Once More, Mr. Nice Guy
"I found a million dollar baby/In a five and ten cent store . . ."
-- Billy Rose, 1931
In other nickel-and-dime news, this year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortchanged Alice Cooper singularly and collectively when it again failed to nominate Vincent Furnier and friends into the old boys' club. Sure, getting into the R 'n' R hall of fame is a dubious honor -- kind of like being praised and dipped in formaldehyde at the same time -- but if we must have a music mausoleum, I'd feel better if it had a guy in there who loves the dead before they're cold.
Certainly Cooper has influenced several generations of musicians already -- the booklet to 1999's boxed set The Lives and Crimes of Alice Cooper practically reads like a petition to get him elected, with everyone from Bono to Burt Bacharach signing their support. Yet the snub continues. Either the Chicken Defamation League has a particularly strong lobby or Rolling Stone publisher and Hall of Fame chairman Jann Wenner is still pissed off about all those pictures of the Coop in Creem magazine holding up Boy Howdy! cans.
Thirty years later, it's easy to forget how crucial the Alice Cooper Band -- Cooper, guitarists Mike Bruce and Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith -- was. These Phoenix sons blurred the lines between acid rock, shock rock, glam rock and punk rock -- and they did it over the course of two years and four albums, recorded while they were touring like fugitives. Most bands today need that much time just to figure out whom to thank in the sleeve notes.
After two not-so-hot long-players, the group and then-rookie producer Bob Ezrin hooked up, simultaneously toughening their stance and streamlining their approach. And, it should be noted, they were tough at a time when folks were still counting backward to Lothar and the Hand People records. Love It to Death, Killer and School's Out were all early signs that the peace-and-love '60s were over, but Billion Dollar Babies -- the team's crowning achievement -- effectively nailed the hippie coffin shut, ushering in the glitter era in America and backing it up with the kind of record sales that David Bowie was still pretending he'd had.
When Alice Cooper's mentor Frank Zappa proclaimed We're Only in It for the Money in 1968, it was about the worst thing you could say if you were a rock band. But by 1973, the bill for free love came past due, and an album housed inside a giant snakeskin wallet seemed like the apogee of decadence and cool. The myth reinforcing David Bailey photos that adorned Billion Dollar Babies found the band decked out in white satin suits, posing with wads of genuine U.S. currency, stroking white rabbits like some James Bond super villain and making a poor infant in eye makeup cry.
After years of being available only on a cheapskate who-gives-a-shit-just-get-it-out CD configuration, Billion Dollar Babies has finally gotten the Tiffany treatment it deserves. Encased in a real wallet-size package, the new Warner Bros./Rhino Deluxe Edition restores all the original artwork, features new liners (by News Times' Brian Smith), improved sound and adds in a bonus disc of live songs and studio outtakes (an elaborate DVD-audio of Babies was also just released). To mark this auspicious occasion, we gathered Cooper, his longtime personal assistant Brian Nelson and legendary producer Bob Ezrin to reminisce about the making of this historic album, which began production just as the single of "School's Out" was perched in the Top 10, slugging it out with the likes of Elton John, the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, not to mention the Osmonds, Mouth & McNeal and Daniel Boone.
Alice Cooper: The whole idea of Billion Dollar Babies was us sitting there saying, "Two years ago, we couldn't even buy a can of tuna fish." And people wouldn't let us play in their bar for free. Now we're voted number-one band in the world above the Beatles, above Led Zeppelin in Melody Maker, all those papers. And Melody Maker wasn't even a big fan of ours. But we were so popular that it was undeniable.
Prior to Billion Dollar Babies, the word "pressure" hadn't figured into the Cooper vocabulary. "We honestly didn't care. Love It to Death came out and we were so happy it made the charts and was a gold record and Killer was actually the fifth-biggest record of that year in Rolling Stone, we're talking about sales. Then when School's Out came out, that really vaulted us to the top, to the real big leagues. And following it up with Billion Dollar Babies was something no one expected. They figured we had one huge hit album, we had two hit albums before that, but we weren't gonna top School's Out. But Billion Dollar Babies came out and actually topped it."
"Let the show begin . . . I'm ready/Ready as the rain to fall just to fall again/Ready as the man to be born only to be born again."
-- Rolf Kemp
Few people realize that this Babies opener was not a Cooper original -- even fewer know that it was also the opening track of Judy Collins' 1969 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
Cooper: The very first version we heard was a demo tape, actually. Rolf Kemp was a crippled guy from Canada and he was a friend of Bob Ezrin's. I was listening to it as the opening of the show and this was perfect. It had the kind of feel of "Send in the Clowns." I was thinking of it in a much bigger electrical way, but I loved the grandness of it. The funny thing was we never took outside material. We wrote everything. We took it and made it Cooperesque. In the end, we probably did write half of it but gave him all the writing credits. People always want to hear that song, that's how lasting it is.
Ezrin: It's beautiful. You've got to remember the times. It's a little hippie-ish. Judy's version was like "Let the show of my life begin." It had nothing to do with the show itself. But in my mind, it could. I believed it was a way to open our show.
When Collins sang, she was a mere spectator. "So I will sit and act so prim/And I will laugh when this thing begins." This wouldn't do for a showman like Cooper, who opted to stand "strong and thin" and scream, "God, I feel so strong" over a fadeout that sounds like cannons blasting. Circus magazine once intimated that the noises on the coda were the sound of some arcade games Cooper had installed in the studio.
Ezrin: I don't remember what's on the end of the track. Then again, it was the '70s.
"Raped and Freezing"
What would've been a strong contender for a single on anyone else's album served as filler between two killer tracks, but what filler! Alice has the seduction tables turned on him by a little old lady from Santa Fe. With a few nips and tucks, it's a brisker "Be My Lover" minus one consenting adult.
Released six months in advance of the album as a quick follow-up to "School's Out," "Elected" also tied in beautifully with the '72 presidential race, where anyone who never lied to ya seemed like a viable candidate. Like "Hello Hooray," it was a radically reconstructed version of an older tune, this time from the band's back catalogue, as the track appeared in an early version on their debut, Pretties for You.
Cooper: We couldn't let that one go because we'd already had a huge anthem. We saw the election coming and thought, "We'll just tap into the 'Elvis for President' thing. We'll make it 'Alice for President' because I was the only one who could ever make that work. People say we came very close. I'm sure all the freaks wrote me in. But who'd want that job?
Ezrin: It was, "Why don't we run Alice for President as a joke?" We had "Reflected," and we said, "Why don't we just change the words?" Well, we can't exactly just change the words, but it was a good starting point. The idea came first and the song was built to suit it. And what an amazing track that is. Listening to the tape recently, I was reminded what a wonderful record that was, how well-crafted. The only thing that I regret to this day is the mix, which I could've done a better job on. I just felt it could've been punchier and I could've had the vocals up more. In general, I could've made it sound ballsier.
Cooper: We made a small little film to go with the song. We didn't have really any place to play it. We didn't have any MTV, there wasn't even a Midnight Special or In Concert at that time. I consider "Elected" to be the first short video and Welcome to My Nightmare the first long full-length studio video.
On the "Elected" video and the Billion Dollar Babies sleeve photos, Cooper is seen without the trademark eye makeup. Perhaps a subliminal bid for respectability, so that Cooper might carry the South?
Brian Nelson: You were drunk. (Laughs.)
Cooper: Brian wasn't there to say, "Put your eye makeup on and take your watch off."
"Billion Dollar Babies"
Another Cooper trademark -- kicking off a song with a minimal amount of instrumentation. Many of Cooper's creepiest cuts feature Dennis Dunaway's isolated bass (a technique which made Jane's Addiction's first album seem rather Cooper-esque). On this track, the drums begin things all by their lonesome.
Ezrin: Very often, we'd start with one instrument and go from there. It was a device for making our songs theatrical and powerful and constantly growing in size. It was a way to be able to kick off a rock song and still have tons of punch left to come. If you started with everyone blasting, you had very little room to grow.
Cooper: That was written off one of Neil Smith's drum riffs. Rockin' Reggie Vincent was a guitar player friend of Glen's and mine, and he came up with a couple of riffs on the song so we gave him credit on it. We were basically calling ourselves Billion Dollar Babies, you're throwing all this money at us and we're still babies. We have no idea of what we're doing.
Lyrically, the song (and "Generation Landslide") finds Cooper tipping his top hat to Billy Rose's Depression-era anthem "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" with its references to dime stores like Kresge's and Woolworth's, while the decapitated baby-doll heads link it to previous Cooper triumphs of bad taste like "Dead Babies." No children were harmed in the making of that record -- the sound of the baby crying was actually done by an adult. Here, the squeaky doll squawks are replicated by an unlikely source, '60s folkie Donovan, who happened to be recording in an adjacent studio. Incidentally, no tune on Billion Dollar Babies features Ezrin's sonic signature -- children singing. However, Ezrin would employ the trick on Welcome to My Nightmare, as well as albums he produced for KISS, Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd.
Ezrin: "Another Brick in the Wall" was the ultimate kid record. [Cooper's manager] Shep Gordon said when he heard that he pulled off the highway laughing because it reminded him of "School's Out Redux." And in a way, he was right. What the hell? When you find something the audience likes, why deprive them of it? There was a lot of kid themes in the Alice Cooper stuff because we were kids.
Not inspired by an actual toothache so much as a desire by the Coop to see an audience suffer. The extended spy instrumental passage was a staple of every Cooper live show, allowing him time to chase a dancing molar across the stage with a toothbrush.
Cooper: I was trying to think of what's the worst sound in the world. A dentist drill. We've got to get that thing in there because I would love to do a thing onstage with a giant dentist drill. How horrible is that? Tap into that fear. Everyone hates that. Then after that, where would he go if he went into a dream? He'd go into a spy dream. We were always suckers for TV theme songs. So in that section, the theme for I Spy was going on, the James Bond theme and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme are all going on at the same time and it all fits in mathematically.
"No More Mr. Nice Guy"
A song that reminds us Pat Boone shouldn't be allowed near amplification, but also one that recalls a time when Cooper -- now a golfer, restaurateur and respected member of the community -- was the scourge of decent citizens everywhere.
Nelson: When I was a kid growing up, I used to get teased, yelled at and mocked because Alice Cooper was a fag. And I said, "Who do you listen to?" And they'd say, "Elton John. Elton rules." I'd get the crap beaten out of me being an Alice Cooper fan.
Cooper: To this day he does! (Laughs.) As soon as people got over the Alice Cooper name and realized that we were always after girls, then all of a sudden came Elton and Bowie, and they were definitely ambiguous.
Even after Cheech & Chong fused Alice and Bowie together in the film Up in Smoke?
Cooper: Which was funny. I thought that was one of the great moments when I was watching that movie and all of the sudden Alice Bowie comes out. Y'know what? That was a cool song, I wish we would've learned that song. Cheech & Chong used to open up for us -- we did a lot of shows with them, so you could imagine that tour. They were at their absolute peak, [the comedy duo's pot-heavy 1972 album] Big Bambu was out and we were always afraid to cross borders with them. Back then, they would take a bus or an airplane apart looking for stuff.
The lyrics to this tune read like a drastic take on the '60s teen-revolt flick Wild in the Street. Only in this case, it isn't the 14-year-olds who get the vote, but brazen bed wetters. It also appears here in outtake form as "Son of Billion Dollar Babies."
Ezrin: The way that we used to work is we would all gather and bring in our stuff and then we'd start by listening to the ideas that each of us had brought in. Basically, I was the arbiter, but everybody got to express themselves, and if something really grabbed our fancy, we'd pick up the instruments and start playing it. And that was a really good way to inspire creativity and freedom of thought. We would go to playing before we were ready to commit to anything. In the process, we worked up a lot of things that never got used, but part of them may have survived. It may have just been a riff, which we'd hold it to the side until we needed a another riff in D."
Very likely, "Generation Landslide" -- the only new five-way composition on the album -- was a result of this cut-and-paste construct.
Cooper: That was Bob Ezrin. Bob wanted this to be the real effects song.
Ezrin: I don't think we ever demo'd it. It's supposed to sound like the whole universe has slowed down to half speed. It's one of those things that started out on a piano late, late, late at night (chuckles). And it had an ominous and sick sound to it in the very low register of the piano. The idea was to capture that richness and percussiveness and thickness with the band. Some of the stuff was actually recorded at a higher speed and slowed down to normal. I don't remember all of the things we put on there. I remember the smashing of the guitar for the solo. That was the most fun I'd had in years. We had to come up with a solo that was suitably sick for the track and tried doing stuff backwards, which was okay, but it had been done before and we tried things, effects which were distracting in a way that I didn't feel served the song. And then somebody fed back out of an amplifier and it was just awful feedback and I said, "That's it. That's what I want. Let's just get a bunch of that, shall we? And let's augment it with the sound of smashing, crashing and destroying a guitar." It was either Glen or Mike, I can't remember which one did it.
Cooper: I don't know that "Sick Things" belongs on that album. It does now, but it's so creepy; it belonged on one of the creepier albums. Lyrically, it fits right in there. And I was thinking about the fans. We were always kind of making fun of us and our fans. Our fans were fans, but they were cultish. I mean, even to this day there are people today who are absolutely frightening cultish fans. I don't know if it happens to the Guess Who. I know ABBA has that kind of vicious fan.
When somebody dedicates their life to your band, then suddenly they are identified with you, everything that happens to you happens to them. They're looking so much for an identity that they take on the identity of the band. They fight for you in bars, and I wish sometimes I could go, "C'mon guys, we're just a band, okay? Your entire life does not have to depend on me." They give their life over to the band's existence -- you couldn't do anything to lose them as fans.
Not even slipping a ballad on the album like "Mary-Ann"?
Cooper: Mike Bruce was sitting down playing this song, but he was serious! Absolutely serious about this being a song for us, and it didn't have the kicker ending for it. He played it for us and we said, "That's nice. What're you gonna do -- sell that to James Taylor?" Because it's a sweet song. So I sang it, and at the end I sang, "I thought you were my man." And everybody started laughing. So I said, "If we do this song, at least we'll have a punch line."
The decadent cabaret reverie of "Mary-Ann" gives way to another eerie Cooper song co-written with Bob Ezrin -- one that Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious used to perform in subway terminals for loose change. Cooper has often said that he and Ezrin would plan out the general theme of an album and figure out how to make it pay off. It's a stretch, but you could almost make a case for "I Love the Dead" lyrically. After all, when you've amassed more elephant dollars than the Hamilton Mint and you've screwed every type of life form on the planet, what else is there to do but scour the cemetery for new kicks that won't kick back?
Cooper: "I Love the Dead" should've probably been on the Welcome to My Nightmare album. I always felt that song was a little out of place on Billion Dollar Babies. Maybe at the time we may have been thinking, "Hey we've got to give them something creepy." To maintain the creepiness . . . at that time we had that image. But I wish that song would've been on Nightmare or Hell. In reality, it actually felt like it belonged on Love It to Death. The feel of the song had a Dwight Frye, big, dark minor-key thing going on.
With its necrophiliac finale, Billion Dollar Babies bulleted to number one shortly after its release in the spring of 1973.
Cooper: When you have a number-one record, you can absolutely do anything you want. If we would've said, "Now we're gonna paint our heads green," every kid on the street would've had a green head. Number two? You don't have the same power. And the competition . . . when you put out a record then, you were up against Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, all these bands that every time they put out a record it went to number one, and here's Alice Cooper putting out a record and everyone's going, "Huh? How does this fit in?" But it went right across the board, competed with everyone of those records and ended up on top. That was definitely a message that things were changing.
No one could have anticipated it, but the era the group worked so fervently to launch was already drawing to a close. For starters, it was the first album to feature the diminished contribution of Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton. Although the Cooper camp maintains "respect for the sleepers" by saying Buxton had health problems, it's the serious drinking that the whole group engaged in that incapacitated Buxton's musicianship first. Besides Rockin' Reggie, Lou Reed stalwarts Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter pitch in licks. It's perhaps the ultimate compliment that these hired guns do their damnedest to imitate Buxton's style.
Ezrin: Prior to Billion Dollar Babies, the only guest spot was on Killer, because Rick Derringer was in the studio next door and he was a hero of ours. And Glen didn't mind. I didn't actually have to look outside the band for a long time. But Glen was having substance-abuse problems. Mostly he was just drinking a lot. In the early days, the solos were fairly simple and required far less technical ability. As we grew as a band and the stuff got more sophisticated, we began to leave Glen behind. The question was, what's more important, the song or Glen's feelings? Ask me that question today as a more mature guy, I might have a different answer. But then we were all fired up on a mission from God to make these albums. Everything had to be great and nothing was to stand in our way.
By 1974, the only thing standing in the way of the Alice Cooper band was the group itself.
Ezrin: I didn't do [Billion Dollar Babies' follow-up] Muscle of Love because of a difference of opinion. I think in general, everyone was at a point where a change was a good idea. We all worked together a lot and very hard and we'd done it a number of times and we came in -- all of us -- kind of looking for something new for Muscle of Love. The band's idea of something new and my idea of something new weren't completely in sync. It felt like maybe we shouldn't do this record together.
Cooper: After that, we started to feel the pressure. Now we've gotta do an album that's better than Billion Dollar Babies. Then the band was getting really cocky and they started feeling like, "Well, we're really great musicians."
Nelson: The other pressure was that the band was touring so much that they were never given any breathing space to craft a good follow-up -- ever. That's one repeating theme that's heard from everybody back then.
Cooper: When Billion Dollar Babies came out, we were on a two-year tour where we didn't have time to count the money we were making or spend it. In those days, when you had a record out, you had to work the record because there was no MTV. You had to show up live. We were averaging five shows a week for two years. It just never ended.
Instead of rest and re-Cooper-ation, the band teamed with Jack Richardson (the producer who originally turned down an opportunity to work with Cooper and sent his assistant Ezrin to check the band out instead) and Jack Douglas for Muscle of Love, the last hello hooray from the Alice Cooper group.
Cooper: Muscle of Love was a pretty cool album, it just didn't . . . it was too fragmented. It didn't have the glue because the band was all over the place. I felt that that's what the album was, the band's conscious effort in the writing to go the other way to tone down the theatrics. To me, the next natural album would've been Nightmare. With the original band, Nightmare would've been our biggest album. The songs hadn't been written yet, but it would've happened because most of the ideas for those albums came from me anyway. In the end, School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies was coming from Ezrin and myself, and so when it came to the lyrical part, the actual written word and the titles, a lot of those things came down to me and Ezrin. Welcome to My Nightmare would've come up. But Muscle of Love was like, "Well, we've just had a number one, we gotta go back in the studio right now, we gotta get another one." We just didn't give the time to breathe.
After a stopgap greatest hits, the original group disbanded for good, with Cooper reuniting with Ezrin and taking the Alice Cooper name as a solo artist. The original members (minus Buxton) countered by forming a band named after the band's most famous album. The Billion Dollar Babies released their one and only LP, Battle Axe, in 1977. While a few catchy Michael Bruce riffs turn up, so do a lot of boring song titles: "Too Young," "Shine Your Love," "Love Is Rather Blind," "Dance With Me" and one too boring to even list. (All right, you asked for it . . . "Rock n' Roll Radio.")
Cooper: I was just thinking about that the other day: The band spent all their time not wanting to do theatrics and then put together an album called Battle Axe and did a whole theatrical thing in a boxing ring! And you're sitting there thinking, "Maybe they just wanted to get rid of the lead singer."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.