Saturday, February 22, 2020

Alice Cooper

When Alice Cooper Predicted Donald Trump, September 16, 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Forty-four years ago, Alice Cooper ran for President.

Okay, not really – but the singer and his group did release the single “Elected” in September 1972, timed for the final stretch of the Nixon versus McGovern race for the White House.  A bombastic blast of proto-punk fury, “Elected” proposed Cooper as the leader of “a new party, a third party, a WILD party” that would “take the country by storm”. The single was accompanied with an uproarious promo video, in which Cooper drives around in a Rolls-Royce glad-handing the voters and revels in the barrow full of donor cash wheeled in by his campaign manager,  a roller-skating chimpanzee.

The idea for “Elected” actually dated back to the previous Presidential contest in 1968, which inspired Alice Cooper to write a song titled “You Shall Be Elected”. That lyrical concept fell by the wayside but the tune survived as “Reflected”, a track on the group’s 1969 debut album Pretties For You. Flash forward to ’72 and Alice Cooper were now the most infamous band in America, thanks to their shock-rock concerts involving the dismemberment of baby-dolls and faked but hair-raisingly realistic executions of the singer by gallows and guillotine. Following the chart success of “School’s Out,” the group were on the brink of the superstardom they’d been chasing for four grueling years.  So they decided to jump on the election-year bandwagon and drastically remodeled “Reflected” with the original lyric restored and intensified. Instead of “You Shall Be Elected”, the hook line became “I wanna be elected”: a messianic power trip for a singer who justifiably saw himself as a leader of youth.  

Bob Ezrin, the group’s producer, came up with a shrewd ruse to generate the declamatory demagogue vocal that “Elected” needed. “To get the performance I had a full-length mirror placed in front of Alice on an angle,” Ezrin told an interviewer. “That way he could see his entire body in reflection.” Gesticulating like an orator, Cooper rasped out lines about how the “kids want a savior, don’t want a fake” and vowed that very soon “we’re all gonna rock to the rules that I make.” Ezrin added horns suggestive of statesman-like pomp and distorted bursts of TV newscaster voice-over in the style of Walter Winchell. After $10,000 of studio time and eighty hours of obsessive mixing, the result was one of the hard rock classics of the first half of the Seventies.

From its whiplash opening riff through Cooper’s abyss-plunging scream to the portentous descending bassline in the outro, “Elected” can also stake a claim to be punk rock four years ahead of historical schedule. The tone of apocalyptic glee mingled with megalomania anticipates “Anarchy in the U.K.” (Johnny Rotten was a huge Alice fan and his audition for the Sex Pistols involved miming to “I’m Eighteen” on a jukebox). There’s a lyrical preview of punk too: during the fade, Cooper reels off a list of U.S. cities that have “problems,” then whispers “and personally... I don’t care” – a glimpse ahead to the taunting nihilism of “and we don’t care” in “Pretty Vacant.”

Listening to “Elected” recently while working on my new glam rock history Shock and Awe, I heard another element of prophecy:  Cooper’s drunk-with-the-promise-of-power performance reminded me of nobody so much as Donald Trump. Like Cooper, Trump is an entertainer moving into politics, using showbiz techniques that bypass reasoned analysis and policy proposals and instead conjure a baseless aura of authority. When Cooper rants about how “you and me together / young and strong,” it sounds like Trump’s blasts of hot-air about America being great again, how “we’ll win so much”. There’s Trump Tower-like bling too when Cooper brags about being “a dandy in a gold Rolls-Royce”.

Long before Trump ever featured in its pages, Alice Cooper made the front cover of Forbes. In the financial magazine’s April 15th 1973 issue, the band were held up as exemplars of “a new breed of tycoon” that had emerged thanks to the Seventies rock business’s bonanza of platinum albums and mega-grossing tours.  Beneath the headline “the rockers are rolling in it”, an interview with Cooper saw the singer describe himself as a true patriot: “I’m the most American rock act. I have American ideals. I love money!”  In another interview - with Bob Greene, a political journalist who followed his Nixon/McGovern campaign chronicle Running with a book documenting an Alice Cooper tour– the singer talked about his success in Trump-like terms as the result of a pure will to dominance: “It was nothing but positive thinking. I’m very competitive....  That’s my main life drive – being better than everyone else.”

 “Elected” was the taster for Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that propelled Alice Cooper to mainstream megafame.  A brazen celebration of money-making, the album stomped on the last vestiges of hippie idealism still lingering on from the Sixties: instead of sticking it to the Man, why not become the Man?  Billion Dollar Babies’s packaging was styled as a snakeskin wallet bulging with cash; inside, fans found a facsimile of a billion dollar bill. The accompanying tour was the most spectacular and lucrative (raking in a then astronomical $4,000,000 for 64 concerts) that rock had yet seen. The group travelled between cities in a private jet with a dollar symbol on the plane’s tail.
In interviews Cooper described the album and the show as a celebration of decadence – then an in-vogue concept  because of the movie Cabaret. “It’s happening in the States now, all that German thing of the Thirties,” Cooper told Circus magazine’s Steve Demorest. “There is so much money in the U.S., and everyone has as much sex as they want. All we’re doing is reflecting it. I like the idea of the American Seventies producing a cabaret of over-opulence.... I’m a nationalist. I know the States is the best place in the world to live in.” Indeed Billion Dollar Babies concerts ended with the band unfurling the Stars and Stripes to the sound of “God Bless America”.

Dismayed pundits at the time took the commercial success of Alice Cooper’s sick-humor and cynical worldview as proof that the assumed link between rock and progressive politics had proved illusory. All those benefit concerts for McGovern played by rock bands had done nothing to forestall a landslide reelection for Nixon, self-proclaimed champion of the silent majority. Some critics outright identified Alice Cooper as Nixonian rock.  In truth, the singer had not even voted in ’72 – something he professed to feel ashamed about. But Cooper did say that “I wouldn’t have voted for McGovern”, mainly because the candidate was too wishy-washy and changed his mind so often. 
Generally, Cooper professed to find politics “so boring”, quipping that “if elected, I would impeach myself”. But while the finale to the Billion Dollar Babies concerts involved a Nixon lookalike bounding onstage only to be roughed up and bundled off by the band, in interviews Cooper expressed sympathy for the President,   embroiled in the Watergate scandal shortly after his reelection triumph. 

“I think Nixon’s got a rough job,” Cooper told Greene. “And if he’s guilty of anything, I don’t think it’s anything new. He’s just the first one to get caught. I think Nixon’s a star... He’ll go down as one of the biggest personalities ever to come out of the United States, just by being so notorious.... I would love to spend some time with him. I’d probably sit down and talk about golf.” That never happened but Cooper did get to play golf alongside Nixon’s VP and successor Gerald Ford in a celebrity tournament. In further bizarreness, one of the singer’s four homes was right next door to the Phoenix, Arizona residence of Barry Goldwater, hero of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and a failed Presidential candidate in his own right.   

Like the acting profession, rock has continued to lean left and liberal for the most part.  But the existence of right-wing rockers – Ted Nugent, Johnny Ramone, Kid Rock, Gene Simmons, Avenged Sevenfold, and Alice Cooper himself, who’s been described as a “quiet” supporter of George W. Bush but whose intentions in 2016 are undeclared– shows that there is no innate and irrevocable link between rock  and progressive politics. Indeed rock’s combination of populism and individualism arguably inclines more logically with a libertarian agenda than with socialism. 

When you look at the “rock star” version of rock - the model for misbehavior and excess that’s recently been so influential in rap – it becomes obvious that it has far more in common with Trump’s worldview than, say, Portlandia values.  “Rock star” rock runs on ideological-emotional fuel like vanity, wasteful splendor, and alpha-male display. There’s a reason why Trump soundtracks his stadium-concert-like rallies with songs like “We Are the Champions” and “I Won’t Back Down”, and why he could plausibly  add “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” to the playlist too.  Magical thinking, vacuous self-aggrandizement, an appeal to gut feeling and irrational uplift, us-versus-them postures: if not the rock candidate, Trump is at least the hair metal candidate.

Although a Top 5 smash in the U.K., “Elected” did not repeat the success of “School’s Out” in America, stalling at Number 26. Let’s hope this is an augury for November.

postscript: but I didn't know that Alice had "run for office" on another occasion:

(via Rebekah Gonzalez column at I Heart 80s Radio)

"I represent the Wild Party and I even have a campaign slogan: Alice Cooper - A troubled man for troubled times."

That's how Alice Cooper made headlines on February 24th, 1988. Announcing that he would be running for governor in his home state of Arizona as a write-in candidate. But anyone who had been around in the early '70s knew that this wasn't Cooper's first time in the political ring. Well, at least a WWE-like, shock-rock version of the political ring.

When Richard Nixon and George McGovern went head to head back in September of 1972, Alice Cooper ran for president with maybe one of the most powerful, low maintenance campaigns of all time. Everything he had to say was in the band's song "Elected" ....

.... Cooper performed "Elected" again in April of 2016, announcing another gag-run for presidency. There was no need to change the words of a song written in the '70s for a presidential election happening in 2016...."

Alice Cooper
The Guardian, June 12th 2014
by Simon Reynolds

Alice Cooper is reminiscing about the days when he killed himself for a living. “Any time you have moving parts onstage, you are asking for Spinal Tap,” he says of the gallows and the guillotine that were climactic fixtures  of his tours of the early 1970s.  “And when it doesn’t work, you have to play it for comedy. “  But that time the gallows broke in England was no laughing matter. “There was a wire connected to my back, it stopped the noose from hitting my neck, and we’d done the trick one hundred times, never thinking ‘maybe that wire is getting brittle’. And then it snapped and the noose grabbed me for real.” Cooper was quick-witted enough to tilt his chin up and slip through the noose.  He was lucky to escape with a nasty rope burn down his throat.

41 years after this close shave, Cooper sits placidly in a downtown LA hotel suite directly opposite the Grammy Museum, where the previous night Super Duper Alice Cooper, a rockdoc about his life and exploits, made its West Coast debut.  Amongst the invitation-only audience were legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres (a friend of the Alice Cooper band during their phase of living in LA as Frank Zappa protégés) and sundry Cooper-influenced metal performers such as Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider.

Wearing white jeans with an excess of zips, a plain black T-Shirt, and a vaguely sepulchral medallion nestled in a thicket of chest hair, Alice looks much the same as he did in his Seventies heyday, give or take a few  wrinkles  and some paunch. But then when you watch the old footage spliced into Super Duper, it’s striking that he never really seemed like a young man.  From his swarthy, crow-like countenance to his scrawny body, Cooper was never going to become a rock star through sexual magnetism, nor from the strength and beauty of his voice. 

Instead he became one of the best “bad” singers rock’n’roll has ever known, his haggard rasp equally suited to the proto-grunge snarl of “I’m Eighteen” (his break-through US hit) and the megalomaniacal bombast  of “Elected”. Abandoning “erotic politics” as a faded relic of the idealistic 1960s, Cooper based his act around death, with LPs like Killer and Love It to Death, and the necrophilia anthem “I Love the Dead”.  The band’s hard-riffing tunes and grand guignol theatrics drew a vast following of “sick things”: young kids looking for something definitively Seventies, a nihilistic new sensibility as repellent to older rock fans as to their parent’s generation. 

For a while Cooper was even huger in Britain than in America.  His infamy was boosted by a campaign to ban his concerts launched by the Labour MP Leo Abse, and by Mary Whitehouse’s efforts to stop the BBC showing the group’s #1’s single “School’s Out”.   

“Boy, we could not have bought that publicity,” laughs Cooper. “They couldn’t  figure  out why we were sending him cigars and her flowers.  But every time they spent an extra hour trying to ban us in England, they helped us so much. “ Abse and Whitehouse formed an unlikely alliance, given that the Pontypool MP had been an architect of the permissive society, by pushing for legalization of homosexuality. But at a time of anxiety about rising levels of youth crime, Cooper’s disturbing image and gory theatrics were easily connected in the popular imagination with A Clockwork Orange and the copycat ultra-violence that Kubrick’s movie had allegedly inspired. “When I saw the film, I thought, there’s an awful lot of Alice in Alex,” Cooper says of Malcolm McDowell’s delinquent anti-hero. “Like me, he’s got a snake, he’s wearing eye make-up.  And later McDowell actually told me, ‘there’s a few Alice references in there’.  So I totally related to A Clockwork Orange – not the mindless violence, but the fact that violence has its place in theatrics.”

British rock always was more theatrical than its American precursor, and often this involved destruction or apocalyptic gimmickry:  The Move smashing TV sets, Arthur Brown and his flaming helmet, Screamin’ Lord Sutch making a grand entrance from inside a coffin.  “That’s why most people thought we were British at first,” says Cooper.  Another affinity with U.K. rock was the art school genesis of the band. “Me and Dennis Dunaway, our bassist, were both art majors and probably the two strongest forces as far as the image and the staging. We were Salvador Dali fans.”

As Super Duper Alice Cooper relates via its well-executed interweaving of photographs and voice-overs, the group started out in Phoenix, Arizona as a high school Beatles parody act the Earwigs, before evolving into the more serious punkadelic garage band The Spiders. By 1969, they had moved to LA and hooked up with manager Shep Gordon, a young man with no music industry experience but an instinctive grasp of the Andrew Loog Oldham Principle: not only is there no such thing as bad publicity, but the manager’s job is to engineer outrage, propagate rumours, incite hysteria.

It was Gordon who blagged the band a prime spot at 1969’s Toronto  Rock and Roll Revival festival, playing just before the headlining John Lennon, and who most likely arranged for a chicken to find its way onstage mid-set.  Thrown by Alice into the audience, the poor fowl was torn to shreds.  “It seemed to upset the whole world,” recalls Alice. “That’s when I realised rock was looking for a villain, somebody that would have done that on purpose.  That spurred me to create the Alice character to be darker.”  It was Gordon also who conceived a stunt that ratcheted up Alice Cooper’s notoriety in Britain.  A flatbed truck carried a giant billboard of Alice, nude except for his pet snake, through London, only to mysteriously break down in Piccadilly Circus, where a bevy of reporters and photographers just happened to be waiting to document the ensuing traffic jam and police fracas.

Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that spawned two of Alice’s biggest UK hits (“Elected” and “Hello Hooray”) was the band’s peak. The massive tour of America raked in so much money Alice made the cover of Forbes as emblem of a new breed of rock tycoon. But in reality, the band were funneling most of the proceeds back into their increasingly spectacular stage production. Frustration with this situation, says Cooper, is one reason the group split up. 

Alice Cooper went solo with Welcome To My Nightmare. The 1975 album/tour/TV special was his most extravagant production yet,  the consummation of his driving intuition that ultimately rock was just another branch of showbiz.  A fan of Hollywood and Broadway who was influenced as much by West Side Story and Hellzapoppin’ as by The Who and The Doors, Cooper thought of himself as “the Busby Berkeley of rock”.

In the second half of the Seventies, he became an increasingly mainstream figure: palling around with the likes of George Burns and Groucho Marx, appearing on TV shows such as Hollywood Squares and The Muppets, even playing golf with President Gerald Ford.  Privately, he battled alcoholism. Alice drank Budweiser from breakfast to bedtime, sustaining what he calls “a golden buzz. I was the most functional alcoholic there ever was. “ But when he graduated from beer to whiskey and “started throwing up blood in the morning”, Cooper realised, “I’m really killing myself.” 

Drained and distracted, Cooper was poorly placed to maintain his relevance in a changing rock scene.  As so often happens, the very people who idolized and emulated Cooper now eclipsed  him.  Punk made his exploits seem tame by comparison, even though Johnny Rotten was a huge fan, auditioning for the Sex Pistols by miming to “I’m Eighteen” and decades later penning gushing sleevenotes for an Alice Cooper box set. In the Eighties, Goth, industrial and extreme metal took death-tripping even further.  Cooper also influenced hair metal outfits like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister. In Super Duper, Dee Snider pays tribute: “We came from this man’s loins. He ejaculated - and glam metal was born”

After overcoming his addictions and renewing his Christian faith (both his father and grandfather were Protestant pastors), Cooper returned in the late Eighties as a revered elder of metal in much the same way as Ozzy Osbourne. But in the process, he says, he underwent a persona shift.  The original, alcohol-era Alice was a victim as much as a violator. “He was always in a straitjacket, getting his head cut off.  He represented kids that were bullied, the artistic kind of outcasts.” The post-comeback, sober Alice, who’s sold millions of records and continues to play large concerts worldwide, is more like a cartoon bad guy. “Alice had to be reborn as an arrogant villain. Now he wasn’t the one who was beaten, he was the one who was going to beat.  He was the dominatrix, he wasn’t the trick”.

1 comment:

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