I really, really like Alice Cooper. Yes, even more than Charles Shaar Murray does. He is a bit overly critical in this article, but then again – this was the 70s, when every other album in retrospect was a classic. It was a magical time for music, and the standards were very high. So I guess that you can`t blame Mr. Murray for not praising everything that Cooper had done. And, I do agree that “Muscle Of Love” wasn`t Cooper`s greatest moment. I think Alice would agree with that one.
Have fun reading this long and informative article summarizing Alice`s career thus far.
Yes, once again CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY, Regius Professor of Logic, Rhetoric, Trash Aesthetics, and Hohner Super Vamper, leaps forth with a mouthful of scintillating verbosity aimed, with all the abandon of the truly crazed, straight at your frontal lobes, readers all. If he`s reduced you to a frothing heap before, take guard – for now, before your very eyes, witness the climactic horror of this week`s episode:
THE MAN WHO ATE ALICE COOPER
The trouble with Alice Cooper is that he never really understood what tastelessness was all about.
Ostensibly, the raison d`etre of the Alice Cooper assault on public credulity, gullibility and excess income was founded on the assumption that the public enactment of the American Nightmare was a ritual of liberation and purification – plus the entire logical belief that said assault would garner a whole lotta green ones for all concerned.
The method employed would consist of a show that was the ultimate in tastelessness.
The litany of furnishings in Cooper`s chamber of horrors is by now long since mutated into the stuff of legend: baby-killing, necrophilia, the use of powerfully emotive death-symbols such as electric chairs, gallows and guillotines, a couple of gallons of sour-mash sex-role ambiguity, a plague of pythons, several dozen dead chickens and a lot of enthusiastically aggressive rock-and-roll.
All of which merely proves how little Cooper knows about tastelessness. What he`s into is bad taste, which is a totally different ball game, and in an infinitely lower league. Tastelessness is an arrogant rejection of the obsolete and restrictive concepts of both good and bad taste; bad taste is an acknowledgment of the existence merely of good taste and a conscious attempt to defy it.
One would place the Stones and all other great pulp artists in the first category; Alice Cooper belongs firmly in the second.
The first mass public manifestation of the man/organism generally known as Alice Cooper was in 1969, when something answering to this description was announced as an early signing to Frank Zappa`s Straight label.
Straight, it will be recalled, was the companion to Bizarre in F.V.Z.`s Warner-Reprise-backed campaign to demolish the world with an exquisitely-orchestrated barrage of esoteric tastelessness (see above). The something turned out to be Alice Cooper; or to put it another way: Alice Cooper (vocal/harp), Glen Buxton (lead guitar), Michael Bruce (guitar/piano), Dennis Dunaway (bass) and Neil Smith (drums).
Alice Cooper was a preacher`s son from Phoenix, Arizona.
His real name was Vincent Furnier, a fact which he successfully managed to keep a secret until he`d been a superstar for nearly two years. He also used to be in a group called the Spiders (not THE Spiders), and also in a group called the Nazz (not THE Nazz, either). After these blinding successes, he worked his way from Phoenix to Detroit to L.A., by which time he was conjoined with those other guys as Alice Cooper (moving fast tonight, folks).
As documented on their first album “Pretties For You” (Straight), the Alice Cooper of that time were a vastly pretentious and laughably inept psychedelic punk garage band, distinguished from platoons of similar oafish combos by a kind of low- budget Theatre-Of-Cruelty presentation and a primitive gesture in the direction of sex-role ambiguity. The reason that they got signed is that most audiences found the band actively repulsive.
Legend hath it that their emergence on record was due to the fact that they had snuck into Frank Zappa`s Laurel Canyon basement in the small hours of the morning and commenced to churn out some absurdly ugly music, thereby provoking Uncle Frank to stumble in, clad in bedsocks and nightcap, mumbling something to the effect that if youse guys will kindly shut the hell up and get the hell out and let me get the hell to sleep I will sign you and your absurdly ugly music to my label (which is extremely heavy duty and is incorporated in my corporate logo). See my manager, Herbie Cohen.” Apochryphal though it may be, it seems as plausible and generally true-to-life as any other possible explanation for the appearance of “Pretties For You.”
The cover of this particular product depicted a young girl lifting her skirt and revealing her panties to a less than fascinated older man in a lumpy overcoat, which was all part of the Cooper aesthetic of being as offensive as was humanly possible – i.e. pretending to be a fag act, throwing chickens at the audience and like that. The album itself is a rather pitiful collection of tattered cliches disinterred from old Yardbirds, Beatles and Stones` LPs coupled with earnest attempts to mimic the more obvious effects handed down to posterity by Big Guys like Iron Butterfly, the Moody Blues and the Mothers.
1970 brought a second album on Straight, entitled “easy Action,” which found the Coopers slightly more proficient and slightly less pretentious, but still by no means either impressive or interesting. Lester Bangs (at that time still two Deep Purple albums away from entering his punk phase) described the first Cooper album in Rolling Stone as being “totally dispensable.” On the evidence of “Pretties For You” and “Easy Action” he was dead right.
Incidentally, they are both now available for your inspection, reincarnated as a Warners double album entitled “School Days.” Central Quality Control recommends that they be investigated only for reasons of research.
Things commenced to get mildly interesting once the band split (or were split, as the case may be) from Zappa and Cohen, and eventually found themselves ensconced with a gent named Shep Gordon (who did the managing) and a Canadian geezer named Bob Ezrin (who did the producing).
The first album to come from this exciting combination of talents was “Love It To Death” (Warner Bros.), and it was clear that Ezrin had earned every letter of his production credit. Why, the band sounded almost tight, they had magically learned the gentle art of pacing and dynamics and they had even managed to write A Classic.
Said Classic was a song called “I`m Eighteen,” and coming from a zero-quality band like the Coopers, it was nothing less than phenomenal. Side one, track two on the album, it was a pleasant cross between punk introspection and teen ballad, all about how confused the narrator felt to have reached the age of eighteen.
“Lines form on my face and hands/lines form from the ups and downs/I`m in the middle without any plans/I`m a boy and I`m a man,” sings Cooper. “I`m eighteen and I don`t know what to do,” before getting to his punch line, “I`m eighteen and I like it.”
In many ways, it was the long-delayed answer to that popular musical question of the `50s: “Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love?”
Basically, it was a masterstroke of audience identification. Alternatively, it was a genuinely sensitive exploration of the eternal dilemma of the adolescent. Your choice will count for 3% of your total final mark.
The cover of “Love It To Death” displayed the Coopers in pouts and make-up sleazing it up for all they were worth (which was comparatively little until “I`m Eighteen” went monstrous) but looking rather too butch to carry it off with the total elan of a Bowie. The cover pictures established that they were a bunch of twerps trying to look like street punks trying to look like drag queens.
The music contained in this particular objet d`art in no way outshone “I`m Eighteen,” but it was solid, competent and could even be suspected of having been in recent close contact with an idea. “Is It My Body?” presented Cooper rather coyly posing that very question soulfully adding, “Or do you want to find out who I really am?” which could put anybody of heavy petting.
An early significant homage to old movies was paid by “The Ballad Of Dwight Frye.” As any fool knows, Dwight Frye is the name of the actor who played Henry Frankenstein`s hunchbacked assistant Fritz in Boris Karloff`s first “Frankenstein” movie for Universal Pictures in 1931.
The album`s principal triumph of kitsch was the inclusion of Rolf Harris` “Sun Arise,” which is performed with a touching degree of reverence for the original. There was also a slight but catchy little song called “We Sure Got A Long Way To Go,” which Cooper was later to use at the climax of his concerts to rebuke audiences whose bloodlust got too ludicrous.
So the Ezrin-augmented Coopers came virtually out of nowhere with a good album and the first of their two all-time classic singles.
Until “I`m Eighteen,” they had been a minor cult band (with what little reputation they possessed based almost entirely on their associations with Zappa and fancifully embellished gossip about some of their more ridiculous concerts), but suddenly they`d made it with a big hit single, thereby becoming public property.
Given the higher budget that comes with fame, they got seriously into the theatrics; and the next step was to take as razed such pettifogging social problem as adolescent traumas and sexual identity, and get into big stuff, like psychopathy, execution and baby-killing.
Having done their collective best to mess around with America`s sexuality, the next major section of its soul that they were going to go down on was America`s Massive Collective Death Wish.
The next album was “Killer”, and the presentation of their next tour was built around it.
“Killer” merits some serious attention because it`s probably Alice Cooper`s best album, and though it contained nothing as epic as “I`m Eighteen,” it consolidated Cooper`s claim to being an outstanding `70s act. Under Ezrin`s guidance, the band sounded like an excellent second division act with a first division singer and first division songs.
Cooper himself was indeed an excellent singer; his voice was light but rough and he`d clearly heard enough Jim Morrison to know how to exploit a lyric to its fullest. He didn`t play very good harp though.
The songs, mostly written by Cooper and Michael Bruce, were flash, arrogant, pointed and reasonably inventive, plus they showed an advanced awareness of the techniques of persona manipulation.
Cooper`s lifestyle included getting himself blurred around the edges on beer at grotesquely early hours of the morning, and staying that way all day while subjecting himself to a permanent barrage of the pernicious nonsense that serves America for daytime television. (In all fairness, American TV is not significantly more pernicious than British TV, but at least there are three times as many different kinds of perniciousness to choose from).
Anyway, anybody who watched non-stop daytime TV while mildly drunk for any significant period of time would probably turn into a psychopath – or at least a good imitation of one, which latter fate overtook our Mr. Cooper.
Due to the added sensitivity lent him by his phenomenal intake of beer and his intensive study of the insights imparted him through his TV set, he was able to chart the major American phobias with unerring accuracy. He was living proof that a man who spends most of his life pissed in front of a TV set can still make a million dollars.
So at one moment he was the arrogant rock star of “Under My Wheels” and “Be My Lover,” next time you looked he was the phantom jetset poisoner of the truly surreal “Halo Of Flies” (complete with oh-so-macabre quote of the melody of “My Favourite Things”) and then the leather-clad gun-slinger of “Desperado”, which (courtesy of Ezrin) was blessed with an orchestral arrangement worthy of Dimitri Tiomkin himself and (courtesy of Cooper and Bruce) a lyrical ambiguity which oscillates between the Old West and modern times. Cooper trotted out his most Morrisonian intonations for lines like “I`m a killer and…I`m a clown,” which folded back out of the song into his own basic persona.
“Killer`s” most notorious piece of unpleasantness came on the second side with the justly celebrated “Dead Babies”. The sheer calculatedness of the whole Cooper trip was more than a little apparent, but the tongue-in-cheek arrangement (complete with backing voice doing French horn impressions in a determinedly Beatlesque way that actually owed more to “Little Soldier Boy”, a thoroughly horrendous song from the Yardbirds` “Little Games” album) was extremely pretty, and that confused people considerably.
The ubiquitous Bangs, who`d been converted to the Cooper cause, allowed that he found the song pretty repulsive himself, but that was in the days when Cooper was still pretending to be a serious artist. Later, his overt opportunism and total cynicism was automatically to defuse the raw gut-reactions that his manipulation of the world`s subconscious produced, but in 1971 he hadn`t been sussed yet and so other otherwise rational people owned up to having been shaken and terrified by him.
The stage act that went with “Killer” was certainly impressive, though.
Cooper cut a figure more tragic than glamorous: alternately puzzled, tormented kid confused by his own sexuality, demoniacal Jack the Ripper in semi-drag.
The band mooched around the stage like a herd of rather unintelligent bison under the influence of some amphetamine or other, bludgeoning out extremely loud Who and Yardbirds pastiches between the set-pieces, which included such Heavy Numbers as Cooper strait-jacketed by a uniformed nurse during “Dwight Frye” and fried to death in a glowing electric chair after the baby-killing antics.
Plus the goddam snake, of course. The snake became a Cooper trade-mark, along with the torn black clothes, ratty hair and sloppy make-up.
As Cooper got further and further into Grand Guignol, he abandoned the remaining shreds of his original androgyny stance in favour of further explorations of the joys of sadism and necrophilia – far more American topics.
Though the band were monstroso in their native land, it took “School`s Out” to break them over here.
They`d done a gig at The Rainbow in late 1971, but their reputation rested mainly on reports filtering back from the colonies. Cooper liked trotting out raps about everybody-is-bisexual (though he himself had had the same girlfriend for nearly five years and would probably have been totally freaked out if any fags had actually tried anything on him) and how- his-violence-exorcised-the-violence-of-the-audience – not to mention putting forward the theory that Alice was some kind of Mr. Hyde figure who possessed him on stage, whereas in reality he was just a good ol` boy who was nice to his mother and liked to drink a lot of beer and watch TV.
On top of that, he coyly revealed that he really enjoyed telling lies.
It was his latter admission that I found most endearing. Though many of the more serious and committed American critics started to regard Alice Cooper as “a threat to our beloved rock-and-roll”, I found him far more palatable as an outrageous fake-out artist than I ever did as a theoretically genuine psycho.
The less integrity and credibility he had, the more I admired him, because all that high-flown garbage about sexuality and violence was irritatingly pretentious, the worst kind of sanctimonious inflated pap.
I began to observe Cooper`s antics with a perverse kind of admiration. Once in on the joke, it became a real pleasure to watch him putting everybody else on so brilliantly. Why, the guy should have been a politician.
So in the summer of 1972, unto us was delivered “School`s Out.”
Hailed by many as the “My Generation” of the `70`s, it had a manic bombast which lent a kind of spurious dignity, and even from Cooper it was epic.
It meant that the Coopers had produced no less than two classic singles (two more than most people), and even though it was later discovered that it had been none other than Li`l Rick Derringer who`d played that galvanic guitar part, it was still a rousing piece of pseudo-revolutionary rock, at least as good as either of Slade`s best singles and four solar systems ahead of cheap nonsense like “Teenage Rampage”.
And of course it was safe as milk, because after all it was only good ol` Alice, who was about as revolutionary as Bob Hope. After all, Alice`s thing was showbiz first, rock second, and revolution a poor seventeenth on the priority list. You knew without having to be told that the Coop was one natural-born golfer.
The “School`s Out” album is pretty much disposable.
A street-punk fantasia about gang-fights and high-school utilising massive borrowed chunks of “West Side Story”, it was principally designed as a sound track for the band`s latest touring extravaganza, and Ezrin made the elementary mistake of assuming that it would work without the visuals.
Never having seen that particular show (it only played one British gig – in Glasgow), I`m here to testify that it doesn`t. The Hammer Films horrorshow tactics were shelved completely, the Cooper persona underwent its first real degree of softening and in general, only the single is worth the vinyl it`s printed on.
Summer `73 brought “Billion Dollar Babies”, which spawned no less than three hit singles.
“Hello Hooray” was written by a Canuck songwriter named Rolf Kempf, “Elected” was a rewrite of “Reflected”, a rather dire tune from their first album rejigged around the theme of Cooper running for President, and “No More Mr Nice Guy” was an almost inspired piece of persona-juggling about how he and his folks were mistreated and ostracized because the Blue Meanies thought he was sick and obscene. Real poor-old-Alice stuff.
The visual motif of the album was money.
The band were depicted clad in white satin posing in front of a real billion dollars in real cash holding a baby with Cooper- esque eye make-up smeared across his chubby dial. The sleeve was designed to look like a giant wallet made of green snakeskin, and folded inside was – you guessed – a billion dollar bill.
The band and their entourage toured in a jet painted black and embossed with gold dollar signs; fake money was sprinkled over the audience at one point – get it? After sex, death and street violence, the nearest remaining totem in the American pantheon was money. Christ, he`d sure made enough of it, and so had a sweet kind of logic.
The Coopers, y`see, were one of the first post-hippie superstar bands. Zeppelin, for example, can`t make it into that category as long as Robert Plant continues to ride his current lyrical obsessions.
Therefore, it was perfectly natural and not in the least bit incongruous for them to glorify violence, perversion (and I don`t care how liberated you are, bub, necrophilia is perversion unless you`re a vampire) and materialism – and no more so for their audience (to whom “hippies” meant being bored to death by their elder brothers` and sisters` Grateful Dead albums) to respond to these stimuli.
“Billion Dollar Babies” included a return to Grand Guignol with two of Cooper`s all-time nasties, “I Love The Dead” (which is self-explanatory) and “Sick Things” (ditto). It even featured Donovan mumbling along on the title track, sung either by or about an inflatable dolly (see “Heartache, In Every Dream Home A”) – and if that ain`t degenerate then I don`t know what is.
“I Love The Dead”, though, was really the outside edge in Cooperian grotesquerie. I crave your indulgence, therefore, for the entire lyric: “I love the dead before they’re cold, Their bluing flesh for me to hold / Cadaver eyes upon me see nothing / I love the dead before they rise / No farewells, no goodbyes / I never even knew your rotting face / While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave / I have other uses for you, Darling…”
Pervy, ain`t it? In actual fact, it`s just good, solid teenage entertainment, about as relevant as a platypus and based solidly on the ethos of the cheap thrill. Me, I wouldn`t have it any other way.
“Billion Dollar Babies” contained more than its fair share of utter crap, but it was definitely an improvement on the abysmal “School`s Out.”
The show that went with it was a stunning presentation, the ultimate in exploitative pulp theatre, every single trash fantasy coming to life befo` yo` very eyes. Guillotines, whips, the band in cages, a beheading, the ritual beating-up of a Nixon lookalike, “God Bless America” as an encore, no less than three reflector balls, dentistry…everything but a tactical nuclear missile aimed at the audience.
The audience were the stars, though. They came in Cooper make-up, they stomped and gouged each other to get at the fake money and cheap posters, they howled for fake blood. When Cooper told them that they were crazier than he was, he for once wasn`t lying. He isn`t Alice Cooper – they are.
Cooper hasn`t played live since then.
Their last album, “Muscle Of Love”, was a return to hard rock without trimmings, and showed the band playing better than they ever did before.
Trouble was, it was rather unmemorable, and sadly lacking in presence. On its release I reviewed it favourably and then stuck it on the shelf and forgot about it. It was only when I started to prepare this piece that I realised that I hadn`t listened to it for a year, and playing it found that I hadn`t missed much, which just about sums it up.
Cooper`s solo album, “Welcome To My Nightmare” is set for release within the near future. It`ll be interesting to see where he goes with it.
Alice Cooper is the quintessential American artist of the `70s. In a decade when straight America has discovered that it can`t trust the cops, it can`t trust the FBI, it can`t trust the CIA and it can`t even trust its own goddam government, it is only fitting that the youth of America discover that they can`t trust rock-and-roll either.
You can`t even weasel out of it with that “don`t-trust-the-artist-trust-the-art” spiel either, because Cooper`s art is so blatantly exploitative, opportunistic and cynical that it`s even less trustworthy than he is. After the way that Dylan and Bowie (to name but two) copped out on their audiences the lesson should have been obvious, but if it took Cooper to really drive it home, then it`s all been worthwhile.
Cooper is a master charlatan; indeed, he has elevated charlatanry to a higher artistic plane than anybody else in rock-and- roll had ever dreamed of. In fact, he`s such an outrageous phoney that he isn`t even genuinely tasteless.
Real tastelessness is intrinsically liberating because it throws off the shackles of conventional definitions of good or bad taste.
Cooper, on the other hand, has demonstrated the strength of his conditioning by his patent inability to cast aside these chains. By remorselessly and slavishly playing up to the existing definitions of ultimo bad taste (and committing the colossal tactical blunder of admitting that it`s bad taste), he has irrefutably demonstrated his allegiance to the old order, to the old standards. As a liberationist, he`s a bad joke.
What Alice Cooper represents, in the final analysis, is a more insidious form of conformity than the Osmonds ever dreamed of.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper and you are free to use it as you like. If you use it on your own webpages – please credit me or put up a link to my blog.
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Led Zeppelin, Pete Kleinow, Caravan, Paul Kossoff (Free), Peter Hammill, Montrose, Blue Öyster Cult, Lenny Bruce, Eric Clapton, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Millie Jackson, Richard Digance, Bev Bevan (ELO), Gene Vincent, Charley Pride.
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