By 1976, Rock (whatever that is) was in a bad way. The Disco boom was not far off and the airwaves were dominated by antiseptic crooners and goody-goody bands with nice suits and smiles. The megastars were living in Beveley Hills or in the Bahamas, taking months to record records which spouted pompous drivel as they strove to be 'serious' musicians. Former idols and anarchists, anti-establishmentarians and rebels were the ruling elite of the Showbiz Establishment, whether it was Mick Jagger mixing with the British Royal Family, Elton John playing tennis with Billie Jean King or Alice Cooper playing golf with pot-bellied Corporate Industrialists:
"Rock and Roll is now legitimate entertainment and I love that. It can never change things. Elton John playing tennis with Billie Jean King is great because it connects Rock with the North Virginia housewives that play tennis." (1976)
But in the dives, clubs and bars of New York and London, the new music of Television, The New York Dolls (in their death throes), Talking Heads, The Ramones, Blondie and the great and lamented Sex Pistols was renewing the fire in the belly of the beast of rock and proclaiming Alice, among others, as a dinosaur, a relic from a bygone age, 'a boring old fart' and of having 'sold out':
"Now look! I was the one who saw HOW the game was played. I got my foot in the door and I'm a respected citizen now! But what if I come back with something even more demonic then before? They'll be stuck with me, ha ha ha!" (1978)
The irony wwas not lost on Alice that in three years he had gone from depravity in the eyes of Middle America to acceptance as a celebrity and legitimate performer. As one journalist put it:
"Alice didn't so much 'sell out', as 'Buy in'." (1976)
Meanwhile, back in London, Malcolm McLaren, full-time genius and former manager of the New York Dolls had put together the Sex Pistols. Into his clothes shop walked John Lydon, without a doubt the most charismatic 'face' of the last ten years. McLaren was looking for a singer for the Pistols and so he slapped on 'I'm Eighteen' onto the jukebox for Lydon to mine to by way of audition. The rest you know. McLaren used his Situationist tricks to push the Pistols into the British consciousness in the same way that Shep Gordon had promoted Alice. In this way, a causal link was forged. In a few weeks, 'Anarchy In The UK' (probably the greatest record ever?) was released - a bizarre sister for 'Schools' Out' from four years previously. The Pistols went on to cut a swathe through Britain for two heady years while Alice sat back and watched it all with amusement and a sense of deja vu.
Alices' undivided attention was clearly focused on one target - Sheryl. Despite opposition to the institute of marriage, Alice and Sheryl were married in April, 1976 in Acapulco. Since both Father-in-laws were Church ministers, both conducted the service, although it must be strange having a son-in-law called 'Alice'! The reception was held at the exclusive 'Carlos'n'Charlies' restaurant where the guests gorged themselves on spare ribs.
Alice was surprised at how much he was changing as a result of his relationship with Sheryl:
"I'm really in love.. I can't believe it! I'm like a little teenager or something. She goes to church every Sunday - her Dad's a Baptist minister - so our Dads get along real well. It's the nicest thing to happen to me in a long time." (1976)
The honeymoon was something else. It introduced Sheryl to a world of glamour and wealth she had not been used to:
"The sky was the limit. We had a gold American Express card which meant you could charge a yacht if you wanted to. I come from a conservative middle-class background and I was taught to respect the value of money. We spent some time in Antwerp in a house that was a cross between a huge house and a hotel. There was a solid gold bathtub at the top of a flight of marble stairs." (1976)
The rest of the early part of '76 was spent on other leisurely pursuits (golf, fishing and sunbathing) and writing the next album. The opulent life, had made Alice lazy according to former fans and the preparation for the album was to be proof of this. It's preparation was full of so much laidback west coast indulgence, that the punk attitude as it was preceived in London was a refreshing burst of new energy. The album ('Alice Cooper Goes To Hell') took the best part of six months to write and record and cost over 100,000 dollars. Alice was accused of being so LACKING in ideas that he had to fall back on out-takes from the 'Nightmare' sessions to provide the meat of 'Hell'. As a result we have another concept album whereby our hero (Steven) having 'escaped' from the nightmare finds himself in Hell where he confronts the Devil himself:
"We had a lot of stuff left over from 'Nightmare' and we were going to make it 'Nightmare' 2 but decided against it. But it does follow on. We just pieced it together so that the audience can make their own storyline up. But in a way, a lot of the stuff is very rock-disco, if you listen to the drums, bass, piano section, the whole rhythm scection is very disco sounding. We then put an 'Alice Cooper' spice on the top, but what a neat way to approach a disco sound, but still keep Alice Cooper in it." (1976)
Tracks like 'You Gotta Dance', 'Guilty' and 'Wish You Were Here' certainly bear this out. As for indulgence - well when you record in Toronto and decide for a warmer climate to record in and take the band with you, then thats' indulgent! Moving to New York to use John Tropea because he couldn't get away from previous commitments is indulgent. But was the result worthwhile? The answer is a resounding 'yes'!
The title track sweltered with an oppressive heat as did much of the album befitting not only the albums name but the hottest summer on record - 'Hell' became the perfect soundtrack. The lyrics are semi-autobiographical but you don't need me to tell you that. 'You Gotta Dance' grooves along quite nicely although funk and Alice have never been easy bedfellows. So, having been confined to Hell, Alice/Steven (which is it?) find themselves on a huge dancefloor along with Eternities other damned souls (shades of Miltons 'Paradise Lost' culture freaks). 'I'm The Coolest' is another sultry shuffle lying on a bed of throbbing bass, whereby the Devil introduces himself. 'Didn't We Meet' is Alice quizzing his captor and features a galloping drum section of thunderous power if you turn the volume up!
'I Never Cry' was THE hit single from the album, peaking in the Top 10 in the USA for months in a year that was stagnant chartwise. In Europe, the single did little business (although the album was a respectable hit). 'I Never Cry' was the second in what Alice called the 'heavy metal housewife rock' trilogy (started with 'Only Women' and ending with 'You And Me', with 'How You Gonna See Me Now' escaping categorization). Alice was unpeturbed by the critical flake he opened himself to - the very idea of Alice Cooper releasing three ballads in a row as singles:
"I'm really pleased that we got the AOR stations now. Could you imagine that happening six years ago!?" (1976)
The track is too mawkish for my tastes and as for "my hearts a virgin, it ain't never been tried", one reviewer was moved to comment:
"I wish someone would ---- this guy in the heart!"
However, it was encouraging to see more autobiographical references in the lyrics.
'Give The Kid A Break' suffers from poor execution although the idea of a trial set to a '50's doo-wop backing is amusing and interesting, with several puns and pieces of wordplay (look for 'em). 'Guilty' is the nearest to out and out rock on the album and is more psuedo-rebellious lyrics set to a Stones riff halfway between 'No More Mr Nice Guy' and Bachman Turner Overdrive's 'You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet'. 'Wake Me Gently' has a melody of touching beauty and some of Alices' best ever vocals, but the run-in of the last three tracks gives the album an edge of polished quality. 'Wish You Were Here' is another slice of funk and rock in the form of a message from 'The Twilight Zone' and is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!! The way the tracks switches from a dance grove to a guitar attack is wonderful. 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows' sounds like something from a Broadway musical (maybe it is since it's the only non Cooper/Ezrin/Wagner composition on the album, although it sounds a little like a classical piano piece I once heard), but is a little too hammy and projected to these wars, but it all leads to the masterwork of 'I'm Going Home' whereby Steven/Alice makes good his escape, with a chilling, yet moving refrain and that ending...
The album was an unqualified artistic success despite it's indulgences. Ezrins' production is too dense, too ornate with too many chocolate box trimmings. The funkier tracks should have had more space (essential to funk) and the use of strings and zillions of backing vocals isn't always necessary. One wonders how much of a say Alice did have at the final mixing stages, or whether he cared in the first place. The whole thing had too many layers as did 'Lace And Whiskey' a year later and sounded out of place in the stripped down sound of the New Wave. The playing was uniformly excellent with the musicians dubbed 'The Hollywood Vampires' after the drinking club and celebrity baseball team Alice had set up with Flo and Eddie and Mickey Dolenz.
The packaging was tasteful as ever, with the cover being a blow-up of the picture of Alice from the inner sleeve of 'Billion Dollar Babies' in a lurid green, orange and black. The back shows out hero looking sleek and trim in black descending the staircase into Hell and the inner sleeve is also attractive and laid out nicely.
A tour was planned to promote the album, strictly thirty dates of zapping the arenas and coliseums of the USA and Canada with no plans for a European jaunt, The idea was that the show would be comparitively simple with little or no trappings:
"It's gonna be rock and roll again and I've been wanting to do that for a long time, It'll be a 'best of..' type of thing, I'll look back at the band and say 'let's do 'Under My Wheels' or ask for requests from the audience." (1976)
Two days prior to rehearsals, the years of rough living, bad food, squalor, travelling and heavy drinking finally caught up with Alice. Always having suffered from various ailments from his childhood, Alice collapsed and was rushed to UCLA Hospital in L.A. and was diagnosed as suffering from Anaemia (inherited from his mother). A rest was diagnosed along with a diet Alice had no liking for:
"They make me eat liver once a day. You try it. After a while it doesn't pass your thorax, it just stacks up there... I wasn't deadly sick, the machinery had just run down. The Doc said I could tour if I liked the idea of collapsing three weeks into it." (1976)
He was sent packing to Barbados for two weeks of golf and sunbathing (it's a hard life) and was told to cut down the intake of Budweiser (he didn't!). The problems with bad health were compounded by a deviated septum (in thenose!). On his return to L.A., he had to make do with the rigorous schedule of parties, premieres, exhibition golf games etc that is so important to Hollywood socialites. I've often wondered how Alice has ever managed to write anything while ensconced in the shallow, glitzy, image concious atmosphere of Hollywood. The answers, of course, is that Alice rose above the manifestation of the American Dream; he laughed at the absurdity of Hollywood life:
"Everyone's a star in Hollywood!! They're all so desperate to make it. All the cops look like they're auditioning for 'Chips' or something!'
Another stunt which pushed Alice further into the arms of American acceptance, was the idea to have Alice play golf with then US president Gerald Ford:
"I called him up. We were staying in the same hotel in New York. One of his aides picked the phone up and I suggested that if he had time, we could maybe play some golf. I got a note later saying that the President couldn't make it because he was committed to something else but thanks anyway!!!" (1976)
1976 was Election year in America (a good excuse for the radio to play 'Elected') and Alice was asked for his valued (ha ha!) opinion:
"I'm going for Ford. I know I'd never endorse anyone before but the reason I'm going for Ford is that he uses a 6 wood. A golfer is a golfer whether it's President Ford or Alice Cooper." (1976)
Jumping back to an earlier part of the year, Alice was invited by the Krewe of Endymion, an ultra-conservative carnival club, to be The Grand Duke of Endymion for 1976. This prestigious honour involved Alice heading the parade at the Ne Orleans Mardi Gras on February 28th 1976. It was the largest parade in the history of New Orleans Mardi Gras with 25 major floats, 11 mini floats, 22 marching bands and 10 military drill units, as well as hordes of TV, radio and press people. The previous evening he attended a small gathering of 7,000 at a party thrown in his honour.
The rest of the year was taken up with similar media events. In September, Alice made two television appearances which were watched by 36 million people. The first was as co-host of a typically corny and tacky, self-celebratory awards show, 'The American Rock Music Awards'. His co-host was Motown legend Diana Ross, with Alice, merely to do something away from the norm, kept on 'feeling' Diana, out of camera shot while she squirmed with embarrasement! Looking stylish in a black dinner suit with white lapels (which featured the 1975 Lake Tahoo logo), Alice was articulate and smooth. The other appearance was on 'The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow hour', a variety show hosted by Tony Orlando and Dawn (remember 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon?' In fact, 'Dawn', which consisted of Thelma and the other girl who's name escapes me, once appeared with Alice in 1971 as backing singers and dancers!)
In the summer of '76 (Bi-Centennial Year), Alice appeared in a lesser known Mae West movie 'Sextette' which was not released until 1978 in the USA, although it came out a year earlier in Europe. The movie, which possibly was Mae Wests' last film appearance, was definitely the worst movie of that or any year. It was embarrasing to watch and filled Alice fans with dread to think of him in such a dreadful vehicle. According to Sheryl, Alice did the movie for one reason:
"He wanted to meet Mae West, one of THE biggest Hollywood mega-legends. Alice said that they were feeding her lines to her throgh an ear-piece. After she had said her line on one occasion, she actually said 'take two steps to the left and sit down'!" (1976)
Further acceptance from the show-biz elite came with Alice being the first Rock artist to become a member of the exclusive and ultra-conservative Rotary Club of Hollywood, with the man recommending Aluce being Grocho Marx, from whom Alice was becoming inseperable. Further honours were bestowed on Alice when the Tampa Ballet Company choreographed a dance based on 'Years Ago' and 'Steven', which by all accounts was well received. To prove what a busy celebrity he was, Alice made sure he attended parties given by Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, a private dinner given for him and Sci-Fi writer Ray Bradbury by David and Angie Bowie, Mickey Dolenz and his one big pal in the music biz, Keith Moon.
In a bid to extend his various business interests, Alice moved into the world of restaurants when he bought the L.A. franchise of 'Carlos and Charlies'. All of Hollywoods' 'high society' attended the launch and tucked into 'drunk sea bass', 'chicken ping pong' and 'inflation steak'. "It's just for somewhere to go" quiped Alice.
The other major Cooper event of '76 was the publication of Alices' autobiography 'Me, Alice' which was co-written with rock journalist Steven Gaines. Now out of print and extremely valuable and sought after addition to any Alice Cooper collection, the book was started in late '74 and over the next two years, was pieced together by Alice and Gaines with Alice reeling out vast chunks of memory while Gaines' job was to research dates and facts and polish it all up into readable prose. The former was not well executed since Alices' memory for dates and places frequently let him down and these errors were not rectified (eg 'Pretties For You' was not released in 1970, Alice did not appear on 'Top Of The Pops' in 1971 etc). However, the book is invaluable for the sheer range of anecdotes taking in the years 1948-75, looking at Alices' life as Vincent Furnier in L.A., Detroit and Phoenix, taking in his parents' history and that of the Spiders, Earwigs and Nazz. It's full of bizarre incidents involving Hollywoods' low-life and tells in great detail the motives behind the Alice Cooper concept (ie: to pay the rent!), although it still pedals the Ouija board story as the inspiration for the 'Alice Cooper' name. The book also contains a moving but disclaiming introduction from Alices' father as well as a whole range of bizarre characters which drifted in and out of Alices' life. It is without doubt a book no Alice fan should be deprived of, although as I've said, it is no longer in print.
The acknowledgements section took up an entire page and included the original Alice Cooper group (with Glen Buxton listed as 'inimitable'), Shep Gordon and Bob Ezrin 'who has the key'. There was also a good range of photographs including some interesting '60's snaps.
So life was good for Alice by the end of 1976. Happily married, fabulously rich and his heath was on the mend. He was one of the biggest show-business names in America. On the debit side, it was around this time that his relationship with Warner Brothers was becoming increasingly turbulent, which was to result in the decline in sales of the rest of the decade. His alcoholism was something he was not preparing to admit to at least for a few more months, as his beer intake was overtaken by his thirst for Bourbon. Those closest to him saw in him the symptoms of his alcohol intake, whereas outsiders saw him purely as someone who 'genuinely liked to drink' and who put away vast quantities of the stuff with little outward signs of being drunk. As many of his friends often remarked, he could drive a car after having a heavy drinking session, as expertly as if he was sober.
The new music coming out of New York and London interested him only for it's high energy level as opposed to it's shock value and novelty effect:
"It's nothing new. There were better punk bands in the '60's. Elvis was a punk, The Stones were punks and me, I was the biggest punk of all!" (1976)
The new bands coming out of London and New York, ex-Alice fans all, villified Alice for turning into a cuddly, safe, plastic has-been swanning around the jet-set spots of Hollywood with blue-rinsed Hollywood Wives and fat studio moguls, a world away from the vigour of Detroit, where the hunger for success festered. As Alice became more successful, the more complacent, it could be argued, he became (as 'Lace And Whiskey' was to fatally prove). Despite this, future Alice tracks ('Wish I was Born In Beverly Hills', 'Dance Yourself To Death', 'Headlines' and 'You Look Good In Rags') were to prove that Alices' observations of the Hollywood jet-set were nothing but cynical and tongue-in-cheek. As always, absurdity was all but for the moment, it was Patti Smiths' quote which was beginning to ring true:
"Alice Cooper doesn't deserve to stay in rock and roll".
The latter stages of 1976 were spent in cahoots with Ezrin and Dick Wagner writing and planning the next album. The bulk of those songs were to appear on 'Lace And Whiskey' a few months later. Ezrin had by now established himself as one of the top producers in the States churning out hit after hit with the abominable Kiss who by now had reached epic proportions when it came to sales and success. Without doubt, the irony wasn't lost on Alice, who was probably about to realise that Warner Brothers no longer considered him the big deal he was a few years back. His inherent laziness perhaps was one of the major factors which prevented him taking the proper preventative measures such as another full-scale assault on Europe. Alice was content to be an American standard, a token bad guy who could be wheeled out to chat to Dinah Shore and a host of other blue rinsed TV and jet-set hostesses for the benefit of cameras. The facade of the rock and roll lifestyle was out.
Probably the best example of how cosy and cuddly Alice had become was when he was invited to be the Master of Ceremonies at a benefit concert for a childrens hospital in Boston in December '76.
The acts included Dr. Hook, Gordon Lightfoot and Donny and Marie Osmond. He wore a 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' t-shirt with his Tuxedo which probably freaked out the group sitting in the front row. Later he appeared decked out in Santa Claus outfit but with the familiar face. Before your very eyes, Alice Cooper was turning into a Muppet. And why not? The Alice Cooper image, concept and package was being diluted merely to enter more homes to establish the notion that all true Americans can accept Alice Cooper (the 'idea') as a representation of themselves and their post-war culture. In other words, Alice Cooper (he, she, it) was growing up.
Another project which, if it had eventually happened, would have given Alice yet another chance to establish himself as an actor was a play based on the life of Billy Sunday (check out the lyrics to 'Department Of Youth'):
"This whole thing sparks me no end. Sunday was a 1920's evangelist who was anti-liquor so it's the perfect vehicle for me! They're gonna cut my hair and part it down the middle! He used to pick up the chairs and use them to chase the Devil around the stage. He was bigger than Billy Graham. After seeing the 'Nightmare' show, the producer, Bill Seargeant, felt the only difference between Snday and me was that I worked through rock but Sundays' Evangelist meetings were also theatre. He didn't go up there, sing a song and then say 'now we're going to talk about Cain and Able' like most preachers. He damned everybody. He'd say 'you bunch of hog-jowled, weasel-eyed, white-livered, presbyterians. you're going to Hell. H-E.double.L!' He had the same tactics to sell on stage. Anything to illustrate a point so all of a sudden he'd tell the audience 'yeah, there's a Devil. He's sitting in that chair and he's a big one'. And he'd sit down in the chair and become the Devil and say 'Now Billy, me and my boys - we ain't that easy to get.' He converted more people because of his theatrics. This guy converted whole cities at once. Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller would go to him." (1976)
Bill Seargent was a producer whose big success at the time was 'Give 'em Hell Harry' and a year earlier had offered The Beatles £30 million to re-unite. Alice at first wasn't interested in the role of Sunday but was won over after having read up on the subject. He later videotaped himself in rehearsal to observe how the whole thing would look before making up his mind to take on the role. Weeks before rehearsal began, the project bit the dust. The opportunities for Alice to enter the acting world with a meaty role in a legitimate production kept eluding him. First 'Breakfast Of Champions', now 'Billy Sunday'.
As 1976 drew to a chose, basic tracks for the next album were being recorded with the final over-dubing and mixing taking place in the early part of 1977. Rumour has it that many of the tracks which turned up on 'Lace And Whiskey' were some of the many which were ommited from the final track listing on 'Goes To Hell'. Perhaps yet again, symptomatic of either laziness, complacency or insecurity about song-writing ability brought about by too heavy a dependence on booze on Alices' part or a combination of all of these. The songs were taken, pieced together and recorded over a period of three months and placed along side newer material which showed that when it was necessary Alice, Wagner and Ezrin could still come up with solid material but what was to eventually ruin 'Lace And Whiskey' was Ezrins' production and the free hand in this area given to him by Alice. For instance, a track like 'It's Hot Tonight' could easily have turned up on 'Goes To Hell' subject-wise and went one step further sond wise in sounding denser and wetter then anything on 'Hell'. With new, dynamic music emanating from London and New York, with rock re-discovering it's direction and purpose, it's sense of outrage and fun, the one man who had represented these things in the early part of the '70's was holed up in Hollywood and Toronto spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months with 'serious' musicians recording an album which was to end up so vapid in the sum total of it's parts as to render Alice as someone who was pretending he remembered what it was like to be a punk. After all, he had now grown up. For every old pro there was always a 'young punk you thinks he's faster!' Caught up in the militancy of punk, the music press were to destroy Alice who retreated, licking his wounds and finally realising that his former fuel, alcohol, was now holding him back.
Australia and the Far East beckoned. The latter is still uncharted territory for Alice (disgracefully so) but having been banned from Australia and New Zealand in '75, the invitation to enter those two countries came up again and Alice accepted to play a series of shows in outdoor arenas at festivals and in some cases as the sole act, such was his pulling power.