Alice Cooper was on an airplane after Bonnaroo last year and overheard two young people coming back from the festival.
"They're talking about all these bands I'd never heard of and this one girl says, 'I like the old blind black guy.' The old blind black guy? She was talking about Stevie Wonder! So I'm probably going to be the old scary snake guy. But that audience is going to be shocked when they see the show. That's what I love. People who are expecting us to just sort of walk through it and then rip the place to pieces."
Alice Cooper has loved to shock crowds all the way back to the late 1960s. Back then, the Arizona-formed act was on Frank Zappa's Straight Records and was just working out the shocks. Alice Cooper was a band, although lead singer Vincent Furnier was credited as Alice on the band's album covers.
"We were doing songs that Frank Zappa loved, because they were so out there," says Cooper in a call from his home in Phoenix. "There would be a 2½ minute song and it would have 35 changes in it. Frank would say, 'This is great ... because nobody does this.' "
One of the things Zappa liked was that critics and audiences tended to hate it.
However, when the group began to work with Bob Ezrin on the album "Love It To Death," the band began to create rock classics.
"We would sit down to write a song and he would say, 'Look, we don't do fillers. You can write the angriest song you want or the scariest song or the most heartfelt love song, but it has to be a song. It can't just be a riff with lyrics on it.' So we'd work on verse, bridge, break, chorus, pre-chorus and it was really well thought out before we put it on tape."
The group's first hit "I'm Eighteen" only went to No. 21 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1971, but it became the first in a line of classics.
At the same time, the group developed a style of theatrics that was reviled by the rock elite and beloved by kids. Cooper, the singer, looked like a transvestite horror, and the band began to act out the wilder songs, including "The Ballad of Dwight Frye" and "Killer." Cooper sang while a boa constrictor curled around his shoulders. By the time the group released the album "Billion Dollar Babies" in 1973, communities and even countries were petitioning to ban Alice Cooper from appearing.
"When you have a hit record suddenly the world changes," says Cooper. "You're much more dangerous when you have a hit record. We had 14 of those and that's what made Alice mainstream. I never adhered to what the public thought I should be. ... We made rock 'n' roll come to us."
Alice Cooper, the band, peaked in 1972 and '73, when the albums "School's Out" and "Billion Dollar Babies" went to No. 2 and No. 1, respectively.
"Alice had arrived and there was no stopping at that point," he says. "And we were smart enough to give them what they wanted. We gave them a big show."
Still, the rest of the original group and Cooper parted ways and Cooper released his first album as a solo artist ("Welcome To My Nightmare") in 1975.
Cooper's influence has touched artists from the Sex Pistols (Johnny Rotten called "Killer" the best rock album of all time) to Rob Zombie. And the songs of Alice Cooper have gained in stature. Both Bob Dylan and John Lennon referred to Alice Cooper as a favorite.
"I went backstage at a Paul McCartney concert one time and he and the band were sitting there playing 'Under My Wheels.' I'm going, 'Are you kidding me?' McCartney says, 'That really rocks.' I told him 'The fact that you even know the bass part to that makes my life!'"
Cooper says young rock acts need to work on their knowledge of songwriting.
"I have young bands coming to me all the time with a lot of attitude. They've got the whole look down and you go, 'OK, please let the music be as good as the image.' Then you listen to them and go 'Where's the song?' I'll give them The Beatles' 'White Album,' Burt Bacharach's 'Greatest Hits' and 'Pet Sounds' by the Beach Boys and I tell them, 'I want you to listen to nothing but these three albums for a week. Listen to the construction of the songs ...
"And every rock band should be able to play Chuck Berry. If I was going to jam with the Foo Fighters, Aerosmith, Ozzy's band, Ronnie Wood and Jeff Beck, we'd sit down and say, 'What do you want to do?' and it would be a Chuck Berry song, because we'd all know that. It would be that or a Beatles song."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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