23
Aug 06

THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN – “Fire”

FT + Popular34 comments • 6,808 views

#255, 17th August 1968

The first time I heard this – age 14 or so – I thought it was hilarious. My friend and I kept playing the opening seconds again and again. “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU -” brought up on massive 80s productions we expected Armageddon and we got a gamely bopping goblin. Twenty years on and more used to 60s music, “Fire” still sounds distinctly weedy.

It is possible to be uptempo and scary, but the Crazy World couldn’t manage it. A curse of the underground is that what melts brains onstage (“Unfortunately it is not possible to describe the performance without endangering the galaxy” said one reviewer) becomes tinny and preposterous in the studio glare.

Still, there’s masses to enjoy here. Even without his flaming-head visuals, Brown has real vocal presence, particularly on the chanted “oh no! ohhhh no!” section. And no matter how it’s aged, this was an unusual number one: a big crossover for British psychedelia in fairly unfiltered form. But coming to it from this distance Arthur Brown isn’t terribly devilish – he’s a showman, straight out of the Victorian music hall, and “Fire” is all rather jolly.

6

Comments

  1. 1
    Doctor Mod on 23 Aug 2006 #

    Good call!

    I recently showed a vintage video clip of “Fire” to my summer term class on the British 60s. The smarter students reacted just as you have–the others just sat there looking slightly (and abjectly) frightened, as if those silly warnings about rock and roll satanism were just too true. In retrospect, I think this dual reaction was exactly what the record was intended to stir.

    I have to admit taking some guilty pleasure in all of this–both now and in 1968. There is a word for it, and the word is camp. A “gamely bopping goblin” indeed! But as is usual with the most extreme forms of camp, it was a true one off–how can anyone follow up something like this?

    Someone taking exception with me regarding “Young Girl” said that the song was “bad” for the reasons I stated but rather that it was “bad” because it was “over-the-top.” Hmmm. Not a viable argument, I think, as “over-the-top” is neither good nor bad in and of itself. In the case of “Fire,” its being over-the-top strikes me as its most salient virtue.

  2. 2
    Tom on 23 Aug 2006 #

    Well the video clip (assuming it’s the famous one) is *more* frightening but still not ‘actually’ frightening, as what comes across from it is a huge sense of liberated fun from the camera guys, as filming a total weirdo obviously gives them license to arse about with zooms, swoops and whatever they want.

    Most of the hits of 1968 seem to be either campily flamboyant (Dave Dee, Arthur Brown, Rolling Stones) or suffused with intangible loss (most of the next few). And there’s boring old Hey Jude too of course. A strange year.

  3. 3
    katstevens on 23 Aug 2006 #

    ‘Fire’ fits in so well in the context of the album though, with a sinister intro and plenty of mentalism to back it up (see ‘Great Spontaneous Apple Creation’).

    Arthur Brown is possibly the loudest man in the entire world. Louder than Fatman Scoop!

  4. 4
    Doctor Mod on 23 Aug 2006 #

    Yes, I think it is the “famous” one–on a strange three-DVD set of obscure origin (and legality) of clips taken from British TV from the Springfields in ’61 to Joni Mitchell singing “Big Yellow Taxi” in ’70 (and an amazing variety of stuff in between). The movement of the camera suggests that the cameraman was taken a bit off-guard by the Crazy World and there’s a weird not-as-rehearsed quality to it.

    This wasn’t the performance I saw back in the 60s on US TV. Did I actually Arthur Brown on the Tom Jones show? The idea sounds preposterous, but all sorts of weird combinations and contexts were the order of the day back then.

  5. 5
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 23 Aug 2006 #

    meltzer’s original definition of the “pop free lunch” = hendrix burning his guitar on the lulu show

  6. 6
    Erithian on 23 Aug 2006 #

    How many things do you love just as much at 44 as you did at 6? This was the first record I ever rooted for to reach number one, and jumped around the room when it did so, and 38 years later it still stands out for me as one of the all-time great Number 1s.

    You and the posters are right to point out the camp aspects, as Arthur Brown, like most UK artists who “dabbled”, never did so without a large slice of humour. The first track of his I heard after “Fire” was a 1967 satire on hippydom called “Give Him A Flower”-
    “When you’re driving on the M1 in your 1920 Ford / Without tax or MOT or any brakes / And you’re banned from driving, and you reverse into a truck / And the driver is the same eight stone bully who kicked sand in your face in the last verse –
    Give him a flower…”

    But apart from the theatrics and the classic intro, what strikes me is that whereas many pop songs have visualised heaven, very few (mainstream ones at any rate) have imagined what it’s like to land in hell. Listening to the condemnation of a soul who was unaware that throughout his life he’s been sealing his fate – “You fought hard and you saved and earned, but all of it’s going to burn…you know you’ve really been so blind, you’ve fallen far too far behind…” – you think that if there is a hell, that’s just the kind of taunting the God of Hellfire is going to give you. Mind you, at six years of age my abiding impression was the burning colander on his head.

  7. 7
    DV on 23 Aug 2006 #

    The thing about Arthur Brown is that he is essentially a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tribute act. This only really becomes apparent when you see him live. Check him out next time you are at a Glastonbury he plays at – he is awesome.

  8. 8
    Matt D’Cruz on 23 Aug 2006 #

    The first time I ever heard that line was on the Prodigy’s ‘Fire’ which sounded HUGE AND BELLOWING when I first heard it in that context in 1992. I love the original but the ‘gamely bopping goblin’ bit rings a bit hollow to me for that reason.

  9. 9
    Tom on 23 Aug 2006 #

    Yeah the intro is indeed awesomely huge and bellowing, the bopping goblin is what happens after, sorry if that wasn’t clear!

  10. 10
    Brian on 23 Aug 2006 #

    I’m amazed that AB is still performing. I remember seeing him, live, in Toronto when this album was released .

    And looking back it was viewed more of a “novelty act” as we’d never really seen the big pyrotechnic driven all sound & light , touring shows that were about to be launched.

    We’d seen the “west-coast” shows with the swirling coloured liquids lightshows ( through an overhead projector ) accompanying The Dead & Jefferson Airplane , but not a guy who was literally burning the house down. In many ways AB was an unwitting harbinger of things to come – both in terms of where live shows were going and what was going to happen otherwise.

    At that time I think we were aware that the dream was over and maybe, subconsciously , after all that hedonistic love trip, we were going to pay somehow. Rock was taking a peculiar turn. Even ” Jumpin’ Jack Flash ” is a pretty mean character – not of this earth. And , if my time line is correct, ” Sympathy for the Devil ” The Manson murders and Altamont are just around the corner.

    from website Morrison Hotel :

    “The whole thing was reduced to a freak show. San Francisco hippies buried the whole thing with a grand procession….But as the “Summer Of Love” concluded nobody had any idea that all hell was going to break loose in just a few months.” –

    “Strange days have found us, strange days have tracked us down.” Jim Morrison

  11. 11
    wwolfe on 23 Aug 2006 #

    “…essentially a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tribute act.” That’s right on the nose.

    In one way, Brown reminds me of PJ Proby in that both singers always seem to be “trying on” a variety of voices over the course of a song, in the same way a theater actor runs through several costumes during a play. While this seems natural and right for an actor, I think it makes it difficult for a listener to connect with a singer – or at least to sustain a connection over any length of time. (The exception here is probably Bowie, maybe because he was more conscious of his using his singing voice as an actor would use his appearance.) When I hear “Fire,” I think at some point I find myself wondering what Brown’s singing voice actually sounds like – and thinking about his voice as I write this, I can’t imagine what he could do with it other than a larger-than-life, over-the-top piece of material like “Fire.” And how many of those come along in the life of any given singer? That made Brown hard to cast in very many roles, to exhaust the analogy.

    I was wondering whatever happened to Vincent Crane, the co-writer of this song, so I looked him up at All Music Guide. He was the main guy in Atomic Rooster, who had a #4 hit single with “The Devil’s Answer,” along with a #11 album with “The Devil Walks Behind You,” before committing suicide in 1989. This leads me to believe that, however campy the performance may seem now, Crane seems to have believed in the scary part of “Fire.” Maybe that’s what gives little kids a shiver when they hear this song (me included).

  12. 12
    Ward Fowler on 23 Aug 2006 #

    Vincent Crane also played keyboards on Dexy’s ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ alb – there are pictures of him all togged up like the rest of the group, looking very sad.

  13. 13
    intothefireuk on 25 Aug 2006 #

    My enduring memory of ‘Fire’ is linked to an incident that happened not a mere mile from where I lived at the time. Brown appeared at the 1968 Jazz & Blues Festival (fore-runner of the Reading festival) held at Kempton Park Racecourse. Part of the fencing collapsed just as he took the stage and hundreds of people were injured. Brown, who was somewhat ‘out of it’ stomped off stage halfway through ‘Fire’ shouting ‘Oh Shit’ and throwing the mic down. He returned amid a sea of ambulances and finished the set off. Unfortunately I was too young to be there at the time but as were so close to the event it was certainly a huge talking point. I saw him years later with essentially the same act – bless. Agree the song is camp and not a little prog as well. Great at Halloween though.

  14. 14
    Alan on 25 Aug 2006 #

    Good game to play with the intro is to shout over the top of the final word something timid and pedestrian. ho ho.

    “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU… BISCUITS (duh-duh duuh)”

    or cake, or hamsters. (du-duh duuuuh). i so funny

  15. 15
    CarsmileSteve on 25 Aug 2006 #

    we once spent a WHOLE day making up more and more convoluted ways of making each other say words that rhyme with fire, which had to be said in an arthur brown voice, eg:

    what’s that thing, y’know, mediaeval stringed instrument, looks a bit like a guitar? LYRE! DUH DUH DUR

    group of people singing in church? CHOIR! DUH DUH DUR

    hours and hours of fun…

  16. 16
    intothefireuk on 25 Aug 2006 #

    bloody students !

  17. 17
    CarsmileSteve on 25 Aug 2006 #

    hehe, i think it was “bludy doley scumbags” actually…

  18. 18
    Chris Brown on 27 Aug 2006 #

    I always associate this with an anecdote I heard years ago on the radio from somebody whose father had been a fire marshall at some festival or other around this time. Obviously an older man not entirely familiar with the nature of the act, he was hanging about backstage and caught sight of Arthur Brown, flaming headdress and all, being hoisted onto the stage. Distressed by a man with his head on fire, he thought quickly and threw his glass of beer over to extinguish it, leaving Arthur to appear on stage without flames and covered in beer.

    As for the song, I always looked upon it as just a typical bit of Sixties silliness. Nothing wrong with that. I suppose in retrospect, the fact that it spent a week at the top before being displaced by its predeccessor gives away what a cult thing it was.
    Oh, and one of my books says it was co-produced by Pete Townsend. Can this be true?

  19. 19
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Aug 2006 #

    I first heard and saw it (on TOTP) when I was four and it/he scared the shit out of me, before I knew anything about showbiz.

  20. 20
    Mark Grout on 31 Aug 2006 #

    It was the talk of Cubs, as we waited for Kaa to roll up on his motorbike and let us into the church hall.

    Wasn’t this one of those times where a lead-off single boosted sales of the album to unsustainable levels? The follow-up single ‘floundered’ if not exactly flopped, and no further records hit the charts.

    My guess: People bought the album for more of the same, found psychedelic silliness, took it too seriously and never went back!

  21. 21
    Marcello Carlin on 31 Aug 2006 #

    Yes, and then the Crazy World evolved into Kingdom Come (v. underrated band) and then AB disappeared to Austin, TX for a bit to run a painting and decorating business with Jimmy Carl Black (I think) Out Of The Mothers. It all comes back to, or ends up with, Zappa in the end.

  22. 22
    Oh No It's Dadaismus on 1 Sep 2006 #

    This used to be on the jukebox in my local in Glasgow, I used to play the same three songs every time I went in, “Fire”, “Louie Louie” and Michael Jackson’s “Ben”. Surprisingly I wasn’t barred. But, “Fire”, GREAT song, I want this played at my cremation!

  23. 23
    Dave on 3 Jun 2007 #

    Hi there, i am looking for an old video/film/animation of “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s FIRE” It is a “cartoon” that was scary and well played in the early 80s. The animation included a house on fire with gremlin like characters in it.

    If anyone could link me this, or post on how to find it, i will be very appreciative of this.

    Thank you

  24. 24
    Caledonianne on 15 Jul 2007 #

    I, too found this really scary as a child. Still had a bit of apprehension when I saw him the act at the Wicker Man Festival a couple of years ago.

  25. 25
    Matt, on 22 Oct 2007 #

    I recently watched the glastonbury fayre movie,and I thought that,the arthur brown section was superb

  26. 26
    JonnyB on 25 Apr 2009 #

    #18 – love that story. I also heard that he kept setting his head on fire, when pissed roadies would pour too much of the flammible stuff over him…

  27. 27
    Waldo on 27 Oct 2009 #

    Oh, this was one of the great ones! One of the great comedy records, that is. I just remember thinking that Arfur was a bit of a pudding for sticking a lamp on his swede and setting fire to it. Tom is quite right. After the ultra scary introduction we are then left with pure music hall and about as menacing as Andy Pandy with a comedy organ adding to the party. I don’t believe that there was any move to try and ban this, which probably annoyed Brown slightly but I am certain that the tongue was firmly in his cheek and there’s not a doubt in my mind that he would have seen the funny side of having been extinguished by a glass of Red Barrel

  28. 28
    weej on 8 Sep 2010 #

    Listening to the accompanying album today, it holds up surprisingly well – Side A is non-stop brilliance, Side B runs out of ideas and is a big let down, but overall it’s well worth a listen.
    The odd thing, though, is that not only are two versions of side A present, one in mono and one in stereo, but they seem to be entirely different productions of the same songs – and the mono set comes first, so it goes ‘mono A – stereo A – stereo B’. The mono version of ‘Fire’ is the weedy one everyone knows but the stereo one is significantly beefed up with (amongst other things) a funky brass section, and is a lot better for it.

  29. 29
    Lazarus on 4 Sep 2012 #

    A few years ago Arthur Smith did a series on Radio 2 called ‘The Smith Lectures’ – playing clips of vintage comedy with quips of his own in between, a sort of latterday Adrian Juste without the records. It was quite a good series, but I always wish he’d called it ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Smith.’ Would people have got the joke, though?

    His book ‘My Name is Daphne Fairfax’ is quite entertaining by the way. For someone who looks like Woody Allen gone wrong, he seems to have ‘squired’ an improbable number of women.

  30. 30
    Mark G on 5 Sep 2012 #

    Adrian Juste would play all those great comedy snippets, then do his own feeble joke and dub in the laffs, usually Basil Brush. (Did those clips cost anything? I can’t imagine yr Jimmy Carr’s being quite as amenable about having bits of their on-stage routines sent out without being directly linked to the source DVD plug)

    Arthur Smith, saw him yesterday at Paddington, dressed suitably wacky..

  31. 31
    punctum on 7 Sep 2012 #

    Adrian Juste was also a Tory dingbat who did a pro-Major “comedy” tape at the time of the 1992 election. This at a time where really you couldn’t get a job at Radio 1 unless your name was Adrian.

  32. 32
    mapman132 on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I was pretty sure I was familiar with this song, but I was mostly familiar with the famous introduction. Hearing the whole thing I was a little disappointed to hear it lose some momentum during the slower section in the middle. But listening to it multiple times over the past two days it went from 9/10 down to 6/10 before I’ve settled on 8/10 in the end. After all, what’s not to love about a guy who prances around wearing demonic makeup (by 60’s standards) while setting his head on fire? Awesome to think it took just 16 years to go from Al Martino to this!

    btw, hit #2 in the US. Wouldn’t have expected that…

  33. 33
    hectorthebat on 13 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 12
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)

  34. 34
    lonepilgrim on 29 Jun 2016 #

    I hear premonitions of Led Zeppelin in ABs willingness to sing nonsense with utter conviction (and the slightest hint of tongue in cheek). It IS preposterous but the full blown commitment and stabbing organ riff (enriched by horns at the end) make it compelling and thrilling.

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