Why is your favourite band selling their songs?
We investigate why some of rock’s biggest artists are selling their songs to huge corporations, and what it could mean for their legacies…
During his first flush of success in the ‘70s, Alice Cooper was so famous that he appeared as a guest on The Muppet Show. At the time a weekly half-hour broadcast, each episode would feature one human guest, the star quality of whom was usually astonishing.
Performers and actors such as Elton John, Mark Hamill, Roger Moore, Diana Ross, Dudley Moore and Steve Martin were just some of the names that deigned to stand in the presence of the iconic creations from Jim Henson’s workshop. On the week of Alice Cooper’s appearance, the show begins with the guest being told by the character Scooter that he has 15 seconds until the curtain rises. The singer is surrounded by deformed and ghoulish puppets. “Those monsters aren’t ours,” Scooter tells him, to which he receives the reply, “I know, they’re mine.” The subtext was clear: Alice Cooper is America’s bogeyman.
Alice is the creation and the alter-ego of Vincent Damon Furnier, a name today used by no-one. During a golden period of albums released in the ‘70s – records such as School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies – the character’s constant rebelliousness and, in a live setting, macabre theatrics would prove influential across a wide musical spectrum. There is a credible case to be made that his act drew up the blueprints for punk in a way that was just as profound as those designed by his friend Iggy Pop. For years a dedicated drunk, in 1989 a now sober Alice re-emerged with the ubiquitous smash hit single Poison. This not at all subtle take on the subject of AIDS once again secured its singer prime real estate in rock’s mainstream.
From here, the stroll to the status of a legend has been short. Today the 73-year-old is a member of Hollywood Vampires, the good-natured supergroup that also features Joe Perry from Aerosmith and Johnny Depp, and is gearing up to release his 21st album Detroit Stories on February 26. But as he enters his eighth decade in rock’n’roll, it would surely be unwise to present Alice Cooper with a pair of slippers as a Christmas gift anytime soon.
What was the power that rock’n’roll held over you as a young man?
“I’ve listened to music, especially rock’n’roll, since I was eight years old. First off it was Elvis [Presley] on The Ed Sullivan Show. My uncle also bought me a Chuck Berry record, and that changed everything. I was also the perfect age when The Beatles came out. I was 15. Before that I was listening to chart music. I was listening to The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons and Motown, everything that was on Top 40 radio. Then all of a sudden I heard this thing that I’d never heard before; [The Beatles’] She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, and then I heard Please Please Me. I heard, like, five Beatles songs in one day, and I just went, ‘What is this?!’ Not even knowing what they looked like or who they were. I knew that sound was really different and really cool. And when I saw them and saw what kind of a reaction everybody’s parents had to them, I immediately became a Beatles fan.”
There are certain performers – Lemmy would be one, Slash another – for whom the sense of wonder of rock’n’roll has never dimmed. You seem to fall neatly into this category.
“Absolutely. You will never wash away the sound of a Pete Townshend power chord. To me that’s the most important sound in the world. Or a Jeff Beck solo. Or a Keith Moon drum solo. Or a Beatles harmony. But you can take it all the way back to Chuck Berry – nobody was a better lyricist than Chuck. He could tell you a story in three minutes, and it would be this ridiculously funny thing. I will never, ever outgrow rock’n’roll, and I will never, ever tell my band to turn the volume down.”
Are you aware that John Lydon – otherwise known as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols – once said that his entire career stemmed from him standing in front of a mirror miming along to your song I’m Eighteen?
“I heard that, and I heard that he and [Sex Pistols bassist] Sid Vicious would busk in the subway playing songs such as I Love The Dead and all these other dark Alice Cooper songs. I thought that was a funny scene when I pictured it in my head. But I know Johnny well and I can understand that. At that point I probably represented the most rebellious band that he’d ever seen. I mean, they tried to ban us in England.”
What was England like in the days when you first came over here?
“For us to go to England was like going to a holy land. To us, it was the land of The Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Who – the best bands in the world. We would not be anything without having listened to them and learning how to play. So going there was so exotic to us. And we’d go to Kensington Market, which was the coolest place in the world, because you could get platform boots there. And we’d go to the Hard Rock or Tramp’s [club], which were also the greatest places. We stayed at Blakes Hotel, which was the rock’n’roll hotel at the time. And at Kensington Market you’d run into T. Rex and people like that. England was the only place that really understood what we were doing. It was the only place that accepted us not just for the music, but also for the theatrics. So many people thought that Alice Cooper was from England. They certainly didn’t think I was from Arizona.”
Why do you think so many people were so shocked by the theatricality of your act?
“I think the DNA of England is very polite. America is a little bit more revolutionary. Us coming over to England and chopping up baby dolls, and the blood and the snakes, was extremely exotic to the public. And the fact, then, that MPs tried to ban us made us even more exotic. We were like the villains of rock’n’roll and everyone wanted to come and see why. They loved the songs, but on top of that you had this show unlike any other. It was the outlaw in Alice Cooper that made everyone want to come out.”
Alice Cooper in the ‘70s seemed to have above-the-title billing in a golden musical age. How close to reality is that image?
“It was an era when record companies, the music business and the public wanted rock stars to be individuals. They didn’t want another David Bowie or T. Rex; there was only one Bowie and one T. Rex. Now it seems that as soon as there’s a Bon Jovi, there’s 35 Bon Jovis. As soon as there’s a Bruce Springsteen, there’s 40 Bruce Springsteens. But in that era, the whole idea was to be the best band you could possibly be live. All of us learned swagger from [Mick] Jagger – the king rooster up there – onstage. Everybody looked at him and thought, ‘Well, I want to do that, but I want to do it the way that I do it.’ Rock stars are supposed to be sexy and glamorous. That’s when rock stars were rock stars. Now I think that rock stars are much too introverted.”
You certainly weren’t introverted. Bob Dylan once said that he thought your talents as a writer were underappreciated. What did you make of that?
“I was very appreciative of it. I didn’t even know that he knew that I was alive. I had never met Bob Dylan, but he was certainly the poet laureate of America. That was a huge compliment for me. And John Lennon’s favourite song was Elected, which he used to talk about, and that gave us some credibility. I do think that the music was overshadowed by the theatrics, but that didn’t keep us from trying to write great songs. To this day, if you don’t think that your next album is going to be your best album, or if you think that you’ve already written your best song, you should probably quit.”
Is it true that there are a whole tranche of albums that you made in the ‘80s that you can’t remember recording because you were too pissed?
“Yeah, there was a period where we wrote, recorded and toured albums that I don’t really remember. It’s so funny that those are the fans’ favourite albums. I always think, ‘Wow, I’ve got to go back and listen to them, because I don’t remember any of those songs!’”
Presumably your lifestyle during this period led you close to death. What did you learn from these times?
“Well, I had to get sober in order to suss it out. When I first came up, my elder siblings were [Doors singer] Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Keith Moon, and all of these people. I was sitting there trying to drink with them. And some of these people died when they were 27. I think that I realised then that Jim and Jimi and those guys were trying to live their image. Jim had a great image onstage. He was like a statue of [Michelangelo’s] David up there. He was always high and boozy and sexy and all the girls went crazy over him. I said, ‘I wonder if he ever puts that character away and just lives a normal life?’ Well, I used to know him and I know that he didn’t. He was always that character. And I think that part of that is what killed him. I looked at that and thought, ‘The Alice Cooper character is 10 times as extreme as me.’ I had to find a way to co-exist with him. Now I live a normal life – or as close to normal as you can be being in rock for this long – and I look forward to putting the make-up and the stage costume on. I can’t wait to get up there and become Alice Cooper. But there was a time when I thought I had to be Alice all the time. And it would have killed me if I kept going like that. It definitely would have killed me.”
When you talk about the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix being your elder siblings, this is in the sense that you actually knew them as people, right?
“Oh yeah. I used to drink with Jim Morrison all the time. Jimi Hendrix passed me my first joint when I was 18 years old. Joplin and I used to drink Southern Comfort together, and she could drink anyone under the table.”
And these days you play golf…
“It’s the funniest thing. I quit drinking, so I had to find an addiction that wasn’t going to kill me. The addictions that I already had were killing me. I used to be a really good baseball player, and I thought that if I could hit a ball that was coming towards me at 80 miles an hour, I should be able to hit a ball that was sitting on a tee. I realised that when I was on tour I was sitting all day in a hotel room and that doing that would be nothing but temptation for me. So I searched for something to do in the day. I went to a golf course and the pro there put a ball down and I hit it right down the middle. Effortlessly. And he told me that I was a natural. So I traded alcohol and drugs and everything else for this new addiction. And now I play six days a week. But at first I had to be a closet golfer because my fans would have hated it. Their dads played golf. So I had to sneak out and play.”
You’ve made music constantly throughout your career. Have you ever entertained any doubts that this was your calling?
“Well, here’s the thing: rock’n’roll goes in a lot of directions in the period between 1965 and the present day. If you look at it, it went to punk, it went to glam, it went to grunge, it went to disco, it went to this and that. The only kind of music that stayed its course and did not change was hard rock. That’s the one music that never went away. So for me, I never get tired of that kind of music. Even when I’m rehearsing with the [Hollywood] Vampires, we pay tribute to our dead friends. So we do a John Lennon song, and we do a T. Rex song. It is so much fun being the world’s most expensive bar band.”
Hollywood Vampires features you, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry. Who’s the coolest cat in the band?
“Joe is one of those guys who is in his own world. Most lead guitar players that I know are in their own worlds. Johnny Depp was a guitar player long before he was an actor, so I can yell out [The Rolling Stones’] Brown Sugar, and he knows it and plays it dead on. He is a very well-rounded guitar player. He can play lead right up there with Joe Perry. People think he’s only there to be eye candy for the girls, but Johnny is as good a guitar player as anyone I’ve ever had in my bands. The Vampires is an awfully good band.”
Supergroups often implode in a plume of acrimony because its members egos are too big. How will the Hollywood Vampires avoid this fate?
“Despite this being a band of alpha males who are used to calling the shots, from the first rehearsal to this point there has never been one single argument. No-one has butted heads on anything. We try things and all of us instinctively know whether or not it works… Nobody ever pulls a hissy fit to get their own way. Johnny and Joe share leads and nobody ever argues.”
You’re playing songs by great artists that have died. When Alice Cooper passes over, who would you like to play your music?
“The Foo Fighters play my songs really well already. They know every song. I could go up there with them – I did this at Milton Keynes [in 2011] – and do Under My Wheels and I’m Eighteen and School’s Out, and they played my songs as good as my band do. So the Foo Fighters would be a good choice.”
Alice Cooper has had a profound influence on musical culture. Is it pleasing to realise that?
“That can go two ways. It can either make you egotistical, or it can make you very humble. I remember when I’m Eighteen came out. I think it got to number two on the charts and I looked at the bands that were under us and I was so embarrassed. Led Zeppelin were at number seven, The Rolling Stones were at number 10. I almost wanted to call them up and say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Because they were my teachers. You almost sit there and go, ‘I’m not in their league.’ Now I don’t look at it as competition. Back then, you did two albums a year. You didn’t have time to be egotistical about it.”
If Alice Cooper was starting out now, how would he be different?
“I would not change anything about Alice Cooper. I even think about the alcoholism and how that shaped Alice Cooper. I’ve thought about whether I’d change that, and I realise that I wouldn’t because I learned so much about myself from it – the same with the drug use. I realise how unbelievably out of control I was, yet I lived through it. In some ways it actually gave me a lot more confidence, and I would not have changed that.”
What would you like to have inscribed on your headstone?
“‘Here lies Alice, since from when he was teething, never stopped rocking ‘til he stopped breathing.’”
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