Although this band had previously released two hard to find albums (Pretties For You and Easy Action) with producer Frank Zappa, Cooper himself told Goldmine magazine: “I really consider Love It To Death to be the first Alice Cooper album.” And let’s get this straight right off the bat: Alice Cooper was originally the name of a band. Their lead singer was one Vincent Furnier, who also happened to call himself Alice Cooper. The name was a joke meant to horrify audiences expecting a totally different kind of performer, and Vincent actually took his new stage name grudgingly after some coaxing from his bandmates. In an ironic turn of events, Furnier then unjustly received most of the credit for the band’s success, despite the fact that guitarist Michael Bruce was arguably the band’s best songwriter (though they all wrote). Granted, Cooper was a solid and at times inspired hard rock singer, and he gives especially memorable performances here on the albums two best tracks. "I'm Eighteen" is an unforgettable teen anthem that perfectly describes the awkwardness of that particular age (plus it rocks), while “Ballad Of Dwight Fry” is an epic (6:32) power ballad whose eerily unsettling theatrics are equally essential though far less well-known (heck this is one of my all-time favorite "deep album cuts"). Elsewhere, the punchy dual guitar interplay between Glen Buxton and Bruce (the rhythm section of bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith were no slouches, either) propels rocking songs such as the opener “Caught In A Dream” and (the much catchier) “Long Way To Go” (a great driving song), while the slower-paced, highly enjoyable “Is It My Body?” is likewise all about its sleazy riffs (as well as Cooper's strutting vocals). The atmospheric “Second Coming” is also quite good (dig those marching drums), and I even like their cheesy sing along cover of Rolf Harris’ “Sun Arise,” especially since its garage-y guitars are in line with the rest of the album. Alas, that lighter song does seem like an anti-climatic and somewhat out of place ending after the truly haunting psychodrama of ”Ballad Of Dwight Fry;” this album is called Love It To Death, after all. In addition, “Hallowed Be My Name” is a filler track that doesn’t even come close to the similarly titled song from Iron Maiden, and “Black Juju” is the dreaded nine-minute “experiment” that pads out the album. Don’t get me wrong, the song is extremely powerful at times, in particular when the psychedelic organ (making obvious their debt to The Doors), sledgehammer guitar riffs, and Cooper's warped vocals kick in alongside Smith’s tribal drum patterns. The jam finish is also highly recommended, but this overly indulgent song is too often pretentious (note the spoken word section) and boring, making it (and the other flawed tracks noted) a bit of a blight on what is still an extremely good early hard rock album.
Killer (Warner Bros. ’71) Rating: A
This was another prime Alice Cooper album, produced during a time when the band encompassed more styles and were more flat out fun (and strange) than practically any other hard rock band of their day. “Under My Wheels” starts things off with one of the band's most energetic and catchiest rockers (plus the horns are a nice touch along with the lashing guitars and big drums), and the more mid-tempo “Be My Lover” is awfully catchy as well, though it blatantly swipes its riffs from The Velvet Underground’s "Sweet Jane." Both of those songs show off a humorous lyrical touch (Alice was the band’s primary lyricist), while the extremely experimental, multi-sectioned “Halo Of Flies” was a completely successful attempt at an epic scale song. This difficult-to-describe, (dare I say it?) proggy 8-minute track demonstrated the band's increased ambition, as well as how producer Bob Ezrin, whose importance to the band’s early success simply cannot be understated, was able to bring together totally different sounds. Next, the moody “Desperado” effectively conjures up images of the old West and is also notable for its lush strings and Cooper’s Jim Morrison-ish croon. After that highly enjoyable bit of theatricality (I especially love the "I'm a killer, I'm a clown..." vocal section), the band then gets back to basics on the hard-hitting “You Drive Me Nervous,” the album’s weakest song which has plenty of energy but only so-so songwriting; this is rectified on the equally straightforward but far better if still somewhat generic riff driven rocker “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” Aiming to end with a flourish, the band unveils the depraved droner “Dead Babies,” a personal favorite with its memorably depressing and quite creepy lyrics about child neglect. Musically this dark ballad turned rocker is notable for its moody verses, great riffs, and catchy chorus, but also for its doo-wop influenced vocals and symphonic sections that again have Ezrin's fingerprints all over them. Finally, “Killer” closes out the album with another stretched out (if not quite as successfully as "Halo Of Flies") experiment that further revealed the band’s progressive tendencies (it’s hard not to notice all the instrumental passages on the album) while adding more creepy gothic touches as well. The song is disjointed but often in a fascinating way, much like the album as a while, I suppose (though it's pretty easy to group the album into three short and catchy "greatest hits," two short and less catchy album tracks, and the three epics). And though you could (and I would) argue that Killer doesn’t have any hit singles or individual tracks as transcendent as “I’m Eighteen” or “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” from start to finish it's the better overall album, as its eight musically adventurous, creative, and varied songs showed the band at their garage rocking best. All in all, 1971 was quite a year for the Alice Cooper group.
School's Out (Warner Bros. ‘72) Rating: B+
Rather than play it safe, the Alice Cooper band (just look at the song credits) decided to continue to push their progressive side, with Broadway show tunes and an ever-increasing theatrical element taking the place of reckless, garage-styled hard rock. As such, Ezrin adds more bells and whistles than ever before, but generally to the music's benefit, even if the cheese/campiness factor is occasionally too high. Yet for all their attempts at a more "mature" style, let's not forget that this is still a rock album first and foremost. Loosely based around a concept that - well, you all know the title track (all all-time teen anthem if ever there was one), right? Well, that's the conceptual starting point, and though I wish that that song's aggression would appear elsewhere, the guitars also really cook on "Luney Tune," which is as crazy as a song about a mental patient should be! The interplay between the soaring guitars (some supposedly supplied by sessioner Dick Wagner) and the rhythm section (dig the piston-like drumming) is intense on "My Stars" as well, while "Public Animal #9" sees the band effectively return to greasy garage rock with a fairly straightforward riff rocker with horns. The song's lyrics ("they wanted an Einstein but they got a Frankenstein"), coupled with other choice bits elsewhere ("well we got no class, and we got no principles") showed what a clever lyricist Alice was, which always gave the band an advantage over other hard rock combos. Of course, the jazzy "Blue Turk," a personal favorite of mine, doesn't rock hard at all, with a loungey late night vibe (dig the use of sax here) and playful lyrics seemingly about necrophilia (!). "Alma Mater" nostalgically echoes the album's main theme (school's out, duh) and musically starts as a ballad (with Alice's distorted vocals mixed way back) before turning into a McCartney-ish rocker with a sing along chorus (p.s. I seriously doubt that any of Alice's classmates "forgot the Coop!"). Also interesting is "Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets," which cleverly incorporates music from "West Side Story" (as if to show the difference between this album and the prior two, the keyboards here are bright and carnival-esque rather than spooky) and segues into the appropriately titled "Street Fight," a nifty little instrumental interlude that actually sounds like a street fight (between the two gangs introduced in the prior song). Another instrumental, the also aptly titled "Grand Finale," extravagantly ends the album with horns blaring everywhere, indeed providing a fine, fittingly grand (if rather overblown) finale. On the whole, this is a "grower album" that took me a while to warm up to. Even now I miss the balls out rock of Love It To Death and Killer, and aside from the title track (arguably the band's signature song) there's no concert favorites or "greatest hits"-type of radio tracks on what's a uniquely experimental album. Fortunately, School's Out is largely a successful, endearingly strange experiment, even if it must've confounded fans of the band (or simply fans of the title track) upon its release. It's still a bit of a head scratcher, really, but the band's restlessly creative spirit wins out in the end, even if I prefer the albums that surround it.
Billion Dollar Babies (Warner Bros. ’73) Rating: A
Continuing with the theatrical element but rocking much harder this time out, Billion Dollar Babies is seen by many as the quintessential Alice Cooper band album. I still slightly prefer the much rawer Killer, but not by much, as this is a highly entertaining album that's extremely accessible (it was their biggest seller to date, hitting #1 on the Billboard charts in both the U.S. and the U.K.) yet quite unlike anything else. Spooky (wink wink) songs such as “Sick Things” and “I Love The Dead” (another "twisted" song about necrophilia!) were no less effective for being tongue in cheek, and these songs were perfect for their increasingly elaborate stage routines, which featured a healthy dosage of mock horror skits designed to shock. These included such gimmicks as decapitating baby dolls with guillotines (who then oozed fake blood) and Alice’s ever-present array of boa constrictors. The kids ate it up, parents and critics hated it, and these routines paved the way for the future “shock rock” tactics of the likes of Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, and Marilyn Manson. Of course, on record the band was a much tamer creature, despite an "anything goes" mentality that saw the band leaping fully into vaudeville on theatrical songs such as the introductory “Hello Hooray” (which is heavily orchestrated and contains a superb lead vocal from Alice) and “Generation Landslide,” on which I can easily visualize Alice in a suit and top hat (this effortlessly charming song also features a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitars, great drumming, and even a nifty harmonica solo). Elsewhere, "Raped and Freezin'" is a more straightforward riff rocker that's boosted by some cool instrumental sections and Cooper's typically sharp lyrics, which are often bitingly satirical (with a decided political bent this time out) or deliberately ridiculous, albeit in an ironic way that lets listeners know that this is all in good fun. I mean, what other band would write a song about a young lad's terrifying trip to the dentist, let alone make it work as well as it does on "Unfinished Sweet"? They also strung together two more memorably catchy singles (“Elected,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy”) that were easy to sing along to, with Alice at times singing woefully off key but always with a scruffy charm. The hard rocking title track is another classic (I have mentioned what an excellent drummer Neal Smith is, right?) that's the best song here, with wailing guitars and Donovan Leitch helping out on vocals (raise your hand if you saw that vocal pairing coming!), but lest you think that this album is perfect I'll note that the bigger production budget has enabled Ezrin to dominate more than necessary, and that as a result you could argue that the album is overproduced. Still, though certain sections of the album are a bit bloated, on the whole Billion Dollar Babies sums up the band's strengths extremely well, as even the lesser tracks (like the minor piano piece "Mary Ann") are consistently creative. More than anything, this album is flat-out fun, even if behind the scenes cracks in the band's armor were beginning to show. Perhaps in part because of Buxton/Bruce's erratic behavior due to drugs, but also probably due to his preference for them as players, more and more Ezrin was turning to studio aces Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter to perform the guitar parts. The writing was on the wall...
Muscle Of Love (Warner Bros. ‘73) Rating: B+
Recorded as the band was splintering, the last Alice Cooper band album is a back to basics, more straightforward hard rock album that was produced by Jack Douglas (most famous for his work with Aerosmith) rather than Bob Ezrin. And you know what? I like this much-maligned album, though I agree with the common consensus that it's probably the weakest Alice Cooper band album since the first two, both of which Alice himself considers Nazz albums (I'm not referring to Todd Rundgren’s band, but what this band was also called in their earlier incarnation). The album starts with the almost metallic “Big Apple Dreamin’ (Hippo),” on which I dig the wailing guitars (Wagner was again used extensively on this one, along with an old chum named Mick Mashbir; Hunter was off recording Berlin with Lou Reed) and the lyrics about the Bad 'Ol Big Apple (trust me, she’s not so bad once you get to know her). “Never Been Sold Before” continues with a generic but fun effort, what with its risqué lyrics and catchy sing along chorus, while “Hard Hearted Alice” is uniquely atmospheric, and “Crazy Little Child” is a nifty little jazzy number. That bit of theatricality out of the way, straightforward hard rock then returns on the generic but catchy and fun “Working Up a Sweat” and the even better and harder rocking title track, while “Man With the Golden Gun” is an interesting anomaly in that it was the result of the band being commissioned to write the theme song for the James Bond film. The song was rejected by the movie’s producers, probably due to the band’s notorious reputation rather than it having anything to do with the song’s merits, as it would’ve been a good fit for the spy flick. Anyway, “Teenage Lament '74” is the catchiest and most commercial song on the album, with female backing vocals by Liza Minelli and the Pointer Sisters (then again, that’s not any more surprising than Alice’s previous duet with Donovan on “Billion Dollar Babies”) and another lyric sympathetic to the teen set. I really like the dark twisting riffs and catchy, shoutable chorus of the final track “Woman Machine” as well, despite some generic tendencies that tends to mar Muscle Of Love on the whole. Don't get me wrong, given my complaints about Ezrin's at times intrusive "overproduction" on the last two albums (one of which I love anyway), I'm glad that they decided to strip down their sound here and concentrate on rocking out again. However, perhaps due to too many drugs and fatigue from non-stop touring and recording, the songwriting simply isn’t as consistently inspired this time out. Again, it’s still a good album, but the cracks within their ranks were about to cause the band to crumble, and this was the last time that most people would hear from Dunaway, Smith, Buxton, and Bruce, all of whom went onto careers of anonymity as the singer Alice Cooper became a solo star.
Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits (Warner Bros. ‘74) Rating: A+
This perfectly timed collection successfully looks back at the prime years ('71-'73) of the Alice Cooper band, during which time they released an astounding five (mostly stellar) albums. Yet for all their original album's strengths, this compilation contains most of what any casual fan would want from a funny, campy hard rock band who made some great singles. “I’m Eighteen” and “Schools Out” in particular are the obvious high points, containing killer riffs, anthemic choruses, and great lyrics that anyone who is (or ever was) a teenager can relate to. However, every song here is a winner, as these original Detroit shock rockers supply plenty of hooks while exuding a warped but likeable personality (it helps that they never take themselves too seriously). This compilation collects 12 classic songs from Love It To Death ("I'm Eighteen" and "Is It My Body?"), Killer ("Desperado," "Under My Wheels," "Be My Lover"), School’s Out (only the title track), Billion Dollar Babies (the most songs at four: "Hello Hooray," "Elected," "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "Billion Dollar Babies"), and Muscle Of Love ("Teenage Lament '74," "Muscle Of Love"). Greatest Hits largely eschews the band's moodier and more progressive sides in order to focus on their most accessible moments, most of which acknowledge an affinity for '60s pop, show tunes, psychedelia, and art rock in addition to more customary hard rock influences such as The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, and The Doors. Granted, there are some essential longer songs missing, such as “Ballad Of Dwight Fry” and the three epic entries from Killer, but this actually works in the album's favor, as Greatest Hits clearly aims to concentrate primarily on Alice Cooper the party band. As such, this is the most consistently fun and listenable Alice Cooper album around, and though it only tells a small part of the story, by and large it is the best part of the story, and as a result this is one of those rare "greatest hits" albums that's become something of a classic in its own right.
Welcome To My Nightmare (Warner Bros. ‘75) Rating: A-
The first and best Alice Cooper solo album saw a reunion with producer Bob Ezrin and the addition of the top notch guitar tandem of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (both mentioned previously and both of whom are probably best known for their work together with Lou Reed). The transition went well, as this album - easily Alice's most theatrical yet - and the tour that followed were big commercial successes. Alice states right away on the stellar title track, "welcome to my nightmare, I think you're gonna like it," and I for one do really enjoy the majority of this concept album, whose songs take you through the nightmares of a young boy named Steven, even if I miss the raw garage rocking sound of the early Alice Cooper band. Heck, this album has as much in common with the likes of The Sweet or Meat Loaf as The Stooges, but despite its catchy songs and commercial nature it's still weird as hell, not only lyrically but musically with its often child-like vocals and even a Vincent Price cameo (which is utterly "delicious"). When Price's monologue segues into "The Black Widow" it's a wonderful moment, and the rest of that song delivers great hard rock as well. Additional highlights include the supremely catchy if bizarre cabaret-styled show tune "Some Folks," the sensitive anti-abuse ballad “Only Women Bleed,” the album's big hit single which features one of Cooper’s best ever vocal performances (even hitting some falsettos that would make Elton John proud), the easily singable (or better yet shoutable) “Department of Youth,” the classic hard rocker "Cold Ethyl" (another song about necrophia!), and the dramatic, impassioned “Steven,” whose horns and orchestrations are obviously Ezrin-enhanced. There's was a true partnership, as Ezrin co-writes six of these songs, as does Wagner too come to think of it (the catchy, hard rocking "Escape" is the lone song they weren't involved with), so even Alice Cooper the solo artist was more a partnership than a true solo outing. Fortunately, Alice was working with talented collaborators here, and he was hungry to prove his mettle as a solo artist as well, so the results are highly enjoyable even though it took me much longer to warm up to this album than the best Alice Cooper band albums. After all, there are some really big production numbers here, and as a result I sometimes feel that the album is overly campy and overproduced. However, the bottom line is that the storyline is compelling, the songs are fun and catchy, the new band is really good, and the whole thing just wins me over big time when all is said and done. Alas, though he's done some good stuff since, serious bouts with booze and drugs, not to mention a shifting of priorities that saw Cooper hobnobbing on Hollywood Squares and luxuriating in his role as an elder statesman of hard rock, saw to it that Alice Cooper's music would rarely rise this consistently high ever again.
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