Alice in La-La Land

One of the measures of a great band is how good their bad albums are. Bad records by great artists fascinate me. I believe that you can never really understand an artist or his works unless you can understand their failures. Diver Down, Point of Entry, Technical Ecstasy, Presence, Stormbringer… Sure, we still love these records dearly, but aren’t they failures? And don’t we somehow love them even more because of it? The weaker records in a band’s canon can sometimes be their most interesting works. I listen to these records with an intense curiosity: What happened here? Why were these choices made? What’s the back story? Where does this fit into the big picture?

I’ve just spent some time with the albums released during what Alice Cooper refers to as his ‘blackout period’: ‘Special Forces’, ‘Zipper Catches Skin’, and ‘DaDa’. These 3 records are universally dismissed as terrible by all but the most hardcore Alice fans, were commercial disasters, and are completely ignored by Alice himself. A casual listen reveals why. But I don’t do the ‘casual listen’; I’ve dug deep into this much maligned music so you don’t have to, and I’m now ready to share my findings. Submitted for your approval: Alice Cooper’s Twilight Zone.

Our journey should probably begin with Alice Cooper’s 1980 effort ‘Flush the Fashion’. A little background: After a well-received concept album about his time in alcohol rehab and newfound sobriety (‘From the Inside’), Alice crashed and burned yet again, this time with a serious cocaine addiction. As the coke-addled Cooper entered the 80s, he threw away his 70s persona, ended his association with producer Bob Ezrin, and re-worked his sound (and look) completely. Many 70s icons adapted their styles as they entered the 80’s, but Alice’s update was so drastic that many fans walked away.

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Nonetheless, 1980’s ‘Flush the Fashion’ became Alice’s highest-charting album in several years (#44), and set Coop on a course he would follow through his next few records. Alice’s new musical landscape featured short, punchy tunes, minimalist guitars, new wave synths, and whacked-out subject matter. Producer Roy Thomas Baker (The Cars, Queen) buffed it all to a hi-gloss finish, placing the record squarely in the early 80s. If you accept all the brave new sounds, Side One starts off strong. A cover of The Music Machine’s 1966 hit ‘Talk Talk’ segues into the album’s Top 40 single ‘Clones (We’re All)’. This, in turn, segues into one of Alice’s strongest songs in years, ‘Pain’. ‘Clones’ works; it’s catchy, melodic, and weird enough work within Alice’s established oeuvre. ‘Pain’ would have fit in on any of Alice’s previous albums, and can arguably be called Alice’s last great song. After these two tunes, however, the record is over. FtF continues with some slick/funny/upbeat material that, unfortunately, fails to make any impact, and the whole shebang winds up in less than half an hour.

So Alice Cooper’s transformation from hard rock horror movie menace to new wave sci-fi pirate was at least a moderate success. But his next move, 1981’s ‘Special Forces,’ has got to be Alice Cooper’s artistic rock bottom. Its 34 minute running time is packed with filler. ‘Who Do You Think We Are’ begins the record with a punkish snarl, but the strongest track here is another 60s cover, this time of Love’s ‘Seven and Seven Is’. A completely useless (not to mention fake) ‘live’ version of ‘Generation Landslide’ closes out Side One. ‘Skeletons in the Closet’ wouldn’t be out of place on a kids Halloween party CD, it’s just plain awful. Once again Alice is only able to cough up two decent songs; the rest of the record is throwaway junk. I know there are fans of this album, as maybe this or FtF served as their entry point into the music of Alice Cooper, but I’m so sorry; this record is Bad.

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Alice claims he has no recollection of recording or touring SF, as he was freebasing cocaine at the time. He also made two TV appearances in support of Special Forces. The first was on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder; the second, on a French TV special. This video is difficult to watch, as Alice looks seriously ill, emaciated and frail. The infamous shock rocker’s newly adopted look is truly disturbing, not because of the makeup or the outfit but because we are witnessing a man in the process of destroying himself on stage. We watched Alice wasting away, after several well-publicized rehab attempts, knowing he was likely killing himself, and we expected a good record?

For Alice’s second ‘blackout’ record, ‘Zipper Catches Skin’, the Coop invited several friends to bolster the sessions. Dick Wagner, a cornerstone of Alice’s 70s successes, was brought in to co-write songs and play guitar. John Nitzinger (ex-Bloodrock lyricist) stayed on after the ‘Special Forces’ tour to co-write and also add guitar. Patty Donahue of The Waitresses (remember ‘I Know What Boys Like’, or the inescapable ‘Christmas Wrapping’?) added vocals to ‘I Like Girls’. Jan Uvena and Mike Pinera of late-period Iron Butterfly (Uvena later played drums for 80’s metallers Alcatrazz) added drums and guitar, respectively. Cooper also recorded a song written by Lalo Schiffrin, a multiple Grammy winner and composer of countless notable movie scores; Alice’s recording of Schiffrin’s ‘I am the Future’ was featured in the 1982 film ‘Class of 1984’ and was Zipper’s first single. But with all the bells and whistles, did the record work?

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The lyrics did. Bob Dylan himself once said “I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter” in Rolling Stone magazine (specifically mentioning ‘Generation Landslide’), and even after years of hard drinking and drugging, the lyrics on ZCS shine. ‘Zorro’s Ascent’ references the original Johnston McCulley books rather than their Hollywood adaptations, while ‘Adaptable (Anything for You)’ is outright hilarious. Sometimes the overt silliness of the lyrics moves the songs into Weird Al Yankovic/Dr. Demento territory (“I’m Alive (That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life)” is about exactly what it says…), but the mean-spirited misogyny woven throughout the ‘I Like Girls/Remarkably Insincere’ pairing or the punk sarcasm at the core of ‘I Better be Good’ saves the material from sliding into outright comedy.

Guitarist Dick Wagner said ‘Zipper Catches Skin’ “…was a drug induced nightmare in itself. I wont go into details… It’s all too painful to re-tell. I wrote a lot of the songs with Cooper and played some guitar but I left before the album was finished and felt glad to go home.” Somehow, though, a decent-enough record emerged from the dysfunction. The extra guitars bring it, in fact the entire ‘band’ rocks, and with the exception of the soundtrack tune, the songs are solid from beginning to end. Okay, maybe ‘No Baloney Homo Sapiens’ is a missed opportunity, and the neat and tidy production mutes the hard edges a bit, but ‘Zipper’ is worth a visit if you passed on it in 1982. Most did; virtually no one heard this record, as the world had finally turned away from the car-wreck after ‘Special Forces’ and left Alice behind.

After Zipper failed to intrude upon the charts (even after airing a TV spot in some territories to promote it; check it out on Youtube), Warners requested one final record from Alice to close out his contract. Wagner and Ezrin felt it may be their last opportunity to work with Alice, but found Cooper at death’s door, holed up in his Arizona home and unwilling to even consider working on a record. Wagner eventually persuaded Alice to start writing with him, and the result is a revelation.

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‘DaDa’ (1983) is an amazing little record. An exploration of the self set to electronic instruments; equal parts Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and Gary Numan’s ‘The Pleasure Principle’. Here we follow one of Alice’s recurring characters (‘Sonny’, or Alice himself) into a maze of introspection and confession. Welcome to his nightmare: I’m no psychotherapist but it’s pretty clear to me that Alice’s demons derived from a severely dysfunctional family history. Just sayin’. Both ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘I Love America’ are a riot, and Alice reveals his tragic physical and mental state in album closer ‘Pass the Gun Around’, a chilling and utterly heartbreaking song about reaching the end of the line. Add the usual artful treatment from Ezrin, and, if you can deal with the layers of orchestrated synths, the result is a minor masterpiece. The fact that this ruined man, so destroyed by drugs and drink, was able to conjure up this set of songs is nothing short of phenomenal.

So there you have it: the sum total of everything Alice Cooper doesn’t remember between 1981 and 1984. According to a 2009 interview, Cooper does, however, remember touring for ZCS and DaDa, which never happened. Neither album made the Billboard Top 200; neither album received any support from Warner Bros. There were no tours in support of these two records. When you remember two tours that didn’t happen, it’s safe to say you were pretty fucked up. After ‘DaDa’ was released, Alice was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver and the debilitating effects of chronic crack smoking. Warner Brothers officially severed relations with Alice in February of 1984. The ‘New Wave Alice’ was a commercial failure. But was it an artistic failure as well?

‘Special Forces’ notwithstanding, the relative merit of these records is hard to gauge. They are very much of their time, ‘the early 80s’, and must be considered in this context. Comparing them to what came before or after is difficult, as Alice was a genre-hopper; hard rock in the 70’s and glam rock/hair metal in the late 80s and into the 90s. Perhaps the value of these records and their place within Alice’s larger body of work is best understood when they are compared to his Straight Records material: the ‘Pretties for You’ and ‘Easy Action’ albums. I’ll get back to you on that; I’ve found both of those records to be a tough listen, but dammit, somebody’s gotta do it…

 

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