‘People hate concept albums,’ claimed Alice Cooper in a 1994 interview with the Australian edition of Smash Hits, shortly before the release of his twentieth record The Last Temptation. ‘Usually bands write an album, twelve songs, they find one little strand that hooks the songs together and go, ‘We have a concept.’ But that’s not what a concept is. You have to come up with a story first. And then the comic book comes after that. A concept to me is like a multi-media project.’ The album was released in the summer of 1994, during a time when grunge had dominated the musical landscape and those rock stars who had flourished during the previous decade were forced to reevaluate their sound and attitude if they were to survive.
Cooper’s two most recent albums, the platinum-selling Trash and its modestly successful follow-up Hey Stoopid, had produced a slew of hit singles and saw the shock rock veteran joining forces with such new blood as Jon Bon Jovi and Slash. But three years had passed since his last offering, during which Cooper had appeared in the horror sequel Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and the comedy Wayne’s World and so once again he found himself having to move with the times and embrace the modern rock scene. On 10 September 1991 Nirvana released their major label debut Smells Like Teen Spirit and within just twelve short months the heavy metal of the eighties had become obsolete, with new bands like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam dominating the industry.
While Cooper had attempted to make a powerful statement against teenage suicide with the title track to his 1991 album Hey Stoopid, in the decade since his comeback his songs had rarely carried a message and with the carefree attitude of hair metal a thing of the past, he saw the nineties as an opportunity to express both his religious and moral beliefs in his music without resorting to preaching. ‘When you’re heavily into what you’re trying to say with a lyric it’s very hard to just turn it off,’ he told Metal Hammer. ‘If the lyrics are any good at all then it has you emotionally involved. For a long time lyrics just didn’t matter in rock ‘n’ roll, they were just sounds to go with the guitar and the bass and the drums.’
A young boy plagued by terrifying dreams
The Last Temptation was not Cooper’s first foray into the realm of the concept album but it was certainly his most unique. His first solo album, Welcome to My Nightmare, had introduced fans to his innocent alter-ego Steven, a young boy plagued by terrifying dreams and the success of this record had prompted Cooper to return to other concepts throughout his career, with 1978’s From the Inside documenting his experiences while a resident at a sanitarium for alcohol addiction. And while other albums from that era, such as Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, Lace and Whiskey and the often-neglected DaDa, flirted with various themes and loose storylines, The Last Temptation would mark Cooper’s first true concept album in over a decade.
‘By the tenth interview for an album I have usually focused on it in a way that makes it more understandable to myself,’ he would admit to Heavy Mental on how the concept for an album can be developed retrospectively. ‘It’s almost like going to the psychiatrist. You talk about it and suddenly, ‘That’s a great idea, I didn’t think of that when I wrote it.’ Many times I believe that you write subconsciously.’ In a separate interview he would elaborate further, ‘I won’t do a concept without a beginning and an end, a hero and a villain and an unbelievable situation. This one was either going to be a movie script or an album. The basic theme is temptation. We all experience temptation every day.’
Much had been made in the press during the early nineties over Cooper’s newfound Christian faith, something which many critics felt contradicted his stage persona, yet his beliefs would play a significant role in the narrative of The Last Temptation. Ostensibly a tale of morality, Cooper explored such themes as desire, seduction, fear and the loss of innocence, once again using Steven as his naïve protagonist, while a more explicit manifestation of Alice Cooper was represented through the character of the Showman, the villain of the story. While he was aware of the kind of story that he wanted to tell he did not have a specific story in mind and so it was decided that the input of a professional writer would be required.
Having admired the graphic novel The Sandman since its initial publication several years earlier, Cooper decided that its co-creator Neil Gaiman, the writer responsible for bringing its weird and wonderful world to life, would be an ideal collaborator and so the author was contacted by Epic’s A&R executive Bob Pfeifer, Cooper’s closest ally at his record label. Based in his native England, Gaiman was invited to Phoenix in Arizona where Pfeifer had arranged a meeting with Cooper. ‘My head swam with snakes and swords, top hats and black-rimmed eyes,’ admitted Gaiman to Marval Age. ‘Alice sometimes talked about Alice Cooper in the third person. ‘Alice wouldn’t do that,’ he explained. I found this very comfortable: Alice Cooper the person is his own affair, Alice Cooper the character is something else again. He’s larger than life.’
First published in the late eighties at a time when gothic comics were gaining cult audiences, resulting in the equally-acclaimed series The Crow, The Sandman was a surreal and multi-layered creation that told of a being known as Dream, who is the personification of dreams and fantasies, that can change its form at will. Captured by an ancient cult and remaining imprisoned for decades, the eponymous dream weaver eventually escapes into contemporary society and attempts to resurrect his realm after seventy years of neglect. Despite its often-complicated narrative, The Sandman soon gained a loyal following and by the time that Gaiman was introduced to Alice Cooper it had already become one of the most respected comic titles in the world.
‘It’s really a morality play,’ declared Cooper to Kerrang! And this was no understatement, with its creators drawing inspiration from the German legend of Faust as the story’s central theme. The tale, in which a man indulges in all manner of earthly delights in exchange for his soul, has influenced pop culture throughout the years, from the myth surrounding blues guitarist Robert Johnson to the literary works of Clive Barker. ‘It’s a vaudeville show that’s in town and it attracts young people to it, but not exactly selling what it looks like it’s selling. When you see the comic book you’ll see the Showman, who’s like the tempter, is the old Alice; with the top hat and the make-up and everything. And the kid that he tempts into the show is just the normal, average kid from middle America, of course, whose name is Steven.’
With another clear inspiration being Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, the tale of The Last Temptation opens with a small group of friends aimlessly wandering through town as they share urban legend stories before stumbling upon an old theatre with a billboard proclaiming that the Theatre of the Real is in town, a mysterious and macabre show in the spirit of the legendary Grand Guignol. The sinister Showman greets them at the door and offers only one of them the chance to enjoy the wonders contained within and with the friends bullying the weakest of the group, Steven, the ominous stranger ushers him inside. Making his way into the empty auditorium as the performance commences, Steven suddenly finds himself on a derelict street in a dangerous part of town occupied by an array of resurrected corpses, only to return to the theatre where the Showman offers the promise of everlasting youth.
Scenes of horrific brutality
Much of what is perceived today as horror can be traced back the aforementioned Grand Guignol, a Parisian theatre that showcased elaborate productions during the early years of the twentieth century, from scenes of horrific brutality to extreme sex and nudity. But the real-life horrors of the Second World War caused its popularity to wane and by the dawn of the sixties it had become nothing more than a memory. Yet in the decades that followed many artists drew inspiration from its shocking legacy, from the gruesome motion pictures of Herschell Gordon Lewis to the graphic stage shows of Alice Cooper which, since emerging less than a decade after the doors of the Grand Guignol had closed for the final time, had regularly featured the rock star being decapitated by a guillotine in front of horrified audiences.
In much the same way as Welcome to My Nightmare, The Last Temptation would document the terrifying journey of Steven, serving as a conduit with which the listener can experience his nightmares. ‘When the story was all written I said, ‘I need a song that opens up, that gives the kid’s point-of-view.’ That’s Sideshow, the opening song,’ explained Cooper to Metal Edge when describing the narrative of the album. ‘Then Nothing’s Free. ‘Come on in, nothing’s free.’ There are things in the fine print. Then Bad Place Alone, Lost in America, You’re My Temptation. These are all acts he’s seeing onstage. Stolen Prayer is when he leaves the place and goes, ‘What do I do? Do I join or not? It looks like fun but I better not.’ Unholy War is the battle going on, ‘I’m going up against this guy.’ Then he goes to bed and has this dream with the angel, that’s It’s Me. And he has this idea that the Showman is under his bed in Lullaby. Then he says, ‘That’s it, I’m gonna burn this place down.”
Unlike Trash and Hey Stoopid, which had been produced by Desmond Child and Peter Collins, respectively, the sessions for The Last Temptation would be overseen by several producers; Andy Wallace, known for his work with White Zombie and Sepultura, was responsible for Sideshow, Stolen Prayer, Unholy War and Cleansed by Fire; Don Fleming handled production on three songs, including the single Lost in America; while Duane Baron and John Purcell, the men behind Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, produced the remaining three tracks. While the concept and accompanying graphic novel were written with Gaiman, the songs themselves were composed with the help of several key players, specifically Dan Wexler and Bud Saylor, who would contribute to the writing of four of the ten songs. Other participants included Bryan Adams’ writing partner Jim Vallance and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who would also lend his vocal talents to the tracks Stolen Prayer and Unholy War.
‘When I finally wrote The Last Temptation I saw a way of doing something clever, making a rock record that was as good as any rock record I’d ever made, with songs that rock like Love It to Death and Killer, but with Alice talking about morality,’ he detailed in his 2007 autobiography Golf Monster. ‘For people who aren’t paying close attention to the lyrics, they’ll give the album a thumbs-up when normally they might not be into religious music. It’s one of the best records I’ve ever made. Sure, I was walking on thin ice using Alice as the medium but I felt like I was being guided through the process. I feel to this day whenever I go on stage I can have a dark and satirical sense of humour about what’s going on in my world.’
While his last two albums had been dominated by a revolving door of celebrity guests, including members of Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe, with The Last Temptation Cooper decided to work with a core group of musicians. Returning from his duties on Hey Stoopid was guitarist Jeff Burns, while other contributions would come from bassist Greg Smith, keyboardist Derek Sherinian and drummer David Uosikkinen. While drums on its predecessor were performed by Mickey Curry, during the subsequent tour this was handled by Eric Singer but by the time that Cooper commenced work on the album Singer had been invited to join KISS, initially as a session musician on the single God Gave Rock and Roll to You II before eventually replacing Eric Carr, who had sadly succumbed to cancer in November 1991.
For Cooper, in some ways The Last Temptation represented a return to the sound of the seventies, capturing the hard rock style of his vintage era before he was forced to embrace the hair metal scene of the eighties. ‘Alice has five or six voices, five or six different styles,’ he told Raw. ‘You go back and listen to twenty or twenty-five albums and Only Women Bleed is so different to Under My Wheels, Ballad of Dwight Fry, We’re So Crazy and all the other obscure things. So we picked out five or six voices and wrote two songs a piece towards those voices. So we have a high production number like Cleansed by Fire, while Sideshow, with that clear pop voice, reminds me of No More Mr. Nice Guy. Under My Wheels reminds me of Lost in America and songs like Bad Place Alone and Nothing’s Free remind me of Desperado. Then you have Stolen Prayer, which has a whole new sound to it, almost Johnny Cash.’
Ten expensive videos or an actual movie
From the very beginning Cooper knew that he wanted The Last Temptation to expand across various mediums and not merely be restricted to an album. While he has often incorporated themes from his records into his theatrical stage shows, for his new album he hoped to expand the concept even further. ‘I wanted people to really be able to see what I had in mind, ten expensive videos or an actual movie, that was the way to do it,’ he explained. ‘Neil did a spectacular job. He filled in all the holes in my storyline. I brought him in as soon as I had the basic videos down and he actually helped a great deal with the songs themselves.’ Elsewhere he added, ‘You really only have so much time to tell the story and it does need a comic book to fill in a lot of the holes.’
The Last Temptation may have been a morality play, inspired by his strong religious beliefs, but Cooper had no intention of preaching to his fan base. He had been raised in a religious household and even when struggling with alcoholism during the early eighties he had never betrayed his upbringing, but The Last Temptation would be his most blatant comment on faith. Christian metal had enjoyed its first platinum-selling success in the mid-eighties with To Hell with the Devil, the second album from Stryper, but their comments on faith in their music had been anything but subtle. Cooper was conscious that this approach would not work for an artist such as himself and so approached these themes with caution.
‘As a Christian I don’t declare myself a ‘Christian rock star.’ I’m merely a rock star who’s a Christian,’ he insisted. ‘To me, a Christian rock star is somebody who gets up onstage and sings praise music, preaching the gospel. Alice Cooper is still guy who entertains the audience, he just happens to be a Christian.’ As he would later explain in his memoir, ‘I knew I’d lose some fans for a while, but I put it to Step (Gordon; manager) like this: ‘When have you and I ever avoided controversy? What made us? Controversy! What could be more controversial than this?’ Ultimately, becoming a Christian became the most rebellious and risky thing I’ve ever done. I was now rebelling against the very business that had invented me and that’s true rebellion. Who’s the biggest rebel to ever live? Jesus Christ.’
The Last Temptation remains one of the most underrated albums of Alice Cooper’s long and prolific career. Perhaps due to the omission of radio friendly hits like Poison or Feed My Frankenstein, the record only reached number sixty-eight in the US charts, twenty-one spaces lower than its predecessor, although it would fare better in the UK where it peaked at number six. Intelligent, complex and refusing to repeat the formula that had served him well a few years earlier, the album is one of the bravest and most accomplished of his career. ‘Trash and Hey Stoopid were commercial successes, but this is a much better record,’ he told Metal Hammer. ‘There was a real inspiration to write this record. I don’t know where it came from but I knew that I just couldn’t write another album of pointless rock ‘n’ roll songs for teenagers making out in the back of a car.’