September 5, 2021

[Arthur claims] that their costumes often caused difficulty playing, in particular Andrew Dalby, whose habit of performing dressed as a four-foot wide telephone made it ‘troublesome for him to play guitar’. Well, I imagine it would…

Arthur Brown. Hands up if you know the name. That’s all of you then. Okay, how many of you just visualised him singing his hit song Fire on TV with his head on fire? Yep, there go those hands again. And there is the blessing and curse that Arthur has had to carry the whole of his career – that song was so ubiquitous, and the visual image so striking, that it has become his very own Freebird or Stairway To Heaven, only magnified by a large factor owing to his continued lack of any real commercial success in the decades since. He’s still performing as well, as singular and eccentric as he ever was, as he approaches his 80th birthday, as evidenced by his tremendous guest appearances with Hawkwind on their orchestral-accompanied tour in 2018. When he recorded that big hit single, of course, it was with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, a tremendous outfit which boasted Vincent Crane and, a year later, Carl Palmer among its members. When the Crazy World collapsed in something of a heap in 1969, Arthur cast around for another line-up of suitable musicians, finally assembling the first line-up of Kingdom Come. The band secured a deal with Polydor Records on the strength of a jam recording which impressed the label (stick around, that’s here, on Disc Four), and the band were set to record the first Kingdom Come album. Having got the contract, Arthur then promptly replaced the entire band. All of them. At this point you could forgive Polydor for wondering what exactly they were letting themselves in for.

Nevertheless, the new line-up which was recruited turned out to be more than up to the task, and recorded the fascinating album The Galactic Zoo Dossier, which was unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1971. The unsuspecting world ignored it, which in truth is hardly a great surprise, but in fact the album is far from the ‘explosion in a psychiatric ward’ that some claim it to be. There are bizarre moments on here, undeniably, but at least half of the album stands proud as classic early-70s adventurous progressive rock. It’s a concept album of sorts, dealing with mankind’s existence being as a sort of exhibit in the titular Alien Galactic Zoo, and having not inconsiderable problems along the way, but it’s no easy task to glean this to be honest; it’s not exactly a linear narrative. Quite a lengthy album (around fifty minutes on the original vinyl, not including the bonus tracks included here), there is plenty of space for all facets of Arthur’s personality. The appeal to fans of straight prog rock lies chiefly in the four longest tracks here: The opening Internal Messenger (even released as a single, in re-recorded form as Eternal Messenger), the side one closer Sunrise, with its marvellous guitar-led instrumental coda, and the tremendous fourteen minute closing one-two of Gypsy Escape and No Time. That’s about 25 minutes of prime prog for your buck there, and make the album worth it on their own. There are ten shorter tracks, however, and these range from the relatively straight (Space Plucks, Trouble, Simple Man) to the almost avant-garde (Metal Man, Night Of The Pigs). Fans of Hawkwind, and in particular Bob Calvert’s spoken word pieces such as Sonic Attack and Welcome To The Future, will be well served by tracks such as Creep, Brains and Creation, which leave little doubt that Calvert would have been listening to this prior to the Space Ritual tour. The packaging is reproduced in the original gatefold format, with the outer cover being a wraparound questionnaire form completed by all of the members, from which we learn that Arthur’s contribution to the album consists of ‘Vocals and Teeth’. Other interesting questions include ‘Number of friends’ (Arthur replies ‘A million’, though bassist Desmond Fisher is less optimistic, with ‘One and a half’) and ‘Number of words per week’ (Arthur claims a very precise ‘1,006,782’, while guitarist Andrew Dalby reports ‘three’). They also fill out their actual Driving License, National Health, National Insurance and Passport numbers, in a world which existed before the dawn of identity theft! That said, doubt should be cast on drummer Martin Steer’s unlikely claim that his driving license number is ‘1’…

The following year brought a follow-up, in the shape of the self-titled Kingdom Come, and to say it is an odd record would be akin to saying that Reign In Blood by Slayer leans towards the heavy side. The album is simultaneously musically inspired and incredibly frustrating, as some of the best music of Arthur’s career is frequently broken into, mid-song, by utter insanity. Though having said that, this insanity is never less than entertaining. We open with a fairly gentle, accessible song called Water, or at least accessible after the lengthy sound collage opening the track, and the ending, which sees Arthur informing all around him that he is the captain of a ship, and the captain he will stay. Well, that’s nice for him, anyway. You have to have a hobby. The quite straight and excellent second track, Love Is A Spirit (That Will Never Die) softens us up before we hear Arthur refusing demands for him to come ashore, only for us to learn that he isn’t on a ship at all and is in fact, a lunatic. Well, that’s another hobby for him, anyhow. He is forcibly ejected from his non-existent craft, and we go into City Melody, which is some of the best music the band have produced, being a brilliant keyboard-led instrumental reminiscent of prime ELP. Or at least for the first half of the song it is, before devolving into another chaotic sound collage, and Arthur’s despairing cry of ‘Choice cut of breast is sold at the mortuary, as the queue grows for my brain!’. The rest of the track is taken up by this nightmarish din, before the national anthem is sung for no apparent reason. But only the second verse, because otherwise it would just be silly. This one of the moments when the frustration kicks in, as you think ‘dammit, just keep playing the track, it was bloody good!’

Still, better times are in store for our beleagured hero, now presumably cured of his sea captain delusions, as he now appears to believe he is a set of traffic lights. Unless the traffic lights are actual sentient ones, or some kind of metaphor – Traffic Light Song is vague on this subject. Things are clearer in The Teacher, however, as the traffic lights are given what appears to be some kind of electro-shock therapy to help their demeanour. I did say this was quite odd, I believe? Hold on though, wait until we get into the monstrous The Experiment, which is worryingly subtitled ‘Featuring ‘Lower Colonic Irrigation”. That will just be a wacky title though, right? Wrong, I’m afraid, as the track winds to its cheery end with Arthur delivering a hymn of praise to the workings of his internal plumbing, accompanied by some quite alarmingly specific background effects. He manages to rhyme ‘my bowels’ with ‘open vowels’ as well, which might be unique in rock’s rich history. Following the rather impressive The Whirlpool, the album concludes with the fairly straight nine-minute epic of sorts which is The Hymn, which again frustrates as it shows just what a great prog rock album the band could conjure up if they wished to. As it is, the quality of the music on the record is probably the highest here, though the often jarring insertions of lunacy just place it below its predecessor in my book.

Following this, in 1973 came Journey, a far more conventionally musical record which is regularly proclaimed as easily the best of the Kingdom Come albums. I beg to differ with this received wisdom, however, as while the album is certainly their most cohesive musical statement, and is all decent quality proggy alternative rock, it somehow lacks the spark of genius which frequently lit up its demented predecessors. It also suffers a little as Arthur had by now dispensed with a human drummer, and was using an early model of drum machine himself. This does make the album ahead of its time, but then again the dawn of the drum machine wasn’t a great event anyway, so it’s not the best thing to get in early for! There is plenty of good material, and once again it concludes with a real highlight in the lengthy Come Alive, showing that the band had a proper knack for the big finish. A good album, but just lacking … something. Others, however, will I am sure find it the most cohesive and impressive listen on offer here – it all depends on your love of the wilfully bizarre!

Come the fourth disc we finally get to hear what all of the initial fuss was about, with the lengthy jam tape from the formative original line-up, somewhat arbitrarily divided into ‘songs’, which secured the contract. Frankly, it is hard to see why as this is a serious slog, seeing the band dispense with any optional extras, such as ‘structure’, ‘melody’ and, depending on your definition, at times ‘music’. However, stick with the discordant cacophony and it eventually begins to coalesce into something substantial. Track six, Waterfall, introduces some actual quite impressive music, while the lengthy Beholdin (yes, that is the spelling) is easily the best thing on display here, being something of an improvised classic. From there it’s much better, as the final two tracks also impress. Just put some police tape around the first five tracks warning people from approaching, and the rest is good to go.

‘Kids… just say no to drugs…’

Finally, we get a fifth disc of BBC radio sessions. Yes, that’s right, in 1971 and 1972 the BBC actually had this lot in the studio to record sessions for broadcast. Four times! And you know what – it’s very, very good. The closest we’ll get to Kingdom Come in the live environment, there are arguably definitive versions here of Sunrise, Eternal Messenger and, especially, Creep, while the final session, for John Peel, gives us not only an extended and much improved take on the Journey-era B-Side Slow Rock, but also the delight of Peel himself moaning for the last minute that the tape was mis-labelled with the song length, throwing out his timings. It might not be the best disc here (though it does make an argument), but it’s a remarkable bonus. Talking of live recordings, though, it really is a tragedy that there couldn’t be any film footage of the band, as they seem astonishing visually. The box itself depicts Arthur being crucified, while a photo in the booklet shows him actually trapped inside a giant hypodermic syringe! Added to that is his claim that their costumes often caused difficulty playing, in particular Andrew Dalby, whose habit of performing dressed as a four-foot wide telephone made it ‘troublesome for him to play guitar’. Well, I imagine it would.

Stories of Arthur’s eccentric behaviour are legion, with one tale having onlookers describe how, after checking into his ground-floor hotel room, he walked from the desk through the room, straight out of the patio windows and into the pool, emerging out of the other side (still carrying his suitcase) before calmly walking back to reception and asking if he could change rooms as this one was ‘damp’. Listening to this set makes those tales entirely believable, and he is backed up, remarkably, by a group of musicians who appear both on his wavelength while also being very proficient and well-drilled. That’s quite a combination, and one of the reasons why we surely will not see the like of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come again. Now, where did those damn traffic lights go? I’m late…