The artist: Alice Cooper began as the name of a band rather than an individual, but over the course of his career, the singer formerly known as Vincent Furnier slowly became the showman known as Alice Cooper. Although his commercial fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years, seminal albums such as School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies have secured Cooper’s position in rock ‘n’ roll history. He continues to record new material on a regular basis and is currently touring the U.S. behind his 2011 release, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, a semi-sequel to 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare.
The Spiders, “Why Don’t You Love Me” (1965 single)
Alice Cooper: Oh, boy, you are going back, aren’t you? [Laughs.] “Why Don’t You Love Me” was from a movie called Ferry Cross the Mersey, and it was a band … whose name I can’t even remember. They were one of those British Invasion bands that never did anything else beyond that song. We were this young little high-school band, and we decided, “Well, that’d be a great song to cover.” It was an easy little song to do, and we got some airplay on it, so it was pretty cool. We sounded like a crappy little British band. [Laughs.] But, you know, we were only 16, 17 years old at the time.
AV Club: Even back then, though, you were already working with a couple of the guys who would end up being part of the Alice Cooper lineup: Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway.
AC: Oh, yeah, that was the original guys. John Speer, Dennis Dunaway, and I were all on the track team, the cross country team, and then Glen Buxton and Mike Bruce were both juvenile delinquents. [Laughs.] They were the guys that smoked and drank and did everything.
The Nazz, “Lay Down And Die, Goodbye” (B-side of 1967’s “Wonder Who’s Loving Her Now”)
AC: That was a period where we had just… We were a Yardbirds band then, and, y’know, we were trying to write songs like the Yardbirds. And if you notice, it has almost a little Yardbirds hook on it. We were doing everything we could to get a fuzztone sound, because that was the new big deal, and to get that Jeff Beck sound. Of course, we had no chance of getting the Jeff Beck sound. [Laughs.] But I tried to sing it like Keith Relf. For a garage band, that was a pretty interesting record.
AVC: Owing to the fact that you’d unknowingly been beaten to the punch on the name “The Nazz” by Todd Rundgren, you guys had to change your name. Why Alice Cooper?
AC: Well, I mean, that was just… We were everything other than that, you know? That was a sweet old lady who lives down the street and makes cookies for everybody, whereas we had no problem with a little violence. Musically, physically, whatever. [Laughs.] We weren’t hippies. We didn’t understand the peace-and-love thing at all. When you’d get us, you’d get this almost A Clockwork Orange thing, and I just thought Alice Cooper was a great name for a band that couldn’t be farther away from a name like that.
“Reflected” (from 1969’s Pretties For You)
AC: That ended up being turned into “Elected” in the end, which was one of our biggest hits. Again, you’re writing songs, and you’re trying to do songs like the Beatles. In those days, the reason why songs from the ’60s and ’70s are so popular is because everyone learned from the Beatles, and the Beatles were the best teachers. Even guys like Ozzy, myself, Bowie, we were all influenced by the Beatles, and somehow those songs still stand up. “Reflected” was a feeble attempt at writing a kind of Beatles hook in there. Everybody wanted to get that guitar hook signature thing, and we were just approaching starting to write good songs. We didn’t really get into the really good songwriting ’til we got in with Bob Ezrin.
AVC: Pretties For You was originally released on Straight Records.
AC: Frank Zappa’s label, right.
AVC: How did you first cross paths with Zappa?
AC: The thing about it was, when Frank first saw us play, we emptied a theater in about three songs, and it was because everyone who was there was all peace, love, and wonderfulness, and we came on last and scared everybody who was on acid out of the building. I mean, they couldn’t get to the door fast enough. It was like Springtime for Hitler. [Laughs.] And Frank was sitting there watching this, and he said, “Anyone who has this much power, there’s something there.” And then he said something interesting. He heard us play on Pretties For You, and he said, “You’ve got six or seven songs that are two and a half minutes long and have 35 changes in them.” I said, “Yeah?” “I don’t get it.” “Well, what do you mean?” “I don’t get it. I don’t know how you write like that.” “Well, it’s just the way we write. Is that bad?” “Oh, no, no, no. It’s great! I wouldn’t sign you unless I didn’t get it.” [Laughs.] So the fact that he didn’t get what we were doing was absolutely a pro for him instead of a con.
“Shoe Salesman” (from 1970’s Easy Action)
AC: A really pretty little song. The first song I ever wrote on my own, with just guitar, and wrote the melody and everything. So that was purely my song, and I think I was trying to make it sound like a Paul McCartney song of some sort, but it did have a little bit of irony in the lyrics. I always liked the idea of having a little bit of irony in songs. I mean, it was about a shoe salesman. But I think it was also about a secret junkie. [Laughs.]
AVC: I know that drummer Neal Smith has gone on record as not being a big fan of producer David Briggs. What did you think of Briggs as a producer?
AC: He was okay. He just didn’t put much into it. He didn’t go out of his way. He was sort of in the Neil Young camp, and he was a good guy. But he wasn’t trying to pull anything out of us, you know. He wasn’t trying to make us work. When Bob Ezrin got hold of us, he beat us to death, but he got it out of us. He was the one that was probably as responsible for Alice Cooper as anybody else, because he just kept going until we were ready to kill him. But when we heard the album, he’d drawn all the best stuff out of us. We had all these good ideas. We just didn’t know how to get them simple enough to make a single.
“I’m Eighteen” (from 1971’s Love It To Death)
AC: That was a song where Ezrin kept saying, “Dumb it down!” And we kept adding parts and doing this and that, and he said, “No, you don’t get it: dumb it down. You’re 18 and you like it. You’re a boy and you’re a man. You’ve got to think, ‘Duhhhhhhh…’” [Laughs.] And we did, finally. It finally got down to the lowest common denominator without being the Three Stooges, and it worked. But, I mean, when you’re saying, ‘I’m 18, and I like it,’ that’s about as basic as it gets!
“Under My Wheels” (from 1971’s Killer)
AC: Now you’re getting into real rock ‘n’ roll. [Laughs.] This is the stuff that we really cut our teeth on, this kind of rock ‘n’ roll, and it was intended as an all-out Chuck Berry type of song, even though it didn’t necessarily follow the Chuck Berry mold. But it was a driving Detroit rock ‘n’ roll song, and we had Rick Derringer play guitar on that. He happened to be in the other studio, and he came in, and I said, “You wanna play on this?” “Sure!” So he played that great solo.
“School’s Out” (from 1972’s School’s Out)
AC: That was the only song where I ever went, “Okay, that’s a hit.” [Laughs.] That’s the only song I was absolutely, without a doubt sure of. Because it was the last three minutes of the last day of school, and the anticipation of that last three minutes, and then releasing at the end with all those kids screaming. And the guitar on it was actually bratty. [Imitates guitar solo.] It was almost Bowery Boys or something. Really, it had a bratty sound to it. But when you listened to it, I mean, the song really rocked. And it did have some Yardbirds in it, too.
AVC: It’s right up there with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” as the definitive anti-school song.
AC: Which, as I’m sure you know, Bob Ezrin also produced. In fact, when we do “School’s Out” now, at the end of the chorus, we go into “Another Brick in the Wall.” You can sing it right over the guitar. “We don’t need no education…” [Laughs.]
“No More Mister Nice Guy” (from 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies)
AC: That still gets played to death on radio. That’s one of those perfect little singles. Those songs from that era, those three-minute four or five chord songs—that could’ve been “Substitute,” by the Who. Or “I Can’t Explain.” In fact, when Roger Daltrey covered that song, he said, “You know, this song, it just feels natural to me.” I said, “Well, it should: it’s ‘Substitute.’” [Laughs.]
AVC: Billion Dollar Babies was your first album to hit No. 1, and it’s generally considered to be one of your definitive albums. Do you agree with that assessment?
AC: Well, you know how it is: picking your favorite album is like picking your favorite child. It’s almost impossible to do. I mean, Love It To Death you could say was the first real Alice Cooper record. The critics said Killer was the best album. School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies were the two biggest-selling albums. So, y’know, you kind of have to go through each of the albums and say, “Well, they all have their merits.” And then later on, when I was doing my own albums by myself—I mean, I did another 20 albums after that. [Laughs.] So you’ve got Last Temptation, From The Inside, and, you know, every one of those albums represented another sort of thumbnail sketch of what was going on in my brain right then. But they were all theatrical. I never lost the idea of telling a story. In fact, I liked the idea that Chuck Berry could tell a story in three minutes, and I said, “Well, okay, I like that, but why can’t I tell a longer story in 14 songs, then?” To me, that was more like writing for a purpose. I would sit there and I would go, “Okay, now I need some reason to get him from A to B, so let’s think of this song.” Given the way I write, I’d probably do okay at writing for Broadway. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s something for your to-do list.
AC: [Laughs.] I’m on it.
“Man With The Golden Gun” (from 1973’s Muscle of Love)
AC: It was supposed to be the Bond theme, but it actually came in a day too late, and by the time they heard it, they’d already signed for Lulu’s song. I went, “You’re gonna take Lulu over this?” [Laughs.] ’Cause it was perfect for The Man With The Golden Gun. It had helicopters, it had machine guns—it had the Pointers Sisters, Ronnie Spector, and Liza Minnelli doing background vocals! We went to every single one of those John Barry albums to try and invent the perfect James Bond song, and even Christopher Lee, who played Scaramanga in the movie, said, “Oh, man, why did we take the Lulu song? This song is the one!” [Laughs.] So, yeah, we lost out on that one, but I still put it on the album. I said, “I don’t care, I’m going to do a James Bond track no matter what.”
“Teenage Lament ’74” (from 1973’s Muscle of Love)
AVC: You brought up Liza Minnelli. She also sings on “Teenage Lament ’74,” too, right?
AC: Yeah, we had them all in the studio at that time, so the Pointers and Ronnie Spector sang on it, too. It was, like, “You know, while you’re here, we’ve got this other song.” When I said, “I need scat singing in this,” the Pointers went, “That’s us!” [Laughs.] I mean, they just knocked it out in one take, and it was so good that you just couldn’t re-do it.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine you and Liza Minnelli hanging out, but not only did she work with you in the studio, but I understand she was also there when you had your strange encounter with Elvis Presley.
AC: Yes, well, there was almost a thing going. But not quite. I might’ve been her only straight boyfriend. [Laughs.]
“Welcome To My Nightmare” (from 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare)
AC: With Welcome To My Nightmare, I thought we started getting really sophisticated. We’d had two No. 1s in a row, and Bob said, “Well, let’s stretch it, then. Let’s put horns in there, let’s turn this into something.” And it really was classy. We kept thinking of “Walk On The Wild Side,” that kind of stuff, and we were also pointing it towards kind of West Side Story and that era of stuff. And it really was working. We let Bob just go on that one. [Laughs.] I mean, it was just myself and Bob in the studio, really. I liked the idea of stretching it out. Before, we would’ve done “Welcome To My Nightmare” a lot creepier, but adding the horns and all the other stuff, it made it so that it was very palatable—but still creepy!
AC: Welcome To My Nightmare was also your very first solo album.
AVC: It was. That was a big gamble, because we were coming off two big records like School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies, but the band just did not want to do another theatrical record. I was, like, “But we won the war!” We were the underdog that proved that rock and theatrics do work together. But then they wanted to go in the other direction, and I kind of went, “What?” They wanted to do their own album, and I was, like, “That’s fine, I don’t mind that, but I just can’t imagine us not doing theatrics. We practically invented it!” I wanted to take Billion Dollar Babies, which was our most outrageous show to date, and turn it into something twice that big… And I think that’s where I lost them. [Laughs.] I think we were all pretty exhausted, and I was still kind of going, “We’ve gotta strike while the iron’s hot,” while everyone else wanted to take a year off.
“Only Women Bleed” (from 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare)
AC: I knew what people were gonna say. They were gonna immediately think I was trying to get away with something. But, in fact, one of the reasons why “Only Women Bleed” was a hit ballad was that nobody thought it was Alice Cooper. Nobody knew I was capable of writing a song like that. In fact, when Warner Brothers played it for their staff, they all thought it was James Taylor. [Laughs.] When they told them it was Alice Cooper, they went, “What? There’s another side to this guy?” In the show, it was a ballet, something to offset all the horror. We had to play some romance in there. I said, “I want a ballerina, a real ballerina from the Joffrey Ballet, to actually do ballet behind me while I’m doing all this other stuff.” I wanted the juxtaposition of the two things. My wife, Sheryl, was the 18-year-old ballerina that came in, and we’ve been married 35 years now! You know, more than 30 women have recorded that song over the years, so it actually became a sort of women’s anthem. What I was saying in the song was that women bleed emotionally while men bleed physically.
“The Quiet Room” (from 1978’s From the Inside)
AC: That was David Foster, and my whole backing band was Toto, you know? It was, like, every major great musician on the scene, because everybody who was any good worked for David Foster. In fact, the only duet that Maurice White from Earth, Wind & Fire ever did was on “The Quiet Room.” But the song “How You Gonna See Me Now,” once again, that was another ballad hit. I forget how high it got, but it was a pretty big hit.
AVC: What was it like to write with Bernie Taupin?
AC: Oh, Bernie was my best friend. Bernie and I were inseparable. I mean, he was at my house every day, and I was at his house every day, and when I got out of the hospital, I said, “Bernie, we’re both lyricists, just wait ’til I give you this wealth of material.” [Laughs.] I said, “These are all the people I met in here,” and I started telling him the stories, and we started writing the songs. It was like a ping-pong match. I would say a line, he would say a line. I would do a line, he would do a line. [Laughs.]
“Clones (We’re All)” (from 1979’s Flush The Fashion)
AC: We do “Clones” in the show now, believe it or not. It was such a departure from anything that Alice had ever done, and yet I kind of like the fact that we did something that was unusual for us. Roy Thomas Baker says, “Let’s totally do something that doesn’t even remotely sound like you. The only thing that’s gonna sound like you is your voice. Musically, this is gonna make people scratch their heads and go, ‘What?’” But it was a hit!
AVC: It’s also very much a line in the sand for a lot of fans.
AC: Yeah, well, I mean, it was definitely different from everything we’d done. But I just went, “Well, it’s a sci-fi thing.” It’s about clones. I always kind of liked it. I liked the idea that it was really different. There were so many weird songs on that album. “Leather Boots” and things like that were just weird. A lot of that was to do with Roy Thomas Baker.
“You Want It, You Got It” (from 1981’s Special Forces)
“Zorro’s Ascent” (from 1982’s Zipper Catches Skin)
“I Love America” (from 1983’s DaDa)
AVC: With a lot of the albums, I think what people don’t understand is that you have to be able to ride the rollercoaster if you’re going to get into this business. You have some big ups—we’ve had something like seven or eight peaks in the career, and you’re always going for that next peak—but then you have records that aren’t going to do that. The Rolling Stones had that. Dylan had that. Everybody has that. I had two or three records that I don’t even remember making, like Zipper Catches Skin. Special Forces was just before I went into the hospital, and I don’t remember making it, but I remember there were some pretty good songs on it. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve repeatedly said that you don’t really remembering recording those records, but have you dared to go back and listen to them since then?
AC: Oh, yeah. In fact, I actually brought it up to Bob Ezrin, “You know, we should take 12 or 13 of these songs that really didn’t get a chance and re-write them and re-record them.” You know, now that I’m focused enough to finish them. Because, you know, the bases for a lot of these songs are really good. I just didn’t … I wasn’t there when we were doing it. If I was there physically, and I know I wrote the songs, I mentally was a million miles away. So now I listen back to it and I hear a lot of really raw stuff that could really be good. The real Alice Cooper fans, though, those are their favorite albums. [Laughs.] Isn’t that weird? I mean, I listen to these albums, and they’re so insane, and yet there’s some really interesting stuff going on amongst the insanity.
AVC: There is. I particularly like “You Want It, You Got It,” from Special Forces, but I also have a soft spot for DaDa.
AC: Oh, yeah, songs like “Former Lee Warmer” were… I mean, that was a totally terrifying song when you listened to it, where someone’s living in the attic. It’s my brother, and he doesn’t get out much. But we do feed him. [Laughs.] And then you had a song like “Dyslexia,” or, on Zipper Catches Skin, there were “Zorro’s Ascent” and “Tag, You’re It,” which were very clever little songs. It’s just that, y’know, hell if I remember writing or recording any of it! But you talk about DaDa, and Bob’s and my favorite song was always “I Love America.” “Here they come, there they go.” [Laughs.] We were out of our minds at that point. Well, he wasn’t. But I was! And every time we heard that song, we’d laugh our heads off, because that was a good bit.
“Poison” (from 1989’s Trash)
AC: That was probably the biggest hit we ever had, even bigger than “School’s Out” when you look internationally. That was a monster song for us. When the radio suddenly got demographic, that’s when things changed, and I think everybody kind of lost it. Suddenly there was no such thing as a single anymore. People didn’t buy 45s. It was, like, “Okay, Alice, your demographic is 25 to 45 year old males.” I’m going, “What? Since when?” I liked the idea of Top 40, where you did a song like “No More Mister Nice Guy” or something, and you were in competition with the Supremes, with the Beatles, with Simon and Garfunkel, with Dean Martin—with everybody. You had to have a single that was good enough to make that Top 40, no matter what it was. To me, that was the big challenge, and I think that’s why the songwriting was so important back then.
“I’ll Bite Your Face Off” (from 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare)
AC: You know, I kind of believe that a song takes on its natural form as you’re writing it. With “I’ll Bite Your Face Off,” when I first started playing it, it immediately was a 1965 Rolling Stones song. It just had that feel. Every bit of it felt like the Rolling Stones, so I said, “Well, then, let’s make it that. Let’s make it a 1965 Rolling Stones song.” I felt like we needed to dedicate a song to them, anyway, just for being who they are. They were a huge influence on us. So I said, “Let’s add the handclapping, the tambourine, the scratchers, the maracas, everything.” So when I do it on stage now, I even do a little bit of rooster point, the whole Mick Jagger thing, just to emphasize it a little bit more.
AVC: What inspired you to produce a sequel to Welcome To My Nightmare so many years later?
AC: Well, it’s not really a sequel. I just figured that, 35 years later, why not give Alice another nightmare? Who says Alice is only allowed to have one nightmare, you know? If anybody’s gonna have nightmares, it’s him, right? So let’s give Alice a new nightmare. What would be his nightmare now? Disco would still be a nightmare to him, certainly. Technology would be a nightmare. The fact that he meets the Devil and it’s a pop diva? You can imagine that’s pretty nightmarish to him, too. [Laughs.]