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(Credits: Far Out / Alamy)

Music

Far Out Meets: Arthur Brown discusses The Who, new music and channelling a Viking spirit

When we ring Arthur Brown, he’s busy trimming the hedge. It is, he explains, a therapeutic exercise for him, offering him a moment to reflect on his life before re-entering into the hellfire that has served as his emblem for 50-something years. “I’ve not done the DNA thing, but I have Yorkshire blood,” he cackles. “It’s the Viking thing. My family were boat people, especially my grandparents on my mother’s side.” 

He’s not wrong to highlight the Viking spirit, especially considering the power and vitality of his voice, all bellows and swords, heard on the pummeling ‘Fire’, a frenzy, turbo-charged song bellowing under the weight of a tremendous organ line. The song was unveiled in 1968, capturing the spirit of a Europe that was embracing something of a renaissance, where students took it upon themselves to bring down the shackles of tyranny for something more contemporary and cerebral. “It was a period of change,” Brown concurs. “Suddenly, the immediacy of our dreams, our dreams of peace and love, were coming to the forefront.” Brown deduces that he’s talking to someone who was born after the decade, but his enthusiasm and energy is prevalent, exhibiting a sense of awe that he could live through such an exciting time. 

“There was a period in Abbey Road when The Beatles were recording, they started prancing around with a bit of fire over their heads,” Brown chuckles. It sounds like it was friendly ribbing on their part, who were clearly in awe of the urgency of the song, bolstered by a powerful sense of purpose and performance. “They didn’t do many festivals,” Brown muses, suggesting that Jimi Hendrix had to fill a gap in their place. But he enjoyed an acquaintance with them, although he is reluctant to use the word ‘friend’. “I didn’t know them too well, but I would see them at the Speakeasy or the UFO,” he mutters. “I would see them at StreetEasy dinners.” 

Nonetheless, the song made something of an impression on the public at large, gearing audiences to the change in tone rock was soon to experience. Buoyed by the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, rock was taking a more theatrical turn, which Brown was happy to capitalise on. “Some of my songs was speaking with music,” Brown explains, steering the conversation towards a jaunty pop piece that became something of a live favourite. “I had this song called ‘Give Him A Flower’, which was meant to be something of a comedy number. It was this story: ‘A bully kicks sand in your face’. And then we would go, ‘Give him a flower’. The hippies at the time would laugh at it.”

Shortly after, Ronnie Wood enters the conversation, and both of us marvel at his wizardry as a bass player. A rumour has begun to circulate on the internet that Wood played on ‘Fire’, so I ask Brown whether there’s any validity to the rumour. Brown pauses, clearly unsure how to answer the question. “The best person to ask is Kit Lambert, unfortunately,” Brown explains. Wood, he clarifies, may have contributed to the mixes that were added in the weeks after the original recording. Brown, who was on tour at the time, cannot confirm who contributed additions to the single. “Ron Wood did play on the John Peel sessions,” Brown confirms. “He’s the most amazing bass player. He played with Jeff Beck, and that combination was incredible. When you have two musicians like that, you can push each other over a cliff, or you can have something incredible, and I think it was the latter with those two.” 

But we’re here to talk about Brown, and he’s happy to discuss the influence of Pete Townshend, who helped produce ‘Fire’. “Lambert was aware of the development [of the times],” Brown admits. Indeed, Lambert was influential in the development of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown album, giving the record a sense of thrust and reason. 

Lambert was best known for his work with The Who, and fittingly, The Who recorded a version of ‘Fire’ in the late 1980s. “The Who’s version was very well executed. They also slightly changed the lyric, which gave it a different meaning. So, it wasn’t in the same context as [the original], but had its own brilliant style,” he said. “What I’ve found is that generation after generation,” Brown continues, “Is that musicians return to it. Stylistically, vocally, they come up with different musical forms, based on the scene that it’s made for. I did one with The Stranglers that was engineered by Alan Parsons.” 

He namechecks Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s version as a cover that impressed him. “C’était fait dans le style de la danse,” Brown explains, delivering the French with incredible tact and precision. It’s a strong cover, but there’s something unimpeachable about the original, furnishing a backdrop that grows more yearning with every repeated listen. The song enjoyed another lease of life when it was featured on Hot Fuzz, as Timothy Dalton’s nefarious Simon Skinner drives to the sound of Brown’s voice rattling in his ears. 

Between the hedge trims and the fade-outs, I notice that Carl Palmer toured with the ‘God of Hellfire’. What was he like? I asked: “When he first came, he was 17. He was a very fearful chap: his energy and ideas were well established. I recently went on tour with Carl, singing Emerson, Lake & Palmer. He still has the same amount of energy and rides on every note as he always did.” 

He is quick to comment about his work with Kingdom Come, the hybrid band he founded in the 1970s that was based on “African rhythm feels”. He’s clearly well versed in the permutations and perimeters of rock as a whole, and says he enjoyed a conversation with his manager as to how music is pieced together. “I am a jazz bass player,originally,” Brown admits, which surprises me. “Not a lot of people know that”. Some of his most recent work was pieced together by “returning to the roots”, suggesting that the process has given him another “appreciation of rock writing.”

“We played a phenomenal festival last year in a cave. Something like 200,000 people. And now we’ve designed a whole new show.” 

Looks like the flame has a long way to burn out yet!

Arthur Brown’s Long Long Road is out now via Magnetic Eye Records.