The former members of the Alice Cooper band and their ambitious but doomed plan for post-Alice glory.
It’s always unfortunate for a band to lose their lead singer – more often than not the central focal point of the group, as far as the general public is concerned. But when the lead singer has the same name as the band and starts to release solo albums under that name, things are definitely going to prove problematic. When Alice Cooper – the group – decided to take a break after Muscle of Love in 1974, the plan was to record solo albums and then regroup, refreshed and raring to go. But Alice Cooper – the singer – had a huge hit with his solo project Welcome to My Nightmare, and to many people, there was little difference between this album and what had gone before – except for a more polished execution. Given the fact that many people didn’t even know that Alice Cooper was the name of the group rather than its frontman, that Vincent Furnier had been using the Alice name since the start of their career and that Welcome to My Nightmare had the same producer and additional session men that had worked on the earlier albums, you can understand why reforming the original band seemed a bit pointless – at least to Alice. He made arrangements to buy the rights to the name and went on his merry way.
For the rest of the band – at least Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith – this left them in a bit of a quandary. They’d been part of one of the biggest bands of the 1970s but no one knew who they were. Having sent fellow band member Glen Buxton packing over ‘personal problems’ of the rock star variety, they pulled in a couple of new members and took the name of their biggest album as the new band moniker. Billion Dollar Babies emerged in 1977, which was probably a year or too late to be honest, and were met with general indifference. I would find the album in the bargain bins of HMV five years later, the name enough to make me investigate further. I was listening to the whole Alice Cooper discography – band and solo work – a lot at the time, and this seemed worth a gamble. My initial thoughts back then were that the album was solid but unremarkable, lacking the musical experimentation and provocations of the Cooper records but not without merit. I didn’t play it a lot and haven’t pulled it off the shelf in forever, but enough of the songs stuck in my head to the point what when the CD reissue came my way, I could immediately remember the choruses at least. That’s not a bad thing; if a song sticks with you for nearly forty years, it must have something going for it.
The album’s songs were – according to the group – written for the next projected Alice Cooper (band) album, and there’s a certain sense to this. However, it’s unlikely that many of these tracks would have made an Alice Cooper LP in the form that they exist here – Alice was co-writer on most of the tracks on earlier albums, so while the tunes might have remained familiar, the lyrics – which are mostly generic rock ‘n’ roll love songs in these versions – would surely have changed. Whether Alice had heard any of these tracks as demos or not remains a mystery; but after the conceptual Welcome to My Nightmare, this might have seemed a step backwards. The songs certainly do feel like a follow-up to Muscle of Love more than …Nightmare does, but that’s not necessarily a positive thing. Muscle of Love was a tired LP from a band running out of ideas and more of the same was not going to ever work, especially after su h an impressive conceptual solo piece.
Ironically though, as a non-Cooper LP, Battle Axe works rather well. The theatrical expectations pushed aside, the tracks can stand on their own as decent mid-Seventies rock numbers. Too Young seems a little too much like it is trying to recapture the teenage frustrations of I’m Eighteen (and was being performed by men closing in on their thirties), but a lot of the songs – Shine Your Love, I Miss You, Wasn’t I the One, Dance With Me – are all pretty good heavy rock numbers. Of course, they also must have seemed out of time in 1977. Music dated very quickly in the 1970s, and these songs had a definite 1974 vibe about them, something not helped by the rather poor production – so poor initially that the album had to be pulled and remixed. Compared to the stellar production of Bob Ezrin on the Cooper albums, this sounds very ordinary. And then there were the rumoured – though never quite confirmed – legal battles with Alice Cooper’s management over the name and other issues, and – most damaging of all – the general disinterest of the public.
Poor sales were the last straw for the band. While they might have weathered the storm as a recording unit, their ambition had seen the group plan an extravagant stage show (also initially concieved for the next Alice Cooper band tour) based around the Battle Axe Suite that makes up the last four tracks on the album. This mini-concept idea saw a boxing ring rising up in the middle of the stage, with Michael Bruce and fellow band member Mike Marconi battling it out with axe-shaped guitars in a story based around the clash between rock, disco and pop. Yeah. That the Battle Axe Suite is by far the weakest point of the album – poor man’s prog rock mostly lacking the catchy hooks of the earlier numbers – doesn’t help, but this idea must’ve seemed a touch cheesy even in 1977. As it was, weak sales and public disinterest made the show something of a non-starter. Unfortunately, the sets and costumes had already been made, and there was even a screenplay for a film version. Too extravagant to take on tour if playing support to bigger acts, too costly for the size of shows that the band could realistically play as headliners, the show became something of a white elephant and proved to be the final straw for the Babies, who seemed unwilling to simply dial the ambition back and play regular shows. I can understand that – if you’ve done theatrical spectaculars, it’s probably hard going back to the ordinary, even though that might have been more in keeping with the times. As it was, Billion Dollar Babies played just four live shows in total. The first was recorded – though sadly not filmed – and can be heard in its grungey bootleg-level glory (that’s not sarcasm, by the way) on the special edition releases of this album, complete with a medley of Cooper tracks (No More Mr Nice Guy, Elected and School’s Out, along with the inevitable encore of Billion Dollar Babies).
These releases have been controversial, with Neal Smith claiming ownership of both the live tracks and the CD of demos that contains seven tracks not on the original album (presumably either rejects or planned for the never-recorded follow-up), though how valid those claims are remains debateable; it seems that Michael Bruce signed off on/supplied all this material, and why just one band member would own the rights to this material is open to question. There were also suggestions that the 2001 reissue of the original album itself was of dubious legality, as the rights were owned by Universal and the Burning Airlines edition was mastered from a vinyl copy. However, the 2020 version from Cherry Red recreates this package completely (though if the original album is still remastered from a vinyl copy, it doesn’t sound it), suggesting that whatever band infighting was scuppering earlier editions is now over… or, more realistically, that the licences from Bruce are legally airtight. Ironically, while a nice edition to the package, neither the demos nor the live recordings feel essential – the non-album tracks on the demos are pretty throwaway (notably, the best of the original LP was co-written by Marconi, which does rather place a question mark over just how much of this was actually planned for a Cooper project).
The Billion Dollar Babies were placed in a difficult position – ironically by their own actions (the band’s management had tried to discourage them from recording solo projects, knowing that if they did, Alice would probably choose to do likewise). It can’t be easy to go from being an integral part of a huge band to essentially forgotten – or, worse still, never really known at all. For the public, ‘Alice Cooper’ was the man who fronted the band, and the almost seamless continuation of his recording career from band to solo artist would have simply reinforced that idea. Billion Dollar Babies, for all their ambition, left things too late, emerging on the brink of new wave with a record that was barely promoted. Cooper himself would have a dramatic fall from grace a few years later, sliding into obscurity and substance abuse (admittedly while recording some criminally underrated albums – but that’s a discussion for another day), but for his former backing band, the attempt to establish their own identity was a short-lived one. However, with the passing of time and the passing of musical fashions, we can look back at this album as… well, not quite a lost classic perhaps, but certainly an above-average effort, at its best when delivering hook-laden no-frills rock ‘n’ roll and only falling apart when it tries to become an Alice Cooper disc. There are at least half a dozen really good numbers on this record, and it’s a shame that the band had so much much bad luck.
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