They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore
The world stopped turning when Alice Cooper rose to prominence in the early ‘70s. Taking somewhat of a cue from The Beatles, Cooper took rock and roll and molded it to shape his needs. His creativity and talent were unparalleled when it came to not only rock and roll theatrics, but also good old rock and roll itself. In the Alice Cooper Group was a formidable assortment of nasty rock and roll boys. With guitarists Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, the band could simply not be touched. The two created a slab of hard rock that some critics would be quick to incorrectly term “heavy metal” years later. What Bruce and Buxton did was simply bring back some real power back to the six strings of rock that had gotten lost along the way at the beginning of the decade. Sure, there was Zeppelin. But not even Jimmy Page could have dreamed up a more influential and outrageous amalgam of music and theatricality like the one Cooper was offering to teenage kids who were happily eating up the former Vincent Furnier’s satire left and right.
My older siblings were really into Alice. And just to remind people how truly “shocking” Alice was to the parents back then (Marilyn Manson and Eminem have nothing on the Coop), my mother had originally ordered my sister to send back her copy of School’s Out that she had received from a record club at the time because it was wrapped in a pair of women’s panties. We all laugh at that one now, because dear old mom actually likes some of the Coop’s music, like “Caught in a Dream” from Love It to Death.
But at the time, Alice was breaking all the rules, and successfully giving the middle finger to not only the parents, but to the industry as well, that was more or less forced to embrace Cooper when he and the band started selling millions of albums. That fact was certainly helped along by producer Bob Ezrin, probably the only man who could make bombast sound so beautiful. After all, this was the man who was behind the control decks of Lou Reed’s Berlin and Peter Gabriel’s debut album. Ezrin had originally been sent out by the heads of Warner Brothers who didn’t want to have anything to do with the Alice Cooper Group. But the band’s manager had bugged the label so much that they asked Ezrin to go check the band out in hopes that he, too would find Alice Cooper to be nothing but a curio as well. After all, the band had started out as a strangely psychedelic outfit on Frank Zappa’s Straight label, having released Pretties for You and Easy Action to not much acclaim.
Ezrin, however, wound up being thoroughly excited by the group, mistaking the song “I’m Eighteen” as “I’m Edgy”. He was quick to get the band into the studio, not only to record the songs that got him all worked up, but to also help tighten the group into a powerful, functioning unit that would indeed become untouchable by its peers. Thus belong a great string of successful albums (Love It To Death, Killer, and School’s Out), with each one getting more outrageous and more popular than the one that came before it.
Billion Dollar Babies, released in 1973, would be Cooper’s bid to expand the band’s appeal to a wider audience. To trim away a touch of the heavier guitar sounds and produce a glitzy extravaganza previously unheard of in rock, even by Cooper’s own established line of preceding albums. The plan worked. Ezrin’s production that brought in orchestrated bits, horn sections, and the kitchen sink caused Billion Dollar Babies to become arguably the original Alice Cooper Group’s best album. It carried along with it a concept of politics and fame that sneered in the faces of all who desired to be president. The Coop even wound up running for the Big Cheese position himself.
It’s that theme of twisted rock and roll politics that runs rampant through killer tracks like “Hello Hooray” and “Elected”, the latter being a reworking of Cooper’s earlier tune, “Reflected”. In both tracks, Ezrin applies an ungodly amount of brass and the whole mix becomes unstoppable. “Kids want a savior and don’t need a fake / I wanna be elected / We’re all gonna rock to the rules that I make / I wanna be elected” sang Cooper, with his throat-shredding vocals firmly in place. He was giving the kids what they always wanted: a rock and roll leader. In turn, he was also knowingly giving the parents something to get uptight about and fear for their children’s sanity. Basically, it was a good time for all in Cooper’s eyes. In “Hello Hooray”, he addresses this pointedly: “Roll out / Roll out / With your American dream and its recruits / I’ve been ready / Roll out / Roll out / With your circus freaks and hula hoops / I’ve been ready / Ready as this audience that’s coming here to dream / Loving every second, every moment, every scream”.
Alice was also quick to poke fun at his image, while at the same time building upon it. In the hilarious and gorgeously catchy “Raped and Freezin’”, he turns the whole sexual harassment idea around on its head, while on the hit “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, Cooper continues the bad boy characterizations that he started to embrace on Killer and satirizes his popularity with prime time results: “My dog bit me on the leg today / My cat clawed my eyes / Mom’s been thrown out of the social circle / And daddy has to hide”. With its “You’re sick, you’re obscene” line being the sucker punch ending to the chorus, the Coop winked at all the parents and social (and political) factions that deemed him as the perverted madman who killed chickens on stage and led the children away liked some Pied Piper. To Alice, it was all glorious.
He even got so “perverse” as to have Donovan sing on the album’s title track. In “Unfinished Sweet”, Alice explored the terror of visiting the dentist. And in “Generation Landslide”, he took the parental bull by the horns and shook it fiercely: “Militant mothers hiding in the basement / Using pots and pans as their shields and their helmets / Molotov milk bottles heaved from pink high chairs / While Mothers’ lib burned birth certificate papers”.
But what undoubtedly got the mothers’ fingers pointing the most was undoubtedly tracks like “Sick Things” and “I Love the Dead” (Did they even notice the funny “Mary Ann” sandwiched in between?), the latter track being a little ode to necrophilia. Ahh, what wouldn’t dear Alice do? On stage, he had previously been electrocuted, hanged, had his head chopped off at the guillotine nightly, only to rise from the dead for the encore each time. But this? It was Cooper’s crowning achievement. Billion Dollar Babies was everything outrageous and wonderful that the band had been working up to, and in such a short span of time.
However, things were becoming strained within the band. Some of the members wanted to focus more on the rock than the show. Understandable, but also a bit of a shame as all of the guys were part of the successful act. The music spawned the visuals. The songs were as great as ever. Somewhat predictably, the follow-up album Muscle Of Love showed the strain and shortly thereafter the original Alice Cooper Group disbanded, leaving cooper himself to forge even greater successes as a “solo” act with his Welcome to My Nightmare album and tour.
Decades have passed since Billion Dollar Babies was first unleashed. Trends have come and gone, hundreds of bands have attempted to ape Alice’s influence, and most have failed. Cooper himself failed on and off throughout the years, but not without style. He has always done what he wanted to do, even if that meant taking some artistic detours along the way like Lace and Whiskey and Dada that some of the fans found weak. If you want to hear Alice and his original band at their peak, when they could seemingly do no wrong and were laughing all the way to the bank, thenBillion Dollar Babies is the album to discover. It’s brilliant, decadent, and encapsulated all the celebrity trashiness of the Seventies only three years into the decade. Not even Pete Townshend or Roger Waters could have had their fingers on the pulse of the kids like the Coop. Even now, Alice remains a great character and infinitely interesting man and musician.
// Notes from the Road
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