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Arthur Brown: Interview [Side A]

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Book Transcript 
  •  [Interview Transcript from the book "Psychedelic Psounds"] 

    Arthur Brown was born on June 24, 1943 in Whitby, Yorkshire and later studied philosophy at Reading University. He had been involved with several musical endeavors before forming The Crazy World of Arthur Brown in 1967 which consisted of the following members: Arthur Brown (vocals); Vincent Crane (keyboards); and Drachen Theaker (drums).

    The band was at the forefront of "theatre-rock" and came to the attention of the Who's Peter Townsend who saw them perform at the UFO Club in London. Townsend convinced Kit Lambert, producer of the Who, to sign them for their new label called Track Records.

    The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was the group's only album and featured the hit single "Fire" which reached #2 in October 1968. The first side of the album was a creative masterpiece which evokes images of a hallucinatory trip into hell. Unfortunately, their third U.S. tour, which was generally well-received, was a disaster due to financial mismanagement. The group also became unmanageable due to "the ingestion of large amounts of mind- altering substances." Upon returning to England the band tried to record a second album but they were unable to finish it. Carl Palmer joined the group before leaving with Vincent Crane to form Atomic Rooster and eventually moving on to stardom in Emerson Lake and Palmer. Drachen Theaker later played drums for Love on their Four Sail album.

    Arthur Brown made three subsequent albums with his group Kingdom Come and guested as vocalist on several albums including the Alan Parsons Project and for the German electronic maestro Klaus Schulze. He also guested on Captain Lockheed and the Starf ighters by Robert Calvert of Hawkwind and The Intergalactic Touring Band with Larry Fast (before he joined Peter Gabriel). Brown later moved to Austin, Texas where he has worked as a painter (with Jimmy Carl Black, ex-drummer for the Mothers) while still continuing to record.

    The following interview was conducted with Arthur Brown on 10/9/1982 during the Houston Record Fair and on 11/8/1993. 
  •  AV: You studied philosophy in college. What philosophers had the greatest impact on you?

    AB: I studied philosophy at Reading University and my idea of what philosophy is has changed. Philosophy, in those days was a Western discipline, was very intellectual and largely confined to book studies. I became familiar with the existentialists such as Sartre and Camus. Later on, however, I became more involved with ways of life and how philosophy was integrated into whole systems of living as opposed to ideas about what living might be. I got interested in Gurdjieff and his ideas.
  •  AV: It's interesting you mentioned Gurdjieff because Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators were also influenced by him.

    AB: It's one thing to know about the ideas of Gurdjieff, and that's the Western way of dealing with it. It's another thing to go through the disciplines---of which philosophy is only a part---where sacred dances, breathing techniques, concentration, meditation, worship, and practical work are viewed as a means of an awakening awareness. This is a totally different thing where philosophy spreads out into life itself. It is more or less the way you live your life, as opposed to one that is compartmentalized.
  •  AV: What literary artists influenced you during college?

    AB: I was very much involved with English poetry and drama, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and Blake. Laurence Durrell and Garcia Lorca were also influential. 
  •  AV: It has been reported that you were once a school teacher.

    AB: I taught poetry and current affairs at Leytonstone High School in London.
  •  AV: How did you get involved with music, who were your musical influences, and did you have any musical training?

    AB: When I was young my father use to play sort of a Charlie Kunz style on piano. My father had a reasonable voice and my mother had a beautiful voice. When I was seven to ten years of age I was brought up in Wales and I sang with a local Welsh choir.

    Later on I got into Elvis Presley and Little Richard, but English radio before that was mainly Music Hall, classical,and Frank Sinatra. There were many broadcasts for our soldiers who were abroad and much of this was incredible Middle Eastern music---e.g., Egyptian and Moroccan. When I went to London University, to study law, I shared lodging with a guy who played folk guitar and played Burl Ives music and I got very interested in that. It was also the heyday of the jazz boom. The Chelsea Set, who were forerunners of the Rolling Stones regarding fashion and attitude towards life, were very big there and I got somewhat involved in it. When I left London Univeristy and went back to Yorkshire, I brought back a banjo I had purchased in London even though I couldn't play it very well.

    Over the course of the next year I started playing guitar a little, but I was pretty dreadful. I went back to study philosophy at Reading University where there was a trad-jazz band driving around the streets on the back of a flat-bed truck. I thought they were incredible. Two weeks later their bass player had to leave so I bought a double bass and joined the band instantly.

    From there I joined a band called Dave Morgan's Trad Band and we played all the little towns and villages around Reading. This was around 1963 and at the same time I took classical singing lessons. I started to realize people liked my singing. I then got invited to sing with one of the big trad bands that was very successful around the colleges, but when I got there there were only about eight people in the audience. I walked down the corridor and I heard this God awful noise. 1 opened the door, which was quite a ways down the corridor, and there were all the people who should have been listening to our trad band. They were listening to what was the first electric R&B band I had ever heard. It was someone like Manfred Mann. I thought this is what I want to do. So we went back and formed an R&B band called Blues and Brown. I sang and played double bass. Digby Anderson was on drums. Gene Rutman, an American who was excellent, played guitar. Alan Rowe was on keyboards and there was a trumpet player named Dick.

    While I was at Reading University I was treasurer of the Jazz Club and editor of the poetry magazine. I also played bass in a modern jazz combo where I met John Marshall. He was on his way to becoming one of England's premier jazz drummers before leaving to join Alexis Korner and then moving on from that to the Soft Machine.
  •  AV: How did Pete Townsend get involved with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown?

    AB: I think what you are referring to is when the Crazy World was playing the underground clubs such as the UFO Club. Pete Townsend was in the audience and came up and persuaded his record company (Track Records) to sign us. Townsend was very helpful in putting together our demos for the first album and was the associate producer of that album.
  •  AV: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown band also included Vincent Crane on keyboards and Drachen Theaker on drums. Did your group have a guitarist or bass player?

    AB: No, we had no guitarist or bass player. It was pretty amazing in those days to be as successful as we were with just three people. Occasionally, I'd play euphonium. We were the first English band ever to use the synthesizer, but in those days it was called a noise generator and it had eight sounds that were electronically generated.
  •  AV: Were you in any other bands before starting the Crazy World of Arthur Brown?

    AB: It was a long process really. I left the Blues and Brown Band to join a group that was doing R&B called the Southwest Five from East London. After that collapsed as an association, I went over to France and formed a band called the Arthur Brown Set that was very successful over there. We were the toast of Paris.
  •  AV: How did you meet Vincent Crane and Drachen Theaker?

    AB: Eventually, I returned to England where I was just bumming around these slum places trying to find a place to live. I came across this woman, Mary Crampton, who had a house where all kinds of savory, unsavory, and artistic people lived. Vincent Crane used to rehearseon the top floor. Michael Reynolds, who is a painter, lived there and he later became the Crazy World designer of costumes and did our lights. Other people who came there were Peter Kerr and Michael Finesilver who co-wrote "Fire." It was quite an artistic treasure trove. The drummer we had was somewhat of a junkie and didn't work out and so we put an ad in Melody Maker. Drachen Theaker was suppose to audition for Jimi Hendrix the day before, but Hendrix was late because of the traffic. Drachen came to us and said, "I've never heard of this Hendrix guy. This band, the Crazy World, sounds pretty interesting. I think I'll go with them."

    During this time I was a member of the Foundations who later had a big hit with "Baby, Now That I Found You."I was co-lead singer with Clem Curtis who later became the lead singer. The people who wrote "Baby, Now That I Found You" came down and gave us that song. They wanted me to sign with them which meant I would have to be with them for two years. I said I couldn't do it. I wanted to do my own little band, the Crazy World, which I thought was much more interesting to me. Low and behold, four months later, the Foundations were at the top of the charts. Even so, I wasn't so much into hits as I was creative music which is why I left them in the first place.
  •  AV: Is Drachen Theaker, the drummer for Crazy World, his real name?

    AB: No, it's John Theaker. Theaker is an old Norweigan or Viking name. He was given the name Drachen before he joined us when he was with a band that was called Winder K. Frogg. The leader of the band was the keyboard player who called himself Winder K. Frogg. One day he came in and told John his name was going to be Drachen. It stuck.
  •  AV: How did you choose the name for the group?

    AB: It was at the end of September 1966. When I was with the French band, we used to drink a lot and have fun in the bars. I remember one night I said, "Well, I'm going to start this band and call it The World of Arthur Brown." Somehow, in between everything, the "Crazy" came.
  •  AV: You have been labeled a pioneer in "theatre rock." What gave you the idea for this which included such things as being lowered onto the stage by a crane, wearing a fire helmet, and dressing up in all sorts of bizarre outfits?

    AB: In England you had vaudeville, Music Hall, and circuses.That is what I was brought up on. I was also very impressed with the first live play I went to that had customers and lighting. It was a performance about Beckett by T.S. Eliot called Murder in the Cathedral.

    When we performed in Paris we were in residency where we played for the same people time after time after time. So we started improvising and out of a sense of fun we did theatrical skits. One night I found a crown with all the candles in it at the hotel. So I started wearing that and everyone seemed to like it. Later on a little boy, who was about five or six, came in the dressing room and said, "I'm going to make-up your teeth." So he blacked out my teeth and put some make-up on and the audience was transfixed. I realized this was a whole new dimension.
    So when I went back to England I devised, with the help of Vincent and Drachen, wearing different outfits such as women's wigs and dresses and masks. We got two bookings in the first year because no one else was doing it.

    When the underground movement began to happen, we were doing the same stuff and suddenly everybody wanted to hear it.
  •  AV: How did the extraordinary fire helmet come about?

    AB: The fire helmet came about because of the crown used in France. When the crown wore out, I didn't have any money so I found this old vegetable colander. I stuck candles on that, but the wax came through the holes and I couldn't get it off my head. So I went from that to putting on a plate. It had a leather strap holding it with a screw through the middle of the plate which was full of gasoline. Of course, people loved that. The screw that held the strap on went straight on to my skull and when the gasoline was ignited it was really hot. I started putting things under it, but it was never stable so it would occasionally pour onto my clothes. We eventually hit on to the idea of a helmet. It was Mike Reynold's idea to do the helmet although it developed slowly.
  •  AV: Wasn't there a case where the helmet malfunctioned and you got burned rather severly?

    AB: Sometimes there were little burns on my face or my clothes would catch fire. There were a few times the whole lot would catch fire and the fire would be put out with beer by guys standing nearby who would pour their pints of beer on me.
  •  AV: Who came up with the concept about lowering you onto the stage by a crane?

    AB: That was Kit Lambert's and Chris Stamp's idea and it originated when we were doing the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival.They had such a great eye and imagination for promotion. The TV ate it up and we became national figures.
  •  AV: I know with your band Kingdom Come you employed such theatrics like hanging on a cross and wearing clothes with all sorts of different material.

    AB: It was a businessmen's suit on the right side, but the left side had a sleeve that came down eight inches past my hand. It was forty inches wide at the bottom and it was orange and yellow and flaring. I also had shaved the right hand side of my beard and my hair, right down to the skin, to go with the business suit, but on the left side I had long hippie hair and a mustache. That look became fashionable around 1980 in England, but I did this around 1969 or 1970.

    AV: Peter Gabriel did something like that when he was with Genesis where he had long hair down to his shoulders, but then he shaved the middle of his head at a severe angle and painted the bald streak with a florescent paint when appearing in concert.

    AB: In a recent interview with CD Rock Magazine, I was very flattered when Peter Gabriel said that in his formative career there were three strong influences: one was Otis Redding, I can't remember the second influence, and from the point of view of theatrics he mentioned that Arthur Brown greatly influenced him.
  •  AV: Do you think your theatre rock" influenced later groups like Alice Cooper?

    AB: Alice Cooper's stage make-up was the make-up that I'd been using a year and a half before and he admits it. My next band, Kingdom Come, did that whole surreal thing. For example, the guitarist would come on stage and he'd be dressed as a telephone where we would have tapes and you could answer and talk on it. I was brought on stage in a ten foot high transparent syringe which was our comment about the whole drug problem. Cooper then took that concept for his surreal phase and I think he borrowed a lot from us.

    AV: Then the "glitter rock" people probably took it another step further.

    AB: Well, a step less, I think. It's just different. What I was trying to do was to get more into a ritual and theatre and what they were doing was making a fashion statement.
  •  AV: What about your influences? Did Screamin' Jay Hawkins influence you?

    AB: It's funny because I had not seen or known anything about Screamin' Jay Hawkins' stage act. I heard one album of his which obviously had some influence, though not consciously, but it was there. What prompted me to do "I Put A Spell On You" wasn't Hawkins but Nina Simone's version.

    My influences for creating what the critics call "theatre rock" goes back to when I was at Reading University and I got involved in drama, but a lot of it started out as fun, as slapstick, as skits. Musically, I have a lot of influences from people like Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and the whole English folk tradition, which I loved and still do.
  •  AV: What about the usual cast of characters, like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Animals? Did they influence you? 

    AB: Initially, I was interested in the blues just like the Rolling Stones. Then the Stones came out with "Paint It Black" when I was playing in Paris, but I felt like they were commercializing the blues which made it somewhat crass. I really did like "Paint It Black" and a couple of the others, but the Stones and the Beatles I thought were rubbish. It was a type of blues snobbery where all us who were into country blues and black artists just didn't get off on pop music. 
  •  AV: What about the Animals?

    AB: They were sort of midway between as far as I was concerned. They had their blues roots, but Mikey Most seemed to want hit singles. Looking at it now it was the birth of a new direction for rock music. I don't have the same "blues snobbery" attitude anymore, but in those days, I didn't care for a lot of popular music because I was a blues purist. 
  •  AV: Did you like John Mayall?

    AB: In a certain way initially, although my musical tastes were spread between English folk and blues. It was more like Lightin' Hopkins and anyone through Muddy Waters. For me, it was a real stretch initially to even accept James Brown because the old country blues artists were so personal; whereas all this other stuff was getting citified and having less of the personal element in it. It was all the same sentiment over and over whereas the old blues guys were more poetic. Consequently, my musical tastes slowly changed when I was able to introduce my own poetry, which was from a standard English background, to make the music for the Crazy World album. Our music was basically blues music with a little of Vincent's classical training thrown in.
  •  AV: What was it like playing at the UFO Club?

    AB: That was an interesting format because you would have all the bands like Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and the Giant Sun Trolley which was an avant garde band. There were also light shows and oil slides. At the same time you would also have the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and even their precursors, the Alberts.

    AV: Who were the Alberts?

    AB: They've never been heard much of, but they were the band from which the Bonzo Dogs drew most of their inspiration. The Alberts played trad-jazz, a little earlier in style than the Bonzo's, since they were from an earlier musical tradition.

    There was a band called Tomorrow, who had Keith West, but they were a little too poppy for me. Other bands were the Pink Fairies and Mick Farren and the Social Deviants. I've known nights at the underground clubs when you'd have hot jazz, stand up comics, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, the Alberts, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

    I remember Yoko Ono, who by that time had moved into a warehouse in Covent Garden, was performing there. There would be all these guys who were vegetable sellers that would be walking by the club at two or three in the morning. They would wander in and see this very strange group of people such as Yoko Ono. Yoko would be up on stage and invite them to come up and cut her clothes off with a scissors. It was a very creative, artistic environment.

    I remember one night Margot Fontaine coming down and on another evening Tom Jones came in. It was a hub for the new sort of energy coming into music and arts at that time. Of course, you would have the Who coming down regularly, the Beatles would be in the audience, and Hendrix would play there. The Incredible String Band, to my mind one of the most amazing musical combinations that has ever been, was there. I have never seen the likes of it since. I'm not one of these guys who says it all happened in the 60s because I think a lot is happening now. It was all different styles and a new impetus for what could be said and expressed through popular music.
  •  [Interview continues at] 
Table of contents 
  •  Arthur Brown: Interview [Side A] 
  •  Philosophy influences 
  •  Brown's work as a teacher 
  •  Musical influences and early bands 
  •  Signing with Track Records; Mentions Pete Townshend 
  •  Forming band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown 
  •  Early work with synthesizer 
  •  Meeting members of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown 
  •  Name 
  •  Moving to England, mentions Mary Crampton, Peter Karr, Mike Finesilver 
  •  Forming early band 
  •  Clarifying dates and names 
  •  Theater rock; Vaudeville influences; Fire helmet 
  •  Fire helmet 
  •  Theatrics 
  •  Brown's influence on future groups, mentions Alice Cooper 
  •  Brown's influences, mentions Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone, The Animals, the blues 
  •  UFO club, mentions band "The Alberts" 
  •  Lesser-known bands, mentions 13th Floor Elevators, Pink Fairies and Mick Farren and the Social Deviants and the Incredible String Band 
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Title:Arthur Brown: Interview [Side A]
Description:Side A of 1993 interview with Arthur Brown. Covers his transition from philosophy student to musician, discussing the influence of writers George Gurdjieff and Lawrence Durrell on his work, playing in the group Blues and Brown and Dave Morgan’s Trad Band, the invention of his flaming helmet, musicians he influenced, including Alice Cooper and the Bonzo Dog Dada Band and playing at the UFO club. Digitized from Maxell UR-90 cassette played on Sony TC-WE475.
Country:United States
CreatorVorda, Allan (interviewer)
Source:Vorda (Allan) Music History Collection
Contributor:Brown, Arthur (interviewee)
PublisherDolph Briscoe Center for American History
Rights:Allan Vorda/Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
Original Format:Audiocassette