School’s Out: Alice Cooper talks shock rock, villains and success
When Alice Cooper is decapitated by a guillotine, put to death in an electric chair or hung in a straitjacket onstage, fans don’t just cheer. In fact, they pay more than $700 for a chance to be splattered with fake blood in the front rows. For nearly 50 years, the godfather of shock rock has horrified audiences with his stage antics and persona — the angry, sadistic and defiant villain of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Alice Cooper band earned its notoriety by pioneering the theatrical arena rock show, but in a phone interview with the Emerald, Cooper said audiences are now desensitized to his theatrics because of an unlikely opponent: reality.
“If you talk to Marilyn [Manson], if you talk to me or you talk to Rob Zombie, we all understand that CNN is more shocking than anything we can do,” Cooper said.
He thinks only the truly grotesque would strike fear into the heart of an audience today. “Honestly you can’t [shock a crowd], unless you’re going to saw your arm off onstage. And that, you can only do twice — so pick a really good audience for that.”
No matter how many hit songs and deadly props Alice Cooper takes on tour with him, the most celebrated moment at his concerts, and in his career, is the sound of a school bell ringing preceded by the chorus of “School’s Out.” On June 17, Cooper will bring his nightmarish stage show to the Cuthbert Amphitheater — hours before seniors at the University of Oregon will attend graduation ceremonies and many can officially say “school’s out forever.”
In 1972 the Alice Cooper band set out to write an anthem about the agonizing final moments before the school bell rings for summer. But no one predicted that sending students away with the song blaring over the loudspeakers would become a lasting tradition in schools across the country 45 years later.
“We had no idea that it was going to be the national anthem in May every year,” Cooper said. “It’s amazing how everybody relates to that song, and mostly the teachers. The teachers are so sick of the kids at that point.”
Born Vincent David Furnier in 1948, Cooper wrote a column, Get Out of My Hair, under the pseudonym Muscles McNasal while he attended Cortez High School, in Phoenix. He worked well with words in school but often resorted to hiring girls to do his algebra homework. He spent much of his time writing songs and playing in cover bands with his friends during his time at Glendale Community College, where he majored in art. In 1974 he would later legally change his name to Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. He has sold more than 50 million records and in 1974 he set the world record for the largest indoor stadium concert with 158,000 attendees in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is also the only artist to have performed at London’s Wembley Stadium in five consecutive decades.
Offstage, Cooper is a father, self-proclaimed devout Christian and a five-handicap golfer. Before speaking with the Emerald, he shot a 76, four over par, at the Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. He golfs daily, but because of the heat — it was 111 degrees when he called — he usually tees off around 5:30 or 6 a.m. When on tour, he continues to golf in the mornings, but at night when he dons his black makeup, his murderous alter ego emerges.
“When I play him, I become this arrogant villain with a really bad attitude, except I do allow him to become [Peter Sellers’s “Pink Panther” character, Inspector Jacques] Clouseau every once in a while. I don’t mind him slipping on a banana peel because that makes it funny,” Cooper said.
Alice is not the only character on the stage with attitude. Cooper’s band is taught to bring as much ego, arrogance and rock star panache to the stage as they can muster. But the backstage scene in “Wayne’s World” is an accurate depiction of Cooper’s bandmates, whom he encourages to be the “nicest guys in the world with no ego” when offstage.
“That’s what I got. My guys in the band are best friends,” Cooper said. “They’re the sweetest guys in the world. But when they get onstage, I want them to be arrogant bastards.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Alice Cooper band had trouble breaking out of the Los Angeles psychedelic scene where they regularly shared bills with the Doors, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. They had been a regional success in Phoenix but were deemed “too weird” by L.A. audiences.
Even renowned experimental musician Frank Zappa did not understand the band, but he was intrigued by its theatrics. He invited the band to audition at 7 o’clock at his house one day, and his confusion was exacerbated when they arrived in full stage regalia at 7 a.m., not 7 p.m., as Zappa expected. He did not comprehend them, but signed them to his record label, Bizarre Records, anyway.
Refusing to return home as failed musicians, Cooper and the band were fueled by what he called “sheer determination” to succeed. No matter how many nights they spent sleeping on friends’ couches, the band took every measure to ensure their success — stealing money during one night stands to pay for food, rehearsing for long hours and ultimately creating an act the world had never seen.
“We had given up college. We had already decided that we left home to make it. We were not going to come back with our tail between our legs,” Cooper said.
The band failed to break through until its third studio album, 1971’s “Love It To Death.” They relocated to Detroit and met Producer Bob Ezrin. Ezrin saw potential in a song he thought was called “Edgy” and predicted it would be a hit if they stripped it down to its most basic form. Ezrin also insisted that each member of the band had to develop their own unique sound on their instruments before recording, so the song would stand out on the radio. The band listened, and “I’m Eighteen” spent 13 weeks in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 21.
A changing landscape
According to Cooper, bands today lack attitude and emotion. “Where are the outlaws?” he asked. He also feels that bands are too political and focused on what is coming next, rather than focusing on creating timeless works.
“We’re in an age of fast food radio,” he said. “We used to have gourmet food; now we have fast food. Same thing with music. We used to have gourmet music; now we have fast food music. I can’t think of any songs I hear on the radio today that are going to stand up over 30 years.”
“Paranormal,” Cooper’s 27th studio album, is due July 28. Larry Mullens Jr. of U2, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Roger Glover of Deep Purple all appear on the Bob Ezrin-produced album. Two songs feature the original Alice Cooper band lineup. True to his character, the album contains songs about rats, dead flies and love. The Nights With Alice Cooper Tour will incorporate new material alongside his classics.
At this point in his career, Cooper said that everything he does is for his longtime fans, from his new album to his gory concerts. Although Alice Cooper’s stage antics might not shock audiences anymore, Cooper still aims to entertain as the maniacal frontman.
“I established this character and I think that I’m consistent with it. And that’s really what it is, is being consistent with your character and don’t let him down and let him become something else,” Cooper said. “Just because the world is changing doesn’t mean Alice has to.”
Alice Cooper will perform at the Cuthbert Amphitheater on Saturday, June 17. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., show at 8. Tickets start at $40 and are available here.