Where to start with vaudeville-metal pioneer Alice Cooper

Where to start with vaudeville-metal pioneer Alice Cooper

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Alice Cooper

Why it’s daunting: Though Alice Cooper used to stage his own gruesome death on a nightly basis, he tenaciously refuses to go away. Sixty-four and still active as a recording artist, Cooper is synonymous with shock rock—a genre he’s generally credited with inventing—in addition to being a popular radio host whose Nights With Alice Cooper is one of the most lively, engaging, and musically encyclopedic shows in syndication. Cooper’s whole resurrection shtick, however, may have a deeper significance. A born-again Christian (though Evangelicals and other moral watchdogs have often tried to ban his records), he’s an obsessively self-reinventing artist with far more nuance lurking beyond his cartoonish façade than casual listeners might realize.

That complexity carries over to his music. Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit before moving to Arizona as a teen, Cooper released his first single as the leader of the high-school garage band The Spiders in 1965, launching a rock career that in many ways parallels that of his Motor City contemporary, Iggy Pop. (Cooper references The Spiders in his 1970 song “Return Of The Spiders”—which may or may not have influenced The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, the equally self-referential 1972 album by avowed Cooper fan David Bowie.) In the late ’60, The Spiders morphed into Alice Cooper, a psychedelic outfit led by its lurid, newly eponymous frontman. Furnier adopted the persona of the face-painted, cross-dressing, chicken-sacrificing, self-beheading Cooper as a provocative ploy for shock-and-awe publicity, a marked contrast to the earthy vibe of the post-hippie era.

Although there was a cynical motive behind Cooper’s transformation, there’s no denying that thespianism is in every spatter of his blood. Almost as soon as his group started unleashing anthemic hits in the early ’70 such as “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out,” “Elected,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” Cooper began experimenting with the relatively untried medium of film-plus-music, helping create the prototype of the imminent MTV aesthetic. But his fortunes collapsed in a drunken shambles in the ’80s, even as a new generation of video-savvy musicians—including scores of heavy-metal, hard-rock, and new-wave groups he’d influenced—elbowed him out of relevance. 

Cooper’s brief commercial comeback in the late ’80s and early ’90s cemented his paradoxical status: a platinum-selling cult phenomenon. More than that, he’s become an icon, lauded by everyone from Bob Dylan to John Lydon and inspiring acts as widespread as Kiss, Misfits, Mötley Crüe, King Diamond, Mayhem, Marilyn Manson, GWAR, and Ghost. But like many icons, Cooper has an image that often eclipses the work that formed it. For every feral snarl and spurt of gore he’s produced, the Beatles-worshipping songwriter has dabbled in another genre, from baroque balladry to quasi-prog. In 1977—at the height of the punk explosion, when bands like Sex Pistols and The Damned were citing him as a godfather—Cooper told Richard Meltzer, “I always look at [music] as an enormous menu. I love to put on Burt Bacharach and then The Stooges, y’know, and then Laura Nyro.” This musical universalism, along with the melodrama and silliness of his diverse catalog and legacy, has made Cooper an easy artist to identify—but a tough one to dive deeply into.

Possible gateway: 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies

Why? As with many artists of Cooper’s longevity and prolificacy, a greatest-hits collection seems like a sensible shortcut to getting acquainted. Don’t take it. The most potent introduction to Cooper’s demented genius is his 1973 album Billion Dollar Babies. The album is the crowning achievement of an incredible two-year, four-album run that catapulted Cooper from rock’s sideshow barker to one of its superstars. From the taut, sinister title track to the sprawling “Generation Landslide” to the punky comedy of “Raped And Freezin’,” Babies showcases Cooper’s strengths as a singer, songwriter, showman, conceptualist, and visionary. And, of course, a sick motherfucker. That’s not to downplay the contributions of the original Alice Cooper band; an underappreciated gang of tightly wound yet imaginative players, they tapped telepathically into their boss’ howling, vivid phantasmagoria. When he belts out the chorus of the album’s biggest hit, the soaring, Who-esque “Elected,” it’s clear Cooper isn’t kidding. He really is campaigning to become the leader of the rock ’n’ roll world, or at least its ringleader.

Next steps: Cooper’s first strong statement of intent, 1971’s Love It To Death, came at a conflicted time. The lingering haze of the ’60s was congealing into something bleaker. Yet fuzzy escapism was rife in popular music. Cooper defied the zeitgeist by perversely defining it: Love It To Death is simultaneously shadowy and flamboyantly fantastical. Campy, trashy, and bristling with sinew, tracks like “Second Coming” and “Is It My Body”—covered by the Melvins and Sonic Youth, respectively—flirt with religious imagery, horror, and lush, lurid hard rock. Not to mention Cooper’s first tryst with mainstream success, “I’m Eighteen,” a song that lances some of the festering blisters of contemporaneous angst, from the sexual revolution to the draft.

Killer came a mere 10 months after Love It To Death, but it failed to capitalize on the latter’s commercial breakthrough. It yielded no big radio hits—although the incendiary “Under My Wheels” did make some modest inroads, thanks to a sleazy, gritty, grinding hook that more or less invented glam-metal a decade before the fact. But Killer remains a Cooper favorite; after the post-psychedelic frightscapes of Love It To Death, it codified the group’s tuneful, adventurous, outrageous, razor-sharp rock, embodying and exploding Lester Bangs’ facetious claim that Cooper was “the father of ’70s rock ’n’ roll.”

By the time 1972 rolled around, Cooper needed another hit. His album from that year, School’s Out, provided it. The title track has become one of his best-known songs, and it’s easy to see why; 40 years later, it still resonates as the epitome of adolescent rebellion and hormonal abandon, much as it probably will 400 years from now. It’s also an impeccably written and rendered pop tune. For all of Cooper’s over-the-top imagery and antics, he’s long been an obsessively tight, even classicist songwriter. From ballads to headbangers, School’s Out is proof.


Les Savy Fav covers "School's Out" by Alice Cooper on a yacht

After the disintegration of the Alice Cooper band that was evident on its post-Billion Dollar Babies swansong, 1973’s Muscle Of Love, Cooper went solo. His debut as such is 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare, and while it lacks some of the depth, interplay, and dimensionality of his former outfit’s peak, it’s still an essential slab of dynamic rock that openly flaunts its creator’s fang-baring swagger. Enlisting the backing band Lou Reed had just used on Berlin and Rock ’N’ Roll Animal, Cooper takes on Pete Townsend-worthy epics, cock-rock stompers, and total creep-fests with equal skill and zeal.

Cooper’s first attempt at overcoming a Herculean case of alcoholism resulted in 1978’s rickety yet bravely personal From The Inside. His previous two albums—the booze-fueled Goes To Hell and Lace And Whiskey—range from sporadically inspired to utterly shitty, including an uncomfortable dalliance with disco. Putting all that in the 12-stepper rearview, From The Inside dares to tell the autobiographical tale of Cooper’s soul-searching rehabilitation, resulting in a borderline Meatloaf-esque record that surfs on weird waves of curdled hubris. It wasn’t terribly successful, and clunky moments abound. But its courage and candor make for a rare glimpse at the man behind the mask. Or at least the mask behind the mask. 

Predictably, Cooper backslid into the bottle following From The Inside’s flop. He didn’t yank himself out until 1986’s Constrictor—but Constrictor’s follow-up, 1987’s Raise Your Fist And Yell, is a far sharper portrait of Cooper’s next incarnation: heavy-metal supervillain. Lean, leathery, honed on hardship, and featuring the bass-guitar attack of, well, Kip Winger, it didn’t punch down any doors. It did, however, crack them back open. Granted, Cooper had long been considered a metal pioneer, although little of his early output really belonged to the genre. But with the commercial ascendance of ’80s metal serving as the wind beneath Cooper’s batlike wings, Raise Your Fist positively soars.

Cooper’s final, lasting vindication came in 1989 with Trash. Where Raise Your Fist is thorny and uncompromising, Trash bends over backward to pick itself up. At that, it triumphs. Trash became Cooper’s first platinum album since Welcome To My Nightmare, thanks primarily to “Poison,” an indelible single that funnels all of Cooper’s eerie charisma into a melodic, hair-metal power ballad. He didn’t do it alone: Finally and fully embraced by his metal-and-punk offspring, he made the album with contributions from Jon Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, and The Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators. Today, Trash sounds very much like a product of its slick times. It’s also solidly consistent and even relatively understated—words not usually associated with Cooper.

Where not to start: Pretties For You and Easy Action are Cooper’s first two full-lengths, but only in the chronological sense. The former succeeds mostly as an extended homage to Syd Barrett; the latter is a messy transitional record that sacrifices tunes in favor of prankish, Frank Zappa-scented experimentation. (It was released on Zappa’s own Straight Records.) Each disc has its moments—especially Easy Action, which has an acidic taste well worth acquiring after becoming acquainted with Cooper’s basics—but they feel more like footnotes to the ’60s. And they merely hint at what Cooper was quickly becoming.

Imagine Cooper trying his hardest (or not-so-hardest) to sound like the bastard son of Sparks and Styx. That, in a nutshell, is what his four-album fiasco from 1980’s Flush The Fashion through 1983’s DaDa sounds like. While many ’70s rockers gave themselves credible makeovers in the new-wave era, Cooper actually stripped his makeup off, removing most of his signature mystique in the process. He was also sloshed to the gills the entire time, which may have had something to do with it. That said, there are some surprising bright spots sprinkled among his early-’80s output—including Flush’s “Clones (We’re All),” a catchy, synth-rock oddity that seems to be making fun of Cooper’s own sad state more than anyone else’s.

Since his rebirth in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Cooper has kept a firm grip on his career. He’s even released a few decent discs in recent years—among them the dark 1994 concept album The Last Temptation, rendered in comic-book form by Neil Gaiman. But when it comes to ideal entry points into Cooper’s oeuvre, none of the recent projects shoot to the top of the list. In fact, his latest full-length, 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare (an ill-conceived sequel to Welcome To My Nightmare), is an unmitigated lump of crap. When Ke$ha starts dueting with Alice Cooper on his own records, there’s nothing left to do but hold your nose and reach for one of his classics.