Year of the Gatefold

Ah, the live album. The gatefold sleeve, plastered with tons of live pics of your favorite band, holding four sides of music recorded live on stage, where it really mattered, performing before an audience of worshiping fans. The best live records drop you in the front row, where the thick, humid air smells like a mixture of weed, puke, and sweat; where your ears take a pounding from a PA system bigger than your house as the crackle and pop of firecrackers echoes through the arena. Some say that the 1970s was the Decade of the Live Album, and if any single year should hold that same distinction, it’s got to be 1978, when an unprecedented number of live sets arrived in record stores (remember them?) to add color to the soundtrack of our youth.
Call it The Frampton Effect. ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’, Peter Frampton’s 1976 double-live release, spawned 2 hit singles and topped the Billboard charts for a whopping 10 weeks, and went on to become the best-selling album of that year. The record remained in the Top 100 for 97 weeks, well into 1977. Live albums by Bob Seger, The J. Geils Band, Joe Walsh, and Rush also reached deep into the Top 40 in 1976. The success of these records had a significant impact on the industry. And in the world of pure Hard Rock, the Top Ten success of Kiss and their ‘Alive!’ and ‘Kiss Alive II’ albums was also hard to ignore.
At a time when the rockers of the era were struggling mightily to get on the radio, the monster success of Frampton’s live album suggested there might be another way to break through. The Record companies saw the gazillions being made from records that cost relatively little to record. And so mobile recording units rolled out for virtually every tour that hit the road in 1977; those recordings would bear fruit the following year. Notable live records from Alice Cooper, Rainbow and Foghat appeared in ’77, but the sheer number of HR/HM live albums released in 1978 is stunning… I count no less than TEN significant live records hitting the market between January ’78 and January ’79.
1978 kicked off with an expanded field recording of Ted Nugent captured in the wilds of America in ’76 and ’77. Unleashed in January, ‘Double Live Gonzo!’ showcases The Nuge’s big guitars and even bigger mouth. His guitar prowess already firmly established, Terrible Ted’s live album is peppered with politically incorrect between-song raps that have become the stuff of legend (just ask Atlanta band Nashville Pussy). But the real value in ‘Gonzo’ lies in it’s capture of Nugent’s classic-era band in a live setting, and how it provides Nugent-the-guitarist the opportunity to put up or shut up… And as we know, Ted never shuts up. I remember walking around with friends, blasting this out of a portable 8-track player, feeling all badass as Nugent’s raunchy raps echoed off my neighbors’ houses.
After the Nugent extravagonzo, there came an almost 5-month lull, the calm before the storm of live releases that would hit in the second half of the year. Thin Lizzy opened the floodgates in June with ‘Live and Dangerous‘, a 2-record set that reached the #2 spot in the UK. While it’s safe to say that Nugent’s ‘Gonzo’ is 100% pure NUGE, Thin Lizzy’s ‘L&D’ is another story. Debate endures regarding just how much of this album is ‘live’… but, seriously, who cares? What matters is the end result, and ‘Dangerous’ is a worthy celebration of the Lizzy experience. Shamefully short at just 50 minutes, it’s overflowing with fantastic songs played with charisma, passion, and flair. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the show.
Recorded in Japan during guitarist Uli Roth’s final two shows with Scorpions, ‘Tokyo Tapes‘ came out in August as a Japan-only release. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to capture the Uli-era Scorps live! I didn’t catch this one until it was released domestically the following year, but when I did, mind = blown. There is some truly jaw-dropping guitar playing within these grooves, and each and every one of us should take a moment to thank their higher power that Dieter Dierks and RCA records rolled tape during Roth’s final 48 hours with the band. ‘TT’ contains some jarring edits that break the ‘concert experience’ feel, but overall this collection really cooks.
Also in August, Sammy Hagar decides to return to his monstrous Montrose roots and release a live album balls-out with scorching rockers. ‘All Night Long‘ was recorded in San Francisco, San Antonio, San Bernardino, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica… I’m not kidding. I snapped this one up after learning that the band on the record was 3/4 of Montrose, and the track list includes two songs from the mighty Montrose debut. The Red Rocker keeps this single-disc live outing tight and punchy, and Sam reveals himself to be a smokin’ guitarist. ‘All Night’ is the first and only live album that I’m aware of where the final song fades out —while the band is still playing! Like having to leave the concert before it’s over because your ride wants to be home early.
A few weeks later in September, Blue Oyster Cult would offer up their second live album, ‘Some Enchanted Evening‘. Like Hagar, BOC would limit themselves to a single disc, and much to this young listener’s disappointment, include two covers. With a catalog as deep as BOC’s, why waste precious space on somebody else’s tunes? Where’s ‘Tattoo Vampire’? Where’s ‘The Golden Age of Leather’? And what about ‘Dominance & Submission’?? Thankfully, the stellar version of ‘Astronomy’ included is worth the price of admission all by itself. Despite the dubious song selection, ‘SEE’ would somehow become best-selling album in the Cult’s catalog. Go figure!
I remember walking into my local record store in early October and spotting Cheap Trick’s ‘Cheap Trick At Budokan‘ high on the wall behind the counter, with a $27 price sticker on it. CT had just released ‘Heaven Tonight’ in April; I was completely blindsided by this mysterious live record. ’27 bucks!?’ I exclaimed. The clerk explained that it was a Japanese import, and wasn’t coming out in the US. Shit. Somehow the 14-year old me came up with the 30 dollars (I seem to remember rolling coins…) and snagged it off the wall before anyone else did. Woohoo! ‘Budokan’ was another single-disc live record, (in a gatefold sleeve!) and featured three songs we’d never heard before. Allowance money well spent.
I have come to appreciate Aerosmith’s ‘Live! Bootleg‘, but back in October of ’78, I was disappointed. ‘Bootleg’ dispenses with the ‘concert recreation’ feel that most of the live LPs of the era went for; instead, it serves as a live retrospective, featuring recordings from as far back as 1973 and right up to March’s ‘California Jam II’ concert. It’s a mixed bag; performances by young scrappers in Boston clubs segue into recordings from the biggest stadiums on the planet, not in chronological order, all adding up to kind of a jumbled sonic documentary of the band’s heyday. Teenaged me wanted something more like what Lizzy or Cheap Trick had delivered. Still, two live albums from two of my faves in one month was pretty killer. Wait, what? THREE??
With ‘Bootleg’ and ‘Budokan’ still in heavy rotation on my turntable, Australian upstarts AC/DC joined the fray in late October with ‘If You Want Blood… You’ve Got It‘. The band had released their ‘Powerage’ album back in May and I was instantly hooked; this live album followed a mere 5 months later. Recorded at the Glasgow Apollo (see also: Status Quo’s ‘Live!’, portions of Rush’s ‘Exit: Stage Left’) before an absolutely rabid audience (ANGUS! ANGUS! ANGUS!), ‘Blood’ is a sweaty, raunchy workout that captures the band’s stage show as-is. I remember riding my bike home from the record store with this album clutched to my chest, trying not to bang it around and ding up the album cover. Which reminds me of a story…
So I’m at the record shop, and spot the record, marvel at it’s totally awesome front and back covers, and head to the front counter, where the clerk (let’s call him Steve) checks out the cover, and starts laughing. He says ‘You don’t really want to buy this piece of crap do you?’ I say, um, yeah, I do, and he starts yelling to another employee, ‘Hey man, have you seen this cover? HAWHAWHAW!!’ He looks at me once again and says ‘Really?’ Just then an older gent walks up to us (I presume was the owner or manager) and tells Steve ‘meet me out back in a minute’. Steve, with an *Oh Shit* look on his face, heads to the back room. The owner/manager rings up my sale, smiles and says ‘AC/DC! Cool!’ Never saw Steve there again. True story.
At some point in 1978 (details are scant) came a single-disc live LP from Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. This is another record that I didn’t get hip to until a few years after it’s release. Marino was largely written off as a Hendrix clone decades ago, a stigma that prevented him from ever achieving the mainstream success enjoyed by his peers… although Frank Marino is entirely without peer as a rock guitarist. This guy OWNS every other rock player of the era. On the imaginatively-titled ‘Live‘, Marino, backed by his sturdy rhythm section, blazes through hippie-trippy highlights from his catalog, then shoots himself in the foot by including a Hendrix cover. The liner notes for a 2018 re-issue claims that there are no overdubs on this puppy, but hey, who knows. Call this one Single Live Gonzo.
As if to hammer home the fact that 1978 really was the Year of the Live Album, CBS Records released ‘California Jam II‘, a selection of highlights from the second Cal Jam concert that took place back on March 18. The 2-record set included tunes from Aerosmith, Nugent, Heart and Mahogany Rush. Dave Mason, Santana, Jean Michel Jarre and Rubicon (with Jack Blades and Brad Gillis, pre-Night Ranger) also appear. (Bob Welch and Foreigner played the show, but didn’t make the record, as they were not signed to one of CBS’ labels.) But it’s the hard rockers who dominate the set, of course: Nugent gives us live versions of two songs that didn’t show on ‘Gonzo’, Aerosmith gift us with one that didn’t make ‘Bootleg’, and Marino wipes the floor with all the other guitar slingers on the bill. Worth hunting down on vinyl, as the album has never been released on CD.
As if TEN live albums in one calendar year wasn’t enough, the Gonzo just kept on comin’, a residual effect that would carry through much of ’79. First up: I caught Cheap trick at Boston’s Orpheum Theater in December ’78, and was blown away by opener UFO. A few weeks later, I took the bus (it was January; my bike wasn’t feasible) to the record store, headed for the end of the alphabet, and found the just-released ‘Strangers in the Night‘ double album. The lineup I saw featured Paul Chapman on guitar, but ‘SITN” captures Mad Michael Schenker’s final swing with the band. An instant classic, and possibly the finest album covered here. A shame that a re-arranged re-master is the only way to purchase this album today, as the original Chrysalis version is flawless.
Also in January of ’79, Scorpions finally release ‘Tokyo Tapes’ in the US. With both Uli Roth and Michael Schenker long gone before either ‘SITN’ or ‘TT’ are released, the Scorps/UFO live albums became indispensable documents of a bygone era. Then, in early February, the suits at CBS wise up and release Cheap Trick’s ‘Cheap Trick At Budokan’ domestically as well. The Japanese version had become the biggest-selling import album of 1978, so CT’s next studio record (‘Dream Police’) was shelved to allow for ‘Budokan’s release, and the rest is history. Oh, and in April, the Ramones released the double ‘It’s Alive‘ set… but not in The States, where it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on CD.
Queen’s ‘Live Killers‘ hit the bins in June. Here again, the now-15-year-old me was a little disappointed; Queen’s studio records were so elaborately constructed that to me it didn’t sound like Queen (ex: during ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a tape of the operatic a capella section was played after the band hastily exited the stage, and that moment plays very awkwardly on a live album). But what I grew to understand is that it does sound like Queen, as this is exactly what the band really sounds like, and in this context, stripped of the indulgent studio magic that adorned their studio records, a great live band comprised of supremely talented performers is revealed.
The Pat Travers Band kicked our asses over the summer of 79 with their single-disc live set, ‘Go For What You Know‘, and their version of ‘Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)’ became a minor radio hit. A double-disc might have been much, but would have allowed for the inclusion of PTB’s roof-raising live version of ‘Statesboro Blues’, or a live ‘Life in London’. The syngery between guitarists Travers and Thrall is stunning, and the chops on display here are phenomenal. This young lad found the myriad tones and effects the two employed positively hypnotic. But it’s not just the guitars that impress here; some of the drumming on GFWYK has to be heard to be believed. Mars was no slouch on the bass either. Where’s the expanded remaster??
This unprecedented super-cluster of live releases comes to a close in September of 79, when The Beast that is Priest release ‘Unleashed in the East‘. Live? Studio? Overdubbed vocals? Again— WHO CARES. The record is simply awesome. At the time, this was the heaviest metal I had ever heard. This single-disc wonder should have been– and could have been –released as a double album, had all the bonus tracks and B-sides culled from the same shows been utilized. As-is, this record explodes with state-of the art, pure of heart, flag waving HEAVY METAL, released at a time when it was definitely not cool to be tagged as such.
WOW. Fifteen live albums from just about all of my favorite bands in a year and a half! You couldn’t leave your house without stepping on a live album. It was almost as if Heavy Metal’s underlying strategy was to ‘wait out’ Punk Rock; that the hard rockers of the era conspired together to take some time off and reassess. Whatever the reason, this deluge of live gonzo makes 1978 (and half of ’79) a standout year in 70s Metal, despite the fact that the rest of the music world was preoccupied with either Punk or Disco, and most critics and journos had decided that Metal was over… One month after the release of ‘Unleashed in the East’, the cover of the Oct ’79 issue of CREEM Magazine blared: “Is Heavy Metal Dead?” No, stupid, Heavy Metal is LIVE!

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Ninety Dollar Babies Get Their Wings

Ever ponder the giant leap from the weed-fueled garage band jam of Aerosmith’s 1973 debut and the polished, mature hard rock statement that is the ’74 follow-up, ‘Get Your Wings’? What happened? Was it the change in producers? ‘Aerosmith’ wasn’t so much produced as merely recorded, but on GYW, Jack Douglas polished the band’s sound and performances to the perfect mid-70s hard rock sheen. He brought in lots of help; the famed Brecker Brothers formed the core of a horn section for the GYW sessions, and songwriter/keyboardist Ray Colcord (who, as Columbia Records A&R, signed Aerosmith in 1972) added keys. But Aerosmith played Guitar music with a capitol G, and apparently Douglas found the Boston band’s two axemen somewhat lacking…

The executive producer on ‘Get Your Wings’ was Bob Ezrin. Ezrin was on a hot streak, having produced Alice Cooper’s first four albums for Warner Brothers, with the fourth, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, having topped the Billboard charts at Numero Uno in 1973. In a few short years, Ezrin had transformed Alice Cooper the band, a psychedelic anti-music nightmare, into hard rock champions, with several hit singles and a Number 1 album. Anyone who has heard AC’s two pre-Ezrin albums for Straight Records knows exactly the caliber of miracle Ezrin performed with this bunch of wierdos. So then how was Ezrin able to take what was arguably the world’s worst band and morph them into chart-topping pop stars?

The common denominators to the amazing transformations of both Alice Cooper and Aerosmith were session guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. Yes, AC had already had a hit in 1970 with ‘I’m Eighteen’, but by ’73, alcoholism had rendered guitarist Glen Buxton pretty much useless, and Ezrin needed to bring in session musicians to bolster the playing on BDB. It was a tactic Ezrin had used before; Rick Derringer played lead guitar on ‘Under My Wheels’ from ‘Killer’, and Wagner had played the outstanding solo on ‘My Stars’ from the ‘School’s Out’ album. Ezrin had a vision for Alice Cooper’s music, and Wagner and guitarist Steve Hunter were called in to work on ‘Billion Dollar Babies’. They were each paid $90 per song.

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A hundred-or-so gigs had no doubt honed Aerosmith’s chops between first and second albums, and the writing had progressed nicely as well, but in the studio, Jack Douglas still found them wanting. Douglas was an engineer on ‘BDB’, and had worked with Hunter & Wagner before hooking up with ‘Smith, so when the sessions ran into guitar trouble, both men got the call. As far as the specific reason that session players were utilized for GYW, Douglas himself has never addressed the issue, nor have the members of Aerosmith, who neither confirm nor deny what has been an ‘open secret’ for decades. Wagner has said that he was called in because “Obviously for some reason he (Joe Perry) wasn’t there to do it and I never really questioned it.” Whatever the reason, the end result is the guitars on GTW are played with a command and authority that’s utterly absent on the band’s first album.

So: Who are these guys, anyway? Both natives of the Detroit area, H&W cut their teeth in bands on the club circuit; Hunter with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and Wagner with his own band, The Frost. Wagner then formed Ursa Major, who at one point included Billy Joel on keyboards, and cut one album for RCA (Note: I highly recommend this album!). After the guitarist worked on ‘School’s Out’ in ’72, Ezrin produced Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, and Wagner was invited put together a band for the European ‘Berlin’ tour. Wagner recruited Colcord and Steve Hunter for the touring band, which appeared on Lou Reed’s ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ live album. Both guitarists are given full credit for their contributions. Which brings us back to ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ in ’73 and ‘Get Your Wings’ in ’74.

Neither guitarist was credited on BDB or GYW, but the truth about who played what on these two records has gradually established itself over the years. I’m sorry to report that it’s now an acknowledged fact that Steve Hunter played the solos on the first half of Aerosmith’s version of ‘Train Kept a’Rollin’… And Dick Wagner played the solos on the second (‘live’) half. So yes, boys and girls, it’s true: that ain’t Perry or Whitford you’ve been air guitaring to for 40 years. Perry and Whitford would obviously quickly evolved into great guitarists in their own right, but the soloing on this song formed the basis of their reputations as players when I was a kid… Wagner also played the solo in ‘Same Old Song and Dance’. This is as yet unconfirmed, but take a close listen to ‘Spaced’, specifically those lightning-fast neo-classical ascending/descending flourishes near the end; methinks that’s either H or W as well.

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Wagner plays uncredited guitar all over ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, but also co-wrote ‘I Love the Dead’, and was not credited. Hunter played uncredited on the title track, ‘Hello, Hurray’, ‘Raped and Freezin’, ‘Sick Things’, and ‘Generation Landslide’ (so basically, the entire record). Wagner would also play on AC’s next album, ‘Muscle of Love’, and when Alice went solo, Wagner would receive official credit for his work on all subsequent AC albums. Wagner would, in fact, become a valued member of the Cooper camp as a songwriter; the Cooper-Wagner songwriting team would write 7 out of 9 of Cooper’s Top 10 hit singles. Hopefully his pay rate went up a bit.

Wagner continued working with Alice as a songwriter and guitarist until 1983’s ‘DaDa’. He published an autobiography called ‘Not Only Women Bleed’, and if you’re interested in recording session minutiae and behind the scenes dirt, it’s essential. Sadly, we lost Dick Wagner in July of 2014 after several years of major health issues. Steve Hunter’s most notable session outside of the Reed/Cooper/Aerosmith triangle was for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’. Hunter is still playing and recording, and released an album called ‘The Manhattan Blues Project’ in 2011, which featured several famous guests… including Aerosmith’s Joe Perry!

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There are two places to go to hear the Hunter & Wagner duo playing together in their prime: Lou Reed’s ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ live album, and the 1975 Alice Cooper ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ TV Special, which features an awesome guitar duel between the two, is out there on DVD. The ‘Nightmare’ special is interesting, because it highlights a key Reed/Cooper connection: The band assembled by Wagner and heard on Reed’s ‘RnR Animal’ album consisted of Hunter, Wagner, Ray Colcord, and Prakash John and Pentti Glan, and eventually became Alice Cooper’s backing band for the ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ album, tour, and TV special.

So: There’s your answer to a trivia question no one will ever ask… Q: What do Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith all have in common? A: Hunter & Wagner.

And Ray Colcord.

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…

 

Number One with a Bullet(belt)

If you’re my age, you discovered music on the radio. And, like me, you were probably listening on an AM Top 40 station; in the 1970s, Top 40 radio was almost exclusively found on the AM band. A glance back at the charts from that era reveals a pretty bizarre musical landscape; country music rubbing shoulders with soul and disco, hard funk fraternizing with soft rock, weepy ballads mixing with crunchy hard rock. A little bit of everything could be found on Top 40 radio in the 1970s… And if you were willing, as I was, to listen to 30 minutes of schlock in search of one hard rocking gem, the payoff was worth it.

Placement in the Billboard Top 40 in the 1970s was based on a combination of airplay and sales. Sales were largely driven by airplay; airplay was dictated by what appeared on the charts. Record company manipulation was also a major factor. But however dysfunctional these formulae were, this was the system many of us grew up with, and the way most of us found our music in the 1970s. This was how it was for me, and this is what I found…

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If we limit our look back to only the hardest and heaviest tunes ever to rough up the Top 40, there’s still a surprising number that make the cut. Let’s start with The Birth of Heavy, and Blue Cheer’s epic meltdown ‘Summertime Blues’, which peaked at #14 in 1968. This has got to be the heaviest song ever to feature in the Top 20. Also in ’68, Cream made the Top 10 with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (#6), Iron Butterfly hit #30 with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, and Mountain climbed to #21 in 1970 with ‘Mississippi Queen’. In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ made it to #4. Zeppelin continued to appear in the Top 40 into the early years of the 70s; ‘Immigrant Song’/’Hey Hey, What Can I Do’ hit #16 in 1970, ‘Black Dog’ reached #15 in ’71, and ‘Trampled Under Foot’ crept in at #38 in 1975.

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While Black Sabbath never achieved Top 40 status with any of their singles, they were there in spirit. Bloodrock’s ‘D.O.A.’ hit #36; a truly unsettling song (at it’s core, it’s a re-write of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’), ‘D.O.A’.’ was banned from many radio stations due to it’s graphically gory lyrics and dark musicality… which only helped boost its popularity. Alice Cooper hit #7 with ‘School’s Out’, another song that radio stations banned. With its subversive lyric, including a line about blowing up a school, it’s doubtful that this song would even be recorded today. The Edgar Winter Group’s monster instrumental ‘Frankenstein’ topped the charts (that’s #1, kids) in 1972. Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 masterpiece ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ (#12) may not qualify as ‘heavy’, but its epic middle section and morbid lyrics certainly do; the song caused a minor uproar when it was (correctly?) labeled a ‘pro-suicide anthem’. This was seriously heavy stuff, kids, and it was also considered pop music.

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Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was only ever released as a single in the ‘double-A-side’ format, with the live version from ‘Made in Japan’ on the A-side and the studio version from the previous year’s ‘Machine Head’ on the B. Released in May of 1973, it climbed to #4; radio stations played both sides. Also in ’73, Rick Derringer’s kick-ass ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ placed at #23, and Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5; Sweet would hit again in 1975 with ‘Fox on the Run’ (#5) and ‘Action’ (#20). Alice came back in ’73 with three Top 40 placings from the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album: ‘Elected’ (#26), ‘Hello, Hurray’ (#35) and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (#25), before a bizarre run of four consecutive Top 40 ballads. Not bizarre because the ballads were bad; bizarre because … he was Alice Cooper. And these were ballads.

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Aerosmith were a dominant presence in the Top 40 for a few years, but didn’t exactly play fair… ‘Dream On’ originally peaked at #59 in 1973, but after the success of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ single (#36), Columbia re-released ‘Dream On’ again in 1976, and the song hit #6. ‘Walk This Way’ has a similar history: when originally released in 1975, the single didn’t even chart. In 1976, it was re-released in between the ‘Last Child’ (#21) and ‘Back in the Saddle’ (#38) singles, and this time ‘Walk This Way’ would hit #10. Aerosmith’s last visit to the Top 40 in the 70’s would be with their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (#23) in 1978, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Aerosmith would re-appear as chart darlings a decade later, but as a drastically different kind of band (sob).

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The Hottest Band in the Land paid frequent visits to the Top 40. Kiss hit #12 in 1975 with the ‘Alive!’ version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, with ‘Shout it Out Loud’ (#31) in ’76, and with ‘Calling Dr. Love’ (#16) and ‘Christine Sixteen’ (#25) in 1977. Two other Kiss singles charted just as high or higher; one was a ballad produced by Bob Ezrin (it worked for Alice). Neither single rocked, so they will not be acknowledged here. For about two years, Foghat were huge; ‘Slow Ride’ (#20), ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (#34), and the live version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’ (#33) were all over the radio. Heart showed up big with ‘Crazy on You’ (#35) and ‘Magic Man’ (#9) in ’76, and the absolutely awesome ‘Barracuda’ (#11), another solid candidate for the heaviest Top 20 song evah, a year later. Just goes to show: you can’t judge a 45 by its picture sleeve.

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I’ll round out our research here with a few more notable one-offs: The manic flute freak-out of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus reached #9 in 1973, BTO’s ‘Let it Ride’ got to #12 in, and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ reached #20 in 1975. In 1976, Thin Lizzy broke big with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ (#12), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped out at #9. In 1977, Ted Nugent returned to the Top 40 (The Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of Your Mind’ hit #16 in 1968) with ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ (#30), and Ram Jam’s recording of the blues tune ‘Black Betty’ caused the NAACP to call for a national boycott. ‘Black Betty’ hit #17, which seems to indicate that the boycott failed…

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It sounds improbable today, but in the 1970s, the place to go to for hard rock and heavy metal was Top 40 radio. In 1978, the Top 40 format began migrating to the FM dial, where singles mingled with album cuts, diluting the power of the ‘Hit Single’. As touring became big business, the hard and heavy bands began working the road the way they had previously worked radio. It was the end of the era when the Top 40 ruled the AM airwaves.

…Until today. The Top 40 format rules the airwaves once again, although these days it seems as though there are only 5 or 6 songs ever aired on the radio, played over and over and over. Today, there is ZERO rock music on Top 40 radio. Kids are finding their rock and metal music on the internet, acquiring it for free, and deleting it when they tire of it. To a child of the 70s sitting on his bed, staring at his battery-powered radio, waiting for the DJ to play ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ (Kansas, #11/’77) again, the music culture of today would seem like pure science fiction.

(Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything; everything that appears here is based on my (subjective) opinion of what constitutes hard rock and heavy metal during this era. Besides the omissions specifically mentioned in the article, some Top 40 singles by Jethro Tull, Queen and Nazareth were left out because imho, they just didn’t ROCK to a sufficient degree.)

 

But Don’t Give Yourself Away

Funny how some songs that had minimal impact upon release can show amazing staying power over the ensuing decades.

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Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’, the first single from their 1978 album ‘Heaven Tonight’, only made it to 62 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but 36 years later it’s a classic rock staple, and is now considered one of Cheap Trick’s ‘Greatest Hits’. The song made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time (whatever that means) and has been used in several movies and TV shows. And this perfectly constructed power pop gem deserves the accolades; it’s fun, it’s catchy, it rocks, and it delivers its message, like most of Cheap Trick’s work, with considerable wit. Sole composer Rick Nielsen wrote ‘Surrender’ about the divide between kids and their parents, but he sure took a strange way to get there. I mean… have you ever really listened to the lyrics to this song?

Before we take this tune apart, let’s look at its background. ‘Surrender’ was written in 1976, long before the Tricksters were signed. Rick Nielsen (who producer Jack Douglas once called ‘the most gifted songwriter I’ve ever worked with’) was a songwriting machine, and had amassed about 50 songs before the band was signed to Epic. ‘Surrender’ was one of them, and was actually recorded for their debut album but didn’t make the final cut. In those pre-label days, Cheap Trick’s dark side was far more prominent, with Nielsen cranking out songs about suicide (‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and ‘Oh, Candy’), serial killers (‘The Ballad of TV Violence’), child molesters (‘Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School’), and other general nastiness (‘She’s Tight’, ‘He’s a Whore’, ‘Heaven Tonight’, ‘Gonna Raise Hell’, etc). The genius of Nielsen and early Cheap Trick is the way this off-the-wall subject matter was built into impossibly hooky songs… ‘Surrender’ being a prime example.

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1st verse:

Mother told me, yes she told me

I’d meet girls like you

She also told me ‘Stay away

You never know what you’ll catch’

Right away, in the first verse, there’s an allusion to STDs. Not exactly standard boy-meets-girl stuff. After the bouncy Who-like intro, this verse sets the tone for the rest of the song; Zander’s sly half-innocent/half-jaded teen delivering the not-so-nice lyric over a bubblegummy bed of rock n’ roll crunch.

‘Just the other day I heard of a soldier’s falling off

Some Indonesian junk that’s going ’round’ 

Here, Mommy shares a story about the horrific effects of Venereal Disease. According to mom, VD can cause your dick to fall off. Also note the first of many military allusions, which cleverly support the song’s chorus and title.

2nd verse:

Father says ‘Your mother’s right

She’s really up on things

Before we married mommy served

in tha WACs in the Philippines’

More military references… and the implication that Mommy knows a thing or two about Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Now I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war

But mommy isn’t one of those, I’ve known her all these years

This part of verse 2 originally read ‘Now I had heard the WACs were either old maids, dykes, or whores’; the song was even demo’d with this line for ‘Heaven Tonight’. Someone decided that this was maybe a bit too much for rock radio in 1978. Someone was right. This wasn’t the first time the suits asked CT to alter a song, and wouldn’t be the last; ‘The Ballad of TV Violence’ from the 1976 debut was originally titled ‘The Ballad of Richard Speck’, but the title was changed at the behest of Epic Records, and years later, another song, called ‘Don’t Hit Me With Love’ was vetoed by the label and left off of the ‘Next Position Please’ album altogether (although that album’s title track, which includes the word ‘tits’, made it through intact… go figure) .

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We’re not going to parse the first half of the third verse; although the key change is brilliant, I have no idea what the lyrics mean. There are actually a lot of nonsense lyrics in the Cheap Trick catalog; they’re there by design and are a part of the band’s off-kilter charm— and when you have a lead singer that would sound great singing the goddamn phonebook, you can fill space with anything and get away with it.

3rd verse, 2nd half:

When I woke up mom and dad

Were rollin’ on the couch

Rollin’ numbers, rock and rollin’

Got my KISS records out

So the kid busts his parents having sex on the couch, smoking pot, and listening to his KISS albums. This is the verse that illustrates the ultimate point of the song: maybe mom and dad are cooler than you think. It also nicely leads us back into the chorus and the song’s central premise:

Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright

They just seem a little weird

The last 2 lines of the chorus allude to the military references made earlier in the song, and wrap up the chorus nicely by suggesting that maybe the ‘battle’ between generations isn’t really necessary; maybe it’s okay to admit your parents are kinda cool, but that doesn’t mean you have to admit it to them

Surrender, Surrender

But don’t give yourself away

Is this not 4 minutes and 12 seconds of pure genius?

I’m sure the CT guys all got a kick out seeing the teeny-bopper side of their fan base singing along with lines about parents doing drugs and somebody’s dick falling off. I doubt Gene $immons had a problem with the KISS reference (‘free advertising!’), either. They even reference themselves by name individually at the end of the song. Dammit this song is just too much fun.

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Classic Cheap Trick was all about duality. Handsome guys on the front cover; goofy guys on the back. Hook-laden, catchy-as-hell tunes, subversive/sarcastic lyrics and vocal delivery; the Bay City Rollers meet Alice Cooper. ‘Trick walked a fine line between parody and tribute, simultaneously working on both sides of the fence; poking fun at power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music while at the same time creating excellent power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music. Their catalog is crammed with exceedingly well-written, artfully constructed and masterfully executed rock songs, all perpetrated by a band that demanded that you don’t take it all too seriously. And as producer Steve Albini said, ‘They rock like a truck full of bricks’.

A song like ‘Surrender’ is sort of like a trap; you’re initially taken in my the hooks and melodies, the catchy chorus, the friendly vibe. Then there’s the moment when you realize what the singer just sang… Anyway, does the name of this band make more sense now?

(Lyrics used without permission :p)

1978

It’s 2013, the Chinese year of the snake. Year of the Black Water Snake, to be precise. Didn’t know they got that specific.

For me, 1978 will always be Year of the Metal, because it was a hugely-impactful year for me, music-wise.

Before 1978, I had been listening to bits of hard rock on the radio for a few years, as a lot of hard rock bands had big singles that were played on AM Top 40 Radio back in 1976 and ‘77. Anything on the radio that featured loud guitars caught my ear back then: Aerosmith, Nugent, Rick Derringer, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Foghat. Also my older sister had Zeppelin albums!! But the mighty Kiss reigned supreme in my music universe. Kiss had spent the last few years brainwashing me and kids all over the world into believing that they were, in total fact, “The Hottest Band In The Land”. (Gene Simmons probably just got paid because I typed all of those public domain words in that sequence.) And on February 2nd of 1978, I saw them live on the ‘Alive II’ tour at the Providence Civic Center (since renamed the ‘Dunkin Donuts Center’…wtf?) in Rhode Island. Yes, my head exploded; yes, NOW I was a super-fan for life! It sure would take one helluva band to knock Kiss off the throne. No one could ever tell me that Kiss were not actually the Hottest you-know-what in the you-know-where.

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The weekend after I saw Kiss live, I accidentally recorded (on a blank 8-track!) a portion of WAAF’s ‘Friday Night Six Pack’ while playing around with my dad’s brand new stereo system. The ‘Six Pack’ played 6 complete albums during the overnight hours overnight every Friday, some of which were due to be released the following week. I woke up Saturday morning and saw that I had recorded something, and played it all back, and my world changed forever. I had captured most of Van Halen’s as yet unreleased debut album. I bought my copy at Music Machine the following Tuesday; $5.77 plus tax. That record knocked me flat on my ass every time I put it on. Suddenly Kiss seemed silly, tame, juvenile; even cheesy. I still loved Kiss (and still do, up through side four of ‘Alive II’ anyway), but I no longer felt that they were The Greatest Rock Band Of All Time. My mind sufficiently blown, I found that I was suddenly much more receptive to music made by bands that were not Kiss.

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The following month, March of ‘78, I heard AC/DC’s ‘Powerage’ in it’s entirety on the same radio show. I was hooked in the first 30 seconds and listened to the rest of it without moving a muscle, fearing I might lose the great reception I was lucky to be getting on my touch-and-go portable am/fm radio. ‘Powerage’ has been my favorite album of all time since March of 1978. Now, thirty-five years after it was released, I seriously doubt that I’m going to hear anything that’s going to change that.

There are a handful of other great records that came out that year and I worked hard to stay in the loop. It was hard being a fan back then… but if you put the work in, you were amply rewarded. There was no internet in 1978; all we had was WBCN & WAAF, late night TV and Circus, Hit Parader & Creem magazine. I had heard ‘Walk This Way’ 100 times before I had ever even seen a picture of Aerosmith. In those days, if you liked the single or the picture accompanying the article you just read (for free, while thumbing through a copy at the drug store; hardly ever buying) then you rolled the dice, saved your allowance and scrounged for change, and bought the album, hoping the rest of it was good.

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Late night TV was a goldmine. Of course, you had to sit through a lot of disco and R&B to see anyone holding a guitar. I saw Cheap Trick on the TV show ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ in March and bought their ‘in Color’ record the following week; ‘Heaven Tonight’ came out in May and bought it without hearing a note. UFO appeared on Kirshner’s show with a video of ‘Only You Can Rock Me’—one more copy of ‘Obsession’ sold. In October, Ted Nugent hosted an airing of ‘Midnight Special’ that featured AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith, Golden Earring, and of course, His Nugeness. That same month, AC/DC’s first live album, ‘If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It’ was a no-brainer. I remember riding my bike back from the mall in the rain with ‘If You Want Blood…’ in a plastic bag (an awkward thing to try to carry while riding a bike, let me tell you), afraid the I was going to drop it or wreck my bike… but more worried about the record.

It was a huge year for new discoveries. I snapped up Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’, Rush’s ‘Hemispheres’, Judas Priest’s ‘Stained Class’, all released in 1978.  So many excellent live records that year as well: Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s ‘Live’, Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, Scorpions’ ‘Tokyo Tapes’, Aerosmith’s ‘Live Bootleg’ and Thin Lizzy (who also had an extended live showing on ‘Kirshner’s’ in October) released their legendary ‘Live and Dangerous’. Even the newer generation of ‘second tier’ hard rockers like Angel and Starz put out strong albums (‘White Hot’ and ‘Coliseum Rock’, respectively). What a fucking year.

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Needless to say, my musical tastes were formed that year, and truth be told, they haven’t changed all that much. 1978 was the year I moved from slavish worship of a single band to an enduring fascination with an entire genre. Kiss validated my decision to move on by releasing 4 solo albums, which were 75% junk, and then by unleashing the complete disaster ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ TV debacle. But I suppose one could say that for many, Kiss served a valuable purpose: initiating those of us in a certain age group into the world of rock n’ roll. Kiss was like a ‘gateway drug’, first getting you hooked and then leading you to the harder stuff.