Music

Listen To This Eddie: The Original Alice Cooper Band Is Back, And For That We Should Be Grateful

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Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Last week, classic rock icon Alice Cooper released a brand-new album titled Paranormal. Produced by his long, long-time collaborator Bob Ezrin, it’s a serviceable collection of songs, closely hewing to the ‘80s metal aesthetic that has marked much of his work over the last few decades. U2 bassist Larry Mullen lent his skills to several different selections. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top shows up for a track titled “Fallen In Love.” In another song, Uncle Alice presages the stunning rise and fall of White House Communications director Anthony Scaramucci on “Paranoiac Personality.” It’s all fine. Then you reach the final two songs — actually, they’re not even part of the record proper, they’re bonus tracks — and at last we reach transcendence.

A remarkable thing happened a couple years back in a music store in Dallas. For the first time in years, Alice Cooper — born Vincert Furnier — performed live with the remaining members of the original Alice Cooper Band. Together, the makeup wearing front man shared the stage up with guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith — RIP Glen Buxton — and ripped into a roaring rendition of their immortal classic “I’m Eighteen.” Apparently, Alice himself enjoyed the experience so much that he hit performed with them again for a five-song mini-set in Nashville earlier this year, and then enlisted the three men to back him up on the final two cuts on his latest full-length project.

“We never broke up with any bad blood,” Alice recently explained to Rolling Stone. “There were no lawsuits. Nobody was angry with anybody. Everybody just went their own ways for a while. We stayed in touch. I kept going. I was driven to keep doing what I did, but we stayed friends.”

Their first collaboration on Paranormal is a song titled “Genuine American Girl.” It’s a song so gloriously odd, so fantastically in character with that original head-turning aesthetic that made Alice Cooper one of the biggest stars of the early 1970s, I nearly leapt out of my chair when I heard it. Written by Smith, the music is almost Buddy Holly-esque in style and substance; a straightaway vintage ‘50s rocker, but Alice subverts the entire thing by singing from the point of view of a teenage girl. When he sneers, “My mama says the world’s an oyster, and I’m the pearl,” you’re nearly repulsed, but you don’t dare hit stop.

The next song, the last track on the album before a superfluous suite of recent live recordings of beloved hits, could provide a perfect coda to the singer’s entire career. If the Detroit-born rocker never released another composition in his lifetime, there’s a lot worse ways you can go out than with “You And All Your Friends.” It’s a compact party song that alternates between levity and finality. “This is how it allllll ends,” he croons. “For you, and allllll of your friends.” Performed in the company of the people he’s known since they were all nobody high school kids living in Phoenix, Arizona, the track is loaded with an unmistakable poignancy. If you’re going to go out, why not leave with the people you came in with?

When most people say they love Alice Cooper’s music, what they usually mean is that they love the music made by the Alice Cooper Band. Though the singer has done well as a solo act in the years since he split with his original group around 1974 — Wayne’s World cameos and all — it was in that earliest formative period that he created the work that remains the bedrock of his legend.

“What set the Alice Cooper Band apart from all of the other bands during the early-1970s hard-rock era was how tight the band was, both as a live act and as a gang,” the singer posited in his memoir Golf Monster. “We never went anywhere without each other. Even after a couple of platinum records, there was still the risk of walking into some tavern and having someone beat you up (or try to kill you). We were still considered outcast freaks, as opposed to hippies.” It’s true, they were outcast freaks, but that’s exactly how they wanted it. And that’s exactly what their millions and millions of fans turned out to see.

Before the Alice Cooper Band was the Alice Cooper Band, they were a mop-top donning group of cover artists called The Spiders. They cut their teeth early on rattling out Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds cuts in gymnasiums and small clubs way out in the suburbs of Arizona. In 1967 they began making the four-hour long commute out to Hollywood, gigging in and around town while still trying to maintain a presence back home where they could made pretty decent money which helped fund their LA excursions. They eventually renamed themselves the Nazz, but were forced to change monikers again after learning of the Todd Rundgren-fronted group. While they told people they got the name Alice Cooper from a mystical experience with a Oujia board, really, they nicked it from a character by the same name on the television show Mayberry R.F.D.

Eventually, they were noticed by Frank Zappa, who took them under his wing and signed them to his label, the ironically named Straight Records. They made one album under Zappa’s tutelage, the psychedelic 1969 release Pretties For You that tanked amongst critics and went almost entirely unnoticed by the public at large. It seemed like the band was destined to remain a curio, until fortune smiled upon them in the most grotesque way imaginable.

Alice Cooper was booked to play the Toronto Rock Revival Festival in 1969 way down on the card behind legends like John Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. During their abbreviated set, Alice himself was gallivanting around the stage when someone tossed up a live chicken. “Once I saw it, I threw it back into the audience, thinking that since chickens have wings, it could fly,” he remembered in his memoir. “Wrong. The audience tore it to pieces. What was even scarier was that all along the front row were the people in wheelchairs, and they were more insane than the other fans.”

Though reprehensible, the so-called “chicken incident” helped cement the band’s reputation as one of the wildest acts in rock and roll, a reputation they rode to dizzying commercial success. In 1970 they released their sophomore album Easy Action, a significant improvement over their debut, then they struck gold a year later with Love It To Death which earned them their first platinum record. Killer, the follow-up did even better, and then came the earth-shaking School’s Out followed then their first and only chart-topper, and maybe best pure musical statement of their entire career, Billion Dollar Babies.

By this point this point they were easily one of the biggest bands on the planet, regularly showing up on the covers of magazines and selling out arenas across the country. Their 1973 tour broke records cemented just a year earlier by no less than the Rolling Stones. Angst-ridden songs like “I’m Eighteen,” “Schools Out,” “Elected,” “Generation Landslide,” “Ballad Of Dwight Frey,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” galvanized an entire era of angry young teens. Their stage show was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, filled with fake blood, mock executions, whips, dentist drills, hatchets, 14 different bubble machines, and of course, snakes. It was spectacle beyond spectacle. It was theatre at its most low-brow and frenzied. Thousands upon thousands of kids turned out in 59 different cities in just three months to witness it all in-person.

Despite the thrilling theatrics, the dizzying success and the trappings of fame, all was not well within Alice Cooper. “Our fans saw the Billion Dollar Babies tour as this big, gigantic, wonderful success, but from the inside, it was one of my least fun tours ever, and I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way,” Dennis Dunaway wrote in his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! “Around 1973, though, it seemed as if he’d decided it was time to throw all that out and go for making Alice a household name. In the earlier days, he never would have allowed people to see Alice on Hollywood Squares, The Muppets, or The Snoop Sisters. Now he was encouraging this showbiz side.”

Alice himself remembers things a little different. “After 1973’s Muscle Of Love album and tour, and after our 1974 Greatest Hits album, things got to the point where the band had had it,” he wrote. “I met with the guys one day and put it out there. ‘I’ve got a great idea for our next album,’ I told the band. ‘It’s going to be the biggest rock production ever. But it’s going to cost us a ton of money.’”

From the singer’s view, the rest of the band wasn’t into the idea of trying to outdo itself anymore. In fact, it was killing them. “They wanted a smaller, more compact, and a more basic and safer show. Let’s not spend all the money. Let’s get back to our roots! The ride is almost over. Let’s put on the brakes. We want our money.” Adding, “After seven years of slaving, seven hard years on the road, they were tired. The last thing they wanted to hear was that Alice and [manager] Shep [Gordon] were planning the production of all productions, a tour that would make our other tours look tired and silly. The rest of the band balked and backed out. Shep and I said, ‘Okay. We’re pushing onward.’”

And that was that. The Alice Cooper Band was no more. There was only Alice Cooper; the rest of the group agreed to give him the name in exchange for a perpetual royalty. The singer indeed went on to make one of the most extravagant rock records of all time, 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare, and followed that up with a tour that people still regard as one of the greatest live excursions of all-time. Nevertheless, Alice spent the next several years fighting against an array of addictions to drugs and alcohol as his album sales and cultural cache dwindled. Thankfully he managed to eventually pull himself out of the tailspin, but he never really reached the dizzying height he achieved alongside his original compadres.

It’s impossible to know what might come from this renewed partnership. Right now, the only thing officially on the docket is a short run through the UK in November. Cooper told Billboard that he might take the group out for a spin through some of America’s bigger markets like New York and Los Angeles at some point, as well as some more personally important locations like Phoenix and Detroit, but who knows if that will come to pass.

Between his regular gigging schedule — he’s co-headlining amphitheaters this summer with Deep Purple — along with his work in the side band Hollywood Vampires with Johnny Depp and Joe Perry, Alice keeps a pretty full dance card these days, so everything remains up in the air. I don’t know, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe some things should be left in the past? Then again, of all the band reunions we’ve enjoyed across the span of decades, this one is less cynical as any that I can recall. The Alice Cooper Band lives again, and I for one am entirely grateful.

Bootleg Bin

Two weeks ago I got to see Roger Waters incredible live show Us + Them show at the United Center in Chicago. I’d caught a different version of this gig at Desert Trip last year, but was nevertheless blown away by the sheer spectacle that the Pink Floyd front man brings to the masses. Also Eddie Vedder showed up and sang “Comfortably Numb” which was an incredible moment.

Prior to 2016, I’d always ranked Pink Floyd albums thusly:

1. The Wall
2. Dark Side Of The Moon
3. Wish You Were Here
4. Animals

Waters’s show, and especially his performance of the sprawling “Pig (Three Different Ones)” complete with a flying Donald Trump-emblazoned pig, and an floating approximation of the Battersea Power Station forced me to rethink my assessment of Animals, which then caused me to dig back and try and find a bootleg from the tour supporting that particular record in 1977. Honestly there’s not much out there, with the exception of this pristine recording from a show at the Oakland Coliseum that went down on May 9. The band basically played all of Animals, then all of Wish You Were Here, followed by an encore of “Money” and “Us And Them.” It’s sensational, and my only regret is that there isn’t any video footage out there to accompany it.

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