When “School’s Out” ripped out of the Dutch top-of-the-pops one vagabond summer, it was like receiving a postcard from home that fairly brimmed with typical American excess, bravado and humor. This was the meat of the Alice Cooper group’s appeal: they were a living exaggeration of the heavy-metal band, lampooning the genre’s inherent violence with satiric lyrics and a more-sophomoric-than-life visual show that, naturally enough, made them popular for all of the crass reasons their music so effectively parodied.
Musically, the Cooper group were unabashed thieves, with the Stones, the Doors and the Who providing most of their creative ideas. Their execution of the forms was appropriately bombastic, a trait that was accentuated when Bob Ezrin produced their first hit, “I’m Eighteen.” That song was the “My Generation” for the children of the American middle class, privileged but no less confused by frustrating adolescence than their British working-class kin. Alice Cooper’s musically satiric blade was sharpest on Killer, and maintained an assertive if somewhat tarnished cutting edge through School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies before finally dulling on Muscle of Love. By then, with Alice’s Hollywood Squares notoriety eclipsing his band, Ezrin’s metalloid production had become the group’s stylistic quality. The band was effectively drowned in its own image, and Alice cashed in on his own name and went solo.
Lace and Whiskey is Cooper’s third solo outing, and despite the fact that it’s the best of the three, it’s of special interest because it has been released alongside the debut by his old bandmates, now going under the name Billion Dollar Babies. Both records reach for the old Alice Cooper sound—Alice’s in its pseudodramatic detective-story motif, and the Babies’ in their simple rock & roll attack — and while neither of them achieves their past peaks, the Billion Dollar Babies come closer to the mark. The difference is properly ironic — Battle Axe works better because its aspirations are slighter; Alice’s gets lost in its ambitious but too sketchy concept.
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Cooper’s solo career has been defined by Bob Ezrin’s steely slick production and the guitar talents of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. Though Wagner’s and Hunter’s guitars are infinitely more facile than those of Cooper’s old group, they also lack the stylistic bravado that Alice’s songs require. The rockers on Lace and Whiskey have the outer trappings of Cooper’s brutalizing best (particularly “It’s Hot Tonight” and “Road Rats”), but their execution is almost too smooth; there’s a lot of precision and precious little spunk. “Damned if You Do” is the most successful rocker of the bunch, sporting an uncharacteristically straightforward arrangement and piano by Al Kooper, who has been seen sporting an “Al not Alice” T-shirt. Appropriately, on the album’s ballad Alice sings in blue-eyed soulful tones much like Al’s.
Billion Dollar Babies return to the muddy style the Cooper group used with such good results on Love It to Death, with songs built around tough, Stones-like rhythm guitars and standard moronic teenage lyrics. Where Ezrin’s production of Cooper accentuates the components of the metal machine, Lee De Carlo and the Babies keep a thick sound to better showcase the rocky rhythms. Michael Bruce’s vocals are reminiscent of Alice’s without the dramatic edge; he is most effective on guitar-driven rockers like “Dance with Me,” “Shine Your Love” and the highlight tune, a staggered-beat sledgehammer called “Love Is Rather Blind.”
Both Alice and the Billion Dollar Babies fail when they try to re-create the dramatic postures which solidified Alice Cooper’s reputation — Alice because his songs lack the old satiric edge and his accompaniment drowns out excitement in professional excess, and the Babies because they are simply out of their lyrical and musical depth. While Alice seems satisfied to lay his future on the Hollywood star system, the Billion Dollar Babies are again out to find their fortune in the hard-rock underbelly. It’s a long shot, but I’ll put my money on the kids.