History of Rock

History Of Rock - 1983

History of Rock

Originally Published: 1983

Welcome To My Nightmare

The twilight world of Alice Cooper

Author: Ian J. Knight

'Alice is such a nice, American name.' There was a twinkle in Alice Cooper's eye when he made that statement. He was the man who shocked middle-aged middle America by turning over the stone of the national dream and making love to what crawled out – and the joke was on anyone who failed to see the irony of it all. 'Alice', he explained, 'is really nothing more than a mirror which I place in front of an audience to reflect the very darkest side of human nature. Alice is what's hiding inside most of them.' That is not a happy thought, for Alice Cooper deals in images of sex and violence, corruption and decay – the razor blade in mom's apple pie.

Alice Cooper was born Vincent Damon Furnier on 4 February 1948 in Detroit. The son of a Methodist minister, Vincent was brought up in Phoenix, Arizona, and his introduction to music came during his days at Cortez High School when he formed a band in the early Sixties with school friends Dennis Dunaway (bass), Glen Buxton (guitar), Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar and keyboards) and Neal Smith (drums). The band were called the Earwigs, the Spiders and later the Nazz, and played in local halls and at dances arranged by the Catholic Youth Organization. With moptop hairstyles and Mod clothes, they followed closely their British idols such as the Beatles. Vince played his first concert in a bathtub and the Spiders played in a big green web, doing cover versions of Rolling Stones songs.

It was in 1967 that Vincent changed his name to Alice Cooper and began performing in dresses, high heels and makeup, and the band moved to Los Angeles. Alice was never in the peace-and-love hippie scene of San Francisco; he preferred the decadence of LA, where the squalid lust for money and sex lay just beneath the veneer of charm.

Coming of age

Adopting the high camp of the boulevard gay queens, the band made their stage act even more bizarre; when Alice introduced live chickens into his set and then threw feathers out into the audience, rumours began to circulate that he bit the heads off chickens and spat the blood on onlookers. They gained a reputation as a band to be avoided and found it increasingly difficult to get bookings. When they played the LA Cheetah with the Doors, 2000 people walked out. They were freaky enough, however, to arouse the interest of Frank Zappa; he signed the band to his Straight label for which Alice Cooper made two albums – Pretties For You (1969) and Easy Action (1970). Both were undistinguished, and with poor tunes played badly and recorded amateurishly. Alice Cooper's fortunes took a turn for the better when the band met up with manager Shep Gordon and producer Bob Ezrin and put down roots in Detroit. The music scene in Detroit at that time was lively, and Alice Cooper shared concert bills with such energetic bands as the Stooges and MC5. Ezrin was a management consultant for a Canadian company called Nimbus 9 which linked up with Warner Brothers in 1971. He produced Cooper's next LP, Love It To Death (1971).

It would be a mistake to look too closely at the bands music – Alice was always more of an attitude or concept than a musician. In many ways, however, Love It To Death was the band's best album. Ezrin stripped away layers of flaccid musical excess, leaving the rest tight and punchy. The guitar section was a little more than competent and mainstream in the US hard-rock tradition, while the drummer and bass player were capable of producing a lumbering backbeat that moodily complemented Alice's vocal range – from eerie whisper to maniac shout. Most of the songs were about sex, madness and death. The album gave Alice Cooper and the band their first big chart success with the single 'I'm Eighteen', a celebration of the confused delights of adolescence.

The next five years were to prove Alice Cooper most productive. Money and notoriety released Alice's creative ideas, and the stage show developed into a macabre elaboration of the songs' most bizarre elements. In the eyes of his fans' parents, Alice Cooper seemed to embody violence, perversion and rebellion. During the stage performance of 'The Ballad of Dwight Fry' – a disturbing evocation of insanity – the band bound Alice in a straitjacket and had a white-coated nurse lead him off the stage. The follow-up album, Killer (1971), was even more of a shocker. Musically, it was mainstream rock, but thematically it contained all Alice's preoccupations: sex in 'Be My Lover', death in 'Desperado' and 'Killer', and parental negligence in 'Dead Babies'.

On stage, Alice, eyes blacked out with spidery makeup, crooned to a six foot python draped sensuously around his torso, fought with members of the band and, with a real axe, slowly chopped up baby dolls. The finale involved Alice being strung up on mock gallows or tied to an electric chair, though he bounced back reassuringly for an encore, dressed in a top hat and tails.

A moral message

According to Alice himself, the message was a moralistic one. His songs merely reflected the sick side of life, and after Alice had performed his gruesome mock murders, he had to be punished for them by mock execution. The aim was to shock, and shock it did. It was the title track of Alice Cooper's next album, School's Out - released in the summer of 1972 – that sparked off a public outcry with its anarchic refrain and rejection of childhood innocence. The single made Number 1 in the UK charts in July and the band appeared on BBC-TV's 'Top Of The Pops', Alice brandished a rapier and fixing the camera with a murderous glare. The song became that year's anthem for kids during their school holidays, with a list of disruptive chants: 'Well we got no class/And we got no principles/And we got no innocence/We can't even think of a word that rhymes!'

Anything that threatened an institution such as school was guaranteed to arouse the anger of such a self-appointed guardian of public morals as Mary Whitehouse, while Member of Parliament Leo Abse declared that Alice Cooper should be banned from Britain; their autumn tour was, consequently a huge success. The album sleeve resembled a desk top and the record inside was covered with a pair of pink paper panties. A West Side Story style street-fight theme ran through the LP; on stage, the ever more sinister Alice would engage the band in mock knife fights.

Critics found, to their surprise, that the man behind the Alice mask was actually polite, intelligent and articulate. As Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times observed: 'Rock 'n' roll's foremost kook is not very kooky off stage. Cooper is an amusingly mild-mannered man who does not seem to be plagued, like so many rock superstars, with a bloated ego.'

School's Out marked the high point of Alice Cooper's career. It was a huge money-maker for Warner Brothers, ensuring that no expense was spared for the follow-up album and tour; Billion Dollar Babies (1973) featured lush production and extravagant packaging. Each album sleeve contained a large dummy billion-dollar bill decorated with missiles and troops; the cover was a snakeskin pattern, and the inner sleeve photo (taken by David Bailey) featured Alice in white satin, clutching a naked baby daubed with the characteristic Cooper eye makeup.

The album contained such track as 'Elected' – a dig at the presidential system – which was released as a single and made Number 4 in the UK in October 1972, and a nauseatingly tasteless hymn to necrophilia, 'I Love The Dead'. The show went on tour in the spring of 1973 with 600,000 dollars worth of stage and sound equipment, visiting 56 cities in 62 days and grossing five million dollars.

The stage show was slicker and sicker than anything Alice had previously attempted. Among the chosen delights he highlighted in song was the universal fear of the dentist, realized on stage by a pantomime confrontation between a giant decaying tooth and a spinning drill. For 'I Love The Dead', Alice dragged a mannequin on stage, crooning to it obscenely until the band dragged him off to a guillotine at which, under the watchful eye of a professional magician called the Amazing Randy, Alice was decapitated and realistically gory rubber head tossed among the players.

Surrealist artist Salvador Dali was so impressed with the Billion Dollar Babies tour that he proclaimed Alice 'an exponent of total confusion' and proposed to make a sculpture of the singer's brain. The result was a plastic surgical aid with a moulded chocolate éclair oozing from it.

With the growing popularity and affluence he had attracted, and the move into increasingly more gimmicky stage productions, Alice Cooper's appeal to the rock audience began to wane. Reveling in fame and relishing the irony of it all, Alice himself began to move more and more in the glamorous world of showbiz. He appeared on chatty-show, played golf with President Ford, and it seemed he was becoming part of the very establishment he attacked. The Cooper Estate in Greenwich, Connecticut was a rambling 40-room Hollywood fantasy mansion, with the singer himself became a 17-million-dollar-a-year business, with Alice Whiplash mascara, deodorant and 'take A Bath With Alice' bubble bath on the market. In 1975 the man who had emptied rubbish bins on stage took part in a Clean Up New York campaign.

By 1975 Cooper had replaced his original band with musicians who had all played with Lou Reed – Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (guitars), Prakash John (bass), Whitley Glan (drums) and Josef Chirowsky (keyboards). Welcome To My Nightmare (1975) and Alice Cooper Goes To Hell (1976) sold on the reputation of their predecessors, but the raw tastelessness of the Killer show had given way to a prolonged production of American High Gothic.

It has often been said that Alice Cooper was responsible for keeping the Budweiser beer company afloat during his golden years; large quantities of it certainly fuelled his manic stage performances, but eventually he found himself battling with alcoholism. During the later Seventies, Alice Cooper underwent drying-out treatment in a New York hospital and emerged to make a largely autobiographical album, From The Inside (1978). The lyrics for the LP were written by Elton John's long-time partner, Bernie Taupin, and the album featured Elton's backing musicians Davey Johnstone (guitar) and Dee Murray (bass), as well as backing vocals by Kiki Dee and Flo and Eddie.

Surgical aids

From The Inside may have been a more introspective venture, but Alice was still reveling in gimmickry. He renamed the Hollywood recording studio United Western Studios for the Insane and decorated it like a hospital ward, with oxygen tents and operating tables.

Alice Cooper never regained his position as King of Shock Rock, although he continued to tour regularly and make albums. His 1982 UK tour hardly caused a raised eyebrow, although he received an encouraging reception from the music press. His music has slipped into heavy-metal clichés, but he was still displaying his old preoccupation with sex and sadism, still attacking the establishment. Punk may have taken up the threads Alice Cooper left dangling in the mid Seventies and upstaged him somewhat by the Eighties, but he could still chill an audience with his sinister presence, clutching the British and American flags and hissing, unsmilingly: 'Britain and America – allies!' It is said that Malcolm McLaren discovered Johnny Rotten singing along to 'I'm Eighteen' on the jukebox at the Sex boutique in Chelsea – perhaps that is a fitting tribute to the legend of Alice Cooper

The Ghoul can't help it

It was Alice Cooper who drew first blood. Early in the Seventies, Alice (real name Vincent Furnier) showed his commercial acumen in realizing that rock music and horror could be harnessed in on sensational, shocking showbiz package. Dressed as a ghoul, he exploited all the macabre possibilities of madness, execution (by noose, electric chair, guillotine and axe) and necrophilia: 'I love the dead before they're cold/their bluing flesh for me to hold', he sang on 1973's Billion Dollar Babies LP. Although he contended that it was all harmless fun, Alice took the opportunity his fame allowed him to have a go at the potentially more damaging sickness at the heart of America. And now and again he hit a nerve – his 1973 single 'Elected', a dig at 'honest' Presidential candidates, made the charts just a year before the Watergate crisis.

Cooper's Grand Guignol had been influenced by the Gothic horror of romantic literature and Thirties Hollywood – his terrifying hymn to madness, 'The Ballad Of Dwight Fry', was named after the little actor who had played the demented hunchback or vampire acolyte in the Universal films Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931).