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

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‘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

 

252. The Equals – Baby, Come Back (1968)

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A rather dull, cool and wet summer in 1968 led to flooding in the south west of England on 10 July. Six days previous, Alec Rose made headlines by returning from a 354-day single-handed round-the-world trip in his boat Lively Lady. Rose was knighted the very next day.

17 July saw the release of the animated film Yellow Submarine, based on some of the Beatles’ most psychedelic songs, and featuring a cameo from the Fab Four at the end.

But that’s enough nautical news for one blog. Number 1 at the time was Baby, Come Back by the Equals, a mixed-race pop and rock group, largely forgotten these days, but featuring 1980s chart-topper Eddy Grant.

Grant was born in Plaisance, British Guiana in 1948. While at school, his parents lived in the UK, sending him money for his education. His father was a trumpeter, but after emigrating to Kentish Town, London, aged 12, he became interested in guitars, and his hero was Chuck Berry. Growing up in an interracial area, he became friends with Pat Lloyd and John Hall. In 1965, Hall suggested they form a band. Hall became the drummer, with Grant on lead guitar and Lloyd on rhythm guitar. The Gordon twins, Derv on vocals and Lincoln on bass, joined them, and with three black members and two white, they made the bold move of calling themselves the Equals.

With a diverse melting pot of cultures (the Gordons were Jamaican immigrants), their sound was a mix of pop, rock, R’n’B, with ska elements too. They quickly gained a following in London, and were soon called on to open for visiting soul and blues greats from the US such as Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Bo Diddley. They signed with President Records after Grant’s neighbour, singer Gene Latter, put them in touch.

The Equals released debut single I Won’t Be There in 1966. A simple, catchy tune, it got lost among the crowd and despite enthusiastic pirate radio support, it failed to chart. Their follow-up, Hold Me Closer, didn’t do great either, but Baby, Come Back was tucked away on the B-side, and it got noticed by DJs in Europe, even reaching number 1 in Germany and the Netherlands. Once I Get So Excited reached the top 50 in the UK, President Records tried again, and sure enough, Grant’s Baby, Come Back knocked Jumpin’ Jack Flash off the top spot.

Featuring thick Jamaican vocals from Derv, and interjections from Grant, Baby, Come Back is a taut, upbeat piece of pop-rock. There are hints of reggae and ska in there, particularly with the ‘sch-sch-sch’ and ‘Rudeboy!’ at the close of the track, but never enough for it to stray too far from its basic simplicity. It’s an earworm of a chorus, like many of 1968’s number 1s, and a forerunner of the ska and reggae number 1s to come, but ultimately a little too lightweight to get too much enjoyment from.

Despite this, reading about the Equals has been rather interesting. How come they’ve been forgotten? The Foundations seem to get more plaudits for their inter-raciality, but the Equals were there first, long before Sly & the Family Stone, too. Not only did this make them stand out, they also experimented with their image, long before glam, wearing bright, dramatic outfits, with Eddy Grant sometimes even donning a blonde wig. Plus, there’s also the fact that Grant was later a star in his own right.

Whatever the reason, the Equals rarely troubled the charts again, apart from Viva Bobby Joe in 1969 and Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys in 1971. The latter in particular is interesting, hinting at a more political, funky sound, and would have fitted a Blaxploitation movie well. By that point, Grant had already ceased touring with the group after they injured in a car accident in Germany in 1969. He left for good after Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys when he suffered a heart attack and collapsed lung aged only 23, despite being teetotal. The health scare saw him return to Guyana.

The Equals soldiered on, but without the songwriting talents of their guitarist, they’ve never been able to repeat their early fame. Pat Lloyd remains the only founder member. As for Eddy Grant, well, of course he returned to music, but that’s another story for another time.

Despite the relative obscurity of the Equals, their songs have been covered over the years by the Clash and Lethal Bizzle. Baby, Come Back was re-recorded several times by Grant, without success. It did reach number 1 again in 1994 though, when Brummie reggae singer Pato Banton teamed up with Robin and Ali Campbell. The Campbells gave their reggae-lite kiss of death to proceedings, but thanks to Banton’s excitable toasting, it’s fondly remembered by children of the 90s.

Written by: Eddy Grant

Producer: Ed Kassner

Weeks at number 1: 3 (3-23 July)

Births:

Actor Julian Rhind-Tutt – 20 July
Welsh actor Rhys Ifans – 22 July 

Deaths:

Humorist RJ Yeatman – 13 July
Welsh poet William Evans – 16 July 

240. Long John Baldry – Let the Heartaches Begin (1967)

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November 1967 was a particularly cold, yet sunny month. On the 27th, President Charles de Gaulle of France once again vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community. Cheers! The foot-and-mouth outbreak resulted in a number of horse-racing events being cancelled the next day. 1 December saw further inroads into a bright new ethnically diverse future when Tony O’Connor became the first non-white headteacher of a British school, at a primary in Smethwick, near Birmingham.

There may be some sarcasm in my last sentence, as the UK still had a long way to go in becoming progressive. The law had only just changed to decriminalise homosexuality, yet many stars of the time felt they needed to keep their sexuality private. Although Long John Baldry was openly gay in showbiz circles, he didn’t announce it to the public until the 1970s. This giant of the blues scene was highly influential, yet his one chart-topper is disliked by many purists, and is considered unrepresentative of the singer.

John Baldry was born around Brixworth, Northamptonshire in January 1941 after his parents had fled London during the Blitz. His schooldays were spent in Edgware, Middlesex. When he began singing in the 50s he stood out from the crowd as one of the first known blues and folk singers in the country, listening to Muddy Waters and learning the 12-string at the age of 12. He also stood out because he had grown to six feet and seven inches, earning him the nickname ‘Long John’.

By the early-60s he was performing in coffee houses and R’nB clubs in London. A small scene began to formulate, and Baldry joined the fledgling Blues Incorporated, led by the pioneering Alexis Korner. They released the first British blues album, R&B from the Marquee, in 1962. Future members of Blues Incorporated included Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones and Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. From this point onwards, Baldry’s career features cameos from an impressive number of future rock stars of the next decade or so.

In 1963 he joined the Cyril Davies R&B All Stars, featuring future ace session pianist Nicky Hopkins, and when Davies died the following year, he renamed them Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men. While looking for a singer for his new outfit, Baldry chanced upon a busker and Baldry gig-goer called Rod Stewart, performing a Muddy Waters song at Twickenham Station. With Stewart on board, they changed their name to Steampacket in 1965. The group now featured Julie Driscoll as a singer and Brian Auger on organ, later known for their cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire. When Steampacket broke up in 1966, Baldry formed Bluesology. His new band had Reg Dwight on keyboards and future Soft Machine guitarist Elton Dean. When Dwight went solo, he took Dean and Baldry’s forenames and became Elton John.

So, it’s clear that Baldry was moving in the right circles (he also appeared on a TV special by the Beatles in 1964, had a fling with Dave Davies of the Kinks and introduced the Rolling Stones on the US live album Got Live if You Want It!), and yet fame still eluded him. And so he wound up on the cabaret circuit with a harmony group called Chimera backing him, and started working with pop producer Tony Macauley, who had produced Baby Now That I’ve Found You by the Foundations, and co-wrote it with John MacLeod. Together, they also wrote Let the Heartaches Begin, and gave it to Baldry to record.

I have to confess to knowing next to nothing about Baldry, other than him being a fascinating and important figure in R’n’B, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting Let the Heartaches Begin to sound anything like it does. It’s a big let down, and it seems Macauley thought he could turn Baldry into an Engelbert Humperdinck, or a Tom Jones-style figure. You could draw similarities to Johnnie Ray too, with the over-the-top, mock histrionics on show here, set to syrupy backing, but with less impact than Ray’s recordings. But the singer is clearly revelling in the fact he has a broken heart, much like Ray in the 50s. Apparently Baldry had to knock back a fair bit of booze to record it, so it’s likely he wasn’t entirely comfortable with this new direction either.

In spite of this, it was well-timed, with 1967 being the year of Humperdinck, and it earned Baldry his place in chart history, so who am I to argue with Macauley? In fact, this single earned he and MacLeod two consecutive number 1s in a row… no mean feat at all.

Baldry stuck to this new balladeer style for the next few years. In 1968 he and Bernie Taupin came to the aid of Elton John, who was struggling with his sexuality. The duo talked him out of marrying Linda Woodrow to cover up being gay, and John was so grateful he wrote Someone Saved My Life Tonight to thank them.

Baldry returned to his beloved blues in 1971 with his most well-known album It Ain’t Easy with Elton John and Rod Stewart producing a side each. They did the same again on 1972 follow-up Everything Stops for Tea. He claimed to have been the last person to see Marc Bolan alive on 16 September 1977, having interviewed him for US TV just before he got into his car for the final time.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles, Baldry moved to Vancouver, British Colombia in 1978. Bar a brief spell in psychiatric hospital (he recorded the album Baldry’s Out shortly after release), he seemed happy and remained there the rest of his life. He released several albums in the 90s (including It Still Ain’t Easy) but his main source of income was in voiceover work for adverts and animated children’s TV series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (he was Dr Robtonik) and Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars. Plagued with ill health in his later years, he died of a severe chest infection in 2005, aged 64. Only a one-hit wonder in the singles chart, Baldry nevertheless left an impact on music to match his considerable stature.

Written by: Tony Macauley & John MacLeod

Producer: Tony Macauley

Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 November-5 December) 

Births:

Politician Shahid Malik – 24 November

Deaths:

Phonetician Daniel Jones – 4 December 

239. The Foundations – Baby Now That I’ve Found You (1967)

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Following on from BBC Radio’s restructuring into four new national stations, their first regional one, BBC Radio Leicester, began on 8 November. Ten days later, the movement of animals in England and Wales was restricted due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. But the big news of that fortnight came a day later when Prime Minister Harold Wilson devalued the pound. His claim that doing so would not affect ‘the pound in your pocket’ was ridiculed and did Wilson’s standing lasting damage.

During this fortnight in mid-November, multi-racial soul group the Foundations had a surprise number 1 with Motown-style debut single Baby Now That I’ve Found You.

Stories of the groups origins are conflicted, but the most well-known one is that the Foundations had formed in January through advertisements in Melody Maker. This ethnically rich eight-piece originally consisted of singer Clem Curtis, lead guitarist Alan Warner, flautist/saxophonist Pat Burke, tenor saxophonist Mike Elliott, trombonist Eric Allan Dale, keyboardist Tony Gomez, bassist Peter Macbeth and drummer Tim Harris.

The Foundations ran, rehearsed and performed in the Butterfly Club in Bayswater, London. Their practice sessions would take place in the basement, which is how they got their name. Times were hard and they could barely afford to eat, let alone pay the rent. Fortune smiled on them when record dealer Barry Class attended one night and was so impressed he became their manager. He arranged a meeting with Tony Macauley, who was working for Pye Records as a producer.

Macauley had written Baby Now That I’ve Found You with John MacLeod, and was looking for a British soul act he could take under his wing to become the UK’s answer to the Four Tops. High expectations indeed, but the record was released that summer, and flopped.

However, their luck was in that autumn, thanks to Radio 1. The BBC, now back to dominating the airwaves thanks to the demise of pirate radio, were keen to play songs that stations like Radio London had ignored in an effort to differentiate themselves. Baby Now That I’ve Found You – a sunny, harmless slice of uptempo pop, fitted the bill perfectly, and became a runaway success. From just another group struggling to get by, the Foundations were now at number 1.

I love a bit of soul music, and this made for an interesting diversion after lots of ballads and flower power anthems, but it doesn’t compare with Motown at its best. The lyrics don’t really match the uplifting mood – not that they necessarily should, but they’re also bog-standard ‘I love you, please don’t leave me’-type words, which rather give the impression of a quickly tossed-off single. So, not a lot of depth, but it’s a nice enough way to pass a few minutes, and not every song needs to be clever, does it?

Not only did Baby Now That I’ve Found You prove that the Brits could do soul, and that multi-ethnic groups could exist, they nearly beat the Americans at their own game, with the single reaching 11 in the US. Debut album From the Foundations was rushed together, but there were problems ahead. Follow-up single Back On My Feet Again only reached number 18 in the UK, an tensions were rising between the group and Macauley, who only wanted them recording songs he had written, including their B-sides. The Foundations understandably weren’t best pleased, and felt he was trying too hard to soften their sound.

Matters came to a head when Curtis quit, as he felt some of the members were happy to take the easier road and rest on their laurels. Having befriended Sammy Davis Jnr, he was encouraged to go solo in the US, He was replaced by Colin Young, and Elliott quit too, so the group were now a seven-piece.

Soon after, they had their most famous hit with Build Me Up Buttercup, written by Macauley and Manfred Mann singer Mike d’Abo. Although it stalled at number two here, it reached number 1 in the US, and is a better track then Baby Now That I’ve Found You. Back in the public eye, they entered talks to star in their own Monkees-style TV series but things started to go wrong once more. Macbeth left and was replaced by Steve Bingham, and then the band split from their management in 1969 to join the Temptations on a tour that proved disastrous. After yet more bass player changes, Macauley left Pye Records, depriving the group of their hitmaker. With soul being replaced by funk in popularity, the Foundations split in late 1970.

Curtis returned to the Uk in the mid-70s and revived the band, but Young had the same idea, leading to two versions on the road playing the same material. Following a lawsuit, Curtis got the name and Young’s band became the New Foundations.

Fast forward to 1998 and Build Me Up Buttercup became popular once more thanks to its appearance at the end of the comedy There’s Something About Mary, which led to Young reviving yet another version of the band. He left soon after and was replaced by Hue Montgomery. Curtis died in 2017 from lung cancer, aged 76.

Macauley went on to write many hits along the lines of Baby Now That I’ve Found You, high in catchiness but light in substance. In fact, he and MacLeod feature in the next blog…

Written by: Tony Macauley & John MacLeod

Producer: Tony Macauley

Weeks at number 1: 2 (8-21 November) 

Births:

Actress Letitia Dean – 14 November 
Footballer Wayne Harrison – 15 November
Comedian Dom Joly – 15 November

Deaths:

Pianist Harriet Cohen – 13 November