Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The five albums released by Alice Cooper between 1978 and 1983 may not form the most highly regarded portion of his catalog, but after spending a lot of time with these records this past week I came to appreciate them a lot more than I ever have. Not only was Alice succumbing to his alcohol addiction (which would lead him to a sanitarium more than once), but he was also transforming his image & music to conform with the times. To many music fans he probably seemed like an artist whose best years were behind him, but in many ways the experimental nature of this era opened up possibilities for him in the future which may not have been the case had he stuck to a single image & sound. This era in music might be my favorite, covering the tail end of the so-called “dinosaur bands” of the ‘70s, like Led Zeppelin, The Who and progressive rock, the rise of new wave artists like Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Pretenders & Nick Lowe, and the introduction of a new generation of guitar-based bands that influenced me for the last 30 years (Big Country, U2, REM & The Alarm). So while some people look back on the questionable sonic choices & production techniques of that time with negative connotations, I have an affinity for it all & happily focus on the songs buried underneath. Fortunately, Alice had a number of good ones. They may have taken some time to sink in, but I’m glad I stuck with them.
From The Inside (1978) documents Alice’s stay in the sanitarium (the cover has Alice’s face superimposed over the sanitarium door), with songs about specific people he met there as well as first person accounts of his harrowing time “inside.” All songs were co-written by Alice and Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s longtime lyricist), and the album was produced by David Foster (a composer & arranger who went on to produce Chicago’s 1982 comeback album and a slew of adult contemporary artists). On paper it shouldn’t work, but I really like at least 6 of its 10 songs. “From The Inside” sets the tone with bouncy piano giving way to a funky dance groove (a bit like Boz Scaggs) as he confesses about his addictions and how the rock & roll lifestyle took its toll on him (“I never dreamed that I would wind up on the losin’ end”). “The Quiet Room” is a stark electric piano ballad that finds him writing to someone on the outside, asking about things back home & reporting on his experiences. I love the soulful backing vocals, and the way Alice barks in anger & frustration in the chorus. He even admits to contemplating suicide (“I just can’t get these damn wrists to bleed”). “Millie And Billie” is a duet with Marcy Levy, best known for her work with Eric Clapton (“The Core”) and the duo Shakespears Sister. Although it sounds like a Broadway show tune, which isn’t something I usually respond to, it was stuck in my head for days (especially at “He was thinkin’ of us”) and I love the revelation that they’re both “criminally insane.” “Serious” is a driving, dramatic rocker that sounds like a cross between Sammy Hagar, The Tubes, Rick Springfield & Foreigner. It’s pop with a rock edge that features several hooks, most notably at “All of my life was a laugh & a joke & a drink & a smoke & then I passed out on the floor.”
[Alice Cooper – “How You Gonna See Me Now”]
“How You Gonna See Me Now” is the highlight of the album for me. It’s a piano ballad with a super catchy chorus: “How you gonna see me now? Please don’t see me ugly babe, ‘cause I know I let you down in oh so many ways.” I haven’t been able to put my finger on who or what this reminds me of, but it’s another song that could’ve been a huge hit by someone without Alice’s reputation (although apparently it did reach #12 on the Billboard chart…not bad). “For Veronica’s Sake” is a cool melodic pop-rocker with a tight arrangement and a great chorus about how he needs to get out of the sanitarium to visit his woman on death row (“For Veronica’s sake I gotta get out of here”). “Inmates (We’re All Crazy)” has a stop-start rhythm with a haunting string section & synths that point to Foster’s work with Chicago. It also has elements of Meat Loaf and Toto, and features strong hooks at “Good old boys & girls, congregating, waiting in another world” and “We’re all crazy.” The other three songs I haven’t mentioned (“Wish I Were Born In Beverly Hills,” “Nurse Rozetta” and “Jackknife Johnny”) are all excellent but didn’t impact me like the others. The last of those, which is about a Vietnam vet who went crazy when he returned from the war (I think), has a great solo, moving from guitar to Hammond organ. This album certainly deserves a place among his best work, even though it was part of his commercial decline.
I remember when Flush The Fashion (1980) was first released; not being much of a fan at the time, it was a shock to see the gaunt figure on the back cover. Clearly a new decade was upon us. At less than 29 minutes, this is a sparse, new wave-influenced album with more than a hint of that same year’s Scary Monsters by David Bowie. This time Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen, The Cars, Foreigner & Journey, handled production, and notable musicians included Elton John’s guitarist Davey Johnstone and Flo & Eddie (The Turtles, Mothers Of Invention) on backing vocals. Album opener “Talk Talk” is an interesting choice; a tightly produced, minimal garage rock cover of a ‘60s song by The Music Machine. This segues into “Clones (We’re All),” a futuristic, sci-fi tune that adds in a steady electronic drum pattern and synth melody, recalling The Cars at their best. “Pain” is the song that stuck with me the most. The piano intro leads to a booming, midtempo song, and I love the squealing guitar accents & the great chorus (“I’m pain…I’m you’re pain…unspeakable pain”), as well as the clever arrangement.
“Leather Boots” is a manic-paced, 95-second new wave raver with throwback ‘50s guitars & a walking bass line: a minor blast of fun. In “Aspirin Damage,” I love the synth squiggles, sparse guitar riffs and steady beat, along with the memorable chorus. The lyrics are funny but troubling, about his addiction to over-the-counter headache medications. “Nuclear Infected” is a fast paced rocker with synth washes being the most modern touch. The lyrics are silly but a whole lot of fun (“I’m nuclear infamished, I need something to eat, a China Syndrome salad with plutonium & cheese”), equating nuclear infection with a man or animal on the prowl. “Model Citizen” has Alice playing the counter-culture bad guy & having fun with it (“He’s a model citizen…he’s an ultra sweety guy”). Album closer “Headlines” is a pulsing but generic rocker, with lyrics that are even more appropriate in the age of reality TV (“I wanna be in the headlines, anything to be in the headlines”). The rest of the album is mostly forgettable yet it’s an enjoyably brief record that I will revisit a lot more in the future.
Special Forces (1981) is a mixed bag, combining some excellent material with a number of songs that I’ll never need to hear again. Beginning with this album and continuing through the next two, Alice has admitted to being so drunk that he barely remembers writing or recording them. With that in mind, it’s surprising to find any good material, but it’s there if you look for it. Production duties this time were handled by Richard Podolor. He was best known for his work with ‘70s hit makers Three Dog Night, as well as Iron Butterfly and Blues Image (of “Ride Captain Ride” fame), whose singer/guitarist, Mike Pinera, plays guitar throughout this album. After the generic rocker “Who Do You Think We Are,” where the only noteworthy feature is the biting lead guitar, and a mediocre version of the Arthur Lee/Love classic, “Seven & Seven Is,” he hits a high note with “Prettiest Cop On The Block.” Driven by a rolling & tumbling drum beat, Alice delivers an interesting, double entendre-laden story about a secretly gay vice cop (“I’m the prettiest cop on the block, I’ll handcuff your desires, I got a stiff reputation with a stick like a rock, my kids are confused & my wife is in shock”). “Don’t Talk Old To Me” is weighed down by generic verses but I love the chorus, where the tempo shifts and Alice’s voice is multi-tracked to layer the line “Don’t talk, don’t talk old to me” on top of itself.
[Alice Cooper – “Skeletons In The Closet”]
My favorite song here is “Skeletons In The Closet,” which comes closest to capturing the essence of classic Alice Cooper (the harpsichord-esque intro is somewhat creepy) while also being a moody, synth-pop song. The arrangement is fantastic, and the overall mood points to The Fixx, who would hit the charts the following year. “You Look Good In Rags” could be a Cars song from that era (it reminds me of their minor 1982 hit, “Cruiser”). Basically it’s a modern rock song with a great guitar sound, and the lyrics find him complimenting his woman (“you look good in rags, with dirt in your hair”) compared to high class prostitutes and millionaires’ girlfriends. It may not be a traditionally romantic expression but it works. The album closes with “Vicious Rumours,” a fast-paced driving rocker with a memorable chorus (“Vicious rumours, paranoiac fears, sonic boomers ringing in your ears”) sung in a sneered, half-spoken voice. There’s a cool chunky rhythm guitar and a reprise of “Who Do You Think We Are” at the end that might have tied things together more tightly had the album been more consistent. However, I like half the record, so it’s far from a bust even though there are a handful of completely unnecessary songs.
Zipper Catches Skin (1982) was co-produced by Alice and Erik Scott. I don’t know anything about Scott, but based on this mediocre album I’m not inspired to look any further into his production career. Then again, I shouldn’t place the blame on him, since it was probably a combination of drunkenness, poor songwriting and an overall lack of inspiration. Keeping that in mind, I did manage to find a handful of songs I really liked, while the rest mostly fell flat. “Make That Money (Scrooge’s Song)” has a nice heavy guitar riff & stomping drums, and at times had me thinking a bit of Deep Purple. Although based on the Charles Dickens titular character (“When it’s time for me to croak, bury me with all my dough”), this is no Christmas song, but it’s got a great chorus (“Make that money run like honey on your tongue”) and memorable melodies throughout. “I Am The Future” was featured in the low-budget movie Class Of ’84, which I saw years ago but don’t remember much about (other than a very young Michael J. Fox). It’s a moody, jazzy ballad with ‘80s production touches (mostly synth splashes) that was written by Elton John collaborator Gary Osborne with film composer Lalo Schifrin. I like the hook at, “Take a look at my face, I am the future, how do you like what you see?” Album closer “I’m Alive (That Was The Day My Dead Pet Returned To Save My Life)” is a silly little chugging rocker that would only be enjoyable to those who see that title and think “fun” instead of “ridiculous” (I’m in the former group). The chorus, where he sings the title, is extremely catchy, and was probably burrowed into my brain more than any other song from this batch of albums. His sneering vocals sound like a precursor to Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine, which is something I probably should’ve noticed on some earlier songs but this is the first time I’ve made that connection.
The bonus track on my copy of the CD, “For Britain Only,” is aptly titled as it was a UK-only single in 1982. I like the driving midtempo groove, cool bass line and stabbing guitar chords. It’s as good as any of the songs I’ve mentioned, and better than all the songs I haven’t. Even though the remainder of the album is mediocre at best, there are a few things worth noting. “Zorro’s Ascent” has a swashbuckling swagger with Spanish touches while still rockin’, and “I am the fox & I go where I want” is a good hook. “I Like Girls” features an excellent guest vocal performance by Patty Donahue of The Waitresses (“Christmas Wrapping”; “I Know What Boys Like”), who’s credited with “vocals and sarcasm.” “Tag, You’re It” doesn’t have any discernible hooks but features interesting lyrics with Alice describing a scene from a horror movie he’s directing, where a bride is killed by her new husband on their wedding day. Sometimes his lyrics make up for mediocre music. The album title comes from the song “I Better Be Good” (“If zipper grabs skin I’ll know I had it out when I shoulda kept it in…Ow!”). Ow, indeed. I’ll be curious to find out if there are any fans out there who love this album, which to me has too many clunkers and therefore it won’t be a record I’ll come back to very often.
Bob Ezrin returned to the producer’s chair for Dada (1983), and he co-wrote most of the songs with guitarist Dick Wagner and Alice. It may not be on the same level as the classic albums the three of them worked on together in the ‘70s, but at least 5 of the 9 songs stand up to repeated listening, which is a very good hit-to-miss ratio, especially considering Alice’s physical state at the time. “Dada,” which was written solely by Ezrin, is a creepy & atmospheric mood piece with sound effects, a baby’s voice (an Ezrin trademark), and a barely audible conversation between therapist & patient. The album really begins with “Enough’s Enough,” a catchy pop-rocker with a programmed drum beat, sung in the character of a boy whose father becomes abusive after his mother dies (“I just want to tell you you’re a lousy dad, to Hell with you”). During the section where he sings “go buck & buck & make a buck,” the first two “buck”s sound like something that would now give the album a “parental guidance” warning. “Former Lee Warmer” is a dark, twisted tale about his dead brother “living” in an upstairs room (“formerly warmer”). Musically, it sounds like something from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, possibly Ezrin’s most well-known production. “Dyslexia” is a percussive synth-pop number with a steady programmed rhythm, catchy melodies in the verses & choruses and clever word play (“Is dis love…or is dys-lex-i-a?).
“Fresh Blood” probably goes on a little too long, at just under 6 minutes, but it might be my favorite song here; a synth-pop tune with steady, loping percussion and keyboards that recall Genesis’ Tony Banks circa Abacab. Musically it’s atypical for him, even considering the wide range of styles he’s recorded, but the lyrics (he’s a predator…either animal or psychopath…stalking random people) are classic Alice Cooper. Wagner’s tasty lead guitar work deserves special mention. “Scarlet And Sheba” is another new classic, with a swirling Middle Eastern synth melody, sharp guitar chords and programmed drum accents. The catchy melody in the chorus (“I just want your body, Sheba, I don’t want your brain”) stayed in my head for days. “I Love America” gets old pretty quickly, but the first couple of times it’s enjoyable: a parody of patriotic redneck anthems…in the form of a patriotic redneck anthem. Album closer “Pass The Gun Around,” with verses that have a John Lennon vibe, is a midtempo semi-ballad that’s a good change of pace, although it’s a relatively minor song. Some fans probably hailed this as a return to form, mostly due to the presence of Ezrin & Wagner. For me it slightly misses the mark, but the handful of highlights I mentioned makes it worth exploring, and without a doubt it’s more consistent than either of its predecessors.
Alice would spend the next couple of years cleaning himself up…for good this time. When he returned with a new record on a new label in 1986, he adapted to the changing musical climate by embracing hair metal (not my favorite genre, but it had its moments), which led to a well-earned career resurgence. In my next post I’ll discuss that era, which I’ve already begun listening to. Until then, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the portion of his discography addressed above.