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.

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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…