By Dave Thompson
It’s funny how things work out. Back in 1997, shortly before his death that October, original Alice Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton was shooting the breeze with his old bandmate, drummer Neal Smith, when the subject of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came up.
The Alice Cooper band had only recently become eligible for induction; the 25th anniversary of the band’s first album, “Pretties For You,” occurred in 1994, and there were precious few bands of that vintage that deserved induction more than the Coopers ... maybe it did take them two years to really pick up steam, but still, the run of hit singles (and LPs) that blasted Alice Cooper through the early 1970s remains peerless and includes some of the seminal rock anthems of all time: “I’m Eighteen.” “School’s Out.” “Hello, Hooray.” “Under My Wheels.” “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” “Generation Landslide.” “Billion Dollar Babies.” “Be My Lover.” You could stuff a greatest-hits CD with the songs for which the Alice Cooper band is most renowned, and then you could stuff another with the songs for which they’re best remembered: “Dead Babies.” “I Love The Dead.” “Black Juju.” “Killer.” “Sick Things.” “Halo Of Flies.” “Hallowed Be My Name.”
Alice Cooper may not have been the heaviest band on earth, but it still made everyone else look like lightweights, and the fact that the sainted heads of the Hall of Fame had not dragged the Coopers kicking and screaming into their marbled halls the moment that the group became eligible was ... well, it wasn’t even inexplicable. It was contemptible.
“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” laughed Buxton, “can kiss my rock and roll Ass.”
“That comment stuck with me all these years,” Smith smiles today. “So, about a year ago, I wrote a song about it...” and, as he worked toward the second album by his current Killsmith project, there seemed no reason on earth why he shouldn’t include it.
The day the telephone rang and it was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Coopers were in, and Smith was astonished.
“I never dreamed in a million years that we would ever be inducted.” And, as for “The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Can Kiss My Rock And Roll Ass”... “well, it was a good idea at the time, but we’ll see what happens. Nostradamus I’m not.”
Killsmith is one of the myriad bands to have emerged over the past three-plus decades from the wreckage of the original Alice Cooper band. “Sexual Savior,” Killsmith’s debut album, was released back in 2008 and proved one of the most challengingly perverse records of Smith’s career, a litany of thrilling riffs, thunderous chords, monster percussion and the kind of lyrics that could make an Anglo-Saxon blush.
This time around, things are a little more level-headed. “I just started mixing my new Killsmith CD, ‘Killsmith 2,’” Smith says from his home in Connecticut. “I’m very excited about it; it’s a lot more radio friendly than the first one, I got that off my chest, got all the x-rated words out. This is a lot more radio friendly but with the power of the first one. Just the way songs are written… catchier choruses. Twelve songs, and they’re all brand new, although I guess ‘Kiss My Ass, Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame’ … I guess I can’t put that one on.”
There again, Smith has never been one to shrink from a challenge, because that was one of the things that made the Alice Cooper band so astonishing in the first place. Spiraling out of Phoenix, Ariz., (where Alice himself still lives), the band relocated to Los Angeles and cut two albums for Frank Zappa’s Straight label before shifting over to Warner Brothers (Straight’s distributor) and unleashed “Love It To Death,” the first — and maybe finest — in a sequence of five LPs that peaked with the chart-topping “Billion Dollar Babies” in 1973.
Induction into the Hall of Fame, Smith concedes, feels almost as good as that did.
“I’m the most excited for the fans, who have stuck with us for such a long time. Within the last 10 years, there’s been petitions circulating and these people just can’t understand why we weren’t in there. I’m still amazed that, in 1973, we had the No. 1 LP with “Billion Dollar Babies” and, to me, that was the peak of our career in terms of things happening out of the blue that we weren’t even expecting. I didn’t think it would ever get any better than that, and with the hesitation about us even getting a nomination to the Hall of Fame ...
“I know Alice has wonderful fans, but the original band has wonderful fans, as well. Their support has been strong and nonwavering over these many years, and I’m most excited for them. I think this a great day for the fans, a great time for them.”
And the fact that the nomination itself was so overdue, in a way, only made it that little bit sweeter.
“The only time I actually got excited about the nomination was when I realized … I was very pessimistic that anything positive could come out of it, because it took 16 years to be nominated. And all the bands that are in there I love, but I think there’s been a handful of bands that have no place in there. You put them up against The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley — the real monsters of rock — and you wonder why they’re there. So I was a little disillusioned with that.
“But then I started looking at the first-time nominees, the bands that got in on the first nomination, and man, that was when I got excited. I thought if we were ever going to be nominated, and we ever got in, it would be amazing to get in on the first nomination. And that’s what we did. In reality, it is a great thing, and I am excited about it.”
Especially pleasing, for Smith and for the band’s fans, is the fact that it is the original band that is being inducted, and not Alice Cooper alone. That, after all, would not have been a shock — even at the peak of the band’s success in 1972-1973, people were more likely to refer to Alice Cooper as the individual singer, the lanky, face-painted, snake-wielding freak whom his parents had named Vince Furnier, and allow the remainder of the band to lapse into anonymity.
No matter that Smith, guitarists Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton and bassist Dennis Dunaway were as much a part of the act as their frontman, nor that the vast majority of the band’s greatest numbers were at least co-written by one or another of them. To the public at large, Alice Cooper was Alice Cooper, and it’s a misconception that history has clung to tenaciously ever since.
Add to that the Hall of Fame’s own peculiar sense of what does and doesn’t constitute a worthy inductee — a failing that came screaming into prominence in 2007 with the nomination of Patti Smith, without the group that bore her name — and it would have been easy for the Coopers to go the same way.
“It is the original band and not any of us on our own, and that’s another thing I’m excited about,” Smith said. “Because it could have been Alice by himself, and he certainly at this point deserves a nomination by himself. But first steps first, and I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s right that they go back to the original concept of the artist, like Iggy and the Stooges. But then there was Patti Smith, who was nominated alone, without the band, and because of that, I was never sure what would happen until it occurred.”
The band members have not been strangers in recent years; Alice’s annual Christmas Pudding concert in Phoenix brought them together for the first time in 2006 and, since then, there have been a handful of other reunions — most recently this past December at another Christmas Pudding bash.
“We played basically the greatest hits,” Smith says of that show.
“No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” “Is It My Body” and “Under My Wheels” tore out of the monitors. When Goldmine asked him to predict what the band would offer up at the induction ceremony, he was sure that there were two or three songs from that group that would be played. (The final setlist consisted of “I’m Eighteen,” “Under My Wheels” and “School’s Out.”)
But what may come after the party’s over? “We’re talking about doing some shows post-induction, as well,” he said. “It’s all talk at this point, and we’ve been talking about it for the last 10 years, but this may be the boost that we’ve been needing. We all still have our solo careers, but I’m sure in some of the major cities, the fans will be able to come and see the original band play together again.”
What is certain is that there will be some new Alice Cooper material this year, highlighting the magnificence of the original combo.
“There will definitely be some new product this year, some new stuff, and if we play out, it’ll be recorded and videotaped,” he said.
There is also talk of a box set — a follow up to the all-encompassing Alice package, “The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, released at the tail end of the last century.” The difference is, this time, it will concentrate on the original band alone — and if it can get into the wealth of demos and early live recordings that circulate the Cooper-collecting underground, then it will certainly rank among the key archive collections of the age.
And there’s one other project that Smith would like to see come to fruition: a greatest-hits package that eschews the greatest hits and concentrates instead on the songs that gave the band its reputation in the first place. The Hall of Fame’s own website reminds visitors that, “Before there was Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson or KISS, there was Alice Cooper ... pioneering the dark spectacle of heavy metal with their huge blues-rock sound and extravagant stage show.
“Drawing from horror movies and vaudeville, Cooper brought a new level of visual theatrics to arenas with guillotines, electric chairs, boa constrictors and fake blood...” and so on and so cliche-ridden forth.
But what really elevated the Coopers above the realms of gimmickry (and, for that matter, metal) was the music; and here was a band whose lyrics were as spellbinding as their presentation.
Again... “Dead Babies,” “Killer,” “Black Juju,” “Halo Of Flies ...” “The Ballad Of Dwight Frye,” still one of the greatest portrayals of madness ever set to a rock ’n’ roll beat. I Love The Dead” — necrophilia has never sounded so cool. “Unfinished Sweet” — the dentist has never seemed so scary.
“The dark side of Alice Cooper,” says Smith. “I would still love to see a greatest hits, the dark side of Alice. It’s the one CD that hasn’t been done yet.”
That’s what you said about induction, Neal. So let’s not give up hope just yet.