Alice Cooper (vocals; born February 4, 1948), Glen Buxton (guitar; born November 10, 1947, died October 18, 1997), Michael Bruce (guitar, keyboards; born March 16, 1948), Dennis Dunaway (bass; born December 9, 1948), Neal Smith (drums; born September 23, 1947).
Before the world heard of KISS, the New York Dolls, Marilyn Manson or Ozzy Osbourne, there was Alice Cooper, the original shock-rock band. With their penchant for ghoulish stage shows and a gender-bending wardrobe, this five-man group brought the element of theater to the world of rock. That alone would securely cement their stature as innovators. Yet they backed up their penchant for outrage with rock-solid music. Beyond the visuals Alice Cooper was a musical powerhouse, incorporating melodic hooks and complex progressive-rock passages into a foundation of catchy, riff-driven hard rock delivered in Cooper’s menacing, take-no-prisoners voice. Many of their songs – including “I’m Eighteen,” “Under My Wheels,” “Be My Lover” and “School’s Out” – remain anthems of the classic-rock era.
During their Seventies heyday it was impossible to be indifferent about Alice Cooper. They were one of the first acts of the modern-rock era that forced people to sit up and take notice, engendering curiosity and controversy in equal measure. The controversy began with the group’s very name. Alice Cooper was the both a band name and stage handle of its lead singer (born Vincent Furnier), suggesting a flamboyant sexual dualism that America was not yet ready to accept. Reportedly, the name surfaced during a session with the Ouija board.
Onstage, Alice Cooper brought a new level of visual theatrics to arenas with their gory array of props, which included a guillotine, electric chair, boa constrictor and fake blood. Their musical set pieces included Cooper’s beheading and electrocution. Their bleakly humorous explorations of the dark side were a far cry from the Woodstock ideals of peace and love. “We were the group that drove a stake through the heart of the love generation,” noted Cooper. The group was even deemed objectionable behind the Iron Curtain. According to Pravda, the Russian state newspaper, “Alice Cooper’s singing makes the blood run cold.”
They even jump-started the punk-rock movement that took root in Britain, inspiring the likes of Johnny Rotten (a.k.a., John Lydon). “I’ve referred to the Sex Pistols as ‘musical vaudeville’ and ‘evil burlesque,’ and for me there was definitively Alice Cooper influence there,” Lydon reflected.
Alice Cooper was banned, censured and lambasted by the establishment, all of which further fueled ticket sales to their concert spectacles. Their 1973 tour broke box-office records previously held by the Rolling Stones, and raised the bar for touring rock bands. After Alice Cooper, fans came to expect more from the concert experience. They wanted to see a show.
The roots of Alice Cooper extend back to Cortez High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where the core members came together as music aficionados with a shared yen for the macabre and surreal. They weren’t necessarily alienated misfits, as three members of the Earwigs – the first group in the Alice Cooper lineage – were high-school track stars who ranked among the fastest milers in the state. Dunaway, original drummer John Speer and Alice Cooper himself (known as Vince Furnier to his friends) could run a 4:30 mile, according to Cooper. Renaming themselves the Spiders, they scored a regional hit with “Don’t Blow Your Mind.” They changed names again to the Nazz and moved to Hollywood in 1968 with the idea of making it nationally. The final name change to Alice Cooper came when they learned there already was a Nazz – the Todd Rundgren-led group from Philadelphia – in existence.
The Alice Cooper band comprised vocalist Cooper, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith. Early on, the group connected with two New Yorkers, Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg, who saw potential in Cooper and his bandmates and became their managers. Frank Zappa signed them to his Straight label. Zappa was attracted to the way the group flouted conventions, both socio-sexual and musical. Alice Cooper’s first two albums, Pretties for You (1969) and Easy Action (1970), were strange even by Sixties psychedelic standards, but hold up today as monuments to the group’s undaunted pursuit of the bizarre.
However, Alice Cooper himself regards those records more as products of the group’s Nazz era and considers Love It to Death the first real Alice Cooper album. This release marked the group’s debut on Warner Bros. and the first of four with producer Bob Ezrin. (He would also go on to produce Alice Cooper as a solo artist.) With his cinematic and colorful production style, Ezrin came to be regarded by Alice Cooper as their George Martin (the Beatles’ producer). He taught them to focus, edit and tighten their more sprawling conceptual numbers. Released in 1971, Love It to Death was a tour de force of misfit fantasies and adolescent angst whose key number, “Eighteen,” gave Alice Cooper its first hit and an indelible classic about the anxieties of late adolescence.
Alice Cooper’s most highly regarded album, Killer – the group’s second from the pivotal year of 1971 - demonstrated that they’d become a fine-tuned ensemble that possessed both prog-rock imagination and hard-rock drive. Two of its songs, “Under My Wheels” and “Be My Lover,” are textbook examples of Seventies rock at its most dynamic. The title track from the 1972 release School’s Out became the group’s biggest hit, reaching Number Seven and propelling the album to Number Two on the album chart. Billion Dollar Babies would claim the top spot a year later and give them two more Top Forty hits, “Hello Hurray” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” However, an exhausting rock-star lifestyle and work schedule were taking their toll on the band, and 1973’s Muscle of Love proved to be the original band’s finale.
Alice Cooper was a musically multifaceted group. They’re best known for hard-rocking hits, but as guitarist Michael Bruce has observed: “There were all these sides to the band. There was a psychedelic side and a hard-rock side and a beatnik side – and, of course, a comic side.”
Cooper himself contended that the main influences on the band were nonmusical. In a 1970 interview with the Berkeley Barb, he said, “Our conditioning has been television, our conditioning has been the space age, so that’s the kind of music we’re going to play. We’re not going to play Delta blues. We were upper middle class suburban brats who had anything we wanted.... The whole end is that we are what we are now – a living social criticism.”
Initially Alice Cooper was steeped in the boundless creativity of the psychedelic Sixties. The original lineup of Pink Floyd, including Syd Barrett, stayed at Alice Cooper’s group house while on tour in America. Although it’s often overlooked, one can detect influences from brainy British progressive-rock groups like Pink Floyd and King Crimson in Alice Cooper’s music, especially on the earlier albums.
One of the unsung heroes of the glitter-rock movement is Cindy Smith, the sister of drummer Neal Smith, who designed and created the band’s outrageous wardrobe. The group’s attention to presentation extended beyond the stage. Even Alice Cooper’s albums came costumed, serving as more than mere sleeves for the records therein. Killer had a detachable poster calendar. The gatefold jacket for Billion Dollar Babies resembled a snakeskin wallet and was stuffed with paper items. School’s Out came bundled with a pair of women’s panties. Muscle of Love was enclosed in a cardboard box, resembling some hucksterish promotion one might’ve heard about on late-night television and ordered through the mail.
Implicit in all of this was the group’s bemused commentary on the gloriously tacky state of a capitalistic nation caught up in the unending marketing of things. The irony is that beneath their shock-rock veneer, Alice Cooper was ultimately as all-American as horror films, sit-coms, pro wrestling and infomercials.
Alice Cooper really was an American band, with peripatetic tentacles that touched nearly every corner of the country. The group came together in their hometown of Phoenix but also lived communally in Los Angeles, Detroit and suburban Connecticut at different points in their career. They had a diligent work ethic and were either writing, rehearsing or touring virtually from their late-Sixties origins to their demise in early 1974.
Thereafter, Alice Cooper launched a solo career that has been prolific and popular, especially the albums Welcome to My Nightmare (Number Five, 1975), Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (Number 27, 1976) and Trash (Number 20, 1989). Three Alice Cooper band members – Bruce, Dunaway and Smith – briefly regrouped as Billion Dollar Babies, releasing one album, Battle Axe, in 1977. However, the five members of Alice Cooper never reunited. Guitarist Buxton died in 1997 due to health complications from drug and alcohol abuse. Beyond the world of music, Cooper has appeared in several movies (including a memorable cameo in Wayne’s World) and hosts a successful syndicated radio show, "Nights with Alice Cooper." His 2008 album, Along Came a Spider, was the 25th album of his career, including those by the Alice Cooper group. In 2011, Cooper released Welcome 2 My Nightmare.
It's impossible to imagine the attitude of punk rock, the theatricality of New Wave or the style and sound of hair-metal and latter-day punk bands without Alice Cooper’s precedent. They influenced acts from Guns n’ Roses and Green Day to the Sex Pistols and Marilyn Manson. Even flamboyant latter-day indie-rockers like Of Montreal owe a debt to Alice Cooper.
“The Alice Cooper Band actually changed the way people looked when they walked down the street,” observed Cooper in a 2000 interview with Russell Hall, published in Goldmine magazine. “And we changed the way stage shows look. We had a big impact on the entire culture, and it wasn’t just the music, although the music has stood up well over all those years. I think we were at the apex of a movement.”