‘I feel kind of reborn,’ declared Alice Cooper to Rock Scene in 1987. This was no understatement as the previous year the legendary star had returned from a self-imposed exile to embrace the rising hair metal scene with his highly-publicised comeback album Constrictor. Once again indulging in his trademark make-up, something that much like KISS he had abandoned earlier in the decade, the thirty-eight-year-old soon found himself exposed to a new generation of young music lovers through MTV, a partnership with a horror icon and one of the most successful tours of his long and distinguished career.
‘I had my first official return show on 20 October 1986 in Santa Barbara. Before going on I walked around in a vicious circle in my hotel room for about five hours,’ he recalled in his autobiography Golf Monster. ‘My head was exploding with what ifs. What if I went out there and Alice didn’t show up? What if I’m dressed in all this black leather and I’m Don Knotts instead of Bela Lugosi? What if it’s over? I mean, really over? I honestly had no idea what was going to happen. I wouldn’t dare show my fear and weakness to the audience or opening bands. But backstage I was physically sick, worrying about getting through the first song.’
Just a few years earlier Cooper was struggling with the perils of rock ‘n’ roll success, with his wild lifestyle and heavy drinking resulting in a staged intervention that would see him institutionalised in a sanatorium. Understandably his music also began to suffer and while there were moments that echoed back to his former glories, the albums produced during this era would lack the focus and consistency of his commercial heyday. His last album, 1983’s DaDa, saw him reuniting with acclaimed producer Bob Ezrin, the man who had helped to develop the Alice Cooper sound a decade earlier on such classics as School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies, yet it was clear that he had lost his way and now lacked the danger that had made his seventies output so appealing.
I realised at that point that the old Alice was a whipping boy
And so Cooper finally decided to take a step back from the limelight to focus on both his health and family but over the next few years, as he tried to make peace with the monster he felt he had become, metal fans grew infatuated with a new generation of rock stars that offered something fresh and exciting to their younger audiences. It appeared that the nightmare was finally over. ‘I realised at that point that the old Alice was a whipping boy,’ he explained in an interview with Classic Rock twenty-five years later. ‘The old Alice that was sort of a hunched-over alcoholic, that represented all of the kids out there that felt that they were not part of the cool gang: they were the outcasts, I was their leader.’
During his time away from the stage Cooper found himself obsessed with watching the new wave of splatter movies that had begun to popular the shelves of videos stores across America. Following a similar tradition of Grand Guignol theatrics that had defined his stage show, Cooper’s steady diet of alcohol had been replaced by slasher movies and low budget creature features. His hiatus would be momentarily interrupted, however, when he was approached with the offer of making an appearance as a rock star in such a film. Monster Dog, a cheap gore flick from cult Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso, may have failed to make an impression among horror fans but it would allow Cooper to indulge in his love of performing and finally gave him the chance to star in the kind of movie that he had been renting on an almost-nightly basis.
While many years had passed since Cooper had last enjoyed a hit single and in that time he had begun to feel somewhat obsolete, his influence could be felt throughout the hair metal scene and so it was perhaps inevitable that he would be tempted out of retirement to collaborate with one of these rising groups. Twisted Sister had proudly worn their Alice Cooper inspiration on their sleeves through such recent MTV favourites as I Wanna Rock and We’re Not Gonna Take It, the latter feeling somewhat reminiscent of his 1975 classic Department of Youth and so when he was approached to perform a duet with frontman Dee Snider on their latest release Be Chrool to Your Scuel he was only too eager.
The accompanying promo video, which would co-star comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and special FX legend Tom Savini, would encounter controversy when it was banned by MTV due to its graphic content. Yet despite its lack of presence on television, his partnership with Twisted Sister was enough to convince him that rock and metal fans of the eighties were more than willing to embrace Alice Cooper. The collaboration would also introduce him to Savini who, through his work on the likes of Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, had become a star in his own right. ‘Tom and I had a lot of time to talk during the Twisted Sister video,’ he would tell Fangoria. ‘Tom and I talked about putting something together that would work for everybody in a big arena.’
With his contract through Warner Bros. having come to an end after over a decade of commercial success and failure, Cooper soon found himself being courted by the likes of Elektra and Island but would eventually sign with MCA, the label that represented such acclaimed artists as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Throughout his career Cooper had formed close creative partnerships with several producers and musicians and so if he was to reinvent Alice Cooper for the eighties then he would need to find someone with the right kind of sensibilities. While in New York he would make the acquaintance of a young guitarist called Kane Roberts who, at the time, was performing in a local group called Criminal Justice. ‘We shared a taste for loud rock ‘n’ roll and splatter movies,’ Cooper would claim, ‘and we have the same sense of humour.’
In a 1987 interview with critic Mary Anne Cassata, Cooper revealed that during the early stages of development for his comeback album the original intention was to create a long-awaited sequel to his masterpiece Welcome to My Nightmare. Under the advice of his new label Cooper and Roberts retreated to Maui in Hawaii to work on new material but finding little inspiration on the island they relocated to Kingston in New York where they would make themselves at home in the garage of drummer David Rosenberg, one of several musicians that would be brought onboard to participate in the sessions for what would ultimately become Constrictor.
Stan Lee is working with my manager right now. He just picked up something I was working on
Yet Cooper had intended for his comeback to be something truly spectacular and even while working on material for the album he would begin discussions with Marvel over the idea of developing a multi-media project. ‘Stan Lee is working with my manager right now. He just picked up something I was working on; it was going to be like The Magnificent Seven, only of heavy metal,’ he would reveal in a 1986 interview. ‘An album and stage show. Kane and I had written it and there was going to be guy from Mötley Crüe, a guy from this band on it and there was a whole storyline behind it. We’d written the whole thing, there was about twenty songs involved and Elektra were going to support it financially because the Crüe were involved.’
Despite all the hard work that would go into the ambitious project it would soon self-destruct following a fateful night in December 1984 when Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil lost control of his car while driving under the influence, a crash that would take the life of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle and cast a shadow over the future of both bands. With Mötley Crüe suddenly backing out Elektra would withdraw their support and with Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, one of several established artists also involved in the collaboration, losing an arm in another car accident, Cooper finally decided to turn his attention back to his own solo album.
Constrictor would once again mark a significant departure for Cooper, focusing less on the macabre that had come to define his earlier work and instead revelling in the hair metal shenanigans of the eighties. There were no longer songs like I Love the Dead, Cold Ethyl or Dead Babies; instead, Cooper and Roberts were offering such titles as Life and Death of the Party and The World Needs Guts. With Ezrin already balancing several projects Cooper would search further afield for a producer to oversee the recording sessions and, impressed with the work he had created with Ratt, eventually settled on Beau Hill.
The recording of Constrictor would take place at Atlantic Studios in New York under the guidance of Hill and his assistant Ira McLaughlin, whose prior work had included the David Bowie/Mick Jagger collaboration Dancing in the Street. While Roberts would be the key musical force behind the new direction, Cooper would also be joined by twenty-four-year-old bassist Kip Winger, a classically-trained musician who had previously worked with Hill on Kix‘s 1985 album Midnight Dynamite. Having to record on a restricted budget and schedule, Cooper was forced to abandon live drums and instead incorporate a drum machine, despite Rosenberg receiving credit on the album’s liner notes.
But if Alice Cooper was finally to return larger than life after almost a decade of critical and commercial disappointments he knew he needed a song that would resonate with his target audience, somehow tapping into a pop culture zeitgeist and launching him back into the mainstream. It would be ironic that the inspiration Cooper was searching for would come from the world of horror movies; a once-popular franchise that, much like Cooper, had found itself struggling to regain its former glory and was in desperate need of a resurrection.
Friday the 13th had been considered a stain on Paramount’s reputation ever since the release of the first movie in 1980, yet due to its overnight success and influence on American cinema, ushering in the short-lived slasher cycle of the early eighties, the studio had produced a sequel almost every year since. But following the disappointment of the fifth instalment, executives were determined to bring back the franchise’s centrepiece, Jason Voorhees, in a fresh and invigorating way. ‘In a way, the character of Alice Cooper and the character of Jason come from the same sort of weird place,’ he would explain. The decision to approach Cooper about contributing material to Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives fell to Frank Mancuso Jr., who had overseen the production of the sequels and in turn had the series to thank for the successful career he had since enjoyed. By this point very few songs had been released to promote a horror movie but with Cooper already synonymous with gore it would be a marriage of convenience.
Although the sessions for Constrictor would take place at Atlantic Studios with Hill, the recording of He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), the track that had been chosen to promote Jason Lives, would be overseen at Amigo Studios in Los Angeles with Michael Wagener, the man Cooper had entrusted to mix the record. Drafting in the services of Madonna writer Tom Kelly to add a pop sensibility, while the late Paul Delph would contribute the iconic keyboard melody, the track would stand out from the other material on the album and upon its release in October 1986 would prove to be a minor hit, effectively introducing Alice Cooper to the MTV generation.
While Constrictor would see Cooper offering some of his most accessible songs in years, the album would receive a mixed response from both fans and critics, with many criticising the shallow aspect of the lyrics and the bland production from Hill, yet regardless MCA remained supportive of their new client, with company head Irving Azoff declaring in an article with Billboard that Cooper was a living legend. ‘I felt we just tested the water with Constrictor,’ admitted Cooper the following year. ‘The Nightmare Returns was one of our most successful tours ever. I forgot how many millions of people we played for but to me it indicated that there is still a real hunger for Alice. I think the new album will nail down a lot of people.’
And no sooner had Cooper returned home from the tour he had already committed himself to recording a follow-up to Constructor and, once again collaborating with Roberts, the two attempted to write material that would explore darker themes and boast a heavier sound than its predecessor. While not a concept album of sorts, Raise Your Fist and Yell was most certainly a record of two halves, each of which would explore different themes; the first would prove rather topical for the mid-to-late eighties, while the latter would see Cooper return to the kind of macabre storytelling he had explored with Welcome to My Nightmare.
Less than two years earlier, on 19 September 1985, government officials and the moral committee PMRC gathered together at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to discuss the rise in obscene and dangerous material that had begun to infiltrate popular music. With a diverse selection of artists that included W.A.S.P., Cyndi Lauper and Black Sabbath making their way into a list of notorious titles that had been dubbed the filthy fifteen, several musicians included Twisted Sister‘s Snider and country star John Denver were called before the senate hearing in an attempt to defend the First Amendment. While Cooper would touch upon censorship and the consumer’s right to enjoy whatever music they wish with the likes of Give the Radio Back, it would be through the album’s opening track Freedom where this would be truly explored.
They say bands are trying to manipulate teenage minds…but kids know they’ve been manipulated all their lives
‘I think somebody had to say something back to these people,’ he would exclaim in the accompanying tour book. ‘They start out with the premise that kids in America are too stupid to know what they’re listening to and that’s really wrong. They say bands are trying to manipulate teenage minds…but kids know they’ve been manipulated all their lives by lots of things; including teachers, the media, their own parents and especially television. So we just have fun with it. Alice Cooper does not preach violence or devil worship but he does make fun of just about everything.’ In a magazine article published at the time of the album’s release he would add, ‘It’s just your basic rights anthem. Only, it’s a total rock one. Lyrically it makes a lot of sense and musically it kills: it’s a monster!’
The second half of Raise Your Fist and Yell would mark a thematic return-to-form for Alice Cooper as the closing three tracks would form a trilogy. Telling the story of an unnamed serial killer known alternatively as the Creeper or the Ripper who haunts his prey at night through the neon-drenched city streets, his eyes eventually settle on a beautiful young woman called Gail. With a regular indulgence in horror movies having warped his sense of reality, arguably a statement on the video nasty scandal that was simultaneously taking place in Britain at the same time as the PMRC witch-hunt, the antagonist of the narrative struggles to differentiate between his own perverse and violent fantasies and the real world around him, prompting him to repeatedly torture and butcher his female victims.
After eviscerating his latest obsession he buries her remains but soon becomes haunted by visions of blood that he in turn interprets in his fractured mind as being something beautiful like roses. ‘And then he sees this wedding dress and it’s got blood stains on it everywhere; but he doesn’t see blood stains, he sees roses,’ he explained. ‘This guy’s a romantic. He’s so crazy he looks at this blood and all he sees are roses. Roses on White Lace is the whole thing about him not knowing that it’s really blood. For him, he’s painted these lovely roses on this white dress. So he’s really a psycho.’
Benefitting from a heavier production sound, Raise Your Fist and Yell seemed less interested in embracing the mainstream and catering to teenage audiences, thus providing metal fans with Alice Cooper’s signature themes of rebellion and the darker side of the human psyche. With Winger once again fulfilling bass duties, the rhythm section this time would be completed with the help of a live drummer, courtesy of Ken Mary. The album would also be noted for Roberts’ more elaborate guitar playing. ‘I wanted him to have more room,’ revealed Cooper to Blast. ‘On Constrictor we had synthesised drums but this time we had Ken play all of the drum parts. Ken wasn’t with us when we recorded Constrictor so we tried the synthesised drums but they didn’t have nearly the kind of presence real drums have.’
1987 would be an important year for rock and heavy metal as it would boast an array of platinum-selling albums from such heavyweights as Aerosmith, Heart and Def Leppard, while other significant offerings would come from the likes of KISS, Whitesnake and newcomers Guns N’ Roses. The latter had served as Cooper’s opening act during his first show the previous October but over the eighteen months following the release of their debut album Appetite for Destruction they would become international superstars. The pressure on Cooper to delver an album that could rival both the veterans and new blood cast a shadow over the recording sessions and when it was released that September, barely a year after Constrictor had first marked the comeback of Alice Cooper, the reception it would receive would prove to be somewhat underwhelming.
Meanwhile, Jason Lives had proved that Cooper’s appeal went beyond the heavy metal scene and soon he was being inundated with offers from filmmakers to contribute to their movies, even allowing him the chance to return to the big screen with a homicidal turn in the latest picture from cult filmmaker John Carpenter, the supernatural slasher Prince of Darkness. ‘We ended up together at Wrestlemania III in Detroit this year. He was part of the match between Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and the Honkytonk Man. I was there as a loyal wrestling fan, which I’ve been for many years,’ explained Carpenter during the promotion of the horror flick. ‘One of my business partners, Shep Gordon, is Alice’s manager, so I was able to get backstage passes. I hung out with Alice and the wrestlers. It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life. There was a big party afterwards and we chatted and became friends. I had thought of Alice as being an outrageous heavy metal rock star but he’s really a normal, wonderful person. He’s such a great guy that I decided to cast him.’
I don’t want to start dissecting which mistakes happened, where and when
Although Cooper had felt reinvigorated following the experience of recording both Constrictor and Raise Your Fist and Yell, his career had failed to be revived in the same kind of phenomenal way that Aerosmith had recently enjoyed, following their signing to a new label and despite another successful tour in support of his latest release, in truth he had begun to feel disappointed with his current situation. ‘I don’t want to slag off MCA, they have product areas that they manage really well, the sad thing is that heavy metal and hard rock aren’t one of the company’s strengths,’ he would claim two years later. ‘I don’t want to start dissecting which mistakes happened, where and when; the truth is simply that we just couldn’t work together particularly well anymore.’
By the time that the tour in support of Raise Your Fist and Yell concluded in May 1988 Cooper was exhausted and so decided to take some much-needed time away from the industry to relax in Hawaii. While he contemplated his next move he received a visit from Bob Pfeifer, an executive at Epic Records who was determined to relaunch Cooper’s career. With a lucrative offer which would allow the singer full creative control without fear of budgetary restrictions, the proposition would be too tempting to resist and so he parted ways with MCA to join the roster at Epic which, in the eighties, would include Europe and Ozzy Osbourne.
The two previous albums had seen Cooper collaborating with Roberts on a host of heavy metal-inspired songs but for his latest project he knew that his music would require some kind of commercial appeal and so began to search for the ideal candidate. This inspiration would come one day during a drive when Aerosmith‘s latest single Dude (Looks Like a Lady) began to play on the radio. Immediately mesmerised by its catchy melody and radio-friendly chorus he knew that he had found the perfect songwriter and so sent his assistant Brian Nelson out to find the name of the man responsible. Soon afterwards he would receive the answer: Desmond Child.
Born John Barrett in Gainesville, Florida, Child had received his professional name from his high school sweetheart with whom he had formed the short-lived duo Nightchild. His next project would be Desmond Child and Rogue in the late seventies before landing his writing breakthrough when he co-wrote I Was Made for Lovin’ You with KISS, a track that would send the group high up the Billboard charts. But it would not be until he was recruited to launch Bon Jovi to rock stardom with their 1986 album Slippery When Wet that he would find himself in constant demand, offering his services to the likes of Cher, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Aerosmith. Despite a hectic work schedule, Child agreed to meet Cooper to discuss the possibility of providing some much-needed guidance.
‘When he told me it’s Demond Child I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got to work with this guy because he’s writing the sort of music I want to hear.’ Combine my input and voice with that style and you have the album I’d want to make for the nineties,’ he would tell critic Steffan Chirazi. ‘There are some people you can write with…just like that. Between us, it wasn’t unusual for us to have three songs finished at the end of a day. And I really feel that the album is real nineties Alice. I have people saying that they like the weirder stuff like Zipper Catches Skin or DaDa, but most of my requests are for Love It to Death. People want to hear that kind of rock ‘n’ roll so I wanted to capture that and push it into the nineties.’
The albums that Cooper had recorded for MCA were ostensibly a collaboration between himself and Roberts, while Winger had provided integral support throughout, but for the making of his Epic debut it was decided that it would be created through a variety of guest musicians, each incorporating their own unique flavour. While both of his former bandmates would make a guest appearance, other notable contributions would come from bassist Hugh McDonald, then best known for his work on Bon Jovi‘s first ever recording Runaway in 1982 and guitarist John McCurry, fresh from his work with Cher on her self-titled hair metal release. A number of famous musicians would also lend their talents, with Toto‘s Steve Lukather and Bon Jovi‘s Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi performing on different tracks.
The album would mark a coming to fruition of a decade of attempts for Cooper to work alongside Aerosmith, with both Cooper and frontman Steven Tyler having struggled with their own demons at the dawn of the eighties. Guitarist Joe Perry and Cooper had been close friends during the recording of DaDa when the two rented a house in New York, where they were attempting to overcome their own individual addictions. Cooper would eventually retreat from the industry in order to focus on his health while Perry would finally rejoin his former group following several years of bitterness with Tyler. By the time that Cooper had invited both Tyler and Perry, along with fellow Aerosmith members Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer, they had already commenced work on their own highly-anticipated album Pump.
‘We wrote twenty-two songs and had to pick then,’ Cooper told Revolution in 1990. ‘It seemed like most of them had sexual themes so we went with it. I mean, I’ve never dedicated an album to sex so I thought, ‘Why not this one?’ There had always been a correlation between horror and sex in the songs Alice sings. Alice is definitely that kind of character.’ Cooper and Child would eventually have a total of approximately forty songs that they attempted to develop during the sessions, many original compositions but others, much in the same way as Child had done for other artists, were outside contributions that were offered to the project.
While they were attempting to find an appropriate tone for the album the duo would listen to both Cooper’s breakthrough classic Love It to Death and his 1974 compilation Greatest Hits, a culmination of the highlights from his eponymous former group. Of the songs that were offered to Cooper one was a power ballad from writing duo Bruce Roberts and Andy Goldmark called Only My Heart Talkin’ which would have an immediate impact on the singer, although he would insist on rewriting the lyrics to make it more Cooperesque, while Child would perfect the musical arrangement. Once this had been developed to its full potential, Tyler was invited into the studio to offer his own distinct vocal talents.
Another outside composition would be called Downtown Prayer, a sleazy rock ‘n’ roll tune from an obscure Boston group called Unattached which would once again receive the Cooper/Child makeover, although this time members of the band would be brought into the studio to perform with the signer. After an extensive rewrite the song would be rebranded Trash, a moniker that would also serve as the title for the album. With Child having already provided indispensable advice and songwriting contributions Cooper eventually realised that instead of reaching out to a producer to bring onboard to help create the album they had envisioned in their heads, it would make more sense if Child oversaw the recording sessions and so, with the blessing of the label, Child would be hired as the producer of Trash.
People ask if Poison was about AIDS. I never thought about it but it could be interpreted that way
The album’s standout moment would undoubtedly be its lead single Poison, a tale of S&M and self-destructive love that would see its iconic guitar riff created at the eleventh hour. The exact meaning behind the song has remained somewhat ambiguous but in a 1989 interview Cooper offered one topical explanation. ‘People ask if Poison was about AIDS. I never thought about it but it could be interpreted that way,’ he would admit. ‘I wrote it with the concept of seeing someone at the other end of the bar and inevitably always going after the wrong person. That’s a sophisticated thought for rock ‘n’ roll but it’s something we all go through. Sex is not going to go away. We can’t make it illegal and you won’t see Alice preach anything, including safe sex.’
Released on 25 July 1989, Trash would become an instant success and would bring Cooper his first platinum-selling album in fourteen years. While its two predecessors had merely catered to the hair metal crowd, his latest offering was unashamedly marketed for radio consumption, with several tracks clearly developed with the intention of receiving regular airplay. The reception from both the music press and fans were overwhelming and for the first time in over a decade Alice Cooper was once again a bonafide rock star. While Poison would become a phenomenal success, its follow-up singles would fail to achieve similar sales but by the end of the year Cooper had become a prominent force on both magazine covers and MTV, finally reintroducing him to the mass market.
‘Trash has got some radio-bility where the last two albums didn’t,’ he would explain upon its release. ‘I think Poison breaks new ground for me and Bed of Nails reminds me of No More Mr. Nice Guy. Trash reminds me of something off Billion Dollar Babies. We had one song called Low Class Reunion that didn’t make the cut on the album but it was very much like School’s Out. But these songs are boy/girl songs, though they’re more like psycho-dramas than love affairs.’ As for the meaning behind the album’s title he would later claim, ‘Everybody relates to Trash. Kids get trashed by the cops, trashed in school, trashed at home. We live in a highly-pressured time. Living is harder, sex is harder. It used to be that when you got into trouble from sex you got a shot of penicillin…now you die! People ask me what I thought the scariest thing in the nineties would be and I came up with sex. It’s a dangerous world and trash is what it’s all about.’