There are few more bizarre sights to witness in a small London bar-cum-venue than a septuagenerian, resplendent in striking black and white face paint, strapping on a flaming helmet as plumes of fire curl threateningly about his head before proceeding to belt out one of the most successful psychedelic pop songs of the 1960s. And yet, visit such low key haunts as Camden’s Jazz Cafe or Soho’s The Borderline this year and you may just be in luck.
In a decade where the charts were dominated by pioneering guitar and keyboard-based heavy weights including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, one flamboyant, eccentric musician by the name of Arthur Brown laid down his own musical marker of a similar ilk, releasing the hit song Fire in the summer of 1968. The single soared to the top of the UK and Canadian charts, as well as peaking at number two in the US, providing Brown with well earned commercial success while also cementing his place in musical history.
His iconic appearance on Top of the Pops during the year of it’s release, which features Brown gyrating with his usual abandon as towers of smoke engulf him from all sides, still delivers the same impact as it did some 40 odd years ago. It also makes it difficult not to be nostalgic for a time when live television health and safety regulations were decidedly less prohibitive (this is a man who was thrown off a Jimi Hendrix tour for being too rock and roll, having accidentally set fire to either himself or the stage one too many times).
But for all the pageantry and pyrotechnics, at the heart of the performance is Brown’s indomitable voice, soaring between the deep, almost sinister baritone of the career-defining opening line “I am the god of hellfire!” through to the wild banshee screams which usher in the track’s final chorus amidst the glorious blaze of a trumpet fanfare that sees the song descend into the whirling chaos and flames which first conjured it forth. Light on guitars but heavy on synths and brass, Brown has also widely been credited as the first act to use a drum machine live on stage, leaving him with a lasting legacy as a pioneer of early electronica to boot.
If you only pick out one gem from his back catalogue then Fire is the obvious choice, although Brown’s cover of macabre rhythm and blues pioneer Screaming Jay Hawkins’ legendary I Put A Spell On You also stands the test of time, and even holds its own when compared to the raw, guttural intensity of the original.
For those of a certain generation it would undoubtedly be considered sacrilege to declare Brown’s seminal release a ‘forgotten classic’ but music has a way of moving on even when the influence of its forebears persists. From acts such as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, through to modern day releases that sample his blood curdling opening salvo, including The Prodigy’s 1992 rave anthem of the same name and experimental hip hop outfit Death Grips’ Lord of the Game, Brown’s unique brand of fiery musical excess and unhinged stage performances demand to be rediscovered in every generation. Still periodically unleashing his flamboyant alter ego across a host of unassuming venues, he remains acrobatic in both voice and body, shocking and delighting in equal measure. The eponymous God of Hellfire lives on.
Words: Henry Wickham