Rumour has it that Arthur Brown has set fire to more stages than any other artist. He’s also thought to be the inspiration behind Alice Cooper, Kiss, Peter Gabriel and Marilyn Manson. But at what age does the original god of hellfire plan to kick his petrol burning habits? Jem Collins finds out.
The Zu Studios in Lewes epitomise everything I expected of an Arthur Brown gig. Every surface is covered with artistic tat, piled together like a haphazard game of Jenga. Lava lamps, a candelabra dripping with pastel waxes, a 1960s typewriter and a painting of the Mona Lisa turned medusa all sit together in a beautifully chaotic mess. Giant paper butterflies hang from the ceiling and faux tree trunks swirl through the corners set off by flashing fairy lights, flickering candles and a Sanyo projector pumping out psychedelic colours.
Even the people look as if they’ve wandered off a film set. One man strolls past me in a lab coat. He’s holding two conical flasks and has a blue Turkish eye painted on his forehead. Another lady has opted for a heavy black cape and an ornate Venetian mask with a long nose and deep red gemstones. When Arthur finally arrives, he’s undeniably the most normal thing in the room.
He’s wearing a light beige jumper and baggy blue trousers which I’m instantly jealous of – whilst Zu have gone to town on the fairy lights the converted industrial estate is certainly lacking in the heat department. He is, however, wearing a red and orange striped hat with the wool tasselled like a Mohican and I can’t help but be reminded of a cockerel. He’s also carrying two life size wooden cut outs of something vaguely resembling totem poles. When he notices me sitting awkwardly on a red fifties style bar stool, he puts down the totem pole-esque cut outs and comes to my rescue. “It’s lovely to finally meet you,” he says touching my arm lightly. “I need to do a sound check soon but then we can talk.” “You’re welcome to watch” he assures me as he wanders off with his totem poles.
For a man entering his seventh decade there’s a strange juxtaposition about Arthur Brown. His sentences are softly spoken, with lingering pauses between each train of thought, and his once dark mess of hair has faded to a few silver strands hanging precariously on either side of his face. Whilst he certainly doesn’t look the same as he did in Paris in 1966, there’s something about him that still feels very much alive. The original fire starter has the air of a man who’s done it all and is perpetually unfazed at anything the world throws at him. And as he steps up on stage for his sound check, launching straight into a verse of Poor Old Michael Finnegan, it’s evident that the Crazy World of Arthur Brown is still very much still alive.
Finishing his sound check he jokes; “It’s gone up one degree in temperature now, shall we pass the hat round to warm up?”. Deciding to pass on the opportunity of looking like a chicken despite the temperature of my toes, we head to another room at the back of the club. The whole building appears to have been transformed into a warren of psychedelic rooms. One room is filled with huge canvases painted abstractly in bold shapes and vivid colours. There’s even a miniature cinema room, with one lone armchair, showing a full selection of films throughout the evening.
We eventually settle for a small room decked with curtains, a selection of armchairs and a mock piano with deliberately broken keys. Arthur tells me it’s the gentlemen’s club for the evening. He must have caught me staring at some part of the eclectic décor as he informs me this is nothing compared to upstairs, where the band have set up a massive pink tent to sleep in, so that he feels more at home. It later transpires that when he’s not on the road, home is actually a yurt somewhere on the South East coast.
It’s clear to see that everything about Arthur’s performances exude theatre. Both as a solo act and as part of various bands he’s famed for extravagant performances, featuring everything from face paint and masks to burning helmets and stimulated crucifixions. I ask what’s the inspiration for such theatrical performances and he pauses for a second. “I’ve always loved theatre, since I was young” he tells me. “I think I always liked to encapsulate things into little adventures and presumably tell people about them, I can’t remember. It just sort of came naturally into the music.”
Arthur first came into the public eye after moving to Paris in 1966, which is where, rumour has it, he developed such a theatrical style. “It was a very wild scene,” he reminisces. “But we were playing three sets six nights a week and you get a bit bored with playing the same stuff all the time so we made up things in between. Just to amuse ourselves really. There were various things about French politics, about the pope and stuff like that. Y’know…” He trails off.
But what about more specific ideas, I ask, it’s the helmet of fire everyone wants to know about. He laughs. “Yeaaaah. When I was probably about six or seven my grandfather was down in the basement and he fell asleep in his chair. He had not long hair, but it wasn’t short so my brother and I wondered if it would burn, as you do. So we got some matches and set his hair on fire and that was quite exciting.” He reflects for a second. “Not for him of course”.
It wasn’t until he was performing in Paris that the theme of flames resurfaced. “We were living in this strange Bordello hotel and somebody left a crown with candles in it outside my room.” Naturally, being Arthur Brown, he decided to use it in his performance. “Everyone loved it, so that was the beginning of wearing flames on the head. Then it went from there to petrol in a dish which used to splash all over and burn everything including myself.”
It was a performance at Windsor Festival in 1967 that was one of the first times that Brown accidently set himself on fire. He’d been wearing a colander soaked in methanol, which ended up pouring over his head and setting alight, causing two bystanders to douse the flames with beer. He readily admits that it wasn’t until he started working with artist Mike Reynolds that “we finally got it together and we finally got a proper helmet made”. But that’s not to say that accidents have stopped happening. The last time Arthur played in Lewes in 2007, the flames from his helmet spread to his cloak, setting his neck and hair on fire.
It’s is certainly an eminent part of Arthur Brown’s image. The self-proclaimed “god of hellfire” also made his only number one with the aptly named Fire in 1968. Did you ever expect it to become so iconic, I ask? “No” he replies simply. “All it was for me at the time when I was writing that stuff, particularly the lyrics…” He takes a breath and starts again. “I mean the lyrics were about things people weren’t singing about so I thought we’ll make them into characters.”
“It was in talks with this guy Mike Reynolds we brought in all the sacred symbols and you know, the horns, which were part of it.” The horns belonged to Pan, Greek God of the wild, he explains, later depicted as the devil in Christian mythology. “And of course looking at the fact that in the olden days death was just a part of life and in the middle ages people represented death in all the plays and everything and we thought well, we’ll have a death head.” He smiles: “And the flaming hat. That’s great, why not”.
I’m glad we got onto the topic of influences, I reply. Over the years Brown has been named as the influence behind countless household names from Peter Gabriel and Marilyn Manson to King Diamond and George Clinton. Alice Cooper was even quoted saying, “without Arthur Brown there would be no Alice Cooper”. How does it feel to have all of these people citing you as their main influence, I ask, it must be something of an honour? Arthur, however, seems thoughtful at the concept.
“It’s all part of the creative process” he tells me. “I think, you know, our culture has sort of decided that what was great was individualism but in actual fact everybody lives in some kind of community. World community, community with animals, community with nature… There’s always a gathering of information from other people.”
“I feel that no matter if you get someone like Bowie who changed his image, he was looking and taking things from everybody and so does everybody else. Some people get an individual take on it and sometimes that can be so different from the rest of it it looks like something completely new, but actually it’s a new take on the same thing.”
And who influenced Arthur Brown? The list seems endless. “Well, as I say, the African witch doctors did. I loved Elvis Presley, I thought there was some kind of quality in his voice that wasn’t present in other people’s.” He takes a deep breath. “Little Richard, then Lightning Hopkins, Howling Wolf, Bessie Smith, Diana Washington – these were all blues guys.” He then moves on to opera singers such as Dame Clara Butt. “I thought that was fantastic”, he adds. “That was just the first wave of it and then of course, you know, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and those sorts of people in the sixties.” It feels like he could do on forever.
“If you’re open you never stop being influenced,” he continues. “I mean do you want to be in a body and already be dead? Or to stay alive to life, it’s always surprising. Nothing ever repeats itself.” Realising what he just said, he laughs, adding, “Although everything is the same of course.” So what about more recently I ask? “Well, I was influenced by Prodigy, by Eminem. My son who’s visiting from America tonight, we occasionally go down dubstep dancing so I get to hear all of that stuff as well.”
Arthur has always been at the forefront of change. As part of Kingdom Come, later renamed Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, he was one of the first to use a drum machine in live performances. But it isn’t easy for your idea to become accepted he explains. “I mean when we first used the drum machine, most people didn’t believe there was a machine. People think you’re crazy.”
“In lots of cases they came round while we were playing into the dressing room to see if we had tape in there of a band or something. They wouldn’t believe there was just this box. It took about five years before it became really popular.” But drum machines aren’t the only trend that Arthur claims to have started. “I remember at the time I also had only half hair long and half hair short, one side of the suit a business suit, the other side a psychedelic one”. “That took about four years to become a very normal thing” he tells me, though I remain unconvinced that such a get up wouldn’t cause strange looks in the office.
From outlandish costumes to on stage crucifixions, Arthur has never been short of eccentric ideas. And looking back at his past attire even he isn’t one hundred per cent sure where it all came from. “I think for instance when it came to the half hair and half beard, one day I just woke up and thought ‘I’m fed up of this’ and I got halfway through and thought ‘oh that looks interesting’”, he tells me. “But I may have also, looking back later, I remembered seeing some magazines where they had some women’s hairstyles that were like that. Then it went over to the guys all wearing it so it’s a constant influence from one thing to another.” The inspiration behind his dances is much easier to pin down though, which he puts down to watching documentaries on African witch doctors. “I just watched what they did and copied it and found my own way with it” he explains.
Drawing in outside influences is clearly a key part of Arthur’s work. Over the years he’s collaborated with artists such as Bruce Dickenson, Jimmy Carl Black and Big Country as well as working on the Alan Parson’s Project in 1976. It’s also evident in the way he structures his band. Currently The Crazy World of Arthur Brown has a rotating line up, with two bass players, two guitarists and two drummers. In fact, the only stable member of the band is the dancer, Angel Fallon, and Arthur himself. And as Arthur explains to me, writing music should be a very collaborative experience.
“If you take the new album we’re working on, I’ve worked on that particularly with Jim Mortimore, the bass player, and Sam Walker, the drummer. Some days we’ll come to the end of a writing session and nobody can remember which of us did what. And it doesn’t matter.”
He adds; “I think what it really comes from is if you keep your mind clear and open. Then things are not just going to be the same every time. And that spirit of change involves different people, different ways of doing it each night and different ways of playing. All of that comes from the initial openness to adventure.”
“So, would you say all of your shows are different?” I ask. “I think so”, he replies, “obviously there are elements that are the same, but we never quite play the same at all.” And what about the future, I wonder. Arthur will turn 71 this June and his musical career already spans over six decades. But Arthur insists that music is an integral of his life. “I’ve never so far found it to be anything other than wonderfully uplifting and exhilarating to perform, to be involved with music and involved with all the people in the audience.” “But then I never know” he concedes. “Maybe one day I’ll wake up and think yarrgh and do something else.”
For the mean time however, Arthur has a gig to perform and the task of transforming into his on stage persona. “I liked your questions”, he tells me, before disappearing to his magical pink tent upstairs. It’s less than three hours later that he re-emerges on stage and less than three songs in before he sets himself on fire. Dressed in a heavy black cape and covered head to toe in face paint – even over his bald patch – he looks a world away from the friendly old man I met earlier. It’s 2am before Arthur finally steps off the stage and I’m shattered. I’m told the party won’t be finishing until at least four and I decide it’s probably time to cut my losses. He may be 70, but he certainly out parties me.
Working with Arthur Brown
When The Crazy World of Arthur Brown reformed in 2000, aside from Arthur himself, it came with an all new line-up. Jem Collins meets some of the band’s current members
Angel Flame: The Dancer
Angel Fallon, or Angel Flame as she’s known on stage, has been dancing with the band since they reformed in 2000.
When I meet her she’s huddled next to a patio heater looking flustered. “I think I’ve got a bit of a problem” she explains. The zip of her make up bag is stuck and she’s lost the pendant to her earring but the wire pin is stuck in her ear. “I go to pot when it’s cold” she explains, showing me her hands which have gone white. “Just think how awful the gig is going to be”.
Whilst I attempt to get to get the wire out of her earlobe I ask her how she met Arthur and her face lights up. “I’m not used to being asked to talk” she gushes excitedly, “normally people just tell me to shut up”.
“Well actually Arthur stepped on to my stage” she says proudly. “I was dancing with Nick Turner and Space Ritual and the next thing I know Arthur comes onto the stage and we were entwined and embroiled in this crazy duet that ended up all over the stage.” She descends into a fit of laughter. “At one point I ended up on my back and Arthur was above me and I was like ‘well what do we do now?’ It was hilarious”.
A few weeks later she received a phone call from Arthur asking her to join him in performances and she hasn’t looked back since.
Julian Fenton: The Part Time Drummer
Julian Fenton is one of the bands two drummers and has only been part of the team for six months.
Sitting on a sofa in the “gentlemen’s club” and sipping a cup of tea he seems very relaxed.
He explains that his dad has known Arthur since the very beginning. “He actually brought him into Track records. It wasn’t in fact Pete Townsend” he laughs, “no, it was my dad!”
It was through his dad that Julian was offered the opportunity to perform in the band.
“I was honoured and thought I better prove myself you know, Dad’s son and all. It’s been a great experience; I’m loving every minute of it.”
He says he’s been a fan of Arthur since he was a young boy. Taking his phone from his pocket he adds; “My mum just rang me up saying ‘where’s the car, I need the car’ and I said I’m doing a gig with Arthur Brown
“She just sent me a text back saying ‘when I think of that little boy dancing to Fire, it’s amazing, well done’. I thought that was really cute.”