What band exudes the eerie aura of All Hallows’ Eve more than Alice Cooper does? There was a mystique—jejune and over-the-top as it now may seem—surrounding the band that once thrilled young rock fans and filled their parents with absolute dread.
It has been perhaps forgotten in these latter days of sanguine and violent images, blatant sexuality, and perverse language—and I am only referring to children’s TV programming!—that in the early 1970s Alice Cooper was deemed highly offensive and downright dangerous to the Moral Majority, as the self-righteous prig Mary Whithouse, whom Roger Waters savaged in the Pink Floyd song “Pigs”, actually got the song “School’s Out” banned in Britain. Even today, I’d be willing to bet playing the song “Dead Babies” could make many a listeners’ skin crawl–nearly 40 years after it was first released on the Killer album (1971).
From a personal standpoint, my adoration for The Coop started in 1972, when I was snuck out of my house under false pretenses and brought surreptitiously to an Alice Cooper concert by my older (and infinitely cool) cousins. As a naïve and rather nerdy twelve-year-old at the time, Cooper gave me a vision of what one could do with Rock-and-Roll. He sang to a boa constrictor! He hacked up baby dolls! He was hung upon a gibbet in the middle of the stage! Oh, good lord, I had seen the Promised Land!
Upon returning home after the concert, I drew Alice Cooper eyes on all my sister’s dolls, started growing my hair and borrowed money from my parents to buy a guitar, a used $35 Silvertone acoustic with strings about a half-inch off the fret board—my fingers bled for weeks! Life ain’t been the same since, and I sincerely thank Alice Cooper for my blessed conversion to the dark side!
And that was the subversive enticement of Cooper to kids, and the dangerous foreboding to their shocked parents: lewd and crude rock, rebellion, individualism, and, of course, a little mayhem. I can recall getting the Cooper album School’s Out confiscated at the Catholic school I once attended. You see, the cover was a replica of an old oaken school desktop, carved with band members’ initials and a stylized Alice Cooper insignia (a knife stabbing down through a heart). But that wasn’t the problem. Open the school desk, and lo and behold! The record sleeve was a pair of women’s panties. Needless to say, the nuns were not as appreciative of high art as I was.
Alice Cooper was very artistic in a theatrical sense, and countless bands (KISS, Twisted Sister, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, GWAR, etc.) owe him a debt of gratitude as a visionary and groundbreaker—or gravedigger, as it were. But I come not to bury Cooper, I come to praise him (or them, as early in their career the entire band was known by the odd name, supposedly divined from a Ouija board).
Love It to Death (1971) is Alice Cooper’s masterpiece, just a notch above the album Killer (released later in the same year). This was the band’s breakthrough album, and the first of four consecutive platinum selling albums as an entity (Vincent Furnier, the lead singer, legally changed his name to Alice Cooper in 1974, and went solo in 1975).
The gloomy atmospherics and dark tonal quality of Love It to Death were due in part to Bob Ezrin, who produced the album and also contributed significant keyboard parts to several songs. It was Ezrin who chipped away at the band’s penchant for psychedelia—evident on their first two albums, Pretties for You (1969) and Easy Action (1970), both commercial failures—and revealed the hard rocking and maleficent Alice that was about to take the unsuspecting (and appalled) world by storm.
Like Birmingham, England’s Black Sabbath, Detroit’s Alice Cooper eschewed flower power and offered a more grim and heavier music, in tune with the industrialized, working class areas where they played, and not the sunny, acid-tripping scenes of hippie havens like San Francisco or Los Angeles. This was the gnarled roots of heavy metal. “We wanted to see what was next,” Alice later recalled. “It turned out we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation.”
Nowhere is this break with trippy, dippy 1960s music more evident than on “Hallowed Be My Name” which begins with a sinister organ and includes decidedly dark lyrics like “Sluts and the hookers have taken your money/The queens are out dancing but now it’s not funny/’Cause there goes one walkin’ away with your sonny/Cursing their lovers/Cursing the Bible”. This was definitely not Wavy Gravy’s morning music to wake the muddy and bemused masses at Woodstock. This was something altogether different. This was downright evil.
Of course, the album includes “I’m Eighteen”, the eternal teen tune of angst and self-loathing, which gave Alice Cooper the mega hit they needed to hit the big time. But that song is actually of secondary consideration to the more ominous songs that make this album such a frightful delight.
The “Ballad of Dwight Fry”—Dwight Frye was the actor who played the insane Renfield in the original Dracula movie with Bela Lugosi—is alone worth the price of admission. No creepier tune has ever been written. When Cooper starts hissing about stealing children’s playthings, it is unnerving to hear. Although Cooper has certainly tried to top “Dwight Fry” on several occasions during his solo career, he never reached the level of dementia that he portrayed with such relish in that song, and usually ended up sounding crampy rather than crazy.
In another song “Black Juju”, the malevolence is nearly palpable. The music is slithery and sinewy, with drums droning a tribal beat and the bass (played by the highly underrated Dennis Dunaway, who also wrote the song) is a deep, disturbed heartbeat, thrumming to a manic crescendo at song’s end. “Second Coming” is also brimming with brimstone, with skewed electric guitars, meandering piano, and megalomaniacal pronouncements of Cooper’s Messiah-like character acting as a perfect segue into the mad maelstrom of “Ballad of Dwight Fry”.
More conventional rock songs, such as “Long Way to Go” (“’What’s keeping us apart isn’t selfishness/What’s holding us together isn’t love”), and “Caught in a Dream,” reflect the maturing songwriting skills of the band, which would reach greater heights as they became reliable hit makers on such albums as Killer, School’s Out, and Billion Dollar Babies.
The album ends with “Sun Arise”, an unlikely Cooper selection written by Aussies Rolf Harris and Harry Butler, who specialized in children’s nature programming, and whose big hit had the memorable title, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”—I am not making this up. In any case, “Sun Arise” works on the album.
Sadly, Alice and I grew apart over the years, particularly because The Coop dropped his original band (Neal Smith on drums, Dennis Dunaway on bass, Glenn Buxton and Michael Bruce on guitars), which was unfortunate as they were really tight. And as I mentioned previously in regards to Dunaway, they were all very underrated musicians who produced a phenomenally polished and distinctive sound for a hard rock band.
It didn’t help that Alice Cooper became a parody of himself, sinking lower and lower into self-impersonation and character assassination as his solo career digressed. As with many relationships, one simply outgrows the situation.
But the biting music and bizarre stage show of Alice Cooper proved pivotal for a prepubescent coming of age in the 1970s. And for that, I have the warmest regards for dear ol’ uncle Alice. Or would that be aunt Alice?