WHEN I WAS a teenager, my dad used to let me borrow his tapes to listen to on my bus rides to school. He had one of those collections of greatest hits from the ’60s and ’70s that you could buy at a carwash or truck stop for $4.99 or less. There, tucked between standards like “Magic Carpet Ride” and “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” I first heard the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire”—a song that opens with Brown’s ghastly proclamation “I am the God of Hellfire!” followed by organ-driven pomp, shrieking banshee vocals, and unhinged mania.
Arthur Brown isn’t exactly a household name, but with his mind-bending 1968 debut, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the God of Hellfire and his cohorts singlehandedly injected performance art into rock ’n’ roll. Theatrical musicians that came after him—like Alice Cooper, KISS, and George Clinton—owe everything to Brown and his wild stage shows.
On a recent phone call, the English-born singer reflected on his storied career, noting that when he started making music, he sensed that people were “mentally asleep” and needed to be wakened.
“How do you do that? Well, you do shocking things,” Brown says. “In those days there wasn’t the great theatrics and whatever else. So when it came out that I was wearing robes, flames out of my head, and corpse paint, it was quite shocking.”
According to Brown, expanding minds in the late ’60s was a dangerous business: “We got a lot of responses where sometimes we’d have to run down the back stairs. One time I had to go onstage with an axe.”
Brown is classically trained, but his work—which draws from modern jazz, soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll, psychedelic poetry, and other spiritual musings—is revelatory. He believes music is something that speaks straight to our innermost beings.
“In the original societies we didn’t have words as such, we had sounds,” he says. “The first laws that were given to the tribes that became humans were sung. They had a basic effect on people. I think because of that, when music is played in a very primitive, basic way, it goes beneath our educated stuff that gets rammed in there, to a much deeper level.”
Brown’s appreciation for the power of music runs so deep that in the early ’90s he got his master’s degree in counseling and founded Healing Songs Therapy—a counseling process that involved his creation of “spontaneous, freeform songs” which were given to clients “like a doctor gives you a pill.”
“We got a great response,” Brown says. “I got an article in [People] magazine that said, ‘From God of Hellfire to Singing Shrink.’ We got testimonials from clinical psychiatrists, psychologists, Qigong masters, all kinds of people that said ‘Yeah, it works.’”
Since he’s the expert, I ask Brown how he’d explain music to someone who had never heard it. He laughs heartily, pauses for a few seconds, then breaks into a 15-second improvised piece of music that’s a cross between a meditative Gregorian chant and Ariel’s angelic tune from The Little Mermaid.
“Just like that?” I ask.
Plainly, he responds, “That’s music.”