Like all the true rock superstars to rise in the Sixties, Alice Cooper is a consummate master of imagemanipulation. He continually sees to it that new configurations are born in his studiedly outrageous stage persona and the spirit-force of his sound, with the end in mind of putting both himself and his audience through a steeplechase of changes and keeping everybody alert at gut-level. Whether the myth has much at all to do with Alice Cooper the man behind the role is highly debatable, but even if it’s mostly fiction it doesn’t matter all that much anyway. Alice is not that much more a self-invention and technician of forms and poses than Bob Dylan has always been. And if you think that’s a far-out comparison, just listen to “Be My Lover” or “Desperado” on this album.
Killer (Warner Bros. 2567) is without a doubt the best Alice Cooper album yet and one of the finest rock & roll records released in 1971. It brings all the elements of the band’s approach to sound and texture to a totally integrated pinnacle that fulfills all the promise of their erratic first two albums, and beats Love It To Death’s dalliance with Thirties flick “spooky” cornball riffs by the sheer sustained impact of its primal rock and roll jolt. And it’s necessary to emphasize those three bludgeoned-into-loam words because there has always been some question of priorities in regard to this band, viz. whether they wanted most to rave up the wang dang doodle or promulgate a kind of concentrated Ringling Brothers sideshow whose essential context and importance were extramusical.
You remember these guys, how they set back straights and hips alike by wearing makeup and throwing chickens to the mercy of the more illiberally aggressive sections of the audience. Well, I think the reaction to the latter freaked even them (Alice Cooper) out, and the other night I saw a fine and rather mainstream —sounding Northern California band called the Wackers do an “Ooooh”-perfect rendition of the Beatles’ “She Loves You” from behind as much rouge and blue eyeshadow as Alice and the boys ever piled on. It gets harder to be avant-outrageous all the time, what with everybody so jaded and I even hear the next catch-phrase to drop from the Max’s dens of iniquity into the Newsweeks is “gay chauvinism,” so what the fuck are you gonna do short of copping a riff not even new when Gilles de Rais laid it down four or five centuries ago and taking to actually disemboweling virgins and infants on stage?
Sing about dead babies, that’s what. Alice’s material, as opposed to his stage business, was never that lurid in the past, but as the shock value of the live show has ebbed with the tides of history he has begun to think about injecting or impregnating the songs with more weirdities, fetishes, decadence and degeneracy in the form of archetypes derived from TV, pre-Wertham comic books, and the pages of paperback textbooks on deviation authored by spurious PhD’s and selling for two or three dollars in liquor stores in every suburb.
You can take all this seriously if you want to, but it was not for nothing that Alice told interviewers from an underground paper in Texas that one of the things that turned him on the most was jacking off. Not that there’s anything wrong with jacking off, either; rock musicians, audiences and critics have been doing it over themselves and each other for years. Alice Cooper is not half as depraved, fortunately or not, as he’d like you to think he is, but he has brought the Hollywood manipulation of fantasies and attitudes to brilliant new levels of cheerful cynicism. Some regard it as contemptuous, nihilistic exploitation and even accuse him of having a vested interest in the status quo and the fucked-up nature of American life because its absurdity turns him on, but I think he’s one of the most upfront stars we’ve ever known and his using up of what was implicit in the appeal of rock stars ever since the Fab Four first shook their pretty mops can only be healthy for all concerned.
And on another level he is talking about himself in all these songs, and more on this album than ever before, because this album deals, by turns graphically and surrealistically, with how Al and confreres feel about their sudden ICBM ascent from semiobscure weirdo band to the glamour and unreality of stardom. Kind of like James Taylor in Mud Slide Slim, except that for all they sing about rage and aggression and death, these dudes are feeling no perceivable angst, believe you me (which may be an ultimately lethal form of hubris). Where the earlier “Caught in a Dream” had them “tryin’ to catch a ride on a Cadillac,” the very first thing Alice does here is declare that he’s got the whole fat world “Under My Wheels.”
Like all of the material on the album, “Under My Wheels” is full-throttle, hard-driving rock & roll. While not as wayward or dissonant as much other Alice Cooper material, it has a singleminded, straight-ahead intensity reminiscent of the Stones’ best singles, and it’s a car song to boot, so it’s inconceivable why it hasn’t become a hit. It even utilizes the current fashionable Delaney & Bonnie Stax- or Muscle-Shoals-derived sax riffings.
If “Under My Wheels” is a Stones classic translated into Alice Cooper’s obsession with machines and technology, “Be My Lover” sets Stones-like lyrics dealing with a sexual situation to a bedrock guitar riff straight from Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” This may be the best vocal Alice’s ever recorded, and Mike Bruce’s words reflect the strutting, smug feeling of the nascent Superstar perfectly: “And with a magnifyin’ glance I just sorta look her over/We have a drink or two, well maybe three/And then she starts tellin’ me her life story.”
Later there is a great moment hilariously reminiscent, whether intended as parody or not, of “Honky Tonk Women”: “I told her that I came from Detroit City/And I played guitar in a longhaired rock & roll band” and here Glenn Buxton’s guitar takes off in a great swooping flight set at reduced volume level so you don’t quite catch it at first “She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice/And I said ‘Listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand.'” The name and the self-conscious sense of charisma will recur later, when he throws in a “This is Alice speakin’!,” and even if you’ve never experienced the pandemonium of a live show you know that this man is a hero to countless battalions of American kids, and he knows it too. And each song on this album finds him in a different role in the endless movie he is projecting on them.
One of the strangest faces of his heroism is found in “Halo of Flies.” The song begins with an effectively mesmeric moog pulsation and a series of circumfluent guitar solos that remind me of movie sound-track music somewhere between James Bond themes and old films about aristocratic chicanery in the courts of Renaissance Europe. The first line of the song is “I’ve got the answers to all of your questions,” and it moves through a humorous sequence where the lyrics “daggers and contacts and bright shiny limos … glimmering nightgowns, poisonous cobras” are set to the melody of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” to a Spanish-sounding interlude where Alice might be parodying Rod Stewart: “And what a middle-Asian lady/She really came as no surprise But I still did destroy her,” but the next line is “And I will smash halo of flies.“
Alice is creating absurd and outrageous collages of idiomatic borrowings combined with a distinctly teen-age sense of the morbid. The song ends in a flurry of guitar-and-moog screams, and it is almost a relief to come down from its rococo intricacies to “Desperado,” which is nothing more nor less than a Hollywood Western turned into a rock & roll song, as Love did with “Singing Cowboy,” except that here Alice sounds more than a little like Jim Morrison, which is supremely appropriate for lines like “I’m a killer and I’m a clown.” And some of the best stanzas in recent music appear in this song, just as effulgent Dmitri Tiompkinish violins stream over the rhythms like a sunset: “You’re as stiff as my smokin’ barrel/You’re as dead as the desert night/You’re a notch and I’m a legend/You’re at peace and I must hide.”
“You Drive Me Nervous” is a great addition to the august line of rock & roll songs and Alice Cooper songs about frustration and anxiety, with some of the most searing double guitar work on the album and lyrics that seem at first to be an extension of “Eighteen’s” adolescence riff into a shriek at parents but reveal themselves eventually to be a message to a confused and footloose lover: “You run upstate/Yer thrown in jail/Yer mama ‘n’ papa comes up and sez: ‘Honey we ain’t for sale!‘” The last line is spoken in a deep caricaturial voice, exactly like Eddie Cochran’s “I’d like to help ya son but you’re too young to vote” in “Summertime Blues.”
Alice knows from whence he comes (even if he seems to come from everywhere), and almost as if they were consciously moving through the history of rock & roll, the next song is called “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and despite another arrogant Stones-like role (“You can be my slave and I’ll be the stranger”) runs in its last half through some harmonica and Springfield-Moby Grape type riffs reminiscent of folk-rock at its best. Followed of course by psychedelia circa Chocolate Watch Band, a touch of Ray Davies in the vocal and certain words, and a pervasive sense of general unwholesomeness in “Dead Babies.” The key line is “Dead babies can take care of themselves”; I find this song a little repulsive myself, but then maybe that’s exactly the idea. Although if Alice Cooper thinks the idea of dead babies is somehow cute, then he’s … he’s … he’s succeeded, I guess, although there are all kinds of motives and ways of offending people, some less justified than others. In any case, the song’s arrangement is incredible, an almost cinematic sound, with beautiful use of french horns a la “Penny Lane.” After that the only way to finish the album and the side’s seeming rock cycle is with more Morrisonics and some almost Procol Harumish organ work in the title song, which seems to have more in common texturally with the material on side two of Love It To Death than most of Killer.
Alice Cooper has come a long way and used up a lot of gimmicks and poses to get to this stunner of an album, but it was all worth it and at this point I can hardly wait for the next one. Love It To Death was still in the Top 100 just before this one was released, and with the help of another hit single Killer should be even more of a giant, because in every area of conception and plain instrumental and vocal tightness it excels. One thing is for sure: this is a strong band, a vital band, and they are going to be around for a long, long time.