A Halloween Treat
Interview by Mitch Lafon
Halloween is Alice Cooper and so far this October, Mitch has brought us exclusive interviews with the man himself, Alice Cooper (coming soon), original bass player Dennis Dunaway, and current drummer Eric Singer, but why stop there? This time around, we sat down for a 110 minute chat with none other than original drummer, Neal Smith. Smith’s drumming is an integral part of the Alice Cooper sound – what would ‘Under My Wheels’ or ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ be without his rhythms and sense of timing? So, sit back, grab a miniature Halloween sized Oh! Henry bar and enjoy Mr. Neal Smith.
Mitch Lafon: Did it get frustrating that critics would talk more about the spectacle of Alice Cooper than the music?
Neal Smith: “It did get frustrating especially after we had the success with Love It To Death, but that’s when we started using the snake. You have to remember people hated us and over the years I think it’s been watered down of how terrified people were of our band so they’d just say ‘oh, they can’t play’. They’d just say anything to degrade us and after what we went through in our lives to hear some stupid reviewer say we can’t play – then why is this venue sold out and it’s twice as big as the one we played last time and when we come back next time it’ll be twice as big and it’ll be sold out too. The bottom line is that we were entertaining people and if they want a band that can’t play – why don’t they listen to KISS.”
ML: Now, The Alice Cooper Band...
NS: “Don’t say Alice Cooper Band in my presence ‘cause those are fighting words (laughs). We all decided on that name together. Alice was one of the five people that decided on that name and he wasn’t even Alice at that time. Alice Cooper was the band and if the term Alice Cooper Group or Band is to be used; it should be used for anything after 1975 because those were Alice Cooper’s groups. The only time that was ever used with us in a huge public format was in the summer of 1973 when we did 16 Magazine which was just not us. They wanted to ask us what our favorite foods and colors were and they had this whole big spread on Alice and this section on us and called ‘The Alice Cooper Group’ and I went ‘what the fuck is this?’ This was like talking to Mick Jagger and calling the rest of the guys The Rolling Stones Group. That was so lame and when I hear it today it still sounds so lame.”
ML: When the band broke-up, Alice legally changed his name...
NS: “He was pre-empting a lawsuit because we owned the name.”
ML: Are you bitter about that?
NS: “I was never bitter. We made an agreement. Alice took the name of the band and we took the name of the biggest album we ever did – Billion Dollar Babies. Mike, Denis and I took that name and we even had a corporation called Billion Dollar Babies. We still sell a lot of records worldwide through Alice Cooper Incorporated though and the royalties for the last 30 years still filter through Alice Cooper Incorporated.”
ML: Let’s talk about the break-up - Alice said he wanted to push the envelope and go even more theatrical.
NS: “That’s the biggest bunch of bullshit in the world, but go ahead...”
ML: Alice had mentioned that the band wanted to be more musical and just go do an album with no theatrics.
NS: “Just look at what happened with the band Billion Dollar Babies – we spent a fortune on a huge set. Denis was one of the flashiest bass players of the time and most of the time I was flashier than fucking Alice was. It’s an insult to say that, but Alice just had to come up with something and he’s not the spokesman for the band. There’s been so much bullshit he’s said over the years and he’s ‘my brother’, but I won’t make stories up to cover my ass. Whatever reason he had for not coming back... You see Warner Bros. was suing us. Michael and I called WB and they said ‘we don’t care who comes back as long as Alice is in the band’, but Alice didn’t want to come back with us, so he took over our contract. They wanted a band record, but we were going to take a year off and get back together, but Alice reneged on the deal. That’s what happened.”
ML: What was the situation with Glen at that time?
NS: “I only know the facts and the fact was that on the last two albums - Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle Of Love – Glen’s only contribution was smashing a guitar on Sick Thing. That’s all he did on those two albums which is a lot like what Pink Floyd went through with Syd Barrett. They got another guitar player and went on, but we couldn’t figure out how to do that with Glen. Denis and I started working with another guitar player, Michael started working with another guitar player and Alice started working with other guitar players – everybody did it, but we couldn’t do it as a band. Mick Mashbir played on Muscle Of Love. He had been on the Billion Dollar Babies tour. He had been on the Muscle Of Love tour. He went down to South America with us, so he was already in the organization, but he was being paid to come onstage with us and play the guitar parts Glen didn’t know. Glen still played ‘School’s Out’ and ‘I’m Eighteen’ and stuff, but there was a lot of pressure with everybody to try and figure out ‘what the fuck we’re going to do’ – other bands had done it (moved on) easy, but Glen was such a huge part of this band. After the fact, there’s ways we could have done it. Was that 100% the reason (for the break-up)? I wouldn’t say that, but I think it had an awful lot to do with it.”
ML: Was it hard to see Alice go on without you with Welcome To My Nightmare?
NS: “I went out to the shows. I was very supportive of what he was doing. Denis and I were recording my solo record, Platinum God. Michael Bruce was doing an album out in Los Angeles. Alice had done Nightmare and the tour. The deal was that we were supposed to get together and write another album, so everybody was on good terms then. We took a year hiatus from the band to do projects and that was simply it, but even after what happened I’m friends with everybody in the band and I only want to see them successful. I want to see Michael successful, Alice successful and Denis successful – that’s good for everybody. There’s never been anybody in the four of us that has wished evil on anybody else. That’s just not going to happen.”
ML: Did you like the Nightmare record?
NS: “There were two songs I liked on the Nightmare album and had that been a real Alice Cooper album (with the five original members) I would have liked to play on them, but the others I didn’t want to play on.”
ML: What two songs?
NS: “I’m not going to say.”
ML: Do you ever listen to songs like ‘Poison’ or ‘House Of Fire’ and think – ‘had we played on that it would have been so much better’.
NS: “I just take it in stride and I wouldn’t change any of Alice’s songs, but I just feel they’d be better if we had played on them. However, I was really happy to see Alice comeback after all the hell he had been through. He called me in 1985 (after he’d been through all the rehab stuff) and said he was doing great and that Kane (Kane Roberts was working with Alice back then) and he were going to use computerized bass and computerized drums on their next album, but they wanted to work it out with a real band. So, he came back here (to my house in Connecticut) to see Denis and I before the Constrictor album. I’ve always left the door open for Alice or anybody if they need help because I have a studio and I’d be happy to work. He said he wanted to do pre-production with Denis and I just like we used to do for two weeks. So, Alice and Kane stayed in a hotel and we worked everyday for two weeks and totally worked it out. We did some recordings and then they took them with them and recorded the whole album, but there’s no indication of any of that (collaboration) on the record. The fact was that it was just great to get together. Denis, Alice and I played together for the pre-production of the Constrictor album and we worked out the arrangements that were used on the record and he went ahead and recorded it. It was the beginning of the second phase of his solo career. He had passed his Zipper Catches Skin thing and came back with a solid rock album. Then four years later when he had Poison... there was nobody happier than me. I just thought that was great. It was a great song.”
ML: Any regrets after the break-up?
NS: “I just feel bad about the songs we could have written that we’ve never written. That’s what weighs on me more than anything.. I mean there’s no hard feelings or that kind of stuff, but what could we have done had we sat down and been writing all those years? What material would have come out? I was also disappointed with Alice in the early ‘80s for his problems with the devils of rock ‘n roll, and for his health. I was afraid he might not make it and I was really happy when he got through that and kept his marriage and family together and finally got his career back on track. It’s not easy in this business and I was very proud of him and very supportive, but ,still the biggest disappointing thing over the time we haven’t been together is the songs that Mike Bruce and Alice would have written together. Even though ‘I’m Eighteen’ has all of our names on it – the original concept of that song was Michael’s then Alice wrote the lyrics. When you see Alice’s name attached to a song it’s because he wrote the lyrics. ‘Second Coming’, I think, was the only song that he wrote the music to on all of our stuff. Alice is one of the greatest rock lyricists ever. Denis writes very great avant-garde stuff which has been missing from Alice for a long time. There’s just nothing that takes you on a journey like ‘Halo Of Flies’ or the trilogy at the end of Love It To Death ( ‘Dwight Fry’, ‘Second Coming’ and ‘Sun Arise’).”
ML: In that short period of time you wrote songs that still sound fresh 30 years later – can you imagine if you had kept writing together?
NS: “It’s the chemistry of us. That’s what I’m talking about and in no other combination does that work. Maybe we’ll get the opportunity again or maybe we won’t, but luckily enough we were able to do a lot of great songs together.”
ML: If the stars align would you want to do simply a nostalgia tour with Alice or do more such as recording a new album of new material?
NS: “Is it of interest to me? What did I just say a minute ago? The chemistry of the original band writing is one of the most exciting things and to do that again with Alice, Michael and Bob Ezrin would be great. It would be something I’d be interested in. The band that I like with Alice is not the Greatest Hits album – sure it put our music in front of millions and millions of fans, but my favorite songs are ‘Dead Babies’, ‘Killer’, “Desperado’, ‘Sick Thing’, ‘I Love The Dead’, ‘Generation Landslide’, ‘My Stars’... I like our big theatrical pieces. That’s the Alice Cooper that I love. That’s a big part of what’s been missing. If I put an Alice Cooper Greatest Hits together it would be nothing like the ones that have been released. My interest would be in doing the really intricate songs of the band. That’s where my heart is.”
ML: Switching gears – you’re a successful real estate ‘guy’ –
NS: “I’ve been in residential real estate since 1985. When we had the success of School’s Out, I started investing in real estate. Mike Bruce did it and so did Alice. Back in the early ‘70s it was called a tax shelter and we invested in real estate as a group too. I was interested in it in the early stages of my musical career.”
ML: What keeps you interested in playing drums on a professional level?
NS: “You’re art and your passion always stay number one in your life. I’ve got hundreds of drums around the house and I’m excited about getting my next set with 25 pieces in it. I still love monster drum sets. It’s still a passion for me and it will be till the day I die.”
ML: What are you expecting from the Pudding show (where the original band will play a half hour set of greatest hits in Phoenix on Dec 16th) and how will it be to see Alice’s rear-end in front of you for the first time in years?
NS: “It’s funny you mention that because in 1999 when we played the Glen Buxton memorial weekend #2 in Phoenix – I stood up and spun my drumsticks and Alice said ‘do you know how many times in my life I’ve seen that?’ So, I took my sticks and banged his ass and said real loud into the microphone ‘and do you know how many times in my lifetime I’ve seen THAT?’ That’s all that drummers do – is see the singer’s butt the whole fucking time. I’m certain this will be similar to that. We’ll play half an hour and do the familiar songs.”
ML: You did it in 99 and now this show – do you feel a magic or do you think ‘ah, this is just another show’.
NS: “There’s a big chemistry with this band. There are no other musicians that I’ve played with that are as loose. It’s tight, but the feeling is fun. Everybody did their job great in that band and that’s the one thing people should understand. Everybody did what they were supposed to and beyond. ”
ML: You were risk takers...
NS: “That’s an understatement, we had nothing to lose. From starving to number one and all along the way the only people we had to compete with was ourselves. There was no other competition – none! There were a lot of middle of the road bands out there and we blind-sided them.”
ML: Tell me about the DVD - Good To See You Again, Alice Cooper –
NS: “We had done so much to create an image for the band intentionally and unintentionally that when the movie came out – the lights, the sunlight and we’re outside I was like ‘what the fuck?’ We’ve done all this for years to create an image and an attitude and this was like a home movie. It’s not very Alice Cooperish as far as I’m concerned. When did we ever say we were into comedy and very very bad comedy too by the way? It is what it is and I’m glad it’s finally released.”
ML: What’s the lasting impact of the group?
NS: “The legacy of the band is along the lines of Kiss, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot. There will always be that element of horror movie bands that come into play now and that never existed before us. There was that one whole new genre of music that didn’t exist before us.”
ML: Let’s go over the various albums starting with Pretties For You.
NS: “Pretties For You was a very complicated record that we rehearsed morning, noon and night and that’s all we did. I would always want to be as well rehearsed as possible going into the studio and we took that passion and work ethic into all of our albums. It also started our affiliation with Frank Zappa. Frank wanted to change the name of the band to Alice Cookies and he wanted put every song on a single disc and in a tuna fish can. We we’re like ‘what the fuck are you talking about man?’ We flipped. He wanted a tin with thirteen discs in it. So, that was our first fight with a record company and he wanted to change our name and that was never going to happen. Alice Cookies was not going to happen. Anyway, it was recorded quick and released and we had our first album.”
ML: Easy Action
NS: “We wanted to improved our production so we got David Briggs who had worked with Neil Young. When we did ‘Lay Down And Die’ he called it ‘psychedelic shit’ so that gives you an idea about how much he was into what we were doing or understanding what we were doing.”
ML: Love It To Death
NS: “Love It To Death was, of course, our break through album and getting together with Bob Ezrin. We worked on it a lot out of the studio, but it was recorded in two weeks. We had two albums and Zappa had sold his record label to Warner and they wanted to cut us loose, but we had a contract. They asked us for a four-song demo, so we had to think of somebody that was making hits and every time there’s a hit on the radio it’s a Guess Who song – so we found out it’s Nimbus 9 in Toronto, Ontario and Jack Richardson. That’s who we had to get to, but he refused to get together with us. He finally agreed to come see us at Max’s Kansas City in New York, but he said he’s not coming down. He was going to send this new kid working for him – his name is Bob Ezrin and his theory was that Bob loved classical music and that this androgynous band called Alice Cooper would just scare the hell out of him. Bob saw us at Max’s Kansas City and loved us and he told Jack that there’s a new wave of music coming and either they’d be on it with this band or they’d totally miss it. When Bob Ezrin became out biggest fan that’s the third thing that made this band happen (the other two were hooking up with Frank Zappa and our manager Shep Gordon). We recorded the demo and ‘I’m Eighteen’ was on there and the rest is history.”
NS: “By that time, Love It To Death had gone gold and Warner Bros. said ‘ok, we’ll record another record’. Warner Bros. always wanted to release us after our most recent record by the way (even Warner Bros. hated us). We had a moderate hit with ‘Killer’ and ‘Under My Wheels’, but the album was a smash overall because of ‘Halo Of Flies’. ‘Halo Of Flies’ to this day is still, in Europe, one of the most popular songs of the ‘70s and I’ll put it up against Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer or any band of that day and that was the turning point. That’s what finally shut everybody up and the album sold platinum.”
ML: School’s Out
NS: “We were writing songs for the fifth album and I always figured that Glen would put us over the top and we had this idea for a song and Glen had the (hums bars of ‘School’s Out’). He had the intro and we wrote the song around it and Alice writes the lyrics and we call it ‘School’s Out’. From the time it was written that was going to be the single off the album. We needed an anthem that was going to be as big as ‘I’m Eighteen’ or obviously bigger. The album is called School’s Out and we’re recording it in the spring and if we can get it released right before school’s out in the summer – maybe that would be a cool idea. School’s Out blew the fucking doors open for us in L.A. and New York and that’s where you gotta be if you’re going to be a monster band.”
ML: Did the record company demand an anthem type song?
NS: “The record company had nothing to say to us – we always had complete artistic control. That was the one thing that was incredibly important about this band.”
ML: Billion Dollar Babies
NS: “Was our decadent fun. It was the we’d made it and we’re telling the world album.”
ML: Muscle Of Love
NS: “Was a turning point for us because we had done so much and it wasn’t a concept album as much as the other ones. I love the song ‘Muscle Of Love’ a lot and the only song that I really hate that we ever did was ‘Crazy Little Child’. I don’t like that song and I wish it had been left off the album. I just didn’t like the song – there’s just something about it I didn’t like.”
ML: Did Alice Cooper use any ghost musicians or did you guys play everything on the albums?
NS: ‘Under My Wheels’ from Killer – the lead guitar solo was by Rick Derringer and ‘My Stars’ had Dick Wagner playing on it. Dick was a great musician, but boring on stage – I mean he could put me to sleep.”
ML: It’s been suggested by Alice that a Keith Moon drum part may have ended up on the Billion Dollar Babies album...
NS: “Keith Moon never played a note on Billion Dollar Babies and if Alice says so – I’ll kick his ass. I played every note on there. He was at the studio with us and there’s was a jam session. He was so drunk, but he did play on my drums. Marc Bolan from T-Rex was also there, but this was a drunken partying jam after the session was over and it was so bad that it could never be used.”
ML: Quintessential Alice Cooper album
NS: “Drum wise - Billion Dollar Babies. Love it Death has a great drum part on Black Juju, but School’s Out is the real heart of Alice Cooper because Glen had so much to do with that album. It’s representative of Glen’s rebel spirit so I have a special place in my heart for that album.”For more about drumming visit: www.nealsmithrocks.com