Like any other music fan, my musical tastes have grown over time, but for the last 26 years one genre in particular has always lurked in a small corner of my subconscious. It’s cartoonish, completely over the top, and primarily geared towards boys in their early teens, but even today, I’m always a total sucker for some good, old fashioned shock rock.
Whether going back to the early days of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the ‘80s shtick of W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, and the woefully underrated Lizzy Borden, White Zombie in the ‘90s, and lest we forget, the indefatigable KISS, that marriage of hard rock/metal with flash and theatrics, has never failed to draw my interest. Hell, even if GWAR is incapable of writing a good song (which, to be frank, is often), I can never miss watching them bleed and spew on hundreds of adoring young sickos. Unlike the patently humorless Marilyn Manson, good shock rock cranks the pure fun of heavy music to complete excess, and no matter how old you get, seeing a gigantic latex cave troll named Bonecrusher mercilessly devour someone onstage somehow never gets tiresome.
Of course, at the top of the shock rock heap is the great Alice Cooper, but for as long as yours truly has been an admirer of his prolific 1971-1973 period (when Alice Cooper was an actual band, not a solo act), his high-gloss music and stage shows of the mid to late-‘70s, his late-‘80s resurgence, and his remarkable longevity today, there’s always been one small gap in Coop’s career that I’ve misunderstood since my teens, a three year period at the start of the ‘80s in which Alice desperately attempted to reinvent his persona and music, only to be critically savaged, virtually ignored by mainstream audiences, and declared passé by us kids at the time. Like other albums from that time period that were similarly slammed and initially overlooked (Motörhead’s Another Perfect Day, Black Sabbath’s Born Again, Kiss’s Music From the Elder), Alice Cooper’s output from 1981 to 1983 has found its own audience over the years, and with the re-release of those three albums by Collectors’ Choice label, there’s no better time to take a closer look at some very underrated records that too many people, myself included, underestimated for so long.
After the Alice Cooper band’s phenomenal run of ballsy, gritty, gutter rat rock ‘n’ roll, Cooper’s subsequent solo efforts expanded the sound to a garish degree, bringing in a heavy dose of Broadway. While the hard edge was still present (“Black Widow”, “Go to Hell”), what kept his career going in the late-‘70s was a series of ballads co-written with guitarist Dick Wagner that laid the schmaltz extremely thick, starting with Welcome to My Nightmare‘s gothic classic “Only Women Bleed” and continuing with more confessional-style hit singles “I Never Cry”, “You and Me”, and “How You Gonna See Me Now”. Sure, it’s a very nice compliment when Frank Sinatra covers one of your songs (“You and Me”, in Cooper’s case), but when you wind up singing the same track with a Muppet, as classic a Muppet Show episode as that was, you’ve officially lost your edge.
A stint in rehab, a subsequent slip further into alcoholism, and a deteriorating physical appearance didn’t seem to stop Cooper at the onset of the ‘80s, though, as he underwent a baffling, remarkable musical reinvention, starting with the Roy Thomas Baker-produced Flush the Fashion, an audacious foray into new wave and post punk. It wasn’t unusual to see aging rockers attempt to cash in on the high-gloss, synthesizer-heavy sounds that were in vogue at the time (from Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English”, to Rush’s “Subdivisions”, to Neil Young’s “Computer Age”), but Cooper’s marvelous single “Clones (We’re All)” remains one of the very best of those crossover attempts.
To this day, Cooper swears he has absolutely no recollection of this period in his life, but at the time, messed up as the guy had to have been, a strange creative spark was clearly lit in the wake of Flush the Fashion, and the three albums that followed would only challenge, and ultimately polarize his core audience even more.
By the time Special Forces came out in 1981, Cooper looked like hell, emaciated and appearing far more aged than his still young 33 years. Of course, it certainly didn’t help that he’d ditched the classic black eye makeup for more of a drag queen look, but it was all in the name of generating a reaction from his audience, and along with the live show’s mixture of borderline fascist imagery and A Clockwork Orange‘s provocation, that album pulled out all the stops. Whether or not it was successful, though, depends upon whom you ask.
In direct contrast to the considerably upbeat Flush the Fashion, Special Forces darkened things considerably. The classic hard rock and proto-metal aesthetic that permeated Cooper’s music for so long was now replaced by more of a punk influence, the riffs by Mike Pinera and Danny Johnson more biting than heavy, the rhythm section of bassist Erik Scott and drummer Craig Krampf far tighter than your usual metal approach, Krampf often utilizing 16th beats to further emphasize that taut feeling. In retrospect it was an admirable move; Cooper could have easily gone in an aggressive, New Wave of British Heavy Metal direction or even pandered to the increasingly popular pop rock/metal crowd, but people would have just seen through that. Instead, the punk approach fits Cooper like a glove, especially when you consider how influential the Alice Cooper band was on the first wave of punk rock.
Although Cooper’s voice doesn’t change one iota, his delivery combined with his new backing band lends a very strong Iggy Pop feel throughout the record, and although it’s not without some inconsistent moments, it’s nevertheless a very effective stylistic shift, easily his most abrasive album since Muscle of Love, right down to the various military references (“My blood is like ice underneath / Oh, I’m the reincarnation of Patton”) and, in the case of “You Look Good in Rags”, using cocking guns as percussion. “Who Do You Think We Are?” and “Vicious Rumors” bookend Special Forces perfectly, a pair of ferocious, hostile rockers that, for all their outwardly punk accoutrements, are good, old fashioned garage rock at heart, Cooper and company seething on both tracks.
“Who Do You Think We Are”, Paris, 1981
His knack for tongue-in-cheek sentiment is ever present on satirical tracks like “Prettiest Cop on the Block” and “Skeletons in the Closet”, but interestingly enough, the two winners on this album are actually covers. The entire band clearly has a blast tearing through Love’s 1967 proto-punk classic “7 and 7 Is”, and despite the tacked-on fake crowd noise, the updated “live” take on the Billion Dollar Babies gem “Generation Landslide” is an inspired move, the recording far rawer than the original. Originally left off the original album at the last minute, the moody “Look at You Over There, Ripping The Sawdust From My Teddybear” appends the reissue as a bonus track, but it doesn’t take long to realize why Cooper had the song removed. It clashes too much with the rest of the album, its only purpose now as merely a curiosity from that era in Cooper’s career.
The facetiously titled Zipper Catches Skin (1982) should have worked a lot better than it did. It’s a formula that plays to many of Cooper’s strengths: the concise punk/garage rock of Special Forces is there, this time with a welcome dose of humor and a stronger emphasis on accessibility rather than abrasiveness. Unfortunately, there would be no “School’s Out”, no “Elected”, no “Teenage Lament ‘74”, no “Department of Youth”. Instead, we get an absolute train wreck loaded with indications that our Alice just might be losing his marbles after all.