Arthur Brown's Crazy World of Lockdown • feat. Josh Phillips
Josh Phillips talks to ‘Beyond the Pale’ (July 2020) about his new charity single, a fundraiser for ‘Help Musicians’, https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/about-us, with Arthur Brown’s Crazy World of Lockdown.
Once again BtP asked Josh for the full story ... and the following interview [July 2020] is again worth reading in full: it gives some more fascinating insight into the processes (and setbacks!) involved in mounting a goodwill enterprise of this sort.
Roland from ‘Beyond the Pale’
Ok Josh: recording machine is running!
It’s not so long since we
talked about your 2019 charity single,
Gimme Some Truth, with KT Tunstall.
That was recorded live, but your new one was a lockdown job … very different, I
Yes absolutely, we’ve kept safe, but it’s not really healthy playing on your own, it’s a bit too introverted. Working on your own as a writer is fine, but for recording I work much better if I’ve got somebody to bounce off. Being your own engineer, and playing at the same time, is really hard. And you’re your own producer, your own critic too: really difficult. The record button on my system is about ten feet from the Hammond, so I can’t drop in: everything I’ve done so far has had to be one take from beginning to end.
But you have got work?
I’ve done a few sessions for people, and a couple of pop records for a company in New York, I think because I’ve got stuff ready to go – mainly the Hammond organ, which I’ve got set up with my Leslie all miked and ready to record, which is more attractive to people than using a plug-in, I suppose.
And the Hammond is strongly featured on The House of the Rising Sun. How did this new project come about?
I was invited by Ian Grant, who used to manage Big Country and the Stranglers and The Cult. He’s kind of into semi-retirement these days, but he felt very strongly that we should do something for the Help Musicians charity, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Things are okay for me because I’m a writer as well, but so many musicians, including some close friends of mine who rely solely on ticket sales and being paid for a show, are really struggling now. There is no income. The whole industry has been shut down, it’s not just musicians, it’s actors, actresses, everybody in the performing arts. Classical musicians, jazz whatever, singers, opera singers, choirs, concert promoters, venues, truckdrivers, caterers, road crew, lighting people, soundmen … it’s as if everybody I know is just struggling quite badly.
Ian rang me, and said ‘How about it?’ and I said ‘Yes, why not, I’m not really doing anything at the moment, my Letts unemployment diary seems to be pretty blank.’ And he said, ‘What if we get Arthur Brown to sing House of the Rising Sun?’ And of course I’d done The Vampire Suite album with Arthur, and soon he was up for it too. Then Ian introduced me to Paul Mitchell, a friend of Matt Pegg (whose dad, Dave Pegg, came in on mandolin). Ian was going to get Dave Mattacks on drums, but he wasn’t available when we needed to do the recording: he’s got a set-up in someone’s studio, but it wasn’t accessible because of Covid. So we got a guy called Terl Bryant – from Sadie and the Hotheads – lovely person, great drummer. We had Paul on guitar, and the other guitarist, Alan Clayton, plays with a band called the Dirty Strangers. And then John Altman, he’s quite a well-known composer, done a lot of TV stuff, and also a great jazz sax-player as you can tell, and another friend of Ian’s and Paul’s as well. Another of Ian’s old friends is Tony Butler, the great rock bass player from Big Country, and he was up for it. I played on one of Tony’s albums a couple of years ago. It’s really scary when you look back and think … I was first playing in Big Country about 32 years ago: I thought it was about fifteen! So after we’d all had a good chat on the phone, we all started working on the backing track Paul Mitchell had put together.
Had he mapped the whole thing out in advance?
As I remember it was just his guide vocal and acoustic guitar, a draft sketch, with a click. Paul was the instigator of the whole thing, and it was his idea to do it as a shuffle. And so we all got on with it, until all the original demo had been replaced – all the parts got wiped off as everybody played their instruments. I don’t even think that there was a demo bass part, certainly no demo keyboard parts: it was just a roadmap he’d put together. But very useful: I didn’t actually press ‘record’ until I was happy that I was in the driving seat properly, I knew all the turns, and the stop signs.
So when we were all done, Paul sent all the stems to the engineer, the ‘thumbs-up’ guy at the very end of the video. That’s John Etchells, and he’s a legend. I’ve known him many years – he’s done a lot of fantastic records including the last 5.1 mix of Dark Side of the Moon on Dave Gilmour’s boat, he engineered Queen Live Killers, he did Jazz, the Queen record. I think on Fat Bottomed Girls he’s the guy who says ‘get ready, set, go’. And John mixed the whole thing for us.
And whereabouts were you all?
Tony is in Cornwall, Paul Mitchell is in Eastbourne, Dave Pegg is somewhere in France; the other guys are in London and Surrey. My studio is in Surrey, near Ripley (one of the things I was disappointed with during the whole lockdown, when I used to drive down there, is that I was never stopped by the police once, and I think I should’ve been. Of course I was commuting there in my hermetically sealed car, working in my own studio, not seeing anybody. But there seemed to be nobody out checking whether people were on the road with good reason or not. And that proved a point that this government really hasn’t got a fix on some things at all).
And The God of Hellfire?
Arthur Brown himself lives up in Yorkshire, and the best part of the whole story for me, is that he had no way of recording at home. At one point he was going to go to my friend John Parr, who wrote that wonderful song Saint Elmo’s Fire, and has a lovely studio in Yorkshire. I rang John up, and he said he’d love Arthur to come over, and do it all socially-distancing wise. But sadly, the day they were supposed to do it, John’s mother had been staying and hadn’t been very well … so they decided it wasn’t the right time to do it.
So that left Arthur with no way of recording. And then, in steps Paul Mitchell, and he said – this was the brilliant thing – ‘What sort of computer have you got?’ And Arthur says, ‘I’ll ask Clare’ (his lady), because he’s not technically minded at all. Then Paul asks him, ‘Have you got a microphone?’ and Arthur says ‘No’. So Paul says, ‘I’m going to buy a good USB mic, and send it to you. We’ll record you remotely in your house, and I’m going to be the engineer.’ When Arthur asks ‘How are you going to do that?’ Paul just says ‘Trust me.’ So he sent the mic, then got Arthur to download ProTools Lite, then Paul took over Arthur’s screen, and drove his computer [laughter]. He’d sent headphones and an audio box as well, and he recorded Arthur as his remote engineer. There was a little delay, but Arthur just did what he was told: just got on with it.
It's quite a memorable performance.
Yes, and you know I think he turned 78 this year. He wasn’t a youngster when we did The Vampire Suite, and that’s got to be about eighteen years ago, and he was certainly in his very early 60s when we did that. He’s got boundless energy that guy, and those high notes, they’re crazy! And he’s also got this really low voice if he wants to do that, he can get right down there. It’s really unique, and quite menacing.
Still crazy after all these years?
Yes, but that’s one of his huge charms: it’s not put on, he really is like that. A delightful guy. I remember playing The Vampire Suite to Gary Brooker many years ago, and he said, ‘It’s got everything: it’s got rhythm, it’s got harmony, it’s got melody, it’s got chords; and the world needs Arthur Brown.’ And that stayed with me. We need people like him in this industry: without him, no Alice Cooper, no Kiss: all because of that flamboyant stage presence Arthur invented, the first guy to do all that make-up, and that flaming fire pouring off the top of his scalp!
And if you think about very early Genesis, 1969 maybe, with Gabriel and the various masks and sunflowers and things: there are pictures all over the internet of Arthur in 1968 with various different props on his head. I remember doing a gig with him and Mark Brzezicki, London somewhere, and backstage Arthur had found some props lying around. At one point he slipped offstage and came back to sing the next song in its entirety from inside a papier mache horse’s head. Never a dull moment with that guy.
On The Vampire Suite, every one of those vocals is live, one take. He didn’t have a lyric sheet, just rough ideas, like a scriptless drama where you can interpret it and act it as how you feel appropriate. And Arthur did that with the vocals. The engineer would say, ‘He hasn’t got a lyric sheet,’ and I’d say, ‘Just roll the tape, it’s going to be okay.’ And we did the whole album, his vocals, in a day.
Surely no one needs a lyric-sheet for a standard like House of the Rising Sun, though!
Actually we were going to change some of the lyrics, to make it ‘a house in London town’, you know, about Downing Street and Boris Johnson – but then we realised that as soon as you start to take the proverbial out of any world leader and their bully buddies you’re going to get blocked, it’s just not going to get airplay. I know the Sex Pistols did okay with Never Mind the Bollocks, but it was a different world then.
So Arthur nailed it, one take from beginning to end; and that’s honest, as honest as us all getting together and playing live, if we could have done that.
And the video? Did you Blu-tack your iPad to the ceiling?
[Laughs] When it was decided that a video should be done I just said, ‘How?’ And they said, ‘iPhones are very good these days’, so I bought a mike-clip for the end of a boom stand that held my iPhone; and then I thought ‘I haven’t got long to do this, and again it’s got to be in one go because I’m on my own, so it will have to be one take on piano and one take on the organ.’
And then of course I’m having to mime to my recording, which is hard when a solo is a one-off. Because of Arthur Brown having the Vincent Crane connection, and because of my love of Keith Emerson, I decided to play a very Emerson-esque, Crane-esque solo. And I didn’t really know what I’d played (a solo is a one-off, isn’t it, unless you’ve been playing it every night live, and you start to form sections which you know will really work. Geoff Whitehorn’s solo on Conquistador is probably pretty similar every night, and my organ solo at the end is the same shapes, just a few bits and pieces changed here and there depending how I’m feeling on the night). So it may not be exact, the miming, but I think we’ve all pretty well gone for one take because that is the closest you could get to the spontaneity of playing live together. Except there are two takes of me, because I’m playing the Montage for the Fender Rhodes Wurly bits, and also my Hammond.
I’m sure people will watch it ‘in the spirit in which it was made’.
Course they will! Though I don’t know if you saw the Rolling Stones’ one, where Charlie Watts gets a drum sound, and cymbals, just by hitting some boxes … I mean, how’s that happening [laughs]? In fact, on ours, the drummer is the person that looks best, because in Terl’s home studio he has GoPro cameras locked off permanently. His video was filmed while he was doing the actual audio take, and he was able to send both through at exactly the same time.
With iPhones these days, it’s broadcast quality, it’s 4K … it’s better than very good, it’s excellent. I was looking at some old camcorder tapes from when my son Oscar was a baby, eighteen or nineteen years ago, and the quality is really not very good at all, even though it’s digital. But the optics in an iPhone are smaller than the human eye, whereas the old camcorders had quite a big lens at the time. iPhones are incredible. Maybe we’ll get given a couple for doing this interview! [laughs].
At the start of the film you ask ‘Are you ready, chaps?’ Then you hit 'playback'.
I hit the record button! I thought that was quite ‘Brooker’, looking back: it wasn’t a conscious homage but it’s the kind of thing Gary would’ve said. It’s a term we all use, these days, in the rock’n’ roll industry: ‘Have a good one, chaps!’ … you must’ve heard us backstage, we probably use that very phrase. And for some reason, when he compiled all the video, Paul decided that was a good way to start it.
He also put all the charity info on screen, before the music even starts. Are you looking to get the most money by sales, or by donations?
I think both. All will be revealed in the next few days. If you’re an iTunes customer you’ll just click on it, and own the record, or on Amazon or whatever it might be. I don’t think it will be on Spotify, not free at any rate: that wouldn’t make any sense at all. And if you like it, and you’ve only spent 69p to download it, you can also hit the ‘donate’ button and contribute a fiver, or a tenner. It’s the best thing we can do to keep other musicians going, and – for the various different bands we are all in – show people that we are still doing something.
[Eyebrows raised …]
No real Procol news at the moment I’m afraid: we would all love to be out there. I’m missing it so badly, but what can we do? It couldn’t have been worse, those Italian shows that were scheduled being exactly where the pandemic kicked off in Europe. it couldn’t be worse.
[BtP mentions Geoff Whitehorn’s Bergamo in Our Hearts charity recording; Josh says he’ll have a look]
Ironically a friend at one of the studios near me just produced a track with Rick Astley and Jimmy Somerville, quite a good old classic Motown with about 120 musicians, strings, horns, and everything; when he said to me, ‘Josh, you know the guy you got involved with on the KT Tunstall song, would he be interested in this?’ I had to tell him ‘To be honest, I’ve just done a charity record for this exact same charity, and I don’t think he will be, because he’s working on ours.’ And that was hard!
But there’s supposedly some Government help coming through soon?
The £1.57 billion that’s allegedly being thrown into the arts is really about keeping venues open, it’s not going to filter through to musicians as far as I can see. They’ve forgotten about the performing people: I think it’s appalling. Whereas the people on contract jobs, who are employed rather than self-employed, or the people who work for big corporations, they haven’t noticed any difference. They’ve been furloughed, and they’re staying home, having fun and getting paid for it.
I haven’t claimed anything, but friends of mine have, and I think that in total they got £2,400: 800 quid a month, which doesn’t really pay for much … that’s like doing four gigs a week for fifty quid. But there you go, this government … the way they’ve dealt with the pandemic has been laughable compared with other European countries, and the fact that they’ve just now made masks mandatory … why didn’t they do it in March? More people in this country have got COVID-19 now than when we first went into lockdown, and yet now the Government says you can start going to the gym and doing whatever you want to do. That seems daft to me. If we’d been doing masks at the very beginning we probably would’ve had ten percent of the deaths we’ve lost in this country.
Anyway it’s crazy: I can’t wear this mask in a shop, and pay with Apple Pay, because it depends on facial recognition on my phone, which doesn’t recognise me with my mask on. So I’ve got to take my mask off to pay.
Welcome to the modern world …
Well quite. You know Procol Harum have something like 1.4 million listeners on Spotify. Imagine if that was 1.4 million album sales in these days. I mean, I don’t know how many Novums have sold, I think it’s done quite well, but I could hardly believe … just two days after the album came out, it was available in HD quality on YouTube. So if you wanted to listen to it, just download YouTube and off you’d go.
I really object to that part of the modern world. I’m still a CD buyer. I rarely buy downloads: I like the physical thing, I like a bit of artwork, I like to read it even if it’s just a few notes on the back. And it’s much easier to move around: you can stick it on in your car, or the stereo upstairs in your bedroom, wherever you might be. The trouble with iPhone listening, and it drives me crazy, is when a message comes in and you get Ping! or the volume drops or whatever.
I suppose some people get used to that.
Like they’ve got very used to mediocre audio. People are saying, ‘Oh I’ve got this great little Bose Bluetooth box, the size of a fag packet,’ and I think ‘Yeah well at least stick it on a decent pair of speakers and a decent amp, and maybe you’ll hear the quality, the time and effort that the producers and players put into it in the first place.’ So I really feel it’s very important that people pay for music. I couldn’t go into Starbucks and say, ‘Can I have a free coffee, and if I like it, I’ll recommend it to my mate down the road, then he can come and get one, and do the same.’ It just doesn’t work like that, and we’d all go out of business very quickly.
The whole point is to support Help Musicians, and if House of the Rising Sun sells well, all the money will go to musicians who have suffered during this dreadful pandemic. And it’s going quite well, insofar as it’s had lots of views: but whether that turns into sales is another question. It’s all about fundraising.
With a song about a brothel!
Well, why not! The reason we chose that song is that it’s out of copyright, because it was written in the Thirties, it’s not an Animals original. We wanted to do something that’s out of copyright, so we didn’t have to bother getting permission from publishers. And so that all the money goes to the charity. So let’s hope everyone who reads this will pass the message on, and lots of people will enjoy the song and make their donations to keep music, and musicians, alive.
Anyway, now I’ve got to go and sit in my lonely studio and write an album of cheesy TV themes, from the Seventies. I’m good at that, even though I say so myself. Lots of major sevenths, they love it.
Good luck with that, and the fundraising work! Meanwhile I’ll be down in the park, playing socially-distanced polkas from Sweden.
Brilliant. So that’s it! Love to everybody, and stay well.