ARTHUR BROWN: THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN (1968)
1) Prelude/Nightmare; 2) Fanfare/Fire Poem; 3) Fire; 4) Come And Buy; 5) Time/Confusion; 6) I Put A Spell On You; 7) Spontaneous Apple Creation; 8) Rest Cure; 9) I've Got Money; 10) Child Of My Kingdom.
Arthur Brown was a fairly crazy freak, even for the high standards of 1967, when he was arguably Syd Barrett's biggest competition in the «so deliciously outrageous» department. For one thing, he had a really dangerous fire fetish, next to which Jimi's guitar-burning antics were elementary childplay — the culmination of the live show involved Arthur performing in a burning helmet (which resulted in more than one nasty hairburn, on several occasions). For another, his stage costumes and makeup pre-dated the «glam explosion» by a good three or four years — in 1967, all that gear was so unusual that it could still genuinely scare people, tightly binding Brown to the «underground» scene. By the time that outlandish stage shows became truly popular, Arthur was already out of vogue — but one could argue that, perhaps, without Arthur Brown, there would have been no David Bowie or Alice Cooper, either.
Third and most important, although Brown was never really an accomplished music-writer, he did have the knack of attracting those kinds of people. And if the first and only officially released LP of his most famous project, «The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown», can still be enjoyed today, it is only due to near-perfect chemistry between Arthur and his chief musical mate, keyboard player Vincent Crane — who was even nuttier than Brown himself, but also happened to be an excellent musician and composer. If, seduced by the excesses, temptations, and virtues of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, you start digging into the rest of Arthur's chaotic catalog and end up wondering why so little in it stands up to the same standards, remember the rule: Arthur Brown's albums are generally only as good as the people who contribute to them besides Arthur. He's got the personality and charisma all right, but writing songs comes hard to the guy.
This classic record from 1968, though, sounds anything but forced, derivative, or uninspired. Produced by no less than Pete Townshend himself (he is listed as «associate producer» next to Kit Lambert, the Who's manager, as chief producer, but the two always worked together anyway), it collects the cream of the cream of Brown's stage repertoire, honed and perfected throughout 1967, and still remains not just one of the first examples of full-fledged «rock theater», but also one of the best — if only because, behind all of its superficial silliness, there really hides a world of actual madness. Delve deep enough into it, and you just might release the Nameless Terror.
Brown's basic idea was to combine the world of classic American R'n'B, with its connections to spiritual ecstasy, with fashionable psychedelic and overall modern-art trends of the day — he was as well versed in European cinema and theater as he was in James Brown, and he seemed quite preoccupied about unlocking the commonalities between the two. There is even an actual James Brown cover here (ʽI've Got Moneyʼ), and it's fairly good: Brown was one of the few R'n'B singers of his day who was not afraid to just completely let go when it came to singing / vocalizing, and his set of pipes was strong enough to compete with the master on his own terms.
Of course, of all the classic R'n'B figures one would imagine Brown's favorite to be Screamin' Jay Hawkins — the original «horror show icon» of the genre — and, expectedly so, ʽI Put A Spell On Youʼ is covered here in all of its glory; coincidentally, the same year that Creedence Clearwater Revival put out their version. But Fogerty, as excellent as his vocal performance was, seemed more intent on exploring the potential of the song's musical groove, with an extended guitar solo part swallowing the bulk of the song; here, the music, dominated, as always, by Crane's organ, takes a backseat to Brown's «bigger-than-life» performance. Maybe to some people his impersonation of a mentally disbalanced voodoo priest here will seem overblown, caricaturesque, and utterly phony, but I think there's a pinch of comic self-irony here somewhere, and that's enough to make it work for me. (Plus, Crane's bluesy organ work, reminiscent of Alan Price's style on the early Animals records, is in great taste as well).
However, these are really just excourses on an album of mostly original compositions — dealing with nightmares, obsessions, hallucinations, lust, madness, and, above all, fire, fire, FIRE! The entire first side is about fire, for that matter (the heat only goes down a little by the time we hit ʽI Put A Spell On Youʼ), and if the flame-soaked lyrics aren't enough, then the sizzling vocals of Mr. Brown and the unusually dry, crackling organ tone of Mr. Crane will do the job. The one undying classic, still occasionally recycled on classic rock radio, is ʽFireʼ itself, of course, which rocked London and the world to its core with the opening announcement that has since become quite a staple of pop culture — "I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE, AND I BRING YOU... FIRE!" — but the fact is that it's also a fabulously catchy pop song, which, in 1968, sounded like nothing else, because nobody else infused the Hammond organ with that particular sort of crazy voodoo.
Above everything else, The Crazy World is diverse: its influences do not stop at basic pop and R'n'B, but involve classical motives (ʽPreludeʼ), improvisational jazz (ʽChild Of My Kingdomʼ), and free-form avantgarde stuff (ʽSpontaneous Apple Creationʼ, quite spontaneous indeed). Most of the songs do serve the same set of purposes / motives that I already listed, but they all try to serve it in different ways. The album's true culmination is really not ʽFireʼ itself, I'd say, but rather ʽCome And Buyʼ, a complex, imaginative, sweaty, sexy suite that has it all: a simple, but mesmerizing two-note bass hook «doubled» by Arthur's vocals, artsy strings arrangements, an epic brass-led crescendo, and a vivid impersonation of the protagonist's descent into Hell — yes, all of it years before Alice Cooper straddled the subject, and on a level where the «madness» of the experience weighs heavier on the listener's soul than the «theater» aspect of it.
If someone complains that the album goes a bit «over the top», the someone in question is absolutely correct — that is the very point of it. Really, few albums since have so arrogantly and outrageously gone over the top. But when going over the top is combined with great melodies, technical competence, a singer who can belt it out along with the best of 'em without stooping to trivial pomp, and a bunch of influences that wide — in this case, going over the top is more than recommended: it is begged for. The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown is a glorious, precious relic from a time when an album with the word «crazy» in the title could really mean it, rather than offer an entertaining facsimile of the real thing. (Do not try this at home, though, and I don't just mean putting on a burning helmet). Maybe it's really good that people don't do this kind of stuff any more — good for the people, bad for art, that is, since real art is, after all, mostly just a nice way to profit from your own craziness. But hey, better this than the Manson Family, right? Thumbs up, no further questions asked.