[14 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
It Was a Short, Bumby Ride
Zipper Catches Skin gets dicey immediately, Cooper so devoid of good ideas he’s reduced to singing about Zorro, of all things, as “Zorro’s Ascent” is crammed with awkward Spanish influences, idiotic sound effects, and cringe-worthy lyrics (“Before I don the mask I Don Diego”). The tepid ballad “I Am the Future” is every bit a failed attempt at new wave as “Clones” was a success, while the psychodrama of “Tag, You’re It” shows promise, but at less than three minutes it feels far too underdeveloped. “Adaptable (Anything For You)” is even worse: as if the self-parodical arrangement isn’t bad enough, Cooper drags out some of the most head-slappingly awful lines he’s ever written including the horribly dated verse, ” Now, you ain’t no Hepburn / And I ain’t no Fonda / But if you were drownin’ / In Golden Ponda / Mouth to mouth / I’d resuscitate with you.”
As absurd as all of the tracks on Zipper Catches Skin are, we actually get a handful that, quite oddly, have a way of growing on us. Not coincidentally, all are co-written by Dick Wagner, who returned to Cooper’s fold after an extended absence. “Make That Money (Scrooge’s Song)” is no “Billion Dollar Babies”, but it carries itself with an effectively ominous swagger. As the title clearly indicates, “No Baloney, Homosapiens” is complete lunacy, but Wagner brings enough good Mick Ronson-esque riffs and solos to keep the song listenable.
Things get even sillier on the fantastically titled closer “I’m Alive (That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life)”, the ludicrousness of Cooper’s story at the very least preventing us from turning off the album before it finishes. The sole bonus track on the reissue, the contagious 1982 UK-only single “For Britain Only” is actually better than any of the album’s tracks, making it a very welcome addition on an intriguing but very sloppy album.
DaDa (1983), on the other hand, is a glorious mess. Not so much critically panned as practically ignored by the music media when it first came out, what has been written about it in the metal and hard rock press has not been kind. Esteemed metal writer Martin Popoff fails to see any redeeming value in the album, declaring it, “a crock… a pile of dreadful, keyboard pop that never would have made it to market in a million years without Alice’s good name to force it in our faces. Ol’ Vincent is proving himself a losing proposition of a suppository opportunist on a scale more tragic than David Bowie, Iggy, or Neil Young.” (”The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal: Volume 2: The Eighties, by Martin Popoff”, Collector’s Guide Publishing, Inc., 2005) When viewed without the blinders of stubborn rockist ideology, however, DaDa turns out to be a fascinating mélange of music, lyrics, and visual art.
Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (partial)
The title makes it abundantly clear what Cooper’s intentions are. Clearly taking inspiration from the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century, the album bucks whatever trends there were in 1983, an “anti-art” for that time, a brazen rejection of rock music’s formula and aesthetics. In addition, DaDa‘s cover art is a clever mock-up of Salvador Dali’s 1940 painting Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, with Cooper’s visage used on the two figures that make up the painting’s optical illusion. Dali’s influence cannot be underestimated, either, as he and Cooper were mutual admirers. As Cooper stated in a 2008 interview, “[Dali] saw our show totally different. He saw our show as surrealistic. He saw the show as like one of his paintings. He saw crutches, he saw garbage cans, he saw snakes. He saw all the stuff that was in his paintings. He related it to a surrealistic painting of his, which wasn’t that far wrong because we were all art students and we worshipped Salvador Dali.” (“ABC TV interview”, June 20, 2005)
Musically, DaDa benefits hugely from the input of not only Wagner, but especially the return of Cooper’s longtime producer/collaborator Bob Ezrin as well. It’s obvious that Wagner and Ezrin are shouldering a lot of the load on this record, but somehow, miraculously, they keep things as cohesive as possible. In fact, the brilliant opening spoken word piece “Dada” is all Ezrin’s doing, as creepy a track as Cooper has ever put out, as ambient synths (which will remind many of Burzum’s own electronic material some 13 years later) underscore a rather disturbing exchange between a psychiatrist and his patient: “My son, yeah well, he took care of me. He took care of me for a long, he still takes care of me. And she takes good, and she takes care of me. She takes, she takes good care of me. He takes care of me.”
The sinister, lurching “Enough’s Enough” follows immediately, Cooper depicting a very disturbing father-son relationship, the flamboyant “Scarlet and Sheba” combines Middle Eastern influences, rock opera, and sadomasochistic themes, while “Fresh Blood”, despite its blaring horn synth, effectively revisits a tried and true Cooper theme, as well as bowling us over with some surprisingly good lines (“No one calls and no one visits / We’re like a couplet out of Desolation Row”).
The album is also rife with sardonic humor, whether it’s the Bad Santa-esque romp “No Man’s Land”, the groan-inducing wordplay of “Dyslexia”, and the dripping sarcasm of “I Love America”. On this particular record, though, the darkness always wins out over the light, reflected by DaDa‘s two strongest cuts. Featuring some wonderfully ornate keyboard melodies (reminiscent of themes from The Exorcist and Halloween), “Former Lee Warmer” is driven by Cooper’s most macabre vocal work in years, every bit as disturbing an epic as “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” and “Steven”.
“Former Lee Warmer”
The final track “Pass the Gun Around”, is even bleaker, the tale of alcoholism by far the most personal-sounding Alice Cooper track during this three album stretch, as over a beautiful, lush arrangement (including a great guitar solo) he croons lines that make it seem like he’s hit an all-time low: “I’ve had so many blackout nights before I don’t think I can take this anymore…Throw me in the local river, let me float away.”
Perhaps “Pass the Gun Around” was indeed Cooper’s moment of clarity. As it turned out, he would head into rehab after the recording of DaDa, his career on hiatus as he learned to live a quieter, sober life in Arizona. He’d return soon enough, though, his appearance on Twisted Sister’s 1985 single “Be Chrool to Your Sceul” and his wonderfully exuberant comeback album Constrictor the following year introducing the king of shock rock to an entire new generation, and eventually reviving a career many people had long considered dead.
His remarkable post-comeback run of ten studio albums makes it easy to forget just how low Cooper had sunk right before his life and art were resurrected, but as maligned as they are, Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin, and DaDa form a crucial bridge between two very different eras in his discography, and while incredibly bumpy, that short ride, even when revisited today, is never for a second dull.
Zipper Catches Skin TV spot, 1982