"I am the god of hellfire and I bring you … fire!” is, as quasi-ominous spoken-word introductions to rock songs go, far and away the ne plus ultra of the genre. Light years ahead of “Gunter glieben glauchen globen,” and you can tell Def Leppard we said that.
There’s a clip from a 1968 episode of Top of the Pops with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown doing their breakout hit “Fire,” smack at the peak of psychedelic rock’s golden age. Brown starts the set wearing a helmet with flaming, horseshoe-shaped horns, some kind of druid-y circle cloak and pancake evil clown makeup that a young Ace Frehley had to think was the coolest damn thing he’s ever seen.
Midway through, Brown shrugs off the cloak, and his chest is painted up like the world’s laziest Juggalo. He lets loose through the organ-driven riffs, dance moves somewhere between Iggy Pop, Laugh-In go-go and Gumby. It’s at that moment that you begin to grasp that you’ll never truly understand the ’60s if you didn’t live through the ’60s. Admitting that out loud means some aging Bay Area hippie gets his wings, but there you have it.
On a continuum of theatrics-driven spooky rock, Brown picked up where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins left off (covering “I Put a Spell on You” along the way) and immediately set the stage for self-proclaimed fan Alice Cooper. The biggest notch in Cooper’s Arthur Brown belt, though, might be the godfather of shock-rock’s part in luring Brown to play a rare U.S. gig this weekend, at Psycho Las Vegas, a four-day heavy-rock festival at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Brown remained active in Europe and got no less weird as the years went on. He champions a helmet that lets you make music with your brain waves as the next big thing. Though if psychic/head/theremin music took off, it wouldn’t be any less weird than the still-cresting popularity of the Daft Punk-inspired DJs-with-random-crap-on-their-noggins movement. But why come back across the pond now? It helps that Cooper sought Brown out to play a London Halloween show in 2011. Game respects greasepaint game.
Brown plays Fridays’ finale at the Joint, while Cooper himself closes out the show on Sunday. In-between, Psycho makes room in its wall-to-wall slate of doom, sludge and stoner-metal for a rousing selection of bona fide old-guy rock—and that’s not even accounting for those whippersnappers in Mudhoney heading up Thursday night’s pre-party show at the pool.
Sandwiched between Electric Wizard’s Black Sabbath revival riffs and the fuzz-stomp of Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats on Saturday is Blue Öyster Cult, the stone-cold originators of umlaut rock. Leading into ex-Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo’s Down on Saturday is Pentagram, the doom-metal pioneers that began in ’71, when just invoking a symbol was good for sufficient demon-cred without having to name your band “Circle of Dead Children.”
Detroit’s protopunk all-brother outfit Death was a going concern in 1971 and flamed out by ’77, only to see a resurrection in 2009. The surviving members got a documentary out of the deal, 2012’s critically acclaimed A Band Called Death. And Truth and Janey reaches back to 1969 and draws half its name from a Jeff Beck album, which qualifies it as practically folk-rock in this lineup.
Brown himself is 74 and still getting out there in facepaint, spaz-dancing to his own brand of psychedelia. And metal, by and large, exists in a timeless vacuum that not only honors its elder statesmen, but treats them as vibrant contemporaries in a way most genres don’t. If that doesn’t prove there isn’t hope for the wistful-remembrance-of-moshpits-past set, nothing will.
Psycho Las Vegas August 25-28, $99 day/$250 weekend, Hard Rock Hotel, psycholv.com.