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Arthur Brown changed the world of psychedelic and experimental rock music forever. | Photo: Bryan Ledgard via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Arthur Brown changed the world of psychedelic and experimental rock music forever. | Photo: Bryan Ledgard via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
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Milestones in Music History #52: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Fire and Theatrics

It took a personality like Link Wray, as we saw in our previous episode, to change the sound of rock music by punching a few holes in his amplifier. However, just when you thought you had seen and heard it all, there came a powerful slap in the face – a new gust of rock, coloured with psychedelia. Today we are talking about Arthur Brown and his marvellous kaleidoscopic world, precisely The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

The 1960s represented a triumph of new sounds and trends for music, particularly rock music. The world had been reborn from the postwar period and culture needed new stimulation. And to make up for that, around the mid-60s the psychedelic phenomenon was born, which invested in visual art, society, thought – and consequently, the sound universe.

Psychedelics were based on an altered conception of reality – an alteration that was often achieved through the intake of psychotropics and lysergic substances – that had the effect of opening the doors of perception, where the boundaries between reality and imagination, dream and materiality were completely crossed, sometimes even disfigured.

And how could music not react to all this? The temptation was too strong. And so, in 1960 The Gamblers released a single entitled "LSD 25", in honour of the powerful lysergic acid discovered by Albert Hofmann a few years earlier and strongly connected to the psychedelic movement. It was the first time it was mentioned in rock, but shortly thereafter it would become common ground.

This was also favoured by the fact that, for example, the so-called Acid Tests were born in San Francisco. These were sessions focused on the consumption and politics of acid use, accompanied by improvised music and light shows, organized by the Merry Pranksters, followers of the Californian writer Ken Kesey. But in the old continent, where psychedelia had also arrived in the same years, this phenomenon had taken an interesting turn, particularly in the UK.

It all began in Whitby, a quiet and charming town in North Yorkshire, overlooking the North Seas. Here Arthur Wilton Brown, first a student of law and philosophy, took his first steps into the world of music. Between 1966 and 1967, after a brief visit to Paris during which he recorded two songs for Roger Vadim's film La Curée, based on Zola's novel of the same name, he moved to London.

He soon became a member of the soul ska group Ramong Sound (which would later evolve into the more famous The Foundations). But Arthur wanted an act of his own. And so, in 1967 he left the band to form The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The group originally included Nick Greenwood on bass, Drachen Theaker on drums and Vincent Crane on piano and Hammond organ. Arthur had worked out the construction of a stage persona that was at the very least mind-blowing.

Treasuring the theatrical studies he took during his brief stay in Paris, he made of himself a histrionic frontman who combined spectacle and musical performance. A characteristic – and quite dangerous – feature of his live performances became the use of a flaming metal helmet, which brought some misadventures at times.

In one of those, during the performance of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the Windsor Festival, where Arthur wore a metal colander, flaming gasoline dripped onto his head – fortunately, it was extinguished by two bystanders who poured beer on it. But he continued undaunted in this practice. He also worked a lot on makeup, using an extreme and almost cadaverous style, a white background with dark black features around the eyes and mouth.

Another feature of their live shows was that Arthur would sometimes perform naked, and this also caused quite a few problems, such as at the Palermo Pop Festival in Sicily in 1970, where he was taken away and arrested. Even before their debut album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had already made itself known, for better or worse.

And not only for the quirky and somewhat over-the-top theatrical acts, but also for his singing skills. He could modify his voice, which was very powerful, experimenting and obtaining screams at very high pitches. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had initially worked on and then recorded a single, "Devil's Grip", which failed to chart. However, Atlantic Records was interested in recording an album by the band.

And so, began what was initially conceived as The Fire Suite, a musical work centred around one of their most acclaimed pieces during their live performances, called "Fire". But Kit Lambert of Track Records, the label Arthur had signed thanks to Pete Townshend, didn't like the idea and wanted to include more cover versions.

And finally, in 1968 the debut and only album of the original band, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, was released by Track Records, and it was an immediate success. The album combined pop with elements of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, all laid on a psychedelic carpet and enriched by Arthur's clever vocal games.

The album contained two covers, "I Put a Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and "I've Got Money" by James Brown, which was often performed by the band live. The most psychedelic rock track on the album was also the one chosen as a single, the popular live "Fire"; and on it similarly experimental pieces such as "Spontaneous Apple Creation," described as the most psychedelic piece on the album, "Come and Buy" and the beautiful "Rest Cure", the latter closer to pop music.

The record was a success and can rightly be considered a milestone in rock and psychedelic music. The band began a tour after the album's release, starting in London, their home base, where they used to perform at venues such as the UFO Club – a venue known, among other things, for performances by artists that included Pink FloydProcol HarumAlexis Korner and Soft Machine – and later beginning the U.S. tour, supporting bands such as MC5, the Doors and Frank Zappa.

But during that tour, in 1969, the group dissolved. Greenwood went to join Khan; Crane and Palmer left the group to form Atomic Rooster; Theaker joined the band Love; while Brown himself joined the music group Kingdom Come, of which he became the leader. Although they had only one album and a handful of live concerts, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown deeply marked rock and psychedelic music from the 1960s onward.

"Fire" was a song used and sampled by many bands, including The Prodigy for their "Fire", Marilyn Manson on "Lunchbox", and more recently Death Grips on "Lord of the Game". The record was an inspiration for many bands of their era, but also for psychedelic rock music to come. And Arthur Brown's style and stage presence became a great source of inspiration.

Peter GabrielAlice CooperDavid BowieGeorge Clinton and many others took their example from him (the corpse make-up of black and doom metal bands also came from him) and were inspired by his brazenness and resourcefulness. And putting theatre to music, this too was all his work and that of his band.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown reformed in 2000 with other members and with a different approach. Arthur Brown is still active musically, but it is with his crazy world that he changed the world of psychedelic and experimental rock music forever. Tonto's Expanding Head Band took the reins from him, taking experimentation to a whole new dimension, as we will see in our next episode of Milestones.

How important is theatricality in live performance? How does sound communication change when combined with a strong visual message? Are flames essential on stage? What are the modern-day bands that most embody the spirit of Arthur Brown and his crazy world? 

Leave your opinion in the comments below!

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I am a musician and music journalist based in Prague. 42 is also the name of my project founded in 2008, experimental Dada music with a touch of noise. My latest album,…