Sunday, 18 April 2021

Alice Cooper - back when he was genuinely scary

Following on from my recent blog about the Frank Zappa movie, it's time to reminisce about one of the bands he took under his wing in the late 1960s, Alice Cooper. 

Zappa gave the Alice Cooper group a break when no one else would.

The group had moved From Phoenix, Arizona to Los Angeles in 1967 to make the big time, or so they thought. 

Zappa saw them live a few times at the Whisky A-Go-Go in 1968 and saw something within their shambolic stage act that he might be able to work with. He told them to come to his house to audition. They turned up at 7am one morning. Frank had meant for them to come at 7pm - he was still in bed. 

Not a nice way to wake up, because by all accounts the Alice Cooper group were pretty horrible to listen to, and fairly intimating too. They had a real knack for emptying a room in no time at all, said their singer.

Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa, 1968
Alice recalled that Zappa came to a show: "We scared the hell out of the audience - they were all on acid. We looked like we'd just come up out of the ground, and we didn't mind a little violence onstage. That audience couldn't get out of the room fast enough. It was like somebody yelled "FIRE!" 

There were three people left standing. Frank said, "Anybody that can clear a room that quick, I've got to sign."

The resulting records on Frank's Straight label, Pretties for You and Easy Action, bore little of the production values displayed on their later records. Sales were slim.

Zappa's patronage took them nowhere. The band felt they were out of step with the laid back music culture in LA. "They were all on acid and we were drinking beer," said Alice. So in 1970 they moved to Detroit, where Alice was from. 

"Told her that I came from Detroit city
- and I played guitar in a long-haired rock 'n' roll band."

Love It To Death, 1971
Alice Cooper the band were a close-knit gang and certainly looked the part, with their mix of glam and Rolling Stones early 70s-style chic. They just needed the right producer to deliver on their potential. 

That's when the group hooked up with producer Bob Ezrin and refined their 'theatre of the grotesque' stage act, complete with guillotines, electric chairs, fake blood, reptiles and mutilated dolls.

Ezrin's productions were all about drama and he worked at convincing the band to refine their stage act into more polished songs. He also drafted in some sessions musicians to bolster the sound.

And just like that, they had a US hit single, I'm Eighteen in late 1970 and early '71. It was enough to convince Warner Brothers to offer the group a budget for the first of their classic run of albums, Love It To Death

Touring America in the summer of 1971, the band really began to up the theatrics, with Alice appearing in a straitjacket during The Ballad of Dwight Fry and being sent to the electric chair in Black Juju

Killer, 1971

The band's popularity grew further with the release of the album Killer in late 1971. It contained a stronger more cohesive set of songs that have remained fan favorites. 

Side One is literally all Killer, no filler. Opening with the one-two punch of Under My Wheels and Be My Lover, followed by one of the bands most successful extended tracks, the eight minute Halo of Flies

Showing they could combine the Detroit rock styling with more complex arrangements, Ezrin topped it all off with typically grandiose production and string arrangements to enhance the drama. 

After the tension and release in Halo of Flies, side one closed with one of Alice and guitarist Michael Bruce's best co-compositions, Desperado

The Killer tour, 1972
I've always viewed these two songs as a one-two punch. The change of pace and mood of Desperado is the perfect complement to Halo of Flies and adds new depth to the album. Alice claimed he wrote it about The Doors' singer Jim Morrison, who died around the time the album was being made in 1971.

Controversy was never far away from Alice Cooper in this era, and that was just the way they wanted it. On Killer the song Dead Babies stirred up a heap of trouble. Despite the band's claim that the song was railing against child abuse, the guardians of the public morals decided it was nothing short of satanic. 

1972 calendar from Killer
Alice's notoriety had reached British shores by this point and when School's Out became a number one hit in 1972, there were calls by Mary Whitehouse and members of the British Parliament to have the group banned from the UK. 

Leo Abse MP described Alice Cooper's act as "the culture of the concentration camp. His incitement to infanticide and his commercial exploitation of masochism is evidently an attempt to teach our children to find their destiny in hate, not in love."

The establishment was outraged. A report in The Guardian newspaper in 1973 said, "It is the Cooper stage show which arouses alarm. I saw him perform in his home town of Detroit last month. Although the thick clouds of marijuana probably preserved me from too sadistic a reaction, wax babies were smashed and impaled on guitars. 

Disco 45, 1972
"Alice was beheaded and his bleeding neck and the bodies of shop-window mannequins were nuzzled and gnawed to the accompaniment of a throbbing, relentless tide of menacing rock music."

Of course, this only made fans even more determined to buy the group's records and concert tickets. 

Alice and Warner Brothers made the most of all this publicity. The School's Out LP came with the record wrapped around a pair of disposable knickers.

This raw live performance of the School's Out album track Public Animal #9 shows how the Alice Cooper sound and attitude influenced future punk Johnny Rotten, who once claimed that Killer was his favourite record. 

In the late summer of 1972, in the run-up to the US presidential election, Alice Cooper released the single Elected. The promotional video, seen on Top Of The Pops, showed Alice on the campaign trail, stepping out of a limousine in New York City and greeting potential voters in a white suit and tails and a top hat. 

His campaign message was simple and direct. At the end of the song he can heard proclaiming:
"And if I am elected, I promise the formation of a new party - A third party, the Wild Party!
I know we have problems. We got problems right here in Central City,
We have problems on the North, South, East and West,
New York City, Saint Louis, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago,
Everybody has problems,
And personally, I don't care."
45s and the free flexi-disc from NME in 1973
, the 45, was slightly edited and had a different mix from the subsequent album version, with a grungier guitar sound. I can still remember the thrill of hearing that intro blasting out at a local church disco.

The group's biggest selling album, Billion Dollar Babies, was previewed for fans in Britain by a promotional flexi-disc given away with the weekly music paper NME in February 1973. 

Pretty much every song on the album was a big production number. Probably the most over-the-top was Unfinished Sweet, with Alice in the dentist's chair about to have his gums removed. Ezrin's orchestral arrangement was aptly melodramatic.

The album's finale was the outrageous and anthemic I Love The Dead, another song that would have had Mary Whitehouse tearing her hair out.

No one cared. Billion Dollar Babies was a number one album on both sides of the Atlantic. The record was packaged elaborately, including a billion dollar note. The band were headlining tours around the world and they looked the part, dressed up in white silk suits on the inside sleeve of the record. 

But by 1974 things began falling apart. There were disagreements over how much money was being spent on the stage shows. Alice wanted to go more in the theatrical direction, but the others wanted to get back to being a rock band. 

Meanwhile Alice was probably being encouraged by the record company to ditch the band and carry on as a solo artist, formally adopting the Alice Cooper name as his own.

Drugs and alcohol played their part in the downfall. Alice, nowadays teetotal, was back then never pictured without a beer in his hand. Lead guitarist Glen Buxton contributed less and less in the studio and was excluded altogether from the recording of the next record, Muscle Of Love

The crucial split came with Bob Ezrin. Mike Bruce and Ezrin clashed over the arrangement of one of the new songs and Ezrin quit. The band has lost their production wizard. The resultant album had fewer quality songs and less of the sparkle of the previous records. Bass player Dennis Dunaway said later: "We could tell that everything was being pulled out from underneath us. As hard as we tried to get it back to where it once was, we had that sinking feeling."

And that, sadly for the rest of the band, is where the story ended. A group that had worked for 10 years to make it was fairly suddenly cast adrift. Alice took the name and struck out on his own with Bob Ezrin back in the producer's chair. 

The first Alice Cooper solo album, Welcome To My Nightmare, gave him a platform to develop the Alice character and sustain his career to this day. 

But by leaving the band behind, he lost a degree of credibility. No longer scary, just cartoonish. Rolling Stone's review said that "without the wildness and drive the Cooper band had, the gimmicks on which Alice the performer must rely are flat and obvious."

Overall, the reviewers were generous about Welcome To My Nightmare. But a later review of Alice's solo career concluded that despite this promising start, "the majority of his subsequent releases were often not as focused and were of varying quality."

Alice Cooper interviewed  by Russell Harty, 1975

Dennis Dunaway on life in the Alice Cooper group

Eighteen and Black Juju, live 1971

Alice Cooper and Vincent Price perform The Black Widow, 1975

See also on this blog:

Slade, the 1970s Glam Rockers back at Number One

At Home With The Bolans, 1971

There's a lot to like in the ZAPPA movie

No comments:

Post a Comment