By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most influential hard-rock acts of the 1970s still actively touring and recording, Alice Cooper continues to bring his inimitable brand of shock rock to audiences the world over. While the singer — born Vincent Furnier — and the band that shared his stage name exploded in popularity with their first hit “I’m Eighteen” in 1971, the original Alice Cooper line-up featuring guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith struggled for years. They rose from Phoenix-based garage rockers in their early days to trying to make their mark in Los Angeles after being signed to Frank Zappa’s Straight Records imprint in 1968.
It was the band’s 1971 album Love It to Death — the group’s first collaboration with producer Bob Ezrin — that established the signature Alice Cooper sound, but it was the spectacular live show incorporating macabre theatrics climaxing with the singer’s staged nightly execution that made the group one of the biggest American hard-rock acts of the era. That effort kicked of a string of seminal albums including Killer, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies that became cornerstone influences to countless punk, metal and hard-rock disciples since their release.
The classic line-up of the band brought the run of brilliant recordings and sold-out tours to an end when it split in 1975. The singer would legally change his name to Alice Cooper and embark on a successful solo career now in its fifth decade. Cooper became not only beloved hard-rock icon, but a pop-culture icon with his appearances on television (Hollywood Squares, The Muppet Show) and in film (Wayne’s World, Dark Shadows).
Though less than two years shy of his 70th birthday, Cooper has only ramped up his activity in recent years. Besides being the subject of the entertaining music documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper in 2015 and hosting his popular syndicated nightly radio show, the singer has toured extensively with both his own band and the new supergroup Hollywood Vampires alongside Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and actor/guitarist Johnny Depp.
CBS SF recently spoke with Cooper to discuss working on new songs with the surviving members of the original Alice Cooper band, his upcoming headlining festival appearance at Psycho Las Vegas and the release of a new version of his hit song “Elected” aimed straight at this year’s presidential candidates.
CBS SF: You were out on your own tour last spring, spent most of the summer with Hollywood Vampires and then almost immediately went back on the road with your band. Does having a side project like the Vampires make things tougher, or does it just keep you in fighting shape for when you’re headlining?
Alice Cooper: You know it’s so funny, because both bands headlined through the whole summer. We did a lot of European shows with the Vampires. The really big difference is with the audience. When we do our shows, it’s the rock and roll audience. When we do the Vampires, the first 50 rows are all women looking at Johnny Depp.
Our show is very rehearsed. It’s like some kind of psycho vaudeville, hard-rock show, and every minute we know what’s going to happen. The Vampires show, we’re like the world’s most expensive bar band [laughs].
CBS SF: You’ve long been a regular attraction at hard rock and metal festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Has your experience been different at newer festivals in the States like Carolina Rebellion and the upcoming Psycho Las Vegas fest versus more established European festivals?
Alice Cooper: Yeah, I think the European festivals are a little more classic. You can put Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and bands like that, but they also accept bands that are not necessarily metal like Alice Cooper and Aerosmith and groups like that. Because we’re hard rock and we’re hard enough rock and classic enough.
I think that almost everybody there knows the history. We influenced almost every single heavy metal band there is. So there’s that place of respect for our show. And I think we kind of go out of our way to destroy that audience, in a different way than the metal bands.
The metal bands are just pure energy, whereas Aerosmith and Alice Cooper and Twisted Sister, we come in with much more classic rock. So we don’t get any bad feedback from that audience. They love what we do up there. Even bands like the Foo Fighters, who are not in the least bit metal, they fit in that group too.
CBS SF: Psycho Las Vegas seems closer to a European festival as far as the line-up. I know you’re coming from playing Tuscon on Friday night to headline the festival on Sunday. Will you actually be able to catch some of the festival and is there anyone in particular that you’d be excited to see?
Alice Cooper: I did see that Arthur Brown is playing. Arthur is an old friend of mine from way, way back. In fact, a couple of Halloweens ago we played a show in Camden Town in London at the Roundhouse. We had Arthur come out and do “Fire” with us at the end of our show. There’s a real respect there. Arthur and I are old, old friends.
And I’m always interested in hearing younger bands when they get up there if they’re really solid and they know what they’re doing. There’s a couple of younger bands that I was really kind of interested in that I haven’t seen play yet. One of them is this band called the Strypes from Ireland, they’re a really great band. And the other one is this band called the Struts. They’re much more of a hard rock, naughty, swaggering Guns N’ Roses type of band.
CBS SF: I saw the Struts at a festival in Napa earlier this year and they were great. They reminded me more of a throwback to original glam like Slade or Sweet.
Alice Cooper: Yeah, I like that. And that other band, the Strypes, I heard their first record and I could not believe these guys were 18 or 19 years old. They sounded like the Yardbirds and the Small Faces jamming together. And it was as authentic as could be.
CBS SF: You reunited with the surviving original members of the band onstage for the first time since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction late last year and have been collaborating on writing new material with them for the first time since recording Muscle of Love over 40 years ago…
Alice Cooper: Oh yeah. The great thing about the original band is when we broke up, we didn’t have any bad blood at all. We were all still best of friends. It had just gotten to the point where we never took a break and were just exhausted. We did seven albums in a row and toured those seven albums and never stopped. I think we just burned out.
At the same time, in all that time when we were broken up, we still stayed in touch with each other. So it just so happened I was in Phoenix and Neal [Smith] called up and said, “I’ve got a couple of songs I want you to hear.” And I went, “Ok, great!” And it so happened that Mike Bruce was in town, and I said, “Well, bring Mike over.” And we did a couple demos and then Dennis called up and I said. “Well, let’s hear that,”
So pretty soon, I got this idea that if we could find that writing thing that we had for Killer and Love It to Death, I would love to visit that again. I don’t know if it’s possible to degress and go back to a sound and actually make it sound right.
So it’s an experiment. We really don’t know what’s going to happen with it, but Bob Ezrin said, “Let’s do like five or six songs and see what happens. I hope it does happen. If we created five songs that kind of recreated that sound, I’d be elated to hear that.
CBS SF: Given the good terms you were on, was it just a matter of circumstances that you didn’t try to work together again sooner?
Alice Cooper: No, it was just a matter of Mike really being not well for a long period of time. Neal and Dennis had different things happening. Dennis was playing with some of the guys from Blue Oyster Cult in a band called Blue Coupe that was really great. Neal was doing very well in real estate. But they all kept their hands in the game of writing and never lost their feel for what they were doing. Neal can still play as well as he ever did, and so can Dennis.
Mike, on the other hand, had some real problems. He hurt his hand really bad and had to kind of relearn how to play and get his hand back together. So, like I said, it’s going to be an experiment to see if everybody can still play with that kind of feel.
CBS SF: This may be premature since you’re still seeing how the material works out, but do you have any plans to play live with that version of the band or maybe bring people out on tour to do guest spots during Alice shows?
Alice Cooper: Oh that happens all the time. If Dennis is in town, we have Dennis come up and play. If Neal is in town, he comes up. We’ve had Mike up. If I’m ever near Connecticut, I always invite the guys up. Mike was in Mexico for a long time, so it was really hard to find him for a while.
The weird thing is there’s a band in New York City now and the only album that they play – and this could only happen in New York City – is Pretties For You. Which is the weirdest Alice Cooper album of all time. And the guitar player learned to play like Glen Buxton. If we do actually create this older sound, I would bring that guy in and say “Play like Glenn Buxton.” That would be the weirdest thing if he did. I’d love to hear it.
CBS SF: I know a lot of fans including myself would be thrilled to get to see that line-up of Alice Cooper play live. Part of me was hoping that maybe it would happen at Psycho Las Vegas…
Alice Cooper: Yeah, I think being on the road for this long and that being the very last show of this tour, it would be very hard to put that together. If I were to do it, I would really plan it. I would put it together and make sure that it was all rehearsed and really came off well.
And that would be for Dennis, Mike and Neal’s sake also, so that it really came off polished and real Alice Cooper. I wouldn’t want to just plug them in and say, “Ok, go!” That wouldn’t be fair to them, I don’t think.
CBS SF: You recently released a new version of “Elected” and launched the website www.votealicecooper.com, taking both Clinton and Trump to task. I won’t ask why, since it’s pretty obvious that this is an election for the ages as far as the intrinsic comedy. But I was wondering when you decided to do the remake and start incorporating the staged fight of the actors dressed as the candidates during the current tour?
Alice Cooper: Well, like you said, you couldn’t have set up a more perfect storm. I said this yesterday and it still rings true; I have never seen candidates who were so much like Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re so bizarre. Both of them are! I don’t know one person who is actually voting for somebody; they’re actually just voting against the other person.
The odd thing about the song was that Alice Cooper was the least likely character to run for president and was probably one of the most hated characters around the world in 1972 [when the song first came out]. And Nixon was too!
The funny thing is I found out later on that Nixon had my calendar from Killer hanging in the White House. And when he published his memoirs, he sent a copy to me and signed it “To Alice, From President Nixon. Big Fan!” Somehow Nixon was a fan of Alice Cooper.
So anyway, the parody of Alice and Nixon running against each other was very funny. And when this election came up with this two candidates, I said, “Well, we’ve gotta do it again!”
CBS SF: One accusation that has been leveled at Trump that might really hit home for you. How do the stories that he cheats at golf affect your view?
Alice Cooper: Here’s another funny thing about this election. I think I said, “Don’t ever vote for somebody who says they don’t cheat at golf.” Because everybody cheats at golf! So if you get a guy who gets up and says “I don’t cheat at golf,” then you know right up front that he’s lying! [laughs]
I would rather have a presidential candidate say, “Sure I cheat at golf.” Then I would go, “OK, I believe in this guy!” And Hillary has got to learn to play golf if she wants to get my vote. How can you trust a president who doesn’t play golf? She better start playing!