I came across Alice Cooper in the oddest way possible: at the age of 11 or 12, attending an end-of-season dinner for my soccer club at ‘Max Kaye’s Theatre Restaurant’– a dinner theatre affair owned by, and featuring the titular hero. Imagine a grubby, sleazy Ronnie Corbett with the sort of humour that appealed to Bernard Manning fans of the 1970s, and you’ll have a fair idea of the sort of entertainment that was on offer.
And in the middle of it all, an (to my childhood mind) utterly incredible dance sequence featuring human spiders and ghosts to the strains of Welcome To My Nightmare.
I was stunned. Within a week I had the album, and a lifelong love affair was born. At a time when the boganistas that surrounded me were sunk into the Chisel/ACDC/Aussie Crawl triumvirate, I was already on a far different cultural journey. If nothing else, my life-long love of the concept album was born with him, and for that alone I could be grateful, if not for the fact that he’s been my introduction into so much theory on the intersection of narrative, music, folklore, and theatre.
He’s had ups and downs: a critical flat spot in the 1980s, and despite the brilliance of later albums like Brutal Planet and The Last Temptation, he’s tailed off with sub-par albums like Dragontown and Along Came a Spider. But he’ll always be close to my heart because, even at his weakest, there’s a commitment to the strange that oozes out of his music, and his theatre, and his lyrics, that I respond to, over and over.
Here then, for no other reason than I love them and they’re not among his most widely known songs outside of Coop fandom, are five Alice Cooper songs that make my sense buzz.
5 For Friday: The Coop
The Ballad of Dwight Fry
Just about my favourite Coop song of all: an ode to the manic, bug-eyed sidekick to Dracula and Frankenstein, and his untimely, tragic end. The song is also a high-point for Cooper’s dedication to his art: a notorious claustrophobic, he performed the “gotta get out of here” refrain while lying on the studio floor, covered with a pile of folding chairs– the panic in his voice is real.
It’s a superb combination of theatre, Grand Guignol, madness, and love for a fellow macabre artist. I love it.
I wear lace, and I wear black leather…… an exploration of, and ode to, the tragedy behind my favourite character in The Magnificent Seven: Robert Vaughn’s broken, ill-fated, gambler-cum-gunman Lee. The song perfectly captures the loneliness and inescapable failure of a man who lives– and is fated to die– by the quickness of his gun hand. There’s a whispering wind behind the song, a sense of futility and fatalism that belies Cooper’s reputation as a shock-theatre performer. It’s doomed poetry at its finest.
HALO of Flies
Apparently written in response to critical opinion that the band were incapable of creating anything more complex than a three-minute schlock-horror pop melody, this is a sprawling, ambitious epic in the manner of the proggest of prog-rock self-indulgencemeisers. It’s a rollicking romp, filled with over the top imagery and self-aware humour (I’ve got a watch that turns into a lifeboat…). The Alice Cooper band were many things, but they were rarely so much fun.
Clones (We’re All)
Cooper’s 1980 New Wave album Flush the Fashion wasn’t just a critical failure: it just about ended the man’s career. Unfairly so: the album’s take on the 1980s fascination with a synthetic, sterilised future is utterly subversive and alienating, and there are several songs on the album that are as lyrically complex and musically ambitious as anything he has ever recorded. Viewed with the distance of time, it’s a perfect slice of Cooper’s terrifying eye: stripped of the Grand Guignol theatre and familiar make-up, it’s a cold sliver of Brave New World-like dystopianism. Clones (We’re All) is the most distinctive track from the album. Ironically so, since it deals with a desperate attempt to retain individuality in the face of overwhelmingly sanitised conformity. It’s a bit of a hidden gem in Cooper’s back catalogue, and an utter favourite.
Inmates (We’re All Crazy)
From the Inside represents, for me, the first small step in Cooper’s slide away from his best work. The mistaken tenure inside a sanitorium is a well-known slice of Cooper folklore (he asked his manager to book him into rehab– the manager booked him into an asylum). But the album is co-written with Elton John songwriter Bernie Taupin, and its softer commercial sound and prominence of ballads (something that would become an increasing part of Cooper’s repertoire– after this, no album was complete without some radio-friendly ballad 3/4 of the way through) does not make it a favourite.
Even so, there are high points: this is probably the most off-kilter of the songs on the album, and the childish sing-song repetition of “We’re all crazy” as the music lifts and rises towards its climax is genuinely creepy. I’m not fond of the album, but I do love this song.