Monday, 1 March 2010

Back in the early days of my listening career there were a number of performers notorious for on-stage eccentricities.

The Who regularly demolished their instruments and more or less everything else that was on-stage and within reach.

Jimi Hendrix played guitar with his teeth, behind his back, humped it like it was going out of fashion and set fire to it.

Arthur Brown set fire to himself.

Rear View: "The Crazy World of Arthur Brown"

Crazy World of Arthur Brown

Strictly speaking the incendiary object was a metal contraption attached to his head, but accidents can, do and invariably will, happen. During a performance at Windsor, the methanol which fuelled the God of Hellfire poured over his head and caught fire. Prompt action by members of the audience saved the day as Brown's burning head was extinguished by pints of beer.

Reports of such incidents spread as far as Townsville, where a couple of high school students were suitably impressed. We were even more impressed when the Top 40 started featuring a voice announcing I am the god of hell fire, and I bring you ... Fire!

Fire was one of the eccentric singles that attracted attention around that time, and the news that the Crazy World of Arthur Brown had produced an album had us licking our lips in anticipation.

Forty years later some elements of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown stand up surprisingly well. It's hardly the most consistent of recordings, though, and in an age where you can buy tracks individually, you could put together a classy little mini-album for fans of the psychedelic genre by combining the first side of the vinyl version with the pick of what's on offer on the reverse side.

The album centres around two key elements - Brown's multi-octave vocals and Vincent Crane's driving organ. You get both of those in abundant bundles on the opening Prelude/Nightmare, which kicks off a side-long suite based around Fire and which seems to have been the centrepiece of Brown's live show. The rest of the live repertoire seems to have ended up over on Side Two.

Brown, after stints studying law at Kings College London (where his results were less than stellar) and philosophy at Reading University headed to Paris, where adventures involving celebrities, the Paris underworld, allegations of white slavery and drug running brought their own heat.

Back in London Brown found himself living downstairs from Vincent Crane, and his Crazy World came into being, though stories surrounding Brown's adventures on the continent suggested that things in his neck of the woods had been more than a little unbalanced for quite some time. The trio was filled out by drummer Drachen Theaker, who'd allegedly failed to turn up in time for an audition for Jimi Hendrix and was stuck with Mr Brown instead.

Managed by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (who were also involved with The Who) and signed to Polydor a single, Devil's Grip, sank without trace due to a vinyl shortage and work started on a follow-up and an album.

Which brings us back to the organ-driven Prelude/Nightmare, where an almost pastoral beginning (Prelude) takes you into an uptempo Nightmare, aptly named since after an innocuous verse, Brown's vocals take off, swooping and curling around Crane's surging keyboards over a brass section that wouldn't be out of place in an R&B setting.

A brief Fanfare from the massed brass section takes the listener into a jazzy keyboard riff, which in turns into Fire Poem, allegedly written by Brown during his school years and it certainly reads that way once you take the vocal line out of the picture, but it's a nice lead in to Fire itself.

Listening again forty-two years later the fact that Fire was a substantial hit, even in places like Australia says something about the differences between Top 40 radio back in the day and the situation a little further down the track.

Come and Buy keeps the lyrical themes running, dropping the tempo for the verses and turning it up a notch for the twisting, turning, rolling, burning chorus. Nice vocal rave-up towards the end before Time/Confusion drops the tempo back, and while the lyrics to Time are fairly inconsequential cod-philosophising, it's the performance that, presumably, is what we're there for.

Crane's keyboards lift the tempo for Confusion, with Brown screeching back to the Fire theme to round out Side One and, presumably the regular live set.

I suspect that Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put a Spell On You was the regular encore, and Brown delivers a great version of a classic song. There's a menace to his vocal that matches Hawkins' growl and is missing from, say, the Creedence cover. Easy to imagine a whirling dervish with a flaming headdress invoking various sorcerous incantations and furling them in his intended's direction. Would have worked brilliantly on stage....

Spontaneous Apple Creation is standard psychedelic-babble in the lyric department but the main item of interest is some swirling keyboard from Crane bubbling under the vocal line.

Rest Cure, the flip side of the Fire single, is a change of tempo, almost tender after some of the hysterical spell-mongering elsewhere on the album. Pleasant enough, but rather inconsequential in the bigger scheme of things.

I've Got Money, originally by James Brown, is presumably another relic from Arthur Brown's R&B days, an interesting opportunity for Brown to show off his vocal chops and more than likely the alternative encore. Driving keyboards work nicely too, but it's a track I could probably take or leave.

Child of My Kingdom is a surprisingly catchy play-out to the album, underlining the difference between Side Two's assortment of tracks and Side One's thematic suite. It’s not an album I dig out to listen all that often, but it brings back memories when I do...