Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When Alice Cooper (the band) split up after 1973’s Muscle Of Love and Alice Cooper (the singer) continued recording as a solo artist two years later, most people probably didn’t notice the difference. I wasn’t even 10 when his first solo album was released, and I was unaware of the back story. To me, Alice Cooper was the guy in the makeup cavorting with snakes, having his head sliced off by a guillotine in concert and influencing the biggest band of my formative years, Kiss. It wasn’t until years later that I understood the difference between the original band and everything that followed. Alice (the singer) may have been the front man but he wasn’t the sole creative force, and once he went out on his own he needed to find collaborators who could bring his artistic visions to life. Fortunately for him, he immediately began working with producer Bob Ezrin (who had produced the majority of the Alice Cooper band’s best records), and Ezrin brought along three key musicians from his recent work with Lou Reed: bassist Prakash John and guitarists Dick Wagner & Steve Hunter. They would form the core of Alice’s backing group for his first few solo albums, and even though the sound & approach was different from the original band, they brought stellar musicianship to everything they recorded.
The biggest difference between the old & the new is that Alice the solo artist was no longer confined to fronting a hard rock band. A lot of his songs still rocked pretty hard, but now he was more of an all-around entertainer/showman and new elements immediately began appearing on his first album, Welcome To My Nightmare (1975). This was the album I most closely identified with Alice Cooper throughout my adolescence since it was the only one I owned. When I played it again for the first time last week, after spending so much time with the first seven records by the original band, it seemed tame by comparison. Once I left behind those expectations, I was reminded of how great the majority of the songs are. “Welcome To My Nightmare” was one of a handful of songs that defined my childhood. It has a creepy vibe, as Alice plays a proto-Freddy Krueger (without the murderous intent), introducing a young boy named Steven (who would reappear on several future albums) to all manner of nightmarish suggestions: “a nocturnal vacation, unnecessary sedation…” The funky groove continues to impress all these years later, but the horn section turns it into a TV variety show theme…which was probably Alice’s intent. I was so enamored of this song that at 10 years old I recorded an a capella version on cassette, which I recently digitized. No one outside of my family has ever heard this performance…until now. Here it is, in two takes interrupted briefly by someone…most likely my brother…recreating some kind of sports broadcast. I’ve also included the original version for you to compare & contrast. Enjoy, and try not to laugh too hard. I was only 10.
[Rich(ie) Kamerman, Age 10 (1977) – “Welcome To My Nightmare (a capella)”]
The remainder of the album is filled with one gem after another. “Devil’s Food” and “Black Widow” are connected by a spoken-word section voiced by horror legend Vincent Price, who gleefully describes the deadly effects of a black widow spider bite. The former song has a great sleazy guitar riff and the latter is a driving rocker with Alice proclaiming “we’re all humanary stew if we don’t pledge allegiance to…the black widow.” Both could be mistaken for the original band. He shifts gears with “Some Folks,” a swinging, finger-snapping tune with an English music hall vibe before opening up for the bright chorus (“Baby, baby, come on and save me…”). I’m not sure if it continues the nightmare theme, even though he sings “it makes my skin crawl,” but who cares about the album concept when the music’s so good…especially the fantastic dueling guitar solo? “Only Women Bleed” is an unfortunately named but well-intentioned ballad that shines a light on domestic abuse. Melodically it’s a strong song, undone only by the title. I don’t think anyone expected this type of song from Alice Cooper, but it’s a pleasant surprise and I’m glad he recorded more ballads after this. “Department Of Youth” is a blast of exuberance; a stomping glam-rock song with gang vocals in the chorus and excellent group harmonies that recall Queen and The Sweet. “Cold Ethyl” is a cowbell-infused pounding rocker with a swaggering groove & awesome guitar interplay that really drives at “Ethyl, Ethyl let me squeeze you in my arms.”
A couple of songs (“Years Ago” and “The Awakening”) are more mood pieces than stand-alone songs, but they work within the context of the album. “Steven” begins with a tinkling piano melody that recalls the theme from The Exorcist, and Alice singing in the voice of a frightened child adds to that comparison. Things open up for the chorus, and there’s an instrumental section with sweeping strings. The album ends with “Escape,” which features a cool guitar riff and propulsive drumming. Its anthemic quality is similar to “Department Of Youth,” but this song has a more melodic pop edge. I imagine there are certain fans, especially the ones who were following Alice since the early days, who hated the direction he began with this album. Judged on its own merit, it’s every bit as strong as the best records he/they had released up to that point. While it’s lacking the immediacy of a tight-knit rock & roll band, Welcome To My Nightmare presents Alice Cooper as a completely different kind of musician & entertainer. It didn’t hurt that he surrounded himself with such extraordinary collaborators.
The nightmare continued on Alice’s next album, Goes To Hell (1976), although this time it seems like Alice is the one being tormented instead of young Steven. On album opener “Go To Hell,” I love the sinister, insistent rhythm with hints of Spanish music in the instrumental intro. The chorused vocals through much of the song, and the accusatory lyrics, make it sound like a cross between “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (especially at “you even make your grandma sick”) and Pink Floyd’s “The Trial.” I’m sure a lot of rock fans ran screaming when they heard “You Gotta Dance,” an upbeat disco song that tosses in elements of funk with rock guitars. It’s actually a great song and I really love the half-time section (“I’m so hot it makes me shiver, makes me wet, makes me slide”). “Didn’t We Meet” begins as a light piano-based tune with lilting percussion accents & tasteful guitar swells until shifting gears at “They say that you are the king of the whole damn thing.” Apparently he’s in Hell and speaking with the devil: “Didn’t we meet in the night in my sleep somewhere?” For such a sinister song the melody is lovely and it’s set to a super-tight arrangement. He returns to heartfelt ballad territory with “I Never Cry,” adding in some country elements on a song that could’ve been a hit by a less controversial artist. The melody at “take away, take away my eyes, sometimes I’d rather be blind” is simply gorgeous and has been stuck in my head for days.
Another song that must have caused confusion among his fans is “Wish You Were Here,” but it’s probably the highlight of the album for me. It’s another funky dance song with chicken-scratch guitar, a groovy bass line & stellar percussion, and I love the hook at “I’m having a hell of a time my dear, wish you were here.” The rest of the album may not reach the levels of the songs I’ve already mentioned, but some of them are still pretty good. “Give The Kid A Break” is a 6/8 bluesy, old-time rock & roll-type song. It’s fun & lighthearted, and I like the call & response between the female vocals & the deep devil voice as Alice questions why he’s in Hell. This song wouldn’t really work outside the context of the album, and at times it comes across as too gimmicky for my tastes. “Guilty” is a bright, pulsing rocker with a simple riff and a recurring hook that reminds me of the “sloppy Joe, slop, sloppy Joe” refrain from Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady Land,” and at times it could be mistaken for a Blue Öyster Cult album track. His cover of the 1918 Vaudeville standard, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” was an interesting choice, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It comes off a little too campy for this record. Perhaps only Queen could pull off something like this. Goes To Hell is not on the same level as its predecessor, but perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. He introduced some new flavors to his sound that he would continue to explore on future releases and at least half the songs are worthy of inclusion on a comprehensive career-spanning anthology. I don’t think that will be the case with many of the records I’ll be revisiting in the coming weeks.
For his next record, Lace And Whiskey (1977), he took on the character of fictional private detective Maurice Escargot. I’m not quite sure if there’s a story linking the songs to this portrayal, but I like the fact that he was adopting new personas to expand the scope of what Alice Cooper is about. It has a slightly better hit-to-miss ratio than Goes To Hell as it veers further from the hard rock sound that he was known for. Once again Ezrin was the producer, and he also co-wrote nearly every song with Alice & Dick Wagner. “Lace And Whiskey” is a syncopated rocker with Spanish flourishes and a phased vocal effect. I could easily hear Elton John doing this song at that time. It’s dramatic without being over the top, and the chorus is super catchy: “Give me…lace and whiskey, mama’s own remedy, double indemnity, fill me with ecstasy, la-a-ace and whiskey.” “Damned If You Do” is a loose, ramshackle country-tinged rocker that sounds like something Ringo Starr would’ve recorded with his drinking buddies in the ‘70s. It’s fun, groovy & lightweight in the best possible way. “You And Me” is an absolutely stunning ballad. As with Alice’s prior ballads, his name & reputation probably prevented this from being a huge hit, which could’ve been the case with any number of artists (in fact, Frank Sinatra performed this song in concert). It features another chorus that’s been burrowed in my head for days (“You and me ain’t no movie stars, what we are is what we are”), and his voice is strong & confident while displaying a softness & vulnerability most fans wouldn’t associate with him. The orchestral accompaniment could’ve been sappy but instead it perfectly complements the understated arrangement.
“King Of The Silver Screen” is a stabbing, midtempo riff rocker that finds him playing a regular guy who fantasizes about being any kind of movie character. Or at least that’s how it initially seems, until it’s later revealed that he’s actually a cross-dresser (or the “Queen of the silver screen”). He incorporates old-time horror movie music as well as “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” for dramatic effect, but those added sounds & references detract from an otherwise strong song. “Ubangi Stomp” is a minor but fun cover of a ‘50s rockabilly song that sounds like it was a lot of fun to record. “(No More) Love At Your Convenience” begins with a horn fanfare over a steady beat before developing into a sweeping disco song. This is the strangest of his dance songs to date, if only because there’s no “rock” element at all…it’s pure disco…and you can barely distinguish Alice’s voice among the chorus of female vocals. This could’ve been any booty-shaking tune of the era. I would’ve detested this song had I heard this album in the late-‘70s but now I can appreciate it for what it is. I still question why he included it here, as it would clearly turn off a lot of his longtime fans, but I love that he was unafraid to show all sides of his musical personality. That’s the mark of a true artist.
Album closer “My God” is by far my favorite song on Lace And Whiskey, since it touches on symphonic progressive rock (which I love) without being too artsy or esoteric. It begins with a church organ that morphs into electric keyboard/synth (a nod to Yes’ Rick Wakeman, perhaps). The lyrics are overtly religious & reverential, but never come across as preachy. I know that Alice was suffering from alcoholism at the time, so perhaps this was his way of trying to find balance in his life. All I know is that the music is incredible…I felt an emotional connection to it…and I love the AOR guitar solo. It’s a stunning way to cap off a very good yet stylistically confused album.
His first live album, The Alice Cooper Show (1977), was recorded with several of the musicians from the three recent studio albums, including the trio I mentioned earlier (Prakash John, Steve Hunter & Dick Wagner) who played on Lou Reed’s brilliant live album, Rock N Roll Animal. While they bring top-notch musicianship to the 11 tracks included here (two of which are medleys, so a total of 13 songs were performed) and everything is delivered professionally, it’s lacking a certain punch…especially on the 7 songs first recorded by the original Alice Cooper Band. While there are no particular standout tracks, it was nice to hear earlier songs like “Under My Wheels,” “I’m Eighteen,” “Is It My Body” and “Billion Dollar Babies.” I know when it comes to an Alice Cooper concert the music is only part of the appeal, and although I missed out on the visual aspect of the show, I did enjoy every song. It’s a pleasant listen that just doesn’t seem like an essential release.
Next time I’ll be discussing the 4 or 5 albums he released during the height of his alcohol addiction, a period in his career that has a spotty reputation. It’s also an era of music that I really enjoy (1978-1982), so I look forward to seeing how Alice’s albums hold up against my favorites of that time.
For anyone seeking additional information on anything related to Alice Cooper, I highly recommend a visit to SickThingsUK, “The Largest Unofficial Alice Cooper News And Information Source.” They’ve done a wonderful job, and the info they provide has been a great addition to my education about the Alice Cooper discography.