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

 

105. Johnny Kidd & the Pirates – Shakin’ All Over (1960)

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When I first saw that Shakin’ All Over was a number 1 in 1960, I was surprised. I’ve always admired the song, but I’d never looked into it and assumed it was recorded around the height of Beatlemania, sometime between 1963-65. I also thought that Johnny Kidd & the Pirates could perhaps be American, as the song has an attitude and energy that British artists often struggled to achieve back then. So I was even more surprised and impressed to discover that an English group was capable of such a great song upon working my way through every UK number 1. Finally, a homegrown group that could achieve a rock’n’roll sound without sounding like a pale imitation of Elvis Presley, or the polite pop sound that was prevalent at the time. Shakin’ All Over is a brilliant achievement, and the best number 1 by a UK act up to this point. Johnny Kidd & the Pirates also put some effort into their look – their pirate regalia giving them a unique, distinct appearance. These rough and ready rockers were exploring unchartered waters.

Johnny Kidd was born Frederick Albert Heath in Willesden, North London, in 1935. He began playing guitar in the skiffle group the Frantic Four. Heath quickly established himself as a prolific songwriter, crossing over genres such as skiffle, rock’n’roll and rockabilly. In 1959, Freddie Heath and the Nutters, as they were then known (unfortunately) signed with HMV and recorded their first single, Please Don’t Touch. This slice of dirty rock’n’roll ultimately proved influential – Lemmy was a fan, and later chose to cover it in a collaboration between Motörhead and Girlschool (under the name Headgirl), but at the time only made the top 30. Record buyers in the late 50s simply weren’t ready for a noise like this is seems. Before its release, HMV understandably insisted on a name change, and it seems they bestowed the name Johnny Kidd & the Pirates upon them. They struggled through another couple of singles, adding and losing members along the way.

By May 1960, the group consisted of Johnny Kidd, with Alan Caddy on guitar, Clem Cattini on drums and bassist Brian Gregg. They were scheduled to record a cover of Ricky Nelson’s Yes, Sir That’s My Baby, but were told they could come up with the B-side. The day before the session, Kidd, Caddy and Gregg decided to write ‘any old rubbish’. Kidd later claimed that if he and his mates saw a stunning girl in the street, they would say she gave them ‘quivers down the membranes’. They got up early the next morning and created the song in Gregg’s living room before hitting the studio. Somewhere along the way, Caddy called session guitarist Joe Moretti in to perform lead guitar, and it was he that came up with that brilliant chiming guitar sound, sliding a cigarette lighter up and down the fretboard. Needless to say, Shakin’ All Over was soon promoted over Yes, Sir That’s My Baby.

What an inspired piece of music Shakin’ All Over is. It’s seedy, raunchy, dangerous and heavy, like nothing that had ever come before from England. The guitar work is perfect and innovative, but the bass is also turned up louder than anything I’d heard up to this point, so credit must also go to producer Wally Ridley. And Kidd wipes the floor with other British vocalists, proving rock’n’roll didn’t have to sound like a poor man’s imitation of other artists.

Shakin’ All Over deserved a long run at the top, but was perhaps too much too soon for most record buyers, and Please Don’t Tease returned to number 1 a week later – but which track is now considered a classic? Kidd & the Pirates developed a stage act that had a big effect on audiences, with Kidd donning an eye patch and waving a cutlass around. Watching the band on stage was enough to persuade guitarists Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of the Detours to sack their singer so Daltrey could become a showboating singer. The Who later returned the favour by covering Shakin’ All Over on their seminal live album, Live at Leeds. Kidd also used an echo unit to process his live vocals, a rare occurrence at the time.

The Pirates soon splintered, with several members jumping ship and creating so many spin-off groups it’s hard to keep track. Several years went by and a debut album was being worked on, but the Beatles had changed the pop landscape, and Kidd couldn’t regain momentum. On 7 October 1966, he and new bassist (and future Deep Purple member) Nick Simper were returning from a cancelled gig in Bolton when they were involved in a car accident. Kidd was killed, aged only 30. He remains sadly a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was.

Surprisingly, Shakin’ All Over was only a UK hit, until Canadian group Chad Allen and the Expressions decided to cover it. Their version, extremely similar to the original, was hyped by their record label, who had decided to create some intrigue. Was this by one of those British bands that had become so famous around the world? They credited the single to ‘Guess Who?’. Disc jockeys mistakenly thought that was the name of the group, and so they became the Guess Who. Allen and co hated their name, as it got them mixed up with another act that were on the rise, who also performed Shakin’ All Over. Guess Who?

Written by: Johnny Kidd & Guy Robinson

Producer: Wally Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 August)