A look back at the Coop’s polarizing collaboration with pop spin doctor Desmond Child for its 30th anniversary
Alice Cooper’s Trash was the album old school fans could have not predicted and probably didn’t like. But it damn sure saved his career. It may very well be the album upon which his present-day reputation is built.
Though it’s often foolish to think the turning of a calendar year can truly usher in a changing of the guard and a different flavor of zeitgeist, one need only to look back at 1989 to see that the writing on the wall was as large as C.C. DeVille’s hair. There had been a lozenge of hope for a moment there, a time when the kid who tutored you in Algebra was as likely to love Def Leppard as much as the dirtbag who sold half your school ditch weed. For a moment, you could have banked on the prom queen having at least one David Coverdale poster on her wall.
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There were good albums coming out and promising bands just getting out of the gate: Skid Row made its debut as did Mr. Big and Badlands. But the bloom was off rose for many veterans. White Lion’s Big Game had some nice moments but it was no match for Pride. Nikki Sixx and pals followed up two fabulously subpar romps with Dr. Feelgood but it didn’t rock that hard and what we suspected all along became true: Motley Crue really wasn’t that good. Cinderella distanced itself from hard rock, leaning hard into its blues roots and championing the button-down rock of the Faces and the Stones. Faster Pussycat enjoyed chart success with a power ballad but the long-player from which it was culled also lacked the erotic pizzazz of its predecessors.
Aerosmith’s Pump dragged the boys from Boston into increasingly higher chart positions but deeper into Bon Jovi’s territory, rubbing elbows with KISS, whose Hot in the Shade had some good moments but was ultimately as uneven as a shank crafted by sleepy-eyed middle schoolers.
Whitesnake’s Steve Vai-supported Slip of the Tongue may have actually been better than its 1987 predecessor, but some fans got on a ship and sailed away.
Amid all that clatter, Cooper was poised for something great. After wandering in the stylistic wilderness during the dawn of the decade via experimental fare such as the (frankly exhilarating) Flush the Fashion (1980) and “difficult” material (1982’s Zipper Catches Skin, the following year’s WTF? moment, DaDa), he’d first stumbled onto the comeback trail with 1986’s Constrictor.
Other than featuring Kip Winger, the comedically muscled Kane Roberts and “He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)” from Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives, there wasn’t much to recommend. Hints of former glories flashed through the of-the-moment production and tepid, sometimes by-the-numbers songwriting. At best, it’s an album you could thrust at your older brother, the guy who turned you onto Alice via an 8-track copy of Billion Dollar Babies, only to have him say, “He’s still around?”
VIDEO: “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”
Cooper retained Winger for the following year’s Raise Your Fist and Yell, but the results were far from spectacular. The album plays fitfully at some old Coop tropes but can’t decide whether this is avant Alice or Alice of the Charts in charge. It’s hard to think of an artist who sounded less present than Cooper did on those two records.
AC didn’t need to be relevant in the ‘80s but he did need to survive. And necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And what a mother that necessity created. Issued on July 25, 1989, Trash was produced by Desmond Child and boasted guest appearances from Richie Sambora, Jon Bon Jovi, members of Aerosmith and others.
VIDEO: Desmond Child documentary
Rather than dance around Cooper’s weaknesses, Child confronted them headlong. Crack backing bands or lack thereof weren’t the problem. History has shown that without an ace collaborator (Bob Ezrin, say), Cooper has a hard time finding the right notes. Child circled in a variety of outside writers and got down to the matter at hand.
Whatever Cooper’s voice lacked in terms of range it more than made up for in character. Who else can sell venom, menace like he can? But the kind of menace he’d become known for in the ‘70s had become camp, so, on Trash it all comes down to sexual tension and Cooper plays the deeply libidinous elder statesman for all it’s worth. In 1989 you could make out to Trash and not think twice that the singer named Alice might have been as old as your parents.
Most of these songs shoot from below the belt. There’s not much if anything in the way of teenage disenfranchisement or the charred political landscape.
“Poison,” the lead cut, travelled into Billboard’s Top 10 and became a rivet rock staple almost upon arrival. It’s not hard to hear why: Pseudo-metal guitar lines blend nicely with Leppard-cum-Bon Jovi harmonies; unobtrusive but undeniably present keyboards buoy everything along nice from verse to chorus to chorus until the listener can make no mistake as to what the hook of the thing is. The wailing guitars on the outro (presumably from John McCurry, who received a co-write credit with Cooper and Child) doesn’t hurt either. It’s equidistant from invertebrate pop and thuggish metal. And, hey, it’s Alice Cooper.
“Spark in the Dark” works harder at the rock element and can be read as either an ode to monogamy or another thud rocker about pursuing younger women and educating them in all things carnal. Maybe both? Some of the verses wouldn’t fly today (the bit about the object of the singer’s desire not telling her mom and dad about all that’s going on). Maybe not all horror requires blood and guillotines. As for keeping the artist’s image intact? “Spark in the Dark” does the trick.
That’s more than can be said for the slice of rock lite known as “This Maniac’s In Love With You.” The only thing menacing about this one is that it wouldn’t have been out of place in a D horror flick, no doubt playing while some unsuspecting victim was about to learn (the hard way) of the sex/death intersection. Four writers are credited and that seems either three too many or two too few.
VIDEO: “I’m Your Gun” from Alice Cooper Trashes The World
Meanwhile, “I’m Your Gun” rocks harder than anything else on the album but it’s a miscast for the vocalist who’s about 25 years too old to be singing the tune. Once more, an absence of references to parents in the tune’s early moments might make it a little more believable as brainless nod to pleasures of the flesh. And the penis/gun metaphor is ham-fisted in a way that’d make even Gene Simmons cringe. (And the lollipop/chewy center stuff on the outro of the title piece is decidedly gross.)
Middling fare (“Bed of Nails,” “Why Trust You”) is less offensive in its failings; there’s nothing on either that AC/DC couldn’t have done and yet Cooper sells both with an everyman’s commitment that makes you think, “Yeah, this one should have been a hit too.”
Those, along with “House of Fire” and the ballad “Only My Heart Talking,” remind us that Cooper’s not so much a musician as an actor. When he commits to the material and disappears into it, there’s no one like him. Maybe that accounts for Trash’s commercial success and its legacy: We were buying into a command performance that affirmed that the man behind the (snake and the) mask was indeed back.
VIDEO: “Only My Heart Talking”
It makes the Sambora/Bon Jovi Def Leppard-penned quasi-balled “Hell Is Living Without You” bearable and, what’s more, forgivable. No other vocalist then (and perhaps even now) could have powered his way through the song as though his life depended on something that would have been mid-drawer in a lesser artist’s hands.
For the first time in more than a decade the music world had Alice Cooper, his whole, frightening self, back in the best way possible and, even in Trash’s most mundane, unsophisticated moments our hero didn’t falter.
It would take some time for him to climb back to those artistic heights, although latter day work with collaborators such as Bob Marlette and the aforementioned Ezrin suggested that Cooper will never really go away and, more importantly, when you least expect it, he’ll give you a good swift kick in the ass, fist in the face and demand your attention.
That’s what he did on Trash and, 30 years on, it’s hard not to appreciate how hard he worked to climb back into the richly-deserved spotlight. Yeah, the ‘70s albums are still more lovable, but damn if this can’t be a whole lotta fun as well.
AUDIO: Alice Coper — Trash (full album)
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