“I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you …”
A proclamation made in a black-and-white video full of fire and smoke, by a singer wearing a flaming crown and decked out in corpse paint – possibly its first use in rock. In 2018, after the music world has seen the likes of Alice Cooper, W.A.S.P., Marilyn Manson and even more bizarre acts, it may not seem that wild or shocking. But imagine being a kid in 1968 and stumbling across the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” for the first time. It had to be just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen – and for parents, probably one of the scariest.
This song pops up on my shuffle on rare occasion, and it always reminds me of just how big an impact this relatively obscure artist had on my favorite music. Though “Fire” was a No. 1 hit in the U.K. and reached No. 2 on Billboard in the U.S., Arthur Brown is far from a household name. His work, however, spawned whole genres of rock and metal.
On the surface, “Fire” is soaked in the psychedelia of its time. Heavy organs almost overpower the song, quirky and catchy melodies get stuck in your head, then throw in some oddball lyrics and an over-the-top vocal performance. It’s almost absurd at times, but somehow it works fantastically.
There’s also a darker thread running just beneath the surface that really only comes out when “Fire” is paired with the visual of Arthur Brown’s performance, filled with the maniacal laughs and threats that “you’re gonna burn.”
Watching that performance, you’ll see a presence that rock fans will quickly associate with Alice Cooper, a few years before Cooper would break through. You’ll also see shades of Iggy Pop in his frantic gyrations and perhaps the first hints of what would become black metal in the overall feel of the piece and its malicious undercurrents.
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” I would argue, is probably the origin of the shock rock genre that Alice Cooper would later master and hand down to acts like the aforementioned W.A.S.P. and Marilyn Manson. There’s little doubt, too, that Brown’s later work with Kingdom Come laid the foundation for what would become black metal.
Look up videos of some of those performances, filled with burning crosses and Brown in a more sinister character, and they look more like a King Diamond show than something you’d see in the early 1970s. Compare the high screeches in “Fire” to Diamond’s more over-the-top use of the vocal style. The seeds are already there in 1968.
Or just ask the metal artists themselves. Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson has said that he modeled much of his vocal style after Arthur Brown. Dickinson later invited Brown to read the poetry of William Blake on his 1998 solo record The Chemical Wedding, and even cast him as Satan in the video for “Killing Floor” from that album. Ozzy Osbourne covered “Fire” on his compilation album Prince of Darkness, and on the 2005 Black Label Society record Mafia, Zakk Wylde paid homage to Brown by modifying the opening line of “Fire” for his song “Electric Hellfire.”
Though he’s never come close to grabbing the public attention again the way he did with “Fire,” Arthur Brown has remained active in the music scene for most of the half-century since this song’s release. At the age of 75, Brown can still bring it on stage, as evidenced by a performance of “Fire” with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry at last summer’s Rock in Rio festival in which he overshadows those two venerable legends.
You may not immediately recognize his name, but Arthur Brown is a guy you should know if you’re a metal fan. Our genre owes him a debt of gratitude.