Originally Published: August 1999
Author: Chris McLernon
Imagine trying to put 30 years on your life into one box. Now, try that again when you're Alice Cooper. That cozy little box would have to have seating for everyone from Chris Cornell and Rob Zombie to liza Minelli and Vincent Price. Not to mention all of the Muppets. There's got to be room for Johnny Rotten's gyrating audition for the Sex Pistols and Jim Carrey's for The Dead Pool (they both did "I'm Eighteen"). Now, toss in every band that used make-up and props, and cross dressed.
The box is starting to get very crowded, isn't it?
Crowded and worth the five year wait. After much speculation and fan impatience, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper is here. Covering his career from the '60s to the '90s, the four-CD set gives a keenly sharpened look into how Vince Furnier created Alice Cooper, and where they got the fuel for Alice's "luney tunes".
When I was thirteen, I read everything available on Alice Cooper. I never believed any of the hype or admittedly entertaining rumors (eating a rat during a "gross out contest", drinking a cup of the audience's spit, pulling the heads off of chickens and drinking the blood. Have we heard any of these before?) because I was too busy looking at the flickering, quivering pictures of the Alice Cooper Band projected onto my mental movie screen. The sounds were so image-rich, slithering and oozing out of my cheesy stereo speakers and into my head. Where else could I get a record with an inside poster of a bloody-mouthed and hung Alice that matched the execution processional during the last song on the record?
Alice Cooper was always about entertainment. In the mix was good old fashioned shock value, but there was always a sense of humor, always a painful moral to the gritty story. So, feed the boa, arrange the props, and smear on the mascara as the Coop tells you about some of the people in the box with him. Sure, it's crowded in the box, but remember - Alice was there before anybody else.
What was the delay with the boxed set?
Boy, I wish I knew. There was a girl that started on the box set, then she moved to New York, got married and had two kids! I think that box sets got over saturated. Everybody had a box set and this was at the end of the first big box set wave and they started realizing that these things don't just sell like regular albums. They're more expensive and harder to sell. We came in right after Paul Simon's box set and I think they were a little disappointed in his sales. So they really backed off. Now it's five years later and everybody that I talk to says , "Where's your box set?" It's a box set that's really looked forward to. I just heard it the other night. They re-mastered everything and it sounds unbelievable! I was so surprised to hear it! When you listen back, and you take Pretties For You all the way up 25 albums or so, you can really hear the evolution of technology through the albums. Even some of the real simple production in the early, early days sounds unbelievable the way they've mastered it.
That's what I'm looking forward to hearing. I had Pretties For You and Easy Action on vinyl, so I'm curious to hear it on CD.
We went into the studio (for Pretties) with [Frank] Zappa and [I said], "Well what are we going to do? Drums and bass first?" "No, just play it live," [Zappa said]. So it was no over-dubbing. It was nothing. It took three days to do Pretties For You. We just cut it live in the studio with four mics. There's no separation between the instruments.
"Levity Ball" definitely sounds like that. You can hear the guitar's volume knob not quite coming up in time and the snare drum rattling.
I enjoy that, myself. I love hi-tech records, but I also like really low-tech records. I love listening to old Rolling Stones records when you hear Charlie Watts drop the sticks in the background and you could hear things you're not supposed to hear.
There was something on "Love It To Death" where you can hear talking.. Was it "Hallowed Me My Name"?
Yes. And I don't have any idea who it was. It was just somebody that didn't realize the mic was on. We were such pros, you know.
But that's what makes it fun. You feel like you're in the room.
Yes, absolutely. I always push for, "Let's not layer, layer, layer, layer." I said, "We're a good enough band and our music is the kind of music where we should be able to play onstage what we play in the studio." I never want to do an album that is so produced that we can't make it sound better onstage. And if we do get into a lot of production, we're going to have something simulate it live. I hate it when I hear bands do these big productions and they get onstage and it's not even the same song.
And you have one guy singing live, whereas in the studio you had a chorus of 50 singers.
Sure. I could go out right now at the Hard Rock Hotel and find four or five guys, take them into the studio and make them sound like they're a band. With technology, it's just that easy. Plot, formula, number.
What also made me think of that rawness was "Call It Evil", because you guys sounded like you're winging it. But it still sounds full. It sounds like the Alice Cooper band.
I had a very unique thing with the Alice Cooper band. This band - Dennis [Dunaway], Neal [Smith], Mike [Bruce] and Glen [Buxton] - could sit down and jam with Canned Heat. They could sit down and do Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll. But they could jam Pink Floyd. They could play with Velvet Underground all day. The could play with The Mothers [of Invention]. They were right at home with that stuff. They were really very psychedelic, and it took them a long time to learn how to play rock 'n' roll.
You can really hear the bands you just mentioned, and also the Yardbirds' influence on the earlier songs from the box set.
Oh, man. "School's Out", the whole bottom of it is from the Yardbirds' "Beck Bolero". [Alice hums a few bars].
"Lay Down & Die, Goodbye" sounds like "Still I'm Sad" and some of that Yardbirdy-dirgy kind of stuff.
You know what? It could be the fact that our entire set was Yardbirds. We did the entire Rave Up album; we did the entire Over Under Sideways Down album. In fact, we opened for the Yardbirds when we were in high school. I was 17 years old, we played a club called the VIP Club and we did their entire show before they went on. I remember Keith Relf & Jeff beck watching us and giving us the thumbs up, going, "Yeah!" And we were doing "Train Kept A Rollin'," "Smokestack Lightning," "Evil Hearted You", and everyone of their songs. Then they went up kind of smiling and just blew us off the stage. They had the Vox Super Beatles amps, Jeff beck was doing acrobatics with the guitar, and it was feeding back in perfect tone and everything. We were just standing there with our mouths open going, "How great are these guys!" They were always my favorite rock 'n' roll band.
I found them in high school. I bought a Yardbirds collection and I remember listening and thinking, "Wait a minute. A lot of people sound like this."
Yeah, exactly. The Yardbirds actually were one of the bands that sounded better onstage then on the record. They could actually play Over Under Sideways Down, Happenings, Ten Years Time Ago - or any of these really complicated sounding things - live and sound even better than the record. There were only a few bands that could do that. The Who was like that.
I love The Who. To me, Neal and Dennis sounded like an American version of John Entwistle and Keith Moon.
Well, let me tell you a great story on Neal Smith. Neal Smith understood the concept of pop star more than any human being on the planet. He was an event. First of all, he was six-foot-six and had blonde hair down to his waist. Neal would wear four-inch heels, so he was seven feet tall. Now he walks in, he's all in gold lame with turquoise eye make-up on. He looked like a Norse God. Neal would find out how many drums Keith Moon had and then get one more. The he would call up Keith and say, "Keith?" [Alice imitates Moon perfectly] 'Yes Neal, how're you doing, old boy?" Keith says, "32." "Well, I have 33." So Keith would go out and buy another one. It was a total battle. One night, we were opening for The Who at the East Town Theater. The last song was some big psychedelic song we were doing, it may have been "Lay Down And Die, Goodbye." The Who opened up the curtain and Keith played the last song with us. So now there are 75 drums onstage and these two guys playing relentlessly. It was a wall of drums and it was great! It was a real moment in rock 'n' roll. As for Dennis, he played lead bass and a lot of our songs were based on Dennis Dunaway lines.
They're some of my favorites. My old band toured with Extreme, and the first night of the tour I played "Gutter Cat" and "Dead Babies" at sound check. Nobody in my band recognized them as Alice Cooper songs, but Gary Cherone came racing out of the dressing room and knowingly asked what I was playing. I said, "I'm going through my Dennis repertoire." We were friends from then on.
It's funny, because a lot of these great bass players really looked at Dennis as being the best musician in the group. Dennis probably was out best player. He was so unique. He was a Pink Floyd fan. He would just sit there all day writing these lead bass lines, like "Blue Turk". We would just write the songs on that bass line.
What always struck me about you was that your presentation of the band was as much sonic as it was visual.
Our biggest thing that we had to overcome at that time [1969-71], was that everybody was narrow minded, rock 'n' roll was on it own. It wasn't "show biz." Show biz was Frank Sinatra, Samy Davis Jr. And Liza Minelli. Rock 'n' roll was not allowed to be show biz and we said, 'Yes it is. We're as valid as anything out there." You can play and you can look good and you can be exciting up there. Don't worry, it's not going to demean your music. And I tell you what - we went through hell trying to get that through to people. I think we spent 90% of the time on the music and maybe 10% on the theater. The theater was so easy to us. I said, "You know what you do for the theater, guys? You just make the lyrics come to life. If we're going to do 'Killer,' we'll just recreate it onstage. Whatever the lyrics do, we'll do it." Well, what happens here? It sounds like he's going to get hung? Well, let's hang him. Let's do a processional - without giving up the credibility of the music. I look at bands that were gimmick driven and they weren't known for hits. But we had 14 or 15 Top 40 hits. That's what made the difference - the fact that our music, even to this day, still stands. I can name you 10 [Alice Cooper] songs that are considered rock 'n' roll anthems. If you ever saw the show they would still work.
I noticed that you took a lot of stuff from the golden era of Hollywood: Marx Brothers, Bowery Boys, whereas later bands took ideas from horror movies.
The Thin Man, Raymond Chandler, Damon Runyon. A lot of that came from Glen. He was a Dashiell Hammett character. He was a real 40's gangster. He kind of talked like that [doing an imitation of Glen], "Hey, yo." He was a greasy little guy.
He was the first guy I ever saw actually to put a braid in his beard.
[He was] the first guy I ever actually saw to put a cigarette on the end of his guitar string.
Wow! Ed Van Halen owes him a lot of royalties on that one.
And Keith Richards. The best way to illustrate Glen is this: We were playing at the VIP Club, this was about 1968, and this club was notorious - the crowd would fight each other to see who got to kill us. Glen's best friend Joey ran this place. After the gig we would have to break some bar stools and fight our way out to the cars because there'd be guys out there waiting for us. It was just like a scene in a movie. And this guy Joey loved to do that more than anything. Well, Glen is up there onstage, and this little greaser girl comes up with this low-cut dress on. She goes, 'Do 'Louie, Louie." Glen, who's from Ohio, and he's the biggest greaser of all time, looks down, he's got a cigarette and he goes, "'Louie, Louie,' huh?" And he flicks the butt of his cigarette down between her cleavage. She's jumping all over the place and these greasers go, "Yeah! This guy's one of us." So they stood up in front of the stage with their arms folded, and they were our protection from then on. If he (Glen) wasn't in the band, he would have been one of those guys that say, [in an accent] "Heya, Joey, what do you need?" A lot of our lyrics really did come from that. Glen had that air about him and we tapped into that all the time. He was a Bowery Boy.
Now that makes a lot of sense. Glen's sneer was real then?
It was absolutely for real. I never saw Glen where he didn't have a cigarette, a bottle of beer in his hand, and some sort of weapon in his pocket or hidden somewhere on his body. We would get across the border and he would say, "Look what I got in my boot." I'm like, "No, Glen, no," and it would be a switchblade. And he had to do it. He just wanted to get away with it. He didn't put anything on. He's a great, great character and he was for real.
Did you hear anybody along the way that caught what you were doing musically, as opposed to visually? Do you hear yourself in anybody?
Every once in a while I'll hear something. You know who we were very close to, but we went in different directions because they were a little more bluesy: Aerosmith. The way the songs are written are very, very similar. I listen to songs like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," and some of the stuff they are doing now, and I go, "Geez! Why didn't I write that?" I mean, that sounds like something we would definitely write. I've had Steven Tyler and Joe Perry go, "Wow! Geez! We should have written that song. 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' or 'Billion Dollar Babies', that's us!" And now I realize that the common denominator is that if you took Aerosmith and Alice Cooper and put them onstage, we could do any Yardbirds song. I heard them do "Train Kept a Rollin'" and I said to them, "Geez, we're like soulmates when it comes to that." I could name any Yardbirds song and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry would be able to start it an we would be able to do the song right there.
That I'd like to see.
Yeah, that would be great. In fact, this would've been one you would've loved - it was Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Marc Bolan, and the original Alice Cooper Band, and we did a version of "Jailhouse Rock" and [Harry Nilsson's] "Coconut." [Alice sings - "She put the lime on the coconut."]. We have an hour version of each one of those [from] when we were doing Billion Dollar Babies in England. I don't know what happened to the tapes, but I would have killed for that tape.
Who chose the tracks for the box set and where'd you find them?
Brian Nelson is the archivist. He's been my assistant for about 15 years, and the reason we hired him was that I was looking for an assistant and he had the biggest collection of Alice Cooper stuff. He has a warehouse full of stuff. Now, when it came along to this thing coming out, he kept saying, "Ok, this is what." I said, "Don't tell me! When the record comes out I want to be surprised." He says, "I have tapes of you guys when you were 16 years old in your mom's living room." And I said "Great! I want to hear it." He would name a song: "'Slick Black Limousine,' tell me about that song." I said, "I don't remember that song." And he said, "Well, great! I can't wait to hear it!" But I told him up front, "I want to be as surprised as anybody else about a lot of the stuff." Then, when it came down to the actual list - there was a list of 400 songs - he said, "Which ones do you really want on here ?" And I said, "Well, there are certain things I really do want. I want 'Man With The Golden Gun' on there. I want 'Tag, You're It.' I want some of those songs that I loved that never got a shot. I want 'Talk Talk' on there and '7 and 7 Is.' "
That's from one of my favorite post-Alice Cooper Band records. Special Forces had this weird macabre stuff, but there was always humor.
Yeah. The funny sense of humor. "Apirin Damage."
"I Better Be Nice", "Zorro's Ascent".
"Zorro's Ascent" has one of my favorite lyrics: [Sings] "Before I don the mask, I Don Diego." To me, Alice was a little bit Dracula, a little bit Captain Hook, and little Zorro in there. Because Zorro was my favorite hero. That's why I still have the sword onstage. There's a definite swashbuckling thing about Alice.
True. And if you do another box set, there's plenty of material to choose from, like the stuff from Zipper Catches Skin and Special Forces. There are songs from Muscle of Love that I always liked. Some of my favorite lyrics are "Crazy Little Child." I love the storyline.
[Starts singing "Crazy Little Child"] And I don't know where those songs came from. I honestly don't. We just started writing and they kind of wrote themselves.
That one sounded very Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall.
The Bowery Boys were one of our biggest influences. "School's out" was actually written from watching an old Bowery Boys movie where Mugsy takes his hat off and he hits Satch and goes, "Hey! School's Out!" And what he was saying was, "Wise Up." To me that connection just totally went. What a great way to say "wise up." We wrote it ["School's Out"] in 10 minutes.
I'm glad "I Love America" was included.
"I Love America". Every time that [Bob] Ezrin and I would listen back to that, we would just start laughing, [does the breakdown] "Here they come.There they go!"
That and the bit in the middle with the "Cooper's Classic Cars." That killed me the first time I heard it.
Well, Bob Ezrin was a kindred spirit. I mean Bob was crazier than any of us. You'd come up with a throw away idea, "Wouldn't it be funny if." And the next day we'd come back, and it was on tape and he'd say, "Well, can you do that?" And we'd say, "Well, who's going to stop us?" I was so happy Rhino was doing this. They're one company that actually has fun with the product. To me, that was very important - to get a sense of humor going with this.
The long awaited Alice Cooper box set is finally available, featuring four CDs that span Cooper's three decade-plus career. The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper captures 84 tracks from 21 different albums, as well as numerous unreleased tracks featuring outtakes, demos, B-sides and other rarities. Of not: Rob Zombie's remix of his '96 collaboration with Alice, "Hands of Death (Burn Baby Burn)" from the X-Files tribute album Songs in the Key of X, "Under My Wheels" featuring Guns n' Roses' Axl Rose, Slash and Izzy Stradlin, and rare cuts from Alice's 1965-67 bands The Spiders and The Nazz. The liner notes feature an introduction by Johnny "Rotten" Lydon, and tributes from artists including Elton John and Joey Ramone. Also available are the video and DVD releases of Welcome to My Nightmare, the theatrical performance performed live at London's Wembley Stadium in 1975. The DVD also includes a commentary track from Alice, a never-before-seen interview, and memorabilia and trivia game.