Alice Cooper: “They Said, ‘We Just Can’t Have You Setting German Shepherds On Fire Onstage…’”
Rock musicians are famous for canceling interviews when they have even the slightest of sniffles. But when we call Alice Cooper, he has fresh stitches in his mouth — and he’s still ready to talk. “I have just had oral surgery this morning, so I’m…okay,” he says with a chuckle. “It was an implant that came loose so they had to go in and do some stitching…but it’s fine. I’m not in a bad mood.”
That he’s willing to chat with us about his legacy the afternoon after he’s gone under the knife is a testament to how much Alice Cooper lives and dies by one rule: the show must go on. Since he invented shock rock fifty years ago in a flurry of gore and feathers at a Toronto music festival (we’ll get to that), the Motor City maniac has made our ghoulish entertainment his life’s work, chopping off his head night after night in the hopes of keeping our eyes glued to the stage.
Now, with 27 studio albums, thousands of live shows, and an ocean’s worth of fake blood under his wheels, rock and roll’s ultimate ringmaster shows no sign of stopping, having just announced a 50th anniversary tour of the UK with openers MC50 and The Stranglers. And while those acts might seem a little down-to-earth compared to Alice Cooper’s elaborate theatrical production, Alice says that’s just the way he likes it.
“It’s funny, because we don’t really put shows together that are shock rock,” he says. “We did a tour with Rob Zombie, and a tour with Manson, but generally we go out with bands like Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe…we recently talked about going out with Peter Frampton! It’s kind of classic rock to us. I’d personally rather have a straighter rock band in front of us.
“If it all screams,” says Alice, “nothing screams.”
You’ve said that you’re bringing a new live show out on the road this year, and it’s still in its early stages. Does that ever involve having to tone down your setlist, to make room for the theatrical production?
Well, we’ve always looked at it as, you need a great opening, and you have to give them the hits. And we’ve come into a formula now where I do a thing in the middle, a Halo Of Flies or Dirty Diamonds, where the band can show off. I probably have the best touring band out there — our drummer, Glen Sobel, was voted by Drumming Magazine as best rock drummer; Nita Strauss was voted Best Female Guitarist by Guitar World — so I need to show them off a bit. And while they’re doing that, that’s when I get ready for the theatrical parts of the show. And the next time they see Alice, THAT’S when they get the theatrical part.
Right now, it’s about taking those songs and milking them. And we want them to see an opening they haven’t seen. They know they’re going to get School’s Out, and Poison, and Eighteen, and Billion Dollar Babies — I’d be disappointed if I saw the Stones and they didn’t play Satisfaction and Brown Sugar. We’ll give ‘em the hits, it’s just how you package the hits now. For me, this, when we get into rehearsals, this is the most fun part of the show.
Is there a tactic you come back to, like ‘Show, don’t tell’, that helps you keep the show fresh when reorganizing it?
Well, I surround myself with a lot of creative people. I don’t believe in the singer coming in, saying, ‘This is the show and it can’t move left or right.’ I do know guys like that, and that’s hard to work with. I listen to everyone. We run the whole show, and Shep, who’s not only my manager but a good lighting guy, sits out in the audience, while Bob Ezrin, my musical director, watches it. We run it, we run it, we run it, and then we take notes and say, ‘Okay, you get into the fourth song here and it loses energy. It’s a mid-tempo song. You gotta pick it up.’ We treat it like a Broadway show, almost. The audience never gets a chance to relax. We don’t want them to relax, for an hour and a half. There’ll be an Only Women Bleed, or one of those songs where on an auditory level they get to relax, but I really don’t want them looking away from the stage. That’s the way we’ve been doing it for fifty years.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Pretties For You, the first Alice Cooper album. What was it like for a band like Alice Cooper to come onto the scene at the height of the hippie movement?
We did not relate to the hippies at all. I always tell people, they were into peace and love, we were into blondes and switchblades. I did not understand the idea that everything was peace, and love, and wonderful. We were much more into sensationalism. We watched West Side Story and horror movies! We wanted excitement in rock and roll, so we didn’t fit into LA at all. The reason we broke out was because we went to Detroit, and were there with Iggy & The Stooges and the MC5. We fit right in there. That’s where Eighteen and School’s Out came from. We didn’t relate to the peace and love thing.
This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous chicken incident, where you threw a chicken off the stage at Toronto Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival Festival and it got torn to pieces. Real talk: how much of that story is truth, and how much of it was hype created by Frank Zappa, your label head at the time?
It was an accident. We did not plan that, at all. I wish we would’ve! But we didn’t. I’d love to take the credit, and for that to be our calling card, that we did something that horrible at a concert and we wanted the world to see it. It was interpreted that way. We just didn’t deny it! Zappa called us up, and said, ‘Whatever you do, take credit for it. It’s going to put you, you know…not in the same place as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young!’ And we understood that. We wanted people, when they heard the name Alice Cooper, to fear it a little bit.
Did that happen? Did people suddenly start treating you differently, or looking at you weird?
Oh, absolutely. There were other bands that wanted not to play with us! I remember early, early on, the Grateful Dead were not going to let us use their mic at a festival. They said, ‘Alice Cooper can’t use our sound equipment.’ They’d heard the same rumors everyone else did — they’d never met us before! And the great thing was that [Jefferson Airplane singer] Grace Slick stepped up and said, ‘If Alice doesn’t go on, we don’t go on.’ And the Jefferson Airplane were the biggest band in the world at the time, so we went on. She stood up for us, and that made me her lifelong friend. She had no reason to stand up for us, except that she heard something in the Grateful Dead that sounded like The Man. And that’s exactly what they were fighting against.
Have you since had to deal with people tossing chickens or other animals onstage?
Nobody’s ever thrown animals onstage, but people will swear that they saw us come to their city and kill a chicken. That happened ONE TIME. It never happened again. But people will tell you they saw it. And in their brains, they did see it! They wanted to, so much, and there was so much chaos onstage that they invented it! And it’s so funny, I’ll tell people, ‘We never used the chicken again.’ They say, ‘No, we saw it. We definitely saw it.’ After a while, I stop arguing with them. I just say, ‘Okay, you saw it.’
That’s interesting — what’s the craziest thing people swear they’ve seen you do onstage, but that you’ve never done?
At one point, every city we’d get to, there would be a guy who would show up from the ASPCA. And I love animals. Now, I’d never hurt an animal. I’m the furthest thing from being cruel to an animal. In fact, if I ever saw anyone hurting an animal, I’d be in jail for beating them up. Anyway, we get into one town, and the guy says, ‘Hey, we have one problem here…we just can’t have you setting German Shepherds on fire onstage.’ And I said, ‘Ah, darn it, we were going to do that. Where’d you hear that?’ He said he’d just heard it through the grapevine. And this was before the Internet. Someone just decided that was going to be the urban legend for that week, and therefore it happened. They were very serious about it. You get to a point where you want to look at people and say, ‘…and you believe that?’
If anything, ‘German Shepherds for burning alive’ is one hell of an addition to your tour rider.
Right? I think it was at a time where people wanted Alice Cooper to be the ultimate villain. And theatrically, yeah, I will do that! I want Alice to be the theatrical villain. But if there’s any blood onstage, it’s ours.
If you’re thirsty for blood, you gotta check out Alice Cooper on his UK tour this October. Get your tickets now.
04 - Manchester, Manchester Arena
05 - Aberdeen, Event Complex
07 - Leeds, First Direct Arena
08 - Brighton, Brighton Centre
10 - London, The O2
11 - Birmingham, Resorts World Arena
12 - Cardiff, Arena
Public indecency, killer prostitutes, and a million corpses are among the best explanations for the names of some of your favourite bands…
The one-of-a-kind version of the Porcupine Tree man’s forthcoming album sold immediately, raising five figures to help support grassroots venues.