Friday 16 October 2015

Alice Cooper

Detroit High School friends Vincent Furnier (later known as Alice Cooper), Dennis Dunaway and Glen Buxton first came together in the band The Earwigs in 1964.  Whilst they couldn't actually play, this did not stop them entering a local talent show and miming to Beatles tracks.  The experience of being on stage (and the fact that they won) inspired them to learn their chosen instruments, and renamed themselves The Spiders.
They released their fist single on a small, local record label, and the following year after graduating from High School and adding Michael Bruce to the line-up, released a second single to local acclaim.
1967 saw them renaming themselves The Nazz, recruiting drummer Neal Smith and re-locating to Los Angeles.
Another name change came in 1968 when it was discovered that Todd Rundgren's band had the same name, and The Alice Cooper Band was born.

The name Alice Cooper was taken from an American TV Series, and adapted/enhanced by the band with the addition of Baby Jane make-up and a lady killer back story.  This was the gimmick the band were looking for to add showmanship and theatre to their psychedelic-rock stage set.  The apocryphal tale, and widely accepted as fact (and not corrected by the band themselves) of the name coming from a Ouija Board has been subsequently de-bunked by the man himself.

Following an unsuccessful show which apparently cleared the venue after 15 minutes, the band were approached to audition for Frank Zappa's label Straight.  They dutifully arrived at the pre-arranged time and played their own brand of theatrical psychedelic rock.  The fact it was 7:00 AM, and not 7:00 PM as Zappa had intended did not dampen his enthusiasm and the band were signed to the label.

Debut album 'Pretties For You' was released in 1969 to limited response, and very little critical acclaim.  The album is a sort of American take on Pink Floyd psychedelia, but never breaks away and seems to remain pretty static (and, if I'm honest) and uninspired throughout.  It is listenable in the context of future offerings, but on its own it is not one I would return to.  The same can be said of 'Easy Action' (1970) - OK, but not devastatingly special.

Seemingly going nowhere in Los Angeles, the band returned home to Detroit and found themselves in the middle of an enthusiastic audience and burgeoning music scene featuring MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges.  The sound of the band toughened up too - psychedelia being replaced by a twin guitar hard rock sound.
In mid-1970, Frank Zappa sold Straight to Warner Brothers - so by default, the band found themselves with new paymasters.  "I'm Eighteen" was released as a single in November 1970 - performance of which dictated whether the band would/could record an album.
The presence of Bob Ezrin in the producers chair may be entirely coincidental, but the bands next album 'Love It To Death' was a huge jump in terms of songwriting and performance consistency.
Although not a world beater of an album, you can hear a band finding and exploiting their sound, and in the shape of "I'm Eighteen", "Is It My Body" and "The Ballad Of Dwight Fry" has three tracks that should form part of any Alice Cooper compilation.

As a result of continued promotion, including a tour featuring the execution of Alice Cooper (the first of many) and a hard rock (almost punk, before punk) band dressed up in burgeoning Glam Rock style, the public and the band and the Record company had high confidence of the next album "Killer".
Released in November 1971, the album is truly the beginning of the bands Imperial Phase.  Side 1 contains "Under My Wheels" (a dirty 12 bar blues on speed), "Be My Lover" (slower, still blues based but verging on Doo-Wop), "Halo Of Flies" is an attempt at Prog (King Crimsom-ish?) and "Desperado" is probably the best song The Doors never wrote (stick a Ray Manzarek keyboard on it, and it'd probably sit nicely on LA Woman).
Note: this is purely my opinion, and whilst it may upset Doors fans, then so be it!
Side 2 could never really compete after those 4 tracks, but they do manage to lever in controversy with "Dead Babies" and the title track "Killer" is as good as anything on Side 1 and closes the album pretty much perfectly.

'Schools Out' is perhaps the most well known (if only due to the single) of all Alice Cooper albums, but is not what you expect it to be.
It comes from a similar. but pushes itself with diversions/additions of Jazz and Broadway Musicals.
The title track doesn't necessarily fit with all the other tracks, but you'd miss it if it wasn't there.  And in this setting/order it works perfectly.
"Schools Out" opens the album on a high, "Luney Tune" keeps up the pace.
And then West Side Story kicks in with "Gutter Cat vs The Jets" - this is the point you think: "Heh?  This wasn't what I was expecting.  But I'm going to keep listening anyway".  The charisma and playing of the band keep you wanting more - it could almost be in any style, you're stuck for the next half hour or so, and want to hear what comes next.  "Blue Turk" continues the jazz-infused West Side Story musical theme, and nestled away in the middle of Side 2 is the best track on the album "Public Animal Number 9"
The album closes with the instrumental "Grand Finale" - almost like West Side Story meets big screen Cowboy movie - which never really breaks out into what you expect.  In fact it all sounds very restrained.
It's a strange album, because the title track suggests what is coming, but what the album does is confound you with a breadth of sound you weren't expecting, and walk away thoroughly satisfied.

And so to the pinnacle of the Alice Cooper catalogue - 'Billion Dollar Babies'.  Released in 1973 and hit Number 1 in the UK and US.  The band have never sounded this tight, or the vocals sounded this confident bouncing between characters and vocal ranges seemingly at will.
Many of the songs here have a "pop sensibility" about them (ie you wouldn't be too surprised to find them burned in your head, or absent-mindedly whistled by the Postman or Window Cleaner).  But there is also a darkness about the lyrical content and the delivery.  "Hello Hooray" opens the album in a properly welcoming style, if slightly on the edge of sinister, before the darkness descends with "Raped and Freezing".  "Elected" returns to sing-along (shout along?) style coupled with humurous, possibly sardonic and cutting lyrics.
The title track sees Alice Cooper inhabiting two distinct personalities - one in the form of a narrator, and the other sounding completely unhinged ("I'm so scared your little head will fall of in my hands").
"Unfinished Sweet" is basically a song about candy (or 'sweets' as they are correctly called in the UK).  It mixes distorted bass, trebly guitar stubs and thudding drum before opening into a straight rock song with stabs of psychedelia.  The effects employed, the seemingly disjointed instrumental passages (at one point deploying a close approximation of the James Bond Theme), the keyboard wash sound and eerie vocal sounds combine together to produce an intense, possibly disturbing whole.
The pop sensibility returns with "No More Mr Nice Guy" (which sounds a bit weedy after "Unfinished Sweet").  Whilst it is one of Alice Coopers better known songs, it does fall somewhat short when compared with the rest of this album.
A low bass and jaunty guitar heralds the introduction of "Generation Landslide", the song unfolds with simple acoustic guitar over a repetitious drum beat.  This is social commentary Alice Cooper style, and you can hear him growling through the song, and ends with an unexpected harmonica solo.
"Sick Things" is ultimately disposable, and perhaps trying a bit too hard to be dark and scary, but does add to the black, horror style of the album (albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek).  This is followed by the seemingly simplistic piano ballad "Mary Ann".  Rooted in 40s/50s balladry, there are very few lines to the song which resolves itself in gender confusion ("Mary Ann, I though you were my man"), but you've gotta love the confidence in the band to stick a barrel-house piano song as the penultimate track on this album.
"I Love The Dead" is perhaps quintessential Alice Cooper - a sloppy bass introduction, a half-sung/half-spoken delivery and a subject matter straight from the graveyard.  The song is a celebration of necrophilia.  There a few lyrics, but a full atmospheric sound culminating in an anthemic sing-a-long, and ending with a couple of sharp horn blasts akin to Psycho, and then a sinister "Nothing!".
Surely it can't just be me that can see immense humour about 50,000 people in a field in Reading shouting and swaying along to "I Love The Dead"?

I realise 'Billion Dollar Babies' has been afforded more space in this write-up, but that's because it deserves it!

So after you've got to the top, where next?  Consolidate and incrementally improve?  Tread water and take the plaudits of expectation?  Lose yourself in alcohol and narcotics, leading to the loss of your producer and ultimately the break up of the band?

For their next outing, it was the latter of these options that the band chose. That is not to say that 'Muscle Of Love' is a bad album, far from it, it just can't compete with the previous 3 releases.
There are some strong songs here in the shape of "Muscle Of Love", "Never Been Sold Before", "Working Up A Sweat" and "Teenage Lament 74".  There is even an attempt to get a James Bond Theme Song with (possibly unintentionally hilarious) "The Man With The Golden Gun" - the band studied all previous Bond Themes and constructed this track for formal submission.  However, in true Spinal Tap style they submitted a day too late, so lost out to Lulu.

Internal band frictions, and the realisation that 'Muscle Of Love' would not reach the same heights as 'Billion Dollar Babies' convinced the band to take a break from each other - this break became a permanent split, with Alice Cooper retaining the name for his solo ventures and recruiting a new band (effectively what was Lou Reed's band).

The Imperial Phase is rounded off by a Greatest Hits compilation drawing material from the last 4 albums.  If you want to know about this phase of the bands career, this compilation will do the job admirably (although the only track from 'Schools Out' is the title track, so novice hunters may be in for a shock should they go deeper than the compilation).

The first fruits of Alice's solo career was 'Welcome To My Nightmare'.  This is a concept album charting the journey through the dreams/nightmares of the (later named) Steven.
The darkness of the lyrics and the vocals are taken up a notch (you feel like some of the tongue in cheek is missing, and he's playing it for real now), and the band plays straight, perhaps missing some of the chemistry/embellishments that may have come with the previous band members.
The fact that Bob Ezrin was back in the chair may (again) be entirely coincidental but there is a confidence and swagger about the album that was absent from the tired sounding 'Muscle Of Love'.
The title track "Welcome To My Nightmare" and "Department Of Youth" rank among the best songs he's ever released, but special mention should be given to the (seemingly out of place) ballad "Only Women Bleed" - a song of almost heart-rending confession and tenderness (is that the right word?) it is difficult to believe it has come from Alice Cooper.  There is an air of contrition and apology, and the song has been covered by many female artists including Elkie Brooks, Julie Covington, Lita Ford, Tina Turner and Tori Amos.  These covers tend to be from a female perspective (obviously) and offer a message of empowerment - who'd of thunk it, Alice Cooper: The voice of Female Rights.

'Welcome To My Nightmare' is the last truly great album Alice Cooper released.  After that it really was a case of diminishing returns.

Alice Cooper descends deeper into alcohol and narcotic abuse, and the albums do greatly suffer as a result.  There is a feeling of Contractual Obligation about the albums that followed - a case of not really trying too hard.  There are some high points, but these a few and far between.
"I Never Cry" from 'Alice Cooper Goes To Hell' is one such moment of light - the ballad is a virtual admittance of his alcoholism and you can almost feel the regret and helplessness.
In fairness, he did try a change of style with 1977s 'Lace And Whiskey' but it didn't really come off.  Likewise the return to the Comic Book Horror on 'From The Inside' just feels a bit cartoon-y, and trying too hard.  Not even the addition of Elton John's band can lift this much above "Average".
The first album of the 80s ('Flush The Fashion') is best described as Solid - there are some good songs on here, but could benefit form more work and they don't sound fully formed or finished.  The one exception that rises above the rest of the album is "Pain" - a song not to dis-similar from much of his past (and future) output but seemingly consigned to history (only Alice nerds seem to recognise it as one of his best).
Alice Cooper admits to having some recollection of the recording of 'Flush The Fashion', unlike the three albums that follow ('Special Forces' (1981), 'Zipper Catches Skin' (1982) and 'DaDa' (1983)).  Collectively, these albums are described as The Blackout Years - now, this may be a label of convenience or a revision of history, but there is very little on these records to redeem them, and even less to add to the Alice Cooper cannon.
This marked the end of his association with Warner Brothers.  After a period in rehab and a return to health and sobriety, Alice Cooper started writing and recording again - he was also invited to appear (in full make-up in a Twisted Sister video).  Renewed public interest resulted in signing to MCA Records, and the release of 'Constrictor', preceded by the single "He's Back (The Man Behind The Mask)".
Whilst not wishing to deride this album, and the follow-up 'Raise Your Fist And Yell', but beneath the glossy late 80s production, one can't help feel this is Alice Cooper By Numbers.
The decade is rounded off with the release of 'Trash' - a chance for Alice Cooper to translate his burgeoning "Legend of Rock" status into commercial shiny late 80s Hair Metal.
1991s 'Hey Stoopid' continued to play on this status, resulting in the album sounding laboured and drawn out - a real case of not trying too hard.  His appearance in the film Waynes World further consolidated this reverence, but also changed public perception of him from a Shock Rocker to be scared of, into a media figure.  He was portrayed as articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and restrained - those elements of his natural character which were hidden behind the make-up.

Alice Cooper continued to release records in parallel to his media activity, including numerous film and TV appearances, TV adverts, and his own Radio show.
As I don't actually own any of these, a quick trip to YouTube and Spotify suggests that whilst they are certainly listenable, there is very little there of any noticeable substance (except perhaps 'Welcome 2 My Nightmare' which is written in my notebook under the title "Explore Further ...")


Under My Wheels

I Love The Dead

Only Women Bleed