He took the blade of the sword and pressed it against his throat, slowing slicing across his jugular as he stared at his audience with demonic glee. The teenagers in attendance scream with excitement as the song came to an end, the sounds of cheering children and a school bell echoing across the room. The date was 13 July 1972 and as the leather-clad rock star strutted across the stage of the BBC Television Centre in London, young viewers across the country felt a call to arms from this rebellious rock ‘n’ roll anthem. His declaration that ‘school’s out’ was never meant to speak to the adults of the world, but one viewer at home felt moved by the performance, disgusted, enraged. As Alice Cooper raised the weapon in triumph, a sixty-two-year-old reached for her pen and paper and began to compose a letter, one that expressed her shock and anger that such a grotesque display of sex and violence could be broadcast for all the family to see. And the letter that Mary Whitehouse would submit to the studio’s Head of Light Entertainment the following month would transform a cult rock star into a pop culture icon.
‘Violence and sex sell,’ declared twenty-four-year-old Cooper in an interview with Newsweek three months after his appearance on BBC’s popular music show Top of the Pops. ‘That’s our appeal. The audience knows I’m parodying what they see every day on television. We’re the ultimate American band; the end product of an affluent society.’ Barely three years earlier, the Alice Cooper group had arrived as fresh-faced wannabe stars among the bright lights of Los Angeles. The country was enthralled by the hippie counterculture, with the legendary Woodstock festival taking place just a few thousand miles away in upstate New York. With sex and psychedelia having become the lifestyle of the young and disillusioned children of the Vietnam War, artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison offered teenagers rebellion and sexual thrills, but as Cooper and his cohorts travelled from Arizona to California in search of fame and fortune, they soon realised that if they were to stand out among the thousands of other wannabe stars then they would have to offer their audience something a little different.
Ostensibly five naïve youngsters who wanted to emulate their heroes, the Beatles, Alice Cooper was the brainchild of Vincent Furnier, a scrawny-yet-confident art student and preacher’s son who would undergo a metamorphosis from everyday teenager to the most notorious star in the world. ‘I was creating a fantasy,’ claimed Cooper to Classic Rock in 2011. ‘I looked all around me and saw all these Peter Pans with no Captain Hook. I saw the Black Queen in Barbarella and said, ‘That’s Alice, right there.’ I immediately related and knew a piece of Alice had to look like that; the black gloves with the switchblades coming out of the end, the black make-up with the patch over her eye. Then I would see something else in a comic book and go, ‘Oh, that’s definitely Alice.’ So I started stitching all these characters together and pretty soon, there he was. All I had to do was put his skin on and feel comfortable in there.’
What the fuck was that?
First emerging in 1969 with the psychedelic horror show that was Pretties for You, it would not be until they crossed paths with a young producer called Bob Ezrin that the signature sound of Alice Cooper was created. ‘We walked into a sort of underworld filled with spandex, spider eyes, people who looked stranger than any group of people I’d ever seen in my life,’ recalled Ezrin on the first time that he saw the Alice Cooper group. ‘They were all really bone thin, pasty. They had black fingernails, long mutton-chops. My friend and I sat down at the table in front of the stage. I was eighteen inches away from Alice Cooper and by the time the show was over, my friend and I were wide-eyed and slack-jawed, overwhelmed. I said, ‘What the fuck was that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I think I liked it.’ I said, ‘I think I loved it.’’ Their first taste of success would come in the winter of 1970 when their first Ezrin-produced single I’m Eighteen became an unexpected hit in the United States, climbing to number twenty-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While their subsequent efforts had failed to reach the same commercial heights, the controversy that their outrageous shows would provoke, blending elements of Grand Guignol horror and vaudeville insanity, guaranteed that they would become regular fixtures of the press.
Success soon came with a price, however. With the label struggling to market Alice Cooper as a group, the media soon began to focus on its enigmatic frontman. ‘It was natural that Vince became the spokesman for a band called Alice Cooper,’ admitted guitarist Michael Bruce in his autobiography No More Mr. Nice Guy. ‘Creating the persona of Alice seemed to do the trick when it came to getting ourselves noticed. Increasingly, Vince began to treat the name Alice Cooper like it was an alter ego, which he would refer to in the third person, ‘Alice does this, Alice thinks this’ and so on. Just like an actor entering into his role. He would take to the stage, not as Vince Furnier, preacher’s son and rock ‘n’ roll singer, but as Alice Cooper, the supposedly reincarnated sixteenth century English witch. I think it gave him the chance to be outrageous. Just as Vince had acquired a new personality as Alice, so the rest of us were also given mythological, almost medieval personalities.’
Following the minor taste of stardom that they had enjoyed with the release of I’m Eighteen, the band believed that they had already created their signature tune, the one song that would remain their crowning achievement, the epitaph that would forever define the Alice Cooper group. But all this would change during the spring of 1972 when they found themselves reaching number one in the United Kingdom with the title track from their fifth album, a song that would resonate with the youth of the world and become an anthem for teenage rebellion. ‘School’s Out was such a dynamite single, it just couldn’t have missed,’ insisted Cooper in his 1975 memoir Me, Alice. ‘We broke it across the country just in time for summer vacation madness and propelled it to the number one single in the nation.’ Developed from a riff performed by guitarist Glen Buxton during band rehearsal, the song immediately struck a chord with the record-buying youth of America, its frenzy soon crossing the Atlantic Ocean and infecting rock fans in Europe.
‘Between May and June, School’s Out is the national anthem,’ boasted Cooper to Rolling Stone in 1998. ‘When we wrote the song, I said, ‘What is the one moment that’s the happiest, most exhilarating moment of the year?’ It’s when the clock is one minute to three on the last day of school and then it finally goes click. That’s what I wanted to capture for three minutes on this record.’ Unlike many of their other songs, which were created without a desire for commercial acceptance, School’s Out was designed to appeal to the masses and provoke excitement and celebration in their audience. ‘We already had I’m Eighteen as an anthem song. Now we wanted another anthem song,’ admitted drummer Neal Smith to Punk Globe. ‘All of a sudden Alice Cooper, the group, became known across the United States. After the release, School’s Out became double-platinum. Almost fifty years later, they’re still playing that song!’
While School’s Out was designed to appeal to young audiences, the band were more than aware that another way to propel themselves up the charts was to infuriate the parents. ‘The School’s Out album was an example of fun and excessive packaging,’ admitted Cooper in his second memoir Golf Monster. ‘We worked with a group of graphic artists who did all of our album covers. Those guys were a lot like us. We worked well together, throwing out ideas. What if a kid lifted up his desk on Monday after the weekend? What would he find? What else might be inside the desk? A switchblade? Notebooks? I had an idea. ‘Let’s wrap the next record inside a pair of pink panties instead of a dust cover.’ A typical Alice Cooper formula: kids will love it; parents will hate it.’ Realising that they could antagonise adults even further with the concept, a show in July 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles came to a show-stopping conclusion that once again saw the band making their way into various newspapers and magazines. ‘In between, the aisles were filled with men in gorilla suits and Mickey Mouse costumes handing out report cards and the air was flooded with five thousand paper panties, dropped from a cooperative helicopter,’ reported Circus in their October edition.
All of the furore surrounding these publicity stunts would pale in comparison to the response that Alice Cooper received following their appearance on Top of the Pops. While the band were dressed in glam rock attire, their attention-seeking frontman was clad in black, his thin hips swaying behind tight leather trousers as he playfully danced with one of the young women at the side of the stage. It was all harmless fun and helped to propel the song to the top of the charts, but one thing they had not counted on was for their performance to fall under the judgemental eye of moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Having started her crusade against popular culture that she deemed morally corruptive with her Clean Up TV Campaign, the schoolteacher dedicated her life to targeting those she felt were responsible for subjecting the British public to excessive sex and violence, with letters of protest and public appearances, targeting the likes of Rolling Stones and even children’s show Crackerjack with her unwavering morality.
‘What made us begin in the first place?’ she proposed in her 1993 book Quite Contrary. ‘Homosexuality, prostitution and sexual intercourse became the routine accompaniment of the evening meal and the topic of excited conversation in the cloakrooms and playgrounds as, night after night, the Profumo affair, in which Minister of War John Profumo was involved with prostitutes Christine Keeler and Mary Rice-Davies, unfolded before our eyes. Suddenly, a totally different way of life became accessible to all of us, including children, if only via the television screen. How accessible, I was soon to discover.’ Two decades earlier, in 1971, Whitehouse had published another book that detailed her mission to protect children from the corruptive influence of the media. ‘But how did I come to get involved in the question of pornography in the first place? Hadn’t we started out just to clean up television?’ she asked in Who Does She Think She Is? ‘Certainly, but it didn’t take long to discover that the media are indivisible and that what happens on the stage and in films is inevitably reflected on television. We have now reached the stage where almost anything goes on television, as long as it is in the name of documentary, serious discussion or reality.’
The most obscene thing I have ever seen on television
Whitehouse had begun her letter-writing campaign in 1963 when she regularly sent complaints to the Daily Express, the Minister of Education and, more infamously, the BBC. Among the concerns expressed in her letters were a beheading depicted during a broadcast of The Further Adventures of the Musketeers, the ‘teatime brutality’ of Doctor Who and a 1968 performance from Jimi Hendrix that Whitehouse declared ‘the most obscene thing I, at any rate, have ever seen on television.’ Rock and pop stars would become her primary target during the seventies, as the rise of heavy metal and shock rock saw artists indulging in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, their self-destructive lifestyles glamorised by the media and idolised by their young audiences. Among those targeted by Whitehouse were The Doors, Chuck Berry and Sweet, but in July 1972, when she witnessed the Top of the Pops performance from a relatively new group from America called Alice Cooper, she had found her latest target.
In her letter to Bill Cotton, the Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, Whitehouse stated, ‘I am writing to express the gravest concern over the publicity which has been given to Alice Cooper’s record School’s Out. For weeks now, Top of the Pops has given gratuitous publicity to a record which can only be described as anti-law and order. Because of this, millions of young people are now imbibing a philosophy of violence and anarchy. This is surely utterly irresponsible in a social climate which grows ever more violent. It is our view that if there is increasing violence in the schools during the coming term, the BBC will not be able to evade their share of the blame.’ The letter, dated Monday, 21 August 1972, demonstrated Whitehouse’s fear that a corruptive influence, whether it was a television show, a feature film or a rock singer, could have negative effects on young viewers. ‘The historical truth of the matter is that throughout the centuries people have communicated, through hieroglyphics, through the spoken and printed word, through pictures, through still and moving film,’ insisted Whitehouse in the early nineties. ‘These media have been the foundation of our culture, the basis of exchanged ideas and philosophies. Now, in the second half of the twentieth century, we have been invited and in some ways persuaded, by the advocates of ‘artistic freedom,’ to believe that television has no effect upon viewers’ values and behaviour.’
For Shep Gordon, the band’s long-suffering manager and the man who had helped to propel them from a small venue act, the notoriety caused by Whitehouse and her contemporaries would prove to be something of a godsend. ‘We made all the papers, all the evening news shows. Everyone was shocked and outraged,’ he scoffed in his book They Call Me Supermensch. ‘A member of Parliament called for the show to be banned. There were headlines like ‘Ban Alice the Horror Rocker. He’s Absolutely Sick.’ And the show sold out. The single School’s Out went number one in England and then around the world. That August, a woman named Mary Whitehouse, a famous, self-appointed moral watchdog who was always trying to get what she considered offensive songs, TV shows and movies banned, wrote to the BBC to complain about their playing School’s Out on Top of the Pops…That got us on the front page of the newspapers. Not back in the music section, but page one. There wasn’t enough money in the world to pay for press like that. I had a bouquet of flowers delivered to her every couple of hours for days, to thank her for the excellent publicity.’
Cooper would also cite Whitehouse as the catalyst for the band’s sudden phenomenal success. ‘The urban legend behind the Alice Cooper show was so blown out of proportion, they tried to ban us before we even reached these shores. That sort of publicity never hurt,’ he confessed to the Sunday Post in 2002. ‘As soon as Mary Whitehouse tried to ban us, we sold out every night and the album went to number one. But we also delivered when we got here; Britain really liked our music. After we were successful in the UK, that’s when American sat up and took notice. It wasn’t until we had gained notoriety from Britain that things really took off there.’ In an interview with the Express the following year, Cooper once again credited Whitehouse with transforming him into a star. ‘It was great back in the seventies when all these people were against me,’ teased Cooper. ‘I couldn’t thank Leo Abse and Mary Whitehouse enough for what they did. I would send her flowers and him cigars. They would say, ‘Do you understand you’re banned?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, I do understand, you don’t understand how important it is to ban me.’ They never got the point that I couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. The record went right to number one. The concert sold out immediately. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to our band.’
The controversy that surrounded the protests from Whitehouse and the subsequent success of the School’s Out single helped to propel its accompanying album to the top of the UK charts, earning the band their third consecutive platinum-selling album in the United States and marking their legacy as pop culture icons. Had Whitehouse resisted the temptation to express her disgust at the band, Alice Cooper may have remained a mere cult curiosity, a relic of the early seventies that had shocked America and then slipped into obscurity. But the tenacious campaigns of a woman that Alice Cooper had never met turned them into rock stars overnight. ‘By the time Mary Whitehouse heard the rumours about Alice Cooper, if I was her I wouldn’t have let me in the country either,’ he told the Daily Record almost forty years later. ‘As the stories got more and more violent, I could see why the government were becoming concerned. But we were laughing. The controversy was worth two million record sales.’
Smith would later admit in an interview with Sonic Perspectives that School’s Out may have been more controversial than they had intended. ‘The lyrics ‘school’s been blown to pieces’ is obviously a time capsule of the early seventies. Nobody would ever say that now,’ insisted Cooper’s former drummer. ‘I would never write a song like that now. I live a few miles from Newtown, Connecticut, where the tragedy at the elementary school happened. I would never say something that could be catastrophic to a school. We were criticised for a lot of things that we did with Alice Cooper; I could only imagine if we did it now. That’s one side of the coin; the other side is that this type of stuff will happen anyway. You are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I get emails from new and long-time fans who are school teachers and they tell me they played that song through the loudspeaker. God bless them, that’s so rocking and cool. I’m humbled. All five of us wrote that song, as well as Elected and I’m Eighteen, that is why all of our names appear on the credits. We were just writing it to put on the album, we didn’t know that forty-five-years-later it would be played around the world. I’m glad it did and I’m glad Alice is still out there.’
Ensure that children are not corrupted
For Whitehouse, whose subsequent work would include declaring war on the so-called ‘video nasties’ of the eighties, her fight against the corruptive and dangerous influence of popular culture was a war that she would wage throughout the remainder of her life. ‘It is unrealistic to imagine that laws which allow the distribution of porn for adults can, at the same time, ensure that children are not corrupted,’ she declared in the nineties. ‘The porn merchants themselves accept that a – by no means insignificant – percentage of their products inevitably falls into the hands of children, since there are no conceivable means by which a publication can be controlled once it is in circulation. A society which exploits its young, for whatever purpose, has in it the seeds of its own destruction. If the censorship laws of the country are not straightforward enough to protect the young from some of the more obscene and subversive publications now so freely distributed, then the government itself may be challenged.’
Shep Gordon had tried to turn Alice Cooper into a larger-than-life rock star, as had Bob Ezrin, but in the end it was the well-meaning intentions of a moral campaigner called Mary Whitehouse that was ultimately responsible. Following the demise of the group, Cooper launched an equally successful solo career that, following its resurrection in the late eighties, remains as iconic today as he did when he first emerged from the neon-drenched streets of Los Angeles over half a century ago. ‘Life is all about learning,’ he told the Sunday Post in 2018. ‘I have been taught many lessons and one of those lessons came from the lovely Mary Whitehouse. She did so much for my career and I have never forgotten her; there is always a place in my heart for that wonderful lady. She was great for me. When my single School’s Out was released, she complained about the video and the whole ethos of the song. She saw it as a very bad influence on young people rather than just a fun song and she complained so much to the BBC that they banned us. It became an anthem and was being played in every pub, club and disco in the land. You could not wish for better marketing and PR. I was so thrilled I sent her a thank you note and a bouquet and I still acknowledge the part she played in my career.’