Alice Cooper snakes back into the spotlight with two new reissues
In today’s world of Marilyn Manson, Eminem, Nashville Pussy, and The Impotent Sea Snakes, Alice Cooper seems like the grandfatherly “nice guy” he claims he wasn’t on 1973’s hit tune. Our senses have since been so dulled by the proliferation of sordid sex, drugs, violence, lunacy, and general debauchery through the media – and of course, the Internet – it’s almost impossible to understand what a groundbreaking act Cooper and his rugged Detroit rock band were over a quarter century ago. Two new reissues from the glam/sleaze king turn back the clock and help us appreciate “the Coop” for the visionary he was. More importantly, they provide entertaining listening and a welcome reminder of the concise power of a great hit single.
Although Warners’ Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits has been a classic rock staple and steady catalog seller since its release in 1974, Rhino has gone the oldie one better by compiling a whopping 22 Coop classics on their new Mascara & Monsters: Best of Alice Cooper. Not only does the album practically double the 12 tracks and anemic 40 minute playing time of the original disc, it features crisply remastered audio, short but interesting song-by-song anecdotes written by Alice or a band member, and a full overview of his most popular work through 1989’s “Poison,” his last major hit. Certainly it’s no replacement for Rhino’s own mammoth four-disc Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, and it skips anything he’s done for the past decade, but in a way it’s a more enjoyable overview. Alice Cooper – the band, not to be confused with lead singer Vincent Furnier, who later appropriated the name for himself • began as a long-haired, weird, prog-art rock group, discovered by no less a talent scout than Frank Zappa, who released two early, directionless, and ultimately unsuccessful albums from them in the late ’60s. A label shift to Warners in 1971 brought the struggling group to producer Bob Ezrin, who held the key to the band’s success. Ezrin tightened up their sound, streamlining them into an efficient hard-rock machine. “I’m Eighteen,” their first single from this period, was an instant classic that defined their instrumental prowess as well as their lead singer’s ability to pen humorous yet bitingly satirical lyrics. Whether anyone got the joke is unclear, but the album went gold, kicking off a series of ’70s releases that remain startlingly powerful almost three decades later. Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies and even the comparatively disappointing Muscle Of Love refined their sound and approach. The group grew tighter and was able to maintain their “underground” status even as they enjoyed massive AM hits. As the ’70s wore on, their stage show became bigger, wilder, sleazier, trashier and sexier, setting a new standard for completely over-the-top theatrics that pushed barriers way beyond what was accepted at the time. Cooper’s pet boa constrictor made a scheduled appearance, and the rather gruesome show-stopping guillotine routine every night predictably had parents in a similar dither as the first time Tipper Gore tripped over a Prince album.
Of course, it was all too good to last, and after Muscle Of Love flopped, the lead singer fired his band, took their collective name for himself, and proceeded to trash his career by releasing sappy schlock ballads along the lines of “Only Women Bleed,” “You And I,” and “I Never Cry,” none of which would have passed muster when the original band was cranking at their peak. By the late ’70s, Cooper was playing Vegas – not to mention golf with Bob Hope – and had transformed into a joke that wasn’t funny to anyone.
Thankfully, Rhino keeps the focus of Mascara & Monsters on the early ’70s, but the last 15 minutes of the album is still marginal by any standards. Oddly, only one tune is included from School’s Out • the title track • and since the album sold in excess of two million copies, some more songs should have been included, replacing the last few minor cuts. Regardless, this is a remarkably enjoyable collection, and a big improvement over the existing Greatest Hits, which will likely be deleted soon. But more importantly, it shows how a hard rock band can hone their craft into succinct, driving hit singles that still crackle with an explosive and surprisingly hummable power.
Even better, though, is hearing The Alice Cooper Band in all their glory, and 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies is their ultimate recorded document. While not as musically consistent as Killer or School’s Out, the album captured the excess of the mid-‘70s better than any time capsule or VH-1 special. The inner sleeve photo of the band in full rock star white polyester getups, holding rabbits (!?!), surrounded by real money and Cooper grasping a naked baby with mascared eyes like his own, pretty much says it all. Or says a lot.
The song titles tell the rest of the story. “Raped and Freezin’,” “Sick Things,” “I Love the Dead,” and the title track, featuring a mind-blowing and innovative duet with the flower-power Donovan, fill in the blanks. But hearing the album in exquisitely remastered sound shows how blazingly talented this band was. Cooper was writing his best lyrics in “Elected,” singing with power and surprising subtlety, and leading his road sharpened unit through a batch of his most potent songs, a full five of which are duplicated on M&M. Ezrin pulls out all the stops with horns, sound effects, and a firm grip on dynamics that proved he knew the band better than they knew themselves.
Rhino adds an extra disc to the package with a few outtakes that probably should have stayed that way, and a 45-minute, eleven-track sample of the BDB 73 tour culled from two dates in Texas. Although historically interesting, the stage show was such a visual experience that hearing Cooper rasp, shout, and groan his way through the proceedings as he was tearing around the stage avoiding snakes, giant toothbrushes, and getting his head chopped off with the band gamely trying to reproduce the studio album, doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying listen.
Regardless, this is the kind of package upon which Rhino has made their reputation. With its faithfully reproduced graphics, terrific pics, witty liner notes, snappy remastering, and classy packaging, the album looks and sounds better than ever. Along with Mascara & Monsters, the career and musical history of Alice Cooper is summed up in two tidy packages. Those who missed out the first time have another chance to hear an artist whose rise and fall is as shocking and captivating as the band’s best music. Here’s hoping Killer and School’s Out come down the Rhino pike next, completing this ’70s trilogy of shock rock’s most audacious and talented band.