The God of Hellfire Speaks: 73 Years Inside the Crazy World of Arthur Brown
"As a new kind of imagery, we met a lot of resistance and violence. When I appeared with flames pouring five feet above my head, wielding a Viking axe, they changed their mind!"
Photo and helmet by Paul Harrison / all photos courtesy of Arthur Brown's Facebook
Almost 50 years ago, musical icon Arthur Brown stepped out on stage, five-foot tall flames leaping from his head, and uttered one of rock music’s most stirring lines: “I am the God of Hellfire.” At that point, the British theatrical rocker who brought us The Crazy World of Arthur Brown in '68 had no way of knowing that he would come to be seen as a major pioneer in not only progressive rock and heavy metal, but the entire concept of what makes a stage show. He’s influenced generations of musicians who searched for an edge, from King Diamond, KISS, and Peter Gabriel to Marilyn Manson, Rob Halford, and Alice Cooper. Currently touring the U.K. in support of 2013’s Zim Zam Zim, Brown will celebrate his seventy-third birthday on June 24. His tour, and talks of funding for a documentary, strengthens the ever-dwindling hope that people will put age and influential writing before beauty and brand.
That's not to say that he doesn’t have a legendary brand himself. As the lead singer of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Kingdom Come—the latter of which is credited with being the first rock album to incorporate a drum machine—he’s also collaborated with Hawkwind, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. His operatic vocal styles, impressive range of tonality, and wild stage persona—with his trademark flaming headdress, uninhibited dance moves, and extreme makeup—are still revered today.
Brown’s influence on the evolution of rock music and stage shows is undeniable, but his vision for the future of music is just as fascinating. Noisey got in touch with the God of Hellfire to gain a better understanding of the birth of an icon and the "pure theater" of rock music.
Noisey: Describe the birth of what ultimately became your Crazy World.
Arthur Brown: My childhood was during the end of WWII and the ensuing poverty. My family was riven with what would now be called PTSD. There was huge tension, and many arguments. One day when I was about 12, my father, concerned at the effect this was having on me, introduced me to a man who taught me to clear my mind. From that period on, I was always interested in looking behind what the media and society presented as “reality.”
So when writing the first Crazy World album, I wrote songs about an inner journey, where the main character looked around at the world, saw a nightmare, and turned inwards. He encountered various entities on his way to find the essence of fire, sort of an image for “spirit.” At first it was a journey through his own mind, presented in the form of opposites—for instance, the God of Hellfire, and the God of Pure Fire (in the song called “Come and Buy”). At this time the rock audience was not used to such imagery. So, I began to use costumes to delineate the characters, like fire helmets, robes and masks, which led to experimental lighting to create the necessary moods and locations. In my case I was fortunate that Vincent Crane (keyboard player) and Drachen Theaker (drummer) had huge musical imaginations and could help express these things in arrangements.
As a new kind of imagery, we met a lot of resistance and violence. So I would recite small poems and monologues between numbers on very disturbing themes. I would also do comic duets with Crane about the Queen, police brutality, or drug busts. At one gig, the audience began to charge the stage. When I appeared in my make-up and robes, with flames pouring five feet above my head, wielding a genuine double-headed steel Viking axe, they changed their mind!
You've inspired countless musicians—but what was it that originally inspired you?
Travelogues on television made by explorers and anthropologists, which showed African villages, dances and masks. I was always fascinated by tribal cultures, and lived in Burundi for some time. In Whitby where I was born we had events called Gymkhanas. They involved Cossack riders doing human pyramids on horseback, sheepdog trials; a kind of family festival, where music and other events had equal importance. The circus, both live and in film, inspired me to take up tightrope walking, and I was into Zen and Japanese culture, particularly Japanese Noh Theatre, with its ritual and masks.
Elvis, Little Richard, and Ray Charles accompanied my adolescence. James Brown's Big Band presentation was a revelation, both in spectacle, dance and drama. Other musical influences were jazz and blues giants like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Howling Wolf and Bessie Smith, and soul, R&B, folk, Spanish, African and Middle Eastern music. My mother had a beautiful voice, and my father was a self-taught jazz pianist. On the family phonogram, classical Beethoven and Grieg blared out. Music Hall, with its humor and sometimes macabre imagery, appealed to me, and the Dr. Who sound workshop opened my ears to electronic sounds as music.
How did you decide on the components of your stage show that ended up influencing countless musicians over the past 50 years?
I wanted to open a multimedia club in 1965, inspired by my time in Paris and Spain. Playing to audiences in those countries, where visual stimulus and theatricality were greatly appreciated, and both beatnik ethic and artistic sensitivity produced audiences, was incredible. But I could not afford to open a club, so I created Crazy World, a multimedia band. And the UFO Club was a crucible for experimentation. An audience that, by being open, invited artists to go beyond any recognized limits. Conversations during the UFO period with a particular artist, Mike Reynolds, led to use of occult symbols, and the development of the fire helmet. Also the zeitgeist of the time, science fiction, with the contraceptive pill, seemed to be becoming everyday fact. It was generally a period where people were ready to accept new approaches to life and performance.
How do you feel about the performance spectacles that bands now use today?
I am glad to see it in all its different forms. For some, like KISS, it’s pure spectacle, for others, like Alice Cooper it varies between psychodrama and pure theatre. Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden told he feels their performance is close to pantomime. Lady Gaga does surreal shock. The thing is, whether it's Elvis being a sex god, Jim Morrison being the Lizard King, or Slipknot, Ramstein, Tool, Eminem, or Usher—rock is actually at its best pure theatre. Living is itself an art, and life is theatre, and is reflected on the concert stage. For me, imagery that reveals the depths of the human heart is the ultimate antidote to the diseases of the spirit of our culture.
Also, the developments in technology have made possible totally new kinds of spectacle. I am impressed by the fact that I can see a wrinkle on someone's face on a huge screen while their head itself is so far away I can't actually see any features. However, I believe what’s next for the music industry is the brain hat helmet, which I’ve experimented with. It allows you to monitor the rhythms of the brain to make music. It’s more like 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. But even with the fast-paced nature of things like the Internet, it will take about 10 to 15 years I think to be the next “big thing.”
Lauren Wise is hunting UFOs on Twitter: @MidnightWriting