Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
With the advent of grunge signaling the end of hair metal, Alice Cooper’s change in direction after 1991’s Hey Stoopid came at a perfect time. On The Last Temptation (1994) he didn’t necessarily trade in his makeup and spooky image for a flannel shirt & jeans, but he did update his sound to incorporate everything from a horn section to down-tuned guitars while still delivering a collection of memorable, melodic songs. The fact that he chose three modern rock producers (Andy Wallace, Don Fleming and the team of Duane Baron & John Purdell) to each work on a handful of songs could’ve turned this album into an unfocused free-for-all, but instead it’s one of the most consistently enjoyable records of his solo career. “Sideshow” has a fun party vibe; a chiming, peppy horn-infused power-pop song that’s super catchy, especially at “I feel my head spinnin’ round and round…” and those “aaaah” backing vocals. “Lost In America” is a driving rocker with great catch-22 lyrics (“I can’t get a girl ‘cause I ain’t got a car, I can’t get a car ‘cause I ain’t got a job, I can’t get a job ‘cause I ain’t got a car”), and I love the retro ‘60s organ. “You’re My Temptation” has down-tuned guitars and rumbling bass but remains bright & upbeat. It’s insanely catchy, which is unsurprising considering it was co-written with Damn Yankees’ Tommy Shaw (Styx) & Jack Blades (Night Ranger). There’s some great staggered guitar work by Stef Burns that shows a huge Jimmy Page influence with those Middle Eastern touches. The backing vocals recall Alice In Chains in the pre-chorus before reverting to hair metal in the chorus. Right now this is my favorite song on the album.
Alice collaborated on two songs with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. The first, “Stolen Prayer,” is the stronger of the two (with Cornell’s inimitable vocals at “Yeah, like an old straitjacket” and Alice’s strong & soaring voice), while “Unholy War” could be a Guns N’ Roses album track (and the tom-tom pattern reminds me of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”). “Lullaby” was co-written with Jim Vallance (best known for his hit collaborations with Bryan Adams). It features a cool circular guitar & vocal melody, with a sing-songy section and a piano part that gives it a “Bohemian Rhapsody” feel. The title is ironic, as lyrically it’s the opposite of a real lullaby; a creepy/scary return to Welcome To My Nightmare territory (“I am the one who growls in your closet, I am the one who lives under your bed”). “It’s Me” is another co-write with Shaw & Blades and it’s another super-melodic gem. I love how it builds to the huge, harmony-laden chorus. The rest of the album rocks pretty hard (often reminding me of Stone Temple Pilots) while never losing Alice’s keen sense of melody, but none of the other songs left a lasting impression on me. It’s still a pretty impressive record for an artist 25 years into his recording career.
Alice didn’t release any more studio albums in the 20th century, but before the turn of the millennium there were two more noteworthy additions to his catalog. The first of these is A Fistful Of Alice (1997), a live recording of a 1996 performance at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo club in Mexico. I had never heard this album until last week and, even though it’s not quite a definitive document of Alice Cooper in concert, it does capture him in strong voice and with a stellar band (including guitarists Reb Beach of Winger and Ryan Roxie) that showcases great dynamics over the course of 14 songs (7 from the original Alice Cooper band and 7 from the solo years, including one new studio recording). Slash joins in for “Lost In America” and “Only Women Bleed,” adding some tasteful lead guitar on the latter, and Rob Zombie sings on “Feed My Frankenstein” and “Elected.” Alice’s tribute to The Doors’ Jim Morrison, “Desperado,” grabbed me more here than on the original recording. I’m glad he included the beautiful ballad “I Never Cry” in the set list, as it showcases a side of his music that many people probably aren’t familiar with. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is the synth horns on “Welcome To My Nightmare.” The new studio recording, “Is Anyone Home,” blends strummed acoustic guitar with a splashy pop beat, giving it the feel of Tom Petty as produced by Jeff Lynne. The verses are a little nondescript, but the Cheap Trick-esque choruses are very catchy (“I’m so lonely I can almost taste it, in a perfect world I’d just be wasted…hello, hello, hello, is anyone home?”). Although no audio recording can fully capture the full spectacle of Alice in concert, this well-recorded live album is certainly a very good document of a particular era in his career; not a must-have but a whole lot of fun.
The other special release referenced above is the incredible 4-CD box set, The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper (1999). The packaging is beautiful, with an image of Alice set behind the bars of a prison cell. When I got this collection in 1999 I only owned a handful of Alice albums, so for several years it was my only exposure to the majority of his (and the original band’s) music. Now that I’ve acquired the entire official Alice discography, and having revisited & written about it here, I can confirm that it’s a well selected compilation with only a handful of glaring omissions & questionable inclusions. There are also a number of rarities that make it worthwhile for longtime fans while still functioning as a perfect introduction for the uninitiated.
Disc One includes a number of previously unreleased or hard-to-find tracks. There are three songs by The Spiders, an early incarnation of The Alice Cooper Band: “Don’t Blow Your Mind” (dirty, grungy Nuggets garage rock), “Hitch Hike” (a British Invasion-influenced take on the Marvin Gaye song that’s based on the Rolling Stones’ version) and “Why Don’t You Love Me” (more British Invasion influence). Another pre-Alice Cooper group, The Nazz, is included with “Lay Down And Die, Goodbye,” the original version of a song re-recorded for Easy Action. They were obviously hugely influenced by The Yardbirds at the time. I’m glad they included a demo version of “Nobody Likes Me,” which I previously heard on the Live At The Whisky A-Go-Go 1969 CD. I love the overall feel and you can tell the band was having fun with their performances and the lyrics. There are a handful of songs I would have included from the era covered on this disc (through School’s Out), but only “Hallowed Be My Name,” “Sun Arise” and “Public Animal #9” seem like essentials that are missing.
Disc Two doesn’t offer many surprises other than a handful of single versions and “Respect For The Sleepers (Demo),” which is an early version of “Muscle Of Love.” This song sounds like a cross between The Rolling Stones & David Bowie, and features a fantastic guitar solo section with wild drumming. I’m not sure why the compilers left off “Generation Landslide” but included “Working Up A Sweat.” I would’ve also selected “Wish You Were Here” to showcase how Alice successfully dabbled in disco, even though a lot of fans might have been turned off by its inclusion. Otherwise this is probably the most consistently rewarding disc in the box set, covering the period between Billion Dollar Babies and Goes To Hell.
Disc Three was likely the hardest of the four to compile since it covers the years between Lace And Whiskey and Dada, not the most revered portion of Alice’s catalog. Now that I’m very familiar with those albums, I have to commend whoever chose the songs for this disc. In addition to most of the excellent album tracks (some of which appear in their single versions), there are nine rare & previously unreleased tracks. “I Miss You” is performed by Billion Dollar Babies, which was The Alice Cooper Band without Alice. Musically it’s a good, chunky riff-rocker, but Michael Bruce’s lead vocals aren’t unique enough to make this anything more than a curiosity (although I’d like to hear the album they released in 1977, Battle Axe). “No Time For Tears” was written by Van McCoy (of “The Hustle” dance craze) and was recorded for a movie called Sextette. It’s a simple & pretty piano ballad with tender vocals (“Tears always dry & all lovers lie…that’s all”). “Because,” his collaboration with The Bee Gees on this Beatles classic from the much-maligned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film, is well recorded, but Alice’s creepy/sinister vocals don’t really work with those glorious Bee Gees harmonies. “No Tricks,” a collaboration with R&B singer/songwriter Betty Wright, is one of the biggest surprises on the box set. Co-written with Dick Wagner & Bernie Taupin, this bluesy song with hints of jazz is a dynamic conversation between an addict and his long-suffering woman who’s not buying his claims of being clean. I love the guitar work by Wagner and Steve Lukather.
[Alice Cooper with Betty Wright – “No Tricks”]
Even though “Road Rats” has a great lineup that includes Elton John’s guitarist Davey Johnstone and all four members of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, it’s just a faceless rocker from the movie Roadie. “Look At You Over There, Ripping The Sawdust From My Teddy Bear” is a simple yet surprisingly enjoyable driving rock song with Alice’s Elvis-inspired vocals. Apparently the long-winded title was included on the packaging for Special Forces but not included on that album, and this was its first official appearance. The final three songs on this disc first appeared in two different movies. The first two, from Monster Dog, are cool but inessential and sound like demos. I don’t need to hear them again. I can say the same thing for “Hard Rock Summer” (from Friday The 13th Part VI), which sounds like the generic opening song from an ‘80s teen sex comedy. A number of cool songs from this era were overlooked, with “Skeletons In The Closet” being my favorite missing track. Hopefully some fans whose first exposure to this portion of his catalog came via this box set have further explored the spotty but unfairly overlooked studio albums covered here.
Disc Four covers the hair metal years through The Last Temptation. They did a decent job selecting the best material from those albums, although I’m not sure how “Roses On White Lace” was skipped over in favor of “Prince Of Darkness.” As for the rare tracks, only a handful are worth noting. “He’s Back (Demo)” was the original submission for the Friday The 13th Part VI soundtrack, but when a different Alice song of the same name was used this tune was later reworked as “Trick Bag” from Constrictor. The version of “Under My Wheels” recorded with three members of Guns N’ Roses (Axl Rose, Slash & Izzy) in 1988 is good but doesn’t come close to the 1971 original. “I Got A Line On You” is a solid if unremarkable cover of an excellent song by the band Spirit that was recorded for the movie Iron Eagle II. Even though it features well-known hard rockers Adrian Vandenberg & Rudy Sarzo, as well as Alice’s old friends Flo & Eddie, this track is undone by the processed drum sound & slick late-‘80s production. Alice’s take on the Jimi Hendrix classic “Fire” is a fiery performance (pun intended), with a big production that works for the song. It sounds a lot like the version by fictional band Crucial Taunt in Wayne’s World, a movie that included a memorable appearance by Alice (“We’re not worthy!”). “Hands Of Death (Spookshow 2000 Mix)” is a duet with Rob Zombie that appeared via a different mix in the first X-Files movie. It’s very modern and industrial, in a similar vein to Nine Inch Nails and, naturally, Rob Zombie. All in all, The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper is a beautifully crafted career retrospective that covers most of the major accomplishments in Alice’s career to that point.
After a lengthy hiatus from the recording studio, Alice returned with a vengeance on his next album, Brutal Planet (2000). Without a doubt it’s the heaviest album of his career, thanks to the production work of Bob Marlette (who co-wrote every song and contributed guitar, bass & keys), lead guitarists China, Phil X & Ryan Roxie and outstanding drummer Eric Singer (now best known for replacing Peter Criss in Kiss). Album opener “Brutal Planet” is a huge, monster track with bleak lyrics delivered with authority by Alice. Natalie Delaney’s backing vocals recall Shirley Manson of Garbage, and her performance adds a lightness to this otherwise bleak (yet impressive) song. “Wicked Young Man” is dark and melodic at the same time, reminding me of Stone Temple Pilots at their heaviest. I believe this is Alice’s response to the previous year’s Columbine High School massacre, as he sings “it’s not the games that I play, the movies I see, the music I dig, I’m just a wicked young man.” “Sanctuary” is a fast-driving rocker with a super catchy chorus (“I’ve got a radical place, I got my own private space” and “Go, a-way, sanctuary!”). It’s also probably the best use of the name Quasimodo in a hard rock song (are there others?). “Blow Me A Kiss” is a midtempo heavy rocker co-written with Bob Ezrin that has a couple of great hooks at “Say goodnight then blow me away…” and “I’m in my room, I’m Dr. Doom.”
“Eat Some More” has a slow, plodding Black Sabbath feel with a super heavy riff & pounding drums, as Alice delivers a commentary on our culture of consumption. “Pick Up The Bones” is one of the scariest songs in his catalog, with disturbing lyrics about a man who comes home to discover the bones of his family, possibly a response to genocide in places like Rwanda (“There were demons with guns who marched through this place, killing everything that breathed, they’re an inhuman race”). The Sabbath influence returns for the ominous “Pessi-mystic,” with the band delivering a dynamic performance. The chorus is intense: “I’m pessimistic, I’m so fatalistic…I don’t believe a thing…I’m so nihilistic…of what tomorrow brings.” “It’s The Little Things” chugs along at a super-fast pace, and has funny lyrics about someone letting the little things get to him. I love the hook (and self-references) at “Welcome to my nightmare, no more Mr. Nice Guy.” “Take It Like A Woman” is a piano-based ballad that comes across as a lyrical sequel to his early classic, “Only Women Bleed.” The string section gives it a grandeur missing from some of his other ballads, and there’s tasteful guitar work as well as a great melody (“You’ve been beaten down, kicked around, on the ground, but you took it like a woman”). The album ends with “Cold Machines,” all heavy tom toms & metallic, crunchy guitars. He seems to be worried about just being a number; a faceless automaton (“You don’t know my name, you don’t know my number, you don’t know my face at all”). Only one song here, “Gimme,” didn’t make an impact on me, while the other ten are keepers. This style may not be for everyone, but Alice has delivered a modern hard rock album that’s as consistently heavy as anyone else while never losing his unique viewpoint…and always featuring memorable melodies. I’m not sure if this is an overstatement, but Brutal Planet deserves a place among the list of Alice’s best albums.
Later that same year he released Brutally Live (2000), recorded in England in support of Brutal Planet. The aforementioned Ryan Roxie & Eric Singer head up a stellar band that also includes Alice’s daughter Calico Cooper on backing vocals. The group delivers sympathetic arrangements on all the material, so it’s not just heavy & one-dimensional. Although it focuses on his most recent album, he also includes songs from nine other albums, and the set list was very well chosen. The only real surprise is the energetic version of The Who’s “My Generation.” Depending on your tolerance for the pummeling sound of Brutal Planet, this may or may not be the live album for you, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I might have to get a copy of the related DVD so I can experience the stage show.
Once again, I want to point you in the direction of an excellent Alice Cooper-related website (Sick Things UK) that’s been a great source of information as I work my way through Alice’s catalog:
This was an absolutely thrilling & enjoyable batch of releases. The rest of his catalog has a lot to live up to, and based on my memories of those albums I should have a good deal of fun before wrapping up his discography in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned, and please let me know your thoughts on the albums discussed here. Thanks.