The largely reissue label Rhino has long bundled up studio album compilation box sets of classic-rock bands in a sort of bang-for-your-buck move that also allows them to add to back catalogue sales. Recent sets include offerings from the Doobie Brothers (10 CDs), America (8 CDs), and two from the boys in Chicago (10 CDs each).
But they all pale to the massive 15-CD box Alice Cooper: The Studio Albums 1969-1983. Comprising output from both the original Alice Cooper (and yes, they were a band before they were a person) and the shock-rock godfather’s subsequent solo career, it does everything but come boxed in a tiny coffin. And though the sets come in a no-frills fashion (no booklets, liner notes, unseen photos) and the LP gatefold reproductions have tiny, tiny print, the musical evolution of the man born Vincent Furnier covers a lot of ground.
Here’s a rundown of the set’s first seven CDs, from the Alice Cooper Group that included Cooper (vocals), Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton (guitars), Dennis Dunaway (bass), and Neal Smith (drums).
The Zappa Years
Both debut Pretties for You and followup Easy Action were recorded for Frank Zappa’s Straight label after the famously offbeat artist took the band under his wing and signed them.
As a likely result of this influence, they both have a more art/psychedelic-rock vibe of songs and song pastiches with a dash of sound effects records, and a Pink-Floyd-Meets-Mothers-of-Invention sound. The band’s look was also more transgender and glam than horror-movie at this point. These albums show a band trying to find their way.
Key Tracks: “Fields of Regret” is a solid, heavy track that best meshes the band’s vision at this point. “Return of the Spiders” (a nod to a previous moniker for the group) is a gnarly, nasty effort that shows Cooper experimenting with his soon-to-become-regular vocal snarl.
Though it was originally released on Straight, Love It to Death was the first Cooper record with a Warner Bros. imprint (though rights and credits would shift back and forth). Shifting more toward a straight hard-rock sound, it also gave the band it’s first hit with “I’m Eighteen,” an angst-ridden declaration that would become a classic-rock warhorse adored by ensuing generations.
It also had the raucous “Long Way to Go,” a strutting “Is It My Body,” two religious-themed tunes, and the eerie concept/sound effects-driven “Black Juju.” And though the band still sports some glam/femme costuming and makeup on the cover, this album is where the “real” Alice Cooper got started.
Key Track: “Ballad of Dwight Fry has all of the hallmarks — storytelling, role playing, themes of psychosis and mental illness — of later material. And while he’s technically playing the titular title character, Alice Cooper (the vocalist) all but lays the blueprint for Alice Cooper (the character) here.
The Primo Stuff
The last four releases by the original Alice Cooper Band represent the musical peak of all players involved. Killer is often cited as the best, and it’s hard to argue with the confidant strutting of “Under My Wheels,” “Be My Lover” and the dark title track. “Halo of Flies” finds the group inching toward prog territory, and “Desperado” is a tribute to Cooper’s friend Jim Morrison, sung in a very Jim-like style. And…well…”Dead Babies” speaks for itself.
Key Track: “Under My Wheels.” While most would not recommend getting back at a girlfriend by actually running her over with a car, the track is full of a ballsy braggadocio and some serious guitar work.
School’s Out is a loose concept album about juvenile delinquency and the educational system. And while the quality of the material is something of a mish mash, the “bad kid” aspects (and tips of the hat to West Side Story) of “Gutter Cat vs. The Jets” and “Public Animal #9” stand out. So does their side step into the jazzy, old-timey show tune of “Blue Turk” and “Alma Mater,” whose vocals were actually recorded by a studio-absent Cooper singing into the phone.
Key Track: “School’s Out.” Cooper’s most endearing and enduring anthem really catches the zeitgeist of a class waiting for the minutes to tick down to summer vacation — regardless of the era. The original group hit their commercial peak of popularity (as well as decadence) with the hugely successful Billion Dollar Babies record and tour.
Babies runs the table from megalomania (“Elected”) and creepy corpse-loving “I Love the Dead” and “Sick Things” to forays into crooning with piano (“Mary Ann”) and Dylanesque commentary (“Generation Landslide”). With its overall theme of wanton consumerism, money-flashing, and I-don’t-give-a-fuck-if-you-don’t-like-it attitude, it’s the one Alice Cooper record most listeners have if they only have one in their collection.
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Key Track: The rocking anthem “No More Mr. Nice Guy” manages to infuse a litany unspeakable acts on a beaten-down narrator with funny commentary. It even has a pugilistic priest!
The Fab Five of the Cooper Group’s last effort, Muscle of Love has it issues. Going for a more traditional rock sound (and a concept of “urban sex habits”), it nonetheless finds the band adding strings, horns and a barrelhouse piano to the mix.
The title track is about a boy who just learned how to masturbate, and a female prostitute narrates “Never Been Sold Before.” “The Man with the Golden Gun” was actually slated to be the theme of the James Bond film of the same title – but was delivered a day late and producers committed to a Lulu song instead! How much the absence of usual producer Bob Ezrin had to do with its uneven and not up-to-par material has been debated by fans forever.
Key Track: “Working Up a Sweat” shows that the band can do basic (and base) blooze-rock right up there with other acts of the era like Foghat, Savoy Brown and Humble Pie.