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Originally Published: October 08, 2000
Author: Wayne Bledsoe
Alice Cooper, the originator of '70s shock rock, is being rediscovered by a new generation. But Cooper is not so happy to be lumped in with the likes of Marilyn Manson and Slipknot. "Some of these bands that have professed Satanic cult things. That shouldn't include me," says Cooper, "because, for one thing, I'm a Christian. That's the biggest insult you could give me. You could call me untalented and boring, OK, I can live with that. But call me Satanic and you're stepping on what I really believe in."
Indeed, after achieving notoriety in the early 1970s by performing with a live boa constrictor, staging his own hangings, beheadings and electrocutions during concerts, and singing about necrophilia, Cooper began to reveal that he was actually a fairly conservative guy. The son of a minister, he loved golf and baseball. He appeared on "The Hollywood Squares." And he began to include heartfelt ballads along with his more provocative repertoire.
Cooper, who will perform Thursday, Oct. 12, at Chilhowee Park, recently released a new album, "Brutal Planet," and was the subject of a four-CD boxed set in 1999.
The Cooper saga actually began in the mid-'60s, when Alice Cooper was a band rather than one man. At that time Cooper was known as Vincent Furnier. He and four other Phoenix teenagers decided to enter a talent contest as a parody of the Beatles. A year later, after shifting band names and a few members, the group had become a solid garage unit.
"I think everybody's common denominator is Chuck Berry and the Beatles, every good garage band I can think of," says Cooper. "But then instead of staying down the middle commercially, we went for the bands who were a little bit more experimental. We liked the Yardbirds, the Who, the Kinks. That's where we got our edge. And then when you start applying your sense of drama and your sense of humor to it, it turns into something else."
"Something else" is exactly what the group became. After scoring regional hits, the band moved to Los Angeles in 1968. Discarding names such as the Earwigs, the Spiders and the Nazz, the young men decided on the name Alice Cooper for the group. While no one quite agrees on how the name was chosen, the most repeated story involves a Ouija Board session determining the moniker -- and if someone spread the story that the name was that of a witch burned at the stake and that lead singer Furnier was her reincarnation, well, the band wasn't about to dispute a tale as good as that.
Impressed by just how much California's peace and love crowds hated the band, rock provocateur Frank Zappa signed Alice Cooper to his Straight Records. Two albums failed to sway the masses.
But Cooper says it wasn't until fledgling producer Bob Ezrin came onboard to produce the group's third album, "Love It to Death," that the band really became "Alice Cooper."
"He was our George Martin," says Cooper. "When Bob got us he really worked on guitar, bass, drums and vocal having a signature sound."
The album included the band's first hit "Eighteen," along with the spooky fan favorite "The Ballad of Dwight Frye." The spook factor increased on "Killer," the group's follow-up. The album included the notorious "Dead Babies" (a song about parental neglect that had the subtlety of a Hershell Gordon Lewis film) and the title cut, which was written specifically for a stage presentation that included the singer being hanged.
The level of parental outrage increased as the group began to garner more hits. "School's Out," from the album of the same name, became a summer anthem in 1972. The album package originally included a pair of paper panties snuggled around the vinyl LP.
It was also in that year that the band made its most memorable trip to Knoxville. Word on the street was that the group would feed its pet boa constrictor a live chicken onstage (that was actually never part of the act, but the group was happy to let rumors fly). While the snake, named Chena, did appear onstage, it disappeared once it got to the group's Hyatt Regency hotel room.
Country star Charley Pride, who rented the room a week after Cooper, found Chena in his bed. A Hyatt employee later provided Chena with a nice home.
With rumors of the Alice Cooper stage act flying, the group's infamy and sales expanded exponentially. The group was banned from performing in England before the members could set foot on a British stage.
"We couldn't have asked for anything better," says Cooper, noting that the group members were told of the ban at the same time they were informed that their current record had just hit No. 1 in England.
"I went, 'Can we get banned everywhere, please?'" says Cooper.
Yet by 1974, the rest of the group simply wanted to play rock 'n' roll and forget the horror themes.
"That's what we were known for," says Cooper. "We were the first band that had a huge show like that and backed it up with a couple of No. 1 albums, so it was definitely what people wanted. But the band just didn't want to do theatrics anymore. They wanted to be Creedence Clearwater or something, and I just didn't get it."
Cooper had by that time become synonymous with the group's name, so he hired a band and continued on, recording the hit album "Welcome to My Nightmare" the following year. The former Alice Cooper band members pursued other projects musical and otherwise.
"Now the other guys own video stores and stuff," says Cooper. "We're still best of friends."
Cooper, himself, has had an ocean full of ups and downs. Hits became sporadic, but young groups continually cited Cooper as an influence and did guest spots on his discs.
One of the most recent rockers to heap praise on Cooper is Rob Zombie -- who, Cooper says, blends horror and humor much as Cooper has always done.
"Alice is about as dangerous as Vincent Price (was)," says Cooper. "It should be scary, but it certainly is not Satanic. I think Alice is closer to Bela Lugosi than 'The Exorcist.' At the end of my show you should be laughing and saying 'That was the best Halloween show I was ever at!'"
Alice Cooper with opening act Tidewater Grain will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Homer Hamilton Theater, Chilhowee Park. Tickets are $25, available at Tickets Unlimited outlets.