The Crazy World of Arthur Brown's Incendiary Shows at Fillmore East

Frank Mastropolo

Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever Book Excerpt
Photo byTrack Records

“The God of Hellfire,” Arthur Brown, is noted for his dynamic performances in a flaming metal helmet. Brown is one of the acknowledged pioneers of theatrical rock. The frontman of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown performed his incendiary hit “Fire” at promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore East over two nights in 1968.

In this excerpt from the book Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, the shock-rocker looks back at those shows opening for Jefferson Airplane.

“Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown on Top of the Pops, 1968

Arthur Brown: We were playing in UFO, the English underground club, and eventually Bill Graham heard about it. The act started with a crown of flames and ended in a wall of exploding smoke under the strobe. He thought the audience in the States would love it so that’s how we ended up over there. 

And of course, with it being Bill, if he sees you being theatrical, he wants to add to it. And so we ended up with me carried in by four of the people from his team with my head on fire and the band playing. And of course, they loved that pretty extreme theater for those days.

In those days, the headdress was a kind of dish that had a strap under the chin. And then, over a period of gigs, we realized that it’s not going to stop wobbling and in those days it was full of petrol. And so I would catch fire. So we put wings down the side rather like a centurion’s helmet from the old days. And that stopped it from wobbling from side to side.

It went through lots of stages. At one point, we just had the plate and the strap. And then we said, how do we hold the plate onto the strap? So we put a screw through it with a nut on the end. But the heat used to come down the screw into my skull. So that was why we decided to raise the plate off the skull by having something underneath it. 

In fact, in the beginning, they used to throw flaming things into the helmet from as far away as they could get. That’s when the petrol ignited in kind of a fireball.

The Fillmore East crew trusted me not to set the club on fire. In those days, health and safety were not really an issue. You just did what you could get away with. I can’t say I’m against health and safety in those circumstances because it can be very dangerous.

We had not slept for two nights. So I was really tired. And I was just going around the stage which, of course, was quite dark because we liked to play with the spotlight and a couple of other spots and maybe some UV and strobe but not full lighting on the stage.

And somebody left the trap door open. So I’m listening to the big pounding music and beginning to sing and suddenly Woosh! I could hardly hear the music. And I’m looking up and there’s a light coming down from above but where am I? What is going on?

And I’d fallen and it was about fourteen feet. I carried on singing and found some kind of ladder up the side. I came back up on stage and carried on and everybody thought it was great because they saw me reappear out of this hole in the floor.

For us, it was a phenomenal concert because of the reception they gave. One of the weird things in those days was that right up until probably ’69, there were a limited amount of people who had come over and played in America and gone back to England. 

And in those days in England, the sort of ethic was still that you would listen to the number and at the end of the number, you would clap. And we were shocked when we arrived in America and found that oh, I just did a really nice bit of a solo and they’re clapping.

It was such a different world that wow, they are responding because they think we’ve just done something really great. It pushed you to do even more. So the live experience over in America was just outstanding.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, one of Best Classic Bands’ Best Music Books of 2022.

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

New York, NY

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