Alice In Blunderland – Rewinding Through Alice Cooper’s Wilderness Years

Dismissed by critics, forgotten by their creator – could there be more to Alice Cooper’s ‘blackout albums’ than people have suggested?

The story so far: underground rock band Alice Cooper began life in the late Sixties as an experimental, avant-garde alternative to hippy culture, focusing increasingly on the dark side and the wildly theatrical as the band honed its sound and stage show, taking them from fascinating but barely listenable albums like Pretties for You to an unexpected world of hit singles – starting with the anthemic tale of teenage ennui, I’m Eighteen – and a series of edgy, arty, conceptual LPs like Killer, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies before effectively burning out on the album Muscle of Love. When certain members of the band expressed a desire to record solo albums during a much-needed break, the band’s lead singer decided to do likewise. The problem here is that the lead singer was also called Alice Cooper. You can probably see how this would lead to confusion – many fans already assumed that ‘Alice Cooper’ was a singer with a backing band and so treated the new album, Welcome to My Nightmare, as simply the next LP in line rather than a solo project from a band member. Given that the album had more in common with earlier band projects than Muscle of Love had and was backed by an even more theatrical stage show, it’s easy to see how reforming the band at this point was going to be an unattractive proposition for Cooper. He bought the rights to the name and from now on, Alice Cooper was an individual rather than a band.

This was all well and good, except that Cooper’s solo career, having started on such a high, quickly began to unravel thanks to his increasing alcoholism. The albums quickly went from the superlative …Nightmare to the bland, if tortured Lace and Whiskey and a dismally bad live LP before Cooper checked himself into a sanitorium – no Betty Ford clinics back then – to kick his addictions. The stay resulted in a clean and sober Alice and the concept album From the Inside, co-written with Bernie Taupin – an impressive but very slick album that already felt out of time. While Alice had been away, rock music had moved on – the punk and new wave scene that he had helped inspire was now producing the same edgy, aggressive, challenging music that he’d pioneered while he was producing AOR and power ballads.

It’s hard to imagine now, in a time where artists taking years between albums is commonplace, but by 1979, Alice Cooper seemed like a has-been, washed up a mere four years after Welcome to My Nightmare. He’d made an effort to move into acting by only found work playing himself in Roadie or having small parts in notorious bombs like Sextette and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fresh from rehab, his career was at a crossroads. But the new wave scene seemed to point the way forward. Cooper realised that he had gone too far in courting the mainstream – even if, as he would later claim, that his appearances on Hollywood Squares and hitting the golf course alongside Gerald Ford was the ultimate in subversion, the fans weren’t buying it. Cooper needed to regain his edge. He needed to, as he put it, “flush the fashion”. Just what that ‘fashion’ was in 1980 is anyone’s guess but it seems he meant the slick production, the polished pop, the ballads and everything else that had been mainstream in America before he recorded From the Inside.

The album Flush the Fashion states upfront that this is a new, harder-faster-meaner Alice – an Alice Cooper ’80 as the front cover states. Of course, adding the year to your name on a record sleeve also suggests a certain desperation – a ‘please look at me, I’m still relevant’ plea that is bound to be ignored. Certainly, it has a basic look to it – the title scratched into a public toilet door is defiantly unappealing, an ultra-crude call-back to the graffiti-strewn school desk of School’s Out maybe. With the title in big, jagged letters, it certainly makes its point – it’s just that what the point is was somewhat unclear. Had Cooper or anyone around him considered that ‘flush the fashion’ might sound like a statement against the new wave movement, which was very much the fashion at the time? As attempts to regain relevance go, this was perhaps not a good start.

As it turned out, the album spawned a minor hit single, the Devo-inspired Clones (We’re All), which reached no.40 on the Billboard charts and would be Cooper’s last hit for quite some time. The album failed to break the Top 40 and the new, reinvented Cooper – who dropped his familiar eye male-up in favour of an increasingly haggard look that in retrospect can be put down to his new, all-encompassing addiction to cocaine that was probably not a step up from his previous alcoholism – did not catch the public attention. In 1980, old rock stars – even beloved old rock stars – just weren’t cool or relevant to the new wave crowd, especially if they were seen as trying too hard. Cooper’s career slowly went down the pan, with decreasing sales of albums that Warner Brothers barely even promoted. The official Alice Cooper story – and Alice himself – will tell you that these are mostly worthless affairs, the aimless offerings of a man in the grip of an addiction that might have killed him at any moment, desperately trying to remain relevant in the face of a public who had forgotten him and a record label treating his recordings as contractual obligation albums as they patiently waited to drop him.

I’m going to suggest otherwise. Not that most of the above isn’t true – but I’ll always maintain that these four albums, the ones Cooper claims to have little or no memory of even recording, are much more interesting than their reputation suggests. That, in fact, if these four albums represented the discography of an unsuccessful new wave band of the era, people would now be hailing them as lost classics.

Flush the Fashion, produced by Roy Thomas Baker, opens with an uninspired cover of The Music Machine’s Talk Talk, before moving onto Clones (We’re All), which is synth and static riff heavy and takes its narrative from the TV movie The Clone Master. These opening numbers make it clear that, as the saying goes, this ain’t your dad’s Alice Cooper. Apparently, the album’s songs mostly take their titles from National Enquirer headlines and the rest of the album after these opening tracks consists of fast-paced, bitingly cynical observations of modern society – ‘modern’ being 1979/80, obviously. While Pain is a darkly nasty study in physical and mental misery (“I’m the salt in the sweat on the cuts of the slaves/I was the wound in the side while Jesus prayed/I was the filthiest word at the vandalised grave”), the rest of the album is darkly humourous: Leather Boots is the tale of someone finding new footwear on the body of a dead cop, Nuclear Infected is a post-Three Mile Island satire and Aspirin Damage is a mockery of prescription medicine addiction. Grim Facts is a nastily spot-on study of polite society’s fears about what their kids are up to (“the boy’s got problems, the boy’s got stress, the boy’s got a .38 hidden in his desk”) and what might invade their polite suburban neighbourhoods, while Dance Yourself to Death mocks hipster parents trying to be cooler than the kids. Model Citizen nails the celebrities and politicians who take a holier-than-thou stance while being secretly sleazy – and feels like a knowing commentary on Cooper’s own career. Closer Headlines is a neat skewering on people who are desperate for fame at any cost and like the rest of the album feels more pertinent now than it did at the time – pretty much every song on here could be a commentary on 2022 life.

What’s most remarkable about these ten punchy little commentaries is how tight they are. The entire album clocks in at just under 29 minutes. There’s barely a pause between tracks – particularly on side one – and there’s no padding or self-indulgence here. Cooper’s attempt to modernise works well – this feels like the work of someone who is fully aware of what is happening musically and is reacting to it. That the audience who might most appreciate this probably never heard it is an irony that probably wasn’t lost on Cooper. As it was, long-time Alice fans were baffled – it’s as far away from his previous album as it was possible to get and there are no radio-friendly ballads here. But listening to it again now, I’m struck at just how witty, tight and catchy everything here is. This is an album that stands up to retrospective listening and should have been the start of a 1980s comeback for Cooper. Of course, the album sold badly – I got my copy as a remaindered edition just two years after release – and Cooper got more into freebasing cocaine.

1981’s Special Forces feels like a definite follow-up to Flush the Fashion in approach, yet is a very different animal. As with the last album, Cooper is inspired by a trashy newsstand magazine – but in place of National Enquirer, here he’s been reading Soldier of Fortune, with a militaristic, gun-heavy vibe running through the album. The record suffers from a flatter production – there’s no Roy Thomas Baker at the controls here – and Cooper’s vocals feel oddly buried. A cover of Love’s Seven and Seven Is and an unnecessary reboot of his own Generation Landslide – here called Generation Landslide ’81 (sigh…) and presented as a live recording even though it was actually recorded in the studio with fake applause dubbed in – feel like pointless callbacks to the past but tracks like the gender-bending Prettiest Cop on the Block, the discordant Don’t Old to Me and Skeletons in My Closet show that Cooper is still interested in playing with new sounds and ideas. In fact, this is a much more experimental album than its predecessor, throwing out the rock guitar almost entirely in favour of oddball quirkiness – exceptions to the rule are the punchy You Look Good in Rags, Who Do You Think We Are and the military satire You’re a Movie. Even more so than Flush the Fashion, this is Cooper trying to be ‘modern’, eschewing the hard rock stylings of his past for a determinedly quirky new wave sound. At 35 minutes long, the album was still a short, sharp jab – but it is a lot less satisfying and a lot more dated than the previous release, feeling more like a record in search of a sound that it never quite finds. You have to admire the nerve of it all though.

By this point though, Cooper’s on-stage persona had become particularly wasted and skeletal – he did not look like a healthy man even as he set out on what would be his final world tour for several years. Even though Special Forces sold even less than its predecessor, Cooper managed to sell out venues in the UK, something that seemed to genuinely touch him, even though just a few years earlier he’d been selling out multiple nights at Wembley Arena. He recorded the single For Britain Only soon after the tour, a track that felt like a throwback to his past but was none the worst for that. Backed with live versions of Who Do You Think We Are, Model Citizen and Under My Wheels, it didn’t sell to British ingrates but captured a live Cooper sound that was still hard rocking and aggressive. Perhaps this single and the tour made Cooper aware that he had gone a little too far left-field with Special Forces. Perhaps it was just the crack cocaine that was now ever-present in his recording sessions. Whatever the reason, his next album would change up the style again.

Zipper Catches Skin sported Cooper’s most basic cover art yet – literally the lyrics to the album tracks, thus negating the need for a printed inner sleeve – and saw a return to the punchy guitar-led tunes of Flush the Fashion. It’s an album that is awash with pop culture influences, from the opening track Zorro’s Ascent on, there is a constant barrage of references to slasher movies (Tag, You’re It), E.T. (No Baloney Homosapiens), Vampira and On Golden Pond (Adaptable) running through the album. As such, it’s less cynically satirical than Flush the Fashion but is still knowingly humorous. Stripped of the experimental pretensions of Special Forces, it’s just fun. Patty Donahue of the Waitresses pops up with guest “vocals and sarcasm” on I Like Girls, one of a trio of songs (along with Remarkably Insincere and I Better Be Good) that take a sarcastic view on relationships and ‘proper’ behaviour (“if I spray it on the seat, my wife is gonna tie a big knot in my meat/if I spewey too fast, my lover’s gonna put my wrangler in a cast/if zipper catches skin, I’ll know I had it out when I shoulda kept it in”) and I’m Alive (That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life) is so gloriously odd and joyful that you can’t help but love it. The oddity on the album is I Am the Future, the theme song from The Class of 1984 (or Class of ’84 as the sleeve calls it). This is unexpectedly turgid to start with and even though it finally picks up pace, it feels rather out of place here.

Given that guitarist Dick Wagner has called recording this album a “drug-induced nightmare”, it holds up surprisingly well. In fact – and I realise that I might not be selling it to everyone here – it feels like a precursor to some of the comedy-driven punk of the late Nineties with its satirical lyrics and minimalist, punchy style. It’s shame that Cooper claims to have no memory of recording this and hasn’t played any of the songs live. Of course, the same is true of the final album in Cooper’s four-year lost weekend, which is once again a complete switch in styles.

Of all four albums under discussion here, DaDa is the one with the best reputation – which isn’t to say much, admittedly. Cooper himself calls it his scariest album, one that he has no idea what it is actually about. It also saw the return of Bob Ezrin – the man behind the biggest Alice Cooper (band and solo artist) albums – as producer and the album immediately eschews the sounds of the previous albums on the opening title track, which is all moody atmospherics and blurred sounds of a psychiatrist and patient, harking back to the unsettling psychodramas of Love It to Death and Killer. In fact, in many ways the whole album returns Cooper to his classic style, making it a strangely appropriate way for this part of his career to conclude. It’s a conceptual piece that clearly has autobiographical moments that, much like From the Inside, take a long, hard look at the addicted Cooper (who by this time was also drinking again)  – and Cooper doesn’t like what he sees. It’s no wonder that he returned to rehab after this. Tracks like the acerbic Enough’s Enough – an attack on feckless, wastrel parents – feel definitely personal while others take a look outside the Cooper experience (hopefully) to explore a wider world of madness. Former Lee Warmer tells the story of a man who keeps his insane brother locked in an attic, No Man’s Land sees a psycho Santa and his hook-up with a rich girl. and Cooper goes Eighties funk on Fresh Blood, a vampire fantasy. I Love America is a gloriously cynical mockery of American culture, with Cooper adopting a redneck accent to scoff at Reagan-era patriotism on the album’s only track to feel as though it might have fitted on the previous three LPs.

That these are (almost) all upbeat 1980s pop numbers just make the whole thing feel more unsettling, and the album’s final track, Pass the Gun Around, feels like a confessional, self-hating study of alcoholism that features a devastating Dick Wagner guitar solo, bitter recrimination and a final gunshot that feels like Cooper putting the final nail into his career. If the previous albums had been fun-time, party-drunk Alice, DaDa was the hungover reckoning the next day. No wonder he doesn’t want to remember it and his record label hated it and refused to promote it.

After this, Alice parted way with Warner Brothers and made a second, ultimately successful effort to kick his addictions, save his marriage and get his life together. He would vanish for three years and then eventually re-emerge as a heavy metal pastiche of the 1970s Alice – the old make-up back, the guitars and drums pumped up, the record sales steadily increasing and the live shows slicker than ever. Whether this was a good or bad thing depends a lot on your musical tastes. It didn’t feel like Alice was moving forward and innovating – but then, maybe a move into blasting heavy metal on 1986’s Constrictor was just as radical a shift as Flush the Fashion. The albums of the early 1980s were almost immediately forgotten, never to be spoken of except as a shameful embarrassment as Cooper climbed aboard the hair metal train and became a beloved legacy rock icon.

The four albums between 1980 and 1983 will always seem like Alice Cooper’s oddities. His ‘blackout period’, part of a rapid career decline and personal decline, Cooper himself has dismissed them and only the most devoted fans have even heard them. These four LPs deserve another look, though. For all their faults, they show an artist who was always an innovator trying to stay forward-thinking and experimental in a brave new world while succumbing to very old-school rock ‘n’ roll habits. And in their own way, each is a great, underrated album that deserves re-assessment. If you have given these a miss, maybe the time is right to have a listen.

DAVID FLINT

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