Originally Published: August 1997
Author: Neville Marten
Alice Cooper, showman and pop-rock classicist, is back with a new live album. 'A Fistful Of Alice' includes a handful of top guitarists. Alice tells Neville Marten why they mean so much to him...
Think of Vincent Furnier, alias Alice Cooper, and the abiding image is of a black-eyed demon with a 12-foot boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. Songs like 'Dead Babies', 'Welcome To My Nightmare' and 'Only Women Bleed' have conspired - with a heavy dose of irony on the part of Alice, it must be said - to underpin this terrifying picture. But look beyond the make-up, blood and guts and a consumate writer of classy songs emerges.
From his earliest days in the original Alice Cooper band - even beyond those ham-laden 'School's Out' and 'Elected' times - Vincent has remained a fervent lover of guitarists. He's always surrounded himself with great players, from the original duo of Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, to later collaborations with Satch and Vai - whom he coaxed to play together on the 1989 hit 'Poison' - and the recent teaming up with Slash, who is found on three tracks of the new Cooper album 'A Fistful Of Alice'.
The new record finds Alice and friends, including Reb Beech and Ryan Roxie as regular guitar-slingers, minus the make-up and zoological overkill of yore. This is intimate Alice. Well, not exactly...
"I don't know if you remember our last live album, after the 'Welcome To My Nightmare' tour," begins an affable and politely spoken Alice. "Well, that was my least favourite album of all time. We had worked two years straight," he continues. "I was absolutely exhausted, but made the mistake of finishing the tour with a live record. Unfortunately there was no guts to it at all. So doing a live album now is great, especially as it's done in small venues - not like Wembley, or anything like that; it's in a place that holds maybe three hundred people."
And what of the theatrics that usually accompany a Cooper gig? Are they really no more?
"It's pretty much devoid of theatrics, except for the theatrics that are built into the lyrics, into the actual songs. So's there's no dependence on showbiz. The whole thing is really just Alice: pure rock. And I love that. I used to love to listen to the Yardbirds in small clubs - you know the album 'Five Live Yardbirds'. We all started like that; every band I can think of started in a club or a place that held a hundred or two hundred people."
Pressed on they potential disappointment from fans expecting guillotines and spurting arteries, Cooper has no worries. "No, I don't think people will mind. I think that what it does is give us a little more versatility. They know I do all that stuff and this is only another dimension to Alice; this is just the music. And we certainly didn't want to do an unplugged, because Alice will never do an unplugged. I don't understand that; rock 'n' roll unplugged is taking all the guts out of it."
Except that of all rock bands, Alice Cooper must have more songs that are applicable to that format than most...
"I have to admit that. And it's because we really were songwriters; we always went after the song. Obviously I love gimmicks, but I always knew there had to be some substance beneath the gimmicks."
Any real Cooper fan can imagine 'Desperado' from the early album 'Killer' as a fantastic unplugged number.
"Absolutely true again. Actually we still do that song and we'll be doing it on the tour in Europe. We deliberately brought songs like that back into the show; songs that we haven't done in a long, long time. I'll never be one of those guys who says, 'I'm not going to do my hits'. I think the audience wants to hear the hits. But we do have the luxury, with 23 albums or so out, to do things that are a little deeper, that a real fan of the music can sit there and say, 'Oh man, I'm so glad they played this song off this obscure album'."
If Alice is playing to real fans of the music, would he think of doing the epic 'Halo Of Flies' again from 'Killer'?
"Oh, please don't say that. I keep thinking about doing it, but it's pretty complicated."
In view of the new stripped-down, gimmick-free show, does Alice ever think he was robbed of musical credibility because of his over-the-top stage antics? Certainly that brilliant band The Tubes suffered as a result of their live madness.
"I think when we first came out it did - yes, especially with the press. We impacted so heavily, visually, and there was so much controversy with the image and everything around the music that some people forgot to listen. We had ten or 15 top 40 records and people are always surprised; they'll hear a song and say 'That was you?' Yes, it was us! We had many hits, but I admit our music was sometimes overshadowed by theatrics."
"But the funny think was, we spent 90 per cent of our time rehearsing the music, whereas the theatrics were easy; you just do what the lyrics say. But we were in competition with The Doors and all those LA bands and in our eyes we had to be as good as them. Musically, we had to have the cake before we could put the icing in it."
Early Alice Cooper albums, such as 'Pretties For You', 'Easy Action', 'Killer' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' were full of strong pop songs with great chord progressions and clever arrangements. Somewhere down the line, Alice morphed into a heavy metal monster. Why?
"You know, it's funny. I think the first real heavy metal band was The Who, Jimi Hendrix was heavy metal too. But if you're asking what is the element of heavy metal and how it relates to Alice Cooper, well, it's just... big. I'm talking about bands like Pantera, where it's all one level, all in one gear, with very little light and shade, but it's the attitude that made heavy metal; that sort of real big-sounding, 'Let's see how loud we can make this' attitude."
"The first time I heard 'Are You Experienced' I just couldn't believe how powerful it was. We didn't have a term heavy metal then, but it was certainly heavy rock. I don't exactly know when that turned the corner for us, but I always used to explain to people, 'Well, if I'm heavy metal, then I guess Aerosmith's heavy metal and I guess... you know?"
But I never thought of us as heavy metal. We did do two such albums, 'Constrictor' and 'Raise Your Fist And Yell'; they were both directed right a heavy metal. But Alice's roots are The Yardbirds, The Who, The Kinks, 'West Side Story' - we took elements from theatre and from TV theme songs - John Barry, things like that - and connected it all with the attitude of hard rock."
"And I was always a guitar-oriented guy. This will never be a keyboard or vocal-oriented band. I've always surrounded myself with at least two great guitarists, because to me that's the whole thing about rock 'n' roll. I could sit and listen to Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop (Paul Butterfield Blues Band) forever, or Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds). That two-guitar combination was always like, yeah! You've really got to have it."
"The great thing about the original Alice Cooper band was that they couldn't sit down and jam with a blues band. They didn't know how. They could jam with Pink Floyd, or Devo, but not Canned Heat."
Al Pitrelli, a guitarist from Alice's more metal period, said that when working out arrangements for new songs, Alice could hear the songs in his head and suggest ideas to the musicians saying, 'Try this'. Is that an accurate portrayal?
"I've always tried to get guitar players to play what the song was. To those who'd get in there and start hammering everything, I'd say, 'The technique's terrific, but it has nothing to do with the song. I need this all played in the middle; I need it all played Joe Perry style; real basic, nothing high, nothing low... give me melody, give me phrasing'."
"I love a player who can phrase. And a lot of these guys thought I was going for this Van Halen sound but I said just the opposite. When it's time to get to that sound, we'll get to that, but for Under My Wheels I don't want hammering. If you're driving across country, you don't want to get the car up to 90mph. So when we were writing a song, or routining a song, I could hear what it was supposed to do and where it should go. I'd always say 'I'd rather have you underplay than overplay'."
As Alice has already told us, he likes his guitar players. "Actually I love guitar players. I like to hear them and give them a lot of leeway. If I hear somebody playing something that's good I say, 'Hey, play an extra three minutes of that'. I will always be the guy that goes in and listens to the guitar player. I used to play rhythm guitar, but there were so many good guitar players around that I thought, 'why am I even holding this thing? I might as well have a monkey wrench in my hand'."
Here are just some of the many players that Mr Cooper remembers with particular fondness.
Glen Buxton - The original Cooperman
"Glen was really sound-oriented - he was more Syd Barrett than Jeff Beck. He had seven million dials and buttons and things; he had things connected to this and things connected to that; his whole thing was, how many giggy things can I do to this guitar? But that band could do 'Halo Of Flies' really naturally. You'd go to another band and say, 'Okay, you're a great band, now play 'Halo Of Flies'...' and they couldn't do it. To us it was real normal kind of music - 17,000 changes in two minutes!"
Love 'Em To Death
"Davey Johnstone (guitarist with Elton John) was one of those great players who could play anything. I think if I were going to pick two guitar players that I was going to keep for the rest of my life, it would be Richie Sambora and Davey Johnstone. Davey's one of the great road guys of all time. He will probably still be on the road thirty years from now. Richie is one of those guys who can play anything you say; he can play Jimi Hendrix, he can play George Harrison and he can play his own style."
Billion Dollar Baby
"Dick Wagner's a killer guitar player. I wrote more than half of our biggest hits with Dick. He was a great ballad writer; he could sit down and write chord structures that were just... oh. As soon as I heard the chord structure I'd go 'Oh, have I got something for that! Here's something called 'Only Women Bleed'; I don't know where it's going to go, but it fits what you're playing right there'. I loved playing with him."
"When I got a chance to work with Vai and Satriani I thought, 'If I just put these two guys on one song together, it would be a real coup. And it just sounded so great when I got them both on 'Poison'. (check) What we did was Vai put his track down first and then Satriani came in, listened to it and said, 'Okay, I can complement it this way'. It's terrific. I'll always go after the guitar players."
"Right now I've got Ryan Roxie and Reb Beech. Ryan was with Gilby Clark and, of course, Reb was in Winger. These guitarists are just great together. Ryan can sit down and play anything from 'Love It To Death' and make it sound exactly like the record. He found the sound, the chord structure, the style of chording, and Reb plays the lead right over the top. It just sounds great."
Welcome To My Nightmare
"On the live album, Slash plays on 'Lost In America', 'Only Women Bleed' and 'Elected'. He's a great, straight-down-the-middle guitar player. He came in saying, 'I'd love to play on 'Only Women Bleed' - Guns 'N Roses used to play that track and he used to play that track and he used to do the guitar section. He ended up doing five or six shows with us on the last tour. Slash could probably go up there and play the whole set, because he's a fan; he knows all the songs."
Pretty For You
Sammy Hagar plays on 'School's Out' (hear it on the CD). Sammy surprised me. I'd never really spent any time listening to his playing guitar, but he can really play. But I mean, how can you get onstage and play with Eddie?"
'A Fistful Of Alice'
EMI CTMCD 331
4 of 5
Reviewed by Dominic Hilton
Even Alice himself admitted that his other live album, 'The Alice Cooper Show' wasn't too hot. This time around, he's surrounded himself with a cacophony of rock star buddies, slammed some tequilas at Sammy Hagar's legendary Cabo Wabo Cantina and immortalised the results. The set list is a selection of the 'Coop's best moments; all the greatest hits, with a few surprises in the form of 'Teenage Lament '74', never performed live, and 'I Never Cry' which hasn't been aired in donkey's.
His cohorts are slightly in the used-to-be-mega/what are we gonna do now braket, but they're perfect for the job of reproducing these works of American stadium rock. As Sammy Hagar is host of the Mexican beech bar, he gets to 'blow some lead' on the essential opener, 'School's Out', which he manages without getting too hammy. Then the touring band guitarists Ryan Roxie and Reb Beech (Winger, anybody?) take over and do a fine job of delivering classics like 'I'm Eighteen', 'Poison' and 'No More Mr Nice Guy'. The stud content soars when the leather clad guitar muscle known as Slash arrives to pound his 'Paul all over 'Lost In America', 'Only Women Bleed' and 'Elected'. Finally B-movie guru Rob Zombie arrives at the scene to add some guttural grunting to 'Feed My Frankenstein' and 'Elected'.
This was obviously one funky bash, and this CD lets you get close to the excitement and nostalgia, just short of actually being there and guzzling JD with Slash.