Alice Cooper - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Although the name Alice Cooper was originally reserved for his band, the man who would become Alice Cooper has had a career that has spanned almost 50 years, and has influenced countless musicians and performers. It is safe to say that theatrical rock and heavy metal would not exist in the same way were it not for Alice Cooper.
The man who would become known as Alice Cooper was born Vincent Damon Furnier in Detroit, Michigan on February 4, 1948 to parents Ella Mae and Ether Furnier. Young Vincent was a sickly child and had many health problems, so the family relocated to the warmer climes of Phoenix, Arizona. Once there, Vincent seemed to thrive and by the time he attended Cortez High School, he was writing his own wise-cracking column for the school newspaper and running on the cross-country team. While working on the newspaper, he met fellow students Dennis Dunaway and Glen Buxton, who would go on to be the bass and lead guitarists, respectively, in the first version of Alice Cooper. This was in the early 1960s and The Beatles were the biggest thing around, attracting hordes of screaming young girls. Hoping to attract the attention of the girls at Cortez High and as something of a joke, Furnier, Buxton, Dunaway, and friends John Speer and John Tatum donned Beatle wigs and entered the letterman’s talent show, miming along with a Beatle record. In tribute to The Beatles, they called themselves The Earwigs. Through their lip-syncing debut, the boys got a taste for being on stage and soon decided to take up real instruments so they could form a band. Tatum left the band, and was replaced by guitarist Michael Bruce. With Furnier on vocals and harmonica, Bruce on rhythm guitar, Buxton on lead guitar, Dunaway on bass, and Speer on drums, The Earwigs changed their name to The Spiders and gigged around the Phoenix area with a huge black spiderweb as a backdrop behind them.
The Spiders recorded a single, “Why Don’t You Love Me,” in 1965, which became a minor local hit. The following year, they released the single “Don’t Blow Your Mind,” which became a number one hit on local Phoenix radio. Hoping to attract more attention and make it to the big time, the band started booking gigs in Los Angeles and also changed their name to The Nazz. As The Nazz, they recorded the single “Wonder Who’s Lovin’ Her Now,” and soon after replaced Speer with drummer Neal Smith. By the end of 1967, the band was convinced they could make a go of a musical career, and moved to Los Angeles. Nazz played at bars and clubs around town, even opening for such bands as the Doors and The Yardbirds, but mostly met with little or no success. By 1968, the group found out about a band called Nazz, fronted by Todd Rundgren, and had to come up with another new name.
Stories differ as to how the band found the name Alice Cooper. One story tells of the band obtaining the name from a session with their manager’s Ouija board. Another story explains that Furnier came up with it to make people think they were getting was a blonde, wholesome folk singer. Regardless of the source, The Nazz became Alice Cooper in 1968. Though it was originally the name of the whole band, Furnier soon took up the name as his own as he was the singer and focal point of the group. As soon as the band changed their name, they changed their appearance and music as well. By now, all the members of the band had long hair and they soon adopted a cross-dressing, female impersonator look for their increasingly theatrical stage shows. Their music also became louder, and their lyrics more twisted and satirical. At one memorable performance at the Cheetah Club in Los Angeles, the band performed at a memorial concert for the late comic Lenny Bruce and by the end of the concert (capped by an on-stage pillow fight by the band that spread feathers throughout the club), they had cleared out a crowd of almost 2,000 people down to just four. The four remaining were Frank Zappa, two members of his all-female band the GTO’s, and Shep Gordon. Based on their notoriety and the performance, Zappa signed the band to his Straight record label, and Gordon (along with partner Joe Greenberg) became the band’s manager. Both Zappa and Gordon realized that anything that could shock and offend that many people had the potential to interest and titillate a larger, record-buying audience.
Soon the group entered the studio and recorded their first album, Pretties for You (1969 Straight), which shows the band’s psychedelic roots. The album landed with a thud in 1969, and was met with both commercial and critical indifference. The band carried on, however, and they used some of their art school and shop class background to make their stage show increasingly more theatrical and ghoulish, including building a working guillotine and having fake blood and body parts strewn about the stage. At one now-infamous concert in 1969, a chicken had somehow wandered up on the stage and Cooper, not knowing what to do with the animal, threw it out into the front rows of the crowd, expecting it to fly away (Cooper didn’t know that chickens can barely fly). The bird landed with a thud in the first rows and the crazed fans proceeded to tear the poor bird apart. The story was reported later that Cooper had actually bitten the head off of the chicken on stage and had drank its blood. When Cooper denied the story, Zappa (sensing a good publicity opportunity) reportedly told him, “Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it.” With all the surrounding shock and controversy over what would come to be called the Chicken Incident, it seemed the stage would be set for the band’s next album to sell well.
Easy Action (Straight) was released in 1970, and though it has a harder sound than the previous album, it too failed to sell well. Fed up with what they saw as indifference in Los Angeles, the band picked up stakes and moved to Cooper’s native city, Detroit. There, with Detroit’s grittier atmosphere and love of heavier music, the band found a more receptive audience. The band had one more album to complete in their contract with Straight, and they knew that if they didn’t score a hit, neither Straight nor any other label would want them. That hit came with the single “I’m Eighteen,” released at the end of 1970, and the album Love it to Death (Straight), released in February of 1971. The single would climb as high as number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album would chart at number 35 on the Billboard 200. The band finally found the success that they had been working towards, and set out touring with increasingly more bizarre and complex stage props, including an electric chair that supposedly executed Cooper at one point during the show. Because of the success of Love it to Death, the band signed a multi-album contract with Warner Bros., the parent company of Straight.
The band quickly followed the success of Love it to Death with their next album, Killer (Warner), released in 1971. Killer continues the shock and horror themes, and furthers the band’s music toward a harder, proto-metal sound. The band became a huge concert draw, upping the ante on their stage antics, which now included Cooper hugging a giant boa constrictor, chopping up dead baby dolls, and being hung from a specially constructed gallows. In 1972, School’s Out (Warner) and the single of the same name propelled the band to superstar status. “School's Out” went to number one in Great Britain, was a Top Ten hit in America, and charted the album at number two on the Billboard 200. “School's Out” is still a staple song of the classic rock format on many radio stations. The band toured in both the US and Europe, and courted controversy wherever they appeared. In early 1973, the band released their next album, Billion Dollar Babies (Warner), which became a number one album in both the US and UK. The LP contains the singles “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Hello Hooray,” and “Elected.” The latter was promoted by a proto-video promotional film that predates MTV by almost a decade. Due to health problems, guitarist Buxton dropped out of the band and was replaced by guitarist Mick Mashbir. The group kept up their constant touring schedule, and the props and on-stage tricks became more ghoulish and complex. They were one of the most popular bands in the world, but the strain was starting to take its toll, – especially on Cooper, who was developing a major alcohol dependence.
In 1973, the group released Muscle of Love (Warner). Though the album sold well, it did not match the sales of the band’s previous albums and was seen by some as a disappointment. All was not well within the group either, as Cooper wanted to continue developing the theatrical nature of the live shows, while the rest of the band wanted to tone down and concentrate on actually playing the music. After completing their tour Muscle Of Love, the band members agreed to take time off, though none of them knew that it would effectively spell the end of band known as Alice Cooper. In the interim, Cooper himself moved back to Los Angeles and made the rounds in Hollywood as a bona fide celebrity. It was also during this period of time that Vincent Furnier legally changed his name to Alice Cooper, thus closing the door on one era for him and opening the door to some new possibilities. An anthology, Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits (Warner), was released in 1974 and became a Top Ten album. A feature film, Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper, was also released in 1974 and featured the band performing in 1973, cut in with a skeletal story-line and off-the-wall comedy bits. The movie was widely panned by critics and suffered a quick death at the box office.
Cut loose from what he saw as the restrictions of having a band, Cooper set to work constructing a concept album around the story of a nightmare belonging to a child named Steven. The resulting album, Welcome to My Nightmare (1975 Warner), spawned the Top Ten hit “Only Women Bleed,” and led to a massive, elaborate tour with more theatrical effects than ever before. The album features guitarist Dick Wagner (who also played in Lou Reed’s band) as well as other first-rate session musicians. Narration on the album was provided by the much-loved horror movie star Vincent Price, who also participated in the television special The Nightmare, which aired on prime-time in 1975. “The Nightmare” is considered the first long-form music video ever made for an album. In 1976, a feature film was released of a Cooper concert filmed in London, also called Welcome to My Nightmare. Though the film didn’t do well in its initial run, it soon became a favorite midnight movie attraction. Cooper followed the success of Welcome to My Nightmare with Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976 Warner), another concept album, released in 1976. The record includes the hit “I Never Cry,” a naked confessional of Cooper’s alcoholism. After the supporting tour, Cooper was on to his next album, a more subdued affair that highlights his love for 50’s era rock and roll and film noir imagery. Lace and Whiskey (Warner), released in 1977, contains the hit “You and Me,” but was widely panned by critics and didn’t meet sales expectations. Cooper's subsequent tour was another huge theatrical spectacle, and a live album, The Alice Cooper Show (1977 Warner) was culled from a pair of performances at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. It was becoming obvious from his lackluster performances that alcohol was getting the best of Cooper. After the tour was over, he checked himself into a New York sanitarium for treatment.
After Cooper was released from the sanitarium, he collaborated with Elton John’s longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin to produce the album From the Inside (1978 Warner). Released in 1978, From the Inside is a concept album dealing with his experiences inside the sanitarium. The album proved to be a moderate success and includes the single “How You Gonna See Me Now.” The supporting tour was also based on being inside of an asylum, and was filmed and released as the video The Strange Case of Alice Cooper in 1979. After an appearance on The Muppet Show and a small role in Mae West’s last film Sextette, it was clear that Alice Cooper was no longer maintaining the shocking rock star image he had cultivated during the ‘70s. As much as he might try to court controversy, he was now a part of the show-business establishment.
Where it was once Cooper’s job to shock middle America, that job was taken over by the filth and fury of the punk movement and the bands that appeared in its wake. Cooper definitely took note of the trends, and by the time of his next release, 1980’s Flush the Fashion (Warner), he was sounding like a more unhinged Gary Numan. Cooper followed with Special Forces (Warner) in 1981, a more stripped-down album that shows a definite punk influence, and Zipper Catches Skin (Warner) in 1982, which has less heavy riffing. 1983’s concept album DaDa (Warner) deals with the fictional story of Former Lee Warmer, a cannibal imprisoned in his attic by his family. By the time the last two albums were made, Cooper had fallen off of the wagon again and reportedly has no memory of the recording sessions. He was re-hospitalized and, upon release, moved back to his home town of Phoenix to regain his health, repair his marriage, and reconnect with his family. Compounding his problems, the early ‘80’s albums didn't sell very well and by 1984, his label Warner Bros. decided they had had enough and dropped him from their roster. Cooper used the time away from music to perfect his golf swing (he is a notoriously good golfer), and to be a better husband and father.
In 1985, he signed with MCA Records, and began writing songs with guitarist Kane Roberts. The songs resulted in the album Constrictor (MCA), released in 1986. Cooper donned his trademark “Nightmare” face make-up again and returned to the ghoulish themes that had been so successful for him during the ‘70s, though now his sound owed a debt to the so-called “Hair Metal” bands that were popular at the time. Old fans found the album to be a return to form, while younger audiences viewed him as the godfather to the modern metal scene. Now sober and fit, Cooper returned to the road with The Nightmare Returns tour, which featured even more elaborate and technical stage pieces than his ‘70’s tours. One concert in Detroit from the tour was filmed and later released on VHS as The Nightmare Returns. Cooper returned in 1987 with Raise Your Fist and Yell (MCA), which continued in the vein of Constrictor, though with a heavier sound. Cooper again toured and the gory effects of the stage show caused controversy, particularly in Europe. While performing a show in London, Cooper was almost hanged for real during one of his on-stage stunts, and the subsequent publicity almost ensured that public interest would remain high for the rest of the tour. After the tour was over, both Roberts and bassist Kip Winger left the band. When Cooper’s MCA contract expired, he signed with Epic Records. Cooper next collaborated with songwriter/producer Desmond Child and the two produced the 1989 album Trash (Epic), which spawned the Top Ten hit “Poison,” and featured guest spots from such metal notables as Jon Bon Jovi and Steven Tyler. The album was a huge hit and Cooper once again hit the road with his Alice Cooper Trashes the World tour.
Alice Cooper entered the 1990’s at a high point, though his follow-up to Trash, 1991’s Hey Stooped (Epic), didn’t perform as well commercially as his previous album, even with the participation of such metal heavyweights as Slash, Ozzy Osbourne, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Nikki Sixx, and Mick Mars. Cooper was now genuinely seen as one of rock and metal’s elder statesmen, and spent the next few years guesting on projects such as the Guns N’ Roses album Use Your Illusion I and appearing in cameos in the films Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Wayne's World. Cooper returned in 1994 with The Last Temptation (Epic), a concept album which resurrected the character of Steven from Welcome to My Nightmare and paired him against a mysterious sideshow showman with supernatural powers. The album was released in tandem with a three-part comic book written by celebrated comic book author Neil Gaiman. Though Cooper wouldn’t release another studio album until 2000, he spent the latter part of the ‘90s touring with his band. A Fistful of Alice (1997 Capitol), a live album of a performance at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo nightclub in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico was released in 1997. A four-disc overview of Cooper’s career, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper (Rhino), was released in 1999 and included an authorized biography written by Canadian music writer Jeffrey Morgan.
Returning in 2000 with the hard-edged, industrial and metal-influenced Brutal Planet (Spitfire), Cooper has continued a good run into the new millennium. Cooper once again hit the road and even played in Russia for the first time in his career. A live DVD, Brutally Live, was released in 2001. Brutal Planet was followed by the equally hard Dragontown (2001 Spitfire), and then by the more stripped down 2003 release, The Eyes of Alice Cooper (Eagle), which returned Cooper to a garage-rock sound similar to the Alice Cooper band’s earliest efforts. His tour in support of the album was also much less theatrical than previous tours, placing greater emphasis on the songs themselves. Cooper started his own syndicated radio show, Nights with Alice Cooper, in 2004, highlighting his favorite classic rock and featuring anecdotes from his almost five decades in the rock world. The show airs in markets across the US, UK, and Ireland. Cooper continued the stripped-down approach with his 2005 release Dirty Diamonds (New West), which became his highest-charting record since The Last Temptation. Cooper’s Along Came a Spider (Steamhammer/SPV) was released in 2008 and again resurrected the character of Steven, though this time as a serial killer. Now 60-years-old, Cooper shows no sign of taking off his makeup and retiring from the stage.