Originally Published: October 1997
Inside the sold-out auditorium, the frenzied crowd of teenagers dressed in black leather and strange eye-makeup frantically fight one another to get as close to the stage as possible. They cheer wildly for the deranged rock star with a woman's name who performs various atrocities on the stage as his band plays wicked anthems of sex, death and money. Outside, there is a horde of protestors holding up signs denouncing these unspoken acts which are the new rage in rock and roll. While this would describe a Marilyn Manson show in 1997, it is actually a description of an Alice Cooper concert in 1972.
Like Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper realized that rock music was never meant to be safe. But by the late 1960s, rock music was no longer forbidden and dangerous. Its initial fans had grown up and become parents themselves, making rock music acceptable and part of the mainstream. So, just when it seemed that rock and roll had lost its ability to shock and outrage, Alice Cooper decided to emerge on the rock scene. He was a new type of rock hero: the rock villain. And, his decadent style of shows and music opened the door for what was to become known as Shock Rock.
His story started innocently enough. Born Vincent Damon Furnier and the son of a minister, none would have guessed that this boy would someday grow up to become Alice Cooper, the man who would horrify parents and teachers all over the world with images of snakes, guillotines and dead babies. But already, at only sixteen years old, Vince realized that if his own parents were not as shocked by rock music anymore, that something needed to be done. So, he became the lead singer and frontman for a band which he formed with his high school friends. Joining Alice were guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith. They initially called themselves the Earwigs, then the Spiders and then the Nazz. But, they wanted a name which would really set them apart. It was 1968, and a male lead singer and band using a female name were guaranteed to raise eyebrows. So, with this in mind, they called themselves Alice Cooper.
According to popular legend, it was during a session with a Ouija board, that Vincent Furnier became Alice Cooper, the reincarnation of a seventeenth century witch. But as Alice explains, the name was mainly chosen because "it was so American and so eerie at the same time. It had the same ring to it that Lizzie Borden did. I knew that if there was really an Alice Cooper somewhere, chances were she was an ax murderer."
By the end of the 1960s, the band's sexually ambiguous costumes and look added to the confusion generated by their feminine name. Using makeup and gender-bending clothing, they created a controversy with their blurred sexual identity. And they also began to blend rock music and theater in a manner never before seen, using whatever props they could afford during their live performances. This included breaking pillows onstage; then using fire extinguishers to spray the feathers all over the audience.
Eventually, Alice Cooper's penchant for using props onstage resulted in his most notorious scandal: the infamous "chicken incident". It was at a rock festival in 1969, that Alice Cooper saw a chicken onstage and threw it into the audience. The fact that it was really the audience who had killed the chicken, did not seem to matter. The world denounced Alice Cooper. And, his reputation as a chicken-killer has persisted to this day.
Yet even though the band's notorious image began to earn them more attention, Alice Cooper realized that it was really the music that was first and foremost what really mattered. The band's first two albums garnered little interest, and the band searched for a music producer who could help translate the electricity of their live shows onto record. After hooking up with ace producer Bob Ezrin, the band released their first smash hit record "I'm Eighteen" in 1970. With lyrics that proclaimed "I'm eighteen! And I don't know what I want...", the song became a rock anthem for frustrated young people everywhere. The album from which it came, "Love it to Death", was full of power-driven rock music, turning the musical tide away from the ballads and soft rock which dominated the charts.
The world was still into peace and love. Rock performers wore jeans and tee-shirts onstage, and just played their instruments. But, Alice Cooper was now preparing to unleash shows which would create shockwaves in a world unprepared for their assault. With a hit record now under their belt, the band could afford to stage even more elaborate shows. Alice Cooper would appear on stage wearing thigh-high leather boots, the mascara around his eyes resembling giant black spiders. He wore a strait jacket while performing "The Ballad of Dwight Frye", a song about a man's escape from a mental hospital, and was later "executed" on an electric chair. Such onstage theatrics horrified parents and Alice Cooper became synonymous with anarchy and deviant behavior. But, the rock world was ready for a change. As Alice explained, "we were into fun, sex, death and money when everybody was into peace and love. We wanted to see what was next. It turned out, we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation".
The release of "Killer" in late 1971, only served to intensify Alice Cooper's threatening image. The album contained a poster of Alice Cooper suspended from a hangman's noose, while songs like "Dead Babies" and "Halo of Flies" pushed the envelope of rock and roll with their dark and sinister themes. Alice would appear onstage with blackened eyes and a live boa constrictor draped around his neck. He would let the long, thick snake slither slowly between his legs before pushing the animal's head into his own mouth. During "Dead Babies", a deranged Alice would fondle and rape a baby doll; then chop it up with a hatchet. As red liquid flowed from the doll's mutilated limbs, Alice would toss the dismembered body parts into the audience. His fellow band members would then drag evil Alice to the gallows for his "execution". Alice's onstage antics outraged parents and community leaders who viewed his shows as immoral and sick. But, Alice brought imagination and excitement to rock and roll, and rock fans were flocking to see his shows and buy his records.
In 1972, "School's Out" was released, and became a huge smash success all over the world. The album covers opened up into desks and the record sleeves were women's paper bikini underpants. The paper panties were imported from England, and caused quite a controversy when United States Customs officials worried that the panties were flammable. Newspapers ran stories with headlines that "Alice's Panties are to Hot to Handle". But such controversies were nothing new for Alice Cooper.
As Alice Cooper became a hero to millions of fans around the world, parents and teachers grew increasingly concerned over his influence on the younger generation, convinced that he would corrupt the world's youth. In 1972, a member of the British Parliament, Leo Abse, even asked the government to have Alice Cooper banned from Britain. Abse said that he made his decision after talking to his teenage children who told him that Alice was absolutely sick. On the floor of Parliament, Abse said "I regard his act as an incitement to infanticide for his audience. He is deliberately trying to involve these kids in sadomasochism. He is peddling the culture of the concentration camp. Pop is one thing; anthems of necrophilia are another".
Yet, Alice did make it to Britain in 1972, during his European tour. And, to promote Alice's show at Wembley Arena, a truck with a twenty-foot billboard picture of Alice drove past Buckingham Palace and the Parliament buildings. But, it was no ordinary picture of Alice. In the twenty-foot photo, Alice appeared completely naked with only a boa constrictor wrapped around his groin area. The truck stalled in the middle of an intersection and was impossible to miss. As a result, the notorious picture of Alice and his snake made headlines all over the world.
In 1973, Alice Cooper released "Billion Dollar Babies" and the album was number one on the record charts in both America and Britain. The "Billion Dollar Babies" tour broke box office records, becoming the highest grossing tour in rock concert history at the time. Before the tour, Alice had warned audiences that "the sicker you get out there, the sicker we'll get". He continued to perform with the snake and commit sadomasochistic acts with female mannequins and chopped-up baby dolls. But, the gallows was replaced by a guillotine with a real forty-pound blade. He was "executed" during "I Love the Dead", a song which shocked with lyrics about necrophilia. During the finale of the show, the band would beat up a lookalike of the American president. Many city officials were disgusted by Alice's shows, and attempts were made to ban Alice Cooper from performing in certain cities. In Binghampton, New York, Alice was actually banned from playing his scheduled show at the Broome County Coliseum.
In late 1973, the band recorded another studio album called "Muscle of Love" before going their separate ways in 1974. In 1975, Alice continued as a solo act and released "Welcome to My Nightmare". It was a conceptual album which dealt with the nightmares of a disturbed little boy named Steven. During the "Welcome to My Nightmare" show, Alice played out these nightmares and battled giant black widow spiders and a huge cyclops.
During the late 1970s, Alice continued to tour and release albums. It was also at this time, that Punk Rock emerged on the scene. Many punk rockers acknowledged their debt to Alice, and projected the Alice Cooper image and attitude. But by the end of the decade, the Disco era was in full swing and rock music took a back seat.
By the mid-1980s, Heavy Metal music made a huge comeback. As heavy metal stars noted Alice Cooper's tremendous influence, the fans awaited the return of the man himself. In 1986, Alice Cooper launched a new tour, appropriately called the "Nightmare Returns". Whole new generations of rock fans were introduced to such highlights as the snake and the guillotine.
The multi-platinum success of "Trash" in 1990, with new generations of fans, proved Alice Cooper's timeless appeal. And, Alice's ability to satirize America's obsession with sex, death and money continues to draw new legions of fans. It was his love of satire, which impelled Alice to pose for the British publication, the London Sun, as their "Sun Girl" in 1991. In this picture, Alice Cooper is dressed up as a dominitrix, and is wearing turquoise eye-makeup, a black shiny teddy, fishnet stockings and thigh-high boots. Many Sun readers must have been shocked to discover that that day's "Sun Girl" was no girl at all, but the infamous Alice Cooper.
In 1992, Alice Cooper appeared in the movie "Wayne's World". The two main characters in the movie, Wayne and Garth, were big rock fans who fell to their knees, crying "We're not worthy", upon meeting the legendary Alice Cooper. Being called a legend in one's own lifetime is a frequently overused cliche, but Alice Cooper is a true rock original and innovator who has combined rock music and theater in ways never before seen. And, he sparked controversy and outrage in a world where complacency was usually the norm.
His career spans four decades. This summer, Alice Cooper will release his latest album "A Fistful of Alice", a live album recorded during Alice's 1996 summer tour. His European tour in July will be followed by some American dates in August. And, Warner Brothers Records plans to issue a long-awaited box set, chronicling Alice Cooper's entire catalogue of classic rock music.