Psychedelic Forefather Arthur Brown on Ritual, Technology and the ’60s

Long before “shock rock” performers like Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson or KISS painted their faces to create theatrical pageantry and grandiose spectacle, there was Arthur Brown.

Brown’s best known for donning a helmet that shoots flames five feet in the air and proclaiming “I am the God of Hell Fire!”, as immortalized in his circus organ Aquarian anthem, “Fire”. But a deeper look into the man’s repertoire shows much more substance behind the novelty, a rich mosaic of world mythologies, poetry, aesthetic narratives and rock ‘n’ roll.

The man has made over twenty albums since “Fire” first appeared on ’68’s The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, most recently Zim Zam Zim in ’13. These new songs find Brown still plunging the formless depths of sound and storytelling, performing with the same paisley panache he first mustered 50 years ago, when plans to open a multimedia club in Paris fell through and he created the traveling cavalcade of rituals known as his Crazy World instead.

Though Brown’s insular approach to theatrical presentation suggests a self-contained creative vision that we just don’t see anymore, this same commitment to follow his own path has left some of Brown’s other notable achievements out of the books. His implementation of the Bentley Rythym Ace drum machine on ’72’s Kingdom Come, for instance, had no precedent for live performance before Brown gave it a go.

“[W]e need a wider context for things, and where you find that, because it is our nature, is inwards. You go in and have a look.”—Arthur Brown

“It was more like a percussive thing that looks like a new direction for pop,” Brown told Red Bull in ’14. “Of course at that time everybody laughed at it. There were people who came and crawled around the dressing room, persuaded that either I’d recorded something, or they wanted to know if there was a room behind it, where the guy was actually playing the drums. It took about four or five years for it to catch on.”

Now 74 years old, Brown’s still innovating. His latest fascination is a brain helmet that allows the wearer to play music with their mind, and if that sounds crazy, you’re already underestimating how much progress Brown’s made toward its implementation in the few years since he’s been fooling around with it.

Tonight he’ll take the stage at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village on a stop from his first U.S. tour in 46 years. Ahead of the performance, Brown and I talked about his experiences touring the U.S. in the ’60s, the promises that technology can bring, and the function of ritual in an age of accelerated consumption, when our minds are forced to process multiple realities at once.

“The thinking mind answers questions of survival, and that’s what technology does,” he told me. “If we persuade ourselves that in order to survive we have to be entertained for six hours a day on t.v., if you persuade yourself you need to find another planet in case we blow this one up, you’ve got a moon shot. But all of those are the same thing. The rational mind, which has its uses but has totally dominated our history… maybe now it’s time to move in a different direction.”

Arthur Brown is bringing his Crazy World on its first U.S. tour in 47 years.

Arthur Brown is bringing his Crazy World on its first U.S. tour in 47 years. BarbaraFG

How have things been since emerging from the ancient, formless depths of the Zim Zam Zim?

Since then? Pretty zzz.

You tell this story about being exposed to the creative muses that would become your Crazy World through your family’s collective PTSD, post-WWII. You said that your father, concerned about you, introduced you to a man who taught you how to clear your mind. To the best of your memory, what did those lessons entail?

Well, as I remember it, it wasn’t a tricky kind of thing, of visualizing and mantra and stuff like that. It was just going into a kind of self-inquiry, then, as “O.K., all this is going on,” and then just letting go of it. Of course because I was young, it was easier to do.

“[A]t a certain point you get to where the life that comes to you is your meditation. You don’t have to sit down and do a separate thing.”—Arthur Brown

It’s harder to let go of things now, you’re saying?

No, I’m saying during the process between 14 and 30 you absorb lots of rubbish—education, conditioning, trying to fit in somehow with this crazy society. So there’s all that in the way. When you’re younger it’s not so much in the way.

Is it harder to internalize that stuff now, age aside, with the state of the free world? Do you still find it as easy to go into your own head, to go into your intentions behind things, in the current sociopolitical climate both here and across the pond? 

Yeah, well, if you let it get in the way, it certainly is. I was sort of fortunate, and for about 45 years I examined the different ways of doing that in different cultures. I did different practices, and at a certain point you get to where the life that comes to you is your meditation. You don’t have to sit down and do a separate thing.

You accept reality as it is. 

There is a sort of acceptance there. It doesn’t mean to say that if you’re living in society you’re going to agree to everything.

Arthur Brown

Arthur Brown Barbara FG

What are your cultural frames of reference, in your career as a theatrical cultural anthropologist in a lot of ways? What frames of reference do you have for other cultures’ methods for dealing with some of the demagoguery and powers that be who we’re going to have to understand. Where are the lessons in the past to this for you?

Well, it may be that the lessons in the past are not to do with any of the structures of society we know, any of the religious structures or patents, because look what happened. This is where we’ve ended up. So, if it is the human consciousness as a whole that’s brought this about, then how we personally control our own consciousness is what’s gonna change things. All cultures have ways to try and deal with human nature, which is ruled by rational thought, which is ruled by the imbalance in the human being of the emotional and intellectual natures, and all the cultures came up with different answers. Buddhism came up with one answer, without there being such h a God figure in it. All of them tried to find ways to make things work, but there’s something underpinning all of them, and the approach of our history, that has not allowed it to happen.

So it’s about looking a new way at it. For instance, one of the wonderful things would be if we were able to feel our contact with all the beings and creatures and whatever else around us. Then act according to that context, which wouldn’t, for instance, allow you to build a dam when it would knowingly flood sixty other villages and destroy their lives before they find the dam itself is not really what’s needed. So we need a wider context for things, and where you find that, because it is our nature, is inwards. You go in and have a look.

We need to have a new consciousness to deal with all these problems that are coming in even faster than they were, because everything is linked in a lateral way so quickly with the Internet that you can’t deny things in the way you were able to before. You can be very clever, like Mr. Putin, and hide it all, all of the governments are doing that in their own way. But you have to come at things from a different place.

“Jerry was a very smart guy, and also very much in his truth, I suppose you’d call it.”

All these great fuckin’ records from the ’60s are turning 50 years old this year. Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Country Joe and The Fish’s Electric Music For The Mind and Body, The Grateful Dead… some are saying there’s been a cyclical realization in our ability to manifest a collective consciousness again. There’s conversations about how technology is eating us, and some of my generation might not realize that technology was a big part of Tim Leary’s mantra. If dropping out is an act of refusal, of creating a new society, a new adjunct world that never manifests or just becomes a fashion statement, who bears responsibility for that? It was the monied interests, the capitalist interests, who turned technology into a restricted, controlled narrative. But we’re starting to look at that too. And you do everything yourself, the costumes, the tour plans. The gentleman who helped set up this interview all went directly though you, maybe that has to be the new way of making things for a creative person, 50 years later.

It is a group effort—these guys invited me to come over because they believe in The Crazy World. I haven’t toured for 40-odd years, so Psycho Entertainment are the ones who brought me over. I’ve got wonderful guys around me—Bruce Hughes, who’s making sure that the thing goes along in the vision that we started from, or as real as we can. And I’ve got a wonderful band.

How did you manage to embrace Spectacle, in the abstract, without allowing ti to become appropriated or somebody else’s product? How do you protect your work from corporate interest or branding?

Really, it starts with your intention. I think at certain times I’ve wondered what it’d be like to be rich, have loads of money and all that, but that wasn’t my way of doing it. I put it all into experimental music. Because of The internet, new ways of doing things have come up, but the industry was the way that all the great bands you’d mentioned and their aspirations, their spiritual trajectories, were put out to the public by the record companies. There was no escape from being involved in it, and it relied on the fact that people like Garcia would go into a meeting where the record company intended for him to do X, Y and Z and they would come out with him saying, “We’re going to do P, Q, and S,” because Jerry was a very smart guy, and also very much in his truth, I suppose you’d call it.

Arthur Brown

Arthur Brown BarbaraFG

How do you stay open to that path, specifically as it relates to innovation. Being the first band to work with a drum machine as you did. The brain helmet, too, I’m sure we’d love an update on that and to know what you’ve learned in the last few years that you’ve been playing with it. 

Well, it’s just delight, delight in exploring. The technology moved really very fast. What we wanted to do in ’72 but couldn’t—we wanted to have it set up so you could have an element like that and if The Pope came to town you could have him up on stage. And even without speaking he could play music, because of the way his brain worked! You wouldn’t have to sit down and learn chords. But the technology wasn’t ready, and now it is. So that’s what we’re looking at, and partially developed already. I can put on the sensors and choose the moment when arpeggios are gonna end. [He sings a demonstration]. We’re refining it so I can do it in real time, as a solo, without touching any instrument at all.

We’re being fed meanings and messages at an accelerated pace these days, as a people , as a collective consciousness. Between news and art and ephemera, we’re absorbing things faster and faster. How do you protect a technology like that as it comes into the fore? How do you protect it and keep it special, making sure its intentions are used for good and not evil?

Well if you go back to the bands in the ’60s again, a lot of the money that made that all possible was Mafia money. So right away you’ve got all the spiritual things, but there’s always also going to be something like that. So now, like you said, it’s quicker, it’s widespread and it’s got more implications.

There’s a study being done buy a guy who does historical, archeological and anthropological studies, and what he’s done is go all the way back and look at brain size through history, about as far back as you can go. And there was a great leap early on, when we decided to follow the rational mind and all that stuff. He said since then, the only time there’s been an equivalent leap is now. What’s happening is the brain is changing amongst really young people, to allow multiple versions of things coming in simultaneously.

“Of course, you could take any tennis match as a Satanic ritual, you know, if that’s where your heart is.”

We were not taught that—we were taught that you look at one and then you see how that looks compared to it, then only under great pressure would you discard the first one. This now is things coming in immediately, so we can expect a lot of different answers. As far as people born before that, again, inwardly being able to relax away from your thinking mind.

The thinking mind answers questions of survival, and that’s what technology does. If we persuade ourselves that in order to survive we have to be entertained for six hours a day on t.v., if you persuade yourself you need to find another planet in case we blow this one up, you’ve got a moon shot. But all of those are the same thing. The rational mind, which has its uses but has totally dominated our history… maybe now it’s time to move in a different direction.

You’re getting ready to play these songs on tour again for the first time since about when they were released, and your official debut turns 50 next year. There’s a lot of conspiracy theorists who use the idea of Spectacle and Ritual in making some very paranoid ideas about the occult, Most recently, Lady Gaga’s Superbowl performance was likened by Infowars founder Alex Jones to be some ritual feast of flesh, laden with hidden messages. What would you say to these people? Can we really give modern pop stars that much credit, to believe that they’re ruffling through the pages of old, tattered books and learning about Baphomets? Or is much of this symbolism and pageantry more subconscious?

Well I did watch Lady Gaga’s Superbowl, amazing game. [laughs] Of course, you could take any tennis match as a Satanic ritual, you know, if that’s where your heart is. I think that there are rituals, and things going on that speak to certain populations, and it’s coming through the television.

There was that case where the guy, I think he was a child molester, and one guy who just happened to be an expert in that just happened to be watching the trial. He saw the defendant looking as a young child was giving evidence, and the defendant was going [Brown draws a finger across his throat, symbolizing a death threat.] And the expert called up. So those things do happen. But what is really the most horrible thing, if you like, is that everybody is controlled by their own lack of harmony. Or, if they happen to have found that harmony, pageants, theatrical plays… there are rituals to bring power to someone’s control. The church rituals can be used for that, you just have to look at the way the Catholic Church is at present facing charges in Australia, and yet, it’s supposed to be the healthy, spiritual side of human life.

Arthur Brown

Arthur Brown BarbaraFG

Why are you coming back to the U.S. now after all this time?

Because I was invited, and I have a particular fondness for American audiences. When I played in the ’60s here it was astonishing, the difference between American audiences and the English. In England it was still at a point where if someone was playing a solo, you would wait until the end of the number to [applaud]. But what in America was, if we played something where we reached, there was suddenly a huge burst in the audience, and of course that lifts you even further. The connection was even more intense in those days. So I liked that about it.

And of course, there’s a different kind of energy, and the musical rhythms come about differently because of that different kind of energy. And as a small addition, if you take 20 people in England and 20 people in America and ask them them to hum a note out of the blue, the Americans, by and large, will hum a note that’s vibrations are in keeping with the vibrations of the brain’s electricity. And so will the English, but their notes are slightly different because there are different organizations of the electric current.

Arthur Brown plays Le Poisson Rouge tonight with Electric Citizen. Tickets are still available 

Psychedelic Forefather Arthur Brown on Ritual, Technology and the ’60s