255. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire (1968)

3118473159_cc7c3c8481_b.jpg

‘I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU…’ Yes, Tommy James and the Shondells’ stint at number 1 with the raunchy Mony Mony was interrupted briefly by the schlock-horror psychedelia of Fire. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were only at the top of the charts for a week, but they gave us one of the most memorable one-hit wonders of all time.

Before he became the god of hell fire, he was plain Arthur Brown from the seaside town of Whitby, North Yorkshire. Pretty appropriate, considering its links to goth culture. Born in June 1942, he went to Roundhay Grammar School in Leeds, and then moved to London to attend the University of London and the University of Reading. While at the latter, he formed his first band, Blues and Brown, in 1965. The following year he moved to Paris, and while working on his theatrical skills, which later stood him in good stead, he recorded his first material – two songs for the movie adaptation of La Curée.

Around late 1966-early 1967 he returned to London, and was briefly a member of the Ramong Sound. The promising multi-racial R’n’B and soul group had run into a spot of bother when their frontman, Ramong Morrison, was imprisoned. Brown was suggested and he and Clem Curtis briefly fronted the band. However, Brown had already set up the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and soon left to concentrate on his fledgling group. The Ramong Sound morphed into the Foundations, and later that year they scored a number 1 with Baby, Now That I’ve Found You.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were Brown on vocals, Vincent Crane on Hammond organ and piano, Drachen Theaker on drums and Nick Greenwood on bass. Unusually, there was no guitarist. And unusual was what helped the Crazy World of Arthur Brown stand out in that first year. With his penchant for energetic, over-the-top performances and a dark operatic voice, Brown was a mesmeric frontman, with the band quickly becoming known as an antithesis to the day-glo flower power during the Summer of Love.  He began performing a song called Fire, and at the Windsor Festival he wore a collander on his head soaked in methanol. Not for the last time, the fuel poured over him by accident, and his head caught fire. For the acid-taking hippies, this must have been a hell (pardon the pun) of a sight. In addition to almost burning his face off, he would wear ghoulish make-up and occasionally perform naked. This was all a long way from the besuited Beatles or tuxedo-wearing easy listening stars of yesteryear, and really helped the band get noticed.

They signed with the ultra-hip Track Records, which had been founded by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed the Who. The label was also home to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Debut single Devil’s Grip is long forgotten and failed to chart, but in June 1968 they released their debut eponymous LP and Fire. Following memorable TV appearances, both rapidly climbed the charts.

Critics of Fire argue that that opening electrifying statement from Brown is the best part, and that the rest of the tune fails to live up to such drama. Maybe they have a point, but for me, Fire is a lot of fun and a song I never fail to enjoy. Crane’s organ riff might be cheesy, but I’ve always dug a good Hammond organ. One thing I will agree with from a critical persepctive is that the mono version is a little empty-sounding, not only is there no guitar, but there’s no bass either. Until researching this, I’d never heard the mono. The horns in the stereo mix add some much-needed beef to the production. Both versions also end very differently, with a weird lazer sound on the mono, whereas the stereo fades out with demonic wailing, trumpets and a primitive ‘fiery’ noise. Apparently, the brass and extra strings on the album came at the behest of US label Atlantic.

Originally credited to Brown and Crane, eventually Mike Finesilver and Peter Ker received songwriting credits due to the similarity to their long-forgotten track Baby, You’re a Long Way Behind. Interestingly, Ronnie Wood claimed a few years back to have played bass on Fire, but Brown believes he’s getting mixed up with helping out on a radio session version. I’d imagine Wood’s memory is a little muddy. The Who’s Pete Townshend received an executive production credit on the album, but nobody seems to know what that actually entails. Although I’ve yet to hear The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, I can recommend the track Spontaneous Apple Creation.

Once the influence of psychedelia faded from the charts, the novelty of Brown’s group quickly wore off with the general public. Brown was simply too weird to remain a popular star. Theaker had left the band in 1968 due to his fear of flying, and was replaced by Carl Palmer. Crane also left briefly and then returned, but in June 1969 The Crazy World of Arthur Brown disbanded, with Crane and Palmer forming Atomic Rooster. Palmer of course became a third of progressive rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer and later joined Asia.

Brown has retained a cult following ever since. He formed Kingdom Come in 1970, and continued to plough the same dark but camp psychedelic and progressive path. They appeared at Glastonbury Fayre in 1971, before splitting three years later. In 1975 Brown starred in the Who’s rock opera Tommy as ‘The Priest’. He released several solo albums before moving to Africa briefly.

In the 80s Brown moved to Austin, Texas and obtained a master’s degree in counselling. Imagine deciding you needed help and walking in to find Arthur Brown with a flaming collander on his head… ‘I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU… THERAPY!’. Even stranger than that, he became a painter and carpenter along with Jimmy Carl Black from Mothers of Invention, and they recorded an album together called Brown, Black and Blue, released in 1988. 

The 90s saw the intro to Fire sampled on Essex rave outfit the Prodigy’s song of the same name in 1992. Brown collaborated with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, as well as psychedelic indie-rockers Kula Shaker.

In the 21st century, Brown is still accidentally setting fire to himself, performing for his beloved hardcore fans. He also appeared in the Darkness’s video for Is It Just Me? in 2006, and in 2010 he returned to Glastonbury Festival. Now 76, later this year he will work with Carl Palmer once more, singing on his ELP Legacy tour.

It’s easy to poke affectionate fun at Brown, but he must have been an exciting and idiosyncratic presence on the charts in 1968. You cannot deny his influence on a wide range of flamboyant rock and pop stars either, including Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, George Clinton and Marilyn Manson. Let’s hope he sees out the rest of his years without a fire-related fatal incident.

Written by: Arthur Brown, Vincent Crane, Mike Finesilver & Peter Ker

Producer: Kit Lambert

Weeks at number 1: 1 (14-20 August)

Births:

Boxer Jane Couch – 14 August
Actor Adrian Lester – 14 August|
Actress Helen McCrory – 17 August

 

254. Tommy James and the Shondells – Mony Mony (1968)

TOMMY-JAMES-RM-3AUG68-Copy

The day this number 1 hit the top was a milestone in television comedy. 31 July saw the first ever episode of World War Two comedy series Dad’s Army transmitted on BBC One. Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, it ran for the next nine years and has been repeated eternally ever since. It’ll probably be the last programme on TV when Donald Trump or Boris Johnson press the big red button.

Mony Mony was the first time in a good few years that SEX raised its head in pole position of the singles chart. Psychedelia might have been a time for free love, but lust (by and large) seemed somewhat neutered on 7-inches (snigger).

Rock band Tommy James and the Shondells had an interesting history up to this point. Tommy James, real name Tommy Jackson was born in Dayton, Ohio in April 1947. He had his first taste of stardom while very young – he was a child model at the age of four. Jackson formed his first group in the new family hometown of Niles, Michigan aged 12. Originally called the Echoes in 1959, then Tom and the Tornadoes, they released a single, Long Pony Tail, in 1962. They settled on the Shondells in 1964 by way of tribute to singer Troy Shondell.

That year, while still at high school, they recorded the Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich song Hanky Panky, but although it garnered a good local following, it failed to break out, and the Shondells split the following year.

While Jackson tried and failed in new groups, Hanky Panky was discovered in a bargain bin by a local DJ and he helped the song gain a new following. Bootlegs were soon pressed up and Hanky Panky was more popular than ever. Jackson travelled to New York in search of a record deal. Unfortunately, he found one with Roulette Records. The label was owned by Morris Levy. A hard-nosed criminal who swindled his acts out of royalties, Levy managed to scare any other interested label away from Jackson, even much bigger ones than his own. Levy inspired the character Hesh in The Sopranos.

Of course, the Shondells as they were had long since split, so Jackson searched for a new band, and found them in a house band called the Raconteurs in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He changed his name professionally to Tommy James and soon the most famous line-up of the Shondells settled on guitarist Eddie Gray, bassist Mike Vale, Ron Rosman on keyboards and Pete Lucia on drums. With the backing of Levy, Hanky Panky became number 1 on the Billboard chart in 1966.

The next few singles didn’t perform spectacularly, but eventually they found their groove, a bubblegum pop and rock sound, with songwriters and producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell. They wrote, among others, I Think We’re Alone Now, a UK number 1 for Tiffany in 1988.

By 1968, Tommy James and the Shondells were working on a promising new song, which was more or less complete, but James was struggling for a title. He had considered Sloopy or Bony Maroney, but thought they sounded stupid. They tried in vain, until James went outside, looked up and saw the Mututal of New York building. Its initials were illuminated in red at the top, and James had his ‘eureka!’ moment.

Also credited to singer-songwriter Bobby Bloom, Mony Mony was, as I said, the raunchiest UK number 1 for some time. Okay, we’re not talking Justify My Love levels of filth here, but we’re still a year off Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin topping the charts. It’s clear James is feeling like one horny bugger during the chorus. Unfortunately, as catchy as the ‘Mony Mony’ chant is, it’s a bit too bubblegum, and the backing vocals keep James in check. There’s an interesting tension there. I’ve always liked this tune, after first hearing punk rocker Billy Idol’s version as a child.

Mony Mony didn’t reach number 1 in the US, but enjoyed a fortnight in the UK over the summer. It was then briefly toppled by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but after only a week, Fire was usurped by Mony Mony for a further week.

Tommy James and the Shondells were beginning to tire of the bubblegum element of their material, and decided on a mature, pyschedelic sound. It paid off, and Crimson and Clover (which was pretty much a Tommy James solo single in all but name) ended a great year for the group at number 1 in the US. One of their bestsellers in 1969 was the sublime Crystal Blue Persuasion, used to great effect in Breaking Bad many years later. They did make a big misstep that year though, laughing off an invitation to play at a festival called Woodstock.

James and the Shondells came to an abrupt halt in 1970 when an exhausted James came off stage and collapsed. He was initially pronounced dead due to drugs. Wisely, James took off for a quiet life in the country. The Shondells renamed themselves Hog Heaven but disbanded after two albums. James however remained in the business and along with a solo career he wrote and produced a US hit for Alive N Kickin in 1970.

60s nostalgia was everywhere in the 80s, and Tommy James and the Shondells did very well out of it. Idol’s Mony Mony was released in 1982, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts had a hit with Crimson and Clover, and then in 1987 Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now and a live version of Mony Mony by Idol were back-to-back chart-toppers in the US.

Thanks to audiences at Idol gigs, Mony Mony became way filthier than the original version. In between every line in the verses, crowds began to chant either ‘Hey, say what… get laid get fucked!’ or ‘Hey, motherfucker… get laid get fucked!’. Then the chorus chant was changed to ‘Fucking horny!’. Dear me.

All this renewed interest in the band inevitably led to James and a new Shondells line-up joining the oldies circuit. Classic-era drummer Lucia died while playing golf in 1987, aged 39.

2010 saw the publication of James’s autobiography. Me, The Mob, and The Music. It detailed how he was left out of pocket by Roulette Records and how it was in fact cover for Levy’s money-laundering operation. He even had to leave New York at one point to avoid being the victim of a Mob hit. He still performs live with a version of the Shondells.

While Mony Mony was number 1, British Rail’s last steam train service ended. On 11 August, steam locomotives made the 314-mile return passenger journey from Liverpool to Carlisle. The trains were either sent to the scrapyard or kept for preservation.

Written by: Tommy James, Bo Gentry, Ritchie Cordell & Bobby Bloom

Producers: Bo Gentry & Ritchie Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 July-13 August, 21-27 August)

Births:

Scottish race driver Colin McRae – 5 August
Footballer Julian Dicks – 8 August
Cyclist Chris Boardman – 26 August 

Deaths:

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent – 27 August