Alice Cooper (the man) may be laughed at now as an out of touch dinosaur who is not only a silly Republican and a golfer but a bit of a throwback to an area of rock and roll where “style” not “substance” was the primary source of entertainment.
I don’t agree with that assessment of the man’s work but especially not of his work with the “Alice Cooper Band” back when he was the solid singer and occasional lyricists for one of the 70’s finest garage rock/art rock/proto-punk/glam rock/heavy metal/Broadway bands ever.
This description may sound like a burst of insanity but it’s absolutely true: the original Alice Cooper band was an absolute gas, starting out with their two weird, math-garage-rock-Zappa influenced albums to their first hit “Love it To Death” which was one of the first albums to match garage rock, art rock and darkness in absolutely equal measure.
This album was a huge hit off of the success of “I’m Eighteen” and the band picked up even greater successes with albums like “School’s Out” and “Billion Dollar Babies” but the peak of their career, the peak of “art-garage” and one of the 70’s best rock and roll albums of all time was the ’72 followup to “Love it to Death” called “Killer.”
Let’s start with the presentation: Alice Cooper was always a band with a solid emphasis on image and presentation but that didn’t really start to coalesce fully until this album. The cover of “Love it to Death” could have been the cover of an Aerosmith album: the cover of “Killer” was unmistakably “Alice Cooper” with a close up shot of a snake, tongue elongated, a blood red background and “Alice Cooper” and “Killer” childishly scrawled above and below the snake, respectively.
And then there are the songs: no real hits but the best collection of songs the band ever put out. Certain albums, especially “Billion Dollar Babies” suffered a bit (in my opinion) from the band’s “macabre” image. They certainly possessed some good music but they often seemed a bit too…silly.
Not so much on “Killer.” Yes, there are some silly moments, especially lyrically but in general this album feels more “real” and “raw” when compared to later albums. I feel the reason for this (musically) is that the band is focusing on punching out aggressive, raw garage rock with intricate garage arrangements influenced mostly by rock and roll (very little of the Broadway shenanigans which made their later albums more diverse but harder to take seriously).
And yet, for all the “rawness” the band successfully integrates a wide range of textures, including a great horn section on “Under My Wheels” (the hilarious “driving” song about running somebody over) to the simple but effective guitar layering on “Halo of Flies.”
The later is a particular success musically as the band easily moves through a stunning succession of simple but great riffs with the ease of a King Crimson. Yes, the stuff they’re playing is way simpler than Bobby Fripp but constructed with more actual songwriting talent.
In other words, these riffs and arrangements are not designed to show off or push the boundaries of music (in the way King Crimson usually did) but to push certain emotional buttons, which the song successfully does (let’s just ignore some of the banality of the lyrics, kay?)
The other lengthy tune, “Killer” is just as good in its own way: driving, atmospheric, weird and with a rather disturbing lyrical image of an emotionless killer being led to the gallows. Once he’s “hung” at the end of the song and that savage keyboard riff starts looping endless…well, let’s just say it startles me every time I hear it.
However, these lengthy sonic explorations are not the stock and trade of the band on the album: for the most part, they stick with sweaty, garage glam and roll such as “Be My Lover” which has a simple but genial riff and melody and funny lyrics.
Perhaps the best moment on the album is “You Drive Me Nervous” which opens with an excellent blast of feedback, has the sloppiest, rawest and best riff on the album combining with an excellent Cooper work out (his pig-like shrieks of “NERVOUS! NERVOUS! NERVOUS! NERVOUS!” do exactly that) and another solid horn arrangement on the outro creating a glam garage rock masterpiece.
The theatrical elements of the band do continue to pop up time and time again including the rather brooding yet complex “cowboy ballad” “Desperado” which moves through several different sections and even has a thrilling string arrangement at the end.
I hate to go “song by song” with this review (as I swore against that when I got back to reviewing) but the album has such a strange diversity within its relatively simple style that it’s hard not to point out the ways all the songs differ. And how strange, macabre and even socially relevant the songs are even to this day.
Songs like “Dead Babies” which might seem like a bit of a bad joke (kind of like “I Love the Dead”) is actually simultaneously a joke and a chilling anti-bad parenting tune (the line “well we didn’t love you anyways” actually hits me hard for some reason).
Sure, that somewhat serious tone didn’t stop the band from chopping up dolls n stage oat the climax of the song. But that’s just Alice Cooper for you: mixing real social critique with horror movie aesthetics to create an unsettling experience. Do you laugh? Do you cringe? Do you do both?
You should do both. The best horror should simultaneously make you laugh at the absurdity of the situation and twitch nervously at the horrific nature of what you’re experiencing.
And that’s essentially what the band pulls off here: a high quality b-horror movie soundtrack that features a wide range of weird characters and horrific situations that simultaneously make you laugh and shriek as it explores the dark side of life realistically AND ridiculously, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty that enhances both the humor and the horror.
Later on, the band mimed the “silly” element a bit too much, going into clever but goofy concept album territory and throwing on tons of gore imagery to make up for the lack of true horror. Think of “School’s Out” and “Billion Dollar Babies” as “Killer Part 2” and “Killer: In Space” respectively.
Both are high quality pieces of entertainment that still possess a few moments of legitimate social intrigue but neither possess the same level of intrigue, depth and horror as the original masterpiece.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not good: they’re still Top of the Pops. Just buy all the original Alice Cooper band albums. They’re all good (even the maligned “Muscle of Love.”)
Songs to YouTube:
“You Drive Me Nervous” for the garage-rock-fury, “Halo of Flies” for the complex weirdness, “Desperado” for the “ballad” atmosphere and “Be My Lover” for shits and giggles.