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The Great American Success Story – How Alice Cooper Returned to Conquer the 1980s

‘I feel kind of reborn,’ confessed Alice Cooper to Rock Scene in 1987. This was no understatement, as the previous year the rock icon had returned from a self-imposed exile to embrace the new hair metal scene with his highly-publicised comeback album Constrictor. Once again embracing his trademark make-up, the thirty-eight-year-old star soon found himself on MTV, appearing alongside horror villain Jason Voorhees and embarking on one of the most successful tours of his long and distinguished career.

But just a few years earlier Cooper was struggling with the perils of rock and roll fame, with his heavy drinking even resulting in an intervention that saw him institutionalised while attempting to detox. Understandably his music also began to suffer, and while the occasional song hinted at his former glories, his albums lacked the focus and consistency of his commercial heyday.

His last album, 1983′s Dada, saw him reuniting once again with acclaimed producer Bob Ezrin, yet despite the a few inspired moments (most notably the tongue-in-cheek I Love America), it was clear that he had become misguided and lacked the danger that had made his ’70s output so appealing. And so Cooper wisely took a step back from the limelight to focus on his health, and over the next three years metal fans became infatuated with a new generation of rock stars Mötley Crüe and Ratt. It appeared that the nightmare was finally over.

During his time away from the stage, Cooper found himself obsessed with watching the new wave of splatter movies that had begun to populate the shelves of video stores across America. Following a similar tradition of Grand Guignol theatrics that had come to define his stage shows, Cooper’s diet of alcohol had been replaced by slasher movies and cheap creature features. He even interrupted his hiatus to appear as a rock star returning to his hometown to shoot a music video, only to discover that the locals are being terrorised by a pack of wild animals. Monster Dog, a low budget gore flick from cult Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso, may have failed to make an impression among horror fans, yet it allowed Cooper the chance to have fun by starring in the kind of movie he had been renting out on an almost-nightly basis.

While it had been many years since he had enjoyed a hit of his own, Cooper had inspired the new breed of rock stars, and so perhaps it was inevitable that he would be invited by one of these artists to collaborate. Twisted Sister had proudly worn their Cooper influences on their sleeves, with their recent hit We’re Not Gonna Take It even having echoes of Cooper’s 1975 classic Department of Youth, and so when he was approached to provide vocals for the track Be Chrool to Your Scuel he was only too eager.

He also appeared in the accompanying music video, which featured cameos from actor Bobcat Goldthwait and notorious special effects artist Tom Savini, whose gruesome work would also be seen throughout the promo. The video encountered controversy when it was banned by MTV, who by the mid-1980s had become a major aspect of the music industry. This was not Savini’s first taste of notoriety, however, as his groundbreaking splatter gags had already received equal acclaim and protest through his elaborate work on such genre classics as Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th and Maniac. Despite the video’s lack of presence on television, Be Chrool to Your Scuel had proved that the new generation of metal fans were more than willing to embrace the new Alice Cooper.

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 eventually signed with MCA Records, who at the time also represented such artists as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Throughout his career Cooper had formed creative partnerships with his bandmates and producers, in which he would act as the principal lyricist while a regular collaborator would compose the music. This had been the case with Michael Bruce, guitarist for the original Alice Cooper group, as well as producer Bob Ezrin, whose work throughout the 1970s has often been cited as a key influence on the sound and image of Cooper.

While in New York, Cooper made the acquaintance of a young guitarist called Kane Roberts, who at that time was performing in a local group called Criminal Justice. ‘We share a taste for loud rock and roll and splatter movies,’ explained Cooper in the programme for his Nightmare Returns tour, ‘and we have the same sense of humour.’ In a 1987 interview with critic Mary Anne Cassata, Cooper stated that the songs that he had worked on with Roberts had originally been intended as the basis for the long-awaited sequel to his 1975 masterpiece Welcome to My Nightmare, but instead they were reworked and recorded for Constrictor.

The album 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 mid-1980s. There were no longer songs like I Love the Dead, The Ballad of Dwight Fry or Dead Babies; instead, Cooper and Roberts were creating such titles as Thrill My Gorilla, Life and Death of the Party and The World Needs Guts. With Ezrin now working with such commercial artists as Berlin, whose track Take My Breath Away would become a major hit after being featured on the soundtrack to the blockbuster Top Gun, Cooper was forced to search elsewhere for someone to oversee the recording of the sessions for what was to become Constrictor. Having made an impression through his work with Ratt, the task of updating the Alice Cooper sound fell to Beau Hell, a veteran of Atlantic Records, who was to give Cooper a commercial hard rock sound.

While Roberts would be the key musical force behind the new direction, Cooper would also be joined by a twenty-four-year-old bassist called Kip Winger, a classically trained musician who had previously worked with Hill on Kix‘s 1985 album Midnite Dynamite and the sophomore record from pop singer Fiona. But if Alice Cooper was to finally make a major comeback after a decade of critical and commercial disappointments, he knew that he needed a song that would resonate with audiences, 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 reviving.

Friday the 13th had been considered a stain on Paramount’s reputation since the release of the first movie in 1980, yet due to its overnight success and its influence on American cinema, ushering in the short-lived slasher cycle of the early 1980s, the studio had produced a sequel almost every year afterwards. But following the commercial disappointment of the fifth instalment, which had replaced the stalk and slash format with a surprise twist, executives were determined to bring back the franchise’s centrepiece, Jason Voorhees, in a new and exciting way.

‘In a way, the character of Alice Cooper and the character of Jason come from the same sort of weird place,’ explained Cooper to Fangoria in 1986. ‘I fell all over myself saying yes when the people at Paramount asked me to help score the film. Jason is a real heavy metal kind of character, and Alice is more than a bit influenced by horror.’ The decision to approach Cooper about providing a track for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives fell to Frank Mancuso, Jr., who had overseen the production of the sequels and had the series to thank for his career. By this point very few songs had been released to promote horror movies, and with Cooper already being synonymous with gore, it seemed to be a marriage of convenience.

The song would also be notable for providing Cooper with his first true music video, which would be shot in Los Angeles under the direction of Jeffrey Abelson, who had started his career working as a producer on Madonna’s Into the Groove and Ray Parker, Jr.’s Ghostbusters hit. ‘I was just dying to do the music video, but the record company wouldn’t let me,’ claimed Tom McLoughlin, the director of Jason Lives, in the excellent retrospective Crystal Lake Memories. Unlike Be Chrool to Your Scuel, the song that Cooper would write for Jason Voorhees, He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), would receive regular airplay on MTV, bringing Cooper to the attention of not only metal fans but also lovers of horror movies, while two more of his tracks, Teenage Frankenstein and Hard Rock Summer, would also find their way onto the soundtrack.

Constrictor would prove to be a minor success and would provide Cooper with his first Gold album in six years, yet it had failed to reach the commercials heights both Cooper had hoped for. Many reviews criticised the shallow aspect of the lyrics and the bland production from Hill, while the majority of the drumming on the album had been achieved through the use of synthesisers. But despite the mixed reception, the label remained supportive of Cooper, with company head Irving Azoff telling Billboard, ‘I signed Alice because he’s a living legend in rock ‘n’ roll, and his records deserve to be heard. Alice is timeless; he has a major record audience built in, and we feel he will attract new fans. So we expect his sales will return to the Platinum status that his live shows have always attained.’

Alice Cooper and Jason Voorhees

Alice Cooper and Jason Voorhees

Although Constrictor would fail to achieve the Platinum sales that Azoff had predicted, the subsequent tour, dubbed the Nightmare Returns, would prove to be one of the most successful of Cooper’s career, mixing classic fan favourites like No More Mr Nice Guy and Only Women Bleed with new offerings such as The World Needs Guts. But no sooner had Cooper returned from the road, he had already committed himself to recording a follow-up to Constrictor, teaming up once again with Roberts to write material which they hoped would have a harder edge to its predecessor. Disappointed with Hill’s approach to his last album, the man charged with recording his second album for MCA was Michael Wagener, who had mixed Constrictor, as well as produced the track for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

Benefiting from heavier production, Raise Your Fist and Yell seemed less interested in embracing the mainstream and more focused on providing metal fans with Cooper’s signature themes of rebellion and murder, accompanied by Roberts’ elaborate guitar playing. ‘I wanted him to have more room,’ admitted Cooper to Blast in 1987, while also expressing his approval at having a real full-time drummer in the form of Ken Mary. ‘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.’ While not a concept album of sorts, Raise Your Fist and Yell was a record of two halves, each exploring different themes; the first was a statement against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a committee fronted by Tipper Gore that had targeted an array of artists (from W.A.S.P. to Cyndi Lauper) due to the explicit nature of their songs. Songs such as Give the Radio Back and Freedom were a comment on the totalitarian politics of the PMRC, with Cooper declaring during the latter that, ‘You want to rule us with an iron hand, you change the lyrics and become Big Brother.’

The second concept of the album comes during side-B, which tells of a psychopath who struggles to differentiate between the real world and that of the movies, who focuses his obsession on a woman called Gail and eventually murders her. In her eponymous song, Cooper returns to the dry humour of his 1975 track Cold Ethyl with the passage, ‘The bugs serve time in her skeletal jail, I wonder how the bugs remember Gail.’ During the final song, Roses on White Lace, he sees her wedding dress covered in blood but in his dazed state mistakes it for roses. This was not the first Cooper album to have an overall concept or narrative – Welcome to My Nightmare and From the Inside had both featured themes that ran throughout the record – although with Raise Your First and Yell this was explored in less detail.

In the same year, Cooper would make an appearance in the cult John Carpenter horror Prince of Darkness, contributing the song of the same name and even using one of his stage props to impale a victim in the movie. ‘We ended up together at Wrestlemania III in Detroit,’ Carpenter told Fangoria. ‘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.’

With Cooper’s attempt at a comeback taking place at the height of the hair metal scene, he was invited by documentarian Penelope Spheeris to be interviewed in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, an exploration of the Los Angeles music culture of the mid-1980s, which also saw contributions from Aerosmith, Poison, Ozzy Osbourne and Megadeth. The soundtrack would include a live version of Cooper’s 1971 classic Under My Wheels, a collaboration with Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, who at that time were slowly gaining momentum following the release of their debut album, Appetite for Destruction.

Alice Cooper and Axl Rose

Alice Cooper and Axl Rose

‘I had always thought this would be a good song for Guns N’ Roses to do when I first heard Welcome to the Jungle,’ said Cooper in the liner notes for the box-set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper. ‘So, it was pretty perfect when we wound up doing it together for the movie.’ By the end of 1988, Cooper had once again paid his dues and was approached by Bob Pfeiffer of Epic Records with the intention of transforming Cooper once again into a rock star. The following year, his eighteenth studio album, Trash, was released to universal acclaim, finally awarding Cooper his first Platinum-selling album in fourteen years and spawning the top ten hit Poison. ‘We gave the company exactly what they wanted, they got what they hoped,’ stated Cooper in an interview with Metal Hammer at the time of Trash’s release. ‘We’ve recorded three or four potential singles and we still didn’t have to sell out. The singles aren’t wimpy at all, they’re all tracks that I am really proud of, they are real Alice Cooper classics!’

    2 COMMENTS
    1. Ray

      Alice Cooper is definitely a living legend and still putting out great albums and tours in 2013. I really like the Raise Your Fist and Yell album. It may be a little dated now but there are some great songs on there, so I recommend everyone to pick that one up. I also recommend Hey Stoopid from 1991 and 1994′s true classic, The Last Temptation.

    2. Christian Sellers

      I agree about both Hey Stoopid and especially The Last Temptation. Great albums!

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