Alice Cooper has been creeping out audiences since the early seventies. With topics ranging from insanity to necrophilia, the following songs demonstrate why Alice Cooper is the undisputed king of shock rock.
BLACK JU JU
Love it to Death was a pivotal album for Alice Cooper. It was the first record released on Warner Brothers, but more importantly, it marked the start of an enduring collaboration with producer Bob Ezrin.
The new relationship brought a tightened approach to songwriting. Although “I’m Eighteen” became a smash hit, a series of darker songs overshadowed other tracks. The first of these creepy compositions was a nine-minute epic titled “Black Ju Ju.”
“Black Ju Ju” portrayed an unholy rising from the dead. Closing out side one, startled listeners had a moment to process the jarring song before lifting the needle from dead wax.
“Black Ju Ju” was even more sinister live. Amid pounding drums and flashing lights, Alice donned a hooded robe to partake in a mock black magic ritual. Seated in an electric chair and waving a hypnotic watch, dazed audiences looked on in shock. Alice Cooper had become the creepiest band in rock and roll.
THE BALLAD OF DWIGHT FRY
“The Ballad of Dwight Fry” begins with gentle piano as a young girl inquires about her long absent father. Mommy offers no reply. Instead, acoustic guitars set the stage for the tragic tale of Dwight Fry.
Dwight Frye was an actor best known for portraying deranged villains in classic horror films. Describing Frye as “the little creepy guy that was scarier than Dracula or Frankenstein,” Cooper wanted to give the actor a fitting tribute. In the process, Alice ceased being a simple singer as he channeled the insanity of Frye’s unstable characters.
“The Ballad of Dwight Fry” offers the perspective of an institutionalized madman. To get Cooper into character, Ezrin convinced Alice to wear a straightjacket while recording vocals. The extreme idea worked. There is a desperate urgency in Cooper’s voice during the bridge as he pleads to be released. After seven straight hours of being bound “in a straight white vest,” Alice was on the verge of losing his mind.
“The Ballad of Dwight Fry” quickly became a high point of live shows. In concert, Cooper wore the straightjacket and assumed the role of Dwight Fry. The band was no stranger to theatrics but portraying a fictional character was entirely new. Alice had become the first rock and roll villain.
Like the previous album, Killer embraced loud guitars to create gritty, raw rock and roll. “Halo of Flies” presented a considerable leap forward in songwriting and a further embrace of horror-tinged theatrics. Yet, it was “Dead Babies” that was most disturbing. With a slow, marauding bass-line under clean guitars, the mood shifted from high-energy rock to the macabre.
Lyrically, “Dead Babies” was more social commentary than shock value. Alice once told an interviewer that “Dead Babies” was “probably the first anti-drug, anti-parental abuse song.” After all, it’s not a homicidal maniac that slaughters babies. Rather, an unattended child explores the medicine cabinet while the parents are too wasted to notice. In fact, the live version often substituted “Quaaludes” for “aspirin” as the curious child’s last meal.
A song titled “Dead Babies” allowed for new in-concert insanity. Each night, a baby doll was brutalized on stage. With ax in hand, Alice violently beheaded his tiny victim. The audience cheered wildly as Cooper held the severed head for all to see.
Alice paid a price for indulging his murderous impulses. As the audience cheered, calls to “hang him” echoed through the PA and into the theatre. Alice was restrained, forcefully brought to the guillotine, and beheaded as the band played “Killer.”
“Killer” also preceded “Dead Babies” on the album. Thanks to catchy bass-lines courtesy of Dennis Dunaway, the songs worked well together in concert and on vinyl. A continuation of dark themes first explored on Love it to Death, Killer ended on the creepy vibe that was now woven into the Alice Cooper aesthetic.
By 1973, Alice Cooper ranked among the biggest bands in the world. The previous year’s School’s Out offered little in the way of horror but Billion Dollar Babies featured a fresh crop of songs designed to creep out listeners. Among the more sinister offerings was a celebration of Alice’s twisted delights.
“Sick Things” was the perfect song to feature Cooper’s boa constrictor in a live setting. The snake had been part of their act for several tours but the lyrics; “Sick things/my things/my pets/my things” gave the boa a renewed relevancy. Watching Alice lick the reptile as it ominously raveled around his neck was enough to make any stomach turn.
I LOVE THE DEAD
Alice Cooper had slaughtered babies and escaped from a mental asylum. Needing a new way to shock audiences, Cooper embraced necrophilia.
On tour, Alice molested a mannequin while performing “I Love the Dead.” As with “Dead Babies,” the assault on human decency does not go unpunished. The guillotine was promptly brought out and Alice beheaded for his vile crime.
YEARS AGO/STEVEN/THE AWAKENING
After the Alice Cooper band unraveled, Alice reunited with Bob Ezrin and launched a solo career. The plan of attack was simple. Embrace the horror element that made Alice a star and bring each twisted song to life on stage. The result was the stunning concept album, Welcome to My Nightmare.
Welcome To My Nightmare had no shortage of creepy songs. The title track alone had an eerie vibe. “Cold Ethyl” eroticized the dead. There was even a guest appearance from Vincent Price. Yet, the creepiest moments appeared in a trilogy that recounted the bloody result of a psychotic breakdown.
“Years Ago,” formally introduces Steven. Mentally unstable, his tenuous grip on reality is shattered. Receding into childhood, Steven battles with voices inside his head. Called home by his mother, the tortured villain succumbs to insanity.
Steven’s namesake song describes a grisly murder. Oddly conflicted, it pains Steven to kill yet he cannot refrain from slaughter.
There are hints of compassion, yet Steven is driven by outside forces. It’s as if he’s a man possessed. After putting pennies on the eyes of a corpse, someone calls his name. The presence of the voice only pushes Steven deeper into his psychosis.
“The Awakening” finds Steven literally waking up in the basement. As he searches for his wife, we realize the voice was that of his lover screaming in pain. In a daze, Steven follows “a trail of crimson spots,” before realizing his hands are covered in blood. Lucidity returns and Steven realizes what he has done. His immediate reaction is not one of shock or horror. Rather, “It makes him feel like a man.”
No expense was spared when planning the subsequent tour. The first step in bringing Alice’s nightmare to life was hiring a professional choreographer. Famous for working with Elvis Presley, David Winters created a larger than life stage production. Costumed dancers, giant spiders and assorted monsters took the place of executions and bloody axes. The tour was also filmed for inclusion in a movie that has since become a cult classic.
The early eighties were not kind to Alice Cooper. After a period of sobriety, Alice replaced his drinking with hard drugs. Stylistic changes were ill received and Cooper soon ceased touring.
In 1986, Cooper staged a successful comeback with Constrictor. Despite a video with Jason Voorhees, songs like “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)” and “Teenage Frankenstein” were lighthearted fluff that bore little resemblance to the creepiness of vintage Coop.
The following album, Raise Your Fist and Yell, was a true return to form. Side two followed the exploits of a homicidal maniac. A tale of murder, the creepiest of the songs was a keyboard driven ballad titled “Gail.”
Listeners first met Gail in the previous track. Young and beautiful, she caught the eye of a psychopath. In her namesake song, blood dripping into an unmarked grave revealed that her killer roamed free while “the bugs serve time in her skeletal jail.” Gail’s corpse received one final indignity as a random dog dug up her grave and happily chomped on a bone.
Alice Cooper continued to find success with subsequent albums. Even today, classics like “Ballad of Dwight Fry” remain a highlight of live shows. Although lighter songs like “School’s Out” are technically his biggest hits, the creepier side of Alice Cooper remains his defining characteristic.