Originally Published: June 28, 1996
Author: Mark Brown
In the era of Nine Inch Nails, gangsta rap and navel-piercings, the panic of the early '70s seems almost quaint.
But at the time, it was anything but funny. Alice Cooper looked like the biggest threat to America's youth since the H-bomb.
Parents were outraged and forbade their children to listen or go to the shows. Preachers warned against Cooper from the pulpit. He was banned from performing in some cities.
But it couldn't be stopped. In small towns across the United States, kids listened as Cooper dominated the radio with hit after subversive hit - "School's Out," "Be My Lover," "Eighteen," "Welcome to My Nightmare."
Parents and press alike were aghast. Was he straight? Was he gay? Did he really sacrifice babies? Kill animals in his stage show? Was he really a reincarnated witch? Was he going to commit suicide onstage with the guillotine? What was he doing with that boa?
Parents got even more rattled when he came out with a song called "No More Mr. Nice Guy," fearing the worst was yet to come.
"I don't mind Alice being family entertainment," said Alice Cooper, born Vincent Furnier in Detroit 48 years ago.
The man once seen as the devil incarnate is a family man who golfs with his buddies in Phoenix and hauls out the Alice character to tour every few years - performing mostly for other parents and their kids.
"I think that's kind of interesting. We were the cutting edge, the scourge of rock 'n' roll. We were scary because the '70s were pretty innocent. Now I'm not nearly as shocking as CNN," he said. "There's no one out there who's really shocking. That's all been done. My intention now is to entertain."
But it's been entertaining all along; that's the point. Long before Prince, Cooper was experimenting with androgyny. Long before Nirvana, he embodied teen angst. Long before Slayer, he flirted with the dark side. He singlehandedly invented a new genre, shock rock. As a result, Alice Cooper for a while was "one of the most hated and frightening characters out there," Cooper said.
"I always wanted Alice to be a villain, but a really likable villain, the same way Captain Hook was a likable villain, or the Joker. Rock 'n' roll was too full of heroes," Cooper said. "He was sort of all the villains rolled into one. He was fun to watch. But you could never quite trust him."
After his rock hits, Cooper became known more for his slower, more introspective ballads, including "Only Women Bleed," "I Never Cry," "How You Gonna See Me Now" and "You and Me."
Had age mellowed him? He swears it wasn't the case.
"I was putting out rock 'n' roll albums. But it was at the time when disco was happening and they just weren't playing rock 'n' roll," Cooper said. "Every time I'd put out an album, they'd only play the ballad. So I had four ballads in a row that were hits. Radio said, `Alice is going soft.' But it was because they weren't playing rock 'n' roll! If you weren't the Bee Gees, you weren't getting played."
The threat faded so quickly that by 1978 Frank Sinatra was covering Alice Cooper songs. No joke.
"He did `You and Me' at the Hollywood Bowl. I'm sure he wasn't going to do `Feed My Frankenstein' or anything like that," Cooper said. "My mom thought it was really great. I mean, Sinatra. He's the guy."
Before the show Sinatra came up to Cooper with a few words: "You kids just keep writing them and I'll keep singing them."
His profile in the '80s sank as albums such as "Flush the Fashion" failed to catch on. One track, "Poison," did become a hit single. But Cooper's influence lives, musically and visually.
"When I first heard about KISS, I read a thing that said, `Well, if one Alice Cooper works, four Alice Coopers ought to work,"' Cooper said. "That was basically the idea - to put four Alice Coopers together. And it worked.
"We never really did the same thing. They were much more pyro. Alice is more intimately scary, creepier, more Broadway-ish than KISS. KISS is more comic book."
He's disdainful of modern-day imitators that he thinks have taken it too far, such as Marilyn Manson, the South Florida shock-rock band.
"Hmmm. Where have I seen that before? Marilyn Manson. Even the names - Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson - are pretty similar," Cooper said. "I don't agree with their whole satanic thing, this whole `Antichrist Superstar' sort of thing. I know that's meant to irritate people, but I certainly don't want people to associate me with that. Alice was always more fun than that. Religion was much too personal, and politics was much too boring. Our three targets were sex, death and money."
Many of those songs have held up over the years.
"I loved the irony in some of the things. I tried to make the lyrics one step up on the clever level," Cooper said.
Thus, the teen-angst anthem "Eighteen" had three minutes of nothing but complaints about being at that awkward age, then finished with "I'm 18 - and I like it!"
Similarly, "School's Out" took the irreverence into the structure of the song itself, with "We got no class/and we got no principal/and we got no innocence/we can't even think up a word that rhymes." When he first heard that on the radio, Doors producer Paul Rothchild had to pull his car over to the side of the road to compose himself.
Cooper is touring with members of Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne's band, having just finished an as-yet unreleased live album that featured appearances by Slash, Rob Zombie and Sammy Hagar. Everyone from White Zombie to Mojo Nixon has covered his tunes.
He'd already done "School's Out" with White Zombie at Southern California's Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre last year as an encore. Two Cooper tribute albums are out. And younger audiences rediscovered him via "Wayne's World," where Cooper appeared in one of his most successful acting roles - as himself.
"If you think about it, `Wayne's World' was directed at the flannel audience. And if you look at most of the flannel bands' record collections, you'd probably find Ozzy, KISS, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin," Cooper said. "So a lot of these kids had heard of Alice Cooper."
Many were reminded when the movie "Dazed and Confused" used his music too, with "School's Out" perfectly embodying the '70s anti-authority ethic.
"Every band gets one song that is going to be connected with them forever. `School's Out' is ours. The Who had `My Generation.' The Stones had `Satisfaction'," he summed up. "`School's Out' will always be our song."
(c) 1996, Orange County Register.