Crawdaddy - July 4th, 1974

(July 04, 1971)

Originally Published: July 04, 1971

Alice Cooper: Are You a Boy, or Are You a Girl?

Author: Ben Edmunds & Lenny Kaye

One after another, the props come barreling out -- Alice and the boa constrictor, Alice and the strait-jacket Alice and the electric chair -- and by the time it's over, after the features have nearly ceased fluttering gently from the ceiling, the only thing that's certain is that Prindeville Ohio is going to ruch out again and take off her blouse, (depending upon who saw what and who you care to believe.) Everybody love it, of course, a trifle surprised since the last time I saw them you just wouldn't believe the difference it's like a whole new band, and even the ASPCA has to admit it's a treat because not one chicken went down in the fray.

A pause, gears clicking madly away. Second to fourth, a little chirp from the rear wheels. And who is he / she it? What is his / their place in the cosmic order of things.

Just another typical show, right?

Hmmm. A good question. Here's part of the answer. For now it can be told.

Bodies.... Need... Rest. As if you didn't know that already.

The band that is now known and loved as Alice Cooper maybe be directly tracked back to a group considerably lesser known and probably not loved at all call the Spiders. The place was Phoenix, Arizona, and the time was somewhere in the vicinity of 1964. (From all accounts, Phoenix is the perfect location for that media indoctrination we all passed through and have never really escaped: there appeared to be a little for a typical yon' teenager to do outside of cruising to the desert to watch gila monster mate, or go home to plug into the television for weeks on end just to escape). Alice (whose former name to be revealed under penalty of TV repossession) grew up the son of a fairly well-to-do-Baptist minister (upper-middle class; he probably had his own television set), was the Sports Editor of his high school newspaper, and seemed to enjoy a generally normal upbringing. Still, Phoenix was Phoenix.

The real success of American media indoctrination results largely from its environmental contrasts. to an experience-horny Alice Cooper sitting in the middle of nowhere Phoenix, the images fed him on that screen much have been dazzling. Slick detectives and cool jazz, street corners and black leather, blood and bubblegum, low-cut blonde dresses and a thousand other subconscious cock teasers. Even Life of Riley was usually enough to do the trick.; anything, anything at all, just to see a little bit of the outside of Phoenix. The end product was generally and neatly divided into distinctly-programmed attitudes: resignation (the "oh, what the fuck" lack of self-anything that allows us to perpetuate a cultural lower class) and adulation (the initial fascination which fosters "I want to be Peter Gunn" fantasies). Since the former is something that middle-class kids seldom experience until after college training wears off, the youthful Alice was pretty much trapped into the latter, the very same kind of "Hollywood Dream" which Thunderclap Newman sings of, except based on immediate adolescent desires. A 16-year-old kid could never seriously act out Peter Gunn fantasies; they'd never come off in high school halls between classes; Ricky Nelson or at best Ed Byrnes was about all one could realistically entertain. Which further meant that, the soundtrack being the most accessible part of the ready made, music was therefore the logical outlet. And that music, as if there could ever have been any doubt, was rock and roll.

Suddenly, you see, the picture all becomes a lot clearer.

Alice, for his part, was never a frustrated knee-grow, so he got to bypass the booze (and related Eric Burdon hangups) and go straight to the meat of the matter: i.e. Elvis or the Beatles or the Stones, depending upon when you joined us. The explicit premise of the Spiders, as explained by drummer Neal Smith, was "to get girls", and in his day, that amounted to cultural artifacts like Beatleboots and long wavy bands. Moreover, like countless others, these boys came to us from broken art school aspirations; suburban hoodlums with a sense of artistic purpose. So it had to be the Yardbirds and the Stones and a respectable pinch of the Beach Boys (they weren't that far away that they couldn't tell a good thing when they saw it). The Beatles might have been all fine and well as a group that your mother wouldn't occasionally object to, but it was really hard to imagine them engaging in the hotel suite orgies which were central to the fantasy. But the fantasy extended beyond sex to encompass glitter, gold and international notoriety. Therefore, it is entirely conceivable, and maybe even to be taken for granted, that the Spiders set out to fulfill the standard American Rock and Roll Dream. It is also entirely possible that they never got very far away from that dream, a thought that never dawned on very many of us until the release of Love It To Death. Of which, more later.

The Spiders at this point consisted of the same five men who today comprise Alice Cooper. (It remains a little hazy as to exactly when lead guitarist Glen Buxton and bassist Dennis "Duck" Dunaway joined the band. It is known that they were born and raised in Akron, Ohio, the rubber capitol of the world, a background which was to prove invaluable during their later period of sexual outrageousness). At any rate, it is fairly safe to assume that the boys had well-defined star intentions, and that Phoenix was hardly the place to fulfill such great expectations. A move west was imperative.

Lost Angeles, at that time, seemed the logical place to go. New York had a frightening reputation for killing a large portion of her most promising rock children soon after birth, and things had yet to really develop in either San Francisco or Detroit. Indeed, it may be a bit hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when L.A. was the energy center of this country: the Byrds were laying down magic every night at Ciro's, Jim Morrison was hanging out at the beach and not reading too much poetry, and Steve Stills was sitting around trying to figure out what to do now that he'd flunked his Monkey screen test (well, live and learn...). The pressure cooker of the scene was Sunset Strip, and it was California's off-hand answer to Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground mystique in the East. Carl Franzoni was ringmaster of this burgeoning underground, and rank-and-file luminaries included Kim Fowley, Billy James, Don Van Vliet and Frank Zappa. In those, the Troubador wasn't the only show in town simply to process the elimination (as it is now), and the scene was healthy and forward-looking on all levels.

Considering Alice Cooper's quest for stardom and their appropriate musical background, they might easily have slipped into the waiting L.A. commercial circuit (represented by the Merry-Go-Round. Harper's Bizarre and even Love), but for one small factor which carried them away from easy mainstream success and into the world of art and unpaid bills. That is, not long after they migrated to Los Angeles, and most likely quite by accident, they stumbled upon a marvelous secret: the ability to make people react.

Their art school training had impressed upon them the need for a more complete development of music as total entertainment, but they had yet to find a truly viable means for achieving this end. Alice was reputed to be quite fond of the bottle, and it wouldn't have been surprising in the least if, one crazy and desperate night, he happened to do something completely outrageous, simply out of drunken madness. But whatever the impetus, Alice found that his temporary insanity moved people in a way that few other California bands could do. And perhaps more importantly, he found that as the level of insanity rises, so does the level of audience reaction. But make no mistake about it, Alice's insanity was distinctly American, a kind of retching outpouring of his television baby food, and so there were times that his audiences found that what they had initially came prepared for. Combined with the musical energy of the Yardbirds / Who derivations, it may have been almost frighteningly so. And as they moved from the initial stages of insanity (which usually entailed haphazard fist fights and audience abuse) to the very borders of the ol' ozone, it was casually noted that the audience response because equally extreme. A crowd which could withstand anything beyond the band's first three songs was considered to have an extremely high level of tolerance.

The energy they exuded at this time was commonly labeled "negative", but that was later proved to be a mere rationalization. California audiences had become complacently used to having their life-style served them on a sugar-free platter: they had stopped dancing and seemed to have given up any hope of ever moving again. But Alice Cooper never set themselves up to be the American myth; instead, they were the American reality, a reality that most Californians were doing their utmost to avoid and escape. Under these circumstances, it was almost as if the Angelenos were both repelled and attracted; more often than not, they would turn their backs, shunning the images that were presented them. But, and this was the strange thing, you could always find them coming back for more.

As the band began to consciously grasp the meaning and the importance of their emerging musical stance, a growing frustration with an inability to get jobs or other meaningful employment quickly changed to a weird delight. The attack escalated considerably. They began to use more and more premeditated theatrics to clarify and bolster the image. In this period, they began to develop their transvestite reputation, a move which not only challenged the sexual insecurities of their audience, but allowed them to drive the point home merely by standing on stage. Their routines were tested on a hit-or-miss basis in front of crowds ion live performance, and the new show went through almost daily changes. At one gig in Cincinnati, in a move they have probably not repeated before or since, they drove on a stage in wheel chairs and proceeded to have a fight among themselves with boxes of laundry detergent. And then there were the chickens...

Understandably, the band didn't seem to make a lot of friends. A lot of constructive enemies, perhaps, but few friends. And this bothered them, drove them further away from the beaten path, since they were convinced that they were on the right track. And more, it must still be remembered that Alice C. was a band still seeking their share of the rock and roll dream; they may have turned the American life-style back on itself in horror show reflection, but the end of the rainbow was still essentially the same. It didn't necessarily translate into a lovely feeling, playing for a succession of empty ballrooms and desolate clubs. Luckily, however, Frank Zappa had seen enough success with his Mothers to accommodate Straight Records, his venture as zoo keeper for a record company which functioned on his esoteric fetishes, and so he was in the market for groups whose socio/musical implications extended beyond the reach of the Mothers. In Alice Cooper, whom he first saw at a birthday part for Lenny Bruce, he had a band that could be directed against any number of audience hang-ups. So Alice was signed by Zappa and their first album, Pretties For You (with a lovely cover painting of a girl picking up her dress to reveal a quite-delectable young pube), became the fist release on Straight.

To say that the album was flawed is to be charitable. The band had done a couple of sessions with Zappa at the helm, but he was too straight-laced from the group's point of view. He is also rumored to have treated Alice Cooper as a comedy item (not unusual; one gets that distinct impression that he never took any of the groups on his label very seriously), and that hardly worked. so the group took over for themselves and produced their own record, a move which might have helped them because it afforded complete freedom of movement, but was ultimately harmful in that their vision was still very muddy and lacking in discipline. They naively attempted to capture their live sound on record (a problem destined to haunt them until Love It To Death), and to cram each song with as many devices (it would be uncharitable to say gimmick) as the tune would hold. In addition, since they didn't really know their way around a record studio, the sound quality was horrendous. "I even have trouble getting through one side today," admits Alice.

There were redeeming qualities, however, which nearly everyone seemed to miss. Aside from a couple of genuinely fine songs-in-spite-of-it-all ("Fields of Regret", "Reflected"), the band showed flashes of something just often enough to keep your interest; imaginative oime and melody changes, subtly humorous lyrics, and even Beatlish harmonies to keep your spirits up. The album's often incoherent (and often delightful) excesses made it sometimes more torture than challenge, but to those whose ears could filter out the junk, something was definitely going on.

Considering the band's reputation, the album's sales were better than expected, but still nowhere approaching cataclysmic. Their live performances always managed to arouse an adventurous few, but their grasp on what they were doing was still too excessive and largely non-directional for the majority of their audiences. Their association with Zappa gave them a fairly large following among the avant-garde, but such circles were far too cliquish for the mass mobs they hoped to reach. In general, then, they were very much in need of a good tightening up, and Easy Action, their second album, was a healthy step in this direction.

For Easy Action, the boys called upon the services of David Briggs, who had previously produced Neil Young--Crazy Horse album. In Briggs, they had a producer who knew his way around the studio; they had some potentially fine material, and they had a number of ideas on how best to pull it all off. But somehow, things didn't come off as well as they should have. Briggs' production was about as rough and loose as on the Young album, so the band was never really put into line the way they should have been. They were still allowed, to a certain extent, the fantasy, of constructing a live studio album, and this hurt them. Extended things like "Lay Down And Die, Goodbye" were essentially live songs, far too rambling and undefined and visual for recorded presentation. Some of the shorter songs were blatant throwaways.

However, there remained enough substance to make Easy Action a welcome progression over Pretties For You. This time around, they didn't presume to fill each three minute song with 120 changes; signs of structure and maybe even a little discipline were beginning to show through. The music possessed a definite Gilbert and Sullivan air, the themes were better developed, and the band's execution (while still not all there) was certainly improving.

The song which gave Easy Action it's strongest promise, however, was a cut known as "Return of the Spiders". There could be little doubt about it, this was the return of the Spiders: the kind of rough, raunchy rock and roll that the band hadn't made available to their public since Phoenix. regardless of the outcome of the rest of the album, this song was more than cause for hope, to point up what would eventually become their new (improved!) direction.

Even after the relative success of Easy Action (artistically; financially, it was still no great shakes), the band's fortunes did not seem to rise any appreciable degree. They had made themselves the darlings of the Los Angeles avant-garde, only to discover that this avant-garde only consisted of maybe three people. In this respect, they began to wonder just how limited was their circle of popularity, and how far it indeed was from the dream of fame and fortune which had led them away from Phoenix. They had become burdened with an image of chaotic excess, but even after they realized they might be plowing around dead-end street, they still found it difficult to reverse directions. It became clear that what Alice Cooper needed most was a fresh start, a new audience that was not tinged by their earlier, more formless quest for identity.

And so, ladies and gen'lmen, they moved to Detroit.

At this point, several questions need to be discussed:

  1. Why it was Detroit that they moved to?
  2. Why it was basic rock they reverted to?
  3. How important it was-is to have a producer who understands.
  4. The unexpected and heart-warming success of "I'm Eighteen".

In no particular order, the run-down for this is as follows. Alice Cooper believes in the existence of a peculiar something they call "Third Generation Rock", a term which simply means the music that will provide the foundation of the 1970's. This kind of music relies heavily on what were formerly only characteristics that could be found in oldies: a kind of bedrock teen appeal, discipline, a flair for theatrics coupled with energy, and a basic premise that all this has to be made in the form of Entertainment. On top of this, they've utilized the more important lessons of the sixties: the technological advances in electronics and gadgetry, the growing consciousness of what rock and roll really means, and an awareness that once rigid boundaries can be stretched almost as far as anyone could want, as long as you don't fuck up and wind up on ground where you clearly don't belong.

They key to all this is singles, a form of music which lost a lot of its old adherents about the time of Sgt. Pepper, and have been slowly trying to make a comeback ever since. Albums are fun, it's to be supposed, giving a group a lot more room in which to play around, but there's no other way to give a capsule discovery of what exactly a band is about than the not-more-than-three-minutes, say-it-quick-and-get-out hit single.

To accomplish this breakthrough to the AM market, Alice did several things. The first, as we've already stated, was a collective move on their part to Detroit, the rock 'n roll city, whose musical forms had the most powerful potentiality of translating itself over to 45 records. The key to a good single is knock-down drive and energy, something to make you believe that a lot more is happening than you might have ever expected in such a short amount of time, and there was no finer center to begin in than the Motor City. Not so much, you see, because the air there never really loses its tinge of factory smoke, or that there isn't much more than rock and roll to sustain the life of the local hip community: but rather because Alice Cooper wanted to base their music on a keen-edged communication with an audience, a slightly crazed group of rockers, who dug a group because it was loud and brash, who were open to watching spectacles rather than somnolent bands. "The real hard-core sex drive thing," if you like that better, the basis of rock n' roll since somewhere around the fourteenth century.

Safely ensconced in a farm up by Pontiac, then, Alice began the search for a producer who might understand what they were after, who would trim off the loose ends and leave everything a nice compact whole. Enter Jack Richardson and Bob Ezrin, the former hot-ff-the-trail of the Guess Who and their whole slew of Top-40 shashes, the latter with an ability to understand kids as well as music. Both had already proved themselves past masters of those little touches which serve to make or break bands--singularly repeating guitar riffs, the catchy breaks, the refrains which keep on comin' at ya--and after a month of solid rehearsals, they took Alice Cooper into the studios with them.

When they emerged, a few dozen sessions later, they carried out a pile of these separate pieces of plastic, all mixed and arranged and ready to go, one of which they released as a single, "I'm Eighteen"; there was the wait as it circulated around, picking up a few stations here and there, pushing at the wall of the make-it-or-break-it contests, getting test runs in a few places, and to their surprise, to their continual surprise, it slowly started edging its way up. And up. And up. And you know the rest, to be sure. Fame and fortune, no doubt about that, a little matter of a dream come true. Just like on the tube, better'n Bonanza by a mile, and wouldn't you simply figure that it would have happened like it did?

It that light, it was only to be expected that Love It To Death would bear conclusive proof that their single success was no fluke. Most of their older tricks were contained inside it, things like time changes, a slightly spooky air that permeates each cut, they extended theatrical pieces upon which they build their reputation. But by the use of acoustic guitars, pianos, and tight, concise arrangements, they managed to come to grips with the studio environment in a way that they had never exhibited before. Indeed, by returning to their dynamics of simplicity, their theatrical aspect was able to flower and become much more successful. Even a number like "Black Juju", which on might right assume could only work successfully in the context of live performance, becomes a hard-hitting and wholly appreciable on a recorded level. It's a good job all told, one of the finer records to grace a lackluster and somewhat stiff 1971, and perhaps it's to be taken as a sign that Alice Cooper is meant to be with us for quite a long time.

Ah, but it's the show... The show. Talking about Alice Cooper as a recorded bands seems somewhat off the point here, because if there's a place where the group has found its true element, it's in the kineticism and electricity of hot-shot live performance. Alice Cooper may be reaching the masses through the twin prongs of hit singles and hit albums, playing the kind of rock and roll that anybody who loves fire and fury can easily appreciate, but when they get up on stage, silver lame suits unzipped below the navel, a huge set of butterfly brace, striking chords that are deep and rich and strangely majestic, their true claim to the title of "the most glamorous group in the world" becomes evident.

The basic keynote of an Alice Cooper Melodrama, exaggerations and subtle mugging and everything fraught with tension in the comic relief: your favorite vampire movie all dressed fit to kill and playing guitars. Alice sits in the electric chair, and it flashes madly; Glen Buxton takes a solo and Alice slowly moves in back of him, picking up the guitarist's hair and letting it fall, glaring balefully in its shadow; Alice stands in front of the microphone, arms tucked neatly inside while strait-jacket, pleading, imploring, "I gotta get out of here... Won't somebody please let me out of here..."

And because it's melodrama, it works. Oh, there might have been a time when the whole thing was truly believable, when the stage dripped evil and lust and other horror too indelicate.... taking it on a cross country tour that ranges around such bastions of good, grey people as Birmingham, Alabama, a note of levity has been added to the proceedings. For all his contortions to suggest otherwise, for all his leering and sly secret smiles, Alice never really becomes the malevolent bi-sexual slightly depraved creature that he sets out to be. You might believe the Stooges, when Iggy lurches off the stage to throw himself on the mercy of the crowd, of the J. Geils Band, when Peter Wolf stalks around the stage with microphone in hand, dropping to his knee to catch a phrase in heat, but there's never any of that danger with Alice. Through it all, you know that he's aware of the pose, stand a little distance from it, and that underneath the silver lame suit and black Danskin and sunken chest, he's still that same ol' kid from Phoenix.

But in a way, that's more than okay, even a little bit welcome, because regardless of anything else, the nice thing to remember is that the whole show is an act, and you are going to a kind of theatre, and now that the circus is starting to lose the flavor that is must have had somewhere around the turn of the century, you have to have something to do. Yes? No? Maybe? Whatever, it's not hard to admit that what Alice Cooper arrives at, after all is said and done, is something akin to that old standby of Good, Clean Fun. Which, regardless of where your musical tastes happen to land, has to be just about as fine as you can possibly get.

Naturally, all this will probably lead to some mighty strange places. For instance, though it will probably never be shown, the group was signed by Excedrin to do a television commercial for them, appearing as Excedrin headache No. 47. They were going to have a middle-aged man (with his sleeves rolled up, tie loose, hanging belly) sit up on stage in an arm chair, while the band played and danced all around him. In the same sort of vein, though it similarly didn't come to much, they were offered a children's morning show in Metromedia TV in Los Angeles (to be called "Breakfast with Uncle Alice" or some such thing), which would be your standard children's show, except they would have played music and dispensed record albums and stuff.

So the picture--21 inch, of course--begins to take shape now. The stage is dark, bare except for the usual massive stage of amplifiers winking in the background. When the audience has reached its peak of expectation, a properly funeral emcee moves to the microphone, waits a bit, and then intones, "Hey kids, what Time is it?

In unison, then, like the roar of the Christians and lions, the smell of the crowd, a thunderous eruption; "It's Alice Cooper Time!"

And so it is.