Contemporary Musicians

Originally Published: September 1992

Feature

Author: Barry C. Henssler

Personal Information

Born Vincent Damian Furnier, December 25, 1945 (one source says February 4,1948), in Detroit, MI; son of a protestant minister; married, two children.

Career

Began career during high school as member of the Earwigs; group relocated to Los Angeles, 1968, and changed name to the Spiders, then the Nazz, then Alice Cooper; released first two records on Frank Zappa's Straight Records label; signed to Warner Bros., 1971; launched solo career and released first solo album, Welcome to My Nightmare, 1975; moved to MCA records; moved to Epic Records, and released Trash, 1989. Appeared in films Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1978, Sextette, 1979, Roadie, 1980, Monster Dog, 1982, Decline of Western Civilization Part II, 1988, Wayne's World, 1992, and Nightmare on Elm Street Part VI, 1992.

Addresses

Home: Scottsdale, AZ.
Record company: Epic Records, 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.

Alice Cooper--the "King of Shock Rock," "Prince of Splatter," and "Godfather of Trash Heavy Rock"--appeared on the Los Angeles music scene just as the national passion for the flower power of the late 1960s began to wane; his arrival was nothing less than an explosive changing of the pop-music guard. In 1968, the year Cooper relocated from Phoenix, Arizona, to Los Angeles, the stages of Hollywood's Sunset Strip nightclubs were populated by laid-back, well-groomed bands featuring a jangly guitar sound. As might be expected, the decidedly un-jangly Alice Cooper band--named, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, for a 17th-century witch whom a Ouija board had revealed was reincarnated as the group's lead singer--was at first poorly received; in Prime Cuts, a Cooper video documentary, the former bandleader said, "It used to be the hip thing to walk out on us." Of the group's early reception, he added, "No one could clear a room faster than the Alice Cooper band."

Cooper and his cohorts were the antithesis of what was expected from rock bands at the time--owing more to loud, crude, Detroit groups like Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 than anything sunny California had to offer. From the beginning the group displayed a theatrical bent, emphasizing visual aspects as well as musical: An early video of the band from Prime Cuts shows Cooper dressed as Satan--complete with horns and pitchfork. Not surprisingly, the band is often cited as the origin of shock rock. It was manager Shep Gordon's idea of cultivating this negative image that ultimately led to Cooper's success. Cooper and his early band were among the first to exaggerate the androgynous aspects of the rock and roll image; they looked almost as much like women--though nightmarishly so--as they did guitar warriors. One need only look at groups like Motley Crue and Poison to realize the impact Cooper has had on rock style.

In 1971, after releasing two albums on musician Frank Zappa's Straight label, the Alice Cooper band signed to Warner Bros. Records. The label provided the group with a substantial budget to further explore their theatrical leanings. Stage settings became as extensive as those of a Broadway show. One notorious effect was the gallows the Cooper band brought along on the tour supporting their 1971 album Killer: At the culmination of the song "Dead Babies," Cooper would slip his head into a noose and hang himself. Two years later, in support of the Billion Dollar Babies album, Cooper outdid the gallows effect by utilizing a guillotine; a roadie dressed as an executioner would parade around the stage afterwards with the bloody head of the controversial singer--much to the audiences mixture of delight and repugnance. Cooper would emerge soon after his "beheading" dressed in a white suit with tails to sing the song "Elected."

With the Alice Cooper band, Cooper earned chart success many times. There were two hit singles from 1970's Love it to Death album, the psychedelic "Caught in A Dream" and "I'm Eighteen," which Creem magazine said was "like a [rock and roll pioneer] Chuck Berry poem, timeless as far as anthems were concerned." The following year's Killer was an even greater sensation, boasting "Under My Wheels" as it's main selling point. Celebrated rock critic Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone called the song "a [Rolling] Stones classic translated into Alice Cooper's obsession with machines and technology." In Stairway to Hell, a book notating the top-500 best heavy metal records of all time, author Chuck Eddy called Killer, "faux Detroit." Indeed, of all the Cooper band LPs, Killer is perhaps the most indebted to the raunchy guitar-drenched sound made famous in the Motor City.

It was the 1972 release, School's Out, however, that culled the Cooper band's biggest hit--the anthem-like title cut "School's Out." Describing this paean to youth rebellion, Rolling Stone contributor Ben Gerson called it "an instant classic as well as an instant manifesto." Melody Maker deemed the song "rough as a ropeburn." Continuing the hit parade, 1973 saw the release of Billion Dollar Babies, which featured the chart-toppers "Elected" and "Hello, Hooray." The tide turned somewhat, however, in 1974, when the Cooper band released what would be their last album, Muscle of Love. Though ambitiously packaged in an oversized cardboard box, even perennially ardent fans like Rolling Stone scribe Lenny Kaye thought it a mediocre effort. "It's not a bad collation," wrote Kaye, "but the very safety that Muscle of Love implies makes me apprehensive for the band's creative future. Has success spoiled Alice Cooper?"

Although the Cooper band reached the mid-1970s rich and famous--having by the end of 1973 earned, according to Spin magazine, upwards of 17 million dollars--all as not well within the group. In Billion Dollar Baby, a book documenting the final tour of Alice Cooper--the band--Chicago journalist Bob Greene revealed that the rest of the band resented Cooper's star treatment and what they felt was their relegation to backup status. Though the group disbanded amicably in 1975, Cooper's girlfriend from that period, Cynthia Lang, sued Cooper four years later, according to Variety, for three million dollars, money he had earned during the tenure of their relationship.

The groundwork laid by the Alice Cooper band helped build the foundation for Cooper's solo career, which has spanned nearly two decades and boasts more than 20 albums. In an attempt to market his solo image, Cooper appeared on the game show Hollywood Squares and on the Pro-Am golf circuit. He also made certain to publicly insist that Alice Cooper was strictly an onstage character, a rock and roll alter ego. Of Cooper's solo image, Rolling Stone contributor Chris Holdenfield offered, "Although Alice uses sex, confusion, and death as crowd pleasers, it's only a variation on the Hot Shot Singer formula, popular from [Frank] Sinatra to [Jim] Morrison. Alice Cooper is believable because he doesn't believe."

The release of Cooper's first solo album, 1975's Welcome To My Nightmare , was accompanied by a successful prime-time television special. The album contained an unlikely hit, the ballad "Only Women Bleed." Other cuts demonstrated Cooper's still-sharp penchant for theatrics, including the sinister "Black Widow"--which in concert featured human-sized spiders crawling across a giant web suspended across the stage--and the surreal "Escape," where in live performance Cooper was chased by a ten-foot-tall one-eyed monster.

In keeping with the punk/new-wave era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cooper in 1980 released Flush the Fashion. Flush is best remembered for the single "Clones (We Are All)"; its liberal use of the Moog synthesizer and monotone vocal style were both indicative of the popular "cold wave" style of the day. David Fricke of Rolling Stone reported that Flush the Fashion "wisely scrapped the flatulent vaudeville trappings and tragicomic pretensions of [Cooper's] late seventies work and reassumed the punk mantle he wore when the original Alice band was cutting a [Civil War Union] General Sherman-like swath."

1982 was a banner year for Cooper. Zipper Catches Skin got good reviews; Melody Maker contributor Steve Sutherland called the record "if not a 'School's Out'-style renaissance, at least a gloriously ghoulish lapse from the wimpy ex-lush confessional back to the ham homicidal." The "ex-lush" characterization made reference to Cooper's 1978 treatment for alcoholism, which he chronicled in that year's From the Inside. Nonethless, Sutherland seemed to have been letting up on Cooper after calling 1981's Special Forces "too inoffensive to turn many heads." 1982 was also the year Cooper took his first substantial film role, portraying a vampire in a Brazilian gore flick called Monster Dog. Though Cooper later condemned the film--expressing in Rolling Stone his disappointment with the film's producers for not keeping it's circulation limited to Brazil--he admitted his excitement at the prospect of satisfying his longtime acting bug.

Although Cooper's impact on the music scene has been strong and fairly consistent throughout his career, reviews of his work have been mixed; there exists an enduring debate over the value of Cooper's solo work versus his material with the Alice Cooper band; a Melody Maker review of the 1986 LP Constrictor remarked, "One does not instinctively judge Alice with regard to competition from outside, he is judged simply by his own standards, in competition only with himself." A review of the same record in Creem more explicitly held the singer up for comparison to his group work: "I find Constrictor pretty unlistenable, it probably meets the heavy metal standard of today, but there's about as much similarity between old and new Alice Cooper here as there is between Elvis Presley and ["lite" metal rocker] Jon Bon Jovi." Like comments--this time about 1989's Trash--came from Melody Maker's John Wilde, who lamented, "There's something tremendously tragic about the fact that Alice Cooper will still be puking blood out into the front row of seats when he's 80, but he'll never write a 'School's Out' again." Perhaps Rolling Stone contributor Tom Carson, in longing for a time Cooper had moved beyond, best illuminated the issue in his review of 1979's From the Inside: "Alice Cooper was our last great juvenile delinquent, and that's what kids loved him for. The trouble with his recent work ... isn't so much a failure of imagination as it is of showmanship. Cooper's still pushing anarchy, but now he wants to do it politely. And who ever listens to a polite anarchist?"

Trash, Cooper's first release for Epic Records, started a tradition of extensive collaboration with other prominent artists. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith accompanied Cooper on "Hell Is Living Without You," a ballad co-written by Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora, and "Poison," the smash single from the album, the video of which was broadcast regularly on MTV, featured the backing vocals of Bon Jovi. 1991's Hey Stoopid! boasted a stellar studio lineup that included metal elder statesman Ozzy Osbourne, who sang, and Slash from Guns and Roses, who played guitar on the title track. Guitar aces Joe Satriani and Steve Vai lent dueling guitars to "Feed My Frankenstein," and Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars contributed licks to "Die For You." Hard Force magazine called Hey Stoopid! "the best since Welcome to My Nightmare, a vicious guitar record."

Promotion for Hey Stoopid! was characteristically spectacular. Cooper took to the streets, turning up in various public places to perform songs from the album and generally wreak havoc. Dubbing the September, 1991, tour the "Nightmare on Your Street," he performed at 8:45 in the morning in the parking lot of Los Angeles radio station KLOS, causing a standstill in rush-hour traffic. In New York City, Cooper tempted fate by playing in Times Square on Friday the 13th. Confused onlookers in Detroit were treated to a concert on the roof of the local Sound Warehouse record store, and in Towson, Maryland, Cooper held forth on the steps of the country courthouse.

Further promotion for Hey Stoopid! came in the form of a cameo role in director Penelope Spheeris's blockbuster Wayne's World. In the film, Cooper performed the song "Feed My Frankenstein" and offered the star-struck protagonists an impromptu backstage lesson on the history of Milwaukee worthy of the best high school geography teacher. Commenting in Rolling Stone on the head-banging community-access television hosts portrayed in the film, Cooper said, "I like Wayne and Garth, I meet people like them all the time, they are my audience."

And because--or in spite--of his over-the-top image, Cooper's fans seem to be able to relate to Alice as well. Cooper has endured because he consistently plays the type of villain or monster that audiences can't help but cheer. By innovating a diabolic, yet charismatic, character back in the seventies, he has become a legendary figure in rock music. Melody Maker commented aptly on the universal appeal of Cooper's persona, allowing, "There has to be an Alice Cooper just like there has to be a Father Christmas.

Selected Discography

With the Alice Cooper band:
Pretties for You, Straight, 1969.
Easy Action, Straight, 1970.
Love It to Death, Warner Bros., 1971.
Killer, Warner Bros., 1971.
School's Out, Warner Bros., 1972.
Billion Dollar Babies, Warner Bros., 1973.
Muscle of Love, Warner Bros., 1974.
Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits, Warner Bros., 1974.
Live at the Whisky, reissue, Bizarre/Straight/Rhino, 1992.

Solo LPs:

Welcome to My Nightmare, Atlantic, 1975.
Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, Warner Bros., 1976.
Lace and Whiskey, Warner Bros., 1977.
The Alice Cooper Show, Warner Bros., 1977.
From the Inside, Warner Bros., 1978.
Flush the Fashion, Warner Bros., 1980.
Special Forces, Warner Bros., 1981.
Zipper Catches Skin, Warner Bros., 1982.
Da Da, Warner Bros., 1983.
Constrictor, MCA, 1986.
Raise Your Fist and Yell, MCA, 1987.
Trash, Epic, 1989.
Hey Stoopid, Epic, 1991.

Sources

Books:

Eddy, Chuck, Stairway to Hell, Harmony Books, 1990.
Greene, Bob, Billion Dollar Baby, Signet, 1975.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.

Periodicals:

Creem, March 1987.
Hard Force, October 1991.
Melody Maker, January 7, 1978; September 19, 1981; October 2, 1982; October 25, 1986; April 16, 1988; November 7, 1987; August 19, 1989.
Rolling Stone, January 6, 1972; March 30, 1972; September 28, 1972; August 21, 1980; October 31, 1991; March 19, 1992.
Spin, November 1989.
Variety, June 22, 1977.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the videocassette Prime Cuts, Epic Video, 1991.