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Detroit Free Press
(April 18, 1999)
Originally Published: April 18, 1999
Alice Cooper - "The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper" (Rhino/Warner Archives) ****
A few years before punk, a good decade before mascara metal, nearly 30 years before Eminem, there was Alice Cooper.
Indeed, in this age of Eminem - the shock-minded Detroit rapper no lodged near the top of the charts - it's a fine time to check in with the original master of Motor City macabre. Rhino's long-awaited, four disc boxed set is the best way to do it, compiling 81 tracks that cover the rocker's pre-Alice days, on through his early '70s explosion, up to his erratic output of late.
It's the story of Vincent Furnier, born in Detroit in 1948 and transported by his parents to Phoenix, where he started dabbling in bluesy rock with a couple of high school friends. What you hear on disc one is the fast evolution of Cooper's shtick, starting with the unspectacular Animals buzz of "Don't Blow Your Mind", a nominal 1966 hit in the Southwest for the young singer and his group the Spiders. From there it's on to the harmless menace of "Lay Down and Die, Goodbye", with the group renamed the Nazz.
Things start to click: By 1968 the five-piece had relocated to LA, renamed itself the Alice Cooper Group and landed a spot on Frank Zappa's Straight label. "Nobody Likes Me," featured here in a bouncing demo version, reveals undeniable Zappa influence: abrupt tempo changes, freaky gang vocals and an overriding sense of theatre.
"The reason our music changed when we got to Detroit was because the audiences there were literally raising their fists at us instead of making peace signs," Cooper says in the liner notes. "That's the difference right there."
The Alice Cooper stage show became notorious, a live horror-fest replete with boa constrictors, butchered dolls and show-closing "executions" of Cooper himself, by electrocution, hanging or beheading.
Still, there's no guillotine in this boxed set, where the only thing Cooper lives and dies by is the music. Upon revisitation of Detroit native's body of work, the overwhelming impression is that of an occasionally classic rock songwriter, economical in lyric and melody, with a dead-on feel for teen life. As a vocalist, he was far from technically proficient, but was blessed with a keen sense of timing and schlocky drama.
His band wasn't bad - notably the sinewy guitar playing of guitarist Glen Buxton - but was often marred by raggedy production that heaped loads of delay onto Cooper's voice and virtually shoved the ensemble to the end of a long hallway, draining the bottom end.
The later stuff gets glossier, but by the end of the '70s, after splitting from his boyhood friends and linking with Detroit guitarist Dick Wagner, Cooper had lost much of his edge. Within a decade he became something of a self-parody - at the very same time his makeup-spotted legacy was informing countless metal bands.
All familiar stuff is here: "I'm Eighteen", "School's out", "Welcome To My Nightmare", "No More Mr. Nice Guy". Tasty oddities include three Spiders tunes and rehearsal recordings of "Muscle of Love" and "Call It Evil". Packaged with reliable care and precision by Rhino, and featuring a glowing two-page essay by Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon, the set is appropriately reverent to an artist who made a career playing reverence to little.