Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
At the beginning, Alice Cooper was both a man and a band. Today many fans think of Alice Cooper as the singer with the ghoulish makeup and the crazy macabre stage antics, but over the course of their first seven studio albums the man formerly known as Vincent Furnier was the vocalist & front man for the Alice Cooper band, which also included guitarists Glen Buxton & Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neil Smith. I will discuss these albums here and in my next post before moving on to the remainder of the Alice Cooper “solo” discography over the next couple of months. So I’ll be referring to Alice as “he” or “they” depending on the reference, or simply as “Alice.” My earliest memory of Alice’s music goes back to 1976 when my father brought home a copy of the Welcome To My Nightmare LP. At the time I was obsessed with the band Kiss (as was seemingly everyone in my age range), and I kept hearing how Alice was Kiss’ biggest influence. I played that album frequently whenever I wasn’t listening to Kiss, and there’s even a recording of me singing the title track, a capella, at 10 years old. I might feature that rarely heard performance when I write about that album. I also knew their song “Public Animal #9” from a Warner Brothers various-artists sampler, and that’s where I could really hear the Kiss connection.
For a number of years, through the late-‘90s, that was the extent of my Alice Cooper knowledge. Of course I knew his/their radio hits like “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Poison” and “Feed My Frankenstein,” and loved his appearance in the first Wayne’s World movie, but it wasn’t until I got a copy of 1999’s career-spanning 4-CD box set, The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper, that I finally started realizing what a great…and diverse…catalog Alice has amassed. A few years later I shared an office with a huge Alice fan who tried to convince me that his new stuff was worth hearing. At first I scoffed, but after reading some stellar reviews for 2003’s The Eyes Of Alice Cooper I had to check it out for myself, and I was blown away. That’s where I went from casual fan to someone who needed to own every official release, and although there are peaks & valleys throughout the Alice discography, it’s worth sifting through them to discover all the gems. For some reason I never bought any Alice live albums. However, recently I borrowed a number of them from a friend & made digital copies for myself, and I will listen to them for the first time as I proceed through this series.
The Alice Cooper band didn’t get off to an auspicious start with their debut album, Pretties For You (1969). Released on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records, it showcases an anglophile band enamored of early Pink Floyd’s psychedelic excursions and Nuggets-style garage rock. Although several tracks are simply experimental and not terribly memorable, there are a number of noteworthy songs that don’t necessarily display their future musical direction. “Sing Low, Sweet Cheerio” rolls along with chugging drums, and finds Alice affecting a British singing style amid some climbing lead guitar runs. It features cryptic psychedelic lyrics like, “But this story starring me had already begun, ‘cuz I had some vision in my sight on the journey to be one,” owing a debt to late-60s San Francisco jam bands. I like the fast waltz section with harmonica & lead guitar. “Living” is a big splashy rocker that recalls The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” without all the studio effects. In addition to the excellent guitar solo, I really like the melody at, “I’m sure that you’re knowing you’re growing…and it’s you.”
[Alice Cooper – “Living”]
“Fields Of Regret” is the longest song, at nearly 5:40, which allows the band to stretch out amid its quirky arrangement. The bass line deserves special mention. “Reflected” is a precursor to their 1973 hit single, “Elected.” It’s not as fully formed as that later song yet it’s still a winner. Featuring fantastic drumming and shredding lead guitar, there are hints of the louder side of Pink Floyd, and most importantly it’s super catchy, especially at “You will be reflected.” “Apple Bush” has a slightly swinging 6/8 feel with excellent jazzy drumming from Smith. Not sure about the lyrics (“Apple bush, apple tree, back to e-ternity, cut you a path with a chance you may fall”), but the music is excellent. “Earwigs To Eternity” has a boom-chick rhythm with various stops & starts and off-kilter yet catchy singing (“All of the time we have, all of the time we have you”). “Changing Arranging” closes the album with hints of their hard rockin’ music to come, but it’s still rooted in the psychedelic ‘60s with the fuzzy guitar tone and splashy/jazzy arrangement. Once again, what’s up with the lyrics: “I like the pie and I sweat all I see, it’s a carbon copy image of me”? The rest of the album often shows how much they love the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd. I’m a big fan as well, but they weren’t at the songwriting level of their British counterparts just yet. It’s a hit-and-miss debut that’s really for completists. Still, I’m glad I finally gave it some serious attention.
They didn’t have to worry about a sophomore slump, and so Easy Action (1970) finds them tightening things up with a nine-song collection (vs. the debut’s 13 freewheeling tracks) recorded by longtime Neil Young producer David Briggs. Apparently he & the band did not see eye to eye, but even though it lacks the punch of their subsequent releases, there are a number of excellent songs with only a few throwbacks to the aimless psych-rock that weighed down the debut. The cleverly titled “Mr. & Misdemeanor” is a bluesy midtempo shuffle with a slight show tune vibe. The raspy voice that would grace many future Alice classics reveals itself here. Highlights for me include the weepy guitar tone and various tempo shifts, making it a memorable album opener. “Shoe Salesman” is surprisingly light & bouncy, even though I believe it’s about a heroin addict, with lovely acoustic & electric guitar and a thick bass line. It’s very melodic with clear nods to The Beatles, especially at “Winking, she pokes me in the side, well we could go for a ride” and “I did not know what to say, do you think those freckles will stay.”
“Return Of The Spiders” chugs along like a train barreling down the track. Alice’s vocals display his soon-to-be-trademark sneer, offsetting the twin lead guitars (one stabbing & the other soloing). The lyrics are simplistic but this one’s all about the relentless music. “Laughing At Me” is a brief, subtly infectious song with circular lyrics (“So I started to end the beginning to end, then I ended the end, yes I ended the end”). I love the lilting melody and subtle instrumentation (notably the jazzy bass & Flamenco-esque guitar). “Beautiful Flyaway” is a pretty piano-led tune that brings to mind Paul McCartney. Even Alice’s low-key vocal delivery recalls McCartney’s early solo work (“Haven’t we always been here sharing one love and one fear? Someday you’ll know that life is really all about you”). “Lay Down And Die, Goodbye” is mostly instrumental psychedelic hard rock, with an emphasis on “hard.” Its extended free-form section shows their label “boss” Frank Zappa’s influence, and at 7-1/2 minutes it’s perfectly placed at the end of the record. These first two albums seem to be overlooked by most fans, critics and even the band, who apparently stopped playing any songs from these records as soon as they had their commercial breakthrough the following year. I wouldn’t consider them lost classics, but listeners with patience and an open mind will find a lot to like.
Their first acknowledged classic, Love It To Death (1971), earned its reputation, thanks in large part to co-producer Bob Ezrin (who would go on to work with huge artists like Pink Floyd, Lou Reed & Kiss, as well as several more Alice Cooper albums). Ezrin and Jack Richardson brought out the super-tight hard rock band that had been lurking just below the surface on the first two records, allowing the stellar musicianship to shine through while also adding some unique production touches that set the album apart from its contemporaries. Other than the relatively minor & generic “Caught In A Dream” (a Stones-y riff-oriented rocker that opens the album) and “Second Coming” (its tasteful drumming & wonderful guitar work not amounting to much), the other seven songs all made a big impact on me. Their first hit single was the brooding yet anthemic “I’m Eighteen.” The arrangement is airtight (I never noticed the harmonica before) and the lyrics perfectly capture teenage angst (“I got a baby’s brain & an old man’s heart”). “Long Way To Go” is a fast-driving rocker in the vein of T. Rex. The chorus of “We still got a long way to go” seems to be aimed at our society, and that sentiment still applies four decades later. “Black Juju” is not for the faint of heart. Over its 9+ minutes it moves from moody tribal drums that slowly build during the extended percussion intro through an homage to Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun,” adding hints of Doors-like intensity and even the melodic flair of The Zombies’ “Time Of The Season.” They show a great sense of dynamics throughout, as whisper quiet passages give way to big blasts of sound.
“Is It My Body” is slinky riff rock with a sparse production that brings to mind Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground. In addition to the biting lead guitar, there’s a great hook during the stop-start “Have you got the time to find out…who I really am?” section. “Hallowed Be My Name” is short & powerful; a driving rocker with heavy organ doubling the guitar riff, and another killer hook at “Cursing their lovers, cursing the bible” and “Yelling at fathers, screaming at mothers.”
[Alice Cooper – “Hallowed Be My Name”]
“Ballad Of Dwight Fry” covers a lot of ground over its 6-1/2 minutes, from the sweet piano intro with a child speaking a few lines through some acoustic strumming and into a brooding, intense section between 4:15 & 5:00 that might be my favorite part of the song. With lyrics about a father who’s in a mental hospital, either missing his family or (more likely) driven there by his family (“See my lonely life unfold, I see it every day”). The album closes with “Sun Arise,” an early ‘60s hit for Australian singer Rolf Harris. I love the big percussion (like a less sparkly Gary Glitter) and mantra-like vocals (“Sun arise…come every morning”). The hippie optimism is unexpected but welcome, and ends things on a positive note. Love It To Death shows that they were well on their way to being one of the best bands of their time.
Richardson & Ezrin returned to produce their fourth album, Killer (1971). Releasing a second album in under a year, you would expect a drop in quality, but other than the fact that there wasn’t a big hit single like “I’m Eighteen,” they solidified their status as a great hard rock band with a collection of eight mostly raunchy, stomping rock songs. “Under My Wheels” has them chugging along with Alice’s sneering vocals, and features an awesome opening line: “The telephone is ringing, you got me on the run. I’m driving in my car now, anticipating fun.” The addition of horns is a nice touch, and the whole tune is just a big blast of fun. “Be My Lover” has a stomping, “Sweet Jane”-type feel in the verses and opens up in the chorus.” Clearly about hooking up with a groupie, Alice slyly delivers lines like, “She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice, I said ‘Listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand’.” “Halo Of Flies” is the longest song, at over 8 minutes, and shows the band flexing their compositional muscles. It’s heavy progressive rock with various stops, starts, tempo shifts, guitar & synth effects and a nearly 2-minute instrumental intro that covers a lot of ground. I like how they sneak in a reference to The Sound Of Music’s “My Favorite Things” at “Daggers and contacts and bright shiny limos,” proudly displaying their love of show tunes.
There are a couple of lesser songs, at least to my ears, in “Desperado” and “You Drive Me Nervous.” The former is their tribute to Jim Morrison, with Alice singing/speaking in The Doors’ singer’s husky tone. Although it alternates between two distinct sections (acoustic & rock) and has a cool string interlude before the final rock section, I never fully embraced it. The latter song is simplistic but cool, with a great attitude, but it’s quickly forgotten. Things pick up again for “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” finding them in power-pop territory (think The Raspberries, Badfinger & Big Star) and somehow turning that simple title into a legitimate chorus. It also features great lines like, “You could be the devil, you could be the savior, well I really can’t tell by the way of your behavior.”
“Dead Babies” is dark & mysterious; a bass-driven tune with controversial subject matter (“Dead babies can’t take care of themselves”). For the band’s detractors it probably sounded like they were encouraging child abuse & neglect, but it’s clear that they’re shining a light on the topic as a plea for help. The great heavy guitar riff is not far from Black Sabbath territory, and the horns near the end add a nice, Beatle-y touch. The 7-minute album closer “Killer” has a finger-snapping swing with a groovy bass line and tom-heavy syncopated drums. At first his voice is cleaner & huskier, perhaps another nod to Jim Morrison, but he blasts into a higher register at “I came into this life…” Like “Halo Of Flies,” they’re showing off their prog-rock chops, yet it never comes across as contrived or pretentious. I love the twin lead guitars in the jammy & jazzy instrumental section, and the various sound effects were early signs of a distinct Bob Ezrin production touch. The very end of the song sounds like a swarm of bees. It’s unsettling, but I wouldn’t expect anything less on an album called Killer. Their next few albums would take them to greater commercial heights, which I’ll discuss in my next post, but these early records (especially the last two discussed here) are an integral part of their discography and shouldn’t be overlooked.