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Go Ask Alice

Alice Cooper was looking to shake things up a bit at this year's Christmas Pudding concert. So he put in a call to the three surviving members of the original Alice Cooper band, the guys who backed him on such classics as "I'm Eighteen," "Be My Lover," "School's Out," and the string of hits that made up Billion Dollar Babies.

It's been more than 30 years since Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, and Dennis Dunaway have played together as the Alice Cooper band. But they'll be joining forces with the singer on at least five relics from their days as rock's most controversial hit machine at this year's Christmas Pudding, which benefits the Solid Rock Foundation.

And interest is high among the faithful, which should come as no surprise.

Those early records represent the most exciting chapter in the legacy of one of rock's most underrated pioneers — and an "overlooked" writer, according to Bob Dylan.

The son of a preacher man, Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) put together an early version of the band here in Phoenix, scoring a regional hit as The Spiders with "Don't Blow Your Mind." But by the time they hit the streets in 1969 with an album called Pretties for You, they'd moved to L.A., changed the name and come to the attention of Frank Zappa, who produced the album and released it on his own Straight Records. Cooper sees it as a decent psychedelic album, but with no direction. "And that's why Frank liked it," he says with a laugh, "because it made no sense to him.'"

After leaving L.A. for a Detroit scene that found them sharing stages with such kindred spirits as The Stooges and The MC5, Cooper's band — which also featured lead guitarist Glen Buxton, who died in 1997 — met Bob Ezrin. Or, as Cooper likes to call him, "our George Martin."

Ezrin came to see them play, says Cooper, "and he told us, 'Everybody loves you guys, except you have no signature. There's nothing in these records, these first two, that when you hear it on the radio, you go, "Oh, that's Alice."' So we took 11 months and went into a barn in Pontiac and relearned how to play."

What they'd learned in that barn made its debut appearance in '71 on Love It to Death, which featured "I'm Eighteen," their breakthrough hit. "That album sounded like it all belonged together," Cooper says. "There was a cohesiveness we'd never had, a vocal sound that was totally mine, a guitar sound that was totally Glen's. Then you heard it and you went, 'Oh, that's Alice.' To me, that was the first real Alice Cooper album."

Before the year was out, the band had another classic on its hands with Killer, an eight-song masterpiece with highlights ranging from the horn-driven swagger of "Under My Wheels" to the bizarrely Beatle-esque "Dead Babies." Thanks in large part to its brilliantly subversive title track, 1972's School's Out went all the way to No. 2, while Billion Dollar Babies (released in '73) topped the charts and spawned three Top 40 hits, including "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and John Lennon's alleged favorite song, "Elected."

As Cooper recalls, "We had an acetate of the song before it was out, and [Lennon] came over three days in a row to listen to the record, because, you know, he's politically motivated. And the third day, he walked out as I was coming down the hallway and he said, 'Great record.' So I said, 'Oh, thanks, man.' And he took another four steps, stopped, and said, 'Paul would've done it better.'"

For as big as Billion Dollar Babies was, the tour was even bigger. A horror fest of taboo-tweaking vaudeville camp and greasepaint, it would culminate each night in Cooper's death by guillotine. Other popular methods of onstage execution ranged from hanging to electric chair. But it was gallows humor — something parents, in particular, had trouble understanding. Cooper never played his horror straight.

"You have to play it against something," Cooper says. "So I always played it against a bit of comedy. Alice might have slit your throat, but he'd probably slip on a banana peel five seconds later. There was a bit of Clouseau in Alice. He was Jack the Ripper meets Rip Taylor."

Less than a year after topping the charts with Billion Dollar Babies, the Alice Cooper band imploded. But Cooper was back on the charts within a year to carry on the name alone with Welcome to My Nightmare, a platinum smash whose breakthrough single was, surprisingly, a thought-provoking ballad, "Only Women Bleed."

It's been a while since Cooper's last big single ("Poison," from 1989's Trash), but three decades down the road from Nightmare, he's still adding to the legacy. Cooper returned to the sinister smiles and garage-rocking kicks of his earliest hits on 2003's The Eyes of Alice Cooper and its 2005 sequel, Dirty Diamonds, and he's starting work on a new album in the next few weeks that he's thinking is "maybe a little closer to Nightmare."

Meanwhile, signs of Cooper's impact have littered the landscape of popular music for more than three decades, from glam-rock and punk-rock to Slipknot and Marilyn Manson. Johnny Rotten famously auditioned for the Sex Pistols by miming along to "I'm Eighteen." And what is KISS if not one band's attempt to be four Alice Coopers? He was pop music's first great theatrical presence. And he had the songs to back it up.

But all of this, it would seem, has been lost on the powers that be at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Apparently, I'm overqualified," Cooper says.

Which might explain how James Taylor, for instance, got in there before him.

"In some ways, you could look at it and go, 'How cool is that?' Alice Cooper can't get in the Hall of Fame because he's too weird," Cooper says. "It's certainly not because I didn't have the hits. I look at some of the bands that are in and I go, 'Okay, what do these bands have that I don't have?' And I can't think of anything."

But as driven as he is to add new chapters to his legacy, Cooper still goes out and gives the fans "I'm Eighteen" every time he takes the stage.

"You might think 42 years later, when 'Eighteen' starts, or 'Billion Dollar Babies,' you'd go, 'Oh, jeez, not again,'" Cooper says with a laugh. "And in rehearsal, I just go, 'Uh, guys, I can't rehearse this song. I know it upside down, backwards, in Spanish and French.' But you put it on stage and there's 10,000 people and 'Billion Dollar Babies' starts and the audience gets that recognition factor. Suddenly, it's like you're doing it the first time. And you really never do get sick of that."

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Ed Masley