Lost Legends: Arthur Brown, the Forgotten Forefather of Rock

The history of music is complicated, and with the dearth of content released, it’s inevitable that most artists get left in the dust of changing trends and technologies, even some of the good ones.  That’s just the nature of the industry.  Not everyone can have a number one hit, or chart-topping album, or an underground scene groundswell, or even just a stable, successful career.  Those things are all reserved for the privileged few who manage to strike just the right balance of approachability, originality, and authenticity.

But what about those that just barely come up short?  Those artists that were simply too ahead of their time, only lacking the mass market appeal sought after by label execs and promoters, or maybe artists that, for some reason, just didn’t feel quite as special as our favorites from the same time or genre.  These musicians left their mark on the world like so many others, and when you really start to look into some of them, you find an immense level of outsized influence on later artists and genres that had a far wider reach.  Though if those that we’ve forgotten about are the seeds to our favorite artists, shouldn’t we give them a chance?

Take a trip with me back to the week of October 19, 1968.  Things here in the US are… interesting, to say the least.  The Department of Defense has just announced that 24,000 of the young men who had been conscripted to fight in Vietnam are now going to be sent back there for an involuntary second tour.  Night of the Living Dead had blown away horror cinema when it opened only 3 weeks prior.  The number one song in the country was by the number one band in the world, the unstoppable juggernaut that was The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”.  Saddling right up under them, though, at the number two spot for the week was this dark, angry, violent, soulful, strangely hopeful track, “Fire” by London-based band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

In comparison to even some of the most forward-thinking, face melting Jimi Hendrix tracks of the late 60s, Arthur Brown felt like something else entirely.  When matched up with other chart successes of that week “Girl Watcher” by The O’Kaysions and “My Special Angel” by The Vogues, “Fire” came across as downright satanic.  Brown’s four octave range hauntingly operatic voice sang about everything you’ve earned and done being burnt to ashes, leaving nothing remaining.  Kind of fitting for how the people were starting to feel about the world.  The song is also sort of uplifting in its own strange way.  The blaring horn section that comes in towards the end gives it the life and energy of a renewed spirit, something that Brown was trying to capture with his lyrics.  Being fascinated with Buddhism and eastern philosophy, he wanted to represent both the destructive and cleansing power of fire, how letting go of your material possessions and even realities can be spiritually freeing.  Problem is, these ideas didn’t really break through to the mind of the average listener.

When The Crazy World of Arthur Brown did their smash hit live, whether in concert venues or on TV, is when Arthur Brown cemented himself as one of the most important figures in rock history.  To perform “Fire”, Brown would strap a colander doused in lighter fluid to his head with a leather belt, light it on fire, and dance around all over the stage wearing crimson robes and Alice Cooper-esque skeletal or demonic face paint.  For the time, these kinds of performances were obviously insane, both in terms of the direct health risks it posed to Brown, his band, the audience, and the place they were performing in, and just in the way it was.  This ground of wacky, performative shock rock had rarely ever been tread before, and the few times it had been by artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, it was treated much more like novelty music.  The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was a serious band making serious music, though, and their impact was felt in a massive way.

Children watching these performances and hearing this song and its subsequent album were being deeply influenced by its gothic style and wildly innovative sense for visuals and aesthetics as a core piece of the music.  When interviewed later on, legendary artists like the aforementioned Alice Cooper, George Clinton, David Bowie, and even Peter Gabriel would gush about how integral The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was in determining their early aesthetic tastes and cultivating their senses of showmanship.  For a while, this influence was immediately effective commercially.  The band was sharing billings with Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Joe Cocker, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention among others.  Hell, the only reason “Fire” started getting any airplay at all was because of Hendrix calling or walking into radio stations across the UK and requesting the song himself.  Here’s where the success story ends.

After their first album cycle, the band went back into the studio to record a follow up.  What emerged was this batshit insane early prog acid rock record with only a loose direction and not a hook to be seen.  For fans of Zappa or Captain Beefheart, this album is an honest to god treasure, a trippy, wild journey through a truly crazy world.  To their label though, the album was unsellable.  So it wasn’t sold.  The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s second album Strangelands, an early prog masterpiece soaked in copious amounts of acid and other psychedelics wasn’t released until a CD “reissue” in 1988.  Following this heartbreak, the band broke up.

The story doesn’t quite end here, though.  While the mainstream influence of Arthur Brown mostly comes to a halt, his presence in the early prog scene maintains itself all the way through the first half of the 70s.  Forming a new project, Kingdom Come, he releases three excellent albums into the ether.  Galactic Zoo Dossier and Kingdom Come are, in my mind, essential parts of the prog fan’s collection and exemplify some of the best the nascent genre had to offer.  Journey is just as good, but wholly unique in its presentation, being one of the earliest albums to primarily or entirely use drum machines for its percussive elements, being released in 1973.  Even after the conclusion of Kingdom Come, Brown would never leave music.

To this day, Arthur Brown has continued to release new projects and go on tour, even at the ripe age of 78.  The rest of his storied career was full of strange little appearances here and there, showing up in music videos for rock nerds like British glam rock group The Darkness, or a role in Tommy, the movie based off of The Who’s 1969 concept album of the same name.  After a few years in Africa conducting the Burundi National Orchestra, a nine piece rock outfit that played both Jimi Hendrix cuts and a myriad of tunes from the local movements, he took the recommendation from his guitar teacher, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, to move to Austin, Texas.  There, he started a house painting company with Jimmy Carl Black, the original drummer for Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.  Through this whole period, he kept releasing solo projects, eventually returning to his original moniker, Crazy World, to go back on tour and put out projects as recently as last year with Gypsy Voodoo.

The legacy of Arthur Brown is one that reaches wide and touches deep.  As an integral part of the bedrock formation of so many genres, styles, and artists, his shadow looms large over all of rock and its vast field of descendants.  Yet, his story is one that often goes untold.  Arthur Brown serves as an important example to dig deep into music, look beyond just what’s trending or charting, and most importantly, give those artists under the surface a chance.  His musical journey is proof positive that precious metals are found underground, because if you only look on the surface, you might be missing out on some seriously influential gold.

Colin Brunson is a .WAV staff member, he wrote the article. Melissa Melton is a .WAV’s staff member, she made the cover art.