In some alternate universe, British singer Arthur Brown is more famous than Alice Cooper, one of the many theatrical rockers obviously indebted to him. But like so many weirdos before and since, the man best-known for wearing a flaming pot on his head and shouting, “I am the god of hellfire!” was, in his late ’60s heyday, both misunderstood and plagued by back luck, and was ultimately unable to sustain the popularity he briefly enjoyed.
Brown spent his college-aged years kicking around Reading, London and Paris in a variety of bands, before finally forming his most famous group, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, with organist Vincent Crane in 1967. It was around this time that Brown began experimenting with wearing various flaming helmets and headdresses as part of the band’s live show. The experiments didn’t always work; at the Windsor Festival in ’67, some lighter fluid from the helmet splashed into his hair and set fire to his head. Still, Brown’s stage antics, alone with his melodramatic vocals and Crane’s furious keyboards, attracted the attention of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, managers of The Who, who signed The Crazy World to their Track Records label that same year.
In 1968, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown released their self-titled debut album, along with the aptly titled single “Fire,” which became an unlikely international smash, rocketing to No. 1 in the U.K. and eventually reaching No. 2 in the U.S. It’s a catchy song, propelled by a horn section, Crane’s frenetic organ and Brown’s octave-leaping squeals, but Brown’s memorable appearance on Top of the Pops—in flaming headgear and black-and-white facepaint that seems to presage the corpse paint of black metal by about 20 years—no doubt boosted sales, as well.
Riding the success of “Fire,” Brown and his bandmates set out on an international tour, but the whole enterprise was snake-bit almost from the beginning. First Crazy World’s drummer, the excellently named Drachen Theaker, quit because he was afraid of flying; he was replaced for the tour by a pre-ELP Carl Palmer. Then Crane, who was bipolar, suffered a breakdown and quit, which was a real blow. As you can tell from this clip from the 1968 film The Committee, featuring a weird Crazy World of Arthur Brown cameo, Crane’s organ was just as integral to the band’s sound as Brown’s wild vocals.
Crane eventually returned, only to quit again, this time taking Palmer with him to form the band Atomic Rooster. With returned drummer Theaker and a rotating cast of supporting musicians, Brown recorded one more album as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown in 1969, called Strangelands. But the label was unhappy with the increasingly eccentric, experimental direction of Brown’s music, and shelved the album entirely. Eventually released in 1988, it’s a remarkable head-trip of a record, melding influences as disparate as The Doors, Hendrix, Sly Stone and Captain Beefheart into a churning psychedelic jam presided over by Brown’s increasingly operatic vocals, which foreshadowed the vibrato-heavy style of future heavy metal belters like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie James Dio.
In the ’70s, Brown formed a new band, Kingdom Come, who released three increasingly outlandish albums of prog-rock between 1971 and 1973. Their final album, Journey, is noteworthy for being one of the first rock albums to use a drum machine.
After the dissolution of Kingdom Come, Brown spent the rest of the ’70s kicking around various musical projects, several of them quite high-profile. He appeared in the film version of The Who’s Tommy, playing the role of the Priest; did vocals for Alan Parsons Project’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” on 1976’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination; and collaborated with German electronic composer Klaus Schulze on a series of albums, including 1979’s Dune.
In 1975, he attempted a comeback of sorts, releasing a solo album called Dance that was a stab at a more accessible, R&B-influenced rock sound. It landed him an amazing TV appearance on a show called Supersonic, which Brown himself has since posted clips of on YouTube—but beyond that, the album seems to have made little impact.
In the ’80s, Brown relocated to, of all places, Austin, Texas, where he continued to pursue the occasional music project but also earned a master’s degree in counseling and ran a house-painting business with former Frank Zappa drummer Jimmy Carl Black. Eventually, he moved back to England, where he has continued to pursue a variety of eclectic projects, including a musical psychotherapy business called Healing Songs Therapy, some collaborations with Bruce Dickinson, and an acoustic album, 2000’s Tantric Lover, the first album in more than 30 years he recorded as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
These days, Brown lives in a yurt in the English countryside, where he continues to make music and break out the occasional piece of flammable headgear. In 2013, he used a successful Pledge Music campaign to fund his latest album, a sci-fi concept record called Zim Zam Zim. As you can see and hear in the below music video, Brown remains just as theatrically crazy in his seventies as he was back in ’68, though his vocals these days are less Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, more Tom Jones meets Tom Waits. Long live the God of Hellfire!
P.S. Many thanks to reader Adele Acadela for sharing the above video with us and reminding us of Arthur Brown’s continued brilliance.