The point of this column is to talk about stuff from the past, in contrast with what’s happening today. That can range from obscurities begging to be excavated, to things that have been right under our noses all along, just waiting to be rediscovered when the time is right. Alice Cooper’s vast and varied career meets all of the above criteria. And it’s due time that we look at some of his stuff.
Loud, outrageous and teeming with fire and brimstone, the OG shock-rocker has not only had a lasting impact on classic rock and metal; he’s managed to stoke the affections of hordes of original punks in the process, including The Ramones, Misfits and one young Johnny Rotten, who reportedly sang Alice’s “I’m Eighteen” when he first auditioned for the Sex Pistols. And, aside from the theatrical stage shows, snotty delivery and horror-filled imagery, Alice has proven time and again that he’s a crack songwriter to boot, even receiving praise from Bob Dylan. The man’s musical range has encompassed everything frompsych, garage, cabaret, sludge, glam, disco, punk, new wave, heavy metal, pop and even industrial rock. And somehow, he even manages to pull it off most of the time.
A few reissues have surfaced as of late, including one early classic from “The Alice Cooper Band,” plus an unholy trio of mid-career releases dating back to the late ‘80s.
Billion Dollar Babies
For the uninitiated, Alice Cooper was actually the name of a band with a singer that shared its moniker for a few albums, before embarking on a solo career. Billion Dollar Babies (1973) was the sixth album for the band, one that saw it ascend to the number-one slot on the charts over here and in the UK. And, it’s no wonder. First off, it’s got all the sarcasm and quirkiness of the earlier classics, but this time out, the production and execution is slightly more refined, courtesy of superstar producer Bob Ezrin.
More importantly, it’s the songs. Virtually every track contained in its seedy grooves would go on to become a staple in the Cooper canon—including the stagey opener “Hello Hooray,” the infectiously sarcastic “Elected,” sprawling glam valentine “Billion Dollar Babies,” radio anthem “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and the twisted, Stones-like ditty “Generation Landslide,” just to name a few. In keeping with Cooper tradition, the album also delves into darker territory with the aptly titled “I Love The Dead” and “Sick Things.”
The album has now been given the hi-def treatment with this hybrid SACD version that also includes a booklet and a billion-dollar bill that replicates the original release. (Mobile Fidelity)
The early ‘80s weren’t particularly easy on Mr. Cooper. Reeling from a personal and professional rough patch, his career had been in flux for a few years. He made a comeback of sorts with a couple of so-so albums for MCA that were very indicative of the heavy metal happenings of the moment. A tour with Megadeth in support did well to put him back on the map, but it wasn’t until 1989’s Trash that Cooper’s career really took flight again. With a new record deal (Epic) and a songwriting partnership with then massive hit-maker Desmond Child, Trash is a pop-metal fan’s wet dream, all hooks, sleaze and massive riffs for days.
While Cooper purists scoffed at his topping of the charts with radio-friendly numbers such as “House of Fire” and “Bed of Nails,” there’s still a lot of the original Alice in here. Even the biggest hit, “Poison” has an eerie undercurrent bubbling under its melancholy pop hooks. Cooper’s voice is lean and gritty, balanced against a symphony of dark harmonies and muffled minor chords. It’s one of those songs that is almost too cool for the masses, but somehow broke big in spite of its oddball appeal. Out of the many guest appearances from pop-metal stars of the day, it’s worth noting that Joan Jett co-wrote the aforementioned “House of Fire” and ex-Dead Boy Stiv Bator contributed background vocals. This reissue contains the full album in sharp remastered sound, expanded artwork and a previously unreleased cover of the garage classic “I Got A Line on You” by Spirit. (Cherry Red)
The year was 1991. The grunge factor was looming in the distance and the pressure to repeat the success of Trash was high. Instead of flexing his creative muscles, Cooper stuck to the Trash blueprint and released another slick, pop-metal offering, this one with a slightly heavier sound and a more guitar-centric guest list including Slash, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. There was one crucial error, though—the omission of Desmond Child behind the helm.
While far from bad, the songs lack the crafty hooks that Child was so adept at bringing out. As Cooper’s always been most at home spinning tales of the macabre over eerie music beds or gritty garage riffs, this style didn’t come as naturally, which is why having Child as his wingman on Trash made it work so well. But, there are a few gems here nonetheless, including the dark and dramatic “Love A Loaded Gun” (or, “Poison” redux), which is rife with eerie vocal flourishes and haunting melodies. “Feed My Frankenstein” is a fun one, in spite of it’s lame title, and features a rare solo duel between Vai and Satriani. The title track—however corny—is an addictive anti-drug anthem that has an insidious way of getting under your skin.
This reissue comes complete with remastered sound, new packaging and bonus tracks including a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” (Cherry Red)
The Last Temptation reissue
As his third and final album for Epic Records, The Last Temptation (1994) marked the end of an era that would facilitate a new dry spell for the erstwhile Mr. Cooper. But, it would also end his contract on a high creative note, even spawning a major comic series.
The Last Temptation is a concept album that tells the story of Steven, a bored teen living in a small town where nothing ever happens. (“Steven” was also the name of the main character in one of Alice’s more prominent works, Welcome To My Nightmare.) One day, Steven stumbles upon an alley leading to a mysterious, non-existent theatre hosting a show called “Theater of the Real.” Once inside, Steven is treated to a series of morality plays as a creepy Showman attempts to persuade him to join the cast, and as a bonus, remain forever young.
Renowned comic creator Neil Gaiman co-wrote the story with Cooper and released the full version in a three-part comic series through Marvel Comics. The first installment was included with the CD upon its initial release. The songs provide the story’s commentary and flow exceptionally well. The seamy opener “Sideshow” sets the tone and lays the foundation for Steven’s character, while the punkish “Lost In America” exemplifies his plight. “Nothing’s Free” illuminates the Showman’s Faustian motives, while “You’re My Temptation” gives a glimpse into our hero’s vulnerabilities in plodding fashion, recalling the then mega-popular Alice In Chains. The epic “Stolen Prayer” marks a turning point for the protagonist and features guest vocals from Chris Cornell, plus a spooky refrain from a children’s choir.
Feel-wise, The Last Temptation falls somewhere between Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, with heaping doses of sex, angst and morality gone awry. Cooper was at the forefront of this kind of thing some 20 years before the album’s release. Yet, in 1994—at the height of the grunge era—it marked a serious return to form for the artist. Unfortunately, its sales paled in comparison to Cooper’s prior two offerings for Epic and he left the label to wander the musical netherworld for a few years, before reinventing himself once again.
This 20th anniversary issue includes the remastered album, along with a 16-page booklet. (Cherry Red)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, JK