developed his own unique vocal style in which he would shriek in an inhuman high-pitched wail between calm cool narration in his proper British accent. It was chilling, but surprisingly appealing and nobody in rock n’ roll sang like that.
At best Arthur Brown’s music could be seen as being hard psychedelic but, underneath the booming organ riffs and shrieks, Arthur was highly influenced by African tribal drums and ritual, and adopted them into the stage show, primarily in his dancing and the elaborate way which he painted his face.
But of course, the most notable part of Arthur Brown’s presentation was that metal head dress which shot flames into the air. The head dress was developed with the help of an artist friend of Arthur’s during his Paris days named Mike Reynolds and was originally a vegetable colander with candles mounted on it, and a pie plate attached inside the colander to prevent the wax from seeping through the holes and into Arthur’s hair. Eventually they mounted a chin strap to the helmet and poured petrol into the pie plate that. When ignited would shoot the flames high into the air where they’d engulf a pair of horns built into the helmet. The original inspiration for the horns was from the Greek God Pan, but as a result of the theme of the stage show, the audience believed them to be that of the devil.
When Arthur Brown and his band began playing shows around London in Underground Clubs in 1967 audiences initially didn’t know what to think of them. At some clubs audiences would walk out, while in others violence would erupt. On one memorable night, when the audience got so worked up during a performance, a club owner reportedly paid Arthur and his band to just get int their van and leave as not to ensue more violence form the crowd. Eventually Arthur Brown began to play regularly at London’s UFO Club which had a reputation as being a progressive avant-garde club and began to finally get noticed. Attracting the attention of a more artistic and intellectual audience, soon The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were hired to support established artists such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Small Faces, Joe Cocker and, most importantly, The Who.
It was The Who’s manager Kit Lambert who brought Arthur Brown to the attention of Atlantic Records and a deal was struck that Lambert, with the help of Pete Townsend in the role of associate producer, would produce Artur’s first album.. But while Arthur sought to do his entire “Fire Suite” as a concept album, Lambert persuaded him to cut it in half in order to produce something more marketable for the record buyer. A compromise was made where the first side of the album would be dedicated to material from “The Fire Suite,” while the second side would feature stand alone numbers, including covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; classic “I’ve Put a Spell On You” and James Brown’s “I’ve Got Mondy.” Arthur and the band cut the album in early 1968 and “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” was released in June of that year.
But if the stage show was an important part of the full experience of the group, how did it translate to vinyl? Well, between Vincent Crane’s moody organ licks and Brown’s bizarre vocal range, combined with a pulsating wall of horns and a barrage of horror inspired sound effects, the producers were creative enough to transport Arthur’s nightmare journey from the stage to record buyer’s stereo speakers. “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” is far more than just a curiosity or gimmick leaden record. It’s a seriously good album and a predecessor to both progressive rock and heavy metal music.
The first single from the album was an obvious one – “Fire,” which had already become Brown’s signature song. Screaming “I am the God of Hellfire” in the opening moments of the song, the song distinctively stood out in regards to everything else on the charts in 1968. At the time of the album’s release the biggest songs in the world were Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and Herb Alpert’s “This Guys in Love with You.” But it caught the attention of audiences and slowly “Fire” began to catch oxygen and rise through the Billboard Top 100, hitting the number one spot in both the UK and Canada. As for the US, “Fire” hit big, but was not able to make it past the #2 position. In the #1 position was The Beatles “Hey Jude,” and not even the Lord of Hellfire could compete with the hold that the Fab Four on the American audience.
With the success of “Fire” Arthur soon got invited on some of Europe’s top music shows such as “Top of the Pops,” “Beat Club” and “This is Tom Jones.” Often baring his torso and doused in flames, Arthur Brown’s wailing and flailing was deemed too bizarre for the teatime crowd, and Arthur shocked the British establishment while delighting their kids which added to the notoriety of the group. With the context of the stage show lost on the television audiences, rumors began to develop that Arthur was a devil worshiper, although it couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was, in fact, more interested in Eastern philosophy. After his initial success in England Arthur and his band were off to America where they thrilled audiences as a supporting act for The Doors, Frank Zappa and MC5.
Of course, the most famous story revolving around Arthur Brown was the time that his performance got so legit that the audience couldn’t separate the spectacle from reality. When performing at The Windsor Music Festival Arthur’s headpiece malfunctioned, and he actually set his hair on fire. As the flames began to burn him, Arthur fell to the stage and began screaming in agony, much to the delight of the crowd, as well as the band who continued to play on. Everyone thought it was part of the act and that was just old crazy Arthur Brown doing his thing. However, according to Brown, a spectator at the front of the stage noticed that he was actually in pain and began dousing Arthur’s head with beer in an attempt to put out the fire. Alerting onlookers at what was really happening, additional audience members also threw their beers on Arthur’s head safely putting out the fire. After that incident, Arthur began to wear a metal mask or a full facial head dress made from chainmail to protect himself when setting the crown on fire.
So, despite conquering both sides of the Atlantic, producing a rock n’ roll spectacle and a strong album as well as creating a new brand of theatrical shock rock, why is Arthur Brown remembered today as being a one hit wonder? Well, for Arthur, the act that he created wasn’t a personal philosophy as much as an elaborate theatrical production. Just like an actor leaving a role at the end of a successful theatrical run, when Arthur was ready for his next project, he also was ready to leave the horror show behind as well. Still preoccupied with Eastern philosophy and meditation, Arthur Brown disbanded his team for “The Crazy World” and went to work on his new project, “Kingdom Come.” This time, instead of a journey through hell, Arthur sought to write songs about spiritualism and universal harmony. A total departure from the shock rock that he ushered into the music scene, some of Arthur’s best work was created during this era, including what I consider to be my favorite of all his compositions, “Love is the Spirit (That Will Never Die).” But despite writing both thoughtful and lyrically potent songs, the audience who thrilled at his bizarre stage antics were underwhelmed with Arthur Brown’s new direction.
But while he sought to leave the horror-based theatrics behind, his contemporaries kept drawing him back in. In 1975 Arthur made a cameo in Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s “Tommy” where he performed “Eyesight to the Blind,” complete with trademark banshee wails, alongside Eric Clapton. Then in 1975 Alan Parsons brough him in as a guest vocalist for “The Tell Tale Heart” on his classic Poe inspired concept album “Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Soon after his collaboration with The Alan Parsons Project, Arthur left performance behind. Having recently married a woman from America, she and Arthur went on an extended trip to Africa and, afterwards, Arthur relocated to Texas. He would record a pair of albums in the US, but by the middle of the 1980’s Arthur Brown had pretty much retired from performance.
Despite his limited success as a recording artist, Arthur Brown proved to be a true trailblazer. His concept and vision for his “crazy world” created a pathway for other performers who brought nightmarish spectacles and fantastic worlds to the stage, offering the audience a thrill far beyond just the music. Shock rock has become such an important part of the rock n’ roll experience, and Arthur Brown’s genius lit a virtual fire which continues burning bright to this day.
While he may not be a household name as are many of the performers who he inspired, Arthur Brown’s music would eventually be rediscovered by young music fans and, by the mid 1990’s, now embraced by young heavy metal and Goth audiences, he once again embraced his horror show roots and, painting his face once again, went back on the road and started recording new music. Over the next two decades Arthur created a niche cult following and collaborated and toured with Alice Cooper, Robert Plant, Hawkwind and The Darkness. He even lit his head on fire a second time, which happened during a performance in East Sussex in 2007. This time, as band member Phil Rhodes tried to douse the flames, he also was set on fire. Eventually they got both musicians extinguished and Arthur even finished his set. Eventually returning to England due to health complications, Arthur Brown is primarily retired from performing today, but in 2022 he released a new studio audience, “Monster Ball.” Now in his 80’s, Arthur Brown is still teaching us to burn.
Meanwhile, “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” still holds up as one of the greatest horror inspired rock albums of all time. A real gem, it has become a favorite with record collectors. music scholars and vinyl hipsters who have found a new appreciation far beyond just the curious spectacle of Arthur Brown, but for his shocking vocal range, his intense performance and intelligent lyrics. Arthur Brown did more than just create a shocking stage show. He is a true visionary who created high art.