Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The early 1970’s were a great time to be the Alice Cooper band. Hit records, sold out tours, and success beyond their wildest dreams. Over the course of their first four albums, which I discussed in my previous post, they went from late-60’s psychedelic garage rock also-rans to rock ‘n’ roll hit makers, but they were only scratching the surface. The band, which consisted of singer Alice Cooper (formerly Vincent Furnier), guitarists Glen Buxton & Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neil Smith, were definitely one of the best hard rock groups of their time, even though their glam/horror look & stage antics overshadowed their underrated musicianship and songwriting abilities. The final three albums by the original group, prior to Alice becoming a solo artist, found them enjoying their success but not succumbing to it, resulting in some of their best & most enduring songs. Prior to this past week I had probably only listened to each of them a handful of times over the years, so although I knew there would be plenty of good music I didn’t expect the diversity that’s on display. Their secret weapon, at least on the first two albums to be discussed here, is producer Bob Ezrin. His arranging, songwriting and production skills elevated them from a great band to a legendary one. I don’t think his contributions can be overstated.
School’s Out (1972) was the band’s first mega-successful album, reaching the Top 5 and spawning the huge hit single, “School’s Out.” This rockin’ teenage anthem, which was written by all five band members, is a statement of intent that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The taunting/teasing vocals, especially the part that features actual children’s voices, give it a unique flavor (children singing became an Ezrin production choice that he would use for other artists). The rebellious nature of the lyrics (“We got no class and we got no principals”… or is that ‘principles’?) was a precursor to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” and The Ramones’ “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School.” “Luney Tune,” a song about a man locked up in an asylum, has a cool syncopated, almost Latin rhythm with a fat bass line and searing lead guitar. The strings & horns at 1:40 (and the violin later on) were a nice surprise. “Blue Turk” is slow & slinky, like Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” There’s a great hook at, “You’re so very picturesque, you’re so very cold. Tastes like roses on your breath but graveyard on your soul.” The jazzy horns add an authentic swinging late-night vibe. “My Stars,” written by Alice & Ezrin, is a long, dramatic song with climbing piano runs & precision drumming that breaks into a manic jazz/psychedelic section with rapid-fire vocals (“Come all ye faithful you know all you people should come to me…”). “Public Animal #9” was one of the few Alice songs I knew growing up. Back then I sensed a connection between it and my favorite band, Kiss, thinking it could be a Gene Simmons tune, and although I’m not sure I hear that as clearly anymore (other than Alice’s growling vocals at the end), it’s still a wonderful song; a bouncy pop-rocker that reminds me a bit of The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog.” The super catchy melody & infectious handclaps belie the defiant nature of the lyrics about a bad-boy student (“Hey Mr. Bluelegs, where are you taking me? I’m like a lifer in the state penitentiary”).
[Alice Cooper – “Public Animal #9”]
“Alma Mater” begins with the sound of rain and soft acoustic guitar, with Alice’s processed vocals. Production-wise it recalls The Beatles (aka The White Album), with equal parts Lennon & McCartney. I love the jazz-light music and the great melody at, “But you know it breaks my heart to leave you…” I wonder if this is sung by the same bad-boy character from earlier in the record who will actually miss school & his friends. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. Album closer “Grande Finale” is a chugging, funky instrumental with synths and horns that could be a ‘70s soundtrack song. Musically it points to Welcome To My Nightmare, the first solo Alice Cooper album that I’ll be discussing in my next post. One other song worth noting is “Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets,” which captures the feeling of a West Side Story-like gang musical before giving way to some actual music from that show. It features fantastic musicianship and clever lyrics, but it didn’t hold up after multiple listens. School’s Out cemented their reputation as a premier hard rock band, but the diversity on display shows that they were capable of so much more than that limited description.
With Billion Dollar Babies (1973) they had their first #1 album. The overall theme seems to be celebrating, as well as dissecting, the effects of their massive success, offering humorous songs of debauchery after their quick rise to fame. Two notable additions are guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who filled in on several songs while Bruce &/or Buxton were unable to perform. Both of these brilliant players featured heavily on some key Lou Reed albums (produced by Ezrin) as well as Alice’s solo work later in the decade. Album opener “Hello Hooray” is a cover of a song written by Canadian songwriter Rolf Kemp and previously recorded by angel-voiced singer Judy Collins. It’s like a splashy glam-rock overture, setting the celebratory mood for the rest of the album: “Hello, hooray, let the show begin, I’ve been ready.” In some ways it’s similar to Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh” (which began their concept album The Wall), except here they show no contempt for their audience. “Raped And Freezin’” is a stomping riff-rocker with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about Alice being taken advantage of by the woman who picked him up hitchhiking (“Hey, I think I got a live one”). The title is misleading; it’s so catchy and lots of fun. “Elected” is a much tighter re-write of their earlier song, “Reflected,” which finds them skewering the popularity contest of the political process. It could also be seen as them seeking approval from their fans (“I never lied to you, I’ve always been cool…I gotta get the vote & I told you about school”). “Generation Landslide” begins like a peppier, sped up take on The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” before moving on to a subtly driving groove. It’s very pretty & melodic with a sheen of menace. Alice accepts the fact that society can’t get past the band’s look and stage antics, with self-referential lyrics like, “And I laugh to myself at the men and the ladies, who never conceived of us billion dollar babies.”
“No More Mr. Nice Guy” was a Top 25 hit and is still one of Alice’s most recognizable songs. It’s a Stones-y riff-rocker with a pop edge, and covers similar lyrical territory as “Generation Landslide.” He tries to present himself as “a sweet sweet thing” but understands that he’s “no more Mr. Clean…they say he’s sick, he’s obscene.” Many people would be surprised to find out that Donovan, the Scottish singer-songwriter with all those folk/pop/psychedelic hits in the ‘60s & ‘70s, alternates vocals with Alice on “Billion Dollar Babies.” It features a creative drum pattern, dual guitars and a chugging rhythm, and is simply fantastic from start to finish. “Mary Ann” is a short and sweet piano ballad that reminds me of Harry Nilsson. “I Love The Dead” closes things out on a dark & macabre note. This is the Alice Cooper that most fans think of, with dramatic music & lyrics that could be the basis of a horror movie. It’s subtle & intense, and the playing by everyone involved is stellar. I’m not sure there are any other artists who can turn a song about necrophilia (“I have other uses for you, darling”) into a sing-along. I believe “Unfinished Sweet” is a commentary about everyone wanting a piece of the band that covers a little too much ground over the course of 6+ minutes. It’s notable for a reference to the James Bond theme, which will tie in to a song from the next album. Billion Dollar Babies is probably the strongest of the band’s first 6 albums. I’m sure some fans feel that it’s a little over the top (like comparing Elton John’s expansive Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to his more subtle earlier albums), but song-for-song I found it to be their most consistent work.
The 2-CD Deluxe Edition contains an 11 song live performance from 1973 that includes 8 songs from Billion Dollar Babies plus powerful versions of “I’m Eighteen,” “Dead Babies” and “My Stars.” As the only officially released document of the original Alice Cooper band in concert during their commercial zenith, it makes this version the definitive statement on an already essential album. The band is on fire from the first note, plowing through the songs as if their lives depended on it. There are no particular standout tracks; it’s something that should be experienced in its entirety. As an added bonus, there are two studio outtakes, “Coal Black Model T” and “Son Of Billion Dollar Babies (Generation Landslide),” as well as “Slick Black Limousine” which originally appeared as a flexi-disc in a UK magazine. All three of these songs are fun but inconsequential, with the band showing their love of early Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on the first & third, and the middle track sounding like a polished demo version.
The final album by the original band, Muscle Of Love (1973), doesn’t seem to have the reputation of its predecessors but I’m not sure why. It may not have the consistent songwriting of the previous album, but to my ears it’s every bit as good as the other high points in their catalog so far. Ezrin stepped aside this time, so production duties were handled by Jack Douglas (best known for Aerosmith, Cheap Trick & John Lennon) and Jack Richardson. The album may be lacking some of Ezrin’s panache, but the more straightforward punchy production is a perfect fit for these songs about sex, depravity & debauchery. “Big Apple Dreamin’ (Hippo)” has a sleazy midtempo groove with wailing guitar throughout. There’s a great melody at “New York is waiting for you and me baby, waiting to swallow us down,” and I love the subtle nod to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” in the instrumental section (at least, that’s what it sounds like to me). The organ intro to “Hard Hearted Alice” reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You.” It slowly builds with acoustic guitar & soft vocals moving to a nice falsetto that’s similar to John Lennon (“Time…is free as a jailbird, at least that’s what I’ve heard”), and then shifts at 1:45 to an uptempo jazzy groove. “Crazy Little Child” is a piano-based barroom blues that’s a cross between Elton John and New Orleans jazz. Guest musician Bob Dolin plays some beautiful piano runs. This isn’t far off from Tom Waits’ early material and shows how diverse this band was.
“Working Up A Sweat” is catchy but a little silly; an upbeat rock shuffle with bluesy harmonica and tasty slide guitar. It was probably a lot more enjoyable to hear it live, if they ever did perform it. “Muscle Of Love” is a fast-driving splashy rocker with a catchy chorus (“Holy muscle of love…”) and a super tight arrangement. “Man With The Golden Gun” was written specifically for the James Bond movie of the same name, but was submitted too late for inclusion. Instead of throwing it on the scrap heap they made the right decision and placed it on this album. I haven’t heard the theme song by Lulu in many years, but I can’t imagine anything being more appropriate for the movie than this incredible performance. It swings & grooves; it’s over the top yet subtle at the same time. Alice shows how flexible his voice is, and it’s particularly strong at “But you’ll never see him” and “You better believe…” “Teenage Lament ‘74” is a noteworthy highlight. It’s midtempo dramatic pop with a killer chorus that features backing vocals by Liza Minnelli & The Pointer Sisters: “What are you gonna do? I tell you what I’m gonna do. Why don’t you go away? I’m gonna leave today.” I’ve been singing that in my head all week.
[Alice Cooper – “Teenage Lament ’74”]
The album closes with “Woman Machine,” a pulsing midtempo rocker that’s more about sonic textures & space-age psychedelic effects than memorable verses & choruses, although there’s a decent hook when they sing, “Oh, woman machine.” I’m curious to find out if other fans enjoy this album as much as I do. Although the band was disintegrating during the recording sessions, you wouldn’t know it from the final product. It’s a shame that these five guys never recorded another album together.
Coming up next time I’ll be discussing the beginning of Alice Cooper’s career as a solo artist. I grew up with one of the albums that I’ll be revisiting, but I’m only vaguely familiar with the others. Over the next week I’ll be listening to them numerous times until I really know the songs, and I hope they live up to my expectations. Until then, please let me know what you think about the final three albums by the original Alice Cooper band. Thanks.