Horror, vaudeville and rock & roll – 40 years of Alice Cooper’s Nightmare

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Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper

With Halloween just around the corner, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby celebrates Alice Cooper, and the anniversary of his most ambitious horror-laced project. 

He’s the psycho killer in all of us. He’s the axe murderer, the spoiled child. The abuser, the abused. He’s the victim, he’s the perpetrator. He’s the gun slinger and he’s the guy lying dead in the middle of the street.” – Bob Ezrin.

Alice Cooper has had one of the most remarkable careers of anyone within in the industry. Seriously. His influence has run deeper than you might expect. Before Alice there was no goth, no punk, no metal, no glam, no theatre. No fun.

The first thing you probably think of when faced with Alice Cooper will likely be the macabre imagery and over the top stage shows, probably with a snake draped around his neck. Fair enough. You probably think of the cheesy cliched heavy metal of the 80s, with big hair. This is also true. Alice did pave the way for the KISS and Motley Crue’s of the world, and naturally adopted that style when it was popular. The influence on Marilyn Manson goes without saying, ditto for Slipknot…and pretty much any shock rocker, for that matter.

But he also paved the way for Michael Jackson and Lady GaGa. Johnny Rotten got his gig in the Sex Pistols by lip synching to 1971’s I’m Eighteen. Boy George says in the sleeve notes to the 1999 box set The Life & Crimes of Alice Cooper; “We loved him. He was the antithesis to the chirpy, clean pop of the day and struck fear into every mother’s heart “. Similarly, Elton John named Aliceone of the few innovative people in rock ‘n’ roll.” It has been widely suggested that the pre-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie saw Alice’s first UK shows. Groucho Marx and Mae West were fans, but then so was Kurt Cobain. He inspired Talking HeadsPsycho Killer. In a 1978 Rolling Stone interview, none other than Bob Dylan proclaimed “I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter.” Adam Ant put him on par with Clint Eastwood and Salvador Dali as an icon the Prince Charming video.

The Salvador Dali connection is actually significant. When the young Vincent Furnier formed the original Alice Cooper band with a group of friends, they did so with a mutual love of surrealist DaDa artists, Dali being their favourite. They wanted to create a band that were the musical equivalent of Salvador Dali, and that’s kind of what they ended up doing. Particularly in earlier performances, bizarre acts such as Alice attacking a watermelon with an axe whilst the band played the freakiest shit imaginable, before fighting each other, breaking open some feather pillows and accidentally causing the death of a chicken is pretty fucking DaDa. Oh, yeah. All of that happened. Toronto Rock & Roll Revival, 1969. They went on between The Doors and John LennonDali even opted to work with Alice in the early 70s, creating a piece called First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper`s Brain.

To begin with Alice Cooper was a band, not the singer. But it soon became apparent that Vincent Furnier was growing into the role of the titular character. Setting up in LA, the band would literally clear the room while supporting bands during the era of flower power. The hippies on LSD saw the name Alice Cooper and expected a Joni Mitchell type singer-songwriter. They couldn’t handle their dark, gothic material, let alone their surreal macabre imagery.

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Think of the reaction to the Sex Pistols in the late 70s. Now, imagine the reaction to a band who were the FIRST to be so outrageous. Alice Cooper were the band who were pushing the boundaries to make punk possible. Imagine the reaction to them. It’s easy to forget now, but they were the world’s most controversial band. He may show up on TV shows like This Morning now, but in the early 70s it wasn’t uncommon for Alice Cooper to be pulled off the air in disgust mid-song (as per an ABC In Concert special in 1972).

In regards to the band’s stage show, Cooper himself told Tom Snyder in a 1981 interview; “A lot of things are imagined by the audience. It’s like a surrealistic kind of approach. 90% of my whole thing is legend, rumours. I just tend not to deny any of them, because some of them are very creative. What I do is I just give them images. If I bring the snake out there, maybe you’ll take it sexually, but she’ll take it funny, and she’ll take it seriously…by the end of the show you’ll have twenty different images, and you’ll walk away with a whole different story than she will. So, I’m making you use your imagination.”

They did manage to gain some fans. It’s probably no surprise to find that The DoorsJim Morrison was an early supporter. Frank Zappa signed them up to his label and released their first two albums – the poorly received Pretties For You and Easy Action – purely on the basis that he didn’t get it.

It wasn’t until they left LA and Zappa’s label folded that they hit their stride, courtesy of Canadian producer Bob Ezrin. Setting up shop in Detroit alongside the hard edged freakiness of The Stooges, MC5 and Funkadelic, the Alice Cooper band, along with Ezrin, wrote an anthem for the new generation.  I’m Eighteen’s cry of “I’m eighteen/And I don’t know what I want” struck a chord with America’s disenfranchised youth, and set them up for a golden run that would last half a decade. Detroit journalist Gary Graff said of I’m Eighteen; “Cooper created a Smells Like Teen Spirit for the posthippie generation.”

For the remainder of their career, the Alice Cooper band just got bigger; Under My Wheels, Be My Lover, Elected, No More Mr Nice Guy, Billion Dollar Babies and, of course, School’s Out all became huge hits. Their shows became more and more outrageous; the Alice character was publicly executed at every show, be it via hanging or decapitation…whips…surgical tables…dolls…hatchets…beating up Richard Nixon.

Similarly, the themes of parody ranged from dark subjects like necrophilia (I Love The Dead) and social commentary on child negligence (the notorious Dead Babies), to humorous takes on dental visits (Unfinished Sweet) and the band’s own success (No More Mr Nice Guy, Billion Dollar Babies) to political satire (Elected).

Following the blockbuster success of 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies, though, the Alice Cooper band started to falter. The band wanted to tone down the theatrics, Alice wanted to take it to the next level. Bob Ezrin didn’t work on the follow-up Muscle of Love, and he was sorely missed. Alice signed a solo deal, and Alice Cooper were no longer a band.

Cooper sought to make his new project his most ambitious yet. Welcome To My Nightmare was an album, the most theatrical tour that anybody had undertaken and a TV special that is basically the world’s first long-form music video.

Welcome To My Nightmare album cover

Welcome To My Nightmare album cover

Although the band’s albums did have running themes, the solo Alice – along with the returning Bob Ezrin – actually took a leap into making a bona fide concept album. The idea of the nightmare ended up being an inspired choice. It allowed Cooper to take the horror concept to a more fantasy level.

The record is one of Cooper’s least rock & roll albums, applying more eclectic influences. He always had a strong love of vaudeville, but this might be the first time that was applied to this degree on record. Tracks like Some Folks are an unexpected addition to the hard rock canon.

The opening title track sent a clear message to the loyal sick things; this is going to be different.  In the sleeve notes of The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, the man himself  says “I needed a song to literally set the stage for the nightmare…we wanted something creepy yet jazzy. Alice gives Broadway a nightmare”.

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“Rock & roll Broadway” is a good way to describe the song. The slight disco-influenced horns at towards the end of the track add to this idea of taking the kind of entertainment approved by bland, straight-laced middle America and turning it on its head. “Welcome to my nightmare/Welcome to my breakdown” indeed.

More standard fare follows with Devil’s Food, which features a spoken word section by Vincent Price almost a decade before Michael Jackson‘s Thriller. Quincy Jones has spent the last 30 years telling us that Price had never done anything like this before Thriller, a statement which has always bugged the hell out of me.

His speech on Devil’s Food is a lot more melodramatic than that on Thriller. He talks, bizarrely, of spiders. One in particular; The Black Widow.

If I may put forward a slice of personal philosophy, I feel that man has ruled this world a stumbling, demented child-king long enough! And as his Empire crumbles, my precious Black Widow will rise as his most fitting successor.”

Price also co-starred with Cooper in the Emmy-winning, Grammy-nominated promotional TV special The Nightmare, in which each of the album’s tracks – as well as 1971’s The Ballad of Dwight Fry (very much thought to be a precursor to Welcome To My Nightmare) – were enacted in what is essentially the first plot-driven, long form music video.

The following track, fittingly named The Black Widow finds the first real moment of terror in the nightmare; “The horror that he brings/The horror of his sting /The unholiest of kings/The Black Widow”. A flare of The Who-esque rock opera comes into play whilst maintaining the slight Broadway tinge and horror movie schtick.

Alice Cooper performs Some Folks on the WTMN tour with some dancing skeletons

Alice Cooper performs Some Folks on the WTMN tour with some dancing skeletons

The aforementioned Some Folks is the most vaudeville track not only on the album, but possibly in Cooper’s entire career (his cover of vaudeville standard I’m Always Chasing Rainbows on the following year’s Alice Cooper Goes To Hell notwithstanding). The performance on both the TV special and ensuing tour featured skeletons doing a tongue-in-cheek Fred Astaire-esque dance routine with the Coop, dressed in top hat and tails and holding canes. It was a far cry from the ripped t-shirt and leather look that he’d had thus far (and that the punks would steal from him just a few years later). You find yourself tapping your foot and singing along to the campy Hollywood tune, and then realise your cheerily singing along to a song about cannibalism.

It’s probably Only Women Bleed that is the album’s most enduring song. An anti-domestic abuse song, it has become something of an unexpected feminist anthem covered by the likes of Etta James, Tina Turner and Tori Amos. “Man makes your hair grey, he’s your life’s mistake/All you’re really looking for is an even break /She cries alone at night too often/He smokes and drinks and don’t come home at all/Only women bleed”.

If there’s any real fault with the album, it’s the follow-up to Only Women Bleed. Not that Department of Youth is a bad song. It’s a fun take on the stuffy adult response to youth rebellion and it is perfect single material. However, this writer has always felt that side two’s opener, Cold Ethyl, is a more natural thematic follow-up to Only Women Bleed.

Cold Ethyl marks the point where the album gets truly dark. As if the spousal abuse taking place in Only Women Bleed wasn’t bad enough, Cold Ethyl returns to a theme that the original band had dealt with on 1973’s I Love The Dead, and in fact is the track that most sounds like it could have been intended for the original band. “She’s cool in bed/She oughta be – cos Ethyl’s dead”.

We then reach the point where we discover that the Alice Cooper character hasn’t been carrying this story. Much like the fellow Detroit native Marshall Matthers/Eminem/Slim Shady triangle, here we have Vincent Furnier as Alice Cooper as somebody called Steven.

Who is Steven? That is kind of open to interpretation. In Years Ago, it sounds like Steven is schizophrenic. He sings like a scared little boy, but occasionally his inner voice responds in a deep, mature voice (“I’m a little boy/No, I’m a great big man/No, let’s be a little boy for a little while longer, maybe an hour?”). But, which one is the inner voice?

The following track is simply called Steven and is one of Cooper’s creepiest tracks. This may be a nightmare – either in Alice’s mind or Steven’s – but there is no doubt that Steven has murdered someone. “I must be dreaming, please stop screaming”. Musically, the song’s main theme wouldn’t be out of place on a late-70s horror soundtrack. The crashing chorus cry of “STE-VEN” clearly implies the violence taking place. Throughout the verses, Steven continues to sing in a creepy childlike voice (like that of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), and says such scared, childlike phrases as “I will cover up my eyes and pray it goes away”.

There is debate over exactly who Steven has killed. The line “you’ve only lived a minute of your life” could imply a baby brother or sister. It could even be himself, if we work from the point of view of him being schizophrenic. Then again, it could be a manifestation his inner turmoil. After all, if this is a nightmare, this could all be taking place in his – or Alice’s – subconscious.

Either way, whether it is Alice or Steven who is having this nightmare, he wakes up in the following track, the aptly titled The Awakening. He wakes up in the basement, dazed and confused, and assumed he has been sleepwalking. Looking for his wife in vain, and “following a trial of crimson spots”, which he eventually realises are dripping from his bloodied hand, the implication being that this nightmare has actually been a series of hallucinations, culminating in the death of his wife.

However, instead of being horrified, Steven/Alice responds with “it makes me feel like a man”.

The album clearly gets seriously darker as it plays, but the final track, Escape, is an obvious attempt at a dash of hope at the end. To this listener, the song sounds like Alice almost justifying his own very real alcoholism by labelling it as his escape from his then-superstardom. But, in context of the album, it sounds like Alice/Steven escaping from whatever hell he has found himself in.

Despite the humungous, chart-topping domination of Billion Dollar Babies just two years earlier and its status today, Welcome To My Nightmare was only a fairly moderate success as an album at the time, reaching #19 in the UK (though it was one of the few Cooper albums to do better in the US than over here). Though still a much larger success than the previous Muscle of Love. The critics were also confused as hell.

The tour, however, broke box office records with shows selling out within an hour, despite Alice still being banned from performing in some territories (we’re looking at you, Iowa and Australia). The concert movie of the tour is far from a perfect document, but it does give one the idea of the kind of undertaking it was. This is pure theatre. The nightmare is played out on stage in its entirety. Perhaps the first rock show of its kind. Legendary magician James “The Amazing” Randi had been teaching Alice some tricks for a good few years, but here everything was blown up.

The stage set was made to look like a child’s bedroom, there were giant spiders and ghouls attacking our hero, Broadway dancers, special effects. There was even a screen playing a scene set in a graveyard during Escape, with Alice and his ghoulish attackers literally jumping in and out of the screen throughout the song as Alice tried to escape them, before being carried off into the distance.

Looking back today, it may look a bit cheesy at times (a Cyclops?) . But consider this is 1975. Nobody had ever dared do anything like this, with the possible exception of Bowie’s Isolar tour. This is more along the lines of horror B-movie Broadway show. Anyone who stages large-scale conceptual shows owes a great deal of debt to The Coop. This was boundary-pushing stuff,

There were charges put towards Cooper of becoming a watered down, housewife’s favourite at this point. On top of his more Broadway approach, he started sending himself up, appearing on family-oriented shows like the quiz show Hollywood Squares and The Muppets. Cooper himself had a different take. In the aforementioned Tom Snyder interview, he said; “The same woman who is winning the car [on Hollywood Squares]won’t let her kids go to my show. I thought that was really bizarre. Putting me in there was a very ‘pop art’ kind of statement.

Following …Nightmare, Alice‘s career had ups and downs. He returned to the character of Steven a number of times. Firstly, in the immediate follow-up Alice Cooper Goes To Hell, which was considered to be a spiritual sequel to …Nightmare. 1994’s The Last Temptation also namechecks him, as does 2008’s Along Came A Spider, which implies the crimes committed by the central character are happening in Steven’s head.

Finally, Cooper’s most recent studio album in 2011 was a bona fide sequel to …Nightmare (imaginatively titled Welcome 2 My Nightmare), which even reunited the original band on a number of tracks and saw the return of Bob Ezrin. Though not quite as satisfying as the original, it was still one of Cooper’s strongest efforts.

Over the last 40 years, Cooper has employed more styles than you might imagine; New Wave and Pop in the early 80s, Nu-Metal in the early 00s, Garage Rock in the mid-00s. Obviously, he had a huge resurgence in the late 80s with Poison, where he employed a touch of the Hair Metal style that he helped inspire. Although, the Hair Metal bands didn’t possess an ounce of the intelligence, irony, ambition and wit of Cooper’s work from 10-15 years earlier, and had zero satire.

Despite a very consistent recording career as of late, his stage act is now a more pantomime approximation of the shock rock he employed in the 1970s, and has more of a knowing wink about it. Perhaps that is for the best. You can’t really shock people when mass shootings are being played out daily on rolling news. Today, it’s more for the fun. And it is still a lot of fun. Despite being a little limited with the Alice character at this point, he has found a way to keep his shows interesting with his setlist choices, often pulling out the most random obscure cuts from his back catalogue that only the most avid fan would recall (I remember one occasion in particular in which the completely forgotten Wish I Were Born In Beverly Hills was resurrected, accompanied by Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua attacking her at the throat).

This writer feels that the shift in tone, plus his adoption of Hair Metal and fondness for self-parody, has eroded his standing a little. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It always was. But in the wider realm of popular culture, he is often viewed as a kitschy relic now, despite his loyal following and still healthy recording career. It’s a real shame. We have heard people complain in the past about how synthetic his whole act is. What a load of bollocks! Everyone who stands on a stage is synthetic to some degree, No exception. You have a public image that you maintain. In a way, pushing it to an absurd degree is even more honest than any boring singer-songwriter who claim that they’re the proverbial “real deal”.

He is undoubtedly one of the most influential rock musicians of all time, and a much deeper artist than anyone gave him credit for a the time. Nowhere is that more evident than the entire Welcome To My Nightmare project.

Remember The Coop…

Welcome To My Nightmare

Alice Cooper – The Connoisseur’s Cuts

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