Fire On The Stage

by Carl Wiser

When you have a song with "Fire" in the title, it's hard to resist the temptation to actually set something on fire when you perform it. Here are the three biggest burners.

Jimi Hendrix

The most famous flames came from Jimi Hendrix, who used the technique to get some heat in the media. It happened on March 31, 1967, when he played the Astoria Theatre in London. Hendrix had yet to release his first album, Are You Experienced, and found himself fourth on the bill, below The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens and Engelbert Humperdinck. During his song "Fire," he lit up his axe, burning his hands in the process.

Cameras weren't rolling for this show, but he kept at it, repeating the stunt throughout the year, including during the Monterey Pop Festival, where it was captured on film.

Anyone who has tried to start a bonfire knows that you can't just throw a match on a pile of wood and expect it to light up the night. The same principle holds for guitar burning: you need an accelerant. That's where lighter fluid comes into play. When he first burned his guitar, Hendrix threw down the instrument and moved away from it, drawing the eyes of the audience while his manager, Chas Chandler, doused it. As he refined the bit, Hendrix began applying the lighter fluid himself, doing it in a way that seemed ritual, as if part of a sacrifice.

The other logistical challenge is that once you burn your instrument, it no longer functions. That means you either need to end the show or have another standing by. At the Astoria, Hendrix grabbed another guitar and finished the song; at Monterey he smashed it to bits and called it a night.

You can see why this act isn't often repeated. Unlike, say, the stage dive, it can't happen on the spur of the moment, and there are likely some liability issues for bands that try it without necessary permits. And of course, a guitar is sacrificed in the process.

While the Hendrix song alludes to a metaphorical fire, it is still the best choice to soundtrack any inferno (unless the roof is on fire). During the third iteration of Woodstock in 1999 - the one that killed the franchise - any good vibes left over from the original festival were immolated when the crowd started tearing up the place. As fires broke out across the grounds (an Air Force base in Rome, New York - yes, Rome was burning), the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing. You can hear someone in the band (probably Anthony Kiedis) say, "You wanna do it?" And when he gets an affirmative "F--k yeah" (probably from Flea), they launch into "Fire."

Jerry Lee Lewis

According to legend, Jerry Lee Lewis - The Killer - was playing a show in 1958 that Chuck Berry was headlining. Objecting to being relegated to the undercard, Lewis made it his mission to upstage Berry, so he closed his set by roaring into his hit "Great Balls Of Fire" and setting his piano alight using a coke bottle filled with gasoline. He kept right on playing even as the flames rose from the instrument. Walking off stage, he told Berry, "Follow that!"

This story is dramatized in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire!, starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis.

It's a great story. The only problem is that it's not true. Lewis has given different accounts over the years, sometimes admitting that he made it up. If it happened, there were no witnesses. His bass player J.W. Brown - who was on stage with him for every show during this time - declared it fiction.

Arthur Brown

Arthur Brown has been setting his headgear on fire since 1968, and there's plenty of evidence to prove it. Here he is on Top Of The Pops:

The English singer scored a huge hit with his "Fire," which reached #1 in the UK and #2 in America. Brown calls himself the "God of Hellfire," a name he earned with his pyro fascination. He created the character for his album The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, a concept piece about a man who goes on an inner journey and enters a metaphorical inferno.

Theatrics are Brown's calling card - he developed his show in Paris, where he crossed paths with another experimental artist, David Bowie (at the time going by his real name, David Jones). Brown's flaming helmet was inspired by a crown of candles he spotted one day - the prefect headwear for a fire god. Even into the 2010s, he's still hot stuff.

May 6, 2016
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Comments: 1

  • Jim from North Billerica, MaFor the record, Griffiss AFB, the site of the infamous Woodstock '99 was already closed.
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