Classic Rock

Classic Rock - July 2000

Classic Rock
(July 2000)

Originally Published: July 2000

Mr Nice Guy

The Godfather Of Shock Rock Returns

Author: Alan Di Perna

Blood, dismembered dolls, guillotines, snakes - ALICE COOPER was the patomime dame of 70s rock. Now he's back with his first album for six years, Brutal Planet.

"There are two great mysteries in rock 'n' roll," Alice Cooper pronounces. "One is the Grateful Dead. Their music is... you know... less then sensational. They have no image. And they've never had a hit record. Yet they can play sell-out concerts to 300,000 people from age 12 to 80. No one understands how this can be. And the other great mystery is Keith Richards. How can he still be alive after all he's done to himself?"

As debauchees go, Cooper was never quite in Keef's league. Beer, not heroin, was his poison. But the 52-year-old rock icon should still be grateful he ain't dead. He has survived chronic alcoholism and the hatred of worldwide moral watchdogs and other dim bulbs who take offence at his horror show schtick. On stage he has been hanged, electrocuted and guillotined night after night, and still lived to tell the tale. Although when something went wrong with his trick noose during one soundcheck, Cooper was almost strangled in earnest. He wouldn't be here today had a fast-acting roadie not cut him down.

Seated in a downtown hotel suite in his native Phoenix, Arizona, Cooper looks pretty healthy for a guy from the grave. Now in his 50s, he's dressed all in black, with straggly long black hair falling around his creased and weathered visage. Rock's consummate weird showman has a new album to promote, 'Brutal Planet'.

True to form, it's a dark piece of work: a Bladerunner-esque piece of prophetic sci-fi.

"It's sort of a post-apocalyptic vision of the future - in Alice's imagination, not necessarily mine," says the singer, who insists, these days at least, on drawing a clear distinction between the stage persona Alice Cooper and the real man behind the makeup, one Vince Furnier.

"I talk about Alice in the third person because I created him to be my favourite rock star. I enjoy Alice as much as anyone does. I can look at videos and watch Alice in the third person. I never sit there and go, 'I should have done this or that.' I say, 'Gee, Alice shouldn't have done that right there. And Alice should never wear that. That looks awful.' Because he's a character. He's not me."

Not just any character, Alice tends to act as both protagonist and narrator in the elaborate concept albums his creator cooks up.

"I really decided in the last ten years just to write in concepts," says Cooper. "To make each album almost a mini-novel. I'm so tired of doing albums that are just 12 songs and out. I would like an Alice Cooper album to be almost like a Stephen King novel. When it comes out, it's got a story, it's got a show behind it, and a comic book and a video game."

No one could ever accuse the man of thinking small. Or of turning a blind eye to what's going on around him. 'Brutal Planet' embraces the abrasive textures of new metal and industrial techno. But the songs invariably open out into classic Cooper choruses: durable and melodic.

"I really like the energy of Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Limp Bizkit," he says. "But I don't hear any melodies coming out of some of those bands, and I miss that. If you go back to all my albums, they're all very singable. Alice Cooper has never been a heavy metal band. We've always been a hard rock hand. Our background is the Yardbirds, Who and Kinks. And if you listen to those bands, they never wrote anything that didn't have a great melody. It would be hard for me to do just anger with nothing going on behind it. I'm not that angry. I'm all out of angst, I guess. I'd love to write a song called 'Out of Angst.'"

'Brutal Planet' reunites Cooper with producer Bob Ezrin, the man behind classic Cooper albums like 'Killer' (1971), 'School's Out' ('72) and 'Billion Dollar Babies' ('73)

"Honestly, I was a bit confused when I started 'Brutal Planet'," says Cooper. "I heard what was going on on the radio, and it sounded to me like pop was coming back. And we've always done what I call hard pop. 'No More Mr Nice Guy' is a hard pop record. So is 'I'm Eighteen'. Almost all the hits from the 70s were hard pop. Even 'Poison' [1989] is a pretty good pop record. And I said to Ezrin, 'What do you think about that? Should we do a hard pop record?' And he said. 'If you do, I won't work with you.' Retrospectively, I'm glad he said that. I would much rather do a harder edged album. Because what I'm writing about just does not lend itself to arty kind of nice, soft thing."

While 'Brutal Planet' takes tie form of future fiction, a lot of it is based on current events. The song like 'Blow Me A Kiss' deals with the recent rash of gun violence in America. 'Pick Up the Bones' is based on a news broadcast in which a refugee returning to Kosova was seen extracting the bones of dead family members from the rubble of a bombed building and collecting them up in a pillowcase. That's more horrific than anything Stephen King could write." he says with a grimace. "Because it's happening in real life, right now."

Cooper intends 'Brutal Planet' to be a moral, cautionary tale. "The album deals with what happens to us in a godless world. Where are we in a world where God doesn't exist?" Indeed, the album is laced with Biblical imagery, from the Satanic persona he adopts in 'Gimme' to lyrics about the 'deceiving snake' and 'lake of fire' in the title track.

"My background is Christian," says Cooper. "My dad was a pastor. My grandfarther was. So when I go into my writing. I find myself falling back on Biblical things. Because the Bible's so full of humanity. I'm fascinated by the fact that we're not God. I'm glad we're not, because we'd make horrible gods, wouldn't we? I'm glad there's something bigger than us. But yeah, there are a lot of Biblical images. There always has been, right back to 'Love It to Death' ['71], where I was writing things like 'Second Coming' and 'Hallowed Be My Name.'"

Phoenix, Arizona is currently America's seventh largest city and growing fast. It's located in the desert 400 miles due east of LA, a relatively short distance in American terms. But Phoenix couldn't be more unlike Los Angeles. There is almost no cultural or ethnic diversify and very little in the way of a music or arts scene. The population is overwhelmingly white Anglo Saxon Protestant. A large percentage of the citizenry consists of retirees from the Midwest. The city's politics are ultra conservative. Law and order is maintained by a sheriff infamous for his sadistic treatment of prisoners. When summertime comes, which can happen as early as April and last until late October, temperatures never go below 100 degrees fahrenheit and can climb as high as 120. Could there be a better home for the man who wrote 'Welcome to My Nightmare'?

Alice Cooper is one of Phoenix's favourite. He officiates at golf tournaments and the opening of baseball season. He has his own restaurant downtown. Alice Cooper'stown is a combination sports bar and Hard Rock cafe, where guitars and other memorabilia from Cooper's career hang in glass cases alongside Sports collectibles from Phoenix's many athletic teams. If this city's politics were a little more liberal, Alice Cooper could probably get himself elected major. While he was born in Detroit, Cooper - or Vince Furnier - moved to Phoenix at an early age. Many young men turn to rock'n'roll because they're misfits of one sort or another. But young Vince was popular and athletic, although nonetheless imaginative. He says he was interested in combining rock'n'roll with theatre very early on.

"The original numbers of what would become the Alice Cooper Band were in Bye Bye Birdie at the Celebrity Theatre here in Phoenix. We were 16-years-old. It was the first taste of theater I ever had. Real, legit theater with actors entering and exiting on cue. And we realized, if we could combine this with rock'n'roll, it would he really powerful."

Even their first performance as a band had an element of theatre. They donned mop top wigs, named themselves the Earwigs and performed a kind of Beatles parody at a school talent show.

"Interestingly enough, the very first show we did, as the Earwigs, had a guillotine in it," says Cooper. "We'd built the guillotine in the journalism club. Dennis Dunaway, (bassist), Glen Buxton (guitarist) and I were all in journalism. That was my major at school. The deal was you put somebody in the guillotine and they had to pay you two dollars to get out, and the money went to charity. So we had this guillotine behind us when we were onstage playing. That always stuck with us, that Vincent Price, black sense of humour defined what Alice Cooper was. I can't tell you why. It just did. We were never the heroes. We always ended up being the villains."

After several name changes and a local Phoenix-area hit, the band decamped to LA in 1968 and began performing as Alice Cooper. Legend has it that the name came from a session with a Ouija board -- a strange message from the spirit world. Audiences inevitably concluded that Vince - as the lead singer of a band called Alice Cooper - was Alice Cooper. While this wasn't the original intent, Vince adopted the role gamely, taking the feminine name as license to start wearing dresses on stage, he and the band began wearing trans-gender make-up. In 1968. this was profoundly radical stuff. Little Richard had flirted obliquely with androgyny in the 50s. The Beatles and other early-60s beat groups had been tolled "girlish" for their long hair, but Alice Cooper was arguably the first cross dressing male rock singer. The fact that he was a jock from Phoenix, Arizona somehow made this even more disturbing.

The band were duly adopted by Frank Zappa, who was then on the lookout for freak acts for his new Warner distributed record label, Bizarre/Straight, along with sometime mental patient Wild Man Fischer and Hollywood groupies turned vocalists the GTOs, Alice Cooper joined the Bizarre roster. They'd found a home. Zappa released their first two albums, 'Pretties for You' ('69) and 'Easy Action' ('70).

"Frank Zappa was great because he was dead straight." Cooper recalls. "He drank a little beer. He drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes. But that was it. Frank surprised me because he was so no-nonsense about his music. And so were we, although people didn't realise it. We spent about 90 per cent of our time on music and 10 per cent on theatrics. The theatrics were easy. We felt that we had to prove ourselves as musicians."

Zappa's legendary aversion to drugs and hard drinking wasn't shared by many others in Alice Cooper's L.A circle.

"Our friends were Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin - all of the people that later died of overdoses," he shrugs. "And we were under their wing. We were the new kids on the block that they protected. They helped us get gigs and things. They liked us because we were different."

Still relative innocents, fresh from the provinces, Alice Cooper landed in the middle of the Hollywood party scene. For straight alcohol consumption, he says, "I don't think anybody could beat Keith Moon. Although Pete Townshend could drink plenty too. Jim Morrison... you see, Jim would take a handful of pills with whatever he was drinking - like M&Ms. There'd be a bowl of pills at every party and he'd just take a handful. So he was going up, down, left, right and backwards on the combination of things he was taking, plus a bottle of Jack Daniel's."

From mentors like Morrison, Alice inherited not only an appetite for sell-destruction, but also a penchant for confrontational - some would say shocking - live performances. A legend quickly sprung up around him. During a fateful performance at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival in 1969, a fan threw a live chicken onstage. Cooper reckoned that, since a chicken is a bird, it could therefore fly. He tossed the hapless creature skywards. It fell in to the audience and was torn to pieces by the crowd. But word went out that Alice had killed the chicken an stage and, by some accounts, even bitten its head off. Alice looks back an the gig as "one of the greatest moments of my life." But this has nothing to do with the chicken: "I remember in the middle of the set, I looked over my left shoulder and there's Jim Morrison, and he's watching the show. And I look over to my right and there's John Lennon, and he's watching the show. And they're both really digging it. And I went, 'Whatever we're doing, the right people like it."

But the patronage of rock's elite did little to endear Alice Cooper to the mass record buying public. In 1970, the band moved to Cooper's native city of Detroit, hoping to improve their fortunes.

"The only place that understood us was Detroit," says Alice. "The Detroit scene was heavy. We'd get up and do a show with the MC5, and the Stooges and that would be a pretty good show. But the only band I didn't want to go on after was the Stooges, because they would drain the audience. It wasn't their musicality, it was just Iggy himself. He was such a Detroit creature, so incredible to watch. I've gone on after the Stones and the Who, and it was okay because we were so different. We complimented one another. But going on after Iggy - Jeez, that was hard."

It was during the band's Detroit sojourn that they met the man who would have a profound influence on both their music and career, producer Bob Ezrin. "He was our George Martin," says Alice. "Before Bob, we were a pretty good psychedelic band. Bob got a hold of us and said, 'You know, everyone likes you guys, but you don't have a real musical identity. When your come on the radio it could be the Chocolate Watchband, or the Strawberry Alarm Clock or any of a dozen other bands. So he said, 'I'm gonna work with you: We rented a farm in Pontiac [Michigan]."

"We stopped doing shows for the most part. We played on weekends, just to eat. All we did from morning till night was relearn how to play. Bob would restructure things. We wrote a lot of 'Love It To Death' there, including the 'Ballad Of Dwight Fry.' We'd show Bob what we'd come up with and he'd get rid of all our favorite parts. And he'd say, 'Okay, the bass has to play this piano line. And over here we're gonna have a French horn. You're not gonna hear it, but it's gonna reinforce the guitar line.'"

"It took us a long time to get it. At first, we just didn't believe him. Until we started hearing the results. 'Love It to Death' was the first time I heard Alice Cooper - where it was really Alice Cooper, strong and simple."

"All the songs had a dark edge. Like 'I'm Eighteen' was really simple, like a garage song, but man it was really structured. And the 'Ballad of Dwight Fry' is still the ultimate Alice Cooper song. So I always considered that our first albums, 'Pretties For You' and 'Easy Action' are warm-ups. 'Love It To Death' was really definitive Alice. 'I'm Eighteen' jumped off of that and became a hit single. That was all we needed. A single meant power."

The band did especially well in Britain where their cross-dressing and makeup were accepted as part of the original glam rock groundswell.

"The European press 'got' us long before the American press did," says Alice. "We actually broke out of England, as far as being a big international band. A lot of people even thought we were from England. We hit right during T. Rex and right before David Bowie."

"When we came out, David Bowie's name was David Jones and he was a folk singer. He came to the shows and the next thing I know he's David Bowie and he's wearing a dress. So we broke a lot of that theatrical stuff in England."

But Alice was soon to exchange his feather boa for a boa constrictor. Something dark was brewing as the follow-up to 'Love It To Death' took shape in the studio. Boasting absolute gems like 'Dead Babies', 'Under My Wheels' and 'Be My Lover', 'Killer' was arguably Alice Cooper's first concept album. The band had come of age during the great, late-60s dawning of the concept album, and Alice had clearly been paying close attention.

"The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper...' and Frank Zappa and the Mothers' 'We're Only In It For The Money' were the first albums I heard where all the songs seem to fit together. That's maybe where it comes from, the kind of albums I write. I think where we defined it more was we did a show around it. We actually brought the lyrics to life on stage."

Before Alice Cooper came along, the definitive concept albums were mainly British - discs like the Who's 'Tommy', and the Small Faces' 'Ogden's Gone Nut Flake'. But Alice put a distinctly American spin on the form.

"Britain has much more of a theatrical background. You have to remember America's only 200-years-old. We don't have a huge theatrical background. We're much more television and movies. That's our background."

And Alice embraced it wholeheartedly. The band's success brought them back to LA, where Alice eagerly joined the showbiz establishment.

"When I got to Hollywood, I'd already met The Beatles, the Stones and Elvis. I said, 'That's all fine. Now I wanna meet [television comedian] Steve Allen. I wanna meet Errol Flynn. People who made me laugh or entertained me when I was a kid, you know? Half of Alice Cooper is based on Errol Flynn movies. Alice is a swashbuckling guy."

"The nice thing was these people took me in. At that time, I was kind of like an outcast in show business. But we were selling out baseball stadiums, and that kind of thing speaks loudly in the business. So I'd always get invited to these parties. I went to one party at Steve Allen's house and it was all comedians except me."

"But I was considered part of the gang. Every great comedian you could imagine was there. I met Milton Berle, George Burns, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin... And I'm standing in the middle of them. They're all in tuxedos. I've got black leather on. And I'm just one of the guys. They even put me in the Friars' Club. I'm the only rock'n'roller ever in the Friars' Club."

American films and television shows hold the key to a lot of Alice Cooper's work. 'School's Out' was inspired by a line in a Bowery Boys movie. And on the album of that name, the band adopted a theme from West Side Story to create the instrumental 'Gutter Cat vs. The Jets.'

"We were all incredibly affected and influenced by West Side Story," says Alice. "The press related us more to A Clockwork Orange. We did like a little ultra-violence on stage. But the violence we did on stage was straight from West Side Story."

Concept, musical arrangements, stage show... everything got bigger and more elaborate on 'Billion Dollar Babies', the follow-up to 'School's Out'. But even the greatest of shows must come to an end some time. After the decidedly mediocre 'Muscle Of Love' album ('74), Alice parted company with the band that had been with him since high school in Phoenix.

"They rebelled against the theater thing. In a way, I can understand it. We made a lot of money. But we always put half of that - maybe more than half - back into the shows. The shows were very expensive. For me, the next move was always to make things bigger, more extravagant. But the band just said, 'We're tired of spending money on theatrics. We can do the same thing wearing Levis and T-shirts because we're established now'. I literally thought I was in a bad dream. I said to them, 'You don't think people are just gonna kill us? I would never go up on stage without being Alice now that I've had a taste of it. How could I go up there and just be a lead singer?' But they didn't go for it. I just said, 'Good luck.'

Cooper launched his solo career in 1975 with 'Welcome To My Nightmare', an album that spawned the most elaborate stage show he'd ever done. With his band gone, "It was down to me and my manager, Shep Gordon. I said, 'Shep, I've got $400,000.' He said, 'Yeah, so have I.' And we put all our money into the production of 'Welcome To My Nightmare'. It cost us - at that time - about $800,000. That would be the equivalent of about $8 million now. We were rolling some pretty big dice. If it didn't happen, I would be busted - broke. But it worked. We did the show and the audience went crazy."

But the title 'Welcome To My Nightmare' proved eerily prophetic. The heavy drinking that had now escalated into chronic alcoholism.

"We toured '...Nightmare' for two years without stopping," he says. "And in the middle of that tour, it finally caught up with me. The innocent drinking got serious. It became medicine rather than fun. And I was trapped in it by that time. Every show was a sellout. There was no such thing as, 'We're gonna stop touring so Alice can get better.' Because I was a very functional alcoholic. I never missed a line or a cue, and I was drinking a bottle of V.O. a day. But what people didn't see was me waking up in the morning and throwing up blood. My whole insides were rebelling, saying, 'You gotta stop.' But every night there were 10 or 15 thousand kids there, and I had to do the show."

"It got to the point where every time I looked at my stage costume I would get depressed. I had to drink another bottle of whiskey to get back on stage. But still, when I got on stage, it was alright. The other 22 hours were hell." Cooper underwent treatment for alcoholism in 1978. He settled down to a domestic life in Phoenix with his wife, while continuing to record, tour and - increasingly - take on cameo movie roles. He suffered a relapse into alcoholism in 1983, but recovered once again. Sad to say, his solo work has been sporadic at best. There have been a few inspired moments, but he has never quite recaptured the glory of his 1970-73 heyday. But 'Brutal Planet' shows that the singer has retained a firm grasp on what people love most about Alice Cooper; and he's managed to couple it with a keen awareness of what's going on right now in metal.

"I think every single album I've done has been a reflection of the energy I had at that particular period," he says. "There were some albums that were totally erratic and insane and I was just wiped out. Then there were albums that were kind of laid back, even though they were still hard rock."

Through all his ups, downs and theatrical spectacles, Cooper has always stuck close to the hard rock tradition. Guest artists on his solo albums have tended to be people like Jon Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Rob Zombie.

Unlike his contemporaries David Bowie and even Iggy Pop in recent years, Alice has never gone arty.

"I like David a lot, personally," he says. "But when he was in Tin Machine I told him, 'You really think those kids out there wanna see you in some suit their dad wears?' I mean I love David's early stuff. But the stuff he's been doing lately, it's so adult. Maybe he's growing old gracefully. I can't do that. I'm a rock'n'roll singer. I have a hard time being an adult." Let's hope he stays that way.

Keith Moon Would Be In A French's Maid Outfit...

Alice Cooper tells Classic Rock about some of his famous friends

'I've got no friends 'cause they read the paper', Alice famously sang on his 1973 hit single, 'No More Mr. Nice Guy'. Actually, Alice has enjoyed many friendships over the years, both in and out of the world of rock'n'roll. The list below includes some surprising names, such as...

Grocho Marks

The veteran comedic genius was half a century older than Alice. But that didn't stop him from becoming an honorary Marx Brother.

"Groucho used to come to our shows," the singer recalls. "And he used to say, 'Alice is the last hope for vaudeville.' I thought, 'What a great moniker that is.' Groucho brought Mae West to the show one night. I'm looking down in the audience and there's Groucho Marx, Mae West, George Burns and Fred Astaire in the audience. And none of them are shocked by anything I'm doing. The kids are shocked. But these old pros had seen everything and done everything. So I just looked on the whole thing as showbiz."

Salvador Dali

Another guy with a funny moustache, the celebrated Spanish surrealist artist found a kindred spirit in Alice. They certainly shared a gift for calling attention to themselves.

"I once worked with Dali for three days on an art project," Alice recalls. "He used me as the subject for a hologram he'd made. He sat around the whole time talking Portuguese or something like that. The press asked me, 'What do you think about working with Dali?' I said, 'I haven't understood a single word he's said in three days.' And he said, 'Perfect! Confusion is the greatest form of communication.' It was the first thing he'd said that made any sense to me."

Mickey Dolenz

Mickey Dolenz?! Believe it or not the lovable, zany Monkee was a member in good standing of the Hollywood Vampires, a drinking club that included heavyweight rock'n'roll boozers like Ringo Starr, John, Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Bernie Taupin and, of course, Alice himself.

"Mickey was my next door neighbour," Alice reminisces. "Have you ever seen his daughter, Amy Dolenz, the actress? She's gorgeous. But she was just a little girl back then. And she used to come over and wake me up and I'd take her swimming, because Mickey would be so wiped from drinking all night long. She'd go, 'Uncle Alice, you have to take me swimming.' Also, everybody that stayed at Mickey's house ended up staying at my house. So there'd be all these guys like Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson and Albert Brooks, who were all writing material for The Glen Campbell Show at the time. I'd wake up in the morning and find all these people laying unconscious all over the floor of my house. And most of them ended up being big comedians or writers."

Keith Moon

Another Hollywood Vampire, and all-around world class elbow bender, Moon got to be especially close friends with Alice. Moonie may have left a trail of trashed hotel rooms in his wake, but Alice claims he was the perfect house guest. "He used to come over the house and stay for like four days," he says. "My wife and I would say, 'Well, we gotta go somewhere now.' We'd go out, come back, and he'd have cleaned up the kitchen and living room and he'd be in a French maid's outfit. My family loved him."

Alice Cooper

Brutal Planet
(Eagle Records EAGCD115)

Author: Malcolm Dome

This isn't an easy album to cope with. Alice Cooper offers very little that's instantly accessible, more often than not going all out to crush with a heavy hand rather than to gently open up the pores. The resultis an album that, on first exposure, seems slightly disjointed and out of sorts - a record of style rather than substance.

But perseverance with 'Brutal Planet' brings its own rewards. Because while it isn't in the same league as those glorious, timeless Cooper albums of the 70s - you know the ones: 'Welcome To My Nightmare', 'Billion Dollar Babies' and 'School's Out' - it does show that hte man is still more than capable of firing on all cylinders. And what's more he's doing this sort of thing because that's what he wants to do, not becuase it might sell in the era of Marilyn Manson.

Heavier than anything he's done for years, and with 70s producer Bob Ezrin back at the controls, 'Brutal Planet' is also a concept album, recounting an apocalyptic vision of a future environment, which Alice hopes "will fuel and uneasy feeling of hopelessness". So, no, this isn't exactly the happiest album in Happy Town! What Cooper does here is extrapolate from the current world situations into a darker, more psychotic time with each song representing one aspect of the way in which humanity is slowly sliding off the edge and into the abyss.

OK, so that's the theory. In execution, it's tight and punchy, essentially gravitating towards the harder, heavier end of the spectrum. This is a consistent feature from the moment that the title track kicks in, with Cooper's gruff delivery kicking harshly against a nasty riff courtesy of the triple attack of guitarists China, Phil X and Ryna Roxie. This song - high on power, albeit just a shade lacking in obvious melody - sets the tone for what follows. 'It's The Little Things' sounds as if it's fuelled by personal paranoia, 'Pick Up The Bones' has an almost surreal attachment to the real horrors of Kosovo and the personal consequences of war, 'Gimme' rains hard on the selfish attitude that still persists into the new millennium, while 'Eat Some More' deals with the global starvation crisis caused by gluttony in the West.

If all of this sounds bleak, then that's precisely the mood Cooper has set out to create. And yet there's nothing here that will eventually be aligned those classic Cooper songs of the past. Instead, Alice Cooper has created an interesting, intriguing and worthwhile record. Yet in doing so he hasn't quite scaled the heights of his glorius past. But live, this material will doubtless come into its own.