The Early Years
In 1964, 16-year-old Vincent Furnier (Alice Cooper) was eager to participate in the local annual letterman’s talent show, so he gathered fellow cross-country teammates to form a group for the show. They named themselves The Earwigs. Because they did not know how to play any instruments at the time, they dressed up like The Beatles and mimed their performance to Beatles songs. As a result of winning the talent show and loving the experience of being onstage, the group immediately proceeded to learn how to play instruments they acquired from a local pawn shop. They soon renamed themselves The Spiders, featuring Furnier on vocals, Glen Buxton on lead guitar, John Tatum on rhythm guitar, Dennis Dunaway on bass guitar and John Speer on drums. Musically, the group was inspired by artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Doors and The Yardbirds. For the next year the band performed regularly around the Phoenix area with a huge black spider’s web as their backdrop, the group’s first stage prop.
In 1965, The Spiders recorded their first single, “Why Don’t You Love Me” (originally performed by The Blackwells), with Furnier learning the harmonica for the song. The single’s B-side track was the Marvin Gaye Tamla Records hit, “Hitch Hike”. The single was released by local record label, Mascot Records, owned by Jack Curtis, a concert promoter who also owned the Stage 7 teen club which later became the VIP Club where The Spiders were the house band.
In 1966, The Spiders graduated from high school and after North High School footballer Michael Bruce replaced John Tatum on rhythm guitar, the band released their second single, “Don’t Blow Your Mind”, an original composition which became a local #1 hit, backed by “No Price Tag”. The single was recorded at Copper State Recording Studio and issued by local micro-imprint, Santa Cruz Records.
By 1967, the band had begun to make regular road trips to Los Angeles to play shows. They soon renamed themselves The Nazz and released the single “Wonder Who’s Lovin’ Her Now”, backed with future Alice Cooper track “Lay Down and Die, Goodbye”. At around this time, drummer John Speer was replaced by Neal Smith. By the end of the year, the band had relocated to Los Angeles.
1968 - The Nazz become Alice Cooper
n 1968, the band learned that Todd Rundgren also had a band called Nazz, and found themselves in need of another stage name. Furnier also believed that the group needed a gimmick to succeed, and that other bands were not exploiting the showmanship potential of the stage. The legend is that the name “Alice Cooper” came from a session with a ouija board, but this story is untrue. The name was simply said at random, it was largely chosen because it sounded innocuous and wholesome, in humorous contrast to the band’s image and music, and eventually adopted this stage name as his own. Cooper later stated that the name change was one of his most important and successful career moves.
Nonetheless, at the time Cooper and the band realized that the concept of a male playing the role of a villain, a woman killer, in tattered women’s clothing and wearing make-up, would have the potential to cause considerable social controversy and grab headlines. In 2007 in his book Alice Cooper, Golf Monster Cooper stated that his look was inspired in part by film. One of the band’s all-time favorite movies was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Bette Davis. “In the movie, Bette wears disgusting caked makeup smeared on her face and underneath her eyes, with deep, dark, black eyeliner.” Another movie the band watched over and over was Barbarella. “When I saw Anita Pallenberg playing the Great Tyrant in that movie in 1968, wearing long black leather gloves with switchblades coming out of them, I thought, ‘That’s what Alice should look like.’ That, and a little bit of Emma Peel from The Avengers.”
The classic Alice Cooper group line-up consisted of Furnier, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith. With the exception of Smith, who graduated from Camelback High School (which is referred to in the song “Alma Mater” on the album School’s Out), all of the band members were on the Cortez High School cross-country team, and many of Cooper’s stage effects were inspired by their cross-country coach, Emmett Smith (one of Smith’s class projects was to build a working guillotine for slicing watermelons). Cooper, Buxton and Dunaway were also art students, and their admiration for the works of surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí would further inspire their future stage antics.
One night after an unsuccessful gig at the Cheetah club in Venice, California, where the band emptied the entire room of patrons after playing just ten minutes, they were approached and enlisted by music manager Shep Gordon, who ironically saw the band’s negative impact that night as a force that could be turned in a more productive direction. Shep then arranged an audition for the band with composer and renowned record producer, Frank Zappa, who was looking to sign bizarre music acts to his new record label, Straight Records. For the audition Zappa told them to come to his house “at 7 o’clock.” The band mistakenly assumed he meant 7 o’clock in the morning. Being woken up by a band willing to play that particular brand of psychedelic rock at seven in the morning impressed Zappa enough to sign them to a three-album deal. Another Zappa-signed act, the all-female GTOs, who liked to “dress the Cooper boys up like full size Barbie dolls,” played a major role in developing the band’s early onstage look.
1969 - Pretties For You
Cooper’s first album Pretties for You (released in 1969) had a slight psychedelic feel. Although it touched the US charts for one week at No. 193, it was ultimately a critical and commercial failure.
Alice Cooper’s “shock rock” reputation apparently developed almost by accident at first. An unrehearsed stage routine involving Cooper, a feather pillow and a live chicken garnered attention from the press; the band decided to capitalize on the tabloid sensationalism, creating in the process a new subgenre, shock rock. Cooper claims that the infamous “Chicken Incident” at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival concert in September 1969 was an accident. A chicken somehow made its way onto the stage into the feathers of a feather pillow they would open during Cooper’s performance, and not having any experience around farm animals, Cooper presumed that, because the chicken had wings, it would be able to fly. He picked it up and threw it out over the crowd, expecting it to fly away. The chicken instead plummeted into the first few rows occupied by disabled people in wheelchairs, who reportedly proceeded to tear the bird to pieces.The next day the incident made the front page of national newspapers, and Zappa phoned Cooper and asked if the story, which reported that he had bitten off the chicken’s head and drunk its blood on stage, was true. Cooper denied the rumor, whereupon Zappa told him, “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it,” obviously recognizing that such publicity would be priceless for the band.
The band later claimed that this period was highly influenced by Pink Floyd, and especially the album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Glen Buxton said he could listen to Syd Barrett’s guitar for hours at a time.
June 1970 - Easy Action
Despite the publicity from the chicken incident, the band’s second album Easy Action, released in June 1970, met with the same fate as its predecessor. At around this time, the band, fed up with Californians’ indifference to their act, relocated to Cooper’s birthplace, Detroit, where their bizarre stage act was much better received by the crowds of the Midwest states who were accustomed to the similar hard rock styles of local bands such as The Stooges and The MC5. Despite this, Cooper still managed to receive a cream pie in the face when performing at the Cincinnati Pop Festival. Detroit would remain their steady home base until 1972. “L.A. just didn’t get it,” Cooper stated. “They were all on the wrong drug for us. They were on acid and we were basically drinking beer. We fit much more in Detroit than we did anywhere else.”
Alice Cooper appeared at the Woodstock-esque Strawberry Fields Festival near Toronto, Ontario in August 1970. The band’s mix of glam and increasingly violent stage theatrics stood out in stark contrast to the bearded, denim-clad hippie bands of the time. As Cooper himself stated: “We were into fun, sex, death and money when everybody was into peace and love. We wanted to see what was next. It turned out we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation”.
Fall 1970 - Love It To Death
In autumn 1970, the Alice Cooper group teamed with producer Bob Ezrin for the recording of their third album Love It to Death. This was the final album in their Straight Records contract and the band’s last chance to create a hit. That first success came with the single “I’m Eighteen”, released in November 1970, which reached number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1971. Not long after the album’s release in January 1971 Warner Bros. Records purchased Alice Cooper’s contract from Straight and re-issued the album, giving the group a higher level of promotion.
Love It to Death proved to be their breakthrough album, reaching number 35 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album charts. It would be the first of eleven Alice Cooper group and solo albums produced by Ezrin, who is widely seen as being instrumental in helping to create and develop the band’s definitive sound.
The group’s 1971 tour featured a stage show involving mock fights and gothic torture modes being imposed on Cooper climaxing with a staged execution by electric chair, with the band sporting tight, sequined, and color-contrasting glam rock-style costumes made by prominent rock fashion designer Cindy Dunaway (sister of band member Neal Smith, and wife of band member Dennis Dunaway). Cooper’s androgynous stage role had developed to present a villainous side, portraying a potential threat to modern society. The success of the band’s single and album, and their tour of 1971, which included their first tour of Europe (audience members reportedly included Elton John and a pre-Ziggy David Bowie), provided enough encouragement for Warner Bros. to offer the band a new multi-album contract.
1971 - Killer
Their follow-up album Killer, released in late 1971, continued the commercial success of Love It to Death and included further single success with “Under My Wheels”, “Be My Lover” in early 1972, and “Halo of Flies” which became a Top 10 hit in the Netherlands in 1972. Thematically, Killer expanded on the villainous side of Cooper’s androgynous stage role, with its music becoming the soundtrack to the group’s morality-based stage show, which by then featured aboa constrictor hugging Cooper on-stage, the murderous axe chopping of bloodied baby dolls, and execution by hanging at the gallows. Back then, the real criticism was aimed at questioning the artists’ sexual ambiguity, rather than the stage gore. In January 1972, Cooper was again asked about his peculiar name, and told talk show hostess Dinah Shore that he took the name from a “Mayberry RFD” character.
1972 - School's Out
The summer of 1972 saw the release of the single “School’s Out”. It went Top 10 in the USA and to number 1 in the UK, remaining a staple on classic rockradio to this day. The album School’s Out reached No. 2 on the US charts and sold over a million copies. The band now relocated to their new mansion inGreenwich, Connecticut. With Cooper’s on-stage androgynous persona completely replaced with brattiness and machismo, the band solidified their success with subsequent tours in the United States and Europe, and won over devoted fans in droves while at the same time horrifying parents and outraging the social establishment. In the United Kingdom, Mary Whitehouse, a Christian morality campaigner, persuaded the BBC to ban the video for “School’s Out”, although Whitehouse’s campaign did not prevent the single also reaching number one in the UK. Cooper sent her a bunch of flowers in gratitude for the publicity. Meanwhile, British Labour Member of Parliament Leo Abse petitioned Home Secretary Reginald Maudling to have the group banned altogether from performing in the country.
1973 - Billion Dollar Babies
In February 1973, Billion Dollar Babies was released worldwide and became the band’s most commercially successful album, reaching No. 1 in both the US and UK. “Elected”, a late-1972 Top 10 UK hit from the album, which inspired one of the first MTV-style story-line promo videos ever made for a song (three years before Queen’s promotional video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”), was followed by two more UK Top 10 singles, “Hello Hooray” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, the latter of which was the last UK single from the album; it reached No. 25 in the US. The title track, featuring guest vocals by Donovan, was also a US hit single. Around this time Glen Buxton left Alice Cooper briefly due to his waning health.
With a string of successful concept albums and several hit singles, the band continued their gruelling schedule and toured the United States once again. Continued attempts by politicians and pressure groups to ban their shocking act only served to fuel the myth of Alice Cooper further and generate even greater public interest. Their 1973 US tour broke box office records previously set by The Rolling Stones and raised rock theatrics to new heights; the multi-level stage show by then featured numerous special effects, including Billion Dollar Bills, decapitated baby dolls and mannequins, a dental psychosis scene complete with dancing teeth, and the ultimate execution prop and highlight of the show: the guillotine. The guillotine and other stage effects were designed for the band by magician James Randi, who appeared on stage during some of the shows as executioner. The Alice Cooper group had now reached its peak and it was among the most visible and successful acts in the industry. Beneath the surface, however, the repetitive schedule of recording and touring had begun to take its toll on the band, and Cooper, who was under the constant pressure of getting into character for that night’s show, was consistently sighted nursing a can of beer.
1973 - Muscle Of Love
Muscle of Love, released at the end of 1973, was to be the last studio album from the classic line-up, and marked Alice Cooper’s last UK Top 20 single of the 1970s with “Teenage Lament ’74”. An unsolicited theme song was recorded for the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, but a different song of the same name by Lulu was chosen instead. By 1974, the Muscle of Love album had not matched the top-charting success of its predecessor, and the band began to have constant disagreements. For various reasons, the band members agreed to take what was expected to be a temporary hiatus. “Everyone decided they needed a rest from one another”, said manager Shep Gordon at the time. “A lot of pressure had built up, but it’s nothing that can’t be dealt with. Everybody still gets together and talks.” Journalist Bob Greene spent several weeks on the road with the band during the Muscle of Love Christmas Tour in 1973. His book Billion Dollar Baby, released in November 1974, painted a less than flattering picture of the band, showing a group in total disharmony.
The End of an Era
During this time, Cooper relocated back to Los Angeles and started appearing regularly on television shows such as Hollywood Squares, and Warner Bros. released the Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits compilation album. It featured classic style artwork and reached the US Top 10, performing better than Muscle of Love. However, the band’s 1974 feature film Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper (consisting mainly of 1973 concert footage with ‘comedic’ sketches woven throughout to a faint storyline), released on a minor theatrical run mostly to drive-in theaters, saw little box office success. On March 5, 1974, Cooper appeared on episode 3 of The Snoop Sisters playing a Satanic cult singer. The final shows by Alice Cooper as a group were in Brazil in March and April 1974, including the record indoor attendance estimated as high as 158,000 fans in São Paulo on March 30, at the Anhembi Exposition Hall at the start of the first ever South American rock tour.