‘I am the God of Hellfire!” proclaimed Arthur Brown at the start of Fire, the 1968 UK No 1 by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, an international smash in the psychedelic era. Such commercial heights weren’t scaled again, but the singer’s flaming helmet, pre-Kiss face paint and mix of pop, opera, progressive rock and proto-heavy metal have become influential. Alice Cooper admits, “without Arthur Brown, there’d be no Alice Cooper”, and other stars who have paid homage range from Iron Maiden to Elton John.
“About 12 years ago I got a call from Robert Plant’s agent,” chuckles the singer. “He told me that Robert would love to get someone like Arthur Brown to sing with on tour and asked if I could recommend anyone. I said, ‘I’m pretty like me and I’d love to do it.’”
At 78, though, he is shielding from Covid-19 with partner/manager Claire Waller in a rented house near Malton, Yorkshire. An unlikely place to find a God of Hellfire, but he greets me in full regalia, including face paint. “I had candles going earlier,” he grins, over outdoor tea. Brown should have been on tour, but like many musicians, he has lost all his income from performing due to lockdown.
“We did three shows in March and … whack,” he sighs, mimicking a guillotine. Brown had sunk all his spare cash into the tour but regards himself as one of the luckier ones. “My small royalties are just enough to keep us going,” he explains, “but while the government has bailed out classical music and venues to some extent, I look at day-to-day musicians and think: what happens to them?”
The singer had turned to the Help Musicians charity for advice and assistance, and was impressed with how they “talk to you, ask how you are managing for gas and electricity” and wanted to get involved. Thus, he’s assembled an array of musicians (including Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg and Big Country’s Tony Butler) to record a cover of the Animals’ 1964 hit The House of the Rising Sun to benefit the charity and urge the government to do more. The song, recorded over the internet, is typically outlandish. “I didn’t want it to sound like the Animals or Bob Dylan’s version or anyone else’s,” Brown chuckles.
The experience has sharpened his belief that the arts are undervalued, so he’s also written a magnificent manifesto, When the Mode of the Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake, which covers everything from arts funding to how music can break down prejudice and unite humanity.
“Music can alter the psyche of the people making up society,” he writes. “The attempt to make music a commodity whose value is only judged monetarily is something we should all RESIST.” He sent it to culture secretary Oliver Dowden: “No reply, which says it all.”
The singer is no stranger to adversity. As a baby in Whitby during the second world war, his house was bombed to bits. “The press reported that we’d died, but … the God of Hellfire returns!” He raises arms in triumph, but his mum was left with such bad PTSD that aeroplane sounds made her dive under the bed and his “psychic” father “could see people dying”.
Because Brown was struggling, too, his father brought someone (he’s still not sure who) to help “empty my mind”. Shortly afterwards, he found himself “staring into the heart of the fire and finding a stillness, like meditation”. Fire began life as The Fire Poem. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown became theatrical after a young boy came up after a show in Paris and suggested, “you should black your teeth out”.
A “crown of candles” discarded after a party inspired the flaming helmet, which has become both trademark and occupational hazard. Brown reels off riotous tales of scorched ceilings, burning musicians (himself included) and setting off sprinklers on a video shoot with the Darkness. “I once had a suit made so I could set myself on fire on stage but the stewards came at me with fire blankets,” he giggles. “I told them, ‘I won’t stop dancing!’”
He has been “politely asked to leave” Italy owing to nudity at 1970’s Palermo Pop festival, but in France, an elderly lady told him happily: “At last in my life I have seen two naked men, first my husband and now Arthur Brown.” The French Communist party were not so satisfied, and worried that free-thinking rock performances like his were undermining their authority after the turmoil of May 1968’s protests. He had a meeting with their culture representative. “He said, ‘we respect your artistic morality, but we lost a by-election because you are appearing naked on stage. Could you think of another way to illustrate the same point?’” He has made 18 albums, can’t contemplate retiring (“I’m still learning”), and has never lost his creative vision or positivity.
“When Covid is under control, we need a new society that isn’t dominated by cruel destruction of perfectly good ways of living,” he argues. “In medieval times the musician was the news-bringer, so maybe there’ll be a new function for us, but I can’t imagine a time when humans won’t need music.”