No More Mr. Nice Guy: Alice Cooper Turns 75
Celebrating the wild career of horror rock’s mighty ringmaster
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a point when Alice Cooper was considered dangerous.
This was long before the days when Cooper, who turns 75 today, was known as a golfer who owned a sports bar in Phoenix.
Before Cooper, there was Vincent Furnier, lead singer of a band called the Nazz. Now, some of you readers of a certain age are saying, “Wait. That’s Todd Rundgren.”
Indeed it was. And since Rundgren’s band had the name, a bunch of guys in L.A. from Arizona needed to come up with something else.
“So I said let’s not come up with a name that’s dark, because they’re expecting that. I said, ‘What if we sounded like we were somebody’s aunt?’ It was kind of like the all-American, sweet little old lady name,” Cooper told the Shreveport Times in 2017. “And I wasn’t Alice Cooper. I was just the singer in the band Alice Cooper, like Manfred Mann. Pretty soon everybody called me Alice, they just assumed that the singer’s name was Alice. So, at that point, I legally changed my name to Alice Cooper. It was a total outrage at the time. Now it’s a household name.”
Changing the name didn’t mean instant success, but a bad gig was the first step in turning things around for Furnier, guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith.
It took the band 10 minutes to clear the room at a club in Venice, but Shep Gordon, who’d been introduced to the band, saw something in them and got them an audition for Frank Zappa, who was looking for acts for his label.
Gordon still manages Cooper today.
In those early days, Cooper started to add ideas to the act, combining a love of horror movies and throwing in a little Vaudeville for good measure.
With time, the Alice Cooper character doesn’t seem like the purveyor of danger coming for your children that some pearl clutchers in the ’70s thought. Rather, he seems like a version of the local TV horror movie host, a Svengoolie or Vampira whose chosen fare is rock-and-roll.
Cooper’s live reputation got a huge boost in notoriety after a 1969 festival gig in Toronto. Gordon leveraged the festival’s interest in having him help with the lineup. Instead of taking a decent percentage of the gate, the Alice Cooper Band played for $1, the tradeoff being that they’d be in prime time.
So there’s Cooper, coming on after the Doors, playing just before John Lennon in his first post-Beatles live appearance. At some point during the show, Gordon tossed a chicken to Cooper from the side of the stage.
VIDEO: Alice Cooper and the chicken incident
Cooper, who didn’t spend his childhood on farms, tossed the chicken over the crowd, thinking, with God as his witness, that it would fly. It didn’t.
The crowd tore the chicken apart, tossing some of what was left back on the stage.
The next day’s headline? “Alice Rips Head Off Chicken! And Drinks the Blood!” As the line in classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Or, as Zappa put it, “That’s the greatest publicity. Never deny that that happened.”
The first album under the Zappa deal, Pretties For You, is mostly formless psychedelia. The songwriting is tighter (and Kinks-esque on “Beautiful Flyaway”), but the band still hadn’t found its musical wheelhouse in the studio.
That would change after the band moved to Detroit, where Cooper had spent the first part of his childhood. This was a scene that had spawned MC5 and the Stooges, where Bob Seger still had a rawer edge. The real key turned out to be a young man working for a more established producer.
The band wanted Jack Richardson, a Canadian producer who’d worked on three consecutive hit albums for the Guess Who. Richardson wasn’t interested, but his assistant, a 21-year-old named Bob Ezrin, was.
Technically, Ezrin wasn’t interested either until he saw the band live at Max’s Kansas City. The band lived up to its live reputation that night.
Ezrin had a very valuable skill that Cooper needed – he could edit.
It wasn’t a given that the third album would happen. But Ezrin had helped the band trim an eight-minute jam into a three-minute single about the angst of being on the cusp of adulthood. “I’m Eighteen” would influence future rockers and punks alike and charted well enough (No. 7 in Canada and No. 21 in the U.S.) that the album got the green light.
The result was Love It To Death, which had more than its lead single to recommend it. “Caught in a Dream” set a template that Aerosmith would later follow. “Is It My Body” is every bit the classic “I’m Eighteen” is, even not being a single. “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” lent a creepy edge to a more well-constructed jam than they’d done before.
The Alice Cooper Band was off and running, able to create more concise songs while also able to construct sounder long material.
Killer, their second album, didn’t have a hit single, but was loaded with terrific songs — the driving “Under My Wheels”, Bruce’s melodic “Sweet Jane” nick “Be My Lover”, the garage crunch of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and the dark child abuse tale “Dead Babies”.
The roll continued with 1972’s concept album School’s Out. Although most of the album disappeared from Cooper’s setlists quickly, it held up well. And the leadoff title track remains a universally relatable classic, aided by Cooper’s snarling delivery.
There’s more that can be said about Billion Dollar Babies (and will be later this year at Rock and Roll Globe). The album, inspired by the band’s rapid ascent, touched all the Alice Cooper bases — the riff-driven hit “No More Nice Guy”, the sneering attitude of “Elected”, the intense title track, the shoulda-been-a-hit “Generation Landslide”, the horror movie shtick of “Sick Things” and “I Love the Dead” and the more real horror of “Raped and Freezin'”.
At that point, the band might have been better served by taking a break. Buxton was having problems with substances to the point where he was asked to sit out the band’s next sessions.
VIDEO: Alice Cooper “No More Mr. Nice Guy”
Muscle of Love was intended by Cooper to be a back-to-basics album about sex, but it was difficult to put together. There was a falling out with Ezrin, so Richardson and Jack Douglas produced it.
If it pales in comparison to its predecessors, it’s not by much. Sure, there are songs about Copulation the Cooper Way (the tight title track and the glammy “Working Up a Sweat”). But the band dips back into the young adult angst well with “Teenage Lament ’74 (complete with backing vocals from Liza Minnelli and the Pointer Sisters), finds more classic punch in “Big Apple Dreaming (Hippo)” and delivers a swaggering would-be Bond theme in “Man With the Golden Gun”.
At that point, the Alice Cooper Band took a needed break, but it happened too late. The reasons why vary depending on who you ask, but the end result was that Cooper left the band to go solo.
Cooper went back to Ezrin. He’d also found a new collaborator in guitarist Dick Wagner, who’d played on Alice Cooper Band records going back to School’s Out. The trio handled the bulk of the writing on Welcome to My Nightmare, a theatrical concept record. If some critics at the time did not warm to it, it wasn’t the huge departure they thought.
Theatrics were a well-established part of Cooper’s act by that point, the kind that would be taken as inspiration by all sorts of people (including, yes, unfortunately, Marilyn Manson). So it wasn’t a massive leap to put that into an album, along with departures in style.
“Some Folks” is Cooper on Broadway (only missing a pinstriped zoot suit). The title track screams future rock musical with its scene-setting menace. The eerie “Steven” tips its murderous hat to “Tubular Bells.”
“Only Women Bleed” was an old Wagner track that musically owes a debt to George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.” Cooper’s new lyrics rendered it an empathetic look at an abused woman.
VIDEO: Alice Cooper “Only Women Bleed”
But at its core, Nightmare was still an Alice Cooper rock record. And there were plenty of quality rockers to be found in the grooves — “Cold Ethyl”, “Department of Youth” and “Escape” among them.
Unfortunately, it was going to be the last top shelf album from him for a while. The follow-up, 1976’s Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, was reasonably solid, but the quality took a sharp dip after.
Cooper, inspired by the success of “Only Women Bleed”, entered a phase where his singles were ballads that became more middle of the road — “I Never Cry”, “You and Me” and “How You Gonna See Me Now.”
He wasn’t turning into James Taylor, as he was still making rock records. But their quality was in decline, with stylistic experiments like the new wave detour of 1980’s Flush the Fashion not working.
Cooper’s alcoholism wasn’t exactly a secret, at times becoming noticeable onstage. It became increasingly incompatible with his creativity. In essence, he had yet to arrive at the realization that being rock madman Alice Cooper onstage didn’t mean he had to be rock madman Alice Cooper off.
He’d stayed in a New York sanitarium after the Lace and Whiskey tour in 1977, but that didn’t take. Things came to a head in the mid ’80s, as he was augmenting his steady intake of booze with cocaine, unable to remember recording a number of his albums. One day, he threw up blood, scaring his wife, Sheryl. Seeing his face in the mirror with the blood was a wake-up call. Sheryl got him to get hospitalized for rehab.
It worked this time, as Cooper, fueled by his Christian faith, took those lessons and has remained sober ever since.
While his personal life was back on track, his commercial fortunes were another matter. Cooper sought out the most successful hired gun songwriter and producer at the time — Desmond Child.
Child had been a part of Bon Jovi’s explosive success and Aerosmith’s comeback with Permanent Vacation. Cooper felt Child could deliver that same kind of commercial resurrection for him.
He was right. Trash was his first platinum album since Nightmare, with lead single “Poison” being his biggest hit song in over a decade.
VIDEO: Alice Cooper “Poison”
His success as the uncle of hair metal was elusive. The follow-up, Hey Stoopid, was a less successful Trash 2. By that point, the alternative rock explosion made the commercial landscape much less hospitable to hair bands.
Cooper shifted gears, releasing the underrated concept album The Last Temptation. Along with his 2011 sequel reunion with Ezrin, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, it’s his best work of the last three decades.
Cooper remains a successful touring draw and, if he doesn’t put albums at his peak pace, still creates new work (2021’s Detroit Stories being the most recent).
Even sober, he drew on his past with the Hollywood Vampires, a side project taken from a drinking, or rather, a drinking massive amounts club Cooper had in the 1970s. Names like Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson (who could drink at a pace that had Moon calling it a night), Micky Dolenz, Ringo Starr and others like John Lennon during his lost weekend/Kotex on the head period, had a private space at the Rainbow Room in L.A.
The modern version, focused on music instead, features Cooper, Joe Perry and Johnny Depp. The result is an inessential addition to Cooper’s discography, although he’s clearly having a good time.
Cooper’s days as the “dangerous” shock rocker are long past, which is fine. You can only be edgy so long. The pearl clutchers have moved on, now turning their fascist schoolmarm eyes angrily towards LGBTQ performers for existing.
What remains is one of rock’s classic showmen who has outlasted a lot of those he influenced. His legacy, especially with the Alice Cooper Band, is of a man who had the songs to give those shows substance to last.
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One thought on “No More Mr. Nice Guy: Alice Cooper Turns 75”
I love your music I have been a fan all my life I took my son Vincent to your Billion. Dollar babies concert in Tucson AZ in the 90’s .your energy is awesome I only wish to meet you I live in Benson az you met my son Vincent he was working at the Venetion resort in Phoenix by your house .before I die I wish to meet you don’t know if you smoke pot but I would like to burn one with you .Tear it up ! Your the best.