Interview: Arthur Brown on Jimi Hendrix and The First Drum Machine

The God of Hellfire: Arthur Brown chronicles his blazing path through the history of psych rock’s most infernal chapters.

The God Of Hellfire, AKA Arthur Brown, made his breakthrough in 1968 with the psych rock track “Fire,” which came to be covered by everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and The Who, and famously sampled by The Prodigy. On the advice of Pete Townshend, Brown signed to Track Records and his debut album The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown took the world by storm. His extravagant and theatrical stage shows saw Brown perform with a helmet of flames, with virtually no concern for his own safety.

Along the way, his mixture of epic rock, mythological narratives, and outlandish performances fathered a whole new breed of rock star, influencing artists such as Alice Cooper, George Clinton and Kiss. As well as his own projects, Brown also worked with Hawkwind and The Alan Parsons Project, and remains an influential figure in rock’s colourful history. In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview, Brown discusses his use of the first drum machine on a major rock record in the early ’70s and his almost-band with Jimi Hendrix that got shelved due to LSD.

On growing up in the north of England

Well now, up north in the ’50s and ’60s, it were a dark place, it had not been cleaned out, there were soot everywhere from coals and anthracites and mines and all that, heavy industry. Leeds and Whitby was my main thoroughfare up there. Whitby was a great place, it was a seaport visited by the Vikings. It was also the place where Dracula was written by Bram Stoker after he’d consumed a full bottle of brandy, on the bench overlooking the harbor.

As to what it was like there, well, my grandmother had the hotel looking over the bay. That was bombed in the war just when I was born, and it reduced to dust. We were in the cellar underneath when they scored a few direct hits on it. We were announced in the press that night as all being dead, because they came to the site when the bombing had finished, and we were not moving, and so they just saw all this dust, no walls or anything left, and so they just well, they are gone. Then we rose from the dead, so that was pretty good.

It was during that period that Elvis Presley came out, and so like a lot of people, I was thrown out of cinemas for dancing in the aisles.

It was a magical place, because there were lots of little dark alleyways. Certain times of year are very wet and the gales come in, and the shipping fleet goes out, and the donkeys are running up down the beach. Thousands would come to see Captain Webb, the great hero from some battle or other. He would hold up a cigarette and then light it, and then he would get it glowing at the end, and he would turn it back and hold it in his mouth. Then he would dive down into the waters and disappear for well near a minute, and then he would come up, and as he came up, his hand would break the water, the other hand would come up to his mouth, and pull it out, and there it was, still alight, and everybody thought that was fantastic. They came from miles to see that.

I went to high school in Leeds, and all of the teachers were ex-Army officers, and so we had to march up and down, with rifles. I learned to be a marksman and all of that. Then one day I just thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” There was the beginning of a musical scene there. It was during that period that Elvis Presley came out, and so like a lot of people, I was thrown out of cinemas for dancing in the aisles.

On Paris

Boy, was that a wild scene. The club that I played in during the ’60s had these huge, impressionistic angels painted in there. It was called the Bus Palladium, and the queues were a quarter of a mile around the block. It was quite amazing, because the fashion for English R&B had just begun and I happened to get there just at the right time. It’s a lot of luck. We were on TV almost immediately and so, phew, everybody came down there.

We would finish our performance, and if we weren’t staying up all night playing pinball, which we used to play till 8:00 in the morning, then we would be discussing Buddhism. That was the beginning of the flower power scene. Various people came over to play, one of them was Davy Jones & The Lower Third, who changed his name to David Bowie later on.

The next night I blacked out my teeth, and I stood in front, and there was a collective, “Ah.”

It was in Paris that I really started to mix theater in with the act. In England, I’d been doing little snippets. I’d say, “Sleep, sleep, gentle sleep, that makes the little virgins weep. Creepies creep, and crawlies crawl up and down the toilet wall.” They were just spoken things that the audience seemed to like. When we were playing in Paris we played three sets a night, every night, and Sunday afternoon as well. After a while I got kind of bored with the material and because we were doing all those sets all the time, we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse new stuff. So we would do long jams, and then in those I would improvise things and go around the club and find a bucket or a mop, and pretend to be the Statue of Liberty.

General de Gaulle brought out an edict at one time, where if you crossed the border of France, your hair would be cut. So on stage we had the Pope cutting General de Gaulle’s hair, and that was very satisfying. Once, a mother brought her little boy in, he was about seven, and he was looking at me, he said, “Hmm. You should black out your teeth.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah.” The next night I blacked out my teeth, and I stood in front, and there was a collective, “Ah.” “Oh, that seems to work, so makeup is good.” One of the following weeks outside my hotel door, after one of these wild parties, there was a crown with candles on it. I wore that, and lit it, and that was the beginning of the whole fire helmet thing.

On the inspiration for the God of Hellfire

I always had a fascination with fire. Once, my brother and I set my grandfather’s hair on fire while he was asleep to see if it would burn, and it did. I recommend that nobody does this. It’s nasty and it’s liable to get you a smack around the head. Also I loved just and watching, looking into flames. It does have a deep effect, because it’s an element, a basic factor of the existence of our world, so it ties you back into that.

When it came to doing an album, I just thought I wanted to do an inner journey. My family was a bit messed up by the war, they all had PTSD stuff. One day when I was very young, my father brought this guy home, and he said, “This man is going to teach you to empty your mind.” That was when I was around 12 or something. By the time I got to school, I had been on and off doing that, and so when it came to writing about something, I didn’t really want to write about cars and planes and girls and love.

So I thought, “I want to write about an inner journey.” The album starts with the track “Nightmare,” and that’s the guy looking around at the world and finding that nightmarish, and so he goes inwards, and he goes into the fire. When he goes into the fire, he meets various entities. And I thought, “Well, if we are going to have any, we might have gods.” The first one was The God of Hellfire.

On Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was on Track Records as well, and we used to play together. There was a place called the Singing Club, and it was the place where you went if you were visiting musicians in town, and you wanted to jam. At that time Hendrix liked to play bass and he didn’t really to sing. He didn’t really like his voice. I used to sing, and he would play bass, and we would make stuff up, and sometimes it would go on for 50 minutes. We wouldn’t base it around a song, it was just whatever happened to come out.

That was quite extraordinary, and I remember a lot of it being so joyful. The result of that, after about a year, he called me over to a hotel in L.A., and said, “Look, we should make a band together. We’ll have your keyboard player, the Experience, and myself, and you’ll sing, and we’ll have projection screens. Big visual projection screens and we’ll have tapes of Wagner playing in the background.” He was like a lot of those really great musicians. If you look at Coltrane, he first explored all of Western European music, then he thought, “Well, yeah, but I’m sure my roots go even deeper than that, and then he went off into Indian music.” Hendrix had come to the end of his sort of bluesy, jazzy explorations, and was getting into the classical music. I bet he would have gone into all of the ethnic music in the end.

Unfortunately, my keyboard player who was an incredible keyboard player was also bipolar. He stopped his medication and somebody spiked him with LSD, and he had to go into mental home for six months. That was the end of that band.

On the end of Crazy World

The Crazy World, right at the end, were going to be put out by Clive Davis. He decided that this one track we had was going to be a big hit, and he offered two-thirds of a million which in those days was a lot of money. Lambert and Stamp from Track Records came running. And so we were all in this hotel. It was Clive Davis on one floor, and five floors below was Lambert and Stamp. I was going up and down in the lift, going like, “Well, yes but, oh. Okay.”

When I told Carl and Vincent of the Crazy World that I’d turned down all this money from Clive Davis, they went off and formed the Atomic Rooster. When I got back to England I thought, “I don’t want to do costumes, I don’t want to do a set stage act.” So I started a band where I sang naked, and we performed all improvised music, no tunes. Of course, the audience came expecting a great spectacle, but it wasn’t quite what they expected I think.

After that, I went down to Glastonbury with Dennis Taylor who was a lights man and bass player, and decided, “Okay, I’m going to form another band.” We decided to call it Kingdom Come, and then that became a theatrical band, with a lot of musical experimentation in it. It was a lot more progressive. The record has since become very, very popular. At the time, it wasn’t. In the third year of that band, I decided, “Right, I think it would be good to have no drummer in the band, and just have a drum machine, the Bentley Rhythm Ace.

We did point out that it wasn’t actually trying to sound like a drummer. It was more like a percussive thing that looks like a new direction for pop. Of course at that time everybody laughed at it. There were people who came and crawled around the dressing room, persuaded that either I’d recorded something, or they wanted to know if there was a room behind it, where the guy was actually playing the drums. It took about four or five years for it to catch on.

By Red Bull Music Academy on August 4, 2014