When the group, now named the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, began to perform, "We were singing all the songs that later became popular on the underground. But finding an outlet for it was well nigh impossible. It was a little too outrageous, and there wasn't an underground circuit." Brown even joined the pop-soul group the Foundations (well before their big hit "Baby, Now That I Found You") for a month in early 1967 to get some work. Then record producer and countercultural impresario Joe Boyd saw the Crazy World and "said, 'We'll give you one shot at the UFO Club.' And they loved it."
London's UFO Club, for which Boyd worked as musical director, was only in operation for about a year, but has attained mythic status as ground zero for the British psychedelic underground. A number of the best early UK psych bands built their following there, most notably Pink Floyd, but also the more cultish Soft Machine and Tomorrow, as well as the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. "The atmosphere was different from your normal pop atmosphere," explains Brown now. "The [lyrical] concerns were more poetic, more realistic. The music was exploring an inner landscape, not just the old -- brilliant though it was -- Chuck Berry landscape, which was more external imagery. The music broke out of the mold of pop up to that time, allowing what had only been present in modern jazz, which was improvisation, playing with electronics. Fifty percent of [our] act would be improvised."
A big part of their stage act grew in tandem with the Crazy World's songwriting, which was growing progressively more concerned with exploring extreme behavior and states of mind. "We had a light show which changed color with the mood of the music. I also had all these costumes on. The interior world of one person was mirrored in the costumes, because I wore different layers under each other, and took them off as I performed. There was, first, a guy with this huge Tibetan monk's robe and silver mask. That came off; underneath was a black cape, and it'd be 'I Put a Spell on You,' the magician. [For] 'Come and Buy,' we had lights and a sun god's outfit, a sort of huge sun with flames, rays of light coming out of it. There were huge costumes with these geometric patterns -- orange, red, blue, not hellfire, but pure radiant fire. There was also the fire helmet. We would end the stage act with 'I've Got Money,' it'd be just shirt and trousers, I'd be a normal guy.
"And then stylized dances: a different dance for each of the characters. That, coupled with the lights, strobes, and costumes, produced something which was real theater. It wasn't just gimmicks. I think Peter Gabriel came pretty close, but I don't think anybody else has ever done it. Proper theater," he clarifies. "Alice Cooper did touch it."
The UFO performances won over an especially influential fan and set them on the course from the underground to the Top 10. "Pete Townshend came down to the UFO in his kaftan. He liked it, and took me out in a Lincoln Continental American car. He said, 'Well, you know, my record company just missed the Bonzos [the Bonzo Dog Band, another theatrical, though more comic, group of the period written about elsewhere in this book]. We wanted to sign them, and screwed around so much that we lost them. So I want to make sure that we got you. I think we should put you on our label.'"
Through Townshend's influence the Crazy World of Arthur Brown were signed to Track, the label run by the Who's managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. With a roster including the Who and Jimi Hendrix, Track was in the always-uncommon position of having commercially successful product, and granting freedom for its acts to experiment. Lambert and Stamp also began managing the Crazy World, and in late 1967 their first single, "Devil's Grip"/"Give Him a Flower," appeared.
Although the single was not a hit, it served as fair warning that Brown was going to be dipping into the more disturbing undercurrents of the psychedelic experience. "The Devil's Grip" at last captured the Crazy World sound on disc, motored by Crane's creepy-yet-catchy black mass organ riffs, and put over by Brown's vocals, shakily gentle on the verses, rising into stentorian high-pitched yelps at the most dramatic crescendos. "Give Him a Flower," in utter contrast, was a pisstake on the flower-power movement, lighter and more comical than anything else the Crazy World recorded. The underground apparently didn't mind being targeted for vicious parody, as according to Brown, "It became the anthem for the hippies. They would all sing the chorus. There's a very limited version on the record. [Onstage] it would go on for like 12, 20 minutes; there would be all those jokes, little skits." "Devil's Grip" was more indicative of Brown's intentions, particularly in its satanic references. "It was the record that introduced all that imagery to the rock field, in England at least," he claims.
"Devil's Grip" was child's play when set next to the roller-coaster suite of sounds and moods that comprised the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's debut album, released in 1968. Brown's vocals were not just those of a strange British R&B singer; there was a layer of psychedelic dementia, as interpreted by a man determined to explore the abyss separating good and evil, and coherence and madness. Brown did not so much sing like a man possessed by demons, as easy as that cliché would be to apply, but like a philosopher privy to seduction by temptation and forbidden fruits, at the same time cognizant of their dangers. He may have been screaming about being trapped in nightmares on occasion, or intoning poems about the flames of hell, but one sensed he was savoring the experience as much as dreading it.
What set this apart from the subsequent innumerable inferior records (mostly by heavy metal bands) venturing into similar themes was the care taken to insure musical and lyrical subtlety. Brown's voice was itself an instrument to marvel at, moving from alluring whispers and portentous spoken poetry to glass-smashing screams in an instant. "I couldn't do some of the things that other people could do," says Brown of his vocals, so often (and accurately) pegged as "operatic." "I remember talking to Lene Lovich" -- another rock singer prone to high-pitched hysterics -- "and that's how it sounds to her as well. She sang these other soul-y songs, and thought, 'Well, [I] can't do these very well. I want to do this, 'cause that's what I can do.'"
The arrangements also veered between meditative funereal passages and crazed psychedelic hyperdrive, accented by deft touches of orchestrated brass and strings. It is impossible to underestimate the contributions of Vincent Crane, possibly the most overlooked 1960s rock organist, in this regard. While playing in a manner similar to another British rock organist, Graham Bond, who fused jazz, blues, soul, rock, and classical motifs with sinister overtones, Crane took it to a yet more intense level. He complemented the mania of Brown's vocals with exhilaratingly vibrant and piercing riffs, devising unholy dissonant chords suitable for the devil's lair's doorbells. At times he spit out swirls of notes so rapidly that it sounded as if jazz organist Jimmy Smith had been kidnapped by the Merry Pranksters for an acid test.
"The thing with Vincent, you'd have to slow it down," chuckles Brown. "I couldn't sing at the speed he would play. Even on 'Come and Buy'..." He breaks off and sings a quick extract of that lyric at 100 miles an hour: "'I can sell you suns from the morning, from suns to sell you for the morning for tea.' Well, he would play even faster! Nobody could dance, because he was so bloody fast.
"Vincent and I would thrash it out together. A lot of the chords would be ones that he would suggest, and I would then choose. Or sometimes, he would suggest the chord, and I would [say] 'oh yeah, I can go to that.' Or we'd cut to the end of a particular place and I'd go, 'Listen.'" He breaks out into his trademark operatic trill. "And he'd go, 'Oh, there, you mean.'"
The Crazy World of Arthur Brownwas a strange album, even by the standards of 1968 psychedelic rock, but it was not as unrelentingly weird as some remember. True, there were the foreboding scenes of nightmares, fire, and anxiety-riddled bewilderment dominated the first side in particular. Yet the jazzy "Rest Cure" hinted at the possibility of a relaxing escape from the torture, while the heavy rock arrangements on the R&B covers "I Put a Spell on You" (originally by Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and "I've Got Money" (an obscure early-'60s James Brown single) introduced a bit of much-needed levity. "Spontaneous Apple Creation," its dada poetry and special effects reminiscent of a 1950s science fiction film computer gone haywire, was as crazy as the Crazy World of Arthur Brown got, but "Child of My Kingdom" ended the album on a more optimistic note. Like much of the record, it's an illustration of how adept the band were at playing different moods against each other, the melancholy Eastern strains of the verse segueing into the uplifting jazz-blues of the bridge, complete with jaunty whistling.
Though largely based on the group's stage act, the album and its songs of devils and deities, notes Brown, "was an internal journey inwards in somebody's psyche. It was through having immersed myself in Keats, Blake, Shelley, Shakespeare, all the great romantic poets that had dealt with the human interior landscape. I'd studied philosophy, I had connections with the Druids at that time. Because that was the background of the lyrics, the music had to mirror that. Instead of glossing over the darker area of the interior, it was like saying, okay, I want to have a look at it, using the language that had been developed by those other poets who'd looked at it. The imagery of the mind works through polarity. What are the poles? Well, you've got gods and devils. In the modern world, there was no other imagery."
The strings and brass that added to the classiness of the album very nearly did not make it onto the final product. "We had recorded the whole album with just bass, drums, keyboard, and myself. Kit [Lambert] took it over to America, and Atlantic Records said, 'Crazy stuff! But, uh, the drummer can't keep time.' So Kit came back and said" -- here Arthur adopts an exaggerated upper-class English accent -- "'I don't know what to do about this! We've got to get it out over there, but they don't want to put the album...' And Kit had recorded it on four-track; he'd recorded the drums and the keyboard on the same track. I said, 'We can't possibly redo it all. It'd cost us a fortune.' 'Fire' was 23 takes, it wasn't just like one take and in. So it was a lot of money already invested. And he said" -- Arthur goes into his posh Lambert accent again -- "'I know what we could do, Arthur. Dub some strings on it.' We found out Vincent could orchestrate it, and that's how it came about. And a good thing, too. I always felt that the strings and the brass, as far as the recording, took the place of the visuals for a live concert.
"I remember Kit took two weeks, probably 14 hours a day to mix it. He said he would never again subject himself to such torture." Perhaps as a result of this mixing frenzy, the five songs on side one -- the "Fire" side -- also exist in mono versions that differ considerably from the more common stereo ones, especially in the addition of several entertaining orchestral intros and spoken soundbites linking some of the tracks.
One member of the trio was not so thrilled with the dressed-up tracks. "We were on tour in America when it came out. Kit had done the final mix. Chris Stamp came over to our hotel, handed us the acetate. He got about four minutes into the acetate, and Drachen leapt across the room, took it off the turntable, smashed it on the wall. Because his drums were buried. Kit not only did that, but on 'I Put a Spell on You' and 'Child of My Kingdom,' it was John Marshall, who later played in Soft Machine, who was the drummer." Brown also says that a different drummer, Jon Hiseman (who played with Graham Bond, John Mayall, and Colosseum), took Theaker's place on the pre-LP "Devil's Grip" track.
There was one song on the album that would overshadow all of the others, defining Brown's public image to such an extent that it gave him an unfairly one-dimensional image in some quarters. "Fire," built around an organ riff as insistent and memorable as the fuzz guitar riff that had anchored the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," was a classic that funneled the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's best traits into a tasty three-minute package. It was, again, structured to set off the hard rocking verses with serene, yet still uneasy, bridges in which Brown's vocals built from a lullaby to a cord-shredding yell, made all the more disquieting by his lunatic cackles. Television clips of Brown doing "Fire" in the late 1960s show a rail-thin man with black-and-white death-mask makeup writhing like a snake to the music before donning a fire-sprouting helmet and disappearing as clouds of smoke envelop the stage, the other musicians wearing skeleton masks and medieval robes. That might seem tame by Marilyn Manson standards, but in the 1968 it was more than enough to shock Middle America.
"Fire" was the last song on the album to be written, says Arthur, and "I knew it needed something the other tunes didn't have. It needed to be really powerful, pushing. In the place that Vincent and I rehearsed, another couple of guys who used to come, Mike Finesilver and Peter Ker, had a song I quite liked. I said, 'I really like the melody. So do you mind if Vincent and I take hold of it and create something from it.' It's a bit like Bartok. He used to go around on the back of a wagon and listen to the peasants' songs, and when he came back, noted down what he liked of it, then orchestrated it, and it became his." (Finesilver and Ker, incidentally, would use their songwriting royalties from "Fire" to help start Pathway Studios, where seminal early new wave and pub rock tracks by Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, the Damned, Wreckless Eric, the Police, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Dire Straits, and Lene Lovich were recorded.)
Brown's gladiator-of-doom spoken "god of hellfire" opening should have been enough to keep the single from getting enough airplay to get a hit. Yet it rocketed up the charts in the summer of 1968, all the way to #1 in England. Two months later it followed suit in the US, despite being banned on some stations, stopping at #2; only the Beatles' "Hey Jude," then in the midst of a nine-week reign at the top, kept it from going to #1. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown album, though people tend to have forgotten, was also a smash, making #2 in the UK and #7 in the US. Brown had taken psychedelic pseudo-madness to the masses.
For all The Crazy World of Arthur Brown's impact, Arthur feels that the record could have been a greater tour de force had he been allowed to sequence the album as he originally wished. "I had a big tussle with Kit Lambert. Kit had a very big eye for what would sell. So when I came up with the idea for this theme album, he said, 'Nobody's going to buy that.' I said, 'Well, Kit, you're wrong.' And he said, 'No, I'm not.' I was, 'Well, I'm not going to do all the bloody covers you want.' And he was, 'Well, I'll let you have control over one side of the album, and I want control over the other.' And I said" -- Brown assumes a disgusted tone of voice -- "'Fine!' Because if that's the only way we were going to get it out, I'll compromise to that extent. So he got the side with 'Spell on You' and stage numbers that went down well. And my side was the 'Fire' side."
These were back in the days, of course, when there were two-sided LPs instead of CDs, and Brown envisioned suites of songs for each LP side that would be linked thematically. "One side ended on a confused, almost violent note; it was more of a questioning. The other side was a peaceful ending, a resolution. It had gone through another progression. Neither of them was the A or the B side, so depending on what mood you were in, you would put one side on or the other. Then, depending which way you saw it, it might start where the first side ended with an uplift, or it might be the other way around. It was much more of a free think. Lambert wanted me to change side A, the 'Fire' side, and have it end with a nice gentle thing, so everybody'd feel happy. I said, 'That's not the point, Kit.' I'm thinking of redoing...doing the version with a complete A- and B-side."
Had Brown been allowed to make the album as he wished, it would have been something like an opera. The irony was that Lambert's other clients, the Who, would have a mammoth hit the following year with Tommy,which was very much a rock opera, in spite of Lambert's opposition to Brown's ideas along those lines. "Yeah, he was wrong [about my album]," laughs Arthur. "But, you know, the nice thing about Kit was, he'd admit it in the end.
"I came back from an American tour to Lambert's flat, and he said to me, 'I'm going to do it, Arthur. You wait and see.' 'What are you talking about, Kit?' 'This thing that Peter's [Townshend] written -- I'm going to call it an opera, which it jolly well is. But you just see. Those snobs will eat it up.' And he was right."
Although Brown has mixed memories of his association with Lambert, he still appreciates the good things of which Kit was capable. "Lambert and Stamp were masters of manipulating the media. Lambert was gay; he had all the gay friends. Stamp had all the young women, and Lambert had the old women. They loved Lambert's flamboyance.
"He went over to America, came back and said, 'Look, I don't know what to do. Because the FM stations, we're not quite what they want.' So what he did was, he eventually got a couple of AM stations to play the whole of one side of the album, whereupon they got such a response that the FM stations suddenly all started calling up and saying, 'We want it.' We had the unusual thing in those days of both AM and FM play, which wasn't normal.
"Hendrix, at the same time, had all the black stations. My makeup wouldn't let you know whether I was black or white, and I sounded black. So Hendrix said to all the guys, play this motherfucker. So we went on all the black stations, the AM and the FM stations. That is pretty incredible."
For more on the rise and dissolution
Crazy World of Arthur Brown, see the full chapter in Urban
& Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric
of '60s Rock.
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