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‘People hate concept albums,’ explained 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,’ he continued.
‘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 American scene and those rock stars who had flourished during the previous decade had been forced to reevaluate their sound and attitude if they were to survive.
Cooper’s two previous albums, the Platinum-selling Trash and its modestly successful follow-up Hey Stoopid, had both produced a slew of hit singles, while also featuring contributions from musicians who were at the height of their popularity, from Jon Bon Jovi and Slash to Mötley Crüe‘s Nikki Sixx and Mick Mars. But three years had passed since his last offering, during which time Cooper had made appearances in the horror sequel Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and the comedy Wayne’s World, and once again Alice Cooper found himself having to move with the times and embrace the modern rock scene.
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 the character of Steven, a young boy plagued by horrifying dreams, and the success of the record had resulted in Cooper experimenting with other concepts throughout his career, with 1978’s From the Inside documenting his experiences while a resident at a sanitarium for alcohol addiction. And other albums from that era, such as Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, Lace and Whiskey and the often overlooked Dada, flirted with themes and loose story lines, The Last Temptation would mark Cooper’s first true concept album in almost two decades.
Much had been made in the press during the early 1990s over his newfound Christian faith, something which many critics felt conflicted with his shock-rock stage persona, yet his beliefs would play a significant role in the narrative of The Last Temptation. Ostensibly a morality play, Cooper explored such themes as desire, seduction, fear and, of course, temptation, once again using the innocent Steven as an alter ego, while a more explicit manifestation of Cooper would be represented through the character of the Showman, the story’s antagonist.
While Cooper was aware of the kind of story he wanted to tell he did not have a specific storyline in mind and so it was decided that the input of a professional writer would be required. Having long admired the comic series The Sandman, Cooper decided that co-creator Neil Gaiman, who had penned the stories, would be an ideal collaborator and so the author was contacted by Epic’s A&E executive Bob Pfeifer. Based in his native England, Gaiman was invited to Phoenix, 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 Marvel 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.’ During the meeting the two discussed the kind of narrative that would suit an Alice Cooper album that was centred around temptation.
Inspiration was drawn from a variety of sources, such as the Grand Guignol, a Parisian theatre that showcased elaborate macabre productions during the early years of the twentieth century, from scenes of horrific butchery to extreme sex and nudity. The German legend of Faust, in which a man sells his soul to the Devil in return for riches and delights, also served as a springboard, with the Showman attempting to seduce Steven into succumbing to his sideshow.
The other key inspiration was Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, which focused on a carnival that arrives in town shortly before Halloween to seduce the locals with the promise of delights beyond their wildest dreams. In much the same way as Welcome to My Nightmare, The Last Temptation would document the terrifying journey of Steven, although this time the events would not be a series of disturbing dreams but instead represented by the sinister and seemingly unstoppable Showman.
‘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. Then Nothing’s Free – come on in, but nothing’s free. There are things in the fine print,’ explained Cooper in an interview with Metal Edge when describing the narrative of the album. ‘Then Bad Place Alone, Lost in America, You’re My Temptation. These are all acts he’s seeing on stage. 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 the place down.’
Unlike Trash and Hey Stoopid, which had been produced by Desmond Child and Peter Collins, respectively, recording on The Last Temptation was handled by several different producers; Andy Wallace, known for his production for White Zombie and Sepultura, worked on Side Show, Stolen Prayer, Unholy War and Cleansed by Fire; Don Fleming would oversee the production of three songs, including the single Lost in America; while Duane Baron and John Purdell, the men behind Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, handled 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 collaborators would inclue Jim Vallance, best known as the long-time writing partner of Bryan Adams, and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who would also lend his vocal talents for the tracks Stolen Prayer and Unholy War.
‘When I finally wrote 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 on Love It to Death and Killer, but with Alice talking about morality,’ explained Cooper in his 2007 autobiography. ‘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.’
Both Trash and Hey Stoopid had been dominated by a slew of guest musicians, which included members of Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe, along with Ozzy Osbourne and guitar legends Joe Satriani and Slash. But with The Last Temptation, Cooper decided to work with the same small group of musicians throughout the album. Returning from his duties on Hey Stoopid was guitarist Stef Burns, while the bass was handled by Greg Smith, who had previously worked with Wendy O. Williams during the mid-1980s.
Keyboards were performed by Derek Sherinian who, following completion of the album, would join Dream Theater for the remainder of the decade. Burns, Smith and Sherinian had also made an appearance alongside Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World, in which they had been filmed in concert performing the Hey Stoopid track Feed My Frankenstein. The new member of Cooper’s band was David Uosikkinen, a founding member and drummer from the Hooters, who had enjoyed minor success with the singles And We Danced and Day By Day a few years earlier.
The most significant contribution to The Last Temptation came from Chris Cornell, the acclaimed frontman of Soundgarden. Having first cut their teeth on Seattle’s live circuit during the mid-1980s, Soundgarden early releases came via the cult labels Sub Pop and SST, before the band signed a contract with A&M for their major label debut Louder Than Love. Soundgarden would find commercial success over the next few years with the Platinum-selling Badmotorfinger and their most recent album, Superunknown. ‘When Chris came in with his songs, Unholy War was almost completed and he didn’t know what the concept was,’ Cooper told Raw.
‘I listened to the tape and said ‘That’s really good, and with just a little surgery, lyrically, I can make that work on this album…because we need something big and tough like this,’ he continued. ‘Stolen Prayer was a series of parts that was kind of scattered around. I heard a song there, but it wasn’t arranged. So when Chris and I put it together, we kept just editing it until it was a song. Finally, I said, ‘OK. Now it’s got a verse, chorus, bridge…’ and it ended up being my favourite song on the album!’
Recording sessions for The Last Temptation took place in four locations; Wallace oversaw production at Music Grinder Studios in Hollywood, the same building where Nuclear Assault and Motörhead had previously worked; Fleming worked with Cooper at Record One in Sherman Oaks; Baron and Purdell was based at Devonshire Studios in North Hollywood, where Butch Vig had mixed Nirvana‘s Nevermind three years earlier. The final studio, where both Wallace and Fleming had also recorded, was the Sony Recording Studios in Santa Monica. Wallace handled the mixing of the album at Quantum Studios in Jersey City, New Jersey.
From the very beginning Cooper knew that he wanted The Last Temptation to expand across various mediums and not be restricted to merely the album. While he has often incorporated themes from his records into his theatrical stage shows, for his latest offering he wanted to expand the concept further than he ever had done before. ‘I wanted people to be really able to see what I had in mind, and short of ten expensive videos or an actual movie, this was the way to do it,’ he told Metal Hammer. ‘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 ideas down, and he actually helped a great deal with the songs themselves.’
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, the same fans who had launched his career over two decades earlier and had remained supportive throughout his success and personal downfall. He had been raised in a religious household and there had always been themes running throughout his work that touched on this, but The Last Temptation would be his most blatant comment on his Christian beliefs, although he had approached the subject with caution in order to avoid alienating his audience.
Christian metal had enjoyed its first Platinum record in the 1980s with To Hell with the Devil, the second album from Stryper. Their comments on faith in their songs was anything but subtle, with such titles as In God We Trust, and Cooper was conscious that this approach would not work for an artist such as Alice Cooper. ‘As a Christian, I don’t declare myself a ‘Christian rock star. I’m merely a rock star who’s a Christian,’ he later said. ‘To me, a Christian rock star is somebody who gets up onstage and sings praise music, preaching the gospel. Alice Cooper is still a guy who entertains the audience – he just happens to be a Christian.’
For the most part The Last Temptation was well-received by the music press, many of whom referenced Cooper’s earlier concept albums, specifically 1975’s masterpiece Welcome to My Nightmare. ‘Cooper has spun a dark, comic book story of temptation in its various manifestations that is also, at bottom, just a fine spin,’ stated Billboard’s 16 July review. ‘The Last Temptation, which boasts a Marvel comic book retail companion, mixes Cooper’s trademark rock and theatrics in fresh measures, with the former elbowing out the latter for prominence, most notably on the thumping numbers produced by Don Fleming.’
Chuck Eddy’s summary for Rolling Stone seemed less enthusiastic, awarding the album only three out of five. ‘Temptation is supposed to be a morality play about a bored hick-town teen being lured toward sex and drugs by an evil stranger; the Cornell songs come when the kid starts tangling with his conscience,’ commented Eddy, while also hailing it as Cooper’s most listenable since 1980’s Flush the Fashion, an album which the magazine’s David Fricke had also given a lukewarm review to fourteen years earlier. Eddy later stated that, ‘Alice gets a bit too melodramatic — just like his old music did, not long after I’m Eighteen and School’s Out.’
The Last Temptation remains one of the most overlooked and underrated albums of Alice Cooper’s long and prolific career. Perhaps due to the omission of radio friendly hits like Poison and Feed My Frankenstein, the record only reached number sixty-eight in the US charts, twenty-one spaces lower than its predecessor, although it fared better in the UK where it peaked at number six. Lost in America, the key single from the album, would gain some exposure due to its inclusion on an episode of the popular animated MTV series Beavis and Butt-head. ‘I tried to make this as dumb (and funny) as possible…kind of a tribute to Beavis and Butt-head,’ he explained in the liner notes to the retrospective box-set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper in 1999.
Following on from the phenomenal success of Trash and the impressive performance of its successor, Hey Stoopid, The Last Temptation faced a near-impossible task of meeting the expectations of both fans and critics. 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 admitted to Metal Hammer shortly before the album’s release. ‘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.’