A Buyers Guide to Alice Cooper 1971 – 1975

It’s easy to forget just how consistently impressive Alice Cooper was between 1971 and 1975, both as a group and then morphing into Vincent Furnier’s solo career. From Love It to Death through to Welcome to My Nightmare, Alice Cooper’s output stands comparison to the likes of both Elton John and David Bowie, two other acts who rose to fame at the same time. Sure, all three acts released albums during this period that were slightly less impressive than their others (Pin Ups, Madman Across the Water, School’s Out), but Alice Cooper didn’t release a dud like Young Americans, or one as patchy as Caribou during their apparent hot-streak.

Everything has a beginning. From their humble beginnings as school age British Invasion enthusiasts The Earwigs, through a brief foray being The Nazz and being signed to a record deal by Frank Zappa on the strength of how quickly they emptied a concert hall and (legend has it) enthusiastically turning up at 7am at Zappa’s home to audition for him, Alice Cooper were not looking likely as contenders in the great arena of 70s rock. With two albums of solid, but commercially unsuccessful psychedelia already released and one last album to go on the Straight Records they’d signed with Zappa, Love It To Death was in every sense the last throw of the dice for Vincent Furnier and his band mates.

It is said that such times of adversity can inspire people. In this case it inspired Alice Cooper and their producer Bob Ezrin to create one of the very foundation stones of what would become at first shock rock and over a decade later, via Cooper’s bastard children KISS, glam metal. The secret was down to stripping back the psychedelic excess and concentrate on a much more pure garage rock sound which highlighted the theatrics and onstage morality tale. As Furnier himself has stated in interviews many times since, in a time when rock stars were often seen as heroic figures, he saw it as his duty to provide the world with what it actually needed, rock music’s first pantomime villain.

With it’s dirty riffs and Furnier’s sneaky villainesque vocals, Love It To Death is the bands first genuinely recognisable album in the style that they would very much make their own over the next five years. It’s a loud, dirty and at times quite unsettling rock and roll album, which is everything an Alice Cooper fan wants. It boasts the band’s first bonafide hit in the angst anthem “Eighteen”, which forty years later is now played for great comic effect as Furnier wobbles around the stage on a pair of crutches, as well as the insidious “Is It My Body”, a song which stands up there with the band’s very best. It’s not as if the rest of the album is filler either with the epic “Black Juju” being as close as the band ever got to emulating the sound of The Doors and “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” indicating the increasingly theatrical direction that the band would take over the next few years.

In a long and largely successful career, there are going to be inevitable turning points. Love It To Death happens to be the most significant and best in the career of Alice Cooper.

Killer is as satisfying a 70s rock album as you could mention. It retained the high ground gained with Love it to Death, and was, if anything, a little darker in tone. Two longer tracks, the rightly celebrated “Halo of Flies” and the title track saw the band stretch their legs slightly and demonstrate that they were just as musically adept as any of their less theatrical contemporaries.

Killer was not short on more commercial material either, as both “Under My Wheels” and “Be My Lover” are great singles, and “Desperado” was an impressive B-side, that could have cut it as a single too.

Alice Coopers biggest commercial success at the time, the single “Schools Out”, became an unofficial youth anthem and is one of the key rock singles of any period. It remains forever young, an evergreen statement of youthful defiance. Sadly the album of the same name has not aged quite so well, despite continuing the theme of academic anarchy. Part rock album, part nod to West Side Story, outside of the genuine classic of the title track, School’s Out is strangely short on great tunes. Sure it has loads of great moments, like the bass intro to “Blue Turk”, but the ambition to be accepted as ‘proper musicians’ has eclipsed the need to write good material.

Though the band went through a purple patch between 1971 to their eventual disillusion in 1974, this is their weakest album from that era. Yes, you’ll want to get it eventually, but it’s the title track you’ll be playing most and that’s so far ingrained into our culture that eventually this album won’t get many spins at all.

Billion Dollar Babies is one of the original band’s most beloved albums, catching as it did the wave of success which followed in the wake of the career-making “Schools Out” and the frankly disappointing album of the same name. Regardless of it predecessor’s clumsy attempts at being a theatrical concept, Billion Dollar Babies is where they very much got back on track and hit the same heights they did as they did with the splendid Love It to Death.

Perhaps more than any other album, Billion Dollar Babies is the album where you can hear Alice Cooper’s debt to a number of British rock acts, most obviously The Who on “Unfinished Sweet”.

Perhaps more than any other Alice Cooper album I’ve heard, the strength of Billion Dollar Babies is in its songs. From the opening cover of Rolf Kempf’s “Hello Hooray”, to the unpleasantly titled “Raped and Freezin'”, via the trilogy of brilliant singles “Elected”, the title track and (my personal favourite) “No More Mr Nice Guy”, to the criminally overlooked “Generation Landslide”, the original band’s songwriting was rarely bettered, resulting in Billion Dollar Babies being their most consistent album.

In terms of both creativity and commercial success, Billion Dollar Babies was the pinnacle of the Alice Cooper band’s career. Listening back to it now, it’s just a shame that such heights couldn’t have been maintained for longer.

Muscle of Love is, perhaps unfairly, considered the poor relation of the original Alice Cooper band’s albums for Warner Brothers. Significantly less celebrated than Schools Out and lacking the consistency of Billion Dollar Babies, it’s also a relatively claustrophobic listen, harking back to the mood of Love it to Death and Killer.

In many ways Muscle of Love is the band’s most diverse albums, from “Never Been Sold Before”, with it’s flecks of doo-wop and the shape-shifting “Hard Hearted Alice”, to the unashamed commercial glitter rock of “Teenage Lament ’74”. He’ll you can even hear a touch the musical theatre that The Sensational Alex Harvey Band would make there own here in the UK.

If there’s an overlooked gem in the original Alice Cooper band’s Warner Brother’s output, Muscle of Love is surely it. It deserves all the plaudits that have been undeservedly heaped on Schools Out down the decades.

1974 would see the Alice Cooper band split, with Vincent Furnier keeping the name of his celebrated character to forge a solo career. It could have been a disaster for Furnier, as his former bandmates had proved to be brilliant collaborators over the previous decade and there was a real danger that solo Alice would sound neutered without the band’s muscular backing. As it turns out Alice Cooper had found some top class collaborators in guitarist Dick Wagner and tried and trusted producer Bob Ezrin. Add a crack team of session players including Tony Levin (later to become a member of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel’s band) and invite the brilliant Vincent Price to add his unique vocal talents six years before Michael Jackson did and against all odds Alice Cooper managed to come up with the best album of his career.

The title track alone is worth the price of the album, but it’s not the only reason to have the album in your collection. “Some Folks” recognises that much of Alice Cooper’s stage act owed a huge debt to vaudeville, “Department of Youth” and “Escape” are youth anthems in much the same riff-heavy vein of “Schools Out”, the three tracks that make up the Steven-suite are suitably creepy and with the gentle “Only Women Bleed” Alice Cooper showed that he could be an accomplished and tender lyricist when the mood took him.

Add to this potent mix a song celebrating the joys of necrophilia and a couple of tracks which compare favourably with the material he recorded with his former band and Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare stands as one of the strongest rock albums of the mid 70s, an era not short on great rock albums.

There are a good number of Alice Cooper compilations on the market, from 1974’s Greatest Hits, which is a great compilation of the original group’s Warner Brother’s material, to more recent career-spanning collections which allow you to indulge in Cooper’s post-comeback material, like “Poison”, and some even highlight forgotten corner’s of his output, like “You and Me”, which is a great example Alice Cooper’s underrated skills as a balladeer. The best compilation though is 1989’s Beast of Alice Cooper, which selects highlights from the band’s post 1971 material, as well as a pair of tracks from Welcome to my Nightmare.

It’s too easy to criticise Alice Cooper for being a sub-par rock band who relied to heavily on theatrics to make an impression. The majority of their albums from the early 70s are all the evidence you need to prove that, at this point in their career, Alice Cooper were a legitimately great rock band. Sure, they would make a mis-step with Schools Out, but it would result in an ever-green rock classic and that ground was regained with Billion Dollar Babies. In truth Alice Cooper didn’t lose his mojo until after the career best (albeit solo) Welcome to my Nightmare.

Alice Cooper would spend the ensuing four decades forging a variable career which took in ballads, a vast amount of alcohol, a significant golf addiction, becoming both a capable radio DJ and a Born Again Christian and finally finding himself an almost universally admired figure for being one of rocks most influential characters and (ironically) one of the industries few genuinely nice guys.

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