Without Jimi Hendrix, pioneering shock rocker Arthur Brown may never have lived up to his reputation as the self-proclaimed "God of Hellfire." In 1968, when the theatrical singer's group, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, put out the single "Fire" – an incendiary, psychedelic nightmare that opens with Brown growling, "I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you … fire!!" – it initially fell flat in the U.S., since underground-friendly FM stations stuck up their noses to it. AM stations accepted it as a novelty record, which piqued the interest of FM DJs. But it was Hendrix, the group's American label-mate, who put the song over the top.
"We did concerts with him and got on really well, so the label persuaded Jimi to go 'round to what were then called 'black stations,'" Brown tells Rolling Stone. "He walked in and said, 'Play this motherfucker.' With Hendrix being the star he was at the time, they did. And suddenly, all the radio stations are playing 'Fire,' and it became a big hit."
The single peaked at Number Two on the Billboard 200 and Number One in the U.K. in the fall of 1968, but by summer, the original group fell apart and Brown decided to become a family man. He went with his wife to Rwanda and Burundi, where he led local music groups and eventually landed in Austin, Texas, where in the early Eighties he started a house-painting business called the Gentlemen of Color with the Mothers of Invention's Jimmy Carl Black. He later became a counsellor who helped people by writing songs about their problems. Although Brown has been active with sparse touring and recording off and on in the years since (a video for "Jungle Fever," off the Crazy World's 2013 time-travel concept LP Zim Zam Zim premieres here), he and a new assemblage of Crazy World members will embark on his first U.S. tour in nearly half a century this week.
It was long overdue, but, after years of praise from artists like Alice Cooper and samples of "Fire" burning holes in songs by Marilyn Manson and the Prodigy, not to overlook covers of the song by the Ventures and the Who, there seems to be a newfound interest in Brown. He performed last year at the psychedelic-themed Psycho Las Vegas festival and the response was so effusively positive that the promoter moved him to a larger stage and co-booked the upcoming tour.
It will be a welcome change of pace for the 74-year-old British expat, who suffered a brain haemorrhage in the early Nineties and curbed his life on the road. "When I left the hospital, I just wanted a much simpler life, so I built one," he says. It brought him back to his growing-up years when his father took him to see a man who taught him transcendental meditation to deal with post–World War II PTSD. Meditation, once he was feeling better, led him to the insight that he wanted to return to music, which he did in the early 2000s.
This progression was natural since meditation had, in part, inspired the original Crazy World of Arthur Brown. "What came from it originally was a sense of going inwards," he explains. "So instead of girls, sex, cars, etc., I focused on that as a young man and it became quite a mystery. Later, when we did the first album, I'd written a song called 'Devil's Grip' that was about waking up, but I'd worked to find imagery that would communicate an inwards journey through fire. I figured fire was a doorway to one's own spirit.
"Then I thought I'd do an album around fire and the inner journey of a man who looks at the world and sees it's going crazy so he decides he's gonna look for the answers somewhere else, and he goes inside," he continues. "And in order to break through society's conditioning, he plunges into the fire. Since the process would include burning away the conditioning and thinking processes he'd been taught, I came up with the character the God of Hellfire. Then there was his opposite twin brother, the God of Pure Fire, which appeared in the album's song 'Coming By.'"
To demonstrate the different characters, Brown began wearing costumes at concerts. Eventually, he fashioned his signature piece himself: a headdress that could be lit to produce a flame. "It started off as a crown with candles on it, and then I got together with an artist called Mike Reynolds, and we discussed how the fire became more deeply rooted in ancient rituals," Brown says. "So we took a helmet with horns on it like from the ancient Norse legends put a dish underneath it with a strap that went under my chin that was attached to a screw. The screw would get very hot, because the dish was full of petrol, and my goodness, when that went up in flame, it went up, and the heat would come down onto my skull. We added a pad, but it would wobble and spill and my clothes and the stage would catch fire. Then we put wings down the side of the face on either side, that'll hold it much firmer and then it won't wobble and it worked. I went to a club a few years ago, and you can still see the scorch marks on the ceiling that I'd left there."
Even then, he didn't stop there. "I also designed a suit where I could set the whole thing on fire," he says. "But when we finally used it at a show, the security people got so alarmed, they rushed up and wrapped me in this blanket. I kept dancing with the flames."
Despite years of playing with fire, Brown says he "never actually disfigured" himself. "Now we've got a totally new way of doing it, so that danger is gone," he says.
But in the Sixties, the Crazy World got a gig playing London's UFO Club, and eventually word got to Pete Townshend about this wild new group and he offered to produce some demos of the band. He later introduced them to one of the Who's managers, Kit Lambert, who would go on to produce the Crazy World's debut LP. Thanks to the success of "Fire," as well as follow-up singles "Nightmare" and Brown's cover of firebrand shock rocker Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," the album went to Number Seven on the Billboard 200.
Since then, despite years out of the public eye, his influence has grown. He says he has enjoyed watching artists in recent years pick up his over-the-top mantle. "Rammstein is certainly quite amazing," Brown adds. "And there's a lot of other bands that do ginormous visual shows and theatrical music and theatre who are fantastic. They're all different." He cites Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae and a spate of Scandinavian black-metal artists as recent examples of artists who have impressed him with their theatricality.
Now he's ready to do it again himself on a larger scale in the U.S., as well as marking his history with an upcoming box-set reissue of the original Crazy World of Arthur Brown album via Cherry Red. He's been retired from counselling for the past 10 years, during which time he's been working on his music, and he plans to play more dates around the States in September.
It's something he's looking forward to, especially when he thinks back on his first-ever U.S. tour, before "Fire" was a hit, when he was playing with the Doors and Frank Zappa. "Back when we started, the underground here was just so enormous and much more extreme than the English underground," he says. "There's a different flow of energy in the U.S. than there is in England, and it's the same with the music – the rhythms are more elastic."