Making Fire

Fire picture

typography and design: James Mokarry

Arthur Brown in gothic Lewes mode

Arthur Brown in Lewes outside the location for his rap recording Arthur Brown is less known today than he was, although he still pursues his music (the gentleman loves to sing, and releases a CD every couple of years or so).  A unique and passionate artist, he should be more visible.  In the sixties, he was an iconic figure, fighting on the front lines of alternative politics and with an extraordinary stage act which included a crown of real fire (he once set himself actually alight with this daring prop). BETTY and I were working on the massive vocals for Natural Beauty, Lene Lovich’s song on Sprawlwhen I mentioned I had met Arthur while visiting Lene and Les Chappell, her partner (the three of them were working together at the home studio).  Instantly, the control room was filled with three leaping ladies singing the chorus from Fire. This song had been a #1 hit for Arthur in the late sixties, and I still remember seeing him perform it, unforgettably, at Oxford Polytechnic in 1969.  It transpired that the single had supported an early musical obsession of BETTY’s Ziff sisters Amy and Elizabeth.  On vacation with their parents, they hit the jukebox for it incessantly, singing along raucously every time.  It didn’t take long for me to cave in. We had to make it, even if it appeared surplus to Sprawl requirements.  I threw the backing together in a couple of days, quite close to the original and using the very basic bass from the original record (which had been played on organ pedals by Vincent Crane). We added chorus horns and BETTY’s voices, then left it for the next album whenever that might be (and things were to take a little longer than expected).

One great benefit of working with other people, as compared with painstakingly constructing a pile of electronic notes in your bedroom, is that crazy things are much more likely to be inspired to happen.  Elizabeth, almost tentatively, suggested that she might shout through the whole piece, this sound of madness to be mixed so that it was almost subliminal.  Eventually, her screaming was worth much  more, and we returned to the off-the-wall gesture right at the end. Fire had by then grown to its eventual twelve-minute length, from the first recording version of about four, and we added multiple, stepped shouting which brought the piece home in full circle from the unsettling introduction.

Thinking to add to the series of interviews with related people that we were collecting on the site, I called Arthur and arranged to travel down to his home town in Lewes, Sussex, in picturesquely rural England.  Then the penny dropped, and I called back to ask him if he would like to deliver a rap in an extended middle section.  ‘My manager doesn’t normally like me to do things like that, but I’ll see if we can come up with something.’  The music of the middle bit was to be defined by whatever he might come up with.

There are many extraordinary sounds here, not to overlook Arthur’s curiously tender spoken delivery. The trombone solo uses a variable mute, changing the sound according to its distance from the bell, which meant that Bob Funk had little control over the pitch of his instrument. The ghostly drum loop in the middle is actually the main rhythm pattern but with accidentally changed sounds (and some heavy processing).

We could have recorded in Arthur’s front room, on my laptop, but we passed an old church while walking down the street from the station. ‘This might be the place.’ Now a community arts center, it was completely deserted. We set up in the big room, gothic reverberation and all, did the interview, then got down to the rap.

I had been warned by Lene and Les to catch his performance immediately. No retakes. The words came to Arthur on the spot, just riding over the track. What is now a poetic, unfolding commentary on more current affairs started as a set of widely-separated couplets thought out, taking maybe a minute or so of reflection on Arthur’s part each. When cut up and reassembled, they coalesced into a startling narrative. Much good words lie on the cutting room floor, such as ‘If you’ve got a hard-on/For bin Laden…” Another day, another mix, maybe. The competition from lyrics like ‘Holy men cry/politicians mumble/but you never know/just never know’ is strong.

Once the rap was in sequence, I wrote the whole gothic organ underneath it and to complement the narrative. The curious chords aren’t named, just the result of the keyboard lines wandering without a chart. The tense interaction with the signature horn riff as the song heads towards the last choruses was a nice piece of luck.

Arthur describes his original song as about the struggle between good and evil, and it became one of the seminal precursors of goth and heavy metal and their allegorical styles. Here, he updates the theme for a different age.

– MT March 2006