Originally Published: July 15, 1972
"Alice Cooper simply reflects to what lengths a group must go to tickle the jaded palate of an American youth dulled with cheap wine and downers...the gross product of a rancid teenage sub-culture"
Henry McCulloch of Wings was there, with a Paul and Linda tee-shirt and a blond child in his arms. So was Ian Wallace, who used to drum for King Crimson.
Then there was Wiggy of the Who's set-up, Claude the famous roadie, and B.P. Fallon, his hair short and tufty and a long mauve cloak wrapped around him, looking like a deposed and sorrowing prince. There was even another Prince, Viv by name, who swaggered about backstage in Hell's Angel's colours with a walking instead of drum stick.
Missing were all the Rolling Stones (away on tour), John, Paul, George and Ringo, David Cassidy, and the whole Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Marc Bolan and Elton John. They must have known it would be a modest affair. David Bowie didn't show, because he hates them anyway, but if Arthur Brown and Screaming Lord Sutch were there they were probably a little cynical and contemptuous. After all, they were doing those sort of things years ago, weren't they? And better?
However, Ian Wallace and Claud the roadie thought they were fantastic. McCulloch was indifferent. But poor old B.P. felt offended by it all. It brought back a dream he'd had the night before of vampires. He'd woken up in a feverish sweat. The fangs had just been the pillow touch away. Metal gurur, was it you?
No, Alice Cooper gets some people like that. Little girls, did you go home on Friday night and toss and turn in throes of nightmares? Did you wake up screaming with an image in your mind of gallows and a broken neck hanging limp? Did you have the horrors about mutilated babies?
Little girls, did you lie there dreaming of Alice's snake?
The scene in Wembley's Empire Pool, on a sunny Friday evening. Well, it may be sunny outside but in here, it this huge auditorium, 7,000-odd kids are trying to accustom their eyes to darkness as gloomy as the pit.
Roxy Music, a new outfit whom everyone says is on the up, have played a first half of music full of gentle mystery now, then slashing attack. They are what King Crimson could have been. And their singer has the oddest voice, a strange, limpid vibrato, wistful and detached. Great for starters.
During the interval we move right up by the stage. White crash barriers have been erected in front of the first row of seats and a narrow cat-walk juts out into the audience. The space between the barriers and the stage is packed with photographers. The aisles are jammed with more photgraphers, pressmen, music business people and plain, ordinary fans.
The lights have gone down. "This is the legendary Alice Cooper," announces an American voice. And then on come these guys in satins - pink, blue, green and what-have-you. They slam into "Gutter Cats vs. The Jets," with its semi-allegiance to Bernstein.
The bass player steps to his left to make way for this smallish figure dressed completely in black: black cavalier boot with silver flashes, black shirt, and black trousers which look as if round holeshave been cut in them. His hair is as ratty as if it had been streaked with long black splashes of paint. This, as the MC said, is Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper used to be Vince and The Spiders playing Yardbirds stuff down in Phoenix, Arizona. Then they moved to LA and got hip. They probably became infected with some of the contempt for American rock audiences that was held by Frank Zappa, with whose Straight label they signed.
People surprised at the extent of the band's success in America shouldn't be. Their onstage excesses, their preoccupations with grisly death and Grand Guignol, simply reflect to what lengths a group must go to tickle the jaded palate of an American youth dulled with cheap wine and downers.
They're the gross product of a rancid teenage sub-culture, a musical horror movie for an audience weaned on the stream of horror flicks shown around the clock on American television. It's boloney when Life magazine portentously states that Alice "becomes the scapegoat for everybody's guilts and repressions." A horror movie is a titillating experience, and titillation is what Alice Cooper is all about.
Not that they can't be fun at times. Right now, for instance, Miss Cooper, flick-knife in hand is popping the soap bubbles that are being blown from the back of the stage. He bursts the round membranes with an evil little sneer, as it they're floating foetuses, then clinks his bottom at the audience. His face smirking behind the blackpaint, he looks like a middle-aged Soho tart with ladders in her tights.
He pushes over the mike-stand with his foot, catches quite expertly the microphone before it falls to the stage, and then sidles down the cat-walk, left hand holding the small of his back as if he's got a twinge of rheumatism.
He's singing "I'm Eighteen," the Alice Cooper hymn to young America, which, it has to be admitted, is a great rock and roll song. "I'm a boy and I'm a man," he sings. "I've got a baby's brain and an old man's heart."
This is the essence of Alice Cooper's appeal: to speak directly for the inarticulate teens, for whom pictures are more important than words.
The band, who throughout are rather mediocre, slip into a parody of "My Favourite Things," and Alice retreats back down the cat-walk. He flicks viciously at the lead guitarist's blond hair then disappears to the back of the stage. When he reappears after the band's instrumental piece he's carrying a pink doll. He whips is out from behind his back. Smirk, smirk. "Dead babies can't take care of themselves."
He unwraps its green covering so it gleams freshly in the lights, then picks up the axe. This is what we've all been told about. He kicks it in front of him down the cat-walk, mincing in its wake. When he falls on it he rips off its arms and legs.
"Goodbye, little baby, goodbye, little baby," coo the band up on stage. But in the audience they're scrabbling for the limbs as if they've been thrown turkey legs. Finally, he's left with the head. The axe crunches brutally against the plastic and as the doll's features crack in twain artificial blood seeps out of its mouth. Amusing, if not exactly new. Frank Zappa was having far more fun, and being more chillingly realistic, when he let US marines kick a stuffed doll about on stage.
Still, whatever happened to Baby Jane? Alice has kissed it, and now he's placed it's head on the mike-stand, as if it were a memento of some tribal victory. Suddenly, he whips it off again and drop-kicks it out into the darkness beyond the front rows. So, whatever did happen to Baby Jane?
While we're glancing out into the audience the music has suddenly dropped in tempo. An organ swells histrionically, and smoke rises like yellow mist in the spotlights. It's "Killer," and Alice is wailing and berating himself crouched on his knees.
Torches sputter smokily and the mist clears to reveal him being strung up on a convincing-looking gallows. Quick scan of the audience and they're yelling as much encouragement as if they were at Newgate. One almost expects to see the knitting needles clicking. Now this is something.
The drummer plays taps as the noose is being fixed. The music flows with church-like reverence . . . then cuts out suddenly. Pause of two seconds. There are two sounds: of the trap-door opening and of the body thudding downwards. They're like the cutting of a stretched rope. A chick at my elbow draws in her breath sharply then gasps, "oh God, no!" The music roars in a thunderous din. It's the descent into the abyss.
The last time, someone says later, it went wrong. Alice didn't fall right and rope burned his neck. It might've killed him for real. A pity, someone else mutters.
But it's the highlight of the performance, a genuine piece of theatre, a thick slice of Hammer ham. At the resurrection Alice appears in white tails with a silver top hat and cane.
"I've still got a long way to go," he leers throatily, and throws out armfuls of posters to the outstretched hands as if they're souveniers of the hanging. "I've still got a looooong way to go," he screams, but with the last brown poster clutched by some hot little hand he steps up to the mike, raises his arms and shouts "Goodbye! goodnight! School's out!" and they all race off stage.
But you didn't believe that would be the end, did you? They come back and Alice is holding a rapier, which he slings in a stirrup on his left boot. He's singing "Is It My Body?" "What have I got that makes you want to love me?"
What has he got? He's got a big snake, a boa constrictor. Fifteen years ago they put rubber hoses down their pants. These days you can uncoil on stage your own Freudian fantasy.
But this particular snake is looking pretty sleepy. Alice makes to put it in his mouth and its tongue waggles dispiritedly. Maybe the little white rat from Connecticut is no longer in its glass cage but spread out evenly through the long reptilian length. Alice holds the creature aloft in both hands.
"Have you got the time to find out," he sings, then he's gone.
The scene that follows is remarkable - the reception T.Rex got when they played Wembley was lukewarm in comparison. The audience to a man are on their feet, refusing to leave and calling for another look at this man who's just hanged himself before their eyes.
When the compere asks them to sit down they do so obediently and after five minutes Alice Cooper reappears. He's given a bouquet of flowers which he scatters among the first few rows. Inevitably, they do their new single, "School's Out." It's the best number they've written since "I'm Eighteen." This time they go and don't return.
So what do you make of them? you ask yourself as you wander backstage. Alice Cooper are essentially nothing new. The feed upon that (by now) venerable state of mind: the attitude of adolescent rebellion. They work on the divisiveness inherent between kid and adult. The Stones did it ten years ago.
They've commited themselves too heavily to the gimmick and the visual outrage to flourish musically. No, ultimately they're mediocre, which not even a flair for making good records can obscure.
But to the kids, who've never heard of Arthur Borwn and Lord Sutch, and to whom The Stones and Zappa are an obsolescent fact of life, it doesn't matter. They've discovered a new hero in Auntie Alice. Just wait till their moms and dads learn more about him, till they realise he chops up babies and is hanged on stage. Just wait till they start asking questions in the House about this "undesirable American performer."
It's then that substance is given to pop legends. Hanged men sometime make martyrs, after all. Just possibly the ball might start rolling all over again.