The Return of the Hellfire God: Arthur Brown Is Back and Still Crazy After 47 Years
You might remember Arthur Brown — he of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown — from such ‘60s psychedelic hits as “Fire” and “Nightmare.” “Fire” is the song that almost anyone who listened to rock radio back in the day will recognize. It kicks off with a madman bellowing, "I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you ... fire!" — at which point a hyperactive organ kicks in and everyone burns their Freedom Rock LPs.
Brown cut an unusual figure in the world of ‘60s summery love, resplendent in corpse-painted face and fiery headgear, bridging the gap between garage-rock oblivion and psychedelic otherness, tap-dancing skillfully along the thin line between a good trip and a bad one. After his band's 2017 Zim Zam Zim tour — their first in 47 years — British label Cherry Red plans to reissue the band’s original 1968 The Crazy World of Arthur Brown album in its original mix as part of a larger box set.
Ironically enough, the following interview was conducted during a massive downpour in Los Angeles — yet it seems it would take something bordering on a great flood to dampen the fire of Arthur Wilton Brown.
What does fire signify for you?
In those days [of my youth], we’d sit around a gas fire or a coal fire, and there were a lot less around, because it was not far after the Second World War. You had one piece of meat a week; you queued up in school with a teaspoon to get your rosehip syrup from a teacher, out of a bottle. So, simple things were a pleasure.
One of the things I did was sitting and watching the flames in the fire, and little sparks going up the chimney. The chimney would catch the glow, and with the wind blowing through, there’d be this movement between all the little bits of soot and stones. We used to call them “soldiers” — they’d go off like a gunshot in the night. When I looked at fire, I would just go into some kind of a trance, and it enabled me to let go of all my daily things, and for me it became a portal to, in a way, a different world.
What was your family life like after the war?
My father was a very strange man. He was a self-taught jazz pianist in the Art Tatum style. He was a light heavyweight boxer. He was the treasurer of the Conservative Party in Leeds and Yorkshire. He was a widely rounded individual. At the age of 50, he came home one day when he should’ve been at work. My mum said, “Where have you been? Peter, what are you doing?” He said, “I’ve been out in the hills and I’ve been meditating. I got a message from India: Never work again!”
This would’ve been probably in 1960. And he didn’t work again. He devoted his life to psychic experiments; he could see through your body and tell you what’s wrong with you. When I went to see him a little later, when punk came — here is a man who had been a Conservative — I knocked on the door, he opened it up, and he had purple eyebrows and orange hair. And he said, “I like the punk!”
It’s your first U.S. tour in 47 years. Why?
After “Fire,” I married a lady from Texas — and so I didn’t really want to go out touring. I wanted to spend time with my family, and so I kind of gave up on it. I would do local gigs, but no touring. In Austin, in those days, there were so many musicians that people went into construction as a way of earning money, and then you play at night and there are great audiences. I had a painting company with Jimmy Carl Black — the drummer from The Mothers of Invention — called the Gentlemen of Color. He was Black, and I was Brown [laughs] — which, in Texas, pretty much sorted who wanted us to paint their house!
Then I became a counselor and, with a friend of mine, invented a new way of doing counseling using music. We’d bring the client in, my friend would do the talking and I would just listen, sitting there with my guitar. And at the end of the session, we’d turn on the tape and I’d make up some piece, which could be more like poems than a rock song. We got really great response — including one article, I think it was in Life magazine, that said, "From God of Hellfire to Singing Shrink.”
Now, hold on a moment — you sound incredibly well-centered and healthy and positive. What about the craziness? You don’t sound crazy at all!
[Laughs maniacally] Society attempts to put you in a box so that you’ll be able to be a good, contributing, working citizen. In that, you have to somehow find your pleasures and your joy. I’d like to put wilder energy on the stage, and display our creativity — we never do anything quite the same way twice. It’s still just a very free energy. When one considers walls being built, this is kind of an antidote to that whole mentality.
So it’s the world that is crazy in a bad way — but you are crazy, in fact, in a good way.
[Laughs] I think that’s very succinct!
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown appear with Electric Citizen and White Hills on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Regent.
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