Arthur Brown, at the grand age of 77, is the poetic embodiment of the spiritual awakening that he names the ‘god of hellfire’. From his upbringing in the Blitz, fire has always been both a nightmare vision as well as an enthralling fascination, which later led to the creation of his 1968 debut album ‘The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’ and his UK number one single ‘Fire’, which sold a million copies nationwide and awarded him a gold disc. But beneath the surface of his early commercial success, Brown concerns himself with the next stage of his inner spiritual journey, from his days growing up in a world of ’60s psychedelia and radical thinking. bold experimentation with visuals and magic and the relationship with his fans, utilising electrifying theatrical performances to provide holistic sustenance to both his and their awakening state of consciousness. Brown talks to me ahead of two consecutive London shows symbolising ‘perspectives of the human adventure’ and a significant culmination in his career.
What are these shows about?
The guy who first created a website for me a long time ago was at our show last night. He said, “All the things you wanted to put into the show with [my] band between ’72 and ’75 but couldn’t because of the technology of the day, you’ve done it now.” We’ve created a multimedia show that has very exciting music and very unusual ways of using visuals. It has different depths depending on what you want to look at it. It’s a movement through, which would normally be a story. Claire and I (Claire is my manager, she also does the costumes and theatre) have Andy on the visuals who can in real-time play with images and make them mirror whatever we’re doing and create these depths. Tonight we won’t be able to use all the depths, but we will use some. These are screens here, so you get the double level of projections. It’s taken Claire and I about four years to understand what I like to talk about, think about and what the material I write is about, and get to a point that the material we use is different material from different times in my career, by knowing the whole background, what concerns me; what’s in my heart.
Your latest album, ‘Gypsy Voodoo’, how does it symbolise what stage you are at in your musical and spiritual journey?
Well it’s relevant in this act that we have…the silence and the place where there’s not physical bodies moving or things from everyday life. That’s the place it all rocks around and that’s like a mirror to consciousness and thought.
You had two (remastered) tracks on there, ‘Fire’ and ‘Fire Poem’ – what part does fire play in your music?
I was born in the war in Yorkshire and then when we moved to London, the East End, in the Blitz, both these places where our houses were were blown to bits and all the streets were in flames, so fire became a preoccupation. Also there was no television and people were poorer after the war – even people who before had huge houses – so I found a great deal of pleasure watching fires, flames in the house and how they come out a certain colour, they flicker up and then greens and blues come out. And then as it gets hotter and hotter there’s all this movement because whatever is burning falls, so everything shifts in fire but then it gets to a point where the centre of it is white hot and that doesn’t move; everything is suddenly silent. So for me the flames and the fire represent the kind of movement through your own mind and all that preoccupies and bothers you.
Also the dualities of fire, how did that play a part in you being the ‘god of hellfire’?
The original album was a story although it wasn’t in prose; it was a poetry sequence and in it this person looks at the world, sees it as quite nightmarish and a voice says from inside, “There’s only one way out: you have to bathe yourself in fire.” So that’s what the lead character does and then meets these gods, and one of the gods is the god of hellfire. If you shifted away from the centre of your consciousness, which allows you to behave in a humane, harmonious fashion, if you wanna get back to that you have to somehow work through and that’s the god of hellfire; that’s what the god of hellfire is. It’s kind of purgatory in Christian terms or even some of the other religions. And then comes in the next figure, his god brother. It’s not like that. Fire is also aweing. This is the god of pure fire who says, “When you see a fire burning inside your mind’s eye, breathe the meaning of the flames before you let them die.” And then it says, “Twisting, turning, falling, burning, roaring balls of fire; those who see them have no need of guides to spend a while.” If you can see that and hold it you don’t need gurus and teachers, but [for] most people it’s too difficult; our education doesn’t deal with it, although it’s quite natural.
On that point of education, what about the idea of the musician as a shaman or a hypnotist, the zen teacher?
Yeah, certainly I looked at all those things and saw them when I came into contact with different teachers who I learnt things from, but the work itself is designed to move people through those things depending on how you wanna take this. From one point of view it’s just a show, but if you really watch it it’s all there.
Your first album, ‘The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’, you decribed as a book of shadows and an inner journey. What were you evoking as yourself as the creator and the audience as the listener?
Well there’s an idea in our culture: we like to take things and put them in a laboratory or somewhere where we can watch them and observe, and it’s been presumed that they are two different functions. One of them is accurate, that’s the observor, but modern physics has showed that even someone who’s observing actually changes what is perceived. So extending that to our show, the audience watch it and, whilst if you look at it, there’s people on a stage and there’s an audience and that starts off as a separating duality, actually all the time we’re joined on another level of consciousness, so any interaction is changing. When the audience watch it and get something, whatever it is it affects the performer on a subliminal level and then things come out that may not normally happen.
What were your experiences at the UFO Club in the very early days?
The UFO Club was the centre of the English underground that was in an Irish music club called The Barney Club. They gave it to the UFO Club for the Friday and Saturday nights, so it was a place where people came if they wanted to not be bound by the normal conventions of what kind of music would be played; what kind of things would be allowed for an audience. So they were open to just about anything happening and if you went in the days when it was pretty radical and intense, you might see a naked poet walking around proclaiming something; a politician over there; a priest might come in…all kinds of different people. There’d be the Floyd, who were experimenting with electronics, Keith Emerson from Emerson Lake & Palmer…and he was getting all sorts of ideas from various people there. There were dance troops; just all kinds of artistic things. There were people experimenting with the original psychedelic light shows based on oil heating up and passing over each other giving different colours. Everybody was learning from everybody else. And that was the beauty of it. If you went into that club you were sure to learn something from somebody who was doing something else all together. It was a crucible of creativity and everyone who went in there learned.
Afterwards the media like to take figureheads and so they come out and say, ‘I created this, I was the one who did that,’ because that’s how you sell things. But in actual fact there was noone in there who wasn’t influenced by everybody else in the club. because you’d play there week after week and you’d do a bit and then you’d see somebody else play something and you’d do it in your own way. We had incredible folk artists: Incredible String Band. Tom Vance came down there…most of the big artists – and from the world of opera and ballet – were down there and politicians of the day. It was just a place where the world was reconfigured without the usual machinations and the idea that maybe society was based on principles that were not finally significantly human. Everybody was looking at new ways of doing things.
What about your own influences visually and musically?
I went to King’s College in 1960; I was supposed to be studying law but I got involved with music and theatre. And in that time I went to some of the more radical new theatres coming up and one of the techniques was these ‘voiles’, as they call them – that was the first time I had ever seen them; that was the first time they were used – and nobody after that bothered with them. We used them in my band in ’72 and now we’ve got the full technology able to take advantage of that. Also I was introduced to a lot of the modern ‘Jazz On A Summer’s Day’ films – Miles Davies, Charles Mingus – and that influenced me a lot musically. There were some of the old films, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, very early Russian movies…all kinds of different movies. So I went down there and I was introduced to all the beatniks.
What about the magical influences?
Ah! Well people who weren’t really into all that would be using ouija boards and different ways of trying to access what would be seen as a magical thing, something coming from beyond death, and sometimes it would happen. There was all of that and then there was one time when we went to a party – this was in the early days in ’67 – and it was the Jefferson Airplane’s party. And everybody was playing Mahjong; it was completely silent. I sat there for about 10 minutes, they were playing away (I got there a few minutes after it started and I wasn’t really part of the game). I was sitting at this table and suddenly over the top of my head came this huge colour illustrated book. It was called ‘The Secret Teachings of All Ages’, and it was all the different magical, mystical [cultures]…the Rosicrucians, the [Ancient] Egyptians and all their magic from all over the world. I met an artist called Mark Reynolds and we used to just talk about all of the Christian beliefs: the devils, the angels, what does life mean and the symbols that came from different parts of the world. We took them and put them on our costumes. There was an audience who was willing and able and wanting all those kind of symbols. And in actual fact, it turned out later that the person who wrote that book, Manly Hall, was the guru of Elvis Presley. Strangely enough it was when he burned down the guru – because Colonel Tom Parker said “It’s him or me Elvis”, so Elvis chose Tom Parker – he was dead in six months. But it shows someone like Elvis, who noone associates with hippies (he wanted to put them in jail) was studying all that stuff. It was spreading and that’s what made governments pretty worried.
Your other band Kingdom Come didn’t have much of a commercial impact but musically it was very ahead of its time, how do you reflect on that period in your career?
The audience that liked fire didn’t know what it was about and they liked the madness and the flames; if they came and that wasn’t there then we lost that so we had to create a new audience. We experimented with management where the manager was just an equal member of the band and the money was shared out equally with the roadies, all the peformers and the management, but in the end it was too difficult because the whole system of money is set in a different way. Too difficult for us; I think the Grateful Dead actually managed to get it properly working. We got a lot of good critical acclaim…there were people in that band who stayed throughout the whole of its existence and there was a lot of change.
We lived in a farmhouse which in those days is what you did if you were in a band – lived together, worked together and played all day. I also had come back from America with a different view of how things were because they were dealing with direct reporting of the Vietnam war and there were people on the screen riddled with bullets – not a film – and that was just news reporting which they stamped out as far as they could. When you come back and you look at what’s going on in England – in those days a lot of the young people weren’t political at all – it was a welfare state. You could live in a bubble with government money and not have to obey all that much of what was supposed to be becoming why you were able to get welfare, and there wasn’t a problem with people living in alternative ways until the government here realised this could spread – people seem to be liking the idea of it. Some people were saying the whole basis of society is wrong, we should break it down and have play as the basis of it, not duty or work, but play. And they started to say how that would be possible. People said, “Why do I have to work all day? That’s interesting. You’re telling me that financially it can happen?” and they said, “Yeah, this is how you do it.” It’s all made up anyway. Money’s made up. The rules are what keep it doing what it does. So let’s change the rules radically and the government decided they would prevent that and they did.
And Kingdom Come’s album ‘Journey’, can you tell me about the technical process?
A lot of [the audience] didn’t know what a drum machine was. Some of them would go round the back and search for the drummer. “You’ve got a mic in the room haven’t you?” “No, no, no you press this button here.” And so there was that and (the nearest we could get to [today]), there were projections. We tried to make it like a rock version of a string quartet: everything was balanced so that the drum wasn’t more important than anything else. We were used to playing musical games with each other: take a phrase, this person embellishes it, and soon it changes, changes, changes and that gets you working together in a different way. Then you might put in something that didn’t fit just to see if you could trip up the next [person]. If you work out what you’re gonna play and then if someone does something different, how do you suddenly let go of that and just follow what this new thing is. So we learned all kinds of games to make the music flexible.
But even with that flexibility did you find that you were frustrated at the time?
I was looking for something and so in the process of doing these things I was not arriving at that and, perhaps mistakingly you could say, I decided I had to with the band disband it and go into that [retreat] and find [myself]. and it did take many years for me.
You once said, “The experience we give is alienation in its modern concept of the human mind being removed from its true essential joining point with the emanations of the divine spirit, by entrapment in its own creations of systemic self-perception.” Does your music provide sustenance, a solution to where humanity is?
We have our own solution to it and so whatever it is it comes out in the music. That is the basis of this but then in this one you have a figure that represents someone who’s not entrapped. We [as people] enjoy being trapped. So it’s a question of you present it, and then whoever wants it can take whatever they like from it.
In the end, the heart and the essence of the heart is always still awake, loving…it’s always like that. When we manage to break away from what people expect of us, what we expect of ourselves, there it is, so a journey is only for the mind; the heart is already cured. And the only thing that steps away from it is the ego, because the same mind, after the ego is dealt with, works wonderfully. In the Indian system with Maya and illusion, if you keep looking at it through particularly realistic mind then you’re trapped in illusion and that means the heart in you that’s already there in every moment is always is just what it is. Then if you just stay in the illusion, which can be delightful, in the end you’re still needing to make a journey to get back to that. That’s where religion tries to help, unfortunately for religion it usually gets trapped itself. They try to remove the poetry of it and treat it like facts. Being born of a virgin lady is a poetic concept talking about the heart really, but they try to make it into a fact because that’s the mind they like you to use for your daily [life]. If you’re gonna have real systems from moment to moment and real love you have to find the place where all that is rooted. That’s where you’re rooted.
The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’s latest studio album, ‘Gypsy Voodoo’, is available now on CD and digitally.
Photos © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.