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Holy Apoplexy: Jeremy Allen On Arthur Brown The God Of Hellfire
Jeremy Allen , September 13th, 2021 09:15

In this month's subscriber only Low Culture essay, Jeremy Allen recalls how, as a teenage evangelical Christian, his brain was warped by an early encounter with the God Of Hellfire, Arthur Brown

Arthur Brown, courtesy of Cherry Red

I was 15 when I became obsessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These superpowers from God were the most exciting things that could be bestowed on a diffident teenager growing up in a Cornish backwater in the late 1980s. Prophesying and performing actual miracles were next-level endowments for proper holy people, though I was convinced I could speak in tongues, confidently babbling in a crowded prayer meeting with other evangelicals in a language that felt instinctive and was freeing to unleash. This didn’t stop nagging doubts at the front of my mind that I was making it up. Also not in my bag of charismatic tricks was the lesser-known gift of interpreting tongues, as everyone else sounded as though they were indulging in echolalia too, especially the church pastor, whose speech resembled the repetitive patterns of Twiki the ambuquad from Buck Rogers In The 25th Century.

And then there was the discernment of the spirits. I had this in abundance, because I saw devils everywhere. I became convinced that demonic possession was as widespread as the common cold, and I longed to drive out evil spirits at the coalface of exorcism. The church I attended was a large, dynamic Methodist chapel. Built in 1814, it opened its doors four decades after John Wesley laid the foundations of Methodism in the south-west at large rallies in places like Gwennap Pit, an outdoor amphitheatre 20 miles east of Penzance. Hellfire and brimstone in West Penwith had been in short supply since the late 18th century, but now all around the church there was talk of revival, with a new strain of evangelicalism imported from across the Atlantic. Billy Graham did one of his crusades via satellite, beaming live into our church, and heathen friends who I’d invited from school responded to his appeal for souls and were prayed over by bearded men in plaid flannel suits.

Everything was so simple then, with a clear bifurcation between good on one side and evil on the other. The universe was split into two distinct camps: heaven and hell, righteousness and wickedness, good health and disease, with everything I learned at church equating to goodness, and everything that was outside of that equating to badness perpetrated by the Devil. Revelation talks of the 144,000 saved, and I took that number to be literal. Murderers and child rapists were probably damned, sure, and then there were the non-believers, believers in other religions, believers in the same religion who were doing it slightly differently, those who hadn’t asked for forgiveness, parishioners in our own church who hadn’t been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and so on…

Into this world one day dropped a vintage video repeat of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown showing on MTV, creating holy apoplexy in my living room and in my brain. On the videotape of my mind’s eye, the performance of ‘Fire’ is flushed with psychedelic Technicolor like the lobby of hell, though that may have just been the receptors overloading in my brain. I suspect it was the famous Top Of The Pops performance from 1968 that I was watching, all sinister chiaroscuro and high camp, with Arthur barking the immortal “I am the God of Hellfire!” line as flames lick the fork protruding from his helmet, and fire consumes the foreground too. There is a colour version with flames in hues of purple and orange, or it might have been their performance on the Beat-Club, the influential Bremen-based German pop show, with drummer Drachen Theaker in a creepy translucent mask. The show, incidentally, was where Hans Joachim Irmler of Faust cut his teeth as a runner, and one presumes he was taking notes about using extravagant props in performance from the sidelines.

‘Fire’ startled me, and it would have been met with shock by TV audiences in 1968. Brits, who were viewing in black and white, were still living in the long shadow of the war and still attending church in significant numbers. Flower power was of interest to the cultural tastemakers and all the rage on a few streets of central London, but it resonated far less with the bemused general public, especially if they didn’t buy records and weren’t interested in fashion or recreational drugs. It’s easy to forget what a huge cultural figure Arthur Brown was in the year he became internationally famous, and just how risqué ‘Fire’ was at the time. Both he and Jimi Hendrix had their own song called ‘Fire’, written as the napalm dropped on Vietnam, though Brown, in his sacrilegious robes, was perhaps even more a divisive figure than Hendrix. There was nothing utopian about lyrics like “you’re gonna burn” either; it was dark and appeared to be kicking against the hippies. Retrospectively, it could have been a premonition of the death of the dream that was just around the corner.

Musically, there’s a heaviness to the texture of ‘Fire’, despite all of the space. The musical accompaniment is primarily a Hammond organ, played by the mercurial Vincent Crane, without a guitar in sight. The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown were precursors to metal, and given that the amplification of guitars was still inadequate for well-attended live shows in 1968, the Leslie speaker that generated the noise of the Hammond was the only instrument that could give the drums a run for their money. Paul McCartney might have been able to make the Beatles sound huge in the studio on ‘Helter Skelter’; TCWOAB could be huge in real life. As for the drums, Theaker, a Smithsonian Folkways completist and tabla specialist, brought intricate polyrhythms to ‘Fire’s prelude ‘Fanfare/Fire Poem’, and had the technical nous to speed up and slow down skilfully on the hit song without the whole thing sounding amateurish.

Brown brought vocals as rich as Al Green, with the attack of James Brown and the range and energy of Aretha Franklin. On ‘Fire’, he demonstrates soulful timbre, rasping baritone and vertiginous shrieking. At times he sounds like he’s on fire himself, which in several senses he is; impossibly tall and thin, a dervish-like apparition, an animated matchstick weaving around the stage and hypnotising his audience. Bringing all of these things together, the stagecraft is anything but gimmickry, perpetrated by artists with the savoir faire to take an audience to heaven or, in this case, hell. Then the stentorian horns up the ante even further. It was an irresistible concoction that took the 7” single to No 1 in the UK charts and No 2 in the US. It was all such a magnificent illusion that anyone with a very literal way of interpreting the world might think there was actual black magic at play. Angry and affronted and filled with the zeal of the Lord, rather than any nuanced understanding of the mechanics of theatrics, I sank to my knees in the living room and attempted without success to cast Arthur Brown out of the television set.

Jeremy Allen

When people think of radicalisation, they point to Shamima Begum or coordinated terror attacks carried out by disaffected young boys carrying Semtex-filled rucksacks. What they don’t consider is brainwashed music fans passing over their mighty Iron Maiden records and willingly embracing spandex thumpers like Stryper. Radicalisation is as much an affront to culture as it is to ideas, and anything that sits outside of the tiny perimeter fence one has erected for oneself is to be distrusted. U2? Too Catholic. Madonna? Too Catholic and concupiscent. It was curious that my church friends and I, who fundamentally believed that only God can judge, spent a great deal of our time in judgment.

Teenage zealotry is unwavering until it isn’t. It passes like a season and the fresh weather of the next obsession falls. Jesus was replaced by Hendrix in my astral affections, and the gifts of the Spirit were passed over for the psychotropic hoodoo of weed and magic mushrooms. I distinctly remember my first psychedelic experience after drinking a cup of tea laced with psilocybin. A friend and I had decided to knock off double English one afternoon to go pick wild 'shrooms in a field a mile or so from sixth form. Literature could wait, especially as I was struggling with the texts, having not read them. When I did make it to class in a brain fug from a break-time bifter, I began to develop sympathy for Milton’s Satan, but Blake’s Songs Of Innocence just seemed too schematic to even countenance as a know-it-all 17-year-old agitator.

Our mushroom-picking came to an abrupt end when we were pursued by a sweary farmer. By chasing us away, he probably did us a favour, because the dose we took from the bagful we’d gathered was a heady brew to say the least. Neighbours became a dayglo fantasy, with Harold Bishop transmitting secret messages during teatime telly. As I lay down tittering in front of the coal scuttle in my living room several hours after ingesting the tea, my reflection came back at me with black lightning streaks smeared down my face. I remember thinking this was an Alice Cooper-like hallucination, but in hindsight, my subconscious may have been dredging up the memory of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, refusing to take my feeble attempts at exorcism lying down.

Arthur Brown, courtesy of Cherry Red

Just before Arthur Brown was born in Whitby in the summer of 1942, his heavily pregnant mother, delirious and startled awake by the sound of a taxi outside – which she mistook for the Luftwaffe – suddenly leaped out of bed. She gave birth to him there and then. Little Arthur arrived early. It wouldn’t be the last time.

In my record collection he is a latecomer, as I only became aware of his genius quite recently. Perhaps the bad experience with the televisual God of Hellfire had prolonged the dawning of fandom by decades. What I came to realise is that Arthur Brown has been in nearly everything I’ve worshipped as a music lover over the years, a peculiar form of pop pantheism. I’ve been a fan of his most of my adult life, just in an indirect way and without realising it.

The moment of recognition came by stealth. I’d probably known him best through the songs that sample him: The Prodigy, Marilyn Manson, Death Grips, Psychic TV and so on. Then recently I’d been researching shamanic figures in rock – once two a penny, and now a dwindling phenomenon – with a view to writing about them. It became apparent that authors like Gary Lachman and Peter Bebergal have covered the occult in music extensively and authoritatively, but the work of Brown began to chime with me, as did the mysterious God of Hellfire. Then out of the blue, an editor suggested I listen to Kingdom Come, his much neglected, though no less innovative, early 70s band.

After the messy demise of the Crazy World in 1969, Arthur Brown returned from the US, where he’d been living for a year, and was considering taking up residence at the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland, to spend the rest of his days in quiet contemplation. Then he saw a giant angel in a paddock in Puddletown, Dorset, who filled him with the sense that he should form a new band. He found musicians via adverts in the music press, and Kingdom Come was born. They received a three-album deal from the German arm of Polydor and shepherded three extraordinary albums into the world, which didn’t sell.

The Author, Son and Kingdom Come

1971’s Galactic Zoo Dossier is the most conventional, with the Zeppelinesque psychedelic space rock of ‘Sunrise’ capturing one of Brown’s most dynamic vocal performances. The second album, Kingdom Come, features prominent VCS 3s, musique concrète and skits inspired by Captain Webb, famous for swimming the channel in 1875 and immortalised on the nation’s matchboxes - Brown would dress as a ship for live shows. The album also contains ‘Love Is A Spirit’, which could be Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds at their most mellifluous. The pièce de résistance is the final album Journey, the first rock record made entirely with a drum machine, designed to allow the parts to flourish like a string quartet. It’s an electronic-prog masterpiece, years ahead of its time, and thus wholly mistrusted on its release. The vox populi demurred, though the enormous angel must have been pleased.

The scales fell from my eyes listening to Journey. I realised then that Brown is imprinted into rock music’s DNA, a Zelig-like figure who was there so often when the musical tides turned. He was lauded by hard-to-please first-wave punks like Pete Shelley and John Lydon, he became a pioneer of avant-garde electronica, touring with Klaus Schulze and singing brilliant operatic gibberish on stages around Europe as the German synth pioneer hid behind a mirror. Brown moved to East Africa for a spell in 1979 and directed the Burundi National Orchestra a year before Adam And The Ants kicked off the new tribalist pop movement with ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and the Burundi beat, masterminded by Malcolm McLaren. And it was he who encouraged Peter Gabriel to get on a plane to witness the wonder of Senegalese drummers playing in person (Gabriel subsequently met Youssou N'Dour). The erstwhile Genesis man, with a nice array of lawnmowers, flowers and foxes’ heads for stage wear, would also readily doff a chapeau to Brown.

In 1968, Hendrix invited the singer to form a group with him, so impressed was he with the lanky Yorkshireman’s voice. The cut-and-shut supergroup was to feature members of the Experience and the Crazy World, though sadly, it never happened, as somebody spiked keyboard player Vincent Crane’s drink with acid, a disastrous outcome for somebody who was already suffering from acute mental health problems. The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown – as mentioned earlier – had a profound impact on what would become heavy rock, because of their sheer sonic density and because of the dark theatricality in the lyrics and stage presentation. Without them, Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler might have searched out a different lexicon of imagery, and Ozzy Osbourne has admitted to owing a debt too.

In the 1980s, Iron Maiden would have been devoid of the wide-ranging operatic vocal style employed by the band’s second singer, Bruce Dickinson, who was one of Kingdom Come’s most fervent fans. Bruce Almighty invited Brown to read William Blake poems during the intervals on his very heavy The Chemical Wedding album in 1998. Furthermore, Alice Cooper’s live horrorshow couldn't have existed without Vince Fernier having witnessed the showmanship and multimedia extravaganza of Arthur Brown first.

The theatricality that Brown brought into the mainstream had its precedents. In the mid-60s there was a Merseybeat five-piece called The Undertakers who dressed austerely, like funeral directors, and Screaming Lord Sutch, a macabre, behatted goth who borrowed much of his act from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Hawkins was light years ahead of his time, releasing ‘I Put A Spell On You’ in 1956 and emerging from a coffin on stage, leading to him being reductively dubbed “the black Vincent Price”. While Brown may have gleaned ideas from his contemporaries unconsciously, he honed his stage act in Paris and relied on happenstance to provide the particulars.

Kingdom Come on casual Friday, courtesy of Cherry Red

Paris is a magical city if it opens up to you, which it certainly did to me when I lived there for five years from 2013. Brown, too, had a fantastic 1966 in the city of light. He and his band took up a residency in the basement of the Bus Palladium in the 9th arrondissement, a beatnik nightspot that had opened its doors for the first time the previous summer. The art nouveau walls have since been painted over, and it's certainly not the incendiary boîte with queues streaking up into Pigalle that it once was. Parisian hipsters were turning up thanks to word of mouth, to witness the English maniac with his head on fire. I visited the Bus Palladium a number of times to see a slew of bands who escaped my memory almost immediately. These days, there’s a retro photo booth and polite synthpop bands play as you nibble at an assiette de fromage and savour the vin rouge maison.

Brown rode the zeitgeist at the Bus Palladium, with Paris becoming his personal Hamburg. Down in the basement, his demoniac alter-ego became more and more outlandish during his six-month residency, egged on by an enthusiastic Parisian crowd. A seven-year-old boy who’d been dragged along by his mother suggested Brown should blacken his teeth. Then he found a crown of candles left over from a party that had taken place in the corridor of the hotel he was staying at. He placed it on his head and it proved so popular with the audience that he tried out several prototype helmets, including a metal dish containing petrol bolted to an uninsulated leather skullcap, causing him considerable pain from the heat. Arthur’s suffering for his art got him noticed, and he was asked to do the soundtrack to Roger Vadim’s La Curée, which paid for his flight out of there.

Ensconced back in London, the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown became one of the hottest attractions at the legendary UFO, alongside acts like Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and the Bonzos. A young David Bowie would attend and became mesmerized by the power of Brown’s stagecraft. He supported the group on a few occasions as a mime artist, and Bowie and Brown were neighbours for a while in Beckenham, where they exchanged ideas. It’s not a stretch to see a lineage from Ziggy Stardust to the God of Hellfire. Another artist who saw Arthur Brown perform in 1968 was George Clinton, providing the funk musician with an epiphany: "He used to sing: ‘I am the God of Hellfire’ and then he’d set fire to his fuckin’ head!” said Clinton. “That told me a lot. I knew where I was heading from then on.”

Fast-forward half a century, and the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown is still having a massive influence on modern bands, even if they don’t know it, from black metal to shock rock. I count White Witches, my own band, in that, especially when we applied the corpse paint for our ‘Secret Club’ video. With ex-Pink Grease frontman Rory Lewarne shuffling from side to side on stage and howling extrovertly, there’s plenty about us that’s reminiscent of Brown. It’s inherently theatrical, with a palette that’s been provided, with no real need to alter anything too much - another link in the chain of bands doing variations on a theme that stretches back to the Crazy World.

White Witches have been even less successful than Kingdom Come, and there’s a strange synchronicity that unites us with the Crazy World too. We called our debut album Heironymus Anonymous, with the title concept about someone seeking 12-step addiction therapy to cope with an all-consuming obsession with art and specifically the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – a thinly-veiled metaphor for my own alcohol addiction and, subliminally perhaps, the name Hieronymus turns out to be a variation on my own name. When researching this article, I discovered the working title for The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown had been ‘Tales From The Neurotic Nights Of Hieronymus Anonymous’, before the band decided to name their album eponymously. This seems somehow cosmically aligned, though the Urizen figure dominant in my personality puts it down to chance.

White Witches by Cally Begg

Brown, who is 79 years old now and has always believed in the interconnectivity of the world, might be more open to the idea of there being some occultist connection between the two. He too converted to Christianity as a teenager, at a Billy Graham rally of all places, and since then he’s welcomed mystical, pagan, Buddhist, Sufist and Gnostic influences into his belief system, embracing the dissonance of the universe and the Blakeian view of the world, where joy, lust, happiness, good fortune and so on, are contingent on there being darkness in the world too. Blake was often mocked and ignored in his lifetime, and that’s been true of Arthur Brown too, but he’ll surely get his dues, even if it’s long after you and I and he have been consumed by the hellfire.

Perhaps most interesting of all regarding Brown is that he’s never been that bothered about the limelight or recognition anyway, better aware than most of the smoke and mirrors of show business. The lyrics to ‘Fire’ give us more than a clue.

"Fire, to destroy all you've done
Fire, to end all you've become"

None of it is going to last and none of it will matter in the end, whoever we are. The Earth will disappear into the sun and will be rendered into nothingness, obliterated from existence. It’s a song that’s more philosophical than people give it credit for, and more to do with nihilism than Luciferianism. No wonder it scared the shit out of me when I was 15.

Eternal Messenger, a Kingdom Come anthology is available via Cherry Red. Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry And Audacity Of Serge Gainsbourg by Jeremy Allen is out now