‘I wore a flaming helmet to sing it’ … how The Crazy World of Arthur Brown made Fire

‘The flames could be 4ft high. At one gig, my coat caught fire and I was running around with a burning arm’

Arthur Brown, singer, songwriter

I’d always loved flames. I don’t know if it’s anything to do with moving to London at the end of the war, when I was three and the East End was on fire. If you look into the centre of a blaze, you get a stillness in yourself. It’s like meditation, and that inspired me.

Later, after I moved to Leeds, I liked to go wandering in the hills and sing, to feel the energy. I’d been reading metaphysical poets such as John Donne and one day I wrote The Fire Poem. After we formed The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, I turned the poem into the song Fire with Vincent Crane, our organist. He eventually ended up in a mental health hospital after a bad acid trip, but before that he was a cornucopia of endless choral melodic invention. I’d just say to him: “That thing you just played, that’s the one!”

We were creative guys into the surreal, folk, jazz and some classical. Drachen Theaker, the drummer, played an African rhythm and Vince played it as chords on organ. In the building where we rehearsed, two other guys [Mike Finesilver and Peter Ker] were rehearsing with an Indian singer, Elli. They had a song that I really liked [Baby, You’re a Long Way Behind], so we blended it into Fire for the “Da da daaaa” horn riff. They’re in the songwriting credits now.

Pete Townshend came to see us at [legendary psychedelic haunt] the UFO club and introduced us to the Who’s managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. We made a demo at Pete’s studio, with him playing guitar. Then Kit and Chris signed us to Track Records: Kit produced us. Ronnie Wood [from the Rolling Stones] says he played bass on Fire, but I think he’s confusing it with the John Peel session version, which he did play on.

I wore a flaming helmet to sing it, which proved popular in the clubs, but after the song went to No 1 there were a lot of incidents. The flames could be four-foot high: lots of clubs were left with scorch marks on the ceiling. At one gig my coat caught fire and I was running round with a burning arm. Health and safety wasn’t a big thing then.

Phill Brown, tape operator

I was a 16-year-old tape operator at Olympic Studios in London, training under Keith Grant, Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer. We did a phenomenal amount of amazing sessions – Traffic, the Small Faces, the Move, Jimi Hendrix. I was learning how to make records and I was lucky enough to be the tape op for Arthur.

When we were setting up the gear this very tall figure walked in, wearing robes. I never saw him in jeans or a T-shirt. Apart from the makeup, he looked just like he did on stage. Before we started recording, he wasn’t exactly chanting but he did a lot of vocal gymnastics to warm up. He was such a character but a lovely guy, not egotistical but also trying to push the boundaries.

On Fire, there’s a backwards bass drum, which is pretty far out for 1968. We turned the tape over and played the drum so when you turned it the right way it would go “pfft, pfft …” There were no plug-in sound effects back then, so if you wanted a different sound, you had to go somewhere that wasn’t the studio. The effect on the “I am the god of hellfire and I bring you … fire!” intro is a mixture of these beautiful EMT echo plates [artificial reverb] and recording in the toilet, which gave a chamber-type sound.

Fire was done on a four-track, then bounced to another four-track to give more tracks to record on. Vince played bass pedals on his organ. Kit Lambert – who was more musically aware than a lot of the managers back then – decided that it needed some extra stuff, so the brass parts were added.

Working on a No 1 record aged 16 was a fantastic feeling. Sadly Arthur never saw any royalties for it, which was often the case back then. I subsequently spent a lot of time working with my heroes [as a producer] but I’ve got no autographs and obviously none of us had mobile phones. I’ve got one photograph of me with Sly Stone. You do a job and sometimes you become mates. It’s only much later that you look back and think: “What a week that was.”

• Arthur Brown’s new album, Long Long Road, is released on Magnetic Eye Records on 24 June, his 80th birthday. The band play Bush Hall, London on 25 June. Details thegodofhellfire.com


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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