Originally Published: August 2011
Author: Tim Jones
The Alice Cooper Old School collection (Universal) features a 12" box crafted to resemble a well-worn American high school dead from the Vietnam War era. On lifting the lid, a stash of goodies is revealed, including the unaired Live In St. Louis set from 1971 (one of four CDs covering the band's seminal years and their hit-filled heyday), a repro 7" from the pre-Alice outfit, The Nazz, plus Alice Cooper art prints, tour programmes, a ticket stub and set lit. All it needs is a 1974 copy of Hustler and a whoopee cushion, and the teen trove would be complete.
Inspired by the British Invasion led by the likes of The Beatles and The Kinks, Alice (then known as Vincent Furnier) first took to the stage on his home patch of Phoenix, Arizona, in 964, in the beat group, The Earwigs. They soon became The Spiders, then The Nazz (not Todd Rundgren's band) and, in 1968, Alice Cooper. Then-art student Alice adopted the name legally as his own and developed a stage persona of an androgynous lady-killer, inspired by Salvador Dali and a penchant for horror films and anything gothic-macabre. The band relocated to the bright lights of Los Angeles and signed to Frank Zappa's Straight label, issuing the psychedelic Pretties For You in 1969 and garnering press coverage for their increasingly outlandish stage antics (guillotining, throwing dead-baby dolls and, once, a live chicken into the audience, where it was turned into bloody nuggets).
Love It To Death (1971), their third set, saw the band achieve a Top 40 breakthrough, fuelled by their insistent hit single, I'm Eighteen. Killer maintained their momentum and in 1972, Alice Cooper topped the UK charts with the classic air-punching teen-rebel anthem, School's Out, followed by the Top 10 sneer of the anti-political Elected. In 1973, Billion Dollar Babies became a transatlantic No 1 and the band seemed to be at the peak of their powers. However, artistic differences within the band over the level of emphasis that should be placed on their image upset the applecart and, when the limp Muscle Of Love flopped, the band took a break to cut solo albums and effectively closed the book on the original Alice Cooper by 1974.
Prior to a recent reunion of the remaining member of the classic original line-up (Smith, Dunaway and Bruce) for a show recorded in the US in May that was broadcast in 3D into London's Battersea Power Station, RC caught up with Alice and asked him what had inspired the new box set.
"When we stared doing Welcome To My Nightmare Part 2, we were with [producer] Bob Ezrin again. We've worked together since 1969 and talking about that got things rolling, really. We though, why not find all this rare stuff and make it a present to our fans? We realised how many collectors there are out there, and you have to look at your fanbase - these are vehement fans who want to get their hands on songs and videos we never released, and rehearsals when we were 15 in a garage. If you can get hold of this, as a collector, it's gold. The general public couldn't care less, but he avid fans can't wait for it, and there was much more stuff than I thought. There were five members of the original band, every one of us had a family, and every family member has something in there drawers that no one else had. And you listen to this stuff and you go, 'Oh, that's so embarrassing!' But so what? It's something you did and you can't deny what you sounded like or were thinking or doing then, and that's the stuff collectors love.
"When we got back together recently, we spend most of our time laughing, remembering how serious we were about music and how absolutely important it was to us then. We were so desperate at the time to be Alice Cooper, cutting out way through the wilderness with our music! And it's great to look back to that and realise how much passion we had. You just have to put on a thick skin and say, 'Well, that's us. That's who we were then.' I'm very personal with my fans and not hard to reach at all. If you see me on the street and want an autograph and picture, I'm very approachable and I've never said 'no' to anybody. I embrace it."
Was the material on reel-to-reel?
Some was, and some had to be transferred from four-tracks that someone had put on to record when we were rehearsing in the garage, and it's the worst quality in the world. but if I knew there was a Yardbirds rehearsal form 1964, I would love to hear that. I'd love to hear them arguing about Over Under Sideways Down, or The Who yelling at each other about too much drums or not enough bass, you know? And my mom has the original acetates to [the band's debut single] Why Don't You Love Me?, Hitch-Hike and Don't Blow Your Mind. I didn't think that stuff was important then, but she kept everything. You can only play them so many times, and if they ever come on the market they'd be worth an awful lot of money.
Did anything slip through the net?
There were a few songs that I remembered writing, and I said to Bob, 'Whatever happened to this, this and this?' And he'd go, "Wow. I'll try and find them." But man. Who knows? But we found old pictures, which was great, "Look at my hair! What was I thinking?" (laughs). And the people in charge of the project were in touch with fans for memorabilia and I've got no problem with bootlegs. I' think it's cool to go to Europe and see 10 new albums every time - show we did in Warsaw or Wembley, or Hammersmith in 1976. I look at the packaging and go 'that's really cool'. I like the idea of bootlegs, maybe 'cos I'm not greedy (laughs). so the fanbase have got a log of this stuff, illegally or not, and if we find something, I go, "Let me listen to that. Wow!"
Like the very first show that Led Zeppelin did in America, at the [Los Angeles] Whisky A-Go-Go, with a band called Alice Cooper. We were both young bands, we'd never heard of each other, playing a club for 300 people and flipping a coin to see who goes on first. It's amazing, but we have tapes of that show. And later on, we realised - oh! I looked at this guitar player and I said, "I think that guy used to be in The Yardbirds!"
One thing not in the box set is the Good To See You Again film?
I hope not! Though I liked it for its stupidity. It was just so dumb. We already had a great video of Billion Dollar Babies Wembley show, and someone said, "let's wrap it around some kind of stupid concept". In those days you said OK to everything. And no I look back at it, it was so stupid it's gone round the corner to genius!
What did you have in your own school desk?
Oh, man! We were talking about that in the band. And if you were 12, and on a Monday after the weekend, if you could lift up our desk, and the kid on each side of you did, so that the teacher couldn't see you, and you could produce a pair of panties... You were The Man! Even if they were your sister's. Nobody every asked "Whose are they?" You just had to show them and that meant you scored, or you somehow got to first base. And we also thought that every kid in high school, at least in Detroit, should have a switchblade in there, and candy - everything they didn't want you to have. We tried to make the box as juvenile as possible, from the 50s and 60s era. Now I'd be afraid to see what's in a kid's desk!
Did you have a favourite record shop then?
I was one of those kids who stood in line into the night to get the new Who, Yardbirds, Beatles or Rolling Stones album, so I miss the record store part of our culture. It's too bad that people are buying air, and I think there'll be a rebellion on that and the next generation will buy vinyl. We went to Tower in LA, and before that, the one in Phoenix, and we'd listen to Paul Butterfield, and this new cool band, The Doors. It was a meeting place, and I miss that. I wish we had it back.
Do you still have vinyl?
Tons. There's records I don't know if I'd be able to find now, but back in the day, we used to live on vinyl - even if they got scratched and sounded horrible. They were yours. That's my King Crimson album. Jeff Beck Rave on. The Pretty Things. And they had your smell on them!
Was your early image inspired by Screaming Lord Sutch?
We'd never heard of him at the time. When I got to England for the first time with the band, everyone was bringing up Screaming Lord Sutch. And I was like, who? I had no concept of who he was. I didn't know who Screaming Jay Hawkins was either. But when I saw Arthur Brown, I said, "Wait a minute! We have the same make-up. Wow! My twin brother." It was a revelation to me when I went to see his show. I was impressed. His voice is unbelievable, a range like an opera singer, and he was running around the stage with his hair on fire! Great! I love this guy! But I wasn't really influenced by him - we were just doing the same thing. We had a character in America called Zachary, who was a Friday night horror movie guy who came on between scenes, and he was more of an influence.
Some people think there are backwards messages on some of your records.
It's hard enough to make a record forwards rather than have backwards masking! Maybe if you're a genius like Brian May, you could do it. But if I was gonna do it, it wouldn't say anything Satanic. It'd say something like "clean your room. Drink your milk. Eat your vegetables. Do your homework!"
Do you have plans for more boxes?
There's always someone at a record label saying we should do a box of live recordings. But we shouldn't do them just to do them. We should only do things for the aficionados, and I'm more interested in the next album.
You've been working on Welcome 2 My Nightmare?
Yeah, in Nashville. It's due October. Vince Gill came in and played on I've Got To Get Out Of Here. I said, "Vince, can you give me a Duane Eddy guitar solo, with a low E string and vibrato?" and he played a great Duane Eddy lead. He was our first Arizona Hall of Famer, and you look up to him like you would Chuck Berry or Little Richard. He was a guitar master at the time, and he introduced the electric guitar to us. In fact, I'd love to do a covers album. I can think of 15 songs that have never been covered that I'd like to do. So that may be the next project.