Vincent Furnier was an LA nobody. The son of a preacher, he was a wannabe, a guy in a go-nowhere band calling itself Alice Cooper. Vince had hung out with Jim Morrison and released two dud albums recorded by Frank Zappa. Other than that, he didn’t have all that much to boast about.
Then he cracked it. His million-dollar idea was to be shocking. As David Bowie was making a career for himself with androgynous glamour, Alice Cooper was enacting terror. Twisting rock’s theatricality in and upon itself, the band performed to outrage their audience.
Whips were cracked onstage, straitjackets applied, presidential lookalikes beaten, corpses defiled, six-foot boa constrictors paraded, and stabbings staged. Shows climaxed with the shock rocker frontman throwing his head into a guillotine, committing suicide by lopping it off (later he opted to hang himself and at other times he used an electric chair). If a bloodthirsty teen fantasy could be envisioned, Furnier and Alice Cooper would act it out.
Sure, many of these gimmicks are now common schtick, and no, Alice Cooper didn’t invent them – the group were as much in debt to Screaming Jay Hawkins, Lord Sutch, pulp horror, B-movies, Bela Lugosi and Groucho Marx as the band was to their own originality. But what they did onstage set Alice Cooper apart from every other Tom, Dick and Harry on the glitter scene.
By the close of the 1970s Vincent Furnier, who had jettisoned the band in 1974 and come to accept the name Alice Cooper as his own, was the king of kitsch and a show biz big shot. A chart-topping pop success, his travelling horror show was a million-dollar extravaganza – one which cost nearly just as much as it made to keep itself the road.
Cooper’s career has been all over the place since then. Far from being the Devil incarnate, the Alice of the present day has evolved from a heavy drinking shock rocker to a golfing entertainer, sober father of three and host of his own synergised radio hour. Yes, he’s about as menacing as Taylor Swift.
But even if that brief New York Minute when Vincent Furnier was rock’s most scandalous showman has long since passed, what’s clear is that Cooper’s music, not least of all that of his classic run of hard-rockin 70’s albums, remain cheap, vulgar and ready to thrill. At his finest, Cooper’s records are nothing less than genre classics.
‘I’m Eighteen’, Love It To Death (1971)
Before ‘I’m Eighteen’ Alice Cooper was a little-known cult outfit. The big change was in the group’s recording. Sure, Frank Zappa had lent the band fleeting credibility, but Vince and company wanted to hit the charts. To do this they reevaluated. With the far-out psychedelic jams of the sixties going out of style, they drew inspiration from the compact Detroit sound of primal rockers like the MC5 and Iggy and The Stooges.
Recruiting producers Jack Richardson and Bob Ezrin, the group’s lengthy jams were pared down to the very basics. Love It To Death is an album of rock ‘n’ roll and of all the record’s cuts, none embody the band’s new trajectory than the fit of adolescent angst that is ‘I’m Eighteen’. The song was an instant hit and with that, the band were wannabes no more. They were public property.
‘Dead Babies’, Killer (1971)
Not content to bask long in the success of Love It To Death, Alice Cooper quickly returned to the studio for Killer. Ratcheting up the horrific content and trash rock aesthetic, ‘Dead Babies’ proved another disturbing hit.
‘Schools Out’, Schools Out (1972)
When it comes to anthems of teen rebellion, the sixties had The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and the seventies had Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools Out’. A testament to Cooper’s perverted genius and ability to dive deeply into realms of rebellious fantasy, the school described in this song isn’t just one which has closed its doors for the summer holidays, it’s been blown to pieces. Cue riff.
‘Welcome To My Nightmare’, Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)
With Welcome To My Nightmare, Vince Furnier went solo. Having taken the name as Alice Cooper for his own, he spent the next few years living a Jekyll and Hyde-like existence. While Cooper wrought no small amount of violence upon his liver, the quality of his music remained high.
‘Elected’, Billion Dollar Babies (1973)
Deep down, every American wants to be president. It’s an aspiration seemingly hardwired into the national psyche. And running alongside the horror, violence and perversion in Cooper’s work, is a cynical take on the ambition and materialism which drives such carnal desire.
Cooper has never shied away from basking in the opportunistic and menacing underside of the American dream. Billion Dollar Babies danced Cooper’s take on greed to the limelight (he toured in a jet painted with gold dollar sings) and, surprise, surprise, the album become one of his biggest hits. Horror, violence and greed? Good solid entertainment.
‘I Love the Dead’, Billion Dollar Babies (1973)
“I love the dead before they’re cold/They’re bluing flesh for me to hold.” Okay, so just a quick correction on that previous comment about Billion Dollars Babies. Horror, violence greed and necrophilia.
‘Billion Dollar Babies’, Billion Dollar Babies (1973)
Cooper denied that his motivations for going into rock ‘n’ roll were fame and sex. As genuinely tasteless as this may be, it made good subject matter for Billion Dollar Babies. It was Cooper’s first #1 record.
‘Sunshine Superman’ singer Donovan provided guest vocals.
‘No more Mr. Nice Guy’, Billion Dollar Babies (1973)
Another hit from Billion Dollar Babies, the song enjoyed a second lease on life in the 90s thanks to the Freshman paddling scene in 1993 coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused. (As successful as this slacker film was, is not this scene, in hindsight, a little disturbing?)
‘Poison’, Trash (1989)
Trash was Alice Cooper for the MTV era. Cooper, now sober since ’84 threw himself back into the limelight with contemporary production, dazzlingly expensive music videos, and backing band that looked like outcasts from Mötley Crüe.
Trash has not a whole lot of what made Cooper famous in the first place, but just enough to do get the job done. Again, Alice hit it the big time. Trash became his largest selling record of all time, even though it may not be his most critically well-received. Sure, Cooper may have become a little more show biz by this point than rock, but this was hardly antithetical to the core of what he was all about. It was, after all, simply another act of rock theatre of his career.
‘Paranormal’, Paranormal (2017)
Writing for British music magazine NME in 1975, music critic Charles Sharr Murray wrote that, “Cooper is a master charlatan; indeed, he has elevated charlantry to a higher artistic plane than anybody else in rock’n’roll had ever dreamed of. In fact, he’s such an outrageous phoney that he isn’t genuinely tasteless.”
Cooper’s career is still going to this very day and there’s little that’s transpired in that gulf of years between Trash and his latest album Paranormal (not to mention a new EP due this year, an album expected in 2020 and musical about his career also in the works) can displace the gravity of Murray’s words.
Cooper is simultaneously a product of low culture, high conceptual art and psychopathic vision of teenage fantasy. Long may he spook.