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The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
Arthur Brown is the hell-raiser who frightened the life out of the establishment in the 1960s. His 1967 single Devils Grip paved the way for Heavy Metal and his burning helmet of fire often ended up cooking his scalp on stage rather than the fuel in its colander.
He is recording new material (most recently an album called The Magic Hat with Brightonian Rick Patten) and is 70 this year. He is psyched for more action and he’s promised to give the new stuff an airing alongside old classics at a round of shows his press agent assures will be his craziest ever.
So when The God Of Hellfire gets in touch inviting me to visit his countryside retreat to explain, I’m eager to see if the man who penned the rabble-rousing devil-teaser, Fire, is a man of his word.
Given his naked theatrics helped lose the Communist party seats in the French parliament in 1969 (his band’s presence along with Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine showed they had hold of the students) and that he was arrested and deported from Sicily after entering the stage on a crown of flames before stripping naked, all except for his face painted as Death’s Head, he’ll have some way to go.
I arrive at Lewes station to meet Arthur’s driver. I’m to be blindfolded and whisked to the main man’s yurt.
But when I roll up there’s a wispy rake stood waiting. He’s got long wirey hair floating behind his ears and more fluff springing out from beneath a black linen shirt.
He’s waving and hanging out behind a battered old Peugeot 206. He opens the door for me and throws a scarf on to my lap.
“You don’t have to wear that thing, but can I trust you?”
It’s Arthur, the apparent devil incarnate, and his soft voice floats over, gentle as a falling autumn leaf.
He’s says he’s had a few nutters try to track him down. All the God of Hellfire stuff was too much for some and because he lives near children, he doesn’t want religious fundamentalists trying to sacrifice him in front of the kids.
“I feel like I should,” I say, referring to the blindfold. “But your secret’s safe with me. The God of Hellfire can owe me one.”
After a tour of Arthur’s favourite Lewes’ haunts – namely the old Phoenix Iron and Steel Works, whose centrepiece is now a creative mecca called Zu, where everyone knows Arthur on first-name terms and wants his opinion on their latest sculpture – we head out to his country bolthole.
Above the bed sits Buddha and hanging off a bookcase is an authentic Afghani warrior’s suit.
There’s other paraphernalia from his nomadic life (he’s lived in Africa, Mexico, Texas and Turkey). But the circus-like yurt, with a stone circle built on a patch of grass to the left of the door, says all one needs to know about Arthur’s search for spiritual clarity.
He says he does 40 minutes’ Chinese and Tibetan meditation every morning to go with his daily singing practice and long walks. It’s a far cry from the days when he drank for clear-sightedness, ventured to Mexico to conduct shamanic studies with mushrooms and had a five-year stint testing acid in the States.
“Whilst I don’t recommend it to anybody because you can’t know before you take it,” he says discussing the latter pursuit, “there are cultures where trips are part of a huge spiritual involvement.
“In our case we just took it, out of its context and straight down.
“But for me I found absolutely incredible freedom – a different area of consciousness; different levels of the mind; different ways of looking at things; different ideas for what this thing is, in my case, Arthur.”
The birds chirp, bringing music to the tranquillity of the yurt. He says he is at peace here and that it was built by a pal who often designs sets for his tours from the Phoenix industrial estate.
“It’s all top secret,” says Arthur, as he cleans out a dusty mug and pours us a ginger beer when I ask about what we should expect at the shows.
“I can say there’ll be erotic voodoo dancers and plasma, lots of plasma.”
I’ve come a long way for a minor teaser.
Mind you, he’s been out on the road regularly over the last few years and is arguably as good as ever. He was invited to play a two-hour set at Ray Davies’s Meltdown last year and Alice Cooper had him on stage for his incendiary Halloween Night Of Fear last October. Earlier this year he even toured Germany with The Hamburg Blues Band.
Life is good: he is no longer dependent on drugs to see a vision of how things are. He has two children with his American ex-wife and is back in love: his current partner, who he met at one of his regular evenings out dancing at Zu in Lewes, is in her early 30s.
How does the 70-year-old find the energy to do it all?
“For me coming to the end of a spiritual search, I thought – how should I spend my time? I should do music.”
He’s proud of his new website which has a new box-set (featuring The Magic Hat record) for sale, and a Brighton documentary maker is currently making a film about his long career.
After the short-lived success of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown record in 1968, executive produced by The Who’s Pete Townsend, he made the revolutionary step of making a rock album without a drummer.
The third album by his next group Kingdom Come, Journey, released in 1973, was made with a drum machine as its rhythm section.
“I was sick of having the volume dictated by the drummer and then the guitarist would try to top it. I thought just take away the drummer. I didn’t play complicated. He hadn’t just ran away with the bass player’s wife.”
Brown later moved to Texas after a small part in The Who’s Tommy and touring with ex-Tangerine Dream synthesizer player Klaus Schulze.
In America he made an album with Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black and took up painting and carpentry.
After returning to England he guested on records including Kula Shaker’s Mystical Machine Gun and in 2005 was named Showman Of The Year by Classic Rock magazine for a Kingdom Come one-off reunion.
As we chat, visitors come and go. Up pops Arthur every time to investigate, as easily distracted as a child seeing the world for the first time.
It’s the same curiosity that found him warm-up a crowd for Duke Ellington and play with John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix. His eyes light up.
“John Lee Hooker was one of my early heroes and to be onstage with that man it was like, woooaah.
“I love improvising so with Hendrix we’d go for an hour and a quarter just on one piece.
“The place where I did most with Hendrix was Steve Paul’s The Scene Club in New York. I don’t think that’s where I sang with him and John Lee Hooker though.”
He was also asked to sing at President Kennedy’s parties.
“Everything from seeing angels to eating with presidents,” he chuckles. “Wow. What a life.”
- Arthur Brown plays Komedia, Gardner Street, Brighton, on Wednesday, November 21. Doors 7.30pm, tickets £15. Call 01273 647100