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Skeletons in the Closet – Alice Cooper’s Blackout Years

In February 1975 Alice Cooper released his first solo album, the appropriately-titled Welcome to My Nightmare. The record, which had followed the collapse of his eponymous group, had received acclaim from fans and critics upon its release, not only for the quality of the music but the overall horror narrative that drove the concept. Due to its unexpected success, Cooper went out onto the road to promote his latest triumph but the demands of life on the road and the perils of rock ‘n’ roll excess soon began to take their toll on the twenty-eight year old performer.

Over the years Cooper had become a notorious drinker, an image that was at first perpetrated to the media as an aspect of the character of Alice, but soon the real-life Cooper had begun to suffer the negative effects of alcoholism. ‘That was the tour that never ended and the drinking just progressed to the point where I was actually getting nervous before I’d go on – I was afraid I was going to throw up onstage,’ confessed Cooper to Spin in 1989, while promoting the release of his latest record Trash. ‘I was a physical wreck. Every time I looked at the costume I would equate that with drinking. I’d look at the costume, look at the makeup and I’d get nauseous. It was a conditioned response to being Alice.’

By the time that he returned to the studio to record his sophomore effort Alice Cooper Goes to Hell he literally felt like that is exactly where he was heading. Once again reuniting with producer Bob Ezrin the album failed to achieve the same level or success as its predecessor, yet it would produce a modest hit single with the power ballad I Never Cry. But it would be during the subsequent tour that he would be forced to face just how self-destructive his lifestyle had become. Following the mediocre response to the Alice Cooper band’s first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action, Cooper was thrust into the media spotlight as a sort of rock ‘n’ roll antihero, with stage-shows often centred around a series of Grand Guignol-style mock executions, involving Cooper as both the violator and victim.

But the pressures of embracing this new character caused Cooper to overindulge in alcohol and by the time he had launched his own solo career he was struggling with his inner demons. Yet while Goes to Hell and his next release, the film noir-inspired Lace and Whiskey, had lacked the genius of his earlier work they marked the beginning of a slow artistic decline that would last almost a decade. But even as he struggled to tour America in support of his latest album, those close to him would attempt to stage an intervention. Shortly before Halloween 1977 Cooper’s wife, Sheryl, along with his manager Shep Gordon, arranged for him to be admitted to Cornell Medical Center in White Plains, New York.

‘At that point, committing myself was a simple act of self-preservation. I was physically dying. I never ate. I had a bad case of gastritis and was carrying around an extra fifteen pounds of straight alcohol,’ confessed Cooper to Trouser Press three years later. ‘It actually came to the point where it was either the bottle or me. One of us had to go. I had just returned from Mexico with Sheryl where we had been married by both our fathers; they’re both ministers. I knew that it was time. It was the acid test of our marriage. If we could go through that, we could make it through anything.’

After several weeks of recovery, as Cooper struggled with both his alcohol addiction and his dominating alter ego, he was finally discharged from care. His time at the hospital and the stories that his fellow patients shared would help to inspire his next album From the Inside, which focused on mental illness and the difficulties that Cooper himself had faced during his difficult rehabilitation. Marking his first solo album to be produced without the influence of Ezrin, Cooper teamed up with frequent Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin, with musical contributions from Toto’s Steve Lukather. For a short time, Cooper’s visit to Cornell had proved for the most part to be effective.

Prior to its release he was invited to make a celebrity appearance on the popular children’s TV show The Muppets, in which he treated viewers to renditions of his tracks Welcome to My Nightmare, You and Me and his signature tune School’s Out. Yet despite the positive reaction to his performance on the show Cooper soon relapsed and was back to his old ways, even after the premature death of his regular drinking friend Keith Moon in late 1978.

By the release of Flush the Fashion in April 1980, Cooper had attempted to adopt a new sound and image, taking his cue from the likes of Gary Numan by embracing new wave. ‘When we worked with Roy Thomas Baker he brought something entirely new to the board. I’d never liked working with keyboards, keyboards were not my favourite thing, we were a guitar band,’ explained Cooper to Dr Rock. ‘But we were also at that point in our career saying, ‘Look, I’m not gonna give up the hard side of Alice Cooper but I don’t mind experimenting as long as it’s got an edge to it.’ Clones was pretty sci-fi. I said ‘Okay, I’ll go with that.’ But it didn’t have that big production, it was more minimalist.’

Describing the album in another interview as ‘much harder, much more Cooperesque,’ Flush the Fashion was recorded with Baker in Los Angeles at Cherokee Recording Studios and was noticeable for embracing the rise of synthpop and new wave, most notably with the modest hit Clones (We’re All). Cooper’s first truly polarising record, some admired the singer’s willingness to move with the times to remain relevant, while others dismissed it as an unfocused mess. 

In his review for Rolling Stone David Fricke’s opinion fell somewhere in between, admitting that Cooper was wise to distance himself from his early ‘70s hard rock sound and experiment with electronica whilst creating some of his ‘feistiest songs in years’ but the album was too little too late. It would seem that after almost a decade of shocking audiences and parents around the world as the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll star Alice Cooper was in danger of becoming something far worse…irrelevant.

‘I’m focused right into the ’80s. I feel a whole new thing coming, music that’s fresh and alive and this LP is right in there. It’s a lot less slick and produced,’ Cooper told Rock Sound during the promotion of Flush the Fashion. ‘I knew exactly what I wanted. The concept was in the sound, a kind of cleanness. It really is just one band, all the way through. It’s functional. The title, for instance, came out of the sessions. I was trying to say, ‘Get rid of the crap,’ the fills and the overdubs, you know, flush the fashion.’

His exploration of new wave would continue through the recording sessions for his follow-up Special Forces, which once again saw Cooper recording in Hollywood. With little time to recover from touring and even as his first child entered the world, Cooper was struggling to keep a grip on reality as he created an album even less focused than the last. While a live rendition of earlier classic Generation Landslide may have been included to appease older fans, once again Cooper found himself with a critical and commercial failure. Yet despite this Cooper was still a force of nature onstage and the tour that would follow the album would prove that even as a new generation of rock stars were slowly dominating the spotlight the original shock-rocker was far from defeated.

‘I never had more fun on a tour in my life,’ Cooper told Hit Parader. ‘It’s hard now to go out if you think you’re still the champ. And I consider myself the champ. I’ve seen other groups that are supposed to be the big guys and I think, ‘Jeez, I could blow these guys off the stage.’ It doesn’t force me out, it forces Alice out. It’s been fifteen years for me and I really do love Holiday Inns. I could go to a Holiday Inn anytime and I’ll say, ‘Oh. what a drag’ and quietly I think, ‘Oh, gee, I really love this!’’

In recent years Cooper has claimed that he has little memory of the writing and recording of the songs that he produced during the early 1980s, an era he jokingly refers to as his ‘blackout albums.’ With the documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper revealing Cooper’s taste for freebasing during this time it is evident that the singer was not only facing an identity crisis with the changing musical landscape but that drugs and alcohol had finally become the primary indulgence in his life. 

Cooper’s self-destructive lifestyle and the toll that this had taken on both his physical and mental state came to the attention of the public during an appearance on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder in 1981. Gaunt and lacking the once-imposing stage presence that made him a household name, Cooper now looked somewhat erratic and worn, causing many of his close friends to worry about his wellbeing.

‘Cindy and I saw Alice’s 1981 appearance on Tom Snyder’s late night talk show and we almost screamed when we saw this tarted-up, cadaverous shell of a guy. Only distantly in that glittering wreck could we see our old buddy, that ol’ laugh riot Vince,’ explained former bassist Dennis Dunaway in his memoir. ‘When he moved on to freebasing it sucked out his life force. One day in the middle of all this in the early ’80s Cindy and I met with him in a hotel room in New York. We sat on the bed and talked. He’d run out of excuses. Now he was trying to find the courage to say what was so screamingly obvious. He said to us that he had to quit this stuff or die.’

Cooper’s commercial decline would continue with Zipper Catches Skin, an album that many saw as an improvement on its immediate predecessor but one that would fail to reignite his creative spark. Noted for its inclusion of I Am the Future, a track released to promote the exploitation flick Class of 1984, the record was Cooper’s attempt to create something more aggressive than his recent offerings, taking inspiration from the punk scene that had begun to dominate the industry in the late 1970s.

‘My latest album is totally kill. Real hardcore. The stuff that I do has always been a lot like that,’ he boasted to writer Toby Goldstein at the time. ‘In fact, I invented a couple of songs that were remakes of other songs, just for the purpose of attacking clichés. There are no clichés on this album and I did that for a specific reason. Rock and roll right now is jammed with clichés. The only really good writers that are coming out right now are whoever writes for the Pretenders or the Waitresses. You’re talking about some good lyrics there. I believe in lyrics. It’s a very important thing in this business.’

The downward spiral of Cooper’s creative and emotional collapse would culminate during the recording of 1983’s DaDa. Despite having finally relocated from the debauchery of Los Angeles to Phase One Studios in Toronto and working under the watchful eye of Bob Ezrin, the producer who had played a significant role in creating the sound of Alice Cooper a decade earlier, Cooper’s excessive appetite for drugs and alcohol had reached the point where it was only a matter of time before he became the next rock ‘n’ roll tragedy.

Once again composing alongside guitarist Dick Wagner, whose prior work with Cooper would include Welcome to My Nightmare and From the Inside, Dada would prove to be the artist’s most eclectic and nightmarish record to date. While less ‘avant-garde’ and more ‘under the influence,’ the album would include several of Cooper’s most underrated songs, including the patriotic satire I Love America and the bizarre title track. 

With Cooper later confessing to the Quiteus that, ‘I love the songs – I just don’t remember writing them. My subconscious was writing some pretty good tracks,’ at the time the singer was so consumed by his addictions that the recording sessions for the album would be little more than a blur in his cracked memory. The release of DaDa came and went to little fanfair and, determined to save both his career and his life, Cooper opted not to tour in support of the album and instead retreated from the world.

‘I have little recollection of even being in the studio for Zipper Catches Skin or DaDa, which might explain why they came out so strangely,’ he would explain to Classic Rock decades later. ‘I remember the day that I finally realised I had to get help. It was 1983 and I woke up in a hotel room. I’d been on a heavy drinking session the night before and when I came to the bathroom was full of blood – my blood. I looked at myself in the mirror and knew I was at the crossroads. Either I tried to sort out my problems or I was gonna die.’

With his wife filing for divorce and the very realisation that alcohol or cocaine was going to kill him Cooper finally accepted that he needed professional help and admitted himself into the Camelback Treatment Hospital in Arizona for a month of detox and recovery. Yet whereas his stay in Cornell had only proved to be a temporary solution this time Cooper found the strength to turn his back on the addictions that had begun to strip him of his health and instead focused on returning to society sober.

When Cooper re-emerged from hospital he found he no longer craved alcohol and had instead rediscovered his faith, having been raised the son of a minister. Without having to seek further assistance through therapy or support sessions he turned his attention from music to family life and replaced one addiction for another…golf. Spending time with his wife and young daughter, Cooper would relax watching splatter movies which, during the early 1980s, were in no short supply.

While he had made appearances in movies before, during this period of semi-retirement Cooper was approached by infamous Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso to appear in his latest picture Monster Dog. Filmed in Spain and featuring Cooper’s first original material since the release of DaDa, the movie allowed the singer to indulge in graphic special effects that would include his character being attacked by the eponymous beast. Before long he would receive an array of horror and exploitation scripts, all eager to capitalise on his shock rock reputation.

‘It didn’t have much of a plot. It was basically just an excuse to see how many people we could kill. There was so much blood flying around that cameramen ended up having to wear raincoats,’ he would tell Fangoria. ‘There was even a rumour going around that I was being considered for a part in Friday the 13th Part VI. I wouldn’t have done it. The Friday films are Jason’s vehicle. He’s the dominant force in those movies and should remain that way. But I’ve got to admit that Jason going up against Alice would be a real strange flick.’

During his absence from the world of rock ‘n’ roll the music scene shifted once again as the so-called hair metal bands began to dominate the airwaves, as the likes of Mötley Crüe and Ratt proved favourites among young metal fans. MTV had also become a prominent force, with music videos developing into complex and stylish performance pieces or short films. By the time of Cooper’s return in 1986 the teenagers whom the market catered for were not even aware of his existence. Thus, in some ways his comeback could allow him a clean slate.

Even as he was working on his own album, Cooper was invited by Twisted Sister to provide backing vocals for their latest track Be Chrool to Your Scuel. Cooper also made an appearance in its accompanying video, working with acclaimed music video director Marty Callner and special effects artist Tom Savini, known to horror fans for his work on both Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. While the video proved popular with fans, MTV took issue with its violent content and would ultimately remove it from their playlist.


But Cooper’s official comeback came in the late summer of 1986 with the release of He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), his first single in three years that would serve as his introduction to the new generation of metal fans. Recorded as a promotion for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the sixth instalment in Paramount’s popular-yet-critically reviled slasher franchise, the promotional video would feature franchise antagonist Jason Voorhees bursting out of a cinema screen and ripping his infamous hockey mask off, only to reveal Alice underneath. Despite featuring prominent synthesisers, the song proved to be a modest hit and received regular airplay on various music stations.

With his addictions behind him and a newfound determination to conquer the new metal scene Cooper’s return in the mid 1980s was almost as significant as his original arrival had been over a decade earlier, with kids once again indulging in his mixture of horror theatrics and rock ‘n’ roll, much to the displeasure of the establishment. ‘I think it was the attitude of the new Alice. He was not going to take no for an answer,’ claimed Cooper in 2011. ‘He was as stubborn as the press was, he was more stubborn than the audience. I built up this whole world. I had been number one, and this to me was like losing the championship and then coming back and fighting for the championship again.’

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