Posts Tagged ‘Schools Out’

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.

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The Alice Cooper band knew what it wanted to achieve when it set out to write “School’s Out.” They aimed to create a piece almost dripping with tension and anticipation, and finishing in an explosive release of raw animal energy.

Frontman Cooper later said the song – which gave the band’s 1972 fifth album its title  was his answer to the question, “What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?” “There’s two times during the year,” he said. “One is Christmas morning, when you’re just getting ready to open the presents. The greed factor is right there. The next one is the last three minutes of the last day of school. … You’re sitting there, and it’s like a slow fuse burning. I said, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.

The shock-rock icon remembered the phrase “school’s out” from the Bowery Boys movies from the ’40s and ’50s. In the films, a group of streetwise New York kids would use the words when one of them did something stupid, suggesting it was time to demonstrate more smarts. Cooper decided to focus on the more literal meaning, including the street rhyme “no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” but tied the Bowery Boys’ meaning in with the line “School’s out forever” – meaning “time to grow up” – and “school’s blown to pieces,” meaning “no going back.”

The imagery also hooked in the age-old theme of young people’s desire to rebel against older folks, while the parents remained in a perpetual state of suspicion over what the kids may be up to in the shadows, and the kids perfectly happy with the setup, because old people could never remember or understand being that young.

Producer Bob Ezrin maximized that message by having children sing along during the chorus’ “no more pencils” section and cheering with unbridled excitement at the end of the song, when the school bell rings and the pent-up energy is finally released.

In 2017, Ezrin recalled telling the band, “That’s so kid-like. We should have little kids singing on it.’” Saying he secured “a bunch of stage brats” from Central Casting, he remembered “into the Record Plant comes five sets of prima donna brat kids with their stage parents, and I have to explain to the parents why it’s okay for this group of kids to sing with this group of completely twisted individuals. They walked into the hallway, saw this group and they were ready to turn around, get back in their taxis and go home! The kids were scared to death, but I got them all to relax, and we all had a really good time. By the end of it, the kids were all giggling and laughing, and they loved Alice. It ended up being very effective, and I think one of the best moments in rock history is when those kids sing on that record.”

Cooper recalled listening back to what the producer had done and thinking, “If that’s not a hit, I need to be selling shoes somewhere.”

Back in 1972, Cooper’s bandmates provided the perfect musical backdrop to the ticking-time-bomb motif of “School’s Out.” It was all based on lead guitarist Glenn Buxton’s playful riff, which also carried a concealed blade. (“Out of that one guitar riff we crafted an entire song in the rehearsal studio,” Ezrin said in 2014.) Bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith provided a staccato knife-edge rhythm, complete with an overhanging beat at the end of each phrase that allowed no relief from the tension. Buxton supported the raspy, aggressive lead vocals, alternatively lashing out as if smashing bottles in an alley and then gripping a single tone like the collar of a rival gang member who’s about to pay his debt.

Both Cooper and Dunaway later said Buxton’s guitar work summed up his own character. “He was this street punk,” the frontman said in 2015. “The guitar … had a very bratty sound to it. And that’s what I figured Alice should be. The brat who stands up and says, ‘School’s out!’” Dunaway added that the notes carried a “kid-in-the-back-of-the-class feel. … That was him. That was his personality. It set the feel of the song.”

“School’s Out” was released in April 1972 and spent 14 weeks on the chart, peaking at No.7 when school really was out for the summer. It remains the highest-charting single for both the band and Cooper as a solo artist.

The song has become a mainstay in popular culture, having appeared in movies including Scream, Dazed and Confused and Rock ’n’ Roll High School, and TV shows like The Simpsons, Glee, American Idol and The Muppet Show. It’s also been used in TV commercials, and would have been part of 1992’s landmark Wayne’s World movie too, but Cooper’s manager, Shep Gordon, insisted on using the new track “Feed My Frankenstein” instead.

In 2015, Cooper reflected that one of the best choices he made in writing the song was to make sure the lyrics weren’t too specific, so that everyone who heard it could feel as it if was about his or her own school. “I think even the parents that didn’t like Alice Cooper kind of went, ‘Jeez, when I was in school, that would’ve been my favourite song too,’” he said. “It’s just such a universal statement.

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