ALICE COOPER – ” The Early Albums 1969 – 1975 “

Posted: May 25, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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In 1971 and a song comes on the radio called “I’m Eighteen” The DJ didn’t announce who performed it, but what does that matter? All that does is the pull of the chords—that cool, ascending guitar line that leads to a slamming riff I can’t get out of my head. Everything about the song is instantly great—the punch of the beat, the crunch of the guitar, the cry of the lead and a voice that screams, with generational resonance, “I’m Eighteen and I LIKE IT!!!”

When the DJ back-announces the artist as Alice Cooper, I think, ‘that’s strange. It didn’t sound like a girl.” Either way, I Have to have that album. So, I find the vinyl, and barely look at the cover before running home to play it. Turns out, every song on the album is as great, if not better than “I’m Eighteen.” But I still don’t know who, or what, Alice is.

Alice was the first guy to daub his face in witchy make-up, his band the first to brazenly dress in women’s clothes. The Alice Cooper Band’s first fistful of albums laid the groundwork for every sleazy gang of gutter level guitar slingers to come along since, from The Sex Pistols to Guns N’ Roses and beyond, and Alice himself has managed to successfully make the leap from underground rock’n’roll freak show to mainstream pop-culture hero, embracing everything from hard-core horror movies to hard-core Christianity along the way.

In a perfect world, everyone would have discovered Alice Cooper this way—First, as a band who play great music; second, as a guy with a girl’s name. Of course, in 1971, when you have a front-man who calls himself Alice, distorts his face with monstrous make-up, dances around with a boa constrictor, and sings about mental patients and dead babies, it’s pretty hard for that not to overwhelm the conversation. And, so it has for the last fifty years. But Alice Cooper was much more than a clever front-person with a killer sense of PR. It was a band of musicians blessed with genuine range and skill. In fact, those “other guys” in the group—lead guitarist Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway, drummer Neal Smith and, especially, rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce who wrote nearly all of the songs Alice sang, and played them in a way no other band could. They had a patented style, a tight, coiled take on garage-rock that proved crucial to the later creation of punk. At the same time, they could play, and write, pieces with theatrical flair, referencing everything from Broadway show-tunes to Looney Tunes. More, they had humour. The songs that Bruce, Buxton, Dunaway and Smith wrote translated into sound what Alice created with his lyrics and persona, moving seamlessly between slamming rock ‘n roll and moments of cinematic scope.

In their recordings, all four musicians stood out, not just the star guitarists but the primal drum patterns of Neal Smith and the uncommonly melodic bass lines of Dennis Dunaway. In all, the Alice Cooper band released seven albums, sandwiched between 1969 and 1975, four of which stand with the classics. The two that fall furthest from that mark, their first tries, had their own appeal, if one defined more by daring than focus.

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Pretties For You

In fact, it’s hard to think of a more chaotic debut than Alice Cooper’s 1969 release, ‘Pretties for You” Then again, one reason they got to record it in the first place was their crazy spirit. Frank Zappa discovered the band playing in a club in L.A. in a performance judged by the audience to be so appalling, nearly everyone in the crowd ran for the exits within the first ten minutes. For a life-long contrarian like Zappa, that was a definite plus. Any band extreme enough to horrify so many people, so fast, had to have something going for them. So, he signed them to his label, Bizarre, and, essentially, let them have their way in the studio—so long as they did it fast and cheap. The songs on ‘Pretties’ sounded like the kind the Beatles might have recorded had they dropped ten tabs of acid before they wrote them. They’re full of Fab Four-style harmonies, but skewed by cracked harmonies, perverse time changes and rampaging solos. To achieve those harmonies, Alice used a smoother voice than the one fans later loved. Bruce even got to sing lead on a track. The album offered just one strong melody, “Reflected” and, clearly the band knew it because four years later, they recycled it for their hit “Elected” Much of the rest seemed improvised, which, if nothing else, gave the musicians the chance to show off their chops.

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Easy Action

Their follow-up, ‘Easy Action” issued in 1970, harnessed those skills to some degree by offering shorter songs, though not necessarily more melodically sure ones. The music also found Alice beginning to sing in the snarling style that would become his signature. For a visual record of the band’s sound in this era, check out the classic 1970 film Diary of A Mad Housewife. In it, the band perform at a wild party scene. Oddly, they chose to play a stabbing cover of a song that wasn’t theirs but, instead, belonged to Steppenwolf—”Ride with Me” though, soon enough it devolved into a freak-out jam, echoing the anarchic closing track on ‘Easy Action’ titled “Lay Down and Die, Goodbye”.

This was the first album where they looked like the skinny, drug-damaged, long-haired reptiles we would come to know and love/loathe,

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Love It To Death

Given such excesses, no one could have predicted the ruthless precision that would make their third album, ‘Love It to Death” a hit. Not that the transition happened easily. It took a move to a new city and the wrangling of a visionary producer to pull it off. In 1969, when Alice Cooper got their contract with Bizarre, they were based in a place entirely hostile to them: L.A. In reaction, the group relocated to Cooper’s birthplace, Detroit, a down-and-dirty city far more in tune with their hard rocking sensibility. There, they absorbed the sounds that helped define that town’s rock scene, found in the proto-punk attack of MC5 and the Stooges. Their bracing styles both encouraged, and mirrored, Alice Cooper’s attraction to the most ferocious brand of guitar rock.

The Alice Cooper Band’s first post-garbage psychedelia album remains one of their most iconic, from the spider eyes gatefold and the slithery death-glam band pose on the cover, to the creepy voodoo zombie metal of Black Juju and the harrowing, timeless goth-glam dirge of The Ballad Of Dwight Frye (oh yeah, Alice invented goth, too). The album also put them on the rock’n’roll map with I’m Eighteen (which was a fib even in ’71) and established the snaky, perverse and surprisingly accomplished hard rock sound that would send the band into arenas around the world for the next half-decade. Inarguably classic downer rock, despite a couple of final stabs at hippy-trippy psyche.

The other piece of the puzzle fell into place via their manager Shep Gordon. He tried to correct the band’s excesses by connecting them with as focused a producer as possible: Jack Richardson, who oversaw the catchy hits of the Guess Who. Though Richardson found both the group’s sound and image repugnant, his 19-year-old assistant Bob Ezrin recognized a hidden brilliance. With his tough-love guidance, Alice Cooper wound up shaping music that was, in some ways, the inverse of what they’d recorded before. Everything that had been untamed became tight: What meandered was now honed, while the band’s sense of melody moved from undefined to undeniable. Better, every player found a way to hook the listener. On bass, Dunaway created lines as purposeful as a great axe break; Even the drum patterns pulled you in.

The two songs that surrounded “I’m Eighteen” on the album—“Caught in a Dream and “Long Way to Go” featured some of the hottest guitar parts of early ’70s. Both were written by Bruce, who played his coiled riffs off Buxton’s terse leads, underscored by Ezrin’s rollicking piano. It was, at once, raging rock and perfect pop. In “Is It My Body” Dunaway’s bass provided a rumbling counter-rhythm to the crunching guitar, while “Hallowed Be My Name” penned by Smith, contrasted a sacred organ with Buxton’s profane cries. For “Second Coming” written by Cooper, the band finally found a way to harness their Beatlemania, creating a song John Lennon himself might have penned. Not that they entirely banished their arty side. The nine-minute “Black Juju” written by Dunaway, refigured Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun as a voodoo curse, while, in “Ballad of Dwight Fry” Bruce created the perfect creepy-crawly music to fit a lyrical scenario straight out of Hammer Film Studios”.

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Killer

Together, it made for an instant classic—no easy feat to repeat. Yet, somehow, the band’s 1971 chaser, ‘Killer” not only matched ‘Death’, it exceeded it. Again, the band toggled between mean little rockers and elaborate theatrical pieces. While the singles “Under My Wheels” and “Be My Lover” both relied on standard-issue glitter riffs—the latter even ripping off “Sweet Jane they augmented them with smart twists. “Under My Wheels” opened with a frantic guitar outburst from Buxton that was as exciting as the song’s melody, while Smith followed with drum break of equal distinction.

In “Lover,” penned by Bruce, the band augmented the riff they lifted from Velvet Underground with an original chorus, an irresistible braid of guitars, as well as a campy finale in which Cooper served up his best Mae West impression. Still, the biggest stretch, was the eight-minute “Halo of Flies” which found these garage rockers pulling off a legit prog-rock epic, complete with multiple time signature changes, grand flourishes, and intricate musicianship, all while sounding tight as a drum.

For gut- level shock rock thrills, nothing before or since can match the raw death trip power of Killer. From the enclosed 1972 calendar of Alice twisting gorily from a rope, to the astonishingly bleak doom epic “Halo Of Flies”, to a mind scrambling stab at gallows-black humour called Dead Babies, “Killers” is arguably the first and most vital punk rock album; a still-menacing slice of primo American ugly at the dawn of the feel-bad decade. “Killers” also ends with the jarring, mean-spirited jab of a whining electric drill noise that can throw you into panic if you’re not prepared for it. So maybe Alice invented industrial music too. Somebody ask Throbbing Gristle.

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School’s Out

Improbably, the band upped its ante yet again with their 1972 release ‘School’s Out” A concept album inspired by the angst of teen life, ‘School’s Out’ was both more theatrical and more focused than anything they’d release to that point. It found them interpolating original music with bits of West Side Story, as well as pieces penned by Disney writer Mack David and soundtrack czar Elmer Bernstein. Two years earlier, the band previewed their love of West Side Story by titling their second album ‘Easy Action’. This time, they referenced the musical in “Gutter Cat vs. the Jets ,” penned by Buxton and Dunaway. Their take gave the bass a lead role, buttressed by the glam panache of the guitars, before quoting the classic creations of Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim directly.

In “Street Fight ” Dunaway’s bass offered its own rumble, while, for “Blue Turk” Bruce wrote a swaggering jazz rave-up, elaborated by a swinging trombone solo from guest Wayne Andre. Even some classical influences turned up, in the gorgeous piano piece Ezrin wrote, “My Stars” all culminating in a “Grande Finale that underscored the musical ambition that lay below the band’s swagger.

A sort of drug-addled, dirtbag reworking of West Side Story, School’s Out is a trippy teenage rampage that mood-swings wildly from the grubby hard rock of the timeless bratty title track, to the head-stomping Public Animal #9 (surely the genesis of every self-destructo punk-pose, from Sid Vicious to GG Allin) and the slinky Luney Tune, to the acid-head, high-school-production-gone-wrong Broadway schmaltz that rounds off the album. It’s completely schizophrenic and, frankly, half-baked, yet it retains a sense of timeless killer cool that transcends the gloppy jazz-hands bullshit between the rock’n’roll parts. After all, when you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way.

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Billion Dollar Babies

Remarkably, less than eight months after ‘School’s Out’ charged up to No. 2 on the charts, the band came back with ‘Billion Dollar Babies” which got to No. 1. Another concept album, ‘Babies’ both satirized, and celebrated, our collective taste for outrage—the very qualities that helped make this band stars in the first place. In today’s reality show era, the album’s embrace of base desires seems more relevant than ever. Hit single No More Mister Nice Guy, a relatively straight (by Alice standards) FM rock nugget, propelled “Billion Dollar Babies” into the charts and turned these slimy Detroit cobras into the least likely rock superstars of 1973. They responded to the accolades and attention with an endless tour filled with drugs, booze, blood, snakes, backstage in-fighting, and enough money for a lifetime’s worth of trouble. Meanwhile, the album, while more polished than previous records, spewed up plenty of pop-infused crunchers like “Elected” and the classic “Generation Landslide”, as well as “Sick Things”, one of the most alarmingly weird rock’n’roll songs ever written.

Its single, “Elected”—about a charismatic, but demented, guy who runs for office—seems downright visionary. “Elected” doubled as the most pop-friendly song the band ever recorded, a leap equaled by “No More Mr. Nice Guy” whose bouncy tune was penned by Bruce. For a left curve, the album opened with a cover of a song previously recorded by Judy Collins (“Hello Hooray”) chased by a hip-shaking glam-rocker, “Raped and Freezin’ that, in its last, mad minute, somehow turned into a Latin dance song. The band’s theatrical side returned in a cinematic, six-minute ode to hellish dentistry “Unfinished Sweet” topped by a salute to necrophilia “I Love the Dead” that could have come from the score of a David Lean epic.

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Muscle Of Love

Though clearly the band was riding a creative high, trouble brewed in their ranks. Buxton’s long-term drinking had gotten so out of control, he had to be treated for pancreatitis, rendering him useless for much of the recording. Instead guest Steve Hunter played of the guitar solos, designed to mimic Buxton’s wiry style. The wear and tear on the band became even more apparent on what turned out to be their final album, ‘Muscle of Love”
This time, Buxton didn’t even make a cameo appearance, though management gave him a credit in the liner notes to keep the image of the band intact. In fact, guest Dick Wagner performed his parts. Also, Ezrin wasn’t at the dials, but, instead, Jack Douglas. Worse, the material wasn’t up to snuff. Even so, the band managed to serve up a few gems. The title song had the old metal thunder, while Smith contributed one of the most stirring melodies in the band’s history in “Teenage Lament ’74” A ravishing ballad, the song’s lyrics captured the inner turmoil of a kid who tries to fit in by dolling himself up in glitter garb only to feel shame over the ridiculousness of the look and the conformity it implies. Considering the boost that glam gave the band’s career, it took genuine guts to write a tale like this. Regardless, neither this song, not any other on the album, became a hit, so the group drifted apart, making way for what turned out to be Alice Cooper’s solo career. For his new band, Cooper hired the two guitarists who subbed for Buxton on the original group’s last few albums (Wagner and Hunter).

Meanwhile, the three other functioning members—Bruce, Dunaway and Smith—struggled to rally by rebranding themselves as Billion Dollar Babies, an assemblage that released one album in 1977, titled ‘Battle Axe’. Unfortunately, it lacked the old punch. So did a solo album released by Bruce, titled ‘In My Own Way Any hope for a full reunion of the classic line-up ended in 1997, when Buxton died of pneumonia. More than a decade later, all of the original members were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—an important gesture. It offered as least some acknowledgement that what made Alice Cooper a legend wasn’t the image created by one man but the music made by five.

The last and least of the original band’s incredible 70’s run, this is still a pretty solid album, albeit one that trades in a lot of the spit, fire, and venom of their last few albums for a stab at 70’s AOR radio accessibility. The glammy Teenage Lament ’74 is really the only enduring hit, and if anything, the record is mostly remembered for its bulky cardboard box packaging. Still, if you like FM rock and cheeky odes to masturbation, there’s plenty to like about this one.

Throughout his long and storied career there have been lean times, mean times, times of oddball D-list celebrity status and times when a man just wants to play golf and talk about Jesus. And through it all Alice Cooper has remained one of the most consistently entertaining and iconic figures in rock’n’roll. And that’s why we love him To death.

Comments
  1. Here Here! Love Alice and the 70’s stuff especially. They really did something special between Love It To Death and Muscle Of Love didn’t they?

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