By Patrick Prince
Heritage Auctions is presenting vintage Alice Cooper Band memorabilia in its “Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction,” beginning on February 20. The Alice Cooper items up for auction are directly from drummer Neal Smith‘s personal collection. A few of the Alice Cooper Band items highlighted are Smith’s18-piece Billion Dollar Babies Tour Premier Mirror Ball drum set, stage clothes designed and/or altered by the group’s tailor Cindy Smith (Neal’s sister), various signed drumsticks and drumheads (used in the studio and/or on tour) and the infamous stage-used guillotine from the Billion Dollar Babies Tour in 1973.
The following is an exclusive Goldmine interview with Alice Cooper Band drummer Neal Smith:
GM: Talk about the Billion Dollar Babies “Mirror Ball” drum set going up for auction.
Neal Smith: It’s one of the few key drum sets of the early ’70s and late ’60s — possibly along the lines of Keith Moon’s Pictures of Lily set. And especially with the history of the tour, the album going to No. 1 in the world and my status as a drummer during that tour also … the fan magazines Circus and Creem had voted me the No. 1 drummer a lot of times. So there’s a lot of historical significance to that era for the group Alice Cooper.
At any rate, I talked to Heritage and one thing led to another and I said “Well, If I can get this set together, we’ll do an auction.” And I have a lot of my original clothing and memorabilia — like the Billion Dollar Baby coins, the promotion coins that are two feet in diameter. I have 29 offerings in the auction and that’s pretty much scraping the surface of what I have in my personal collection. But I wanted a nice package around “Billion Dollar Babies,” the tour and the significance of that album for the band’s career and obviously catapulting Alice into his solo career a few years later.
GM: You mentioned to me that you still have every drum set you ever owned.
NS: Yeah. I still have the “Killer” (1971) and “Schools’ Out” (1972) chrome drum set — there’s also about 18 pieces in that. And also the silver sparkle set that I recorded “Love It To Death” (1971) and “Killer” on — and toured with “Love It To Death” and the first part of “Killer” when I got the chrome set. I still have the double bass drum set from “Pretties For You” (1969) and “Easy Action” (1970), the one that I recorded those albums on. The one that I’m selling now needed the most work to get it playable again. They’ve been kept inside so their condition is fairly good.
GM: The Mirror Ball set went through a lot of touring?
NS: It did. We toured mostly (America) in 1973 and then a short tour of South America after that and that was pretty much it. And I used it for other few shows after that point but basically that was like 99% of the touring.
GM: You think you’ll miss this drum set when it’s gone?
NS: (pause) No. I had (the drum sets) for so long. I love them, obviously. But I’m in a place now where I still have over 100 drums and probably close to 150. Alone, I have over 20 bass drums, so you can imagine how much space that takes up. And believe me, as soon as I get rid of a couple of sets, I have another set in mind that I want to purchase. So I still want to get more drums.
GM: Well, if you think about it, if you’re a guy and a collector, what better piece to have in you man-cave than a drum set played on the Billion Dollar Babies tour!
NS: Let me tell you this: there’s not gonna be too much room in the man-cave if you set this drum set up. It’s a big set. (laughs) The movie “Good To See You Again, Alice Cooper” (1974) … that’s the set I played in that. And then in 2001, Warner Bros. re-released our “Billion Dollar Babies” album and it had a bonus CD with live tracks that were recorded for the movie “Good To See You Again, Alice Cooper” and I’m going to include an autographed copy of that CD with the drum set because that music and movie were recorded with those actual drums.
I also want to mention that if you’ve seen a picture of the Mirror Ball drum kit (above) — the Premier drum kit that I’m auctioning off — the two different drum heads on there, they’re both from the tours. They’re both original drum heads. These aren’t reproductions. The one that’s on the left that’s kind of slanted, that’s from the “Muscle of Love” (late 1973) tour and the one on the right-hand side that’s horizontal with my name on it, that’s from the Billion Dollar Babies tour. I never realized I had both of these. I was gonna have reproductions made but I found the original ones. So everything on this is all original. And any hardware on there that looks newer, it’s because when Premier gave me the drums they gave me tons of hardware, so everything’s from the era, from 1972 to 1973. That’s very, very important for the authenticity of these drums. The same thing with the guillotine, nothing’s ever been touched on that. It’s all original.
GM: No offense to Alice’s solo career but it’s the Alice Cooper Band, that period in history that started with “Love It To Death,” that’s the memorabilia that people want.
NS: Well, without that no one would know the name Neal Smith, Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton (who passed away in 1997) or Alice Coper. Without those years we would all just be with the multitude of musicians who’ve tried and nothing ever happened. But we were lucky we had great producers, great management and great music and a great stage show.
The (stage show) stuff was gonna be thrown in the dumpster, and I lived in Greenwich, Connecticut and close to where we had things stored. I took the guillotine and a lot of the memorabilia, books and posters from the School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies tours. I took the lit stairs from the Billion Dollar Babies tour. The star boxes, the mirror balls … a lot of the stuff was gonna be thrown into the dump, you know. As a matter of fact, the gallows from the Killer tour was thrown away. Dennis has one of the electric chairs and I’ve got the guillotine from the original band at the peak of our stardom. Those are the only pieces I know of that are still in existence.
GM: Why were they being thrown away? Were they just clearing out storage in the house?
NS: We didn’t live there anymore. The house had burned down actually and it burned down after we left Greenwich, and one of our roadies still lived in the apartment above the garage. The garage was set maybe 50 yards away from the house. It was an eight-car garage and it had all of our staging from School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies in there, and what we didn’t take out was thrown in the dump. That’s how I ended up with it. We lived together from 1967 to 1973 (in the house) and it was a few years later, these things were in storage there and thank goodness at least some survived.
GM: You saved history. You saved a part of rock ‘n’ roll history.
NS: And the guillotine. The Amazing Randi, the magician, he built it himself. He was on the road with us. He was the Executioner who cut Alice’s head off. So for the magic community, that is also a significant piece as well.
GM: Don’t be surprised if the Hard Rock Cafe or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came in on a bid for the guillotine, because that is such a historical stage show item. I mean, you guys pretty much created rock theater and that was one of the main props fans remember.
NS: I know. To me, I know the electric chair and the gallows were great pieces but the guillotine was just a great illusion. And the fact that we needed a professional magician — Amazing Randi — to operate it and make it work. If you’ve seen the scene in “Good To See You Again, Alice Cooper,” when Alice gets his head cut off on the Billion Dollar Babies tour, when they show that illusion it looks like they’re really cutting his freakin’ head off. And, believe me, I’ve had this thing for over 40 years and I would never put my head in this thing. There are multiple safety precautions on it, I still wouldn’t do it. It’s a great piece, a great illusion. I think it’s probably one of the all-time special gems from theater rock from the early ’70s.
GM: Was there any gig where something went wrong with the props?
NS: There were several time, with the gallows, where the trap door wouldn’t open, so Alice was kind of jumping up and down, trying to get it to open up. He only weighed like 90 lbs so that wasn’t really gonna do it. What I would call a Spinal Tap moment where it didn’t work. But the guillotine always worked perfectly. And it’s time that it’s just displayed — where the blade should be locked into place and nobody should be able to fool with it, because that is a solid chrome steel blade. It’s not sharp but it would still break your neck if anybody would put their neck in there, it would still kill them — so it’s not a toy, that’s for sure.
GM: How did the idea for the guillotine come to be?
NS: It was like everything else we did. It was a natural progression from the electric chair. Once we figured out that killing our lead singer was something that was really working — it was kind of our niche — we went on from the electric chair. And it’s amazing that we’re all still friends and not pissed off at each other. It was just something we did for fun. Can you imagine if we didn’t like each other? (laughs) We went from the electric chair to the gallows and the next thing was the natural progression to the guillotine. And believe me we even had ideas beyond that — what the next execution would be like — it was a natural evolution for us and it was perfect for the Billion Dollar Babies tour. It was part of the decadence. Everything you ever heard or saw from Alice Cooper was a brainstorm. We’d all get together, we’d talk about the ideas, put drawings and ideas together and through management, roadies and production company they would make it all come to pass.
GM: How did you meet the magician — Amazing Randi — the executioner, so to speak?
NS: The Amazing Randi … that was all part of it. Again, once we had the ideas and the ideas were flowing, our production company would come up with the details. I mean, I had never heard of Amazing Randi but he specialized in this illusion … and he went on the road with us for the whole tour and he came back again for the Holiday tour for “Muscle of Love” at the end of ’73.
GM: Were there any props that never made it, that were supposed to be added to the stage show?
NS: Oh yeah, the biggest one was … I think it was “School’s Out” … at the end of the show we were going to bring out a big cannon and shoot Alice across the stage (laughs) and Warner Bros. had made things huge. It had these big wheels, that were bigger than a wheel on a covered wagon or a stage coach.They were probably at least 5 feet in diameter, the wheels, on this big monster cannon. And then there was a dummy, like a rag doll dummy of Alice. We tried it … we did a couple of test shows. On the first night … there’s a big giant spring at the end of the cannon. Alice sneaks down there and sneaks out an escape passage but still there’s this big giant spring there, that if it accidentally went off it wouldn’t be pretty. But once Alice escaped the dummy was right there and the spring just shot the dummy right out of the cannon. But unfortunately it looked like someone had taken a rag doll by the hand, flinging it, it spinning around … it looked stupid. So the next night we thought “Okay, that idea didn’t work out. Let’s fill the cannon.” It’s made of plywood too and Alice would sit on top of it jerking off like it’s his penis and we’d have soap suds come out of the cannon like it was cum. It also looked stupid. So that was the biggest one … well, actually we had a couple of them. We had a giant pterodactyl that an artist had made for us — this was back between “Easy Action” and “Love It To Death,” and we were playing at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And the big pterodactyl was set up during the show behind me, behind the drums. Of course, this was an outside event in Chicago … the “Windy City” (laughs) so what happened is 15 feet high, the wind catches it, it collapses and falls over my ass. And then they had to dig me out from under this giant pterodactyl that looked more like a handglider on steroids. Anyway, that one didn’t work either.
GM: I wonder where these props are right now?
NS: I know the cannon ended up at an antique dealership in Connecticut where we lived. It was outside this big estate liquidator company that was there. And actually I had kept the wheels to it. I had the wheels for years and I kept them outside by my house but unfortunately they were made of plywood — they were very ornate — but they didn’t last too long in the weather. So there was this big cannon somewhere else without wheels.
GM: So was that your favorite tour — the Billion Dollar Babies tour?
NS: Well, it’s my favorite because we were making a million dollars a month. I mean, that was another record that we broke because we were breaking financial records of every tour that had been before us. And also we had had our own plane. After that we always had our own planes. It was living the lifestlye that caught a dream back in “Love It To Death,” that we were sort of projecting and hoping would happen some day. So, yeah, the Billion Dollar Babies tour was great but School’s Out was great, too. Pretty much after “Killer” we always headlined. We never played under anybody else again and that was the way our career ended.
GM: Your sister Cindy helped make the majority of your stage clothes. Was it “Love It To Death” when she started designing clothes for you because that seems to be the transition point from a psychedelic-based band …
NS: Well, like the gold jacket — the long gold jacket that’s being offered — that was back in almost the Zappa days. That was pre-“Love It To Death” or right around ’69, early ’70. My sister Cindy was living with us and she used to go to the studios in Hollywood and they used to sell clothes by the pound when they were clearing out the wardrobe rooms. And supposedly this gold jacket that she found for me and bought there, they told her it had been in the wardrobe for (actor) Yul Brynner in the movie “The King and I.” Now, if he actually wore it during any of the scenes … with wardrobe, they can have 20 jackets and maybe only four end up in the movie. But it was made supposedly for Yul Brynner. I’m not verifying that. That’s what was told when Cindy bought it. It didn’t matter. It was a very cool jacket and it’s time for someone to enjoy it, and that’s why it’s being made available because it’s been in my closet for 40 years.
GM: You also have the drumsticks from the “Hollywood Vampires” (2014) studio session up for auction. It must have been fun to make that album.
NS: Oh yeah, it was great. At the time when Dennis and I played on “School’s Out/Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2” (the Alice Cooper group/Pink Floyd mashup), we didn’t realize there would be a whole album put together until after it was finished. It’s great that Alice had the wherewithal to put something together like that. It in itself is a historical piece that crosses a lot of years — all the way from Paul McCartney to Johnny Depp. It was pretty cool. But also as part of the offering I have the original drumsticks and the snare drum head that I played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Induction Ceremony), too. That’s pretty cool. I wanted to hang onto it but I said, “You know what? I’m just gonna leave it and it’s gonna be in a closet somewhere.” And I”ve seen some photos of the amazing pieces people have put together with drum heads and drumsticks that I’ve sold over time and it’s beautiful … encased in museum-piece glass cases or beautiful frames, and I’m like, “Oh man, these people know more about how to preserve these things than I do.” So that’s why I also want to make these things available.
GM: You know what’s great? The Alice Cooper Band members are still friends — because with a lot of bands, petty shit keeps them apart.
NS: Yeah I was never gonna let that happen. Believe me, we all own the name Alice Cooper, when Alice took off on his solo career. It was something where I was never gonna go to war with my best friends, ever. It wasn’t going to happen. We had a great run and even The Beatles break up. But that was never gonna happen and the best decision I ever made in my life was not to go to war with my best friends. I stick to that to this day. It was really personal between me and Dennis and Alice and Michael and Glen. It’s very personal and everybody has stories but nobody knows the truth. That’s between the five of us. The inner circle and that’s the way it will always stay.
The return of The Hollywood Vampires