Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After Alice Cooper cleaned himself up following the release of 1983’s Dada, he re-emerged three years later on a new record label with Constrictor (1986). Putting the early-80s synth-pop & new wave sounds behind him, this album and its three successors found him streamlining his music into a more radio-friendly “hair metal” package that resulted in his biggest commercial success in over a decade. Constrictor was produced by Beau Hill (best known for his work with Ratt, Kix & Gary Moore), and was Alice’s first collaboration with guitarist (and Rambo look-alike) Kane Roberts. Roberts also co-wrote all 10 songs, and future Winger frontman Kip Winger played bass. I should point out here that I’ve never been much of a hair metal fan. At the time I especially disliked it, with only the occasional song by Kiss, Aerosmith, Whitesnake or Def Leppard making an impact on me, but I’ve since come around to some artists of that era. I don’t, however, like Poison, Bon Jovi or Mötley Crüe, and since a number of songs during this era are influenced by these artists, my tolerance for them may be lower than that of other listeners. Album opener, “Teenage Frankenstein,” might be my favorite song here. Once I got past the brittle, digital-sounding production and ‘80s drum sounds, the melody & stinging lead guitar won me over. The snarling Alice character is in full force (and strong voice), and the lyrics…dealing with the discomforts of adolescence…could be a sequel to the early Alice Cooper Band hit, “I’m Eighteen.”
[Alice Cooper – “Teenage Frankenstein”]
“Life And Death Of The Party” is another highlight. I like the dynamics, where things come down for the verses but build to the Ratt-like choruses, and Roberts’ guitar solo is excellent. “Trick Bag” has a similar feel to The Romantics’ hit single, “Talking In Your Sleep,” especially in the guitar riff and echoed vocals. “Crawlin’” starts with a cool chugging guitar riff, and even though the sex-obsessed lyrics are a bit adolescent, I like the high harmonies and the catchy melodies are undeniable. “He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)” was the theme song for the sixth Friday The 13th film. It’s a glossy pop/rock song (with a synth bass that reminds me of Styx’s “Too Much Time On My Hands”) that’s not very scary or creepy, but it works outside the context of the movie. The other five songs are pretty good, with strong melodies and solid performances, but they border on generic. Of these, only “The World Needs Guts” is worth mentioning: a dumb but enjoyable driving rocker, with lyrics about standing up for yourself (“Hey you! Fighting for your life…”). Overall, Constrictor is split equally between memorable & forgettable, but as a product of its time I enjoyed it more than I expected to.
For the follow-up, Raise Your Fist And Yell (1987), Alice tapped Michael Wagener (best known for his work with Accept, Dokken, Poison & Metallica) to produce. With Roberts & Winger returning, it’s more of the same, although the full digital recording makes it sound a bit more sterile than Constrictor. Before discussing the music, I should point out that the album cover is one of the worst I’ve ever seen by a major artist, but I didn’t let that affect my enjoyment of at least half the album. “Freedom” starts things off on a high note; a driving metal song with powerful double-kick drumming from Ken Mary. This album is one of his first credits, and he really shines in his big league debut. Alice sounds engaged on this political tune, which I assume is pointed at the PMRC (the government-backed group that attempted to censor “objectionable” music in the ‘80s, resulting in those “Parental Guidance” stickers that are still used to this day). I love the big group vocals in the chorus (“Freedom to rock, freedom to talk”). “Lock Me Up” has some huge, impressive drums and a cool chugging riff with searing lead guitar. It begins with an indictment of Alice, “How do you plead?” (spoken by Robert Englund, the actor who portrayed Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare On Elm Street movies), to which Alice proudly replies, “Guilty!” I really like the catchy pop-metal chorus: “If you don’t like it you can lock me up, whoa-ohh-ohh-ohh.”
The second half of the album could be the template for an excellent horror movie, and it reaches its peak on the final three songs. “Chop Chop Chop” features a cool circular guitar melody & riff in the intro, which gives way to a driving rhythm. The narrator, a “homicidal genius” who “never leaves a trace,” is a psychopath who’s murdering prostitutes (“I’m a lonely hunter, city full of game, walkin’ in the neon lights”). He speaks/snarls his way through the final verse, much like Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, and it segues into the next song with a reference to the title character, “Gail.” Here he revisits the creepiest parts of Welcome To My Nightmare (“The bugs serve time in her skeletal jail, I wonder how the bugs remember Gail”) as the killer revisits the spot where he buried her body. I love how it progresses from eerie (with organ/harpsichord) to a big slow, plodding, Black Sabbath-indebted vibe. This leads into the peak of the album for me, “Roses On White Lace.” It’s very heavy and chugs along with super-fast drumming as Alice tells the story of a bride killed on her wedding night (which I suppose is connected to the song “Tag, You’re It” from Zipper Catches Skin). The music, lyrics, and Alice’s powerful vocal performance make this a winner. One other highlight is “Not That Kind Of Love,” whose stop-start riff and “I never wanted, I never wanted love before” refrain recall Whitesnake at their commercial peak. Kane Roberts’ superb liquid guitar work deserves special mention. The remaining songs are a bit more by-the-numbers than the rest. With 6 noteworthy tracks out of 10, however, Raise Your Fist And Yell might be a slight step up from Constrictor…but only slight.
Teaming up with hitmaker Desmond Child, who had written & produced blockbusters for Kiss, Bon Jovi, Cher, Aerosmith & many more, helped spawn one of the biggest albums of his career: Trash (1989). However, what he gained in sales he lost in personality. He may have scored a Top 10 hit with the infectious single, “Poison,” but most of the songs could’ve been performed by any number of artists. That’s not to say it’s a bad album; it’s just not a very distinctive one. The aforementioned “Poison” is a great, super-catchy song filled with melodic hooks and excellent backing vocals. “Only My Heart Talkin’” is a power ballad with Steven Tyler adding his inimitable vocal embellishments. It sounds like one of Aerosmith’s many ballads but it’s missing a killer chorus that keeps it from being a classic. “This Maniac’s In Love With You” has a loping, slightly funky groove with cowbell & chugging guitar. Keyboards are highlighted more on this track than on the rest of the album, and it’s not far from the heavier end of the band Toto (which I consider a good thing, but others might disagree).
[Alice Cooper – “Trash”]
“Trash” has a fantastic propulsive groove & great guitar work, and sounds like a cross between Aerosmith (whose Tom Hamilton & Joey Kramer play on this track, along with Jon Bon Jovi on vocals) and Kiss in the ‘80s. The way Alice sings “traaaash!” could be Gene Simmons on vocals. The guitar solo, by Alice’s bandmate John McCurry, really rocks, and I love the way the lead guitar weaves through the funky riff. “Hell Is Living Without You” is a song I shouldn’t like, as it was co-written with Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora, but I love the huge chorus with lines crossing over one another (“Hell is living without your love ain’t nothing without your touch me heaven would be like hell”). Toto’s Steve Lukather shares guitar duties with Sambora on this song. The remainder of the album features strong songs that are all radio-friendly but didn’t do much for me. One example is “House Of Fire,” a minor hit single co-written with Desmond Child & Joan Jett. It’s a big, echo-y stadium rocker that’s in the same ballpark as Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer.” “Bed Of Nails” is another Bon Jovi-esque rocker, co-written with Diane Warren, that has an insanely catchy chorus. Did I mention I’m not a Bon Jovi fan? That’s the reason these songs, which I admit are professionally written & performed, are just not my thing. Only a couple of songs from Trash would be included if I put together an Alice Cooper compilation, and I doubt I’ll revisit it very often in the future.
For Hey Stoopid (1991), Alice turned to producer Peter Collins, whose credits cover the pop & rock spectrum from Nick Kershaw & Tracey Ullman to Rush, Billy Squier & Queensrÿche. Collins did an excellent job of delivering a glossy yet diverse & raucous album of hard rock fun. My biggest complaint is that it’s a little bloated at 56 minutes, with 10 of its 12 songs clocking in at 4+ minutes when they would’ve been more effective in slightly shorter form. With that in mind, there’s a lot to like here, and a number of noteworthy collaborators. “Hey Stoopid” is big, glorious, over-the-top bliss, with Joe Satriani & Slash on guitar. It’s a word of warning to fellow rockers with addiction issues that doesn’t come across as preachy and, fittingly, Ozzy Osbourne is one of the guest vocalists. “Love’s A Loaded Gun” was a minor hit single that has a vibe similar to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” mixing acoustic guitars and louder rock sections. The chorus is really enjoyable (“One down, one to go, just another bullet in the chamber”). See, I can enjoy something that reminds me of Bon Jovi after all. “Snakebite” begins with rattling sounds before booming drums & a heavy guitar riff show up. This could be a Ratt song from the ‘80s, and I really like Alice’s vocal inflections.
“Might As Well Be On Mars” is a 7+ minute track co-written with Desmond Child and Alice’s longtime cohort, Dick Wagner. Beginning with a mysterious acoustic intro and Alice’s clean vocals, it moves into huge choruses and a tasty guitar solo by Stef Burns that teeters between heavy metal & Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. The whole song has an incredible vibe, with his voice showing a lot of emotion as he attempts to get over a relationship. The strings add an epic quality. “Feed My Frankenstein” is the one song I was previously familiar with. Co-written with Zodiac Mindwarp (who I’ve read about but have never heard), it may be typical hair metal but with a song this good that’s a compliment. Steve Vai & Joe Satriani deliver some unsurprisingly great guitar work and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx plays bass. “Little By Little” is another dynamic song that moves from sparse, pulsing verses to big choruses (“Little by little we cross the line, ohh-ohh-ohh”). “Die For You” is a peppy & catchy pop song co-written with Mick Mars & Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe and Bryan Adams collaborator Jim Vallance. I found myself instantly singing along with the chorus (“I could’ve been someone, I could’ve been something, it would have been nothing to die for you”). “Wind-Up Toy” closes out the album. It’s a loud, stomping midtempo rocker that shifts to sparse, half-time verses with various sound effects. He’s a child whose parents put him in a loony bin (“Now I’m all smiles, these good little shots must be working…”), and Alice’s vocals deliver a perfect combination of creepiness & humor. It could be a Cheap Trick song with Rick Nielsen on vocals instead of Robin Zander. A child’s voice yells “Steeeeven” at the end, which must be a callback to the character first introduced on Welcome To My Nightmare. Like its predecessor, the rest of the songs on Hey Stoopid are solid if unspectacular, but the hit-to-miss ratio is a lot higher here. It’s not quite a classic, but it’s my favorite of the four studio albums discussed in this post.
Traveling back in time just a bit, I also checked out Live At The Whisky A-Go-Go 1969 (1991), a concert recording of the original Alice Cooper Band from 1969 that features 7 songs from their debut album, Pretties For You, and one previously unheard song. It’s only 25 minutes long and has very good sound quality. Had I not gotten to know the first album recently I probably wouldn’t have thought much of this live recording, but now that I recognize the songs I appreciate the energy they brought to these performances, capturing the off-kilter psych-pop charm of the studio versions while giving them extra punch. The “new” song, “Nobody Likes Me,” has a touch of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with an added dose of Flamenco-inspired guitar and splashy psychedelia, as well as excellent vocal harmonies. My favorite lyrical moment comes at the end: “Right, we all hate you, we hate you a lot, we hate all your family, we hate your dog Spot.” “Even Spot?” “Yes.” The final two songs are also two of my favorite tracks from the first album: “Sing Low, Sweet Cheerio” and “Changing Arranging.” The rest is very good, but they were still a band in their infancy, and I would only recommend it to Alice Cooper completists.
These hair metal years don’t hold up as well as some other eras in Alice’s career, but they were essential in returning him to the charts and the public consciousness after a number of years in the wilderness. I’m not sure some of his later career triumphs would’ve been possible without the success he achieved during this period. I might not come back to these albums as often as his earlier work, but I acknowledge their importance and the best songs from those four albums could form a fantastic compilation.