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Originally Published: August 2000
When the Alice Cooper group acrimoniously collapsed in early 1974, rock music lost the only band to successfully combine influential and masterfully conceived rock and roll with mind numbing theatrics. When the band tore through a performance, the audience was treated to a combination of stage-propped, anti-social melodrama, and searing psycho-rock. Indeed, they preceded a legion of makeup artists, some good (Marilyn Manson), most bad (all Goth bands with no guitars).
But Cooper knew what it had when rock was really starting to shock - amp power had finally matched performance possibilities. In 1973, Alice boasted, "What we do is make sure that if some kid pays six dollars [?] to see a show he's not just going see some guy playing a guitar. He is going to see something he'll never forget."
These days six dollars gets you a tepid Leer at his show. You want the real thing, forget it. What you get is Alice with a bar band. Plunk down seventy-five dollars and you can own a copy of the last years box set, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, on Rhino. Warner Brothers has been promising the same set since 1992, but politics and finance have a funny way of messing releases - even Alice Cooper isn't immune. Rhino, smart when it comes to these things, has assembled almost all the good stuff from 1971- '73 and socked it onto one CD. To characterize the other CD, which is latter day Alice ... it is, well, like any muscle if you don't use it - a good example of atrophied talent.
But there are plenty of reasons to own everything Alice Cooper, the group, ever did. The band's heyday took place in the 1970s glitter age that also bore the advent of punk rock in the form of the Stooges, the MC5 and the New York Dolls. Yet there was always an it's-only-make-believe quality to Alice Cooper. Iggy spent much of his stage time writhing righteously incoherent on the boards; While the Five mouthed revolution, and the Dolls languished in the basement of an unsympathetic label. Alice Cooper was palatable to the masses in a way the others never overtly desired, but secretly coveted.
At least part of the reason Cooper gained the selective fame-granting-nod was due to the surreal image imparted by the five band members - Neal Smith, Dennis Dunaway, Glen Buxton, Michael Bruce, and Alice. Their hair was longer than that of even the most strident hippy bands. They engaged a wired sound that was part rhythm and blues and more nutcase psychedelia, augmented by a chorus that was almost hummable.
Their live act was a modern twist on Saturday afternoon at the horror movies. All we do is project fantasies," Cooper said in a Time magazine interview in 1971 "I don't preach. The only message is 'here I am and what are you going to do about me?' I'm sort of a spit in the face."
Alice Cooper pushed the limits of pop culture and the role rock music played in it. As a high maintenance androgynous monster, Alice Cooper acted out the violent fantasies of any righteously rebelling adolescent; destruction was the buzz with a soundtrack that made Black Sabbath sound like Mormons.
When Alice AKA Vince Furnier, the son of a fundamentalist minister, started the band in Phoenix in 1964, he named it the Earwigs. They aped The Beatles while toying with the guillotine that would become a trademark. This didn't go over well in the burgeoning bedroom comunities of Furnier's home town. Three years of tepid response told the group that they were in trouble. They renamed themselves The Nazz and chose a new musical reference point: the Yardbirds. Then they packed it in and moved up the I-10 to LA.
As soon as they arrived, the band saw that they would have to get drastic if they wanted to make a dent in the competitive music scene. Out of that dilemma came the moniker Alice Cooper. Vince became the band's namesake: a crazed, sociopath with a sandpaper voice and a yen for alcohol of all flavors.
Cooper said later, "I was bored with all the flowers, with the peace and love. There was nothing exciting about saving the whales or legalizing grass. What was thrilling to me was getting on stage and turning the volume up past people's limits. And blowing everyone out of the room." The band debuted in LA at Lenny Bruce's Memorial Birthday party on Halloween 1967. They were preceded that night by the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, who were already being touted as the definition of American music. When the Coopers came on, their confused, abrasive racket sent most of the sweetly stoned patrons to the exits. One audience member remained. The band's room clearing ability impressed Frank Zappa and he signed them to his label, Straight, on the spot.
Alice Cooper hit the road after recording their debut LP, Pretties for You. Their touring machinery consisted of a battered pickup truck with its bed packed full of delicate props and a U-Haul trailer. While the cab of the truck held two band members, the other three rode in the pitch black of the dangling trailer in deference to the breakable stage show, hurling blindly down the highways of America.
A friend of mine saw them at an armory in Owosso, Michigan around that time. It was the craziest sight, he said. The truck pulls up to the hall for load in and a guy opens the gate to the trailer-out stumbled three guys dressed as women in the dead heat of a Midwest summer. Alice Cooper wanted to make it in the worst way. "We always knew we would become stars," is the way Buxton put it later. When their third LP Love it to Death, came out in 1971, it was both a visual and musical coup for the band-the lumpy, hairy guys clad in lingerie and dresses had a bona fide hit in "Eighteen." Even the staid, hippy-lovin' Rolling Stone liked it. The April 15, 1971 Love it to Death review boldly declared, "...from the first note it was right: Alice Cooper bringing it all back home again. God it's beautiful..."
"Eighteen" was first a hit in Canada, where the band was playing with ferocious regularity. For a while some newcomers thought the band hailed from Toronto. But when the song filtered onto American airwaves, reaching #32, the band took off. It moved from opening for such stalwarts as Grand Funk and Jethro Tull, to headlining small halls, then the inevitable arenas.
They packed Madison Square for the first time in 1972. From that point on the band achieved a string of greatness that has not been paralleled School's Out, Killer, and Billion Dollar Babies-a triage of monster music with honed finesse that sounded like a train wreck. Evolving yet definable, Alice Cooper was the best in the land, even in retrospect. Everything worked during that period, 1971-1973, ending with the band's disintegration after Muscle of Love. Million mark sales, ceaseless touring the party never stops-you know the routine. The perfect combo of mind-bending music and gender-bending profile was irresistible; even businessmen got rich off the band.
Killer followed, even more insane, even more beautiful. "Dead Babies" was the "Midnight Rambler" of the glitter set, a spooky metallic romp through the mind of a gleeful psychotic on heavy metal. School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies followed in rapid succession. Both sold big, both rocked hard, and both firmly entrenched the band as top shelf. Alice Cooper were Little Richard on an unlimited budget, creating lavish stage sets with giant toothbrushes and bloodletting dolls.
Never mind that the music stood up fine on its own - they could have hit the stage in Capri pants and bonnets and the sound would have destroyed minds. Michael Bruce was the musical brawn - a heavily armed guiterrorist who worked in degenerate unison with the stunningly, crafty slop of Buxton's guitar. "Under My Wheels," "School's Out," and "No More Mister Nice Guy" joined "Eighteen" as defining hits, all bearing Bruce's songwriting credit. The lineup was rounded out by the flashy thunder of Neal Smith on drums and the reticent Dennis Dunaway on bass guitar. All four of the instrumentalists were heads above their peers in terms of musical virtuosity and it showed in both the studio and on the stage.
Alice Cooper hit a groove that moved them into mansions and made them into international heroes. In 1973, they grossed seventeen million. And throughout it all, the band rarely succumbed to the blandishments of big label bullshit. Those were days when the record industry was growing up in public and propriety was not as much a concern as it is today. The more fucked up you were the more marketable you were, rebellion was welcomed.
But such fame can also inflict damage. The band began getting too loose for shows, the surfeit of temptation weakening them. Reviews of the Billion Dollar Babies tour were glowing for the most part, but also included references to intoxicated performances. For some shows, all the better, for others, what a shame.
The music was still a great metalloid-punk collusion but the pressure of fame was making the band a bit loopy. The Alice Cooper lines of unisex cosmetics were a flop as were the bubble bath, deodorant, and perfume. Alice himself was becoming routinely pickled, averaging a couple quarts of Jim Beam a day. Buxton, who died an alcoholic's death in 1997, spent much of the last Cooper tour playing an incomprehensible din, basking in the slush left of an uncontrollable bent for opiates. The habit came after he was told to stop booze or die from it. A reserve guitarist plugged in behind the stage and played most of Buxton's parts on the tour. The soundman mixed out the wasted axeman.
The band bottomed out on that tour in December 1973. Alice Cooper had become one person and it was Vince Furnier. That provided an intensely tortured soundtrack to showmanship which had been relegated to second citizen status by the label and the band knew it. At one point of the final tour, Bruce said "I keep asking myself why I am doing this... but... it's to set up Alice in his movie career, I guess." Sure, you saw Alice Cooper golfing with Bob Hope, manning a square on Hollywood Squares. With Helen Hayes on the Snoop Sisters television show. He strove to make his public image more positive, and too drastic were the steps to achieve that end.
Four years after Alice Cooper the band broke up, Alice Cooper the man entered a New York psychiatric clinic, hoping to cure his alcoholism. In the intervening years Cooper has become the George Burns of rock and roll, slapping together half-assed projects that lacked any teeth or sincerity. He was content to coast on the image and when the brakes were applied to his easy slide to fame, he bottomed out at the loony bin. Good place for the leader of one of the most influential and potent bands to ever storm the place.
On the box set, the post-Cooper band stuff is embarrassingly minor league. It proves that the talent was in the hands of the five, not the idolized Alice.
After living the jaded rock life for so long, Alice cast off the supporting cast and paid the price with at least part of his sanity. He makes a living, tees off at 9 a.m. and sips iced tea on the links. Some people would call that justice.