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 screamed with excitement as the song came to an end, the sounds of cheering children and school bells echoing across the room. The date was 13 July, 1972, and as the leather-clad rock star strutted across the stage of Lime Grove Studios 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.’ But one person who took issue with the depiction of violence and sexuality in modern media was Mary Whitehouse. Ever since the launch of her Clean-Up TV campaign in the mid-sixties, she had become an advocate for censorship and a return to morality, which contrasted against the liberal philosophies of the age. Alice Cooper was not the first rock ‘n’ roll star she had targeted through her letters of protest to the BBC and ITV, having become a thorn in its side with her incessant commentaries on the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. ‘A number of people have spoken to me about the behaviour of Mick Jagger on the Frost on Sunday programme last week,’ she wrote in 1968. ‘They were affronted, not only by the obscenity of his actions – I believe that he used his microphone as a phallic symbol – but also by the references to Jesus Christ in a song in such a setting.’

Alice Cooper had been conceived as a way to shock and disgust, and so it was inevitable that the group would find themselves falling foul of the scrutiny of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, a pet project of Whitehouse that served as an adversary to the rise of pornography and sadistic material that had begun to infiltrate the mainstream media. ‘For over a thousand years, there was no serious challenge to the validity of the Christian ethic,’ she noted in her 1985 exploration Mightier Than the Sword. ‘But all that has changed. And while there can be little doubt that compassion and understanding were often in those days conspicuous by their absence, there can also be little doubt that those two qualities alone will not bring the change that is so desperately needed if our society is to be a truly caring one.’ In many ways, Alice Cooper could be seen as the antithesis for the philosophies that Whitehouse was preaching, but in truth both had been raised in deeply religious households and still adhered to the teachings of their childhood. The character of Alice Cooper, however, represented the more debased aspects of human nature, and was considered as little more than a caricature by its flamboyant mastermind.

As times change, so too must their villains. What the moral majority found offensive in the fifties seemed inconsequential twenty years later, and as the free love of the American hippie counterculture cast its influence over Britain in the Swinging Sixties, The Beatles seduced a generation of teenagers, and in turn terrified their parents, with their brand of psychedelic sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The dawn of the seventies had warned of darker times ahead, and Alice Cooper personified the corruption and despair that came to dominate the decade. ‘We’re merely the end product of an affluent society,’ he insisted in 1971. ‘We enjoy getting onstage and showing the public what their world has come to.’ If Alice Cooper flaunted sex and violence in their stage shows, that was because this was what the media force-fed their viewers through a diet of documentaries, dramas, and news broadcasts that revelled in the self-destructive nature of the human race. Cooper intended on his alter-ego to hold a mirror up to the society that had spawned him, much like how Victor Frankenstein was forced to face the monster he had created.

Alice Cooper

Mary Whitehouse and Alice Cooper were the products of different worlds. One was already in her thirties when London was besieged by air raid bombings during the Blitz, and had dedicated most of her earlier life to prepare young women for the dangers of the adult world, while the other had come of age when California was enraptured in the sexual revolution of the late sixties. Whitehouse believed in old-fashioned values, while Cooper wished to challenge the status quo. The family values that Whitehouse held so dear were the very things that Cooper relished in taking apart. It was a performance piece, a surreal work of art, and the world was his canvass. ‘We considered ourselves to be the most American band,’ he boasted to Creem. ‘We chose the name Alice Cooper because it’s a typical, straight American name, and when we first started out, people would come to our concerts expecting to see a sweet, very feminine, quiet folk singer.’ During the promotion of his 1991 album Hey Stoopid, he described the character of Alice Cooper as a sweet young girl with pigtails, but hidden behind her back was an axe. It would be shocking images such as this that served to antagonise the likes of Mary Whitehouse.

With the arrival of heavy metal at the end of the sixties, she had found a new public menace with which she could exert her influence against. Having gained many political allies through her controversial campaign, she could easily command the attention of leading figures in the British entertainment industry. ‘I am wondering whether you are able to help us by informing us whether broadcasting is covered by the Obscene Publications Act,’ she asked the Shadow Home Secretary in response to a BBC broadcast of Jimi Hendrix. ‘We have tried, with no success whatsoever, to get the Attorney Genereal, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, to take action upon previous occasions.’ With the sexuality depicted by this new breed of rock ‘n’ roll stars, in which the guitar almost becomes an extension of their own phallus, Whitehouse believed that the youth of the country were in danger of becoming corrupted and led astray. While Alice Cooper was intended as a marriage between the irreverence of vaudeville and the shock theatrics of the Grand-Guignol, and thus not to be taken literally, to Whitehouse they posed a very real threat to the moral fabric of Great Britain.

Her greatest concern, and the instigation for her crusade, was how the misrepresentation of sexuality in the media could prove confusing for young viewers, particularly those who were entering adolescence. Both a mother and school teacher, she feared that the trivial way in which it was depicted on television could be sending the wrong message to its teenage audience. ‘In the world in which we live, sex education is essential – and inevitable,’ she said in 1977. ‘Ideally, children will receive it naturally and imperceptibly from the time of their birth as part of a happy, natural, and sensitive family life. But though not every child will have that reassuring experience, all of them, whatever their home circumstances, will gather information, misinformation, truth, and misconception from the environment in which they live.’ With such concerns having driven her campaign, the sight of Alice Cooper parading across the Top of the Pops stage, his weapon in-hand, while surrounded by adoring teenage girls, proved too much.

‘Our running philosophy has always been give them something to talk about,’ claimed Cooper. ‘I never sat down and figured to do this and that. Things are contrived, of course – our image and all – but it’s contrived on the level of entertainment. It isn’t contrived on any political level, nor for selling anything. We aren’t selling anything except entertainment.’ What Mary Whitehouse failed to notice when she caught sight of Alice Cooper was that this was merely a character, a satirical representation of the sex, violence, and corruption that had come to dominate the American mentality by the early seventies. Or perhaps she understood the intended comedy of the show, but feared less sophisticated viewers, specifically children, could take it more literal. Rock stars become role models to the young, and if their message is one of debauchery, this could spread like a disease. And the more famous an artist becomes, the greater their influence is cast upon their followers. If she feared what Jagger and Hendrix could do to the minds of their fans, then God only knows what a monster like Alice Cooper will do to the youth of the nation.

Dennis Dunaway, Glen Buxton, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, and Alice Cooper

‘I firmly believe that inside each and every one of us there’s a vast capacity for evil,’ insisted Alice Cooper in 1975. This dark and insidious alter-ego that he claimed every person hides deep inside, ‘no matter how together we might appear on the surface,’ could best be personified by Alice Cooper. While its creator, Vincent Furnier, was the son of an evangelist minister, and raised in a God-fearing household, the character of Cooper was a conglomeration of all the sick and twisted thoughts that lurk at the back of the human mind. A desire to punish those who had wronged us. The urge to see what committing murder would feel like. To indulge in the most erotic and perverse acts imaginable. Alice Cooper was the side of ourselves that most people are too afraid to reveal. He was the master, the sinner, the fallen angel. If Furnier believed in the Devil, as his father must have preached, then the antichrist was made flesh through the creation of Alice Cooper. While he would only come alive onstage, during that time he tortured, strangled, and slaughtered his co-stars, recreating the gruesome shenanigans that made the Grand-Guignol a popular draw for more than half a century.

Described by Playboy as ‘street rough trade in Vogue-model drag,’ Alice Cooper was the parts of the media that our parents were too afraid for us to see. He was the sexual deviancy of a pornographic film, the graphic violence of a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie, and the rebellious anti-establishment of a Lenny Bruce show. Your teachers were meant to fear him, and your girlfriend was supposed to want him. ‘There are three commodities that are universal: sex, violence, and money,’ he said in 1972. ‘Whatever you do, as long as it involves one of these things, it’ll be successful.’ While punk had begun to rear its ugly head with The Stooges, and Black Sabbath marked the arrival of heavy metal, it was Alice Cooper that incorporated the gruesome blood and guts of a horror flick into a rock ‘n’ roll concert for the first time, effectively creating what wold come to be known as shock rock. It was here that the character came to life, transforming a scrawny twenty-something into a rock ‘n’ roll star.

When Dennis Dunaway first met Vincent Furnier in the halls of Cortez High School in Phoenix, Arizona, he considered him ‘the least likely human for anyone on earth to fear,’ but within just a few short years Furnier would undergo a metamorphosis that would give birth to Alice Cooper. ‘Who am I? I’m a villain. An antihero. If I was a kid, Alice Cooper would be my hero,’ he declared in his 1975 memoir Me, Alice. ‘I always liked villains. I adored Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney. I always wanted Godzilla to completely wipe out all those Japanese in Tokyo. I always rooted for the Wolfman to gobble up the girls who roamed the misty parks in London. I understood the villain. I understand the problems the Boston Strangler faced. Was W. C. Fields a good guy? He was a philanderer, and he hated little kids! The most important thing about my whole life is to be the most different. I always had to do the opposite of what was expected. I refuse to be a blur that passes through everyone’s life. I refuse to be anonymous. The world must know I’m here. Maybe that’s megalomania, but I fear mediocrity more than death, and it’s my fear of mediocrity that made me do things differently than anything anyone ever expected.’

Barely three years before they sent a cold, sharp shiver down the spine of Mary Whitehouse, 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. ‘Creating the persona of Alice Cooper seemed to do the trick when it came to getting ourselves noticed,’ confirmed guitarist Michael Bruce. ‘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.’ 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.’

The Black Queen

Ostensibly five naïve youngsters who wanted to emulate their heroes, The Beatles, Alice Cooper was the brainchild of Vincent Furnier, an unimposing-yet-confident art student who would undergo a rebirth 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.’ The birth of Alice Cooper, both the band and the character, was a turning point in the lives of all five members, following independent releases under the less-inspired monikers Spiders and The Nazz. ‘We were sitting at the table, firing off ridiculous names. ‘Kissin’ the Pussycat,’ I said. ‘Frontal Lobotomy,’ Glen Buxton offered. ‘No Bottle in Front of Me?’ Everyone laughed, but Vince just calmly said, ‘Alice Cooper.’ Everyone stopped,’ recalled bassist Dennis Dunaway. ‘You could almost hear the tyres screeching.’

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,’ detailed Ezrin on the first time that he saw Alice Cooper. ‘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 the Ezrin-produced I’m Eighteen became an unexpected hit in the United States, climbing to number twenty-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. 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.

I’m Eighteen changed everything. Alice Cooper was no longer an outrageous novelty act, now they had conquered the mainstream. ‘Kids loved it. Alice, who wasn’t much older than eighteen himself, was speaking directly to the confusion and dissatisfaction a lot of young Americans were feeling in that era of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War,’ claimed their manager, Shep Gordon, in his autobiography They Call Me Supermensch. ‘It wasn’t specifically an anti-war or anti-draft song, but a lot of people, adults and kids, heard that in it.’ As the exposure of their teenage anthem brought them a modicum of success and respectability, their shows – which had always pushed the boundaries of taste – became even more extreme. ‘Our shows were now rising in intensity,’ explained Dunaway in Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! ‘We had the power to shake the crowds, and we did. The electric chair we’d built fit on top of our station wagon, but now it was time to up the ante to a big hanging scene, complete with gallows and thunder. We could afford a bigger truck now, so it was time to put that scene in our show.’

While I’m Eighteen would fail to chart outside of the United States and Canada, the newfound notoriety that Alice Cooper were enjoying was further exploited with several dates in the United Kingdom, and from the moment Cooper stepped foot on English soil he provoked protests from politicians and the tabloids. ‘By the time we did the last European show at The Rainbow Theatre in London, the press was uniformly outraged and in love with us. The British, in particular, loved us because they had had a wonderful dry sense of human, and we were naughty enough to make them want to chuckle,’ laughed Cooper. ‘Two short years later, the BBC asked me to do an anti-drug commercial for them. That’s how much of a clean-cut hero I had become. I sent them a tape in which I said, ‘If I ever catch any of you kids doing drugs, I’ll personally come to your homes and slit your puppies’ throats.’ Despite the controversy that their first tour of England had caused, eight months later they were invited back to London to appear on a popular, youth-oriented music programme, thus exposing the monster of Alice Cooper to the rest of the country.

Top of the Pops

‘Yesterday, I arranged to have delivered to your office a copy of the record School’s Out, now being played by Radio One and Two, and on BBC’s Top of the Pops,’ wrote Mary Whitehouse in a letter that accompanied a package addressed to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which arrived at their Westminster office in the summer of 1972, three weeks before Alice Cooper performed to an enraged Whitehouse, a moment that set off a series of events that would send Cooper to the top of the British charts. ‘You will also, I trust, have received a telegram from me requesting that you take action [against] the BBC for playing this record on their programmes. You will hear that the lyric contains the following chorus: ‘Got no principle (sic), got no innocence. School’s out for the summer, school’s out forever. School’s been blown to pieces. No more books, no more teachers.’ In our view, this record is subversive. I hope you agree and will take the appropriate action. It could also amount to an incitement to violence.’ One can only imagine what Sir Norman Skelhorn, who had served as the Director of Public Prosecutions since 1964, would have thought when he opened the package from Whitehouse in the last week of June 1972. But in the eight years he had been appointed to this position he received regular correspondents from the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. And the BBC had long been their main bone of contention.

‘Welcome to 1 January, 1964. It’s 6:34pm, and it’s a programme that you’ve never heard of before,’ announced the presenter, Jimmy Saville, on the day that the BBC unveiled their new music show to the country. ‘It’s called Top of the Pops, and there’s the charts.’ Moments later, the silence was pierced with the sound of The Rolling Stones as Mick Jagger crooned his way through their latest Top Twenty hit I Wanna Be Your Man. Conceived as a rival to Ready, Steady, Go!, the popular ITV show that had launched the career of Cathy McGowan, Top of the Pops would feature a rotating roster of presenters introducing the latest hits from the most popular artists of the day. Initially broadcast from an old church two miles south of Manchester’s city centre, the show’s launch also marked appearances from Dusty Springfield, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and The Hollies. With the inclusion of a studio audience, this allowed teenagers the opportunity to see their favourite artists in person, and throughout the course of its forty-two-year run, it would boast some of the most celebrated acts of all time.

While considered an ambitious concept, the predictions of Top of the Pops were not promising, with many believing that the programme was destined to fail, and as a result it was only commissioned by the BBC for a total of six episodes, with an option to extend the contract should the show be a success. ‘We’d scour the city’s clubs looking for kids to be in the audience,’ recalled associate producer Kate Greer to The Guardian. ‘To get on the show, bands had to be in the Top Thirty and rising up the charts. Pluggers would bug me like crazy to get their acts on. It was like a big party sometimes, with so many people crammed into the control room that the caption scanner, which rolled the opening credits, would get stuck. At first, stars mimed along to their own songs, but then the Musicians’ Union objected, saying this was doing people out of a job. So the BBC struck a deal whereby acts could mime over a new backing track, recorded with the cream of London session musicians, or an orchestra. That aside, the first shows were live. If there was a mistake, the whole country saw it. For one act – I think it was Wilson Pickett – the lights didn’t come on, and he was left standing there miming in the dark.’

Top of the Pops made its debut at the height of Beatlemania and was an instant success, with viewers tuning in every Thursday to watch the latest hits performed by their favourite artists. But as the show gained popularity, producers at the BBC decided to relocate production to the country’s capital. ‘The reason the show came from Manchester was that, as today with its switch to Salford, the BBC wanted to maximise its use of regional studios, and their Manchester personnel weren’t exactly over-extended,’ explained authors Patrick Humphries and Steve Blacknell in their retrospective. ‘Moving to London allowed for larger studios and more lavish sets. That meant bigger audiences, which could, of course, now be drawn from the trendy, and by then world-famous, streets of ‘Swinging London.’ Even when the show had come from the less-trendy north, the audience had always been an integral part of Top of the Pops as the acts who appeared on the show.’

Samantha Juste

It was no coincidence that Jimmy Saville had been tasked with presenting the very first episode of Top of the Pops. Johnnie Stewart, who had devised the concept, was inspired by Teen and Twenty Disc Club, a segment of Saville’s Radio Luxembourg, a station showcasing a similar format that Stewart wanted to adapt for television. While Saville would remain a regular host throughout the show’s history, other presenters recruited by the BBC included Peter Murray and ‘disc girl’ Samantha Juste. ‘I was the [Top of the Pops] disc maid. That was how my contract described me,’ she told author Ian Gittins. As The Independent would later detail, ‘For four years, Juste was employed to sit next to presenters Alan Freeman, David Jacobs, and Pete Murray, put singles on a turntable, and drop the needle on the record before acts such as The HolliesThe Searchers, or The Swinging Blue Jeans mimed to their latest hit, but her poise and presence made her a favourite with viewers, co-hosts, and performers, as she smiled, danced, and flirted with the live audience.’

By the end of the sixties, the studio at Lime Grove Studios that was reserved for Top of the Pops had been graced with such revered artists as The SupremesThe BeatlesFleetwood Mac, and Otis Redding, and any artist wishing for chart success in Great Britain were desperate to appear on the show. But its policy of artists miming their performances would anger many guests, and throughout its run this resulted in occasional acts of protest. ‘Them were never meant to be on Top of the Pops,’ mocked frontman Van Morrison. ‘I mean, miming? We used to laugh at that programme, think it was a joke.’ The show eventually changed this format, allowing artists the opportunity to perform live, but after decades of backing tracks providing flawless audio, the anarchy of authentic performances alienated some viewers. ‘With one key element of quality control now absent, something fundamental changed about Top of the Pops,’ criticised The Guardian in 2019. ‘Yes, the artists, God forbid, were beginning to take [Top of the Pops] seriously, and nobody wanted to see that.’

After forty-two years on air, the BBC finally brought Top of the Pops to an end with a performance by Snow Patrol on 30 July, 2006. YouTube had yet to dominate the music industry with its vast selection of live shows, and so the decision to pull the plug on a British institution was met with objection from many within the industry. ‘I think it’s a shame. I think it was defeatist to get rid of it,’ claimed Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant. ‘I don’t see why Top of the Pops isn’t on. It must be really strange to be a new artist. Like if JLS are number one on Sunday, they won’t have that great moment of being crowned that week’s Kings of Pop.’ Even a decade after its cancellation, many still mourned its passing. ‘Performing on the show was considered an honour, and pulled in just about every major player,’ noted a 2016 article published by the Official Charts. ‘Then there was the chart countdown at the end, which was always exciting. In fact, with [Top of the Pops], and its sort-of-rival CD:UK on ITV, there was a time when we were spoiled for choice when it came to music on TV.’

While Mary Whitehouse had previously targeted music shows for showcasing such offensive artists as Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and The Doors, by the dawn of the seventies her new target became Top of the Pops. Among the appearances that she would deem unacceptable were Chuck Berry’s rendition of My Ding-a-Ling and The Sweet. ‘Thank you for your letter, 13 January,’ wrote Ian Trethowan, the Head of BBC Radio, in response to complaints regarding The Sweet’s latest release. ‘Careful consideration has been given to Teenage Rampage, but we have not felt we would be justified in banning this record from the air. Nor do we feel it would have been right for us to have excluded the recent recording of Top of the Pops. As you will know, we are not deterred from placing a band on any record, however high it may be in the charts, or however popular the group associated with it. Bans in the past have been placed on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. However, in this cast, although I doubt if anyone would think the lyrics [are] particularly distinguished, they do not identify any target for ‘the revolution,’ and we believe that young people, while possibly enjoying the easy beat of the music, will be unaffected by the words, since they are totally empty in content – like all too much pop music.’ But long before Mary Whitehouse set her sights on Top of the Pops, she had waged a war against obscenity and its corruptive influence on the young, which began a decade before she ever heard the name Alice Cooper.

National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association

In the years since she had last stood before a classroom of impressionable minds the world had changed. When she bid farewell to teaching in order to start a family of her own the country was at war, with many young men overseas fighting the oppressive might of the Nazi empire. For the last sixteen years she had dedicated her life to raising her three sons, but as she returned to her old school in the autumn of 1957, teenagers had discovered rock ‘n’ roll, the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe, and the alienating message of Rebel Without a Cause. To Mary Whitehouse, who had turned forty-seven that summer, her students now appeared anxious, confused, and ill-prepared for the adolescence that awaited them. To play her part in their development, Whitehouse had opted to teach the fourth-year students Sex Education, but to her surprise her pupils began to question how they had observed sexuality through their television screen, and fearing that teenagers were being educated by TV to see sex as something trivial, and not a deeply personal moment between two loving adults, she felt compelled to act. And it was this moment of inspiration that would ignite a fire within this humble housewife, and would bring British television its greatest adversary.

Ever since television first began to invade the family home in the fifties, it became the primary source of information for the majority of children. Whether it is educational programmes, the news, or adult shows broadcast in the evening, whatever message the makers of media wish to convey is absorbed by their young audience. and this was the greatest concern for Mary Whitehouse. ‘Television, as was to be expected, had the greatest power of all,’ she wrote in 1967’s Cleaning-Up TV: From Protest to Participation. ‘One of the abiding causes of my concern over television behaviour has been the lack of sensitivity and imagination on the part of those who direct and produce. I remember coming to school one morning to be met at the gate by a group of girls who had seen an episode of Dr. Kildare the night before, in which a young woman had been [shown] in labour. There were close-ups of her screams and agony, and in one fell swoop all that I had been telling them about how wonderful and challenging an experience it was to give birth to a child was wiped out. Most of the girls were quite sure that there would be no babies for them if they could help it. Of course, they would think differently about it later, and would perhaps come to enjoy having them, but I believe nevertheless that an insensitive and unimaginative approach to the viewing side of the screen can have a profound effect on the emotional approach that young people develop towards life and the situation it produces.’

Concerned for her students, Whitehouse reached out to Harman Grisewood, who worked alongside the Director-General at the BBC, followed by the Independent Television Authority, but to her dismay she was told that if she did not like what she was seeing then she should just ‘switch off.’ In response Whitehouse and other parents created a manifesto that detailed their issues with the media that the likes of the BBC were exposing to their children, and from there the Clean-Up TV campaign was born. ‘If you believe, as I certainly believe – and I believe that people who work in television believe it – that television is the most powerful medium – in fact, the BBC say this – the most powerful medium ever to affect the thinking behaviour of people,’ she told Jill Tweedie on Good Afternoon in 1973. ‘Why are children today knowing words of this kind, and having this level of language? You see, can I make this point, because I think it’s tremendously important? It doesn’t really matter what four letters make up one particular word. It isn’t what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is the level of our culture and our communication, and of the things that is now happening, which once again I think is so…sick, and rather frightening, is that instead of helping the young – and I was responsible for sex education, so I understand a little bit about this – to learn more mature ways of expressing sexual matters, and sexual interest. What is happening now is that adults are putting a real sense of respectability on the four-letter word syndrome, which adolescent boys have always written on lavatory walls.’

At the centre of the issue of censorship lies two significant counterpoints. The first is that the individual has the right to consume whatever media they wish, providing they are of an adult age and do not subject unwitting parties to participate. The other is that the more readily adult material becomes available, the more likely young children are to come into contact with it. ‘The linking of ‘censorship’ with the work of [the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association] remained the most effective counter-attack to our work,’ claimed Whitehouse in Who Does She Think She Is? ‘But now, I think, people are increasingly realising that it was – and is – the censorship actually existing within broadcasting, which gives our work its continued impetus. We do not want to ‘brush things under the carpet’ – there is little, in our view, which cannot be discussed by the medium so long as programmes are ‘balanced’ and responsible. Our main objection to Up the Junction, for example, was that the programme amounted to propaganda for the Abortion Law Reform Bill, then before Parliament.’

Mary Whitehouse

In many ways it may have felt like a losing battle to challenge such conglomerates as the BBC and ITV in regards to the content that they broadcast, but Whitehouse remained determined to see a change in the depiction of sexuality in the mainstream media. ‘The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association was launched on 29 November, 1965, at a press conference in Fleet Street,’ she recalled in 1982. ‘It was to replace the Clean-Up TV campaign which had no organisation, but was simply a grassroots pressure group, by then so strong that our Parliament advisors felt we should reform into a properly constituted body. At its first meeting, it announced its intention of pressure for the setting up of a Viewers’ and Listeners’ Council. When I re-read the statement we issued at the time, I am struck by two things. First, how visionary and sound – or perhaps just plain commonsensical – our ideas were, and second, how naïve we were to imagine that amateurs like ourselves could ever have got such a revolutionary concept effectively established in the face of the antagonism of the hierarchy of the BBC and ITV, and of the broadcasters themselves.’

Throughout her long and arduous war against the broadcasters and publishers of what she considered irresponsible and at times pornographic material, many resulted in legal proceedings, that would end in a variety of ways. While she was forced to pay libel damages to the creator of Till Death Do Us Part in 1967, a decade later Whitehouse successfully filed a blasphemy case against The Gay News regarding the publication of a poem which depicted ‘a homosexual Centurion’s love for Christ and the crucifixion,’ reported the BBC. ‘After the jury gave their ten-to-two guilty verdict at the Old Bailey, Mrs. Whitehouse said, ‘I’m rejoicing because I saw the possibility of Our Lord being vilified. Now it’s been shown that it won’t be.’ The poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, by Professor James Kirkup, was distributed to the jury and reporters. However, the judge, Mr. Alan King-Hamilton, ordered that it could not be published. Prosecuting Counsel John Smyth told the court, ‘It may be said that this is a love poem – it is not, it is a poem about buggery.’ The defence argued that far from being ‘vile’ and perverted’ the poem glorified Christ by illustrating that all of mankind could love him.’

By the mid-seventies, the latest target of Whitehouse was Dr. Who. Created by Sydney Newman, the BBC’s Head of Drama, and nurtured through its early years by producer Vera Lambert, the show made its debut in November 1963, and through an ingenious twist in the story’s mythology, the lead role could be recast through the character’s ‘regeneration’ into another actor. Tom Baker had taken over as the fourth incarnation of the Doctor in 1974, and during his tenure the producers explored a variety of horror themes that brought fear to their younger viewers. Whitehouse would claim that the programme had increased a fear of spiders among fans of the show. ‘The BBC admit that they had done no research whatever into the effect of television programmes on children under five, and that this programme is really meant for the intelligent ten-year-old and over,’ claimed Whitehouse. ‘We intend to ask the BBC as a matter of urgency to finance independent research into the effect of Dr. Who on the under-fives and, in the meantime, ask them to switch the programme to 6:30pm.’

Arguably her most controversial crusade, however, wold be during the early eighties against what the tabloids would come to call ‘video nasties.’ Her concerns over the rising issue with home video, and the assortment of graphic horror and exploitation titles readily available on VHS and Betamax, were first revealed on 31 May, 1982, where she raised the fear that videotapes in the home could easily be viewed by children. ‘The ongoing controversy over video nasties figured prominently throughout 1983, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took a public stand against them,’ she wrote in Quite Contrary. ‘As part of our campaign against the sadistically violent and grossly obscene video nasties, which in some cases involved animals, as well as men, women, and children, in the spring of 1983 we wrote to every MP (over six-hundred), pointing out the inadequacy of the current film classification system, calling for new legislation, and pointing out that even liberal Sweden had now introduced it.’ But long before home video almost brought the film industry to its knees, Mary Whitehouse had witnessed another nasty on her television screen: Alice Cooper.

Michael Bruce,Glen Buxton, and Alice Cooper

‘Success happened almost brutally, with a suddenness that sucked me into it without a moment of preparation,’ confessed Alice Cooper in 1975. ‘It was like somebody had grabbed me by the shoulder and started shaking me, but the shaking wouldn’t stop. Maybe there isn’t any kind of preparation, no way to brace yourself. Once it starts happening, everything goes so quickly you’re too stunned to stop and think.’ 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 forever defined Alice Cooper. But all this would change in 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,’ he later boasted. ‘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.

‘The opening riff of School’s Out was written by Glen. Probably his most notable contribution. Although funnily enough, when Guitar Player magazine voted on the best guitar riff of the past twenty years, Glen got it, but not for School’s Out, but for I’m Eighteen,’ noted Michael Bruce in No More Mr. Nice Guy. ‘Anyway, I worked on the middle section with the piano, the ‘no more pencils, no more rules’ bit. Originally, only Alice and I got writing credits for that song. Somehow Neal [Smith; drummer] got BMI to add him, Dennis, and Glen to the credits later. But that really wasn’t the case at all…In fact, on the School’s Out album, I was not credited for writing most of the songs, like I had been on the previous two records. I didn’t even get credit for Looney Tune, which I should have. I wanted the rest of the band to share in it. Now that I come to think about it, not exactly the smartest move, financially, on my part. But this was my way of keeping the peace in the band at that time. I really think in a lot of ways the songwriting credits were all wrong. I mean, Dennis wrote a lot of stuff, yet some songs Dennis should have got credit on he didn’t, and on some things he did get credit he shouldn’t have. Same with Alice.’

School’s Out was an expertly crafted radio-friendly rock ‘n’ roll anthem, one which was pieced together methodically with the intention of breaking into the mainstream. ‘Since Under My Wheels hadn’t struck the chord with teens that I’m Eighteen had, we were determined to come up with something that would happen,’ recalled Dennis Dunaway. ‘And once again, that special kind of song was guided by Michael’s songwriting savvy. ‘Okay, what are the lyrics going to be?’ Ezrin said, taking a seat on the carpet. He wrote the title School’s Out at the top of a blank page. Alice rolled off a beanbag chair, jumped up, and hollered, ‘Nothing goes overlooked by Inspector Clouseau!’ This was the first time we all felt certain that a particular song would be the single. We had worked out the music, but we wanted to perfect the lyrics. The first verse and the pre-chorus fell easily into place. So did the first chorus. But we hit a snag on the final line of verse two. True, the theme of the song called for sophomore lyrics, but even so, our five brains started spewing out some pretty dumb stuff. The harder we thought, the dumber the stuff was.’

The song may have been designed from the ground up to be a hit single, but it was important that it remained true to the spirit of Alice Cooper. ‘School’s Out was pure punk, but as catchy as pop,’ mused Cooper in his second memoir, Golf Monster. ‘We added a rhythm at the bottom of the song that was a cross between [Maurice] Ravel’s Bolero, and [Jeff] Beck’s Bolero. The whole band wrote it together. I penned the lyrics, and once again, Bob Ezrin was there directing us and egging us on. He added in the children’s voices, a trick he would repeat a few years later when he produced Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.’ Unlike most of Alice Cooper’s repertoire, School’s Out was very much a collaboration between all five members. ‘A genuine five-way songwriting collaboration,’ said Neal Smith proudly. ‘Glen’s immortal intro riff, Michael’s chords and melodies, Dennis’ bass weaving the song together over a drum bottom/Bolero chorus, finished off one of the best writing song lyrics in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The anthem of anthems for a generation!’

Shep Gordon and Alice Cooper

With School’s Out designed as the big hit of the summer, production of the song was as meticulously developed as the writing. ‘The Record Plant in New York City had as definite feeling. You could sense the air of music celebrity hanging on the walls. John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and many other great artists had recorded there,’ explained Dunaway. ‘We had some late nights ahead. Still, we were finding time now and then to run out and do some gigs. Having played School’s Out to the live crowds, we found the feel of it really energised. We dedicated one night in the studio to getting down the guitars on School’s Out. Michael and Glen already knew what they wanted. But when Glen was going for the lead break, the track was cluttered by the sound of rattling, clanking, and scraping noises. Finally, Bob ordered him to remove all his chains, jewellery, and chicken claws. With his voodoo accessories piled on a stool beside him, Glen was suddenly so quiet that it seemed as if he’d left the studio. He nailed the break…We had planned to bring in some kids to sing the ‘no more pencils’ section, and suddenly there was Bob’s son and his friends. They fit the bill perfectly and added the right touch of cynicism. We added a school bell on the end, and the song was ready to mix.’ And yet despite believing that they had crafted their signature tune, no one involved was prepared for the reaction that the song would receive upon its release.

‘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 adults. ‘I wanted to get all the parents in the world hating Alice Cooper,’ revealed their manager, Shep Gordon. ‘That’s how I came up with the idea of wrapping panties around the vinyl in the packaging of Alice’s next album, School’s Out. It started because I read a story about a big shipment of paper panties being confiscated by US Customs officials at the port of Baltimore, because they violated something called the Flammable Fabrics Act. That you couldn’t bring paper underwear into the country struck me as hysterical. Then, when we were designing the jacket for School’s Out, we decided it should look like an old-fashioned wooden school desk, the kind where the top flipped up and there was space underneath for your pencils and rulers and such. The album would go in there, and we were thinking about what to put in there with it – something a bad kid would have in his desk. Someone suggested a switchblade, but obviously we couldn’t do that. Someone else said bubble gum. I remembered the panties. What was the coolest thing a seventh-grade boy could be hiding in his desk? What if we wrapped paper panties around every copy of the LP that went out? Parents everywhere were sure to hate us.’

Although this would prove to be an ingenious marketing strategy, in reality it was a major challenge for the group. ‘The panties gave us the biggest headache,’ admitted Cooper. ‘US Customs seized five-hundred thousand of them on their way into the country, because they didn’t meet the guideposts of the Flammable Fabrics Act. Warner Bros. fenced for us, saying they weren’t panties at all, but packing material. The government told Shep, ‘You mean to say those freaky fans of his weren’t going to try these things on when mama isn’t looking?’ I said, ‘Okay, but who’s going to light a cigarette down there? If anybody is that hot, they should be wearing asbestos panties.’ Realising that they could antagonise adults even further with the concept, a show in July 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl 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. But all 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.

Top of the Pops

‘What made us begin in the first place?’ proposed Mary Whitehouse in 1993. ‘Homosexuality, prostitution, and sexual intercourse became the routine accompaniment of the evening mean, 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 published a book that detailed her mission to protect children from the corruptive influence of the media. ‘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. ‘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 drama, or reality.’

Whitehouse had begun her letter 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 Dr. 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 The 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. ‘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.’

Alice Cooper on Top of the Pops

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.’

The controversy surrounding both the School’s Out song and the accompanying marketing campaign would transform Alice Cooper into public enemy number one. ‘The School’s Out single was a perfect summer song released in a summer lacking in good hits, and became our biggest hit in the UK, reaching number one,’ stated Michael Bruce. ‘In England, there were now apparently armies of outraged parents who wanted us banned from even entering their shores. Obviously, the rumours about dismembered chickens and outrageous hanging stunts had preceded us. Despite these protests, our whole travelling glitz and kitsch extravaganza hit Wembley Arena, with not a chicken in sight, I might add. However, I do remember that we staged this great publicity stunt; I say we, but I for one was not consulted. It was typical of the type of business decisions that were beginning to be taken that we were unaware of. On the side of this large truck was a billboard of the famous picture of Alice naked, with the snake wrapped around him, from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. The day of the show, a driver was hired to stall the truck in downtown London during rush hour. The traffic was backed up for miles, and it made all the newspaper reports that evening; unbelievable publicity.’

Mary Whitehouse

School’s Out almost singlehandedly launched Alice Cooper into the mainstream, disgusting parents and enthralling teenagers all at once, and they would have an elderly, well-meaning lady in England called Mary Whitehouse to thank. Alice Cooper had become one of the most important artists of the decade. ‘I think we were an all-American band – violence, TV, the movies, the record industry – we kind of personified the good and bad about America. How someone could go from nothing and make it big,’ insisted guitarist Michael Bruce in his memoir No More Mr. Nice Guy. ‘By the School’s Out period, we felt we really had our finger on the pulse of what kids were into. For instance, the title song is the most common factor in juvenile life. And what moment of the school year does every kid look forward to? Summer – when school’s out. And ‘school’s out’ forever is the ultimate dream to a kid.’ In the liner notes to 1999’s The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper he added, ‘We intentionally pushed things over the edge, and really overly distorted many things on this, particularly some of the guitars. Then we made it extremely edgy and bright when we mastered it, so that when it comes on the radio it was always louder than anything else that was played right before it.’

Whitehouse was not the only one to target Alice Cooper for their supposedly corruptive influence, although she would remain the most outspoken. ‘There were still a few hard cats to convince in the crowd,’ recalled Cooper in 1975. ‘A fifty-six-year-old Labour MP, Leo Abse, moved it to the Secretary of the Foreign Office to have me banned from Britain. On the floor of Parliament, he said I was ‘peddling culture of the concentration camp and attempting to teach our children to find a destiny of hate, not love.’ The Royal Society for the Prevention for Cruelty to Animals even investigated me to find out ‘whether unnecessary suffering is caused to poultry by terrifying them.’ They tried to ban my songs from the radio, too, because the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association said I had a ‘known propensity to involve young people in hysteria and violence.’’

During a campaign that lasted thirty years, until her retirement in May 1995 at the age of eighty-one, Whitehouse succeeded in bringing about an array of changes in British Parliament, but as a result she also attracted resentment and ridicule from both those in the media and the consumers at home. There were those who questioned whether her message was sound, and if the industry should take her concerns more seriously. ‘If you constantly portray violence as normal on TV, you will help to create a violent society,’ she once claimed. ‘Thirty years ago, we were laughed to scorn, but now it is something which has been very widely accepted.’ Elsewhere she said, ‘I am convinced that the violence in our society has its roots in the violence we seen on television.’ This mentality has remained in this modern era of mass shootings, where the likes of Marilyn Manson and The Dark Knight Rides are blamed in the tabloids for influencing real-life violence. She was mocked and satirised for her puritanical views on sexuality and the depiction of violence in the media, but in the six decades since she began, in hindsight how close to the truth were her predications?

‘The very last thing I want to do is to impose my wishes and thoughts on anybody,’ she claimed. ‘I don’t think that to stand up and say what one feels puts an imposition on anybody.’ But following her death in 2001, her legacy was re-evaluated by both her former allies and adversaries. ‘Mary Whitehouse has been right about many things in the last fifteen or twenty years,’ said Daily Telegraph critic Richard Last. ‘But she was so narrow and obsessional and it has been virtually impossible for any average, respectable liberal to condemn the same things as she had done without being considered over the top or ‘one of the Whitehouse brigade.’’ Even the BBC, her most frequent target, offered their own thoughts following her passing. ‘Mary Whitehouse kept broadcasters on their toes with her feisty and dedicated campaigning style,’ they confessed in a statement. ‘She made sure the voices of many viewers were heard by the most influential broadcasting executives in the UK, and her contribution enlivened countless BBC programmes. She will be long remembered.’

Alice Cooper

‘The question now arises: do we have the right to expect government and law, while protecting the free flow of ideas, to establish sufficient control to ensure that society remains coherent and capable of resisting the pressures of that statistically minute group who are committed to its destruction?’ she wrote in Mightier Than the Sword. ‘I believe, profoundly, that we do. Censorship, effectively but sparingly used, is a liberal concept since it could serve to protect the lifestyle of the vast majority. The civil libertarians object to censorship on the grounds that no one has the right to interfere in the ‘private’ affairs of others. ‘Let a man go to hell in his own way,’ they say. But, whom do they take with them, and what rights do the victims have? – It goes without saying that this is no time to sit back and rest on our laurels.’

There is no denying that the protests of Whitehouse helped to transform Alice Cooper into a phenomenon. ‘We were bigger than ever,’ declared Cooper. ‘I strolled onstage wearing a top hat and cane, and kids started wearing top hats and make-up on the back streets of London. People actually wanted to look like Alice Cooper. British football hooligans dressed like us. We helped change the style and the look of rebellious kids all over the world. We influenced major cinematic pop culture works and major musical trends. For instance, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, frequently cites Alice Cooper as a major musical influence. In fact, when he auditioned to become the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, he did so by miming and gyrating (not singing!) to I’m Eighteen playing on a jukebox. John knew all the words to my songs. He used to sit on the couch at home in London’s Finsbury Park and listen to Alice Cooper records with his mother. John and Sid Vicious used to busk in the London tube stations, singing I Love the Dead.’

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.’


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