In the mid-1960’s, a high school band calling themselves the Earwigs wanted to enter a Phoenix talent show. Basically, it was five guys lip synching, and lampooning the Beatles. They won. Forty-Seven years later, in 2011, three of that original band were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eventually, after a few different nicknames, and a couple of personnel changes, the band became known as Alice Cooper. Despite that innocuous sounding name, their shows became the must see event of the early to mid 1970’s. Having invented what would go on to be called theater, or shock rock, they redefined what concerts looked like, and influenced music, and stage craft, in a way still going strong today.
The R&RHOF inductees were Dennis Dunaway, Gary Buxton, and Alice Cooper, nee Vincent Furnier. Furnier, originally from Detroit, had legally changed his name to Alice Cooper in 1975, to protect the name of the band. As a result, his legal name became synonymous with their music. Their first record, called Pretties For You, was released by Straight Records. The label was created by rock legend Frank Zappa, who wanted to find bands who fit his avant-garde vision of what rock music could be. Alice Cooper fit that description to a T. What attracted Zappa? Cooper said, “We were already a pretty good rock and roll band, and then we just allowed it (the theatricalities of their stage show) to go wherever it wanted to go. I mean why not? Why wouldn’t we do that?” He continued, “We started a movement that worked, but honestly, we didn’t have to force that.”
Other acts saw the success of Alice Cooper, and felt inspired to create their own stage shows. The more successful of these artists weren’t copying AC, but rather, it set them free to follow their own inspiration wherever it took them. He said, “It’s what they should have done. Twisted Sister invented their own character, Bowie invented his character. KISS certainly became four comic book characters, and great!” But aside from making great records, and sitting in prop electric chairs, what inspired Alice Cooper? Continuing, he said, “Rock and roll had nothing but heroes, and Peter Pans, but they didn’t have any Captain Hook, and I just kind of looked at it and asked, where are the villains? I would rather be a Batman villain, than Batman.”
He’s not wrong. In the 1960’s, most bands, playing to audiences of white college, and high school kids, were putting on concerts similar to the early Beatles, and even The Rolling Stones. They’d pretty much stand there and play their music. Sure Mick Jagger was a unique presence, and guys like Paul Revere and the Raiders, and The Who, had their mod outfits, but few bands featured live performances like the stage show Alice Cooper put on nightly. One of their early influences was The Doors. Cooper said, “Jim Morrison was definitely on a dark trip. Sometimes we’d tour with them, and they’d do a song like The End, or When The Music’s Over, and every night it was different.” He explains, “Jim would go off on his poetic trips, and the band would just listen and then compliment it. I had never heard anyone do anything like that.” However, it wasn’t just Morrison dangerously crashing to the floor after throwing himself off the drum riser, or taunting the cops with profanity, a la Lenny Bruce, Cooper says, “Their music was so good, and it complimented everything he was thinking.” He’s right. To this day, despite Morrison having died in 1971, The Doors continue to sell records. The same is true with Alice Cooper.
Between 1971 and 1976, The Alice Cooper Band released seven albums that reached into Billboards top 40. Four of them entered the top 10, and in 1973, Billion Dollar Babies reached #1. The band that began as a Beatles parody, complete with wigs and suits, had become rock legends. Ironically, their album oriented rock, designed for their increasingly elaborate stage shows weren’t driven by singles. Throughout Cooper's career, as a band, and solo artist, he’s just had a handful of singles break into the top 40, and only a couple of them were top 10. It seems peculiar in an industry still largely driven by singles, Alice Cooper could have at least a dozen albums in the top 10, but have no #1 singles, and only a couple of songs still played on classic-rock stations.
The dichotomy between huge album sales, driven by a noticeable lack of high-ranking singles seems mind blowing, until you realize the underlying secret of his success: concept albums. A concept album is essentially a collection of songs with an overarching theme, or simply tells a story. Early concept records would include The Beatles Sergeant Peppers, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and The Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies. Cooper said, “I think everything after Love It To Death, and Killer, became conceptual. Schools Out was a concept, Billion Dollar Babies was a concept, Nightmare of course, Goes To Hell, they all have story lines.” Those storylines created the basis of his live act, which became the band’s generally accepted claim to fame.
Some of those albums, at first blush, seemed dark, twisted, and dangerous. Songs like "I Love The Dead," and "Sick Things," fit the villainous image Cooper was carefully cultivating. However, when you look deeper into the music, what you find is irony, and humor. "Schools Out," one of the songs still receiving regular radio airplay included the lyric "well we’ve got no class, and we’ve got no principles, and we’ve got no intelligence. We can’t even think up a word that rhymes,” and later, on the song "Go To Hell," which opens the Alice Cooper Goes to Hell album, the chorus sings, “You’d poison a blind man’s dog and steal his cane. You'd gift wrap a leper and mail him to your Aunt Jane. You'd even force feed a diabetic a candy-cane, you can go to hell.” When asked about the rich, and dark humor, he said, “Thank you for noticing that! A lot of people don’t get that. There’s a ton of comedy that goes on in the lyrics of the songs” He continued, “I understand not everybody’s going to get it, which is why you kind of have to put some kind of comedy inside of a song that people are just going to rock too. Even if they don’t get the lyrics they’re at least going to rock to the music. It’s kind of a tricky tight-wire act. Making sure that the song rocks, and then putting the clever lyrics on it.”
His latest album is called Detroit Stories, and it was written and recorded during the pandemic, and is his first #1 album since 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies. He said, “We were shocked when the Detroit Stories album debuted at #1. We just went, are you kidding me? That was a total shock to the system.” Why does he think the record scored so high? “I think, maybe, the world needed a good hard-rock record to cheer up a little bit (during the pandemic), and that’s the one that came out at the right time.” When asked to describe it, he said, “With this album, we said at the beginning let’s just do twelve hard-rock songs. We had to decide(where to record it). LA isn’t quite right for hard rock, and certainly not Nashville, or New York,” Then he exclaimed, “DETROIT!” Continuing, he said, “Detroit is the home of hard-rock, and its hometown for me. So yeah, let’s do Detroit. So we get to Detroit, and we go, why don’t we write this song about Detroit?
And then we were like, why don’t we use all Detroit players? Ok, and suddenly we had a concept.” The record is great, and should easily stand up to repeated playing. He said,”we can do hard rock, but if we’re going to say Detroit, then we’ve got to include every kind of music in Detroit, so we did a punk song, “Go Man Go,” we did a Motown song, “$1000 High-Heeled Shoes," we did a blues song, “Drunk And In Love,” and it all sort of fell into place. We didn’t start out making a concept album, it just ended up being a concept album,” because that's what Alice Cooper Does. Cooper is still out there touring at a frenetic pace. The third leg of his tour, 26 shows in 38 days, brought him to The Grand Sierra Theater, in Reno, on April 22, 2022.
Visit https://alicecooper.com/ for more!