When Arthur Brown answers the phone, he announces:
“Hello gardeners! I’ve got a few tips for you this morning! It’s Percy Thrower here!”
And we’re off!
Released under your band name The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, your signature hit ‘Fire’ reached Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968. Who beat you to Number One?
“Can I sue you if I don’t like what you ask me? It was The Bluebottles… no… I can’t say it! It’s an insect and sometimes it flies, but mainly it doesn’t have wings. It is, of course, The Beatles with ‘Hey Jude’!”
“Everything opened up when ‘Fire’ became a hit and I went from being an underground figure who was regarded as strange to singing and playing with people who were my influences and heroes, like John Lee Hooker and Frank Zappa. When the underground radio stations first turned the song down as not being a ‘hit’, the label took it to the major stations who saw somebody with flames coming out of his head and thought it was an outrageous novelty record that would do well in the summertime. At the same time, Jimi Hendrix helped break ‘Fire’, because he was on the same US label as me, and took the record around the stations demanding: ‘Play this motherfucker!’. With the make-up I was wearing, nobody could tell where I was from or my race, so all the stations were playing it.”
Which festival were you performing at in Italy in 1970 when you were arrested and deported?
“[Laughs] Er, Palermo Pop?”
CORRECT. You were kicked out of Italy for public nudity.
“The brain fog is disappearing! In those days, I decided that it was time in rock ‘n’ roll for the body not to be hidden, so I did various concerts naked. In England, the only unfortunate thing that happened was a woman fainted. In France, when I came onstage, an old woman in the audience gasped and clasped her chest. When asked if she was OK, she replied: ‘Oh yes, thank you! Now I’ve seen two naked men in my life – my husband and now Arthur Brown!’. And in Italy, I was arrested and politely asked to leave the country. After the May 1968 student protests in France, the government there were worried that my wild, naked stage act would stir up more unrest. We had such a well-executed show that we found a lot of acts didn’t want to play after us because we were so climatic.”
You famously played The Priest in The Who’s 1975 rock opera film Tommy. But in which band’s video do you also don a dog-collar?
“I believe that would be The Darkness?”
CORRECT. For the promo to their 2006 single ‘Is It Just Me?’
“I was wearing my fire-helmet and during the test, we used just enough fuel to have about an inch of flames shooting from it, so nobody thought there would be a problem. But when I came out, the flames were 5 ft high and set off the sprinkler system and we had to redo it all. [Laughs] I should have charged them for a free wash! I’ve faced every kind of pyro mishap over the years – burning stages, singed ceilings, I’ve burst into flames several times. The lights man used to get drunk and pour petrol over me as well as into the helmet, and at the 1968 Windsor Jazz Festival, I caught fire coming onstage and [‘60s vocalist] Zoot Money claims he put me out with two pints of Newky Brown!”
What was filming Tommy like?
“[The Who’s] Pete Townshend wanted me to play various parts in the film at various times, and eventually I ended up as The Priest, helping to run a Marilyn Monroe-themed cult. The film’s flamboyant director, Ken Russell, had a vision of what he wanted – it took 22 takes of us improvising the movements for the scene until he was satisfied. Five days after we finished filming, I was at a meditation retreat with one of Laurence Olivier’s children, who had to break me out and drive me to the studio at 8:30am to deliver the scream I put on the end of my version of ‘ Eyesight to the Blind’.”
Name the 1997 Die Krupps album that you guest on.
“Oooh, now that’s got me flummoxed. I cannot tell you. I’m ashamed!”
WRONG. It’s called ‘Paradise Now’, and you appear on a remake of ‘Fire’ by the German industrialists.
“It’s not every day you get strapped to the front of an express train like I did in the Die Krupps ‘Fire’ video!
Which shock-rocker once described watching you as “like all my Halloweens come at once”?
“That would have to be Alice Cooper!”
CORRECT. He also declared: “Without Arthur Brown, there would be no Alice Cooper.”
“Whoo-hoo! He saw me on TV on Halloween and it set him on his path. I’ve played with him on several occasions, most notably at Rock in Rio in 2017, and he’s a pleasant man who really looks after you.”
Could you see your influence on Cooper?
“Yes, with the make-up and theatricality. Similarly, I had a phone call once from [US record producer and Svengali] Kim Fowley who told me he had a meeting with KISS when they were deciding how they could get people to listen to them. He told them: ‘Well, Arthur Brown’s not using his make-up in his current incarnation; why don’t you just do that?’ So I would find out these things later on that I was not aware of at all.”
You could trace a lineage of spectacle and shock from you to the likes of Eminem…
“There was a long period when I was trying to get some way of something I could do together with Eminem. I tried contacting him and also Fatboy Slim – it was a time when I liked to experiment with rhyme and music, but hopefully I’ll follow it up one day!”
You played The Glade Area at Glastonbury in 2010, but who headlined its stage that year?
“Nope, I can’t remember that one!”
WRONG. It was the Levellers. You also played the second-ever Glasto in 1971, with your performance becoming immortalized in the Nicolas Roeg-directed documentary. Glastonbury Fayre…
“Glastonbury was very open then and not heavily policed. Even though big names like David Bowie played, it wasn’t well-known. It was an amazing site with a pyramid on stage, with an ethereal, spiritual feel about it. At one point during our performance, we had 12 flaming crosses in front of the stage, which some people found strange as Glastonbury was billed as a peace and love festival! I was left in charge of a food and drink stall, because I went to buy something to eat and the trader asked me to watch his stall while he nipped off – and then he was gone for two and a half hours! That was the spirit of the festival.”
You once claimed in an interview that your father told you he was having an affair with a woman from where?
“From outer space.”
“It took me by surprise, because he said: ‘Son, you’ve heard of extra-marital affairs. Well, I am having an extra-terrestrial affair!’ [Laughs] So I thought ooh, that’s a bit… mmmn, strong. In certain ways, he was a remarkable man. If he arrived in a new place, he could say: ‘Go down the road, turn right, go behind the house, there’s a tree and in it there’s a nest containing two eggs’. And you went off and it was there – despite him not having been there. The idea of him astral projecting to another planet was always quite appealing! [Laughs]”
In 1999, which Kula Shaker track did you perform live with the band on TFI Friday?
“I’d have to say that was ‘Mystical Machine Gun’!”
“They wanted me to sing on it and after we started talking, they asked: ‘Do you still have the fire-helmet? Could you wear that?’ So I did. I loved their first album, ‘K’, and was very excited when I got invited to do it.”
What religious figure do you portray in the video to Bruce Dickinson’s 1998 ‘Killing Floor’ single?
“Is it the devil?”
CORRECT. The Iron Maiden frontman also enthused of you: “Arthur Brown has the voice of death.”
“One of my more jubilant roles! I was not aware of the influence I’d had on Bruce Dickinson until we played a concert in the 1990s. After finishing my set, the cleaning lady told me: ‘There’s somebody in the next dressing room you should meet. He wants to see you’. I didn’t even know he was the lead singer of Iron Maiden. The first thing he said to me was: ‘You’ll never know how many millions I made out of what I learned from watching you’. And I looked at him blankly thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ [Laughs] Since then, I’ve discovered he’s a very straight-up person. He put me on his label and helped relaunch my career when I had some trouble.”
On how many tracks on Hawkwind’s 2005 studio album ‘Take Me to Your Leader’ do you sing?
WRONG. Less – it’s two.
“Oof! They missed out then! [Laughs] I feature on ‘Sunray’ and ‘A Letter to Robert’, which was thinking about Robert Calvert, who was a friend of mine when he was the lead guy of Hawkwind. I was there when he met Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and they both were very similar in looks when you took a step back. Bizarrely, I even saw them dressed exactly the same at points. They both had ginger hair and a piercing humor which could be disturbing when they didn’t like somebody and would let fly! [Laughs] After Robert had been dead a few years, Hawkind asked me to tour with them, fronting the band, for about six months because they wanted to go back to having a theatrical frontman, and I’ve had an association with them since.”
The verdict: 7/10
“My manager is giving me the thumbs-down for that score! If I was a Gladiator, I would never be going out into the Colosseum again!”
–Arthur Brown’s new album, ‘Long Long Road’ is available now via Magnetic Eye Records