Happy Christmas, regular readers. Some of you complain when I talk about anything other than Westminster politics; however, the Commons is in a long recess, and furthermore, Brexit has become so f-ing boring as to be something beyond explicating upon, so here goes something else. Over the Christmas season I will be commenting on albums that I think have influenced society more than anyone, including snooty music critics, understand. I will bring this back to some grand theory of western society. Or well, something like that. I don’t know; I’m making this up as I go along, so buckle up, this could be a bumpy ride.
In 1977, by all accounts, Alice Cooper was nearing rock bottom. Immediately following his tour that year, Cooper checked himself into rehab. He was drinking a case of Budweiser and a bottle of whiskey a day, according to Cooper himself later on (although, he has to be treated as an unreliable witness given the circumstances). Coop had decided to ditch his band after the success of “Welcome to My Nightmare” in 1975; in the following couple of years after that, his career became something even stranger than it had been up to that point. He started playing Vegas a lot (where “The Alice Cooper Show” was recorded, not incidentally); he began appearing on the TV game show “Hollywood Squares”, a programme that was a sort of byword for anodyne entertainment. He had a guest slot on “The Muppet Show”. Alice Cooper became a weird amalgam of both past it and more famous than ever.
Who decided in the midst of all this to record a live album I have no idea, but what emerged is a masterpiece; a Camus-esque insight into the depth of the human condition, replete with bitching guitar solos. In many ways, I’m certain this was by accident (the insight into the human condition, not the guitar solos). Hardly matters; accidentally brilliant art is as good if not better than that which carries its own pretensions.
Confession: part of what interests me about this album in is its very underatedness. Even Alice Cooper mega-fans tend to give this one a bum steer, and every mainstream critic who has ever reviewed it has hummed and hawed about “The Alice Cooper Show”; not even hated it, just, you know, meh.
It starts with “Under My Wheels”, one of Cooper’s early 70s classics. I like this version far, far better than either the classic recorded version from “Killer” in 1972, or indeed, any other version of the song I’ve ever heard. This one rocks more and has better guitar work than the original (Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner formed a dual guitar line-up at this stage. Both of them were killer session musicians, which means they were much, much better than most rock guitarists by a factor of about 20 at least. It shows). After “Under My Wheels” comes the best track on the album: an incredibly sad, bitter version of Cooper’s first big hit “I’m Eighteen”.
When Coop recorded this live album, he was almost 30 and struggling with alcoholism. He’d been famous for more than half a decade. Singing these words about late adolescence carries with it an irony and, contrary to what I said about this album’s genius probably being accidental earlier, it seems clear that in this instance Cooper knows it. Instead, the song becomes a lament for lost youth. The punky energy of the original is here turned into a dirge; an almost funereal pining for the confusion of young adulthood that at least carries with it a totally open future to ponder.
After that comes one of Cooper’s numerous ballads of the period. This is what I think I really love about “The Alice Cooper Show” and how I can tie it back to my grander (read: slightly pretentious) theme I gave out at the start: you get a re-reading of one Cooper’s early hits, now re-jigged with existential sadness and then, a Vegas style, schmaltzy ballad follows. I really love the headfuck this entails. It’s like Cooper is commenting on the schizophrenic nature of his own image: rebel rock star or mainstream goofy personality? You decide. Here’s another killer guitar solo in the meantime.
“You and Me”, a song that could have been recorded by Barry Manilow and has lyrics such as “If I could take you to heaven, that would make my day complete/but you and me ain’t no movie stars/what we are is what we are/we share a bed, some loving’ and TV”. Cooper as everyman, done large, Vegas style. This song is sandwiched between “Black Widow”, a horror style tune with the lyrics, “He stares with a gleam, with a laugh so obscene, at the virgins and the children he’s deflowered”, and “I Love the Dead”, a straight up ode to necrophilia.
The whole thing is perverse, rocking, musical and sad. I always fail to understand why listeners judge the album in such mediocre terms. Hell people, you want to understand the basics of why we’re so fucked up as a species? Put down the Kierkegaard and listen to “The Alice Cooper Show”! It will only take 40 minutes and it has guitar solos and Vincent Price monologues to boot!
I mean, seriously though, I can well imagine someone hating this. But treating it like it’s, I don’t know, “Love Beach” by ELP or “Third Stage” by Boston or some mid to late 80s monstrosity by Journey that could be used to bore people to death just seems wildly off. Rock critics, by and large, much prefer to drool over Cooper’s next album, the one he recorded and released post-rehab, “From the Inside”. Only that one is the record I actually feel meh about myself; it’s way, way too earnest and desperate for catharsis. Cooper didn’t realise himself he’d already achieved perfection with the previous album; a retrospective of his work that unconsciously commented on it all in a brilliant way, as well as saying something profound about where America had ended up by the mid-1970s. Not only should critics love this one, there should be art house retrospectives about it. If “Mudhoney” by Russ Meyer can be considered art, then “The Alice Cooper Show” definitely fits into that category.
Next time, folks: Another album that maybe some of you will have heard of given a slightly different review than anything you’ve ever read before! Me trying to fit that into the overall thesis in a way I probably failed this time out!