For a man well versed in shocking audiences for 50 years, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise to find Alice Cooper is in person thoroughly disarming.
Now a genial 71-year-old with a wry self-awareness, the singer nonetheless confounds today both with his fondness for the gentle game of golf and ready mentions of his religious faith.
In October he and his band will be touring the UK, bringing a stage show renowned for its guillotines, electric chairs, deadly snakes and lashings of fake blood. It’s an act whose reputation once so outraged the 1970s moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse that she demanded he be banned from Britain. MP Leo Abse followed suit, accusing Cooper of “peddling the culture of the concentration camp”.
“My image became so over the top,” Cooper concedes today. “There was no internet then so everything I did was magnified totally out of control, that’s why Mary Whitehouse and Leo Abse and those people, they heard the rumours but they had never seen an Alice Cooper show. I agree I would’ve been a little wary of bringing Alice Cooper into England too if I’d heard they rumours they heard, but we couldn’t have paid them to say what they said.
“They helped us so much just because of the fact that they kept going, ‘Oh this band will never play England’, and we got banned in Russia, everywhere, and of course every teenager in the world wanted to go see Alice Cooper at that point then.”
Contextualised in late 60s/early 70s American counter-culture, the amorality of Cooper’s act made a certain kind of sense. “You have to remember I was of the age then where I was breaking loose from just about everything I’d ever been taught and I was in Los Angeles in 1967, ’68, ’69 which was Sodom and Gomorrah,” he says. “I never lost my religion but at the same time I took a vacation from it.”
The infamous incident, in which a live chicken was torn to pieces at a concert in Toronto in 1969, was, he has long insisted, an accident. It was Frank Zappa, the band’s early mentor, who advised Cooper to neither confirm nor deny false accounts that he’d bitten off its head. “I didn’t kill the chicken, I threw it into the audience and the audience was either supposed to take it home as a pet or the bird would fly away – not knowing that chickens didn’t fly, I’m from Detroit, I never saw a chicken in my life.
“The next day in the paper it was like ‘Alice Cooper kills chickens’, I became the geek of all time, and the audience were all too willing to believe that, they wanted Alice Cooper to be that, and so [Frank Zappa] says ‘Whatever you do, don’t deny it’. So people would ask me the question and I would just go ‘Well, you know…’,” he says, chuckling.
Zappa had signed Alice Cooper – then the name for the full five-piece band, not just their singer, whose real name was Vincent Furnier – to his record label for their reputation as musical misfits. “The songs were so bizarre and so odd that everybody else in Los Angeles had turned us down, everybody was looking for the new Buffalo Springfield, and we were anything but that. Frank Zappa was the only one that would listen to us and he listened to the songs and said ‘I don’t get it’. I said ‘Well, is that good or bad?’ and he said ‘No, that’s why I’m going to sign you, because I don’t get it’.”
Their complex, off-kilter mix of psychedelia and blues, as evidenced on their first two albums, Pretties For You and Easy Action, found only a tiny audience. They did, however, discover a kinship with the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, with whom they played shows in the US. “We were very good friends with those guys,” Cooper recalls. “I think there was some relationship between the two bands because we even had the same lightshow.
“I remember Glen Buxton [Alice Cooper’s guitarist] would go into the bedroom with Syd Barrett and they both had Echoplexes, these little amps, and they would play things back and forth to each other and through the Echoplex. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page would be sitting there playing blues licks whereas these two guys are sitting there playing electronic insanity to each other. There was some sort of camaraderie they had.”
The band finally found a commercial sound thanks to producer Bob Ezrin. “We would go from strange electronic music right into a bluesy kind of thing, it didn’t make any sense at all to us either, that’s why we needed a Bob Ezrin to come along and put it all into order,” Cooper says. “It’s the same thing that George Martin did to The Beatles. Bob Ezrin came in and said ‘OK, let’s sweep this floor a little bit and get to the basis of what’s really good here’ that’s why Love It To Death ended up being really the first Alice Cooper album.”
Coupling punchy rebel anthems such as I’m Eighteen with a stage show that by now included mock fights and gothic torture modes seemed a much surer recipe for success. They’d been encouraged to wear make-up and dress androgynously by the equally outrageous all-female group the GTOs. The splashy elements of the show were inspired by the singer’s love of horror films. “I didn’t know about Hershell Gordon Lewis until later, I was a very big fan of the classics,” he says. “Everybody knew about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr, Christopher Lee and Pushing Cushing. We went to the movies every Saturday and watched every one of those movies and so I had no problem with those movies at all. The other ones didn’t come until the late 60s when the band didn’t have time to go to a movie, we were too busy trying to make it as a band, but I did appreciate the humour.
“I’ve always thought that horror and comedy were in bed together, especially Vincent Price and a lot of the Christopher Lee movies, if you weren’t seeing the comedy in that you were missing out you were kind of missing out on the other half of that movie. I thought that horror and comedy would really work together, especially if it was backed by really good music.
“I think that people really got one thing confused with us, the fact that they were so taken by the visual and the image of the band that they didn’t realise that we spent all of our time on the music. We were still up against Led Zeppelin and the Stones, we knew that you had to be a great band in order to make it, rather than a great show.”
Strangely, Cooper’s father, Ether, a pastor in The Church of Jesus Christ, had no objection to the gore and mock executions in his son’s stage act. “My dad was a really good pastor, he could preach all day, but he also had a great sense of humour. He was very funny, and he liked The Beatles and the Stones and The Who, he could tell you who played bass in The Yardbirds and yet he could quote you any scripture that you wanted to hear. He said ‘Look, I have no problem with the music, I have no problem with the show, I have problems with alcohol, I have problems with drugs and I have problems with you sleeping around’. That’s what a pastor’s supposed to say, that was the moral end of it, but he said ‘Musically I don’t have any problem with it’. That was a very cool thing for a pastor to say.”
By the early 1970s Alice Cooper’s sound was beginning to cross the Atlantic. A young John Lydon took to the band’s album Killer to his heart, while Cooper remembers reading that they had even made an impression on Paul McCartney: “He said the first time he heard No More Mr Nice Guy it frightened him, he didn’t understand that pop could be threatening.” Cooper also recalls David Bowie brought his band to watch Alice Cooper perform “and said ‘This is what we should do’…he was really inspired by it. Of course, he was looking at it as ‘Let’s create’, he certainly didn’t want to do what Alice Cooper was doing, he liked the idea though that the music and the theatrics and the characters could all mix in together, and that was right. So when I saw Bowie with the Spiders From Mars I went ‘Oh good, another character’ but I didn’t feel like we were at odds with each other. I just thought it was another new character – here’s Ziggy, here’s Alice.”
The albums School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies propelled Alice Cooper to the top, becoming million sellers, but by 1974 musical differences and the singer’s heavy drinking had taken their toll; the band split up and Cooper adopted the name for his solo act. “I was drinking at least a bottle of VO [whisky] a day,” he says of the period. “When you’re 25, 26, 27 you’re indestructible, and so I was one of those guys that never got drunk, I was sort of the Dean Martin, I was the guy that could drink and just get a golden buzz going all day but I was never falling-down drunk.”
He finally realised he needed to get sober when he came off the road around 1977. “There was a point after the Welcome To My Nightmare show – that show went on for two years – and we did at one point 65 cities in 72 days and again, you’re young enough where you’re not getting sick, you’re doing the show every night, there’s no hint that you’re tired at all, you’re playing to sold-out audiences every night and you’re doing the show that’s so much fun to do, it wasn’t like a rock show, it was like a production, it was really something, but internally my body was going ‘Wait a minute’. At the end of the tour I started throwing up blood and that’s when your alarm goes off and says ‘OK, this party’s over’. The doctor said ‘I’ll give you two months before you join the other Hollywood Vampires, [Cooper’s former drinking buddies such as Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson], the other guys that are gone, so I took that pretty seriously, that’s when I got sober.”
He’s subsequently become something of a wise counsel for other musicians grappling with addiction. “People call me privately and they go ‘Listen, don’t tell anybody this but I need to find a place to check into’ and I go ‘The fact that you’re calling me and telling me that you have a problem means you’re halfway home’. It’s when you get the guy that keeps denying that he has a problem. I would say ‘Listen, I’m going to tell you where a good place is, I’m going to give you the name of a doctor, take it seriously, don’t just go there to slow down, if you really want to do this, go there to stop’ and a lot of guys did which was really good, so I looked at it as an obligation.
“I came out of it totally sober and it was basically a gift from God the fact that I didn’t have to go to AA, it was just gone, so I looked at it this way: God gave me another chance and said ‘Look, I don’t mind you being a rock ’n’ roller at all but also be a Christian’ and I went ‘OK, that sounds good to me’.”
In place of hard drinking, golf has become his way to unwind. “I knew I had an addictive personality because everything that I did if I liked it I did it too much,” he says. “I’ve been married 43 years and I’ve never cheated on my wife. I play golf six days a week and the reason is I had to find something that was going to be an addiction, because I like being addicted but I want to be addicted to something that’s not going to kill me and golf wasn’t going to kill me.
“I was a natural athlete anyway so when I started playing golf I went ‘Oh man, my fans are going to hate this because their dads play golf’. Now if you look at almost any band I can think of three guys play golf in the band because it’s one of those things when you’re on tour you forget the everyday grind. It’s a Tuesday and you’re in Wichita, Kansas and you have all day before you play a show that night at nine o’clock and you don’t drink so what are you going to do? For me, I can play golf for four hours, and then I found that my guitar player played and my bass player played and so we really look forward to it, we get out and play golf and then we get up at night and do the best stage show that we can do.”
Alice Cooper plays at the First Direct Arena, Leeds, on October 7. Rise, his new album with the supergroup Hollywood Vampires, featuring Johnny Depp and Joe Perry, is out on June 21. www.alicecooper.com