“Well We Got No Class
And We Got No Principles
And We Got No Innocence
We Can’t Even Think Of A Word That Rhymes!”
Used as a dismissive term by some, Glam Rock was actually quite a broad church when it came to the style of group and their musical influences. It ranged from ‘wall of sound’ production techniques with Wizzard, to heavy pop/rock with Sweet, to a tongue-in-cheek approach with The Glitter Band. However only one name in the Glam Rock canon was associated with the darker side of life – Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper polarised opinion like no other. Everyone had an opinion, whether they had heard the music or not, the image and the response of the press meant that you either loved or hated Alice.
The first time I heard of Alice Cooper I was walking through town with my parents and posters advertising an Alice Cooper concert were plastered across a wall. The image was more than confusing, a girl’s name but a picture of a bloke in make-up? I asked my parents whoAlice was. My dad told me not to worry about him, he was a nobody, and then turned to my mum and quietly said “That’s the guy who beheads chickens on stage.”
I was hooked.
But how did Alice Cooper gained this notoriety and was it justified? How did he survive to become one of rock’s elder statesmen? Why has he been a constant thorn in the side of my mate Les for the last 20 years?
Obviously we need to go back to the beginning…………………..
It was 1964 and, while the US was gripped with Beatlemania, a group of 16 year olds in Phoenix, Arizonadecided to wear wigs, pay some girls to scream, and launch into a Beatles parody at their local talent show. They couldn’t play and they didn’t care. Called the Earwigs and including Vincent Furnier on vocals, Glen Buxton on guitar and Dennis Dunaway on bass the long hard road to rock stardom had begun.
Shortly after this the Earwigs became the Spiders and brought in Michael Bruce on guitar to play alongside Glen. The group could play in a classic garage band style and recorded a couple of singles but still the big break refused to come. Changing the group’s name to The Nazz they continued to play and starve. Little did they know however that things were about to change, bringing in a new drummer in the form of Neal Smith gave them what was to become a classic line up and Todd Rundgren calling his band the Nazz gave them the opportunity to come up with a classic name – Alice Cooper.
There are many stories about how the name came about – it was spelt out on a ouija board, it belonged to a witch, it just sounded good. The story doesn’t matter the effect it had does – a group of longhaired layabouts, playing rock music, wearing makeup, with a girl’s name not only for the group but also for the lead singer (as Vincent transformed into Alice) in 1969 was guaranteed to get a reaction.
The group rejected the normal route to stardom, playing acceptable music that people understood, and just went crazy on stage. They famously played in front of 2,000 people at a Lenny Bruce memorial concert in LA; after a few songs and a pillow fight on stage 1,996 had left. The four that remained included Frank Zappa.
Zappa released the first two Alice Cooper albums on his Straight label. The first “Pretties For You” the group recorded while drunk and it flopped, the second “Easy Action” while more accessible didn’t do any better. What the group needed was someone to harness their ideas and give them focus, he arrived in the form of Bob Ezrin.
Ezrin arrived after the group had begun to make waves with their concerts, not due to the music but their stageshow. At the 1969 Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival a live chicken was thrown on stage, Alice threw it back into the audience who promptly ripped it apart – the demon of the press, Alice Cooper, had arrived with a vengeance from now on anything and everything they did was guaranteed to hit the headlines. Ezrin took the raw materials in the band and helped to rebuild them – the classic period of amazing stage shows supported by killer albums had arrived.
Their next album in 1971 “Love It To Death” spawned the classic single “I’m Eighteen”, while it wasn’t a hit in theUK it did signal the group’s intent to go international. That happened the following year with the release of “School’s Out” suddenly the horror show that was Alice Cooper was over here, playing on TOTP and with a song at Number 1! How parents hated it and teenagers loved it. The music with its anthemic rock style, its message of teenagers in revolt and the group’s love of over-the-top imagery and fashion caught the Glam ethos perfectly.
This was followed up with another two top ten singles “Elected” and “Hello Hurray”. The group toured and brought beheadings, lunatics, dead babies (no, not real ones) and snakes to an “auditorium near you” as the legend built. Alice ran for president, the group spent $32,000 a year on beer, MPs wanted to ban him from playing and another two singles hit the top twenty in theUK.
And then the hit singles stopped. While the stage show was still a classic and the songs were still outrageous (who else could sing about necrophilia in a song called “Cold Ethyl” and get away with it), the music became more adapted to albums and the stage show environment – the single buying public took on other interests. Cracks also appeared in the group – Alice Cooper the singer had become bigger than Alice Cooper the band and they went their separate ways.
Despite sidelining himself for a while to deal with a drink problem, and becoming one of the golfing world’s most unlikely celebrity golfers, Alice continued to work his way up to legendary status. While his success continues to be based primarily on his live act he did return to the charts again in the late 80s with a Number 2, “Poison” and has had a number of cameo appearances in movies (“We’re not worthy”).
Alice Cooper is now arguably bigger and louder than he has ever been before but for me his key period was during the classic years 72 – 74 when his music didn’t have to be loud, it was subtle, the lyrics had a twist, songs sucked you in until all of a sudden you realised what they were about and you weren’t certain if you liked what they were saying.
And what about my mate Les and his 20 year problem with Alice? Well it’s not big and it’s not clever but here’s the sordid story – on a drunken evening in 1984 a group of 10 of us pulled celebrity names out of a hat. The agreement was that, as long as our celebrity stayed alive, every year we would put £100 into a drinks kitty. Les got Alice and was chuffed, with Alice’s history of excess he assumed he’d only be paying in for a few years – over £2,000 later he’s the only one still paying. Every year I raise a drink to Alice while Les curses him – I like to think that Alice would appreciate the sickness of the situation.