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‘My main point when I go on stage is to entertain,’ claimed Alice Cooper in a 1978 interview while promoting his latest release, From the Inside, on British television. ‘I’m very un-political and I absolutely hate preaching. My whole force on stage I think is the fact that the audience knows that I’m not up there telling them anything.’ Even since his emergence in the late 1960s as the lead singer of his eponymous rock band, Cooper has seduced and disgusted his audiences in equal measures with a dazzling display of Grand Guignol-style executions, often culminating with his own on-stage decapitation.
Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Michigan in 1948, Cooper’s first step towards music was entering a talent show with a group of teammates under the name the Earwigs, its moniker a pun on the Beatles, who by that time had become the most popular band in the world. Soon renaming themselves the Spiders and eventually Alice Cooper, the band consisted of Furnier on vocals, Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce on guitars, Dennis Dunaway on bass and Neal Smith on drums. Their first two albums, released through Straight Records, failed to make a significant impact, despite their association with acclaimed musician Frank Zappa, but after joining forces with emerging producer Bob Ezrin, the group finally enjoyed their first taste of success with their 1971 classic Love it to Death.
Four further acclaimed albums would follow before the band split, although Cooper would opt to continue performing under his stage name, scoring major success with his 1975 masterpiece Welcome to My Nightmare. But with the success came the usual self-destructive patterns, as Cooper became more dependant on alcohol, resulting in a succession of disappointing albums. It would not be until the mid-1980s, when a newly-sober Cooper formed a partnership with guitarist Kane Roberts, that he would finally return to the American charts. But the pairing of Cooper and noted songwriter Desmond Child would result in the 1989 album Trash and the hit single Poison, one of the most recognised songs of his career.
‘We’re doing better tours now than we ever did,’ Cooper recently told The Huffington Post. Despite being in his mid-60s, Cooper remains as active as ever and even released his strongest album in decades two years ago, the highly-acclaimed Welcome 2 My Nightmare. Constantly touring the world, Cooper’s shows have retained the elaborate and often gruesome theatrics, while still surrounding himself with the cream of modern talent, including guitarist Orianthi (formerly with Michael Jackson) and drummer Glen Sobel, whose show-stopping moment during concerts has been on the 1971 classic Halo of lies. ‘When I was thirty, I was a mess. I was drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. I did shows that weren’t anywhere near as good as the shows I do now.’
LOVE IT TO DEATH (1971)
While 1970’s Easy Action had been an improvement on their debut, Alice Cooper’s sophomore album was still unsuccessful in both capturing the band’s theatrical stage show and somehow finding sophisticated songs underneath the noise. After a failed attempt to land the services of acclaimed producer Jack Richardson, they were introduced to his protégé, Bob Ezrin. Having yet to prove himself as a producer in his own right, Ezrin attended one of Alice Cooper’s shows and sensed that somewhere among all the chaos and insanity were a group of gifted songwriters who had yet to find their voice. After subjecting the musicians to months of gruelling practises, in which they worked closely with Ezrin in developing their own unique sound, Alice Cooper entered the studio to record their third album. ‘After we recorded Love it to Death in Chicago, we sat in the studio and listened to the album,’ explained Cooper in his autobiography Golf Monster. ‘It sounded like the first real Alice Cooper album.’
Love it to Death could proved to be a one-hit-wonder for Alice Cooper, following two early disappointments, yet their reputation would continue to grow with their fourth release, the appropriately-titled Killer. Released the same months as such heavyweights like Led Zeppelin IV and Elton John’s Madman Across the Water, Killer embraced the progressive rock sound of the era with arguably their most underrated track Halo of Flies which, at almost eight-and-a-half minutes, allowed each of the five members their own moment in the spotlight. ‘Killer is the best rock album ever made,’ stated John Lydon, who auditioned for the Sex Pistols by performing to Cooper’s I’m Eighteen on a jukebox. ‘Killer totally captured the imagination of the public and embodied everything we had been working toward up until then,’ said Cooper in his 1976 autobiography Me, Alice. ‘It was a moralistic, dramatic statement, a masterpiece of shock and revenge, the first dramatized rock and roll show with a story concept.’
BILLION DOLLAR BABIES (1973)
With 1972’s School’s Out having become an anti- authoritative anthem, adding further appeal to their young fan base, Alice Cooper took a satirical look at their new found celebrity status with their next album, Billion Dollar Babies. Having moved to Los Angeles just a few years earlier to find themselves homeless and sleeping wherever they were welcome, the band were now flying from one show to another in luxury jets and booking into five-star hotels. Teaming up with Ezrin for the fourth time, the album would include some of their most famous tunes, such as No More Mr. Nice Guy, Elected and the legendary title track. Billion Dollar Babies was littered with references to the new superstar status of the group and the media’s obsession with them, with Cooper snarling, ‘I’m your top prime meat, I’m your choice,’ before later declaring, ‘I got no friends ‘cause they read the papers, they can’t be seen with me.’
Following the release of the anticlimactic Muscle of Love in 1974, the Alice Cooper band faced a conflict of interests over their future. With the eponymous frontman hoping to expand the theatrics and outdo their already-outrageous back catalogue, while the remaining members wanted to return to their stripped-down roots, the group split so each artist could pursue their own solo ventures. For Alice Cooper, who was still bound to a contract to Warner Bros., a loophole that stipulated they could work with other labels on soundtracks prompted both Cooper and Bob Ezrin, his long-suffering producer, to develop a central concept for their next project. Welcome to My Nightmare, which was released through Atlantic Records the following year, was based around the story of a young child called Steven and his journey though a never-ending nightmare. In order to meet the requirements of a soundtrack, a TV special was produced in which each of the thirteen tracks was adapted into a short film, with horror legend Vincent Price reprising his appearance from the album. Welcome to My Nightmare took the concept of Alice Cooper to a new level, and the subsequent tour would become the star’s most elaborate and successful to date, while the ballad Only Women Bleed would introduce Cooper to a more respectable audience.
ALICE COOPER GOES TO HELL (1976)
While Alice Cooper had everything to prove with Welcome to My Nightmare, his first album after the demise of his band, its phenomenal success proved to be something of a double-edged sword. He had cemented his reputation as a bona fide rock star, while also enjoying regular airplay with Only Women Bleed, yet the never-ending tour that followed would take a considerable toll on Cooper’s physical and mental state. Perhaps as a blatant cry for help, he chose to name his next offering Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, as his excessive drinking and nonstop touring were sending the twenty-eight-year-old towards an early grave. Once again referencing the character of Steven, the album was developed under the direction of Bob Ezrin, whose influence had become an integral part of Cooper’s sound. While lyrically the album was less confessional than From the Inside, Cooper still bared his soul during some of the more sincere moments, stating on Guilty that he, ‘Just tried to have fun, raised hell and then some. I’m a dirt talking, beer drinking, woman chasing minister’s son.’
FROM THE INSIDE (1978)
During the mid-1970s, Cooper had become notorious for his heavy drinking, even being a founding member of the Hollywood Vampires, a group of celebrities whose indulgences sadly resulted in several premature deaths. Finding himself waking up and vomiting blood while touring his 1977 album Lace and Whiskey, his wife Sheryl and manager Shep Gordon staged an intervention, admitting Cooper into a sanitarium near New York. It would be during his time at the Corner Medical Center that Cooper would find inspiration for what was to become his most personal album to date, From the Inside. Written with drinking friend and Elton John’s regular collaborator Bernie Taupin, the songs that made up the record were mostly semi-autobiographical, with the title track a comment on how his partying soon took a dark turn, ‘At first we laughed about it, my long-haired drunken friends. Proposed a toast to Jimi’s ghost, I never dreamed that I would wind up on the losing end.’
It seems ironic that perhaps Alice Cooper’s most nightmarish and unpredictable album is also one of the few that both fans and Cooper himself often dismiss as being below par and even at times unlistenable. It is true that by this point Cooper had lost touch with his audience, having delivered two uninspired albums in a row, while his drink had once again taken over his life. Cooper has referred to this era as his ‘blackout years,’ due to that time being lost in a drunken haze. ‘My relapse put me back in the fog. As a result, I made four albums I hardly remember writing, recording or touring on,’ he confessed in Golf Monster. ‘You’ve heard of lost weekends – well, those were my lost years. I ambled through those albums and tours in a foggy haze.’ Cooper had retained a certain pop sensibility and sense of humour in even his lesser work, but with DaDa there was a disturbing element at work in the background, although it was sugar-coated in a cynical wit. With Ezrin having been absent since 1977’s Lace and Whiskey, he tried hard to salvage Cooper’s fledging career, and while the result was in no way a true return to form, there is something underneath all the confusion that hints towards his earlier genius.
HEY STOOPID (1991)
Trash had provided Cooper with his biggest hit in over a decade and had introduced him to the mainstream once again, a new generation of rock and metal fans who had grown up on bands influenced by his style. Yet the production, courtesy of professional songwriter Desmond Child, was considered by some to be a little too bland and lacking in the aggression of its predecessor, Raise Your Fist and Yell. Once again adopted the idea of working with outside songwriters and a host of guest musicians who were the cream of the crop, 1991’s Hey Stoopid would build on the foundations of Trash, boasting several hit singles while also experimenting with different styles. ‘First of all, the album is a summer album,’ he told Hard and Heavy’s Jim Ladd in 1991. It was gonna be called Stay Stoopid, but then we wrote this song for the single; we realised that Sting was doing his best to save the Amazon, lots of people were saving whales and saving this and that. I thought it was a good idea to save some of the rockers, because we’re getting a lot of fan mail that says, ‘I’m fifteen, my dad is an alcoholic and my mom is a crack salesman and I’m ready to kill myself.”
THE LAST TEMPTATION (1994)
After the phenomenal success of his true comeback album Trash in 1989, followed by 1991’s Hey Stoopid, Alice Cooper wisely avoided working with professional songwriters in an effort to craft a collection of hit singles and instead returned to telling a central story, this time marking the return of Steven, who is seduced by the mysteries a travelling sideshow. Incorporating a style reminiscent of his 1970s output, while also working with such contemporary artists as Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Derek Sherinian of Dream Theater, The Last Temptation was Cooper’s most focused album for almost twenty years, not merely being an attempt to gain radio and MTV airplay and instead returning to his earlier attitude of producing a strong record with a clear concept. The concept for The Last Temptation was developed alongside Neil Gaiman, best known for creating the DC Comics series The Sandman, who would develop a three-part graphic novel to coincide with the album’s release.
‘I’m currently working on Welcome to My Nightmare Part II,’ claimed Cooper in a 1984 interview with Kerrang!, less than a year after his career had stalled following the poor reception to his unfocused-yet-underrated latest offering DaDa. ‘The Alice Cooper character reawakens ten years later after all this punk and new wave thing’s been here, all these odd-looking people, and this is his reaction.’ Instead, Cooper decided to embrace the hair metal scene of the mid-1980s with his successful comeback album Constrictor, although its accompanying tour would be referred to as The Nightmare Returns. It would take a further twenty-seven years before a true sequel to his solo debut would be released, yet Cooper would defy all expectations by delivering a worthy successor to his original masterpiece. Welcome 2 My Nightmare would not only reunite Cooper with his original band (minus Buxton, who sadly passed away in 1997), but also return to the character of Steven, the protagonist of the original Nightmare who has occasionally made an appearance in Cooper’s later work. His new nightmare would see Steven reluctantly falling asleep and travelling through a nightmarish landscape, only to discover that he has died.