The Life of Arthur Brown and 'Zim Zam Zim'
Did you achieve everything you wanted since you started making music, Arthur?
“Well one of the things I wanted was round, spherical, transparent fun palaces that were projected from the inside and the out. I saw one in 1968 in a vision I had.”
Arthur Brown, as you might have guessed, isn’t your typical interviewee. He’s not your typical anything, in fact. The above quote is one of many anecdotes which lace our time together. Just at the point you think it can’t get any more ridiculous, he’ll casually recall the time he used to sing inside a14ft hypodermic syringe with his former band Kingdom Come. Or he’ll remember the time he went into federal prisons in Texas to lead Shamanic trance-dancing therapy sessions for inmates, as one does. Even his more believable stories are farfetched compared to most, for example playing the first Glastonbury festival ("it was quite an innocent affair”) or touring with Jimi Hendrix. Not that he’s boasting, he’s just one of those guys who’s got much better stories than you. Here is a man who has lived and has many stories to tell.
One imagines had he not chosen to become a singer and the self-proclaimed God of Hellfire, he would have also made for an excellent tour guide. We are invited to meet Brown on the edge of the Sussex downs in Lewes where he now resides to discuss his new, crowd-funded album Zim Zam Zim, the 72 year old’s first record in nearly a decade. He courteously agrees to pick DiS up in his rusting white Corsica van and promptly shows us around the town. It’s a dizzying experience. Over the course of a couple of hours we stop by a few curious places including Zu Studios, a former industrial unit converted into communal studios for artists. As we wonder inside, every surface is covered with found pieces of art, sculptures, tapestries, paintings and ornaments with performance and exhibition spaces where regular parties are held for the creative underworld in these parts. Things take a particularly strange turn at the huge studio for artist and friend Paul Harrison, where caravans hang from the ceiling and handguns are haphazardly cast aside on work benches. It’s a little like stepping into Steptoe’s version of Narnia had he gone to art school and had a penchant for making experimental up-cycled furniture. There’s even time to feed the swans on the river. But before it becomes to quaint and normal (although by this point we’d thrown this construct out with the bread for the swans) Brown shows me his new home, a large, terracotta yurt made partly out of concrete, which he reliably informs me should float in the eventuality of a flood. I’m not sure if I believe him but a giant floating yurt sounds pretty fucking cool to me.
Coming to prominence in 1968 in a wave of psychedelic-RnB bands, Brown broke through with ‘Fire’, a song infamous for its satanic iconography and spectacularly theatrical performances in which Brown would often wear a metal headpiece which was set ablaze as he jumped around stage. That song, and the album with which it shared its name, is an important moment in pop music history. Ground breaking at the time for its subversive theatrics and, for a brief period, it was wildly successful, helping the band that bore his name, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, hit the No.1 spot in the UK and No.2 in America.
On the day we meet, Brown is energetic and enthusiastic. His distinct sense of style (on this day, he wears bright pink parachute trousers and a black top hat and matching velvet waistcoat) turns a few heads, but he is oblivious to the attention. We’re sure that’s partially because he’s used to it but also because Brown has an aura of unshakeable calm about him which, given his eccentric-pyromaniac public persona, is an interesting contrast to witness. So we ask, when we finally sit down for the interview, where exactly does the God of Hellfire end and Arthur Brown begin?
“Good question. Well I think the God of Hellfire is definitely a character. I’ve been a mixture in my life. Reasonably quiet but given to excessive behaviours. And then kinda mellowing out, I suppose, with the meditation and stuff. I think there are tendencies in the God of Hellfire that I had early in the Crazy World where I was trying to shock peoples state of mind. Some people like to go out and be missionaries or rebels. Some people like to live what would be called an alternative lifestyle, not in rebellion just because that is the one they think is the healthiest, supportive of life etc. All of those people are around. I myself, because I still adopt characters, can go in and out of different bits of those but at the moment I am concerned with what we can do to have a more human life, I suppose.”
This search for a ‘more human’ life has taken Brown all over the world. He lists off his spiritual adventures like he’s reading his weekly shopping list. "Druid things, Buddhist things, Sufi retreat places, I think I was there for 3 years, Gurdjieff stuff, Shamanic stuff, hallucinogenic stuff and it went on and on for a long time, 40 years.” He explains that this hunt for spiritual awakening was in part due to the initial interest that was bestowed to him after the success of Fire.
“We started to find people when we got back to the hotel after the gig; they are all in my room. There would sometimes be ten or more...” Sometimes welcome, sometimes not?
“Depending on how knackered you feel! (laughs). But Fire was an album not about cars and fucking and all of that, it was about duality and identity. And so they were asking me questions about life and death, beauty and truth, and for about 3 weeks I pontificated and thought I seem to be some kind of guru or something. Then one afternoon, I dunno, I sat down and thought about it and I thought, if I’m honest, I don’t really know anything about it. I felt, OK, if that’s what people are really looking for, I’m going to have to go off and find it.”
Whilst Brown was off looking for his truth in practically any spiritual organisation would have him, his alter-ego, The God of Hellfire, took on a life of its own. The flaming headpiece, ghoulish make-up and outlandish costumes used for the Fire album started the ball rolling for artists like Alice Cooper, Kiss and later on Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and countless other heavy metal bands who revel creating characters that add elements of shock and drama to their performances. The similarly titled ‘Prince of Darkness’ himself, Ozzy Osbourne, gave a nod to his influence by covering Brown on his 2005 covers album Under Covers. You could even argue that there is a lineage between The God of Hellfire and Eminem’s mask wearing, chainsaw brandishing character Slim Shady. And that’s also ignoring all the times he has been sampled by artists like The Prodigy and Death Grips. Whilst shock has been commonly used to subvert societal norms or bring focus upon certain ideas, today it can often feel like it’s used as a means to an end, namely more publicity and notoriety. Can shock in and of itself be enough to be interesting, and can it be sustain? Brown answers diplomatically on the matter. “I suppose it depends on the person doing it and what they want to achieve. If all you want to achieve is that people listen to your stuff, OK, fine, but if you want the shock to open people up, and then they might want to hear something else, then that’s a different kind of person and a different kind of audience.”
Many have derided the pantomime of theatrical rock as unnecessary excessive or just too weird to be taken seriously. Whilst Brown is very well respected in certain circles, it would be fair to say that the musical quality of his output, in particular the Fire album, hasn’t received the widespread acclaim it arguably should have done. Did the theatrics get in the way? He nods his head in agreement. "Yeah I think they locked me down as a performance artist but you’ll find amongst a lot of musicians that they have an understanding of the music and like it. It was the perception of the media, really. If you look at some of the early Melody Maker editorials, they were always looking at the musical side. I think in my case it was a difficult thing because I did Fire, the next thing I had was an improvising band where I sung naked, so what do you do with that? Lots of people used to come and be like ‘I’m not coming back’. They wanted the Crazy World. The next thing I had was an electronic band with the drum machine so I didn’t become associated with any particular thing. Whereas later Bowie experimented with all kinds of different forms but when he did he had, of course, a huge publicity machine behind him so everybody knew about him. In my case, it was just perceived that ‘oh he disappeared’.”
Of all the oversights by the mainstream music press with Brown’s music, there is one particular glaring blind spot. It is a little known fact that Kingdom Come, Brown’s second band after Crazy World, and more specially their third and final album Journey, released in 1973, is credited as the first album to use a drum machine for the entirety of the record. But what’s even less well known is how mind-warpingly brilliant it is.
After the Crazy World disbanded after one album, Brown’s new project had a space-age progressive rock sound. Although drum machines had started to be introduced many years before Journey’s release in 1973, never had one been used for all of the percussion for the entirety of a record.
The decision to use a drum machine was not entirely in the name of experimental curiosity, as Brown admits. "One of the things was continued problems with drummers and, in the specific occasion then, the drummer we had run off with bass player’s wife.” Awkward. Whilst the drum machine provided a drama-free replacement initially, as time went on the more the band started playing with the machine, the more curious they became. “Another reason was, well, nobody has done this let’s see what comes from it. Because of the limitation of the drum machine itself, it wasn’t like trying to be a drummer. It was like, OK, here is a different bass and maybe an electronic percussion as the basis of a band. It was so simple and you didn’t have the tendency of different drummers to do roll every time you can.”
The album is an inventive, yet divisive, cosmic soup of prog-rock, electronic proto-punk and krautrock. Some have complain that the sound of the drum machine, a Bentley Rhythm Ace, is too cheap or the record as a whole is too experimental in structure, which is a little like criticising the first bands to use the electric guitar because for not writing Appetite for Destruction straight off the bat. The charge seems to miss the playful fun of the record. At the time of release, the response was mixed. Legendary radio station Radio Luxembourg loved it and played the record on repeat but there was also utter disbelief from some fans. “There was a rejection of it from some quarters. There were some people that were convinced that there was a drummer in the backstage area and we had to take them back behind the curtain and show them that there was nobody there. Some people laughed and thought it was a very stupid way to go about an evening. They’d say, ‘When are you coming back with a drummer?’” It wasn’t all bad news though. “At the same time when we got to Belgium they thought it was a wonderful cultural statement of electronics and we opened for Duke Wellington and his orchestra. So it was varied, y’know?”
Journey was certainly ahead of its time. Given the explosion in the use of drum machines a short time after the release of the album in the 80s, you could forgive Brown if he was feeling a little frustrated that the album has been overlooked. Typically for Brown, he’s more reflective in his feelings. “In a way I was but I was sort of down a different avenue. It was more like ‘huh, that’s interesting!’ I was no longer in the rock industry at that point. I was bringing up my family. I like exploring new things and, of course, if you keep exploring new things you may end up as one of the people who doesn’t earn much money from the whole process because usually the process is that you invent something, some of the others make it big, they bring you back and you do that, and then you make you make your money, but I don’t. That’s not where I go.”
So where does he go exactly? Well, like any self-respecting God of Hellfire, he goes to the burning sun of Texas. After Kingdom Come disbanded and a slew of solo records which received little interest, Brown moved to Austin in the 80s with his girlfriend at the time, his now ex-wife Selina (whom he met in a spiritual retreat, of course). Originally he went to work with the manager of The Kinks who was setting up a record company in Austin which Brown alleges ended due to some of the invested parties taking enough coke to wipe out the entire population of elephants in Africa and Asia combined. After the collapse of the label, he became a carpenter and then set up a painting company with Jimmy Carl Black from The Mothers of Invention named The Gentleman of Colour, “Which was not a very wise title in redneck city. It certainly weeded out our customers” he laughs. It was around the same time he had been running meditation and spiritual studies groups, which lead Selina to persuade him to go to university to become a professional counsellor. It wasn’t long after that he set up musical therapy groups with a friend. One particular experience from this time in Texas inspired the excellent ‘Want to Love’ from Zim Zam Zim. “We invented a form of counsellor where he did the talk, and while he was doing that, I was listening to all the undertones and I would get these feelings about what was really going on underneath. He would finish and for 5 to 8 minutes I would make up a song. It wasn’t like a format song; it was whatever came out on that occasion, all about what was discussed. Then we recorded it and we would give them in those days a tape to take home, like a pill, but they would listen to it. We’ve had people come back after years saying they’re still listening to it and their getting incredibly stuff out of it. I had spent about 20 years developing improvising. You can’t really learn it but you can give yourself over to it. I ended up in a home for abused teenage girls, some of whom were from very upper class families, the level of abuse I had no idea, it was so horrifying. The first song on the album is one I wrote for the girls at that place.”
His time in Austin was cut short due to aneurysm which left him unable to cope with the oppressive Texan heat so he returned to the UK to live with an old family friend in the mid-nineties in Lewes. After all his travels and adventures, Brown explains that Zim Zam Zim reflects a confluence of spiritual influences and life experiences. “Eventually I ended where everything became very simple. You can go on becoming very adept and skilful in areas in the mind, soul and spirit but in the end it’s a trap. I was lucky enough to find somebody and went to live in Portugal who showed me through all of that to where you kinda get left in the moment. Then instead of there being a division, a duality of this world - this world is the material world and this here is the spiritual world - no, everything is real. They are all on the same level, all of those things; money, spirituality, everything because it all belongs to the mind really.”
The record is full of ear-worm melodies and absorbing textures and rhythms. Many of the most memorable moments, however, come from hearing Brown’s still-staggering vocal range. He propels his voice to high notes on ‘Jungle Fever’, a bluesy, acoustic number, like a playground swing swooping over the top of the bars. He can wail and groan on ‘Muscle of Love’ in a way which will make fans of Serge Gainsbourg’s style of romp-core blush. When he tones it down for the genteel balladry of ‘Assun’, you realise just how uniquely talented Brown is. He’s completely revitalised and writing some of the best material of his career.
It is a record that looks forward rather than back, much in the same way Gil Scott Heron and Bobby Womack did with their final releases. This is in part thanks to the group of musicians and the community he has found in Lewes, including members of the Moulettes. “The musicians in the band are mainly 30 and under so they had a respect and love for the Crazy World stuff but they also were steeped in new approaches to rhythm, song writing. When it came to the point of going further than listening to my old catalogue, we decided we would go back and use the atmosphere of the early Crazy World but also use musics that were more associated with modern sounds and approaches to playing.” He hopes the record will reach a new, younger audience and with any justice, it should.
As we part ways, Brown quips that we will meet again for the next chapter of his life when he reaches 90 but something tells me that we won’t have to wait that long. The crazy world of Arthur Brown can’t be tamed for long and, with any luck, he might have finally got round to those fun palaces. We can only hope.
Zim Zam Zim is out now via Bronzerat.