The band that would come to be known as Alice Cooper was formed in the late sixties in Detroit. It was led from the start by Vincent Damon Furnier, the son of a lay preacher. Vincent was named for an uncle named Vincent and the author, Damon Runyon, whom Alice Cooper would later reference in songs. The band included friends Glen Buxton on lead guitar, Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar, Dennis Dunaway on bass and Neal Smith on drums. In their first incarnation in 1964, they called themselves The Earwigs in an obvious reference to the Beatles. In the following years they changed their name to The Spiders and later to Nazz but then they learned that Todd Rundgren had a band called Nazz. Eventually, Vincent would separate from the band and go solo. To avoid inevitable conflicts over the use of the band name, he legally changed his name to Alice Cooper.
The group was heavily influenced by mainstream 60s rock and pop, citing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds from Great Britain but also some artistic American influences like the Doors. Alice himself was also heavily influenced by film and television styles, citing the film Barbarella as well as the TV show, The Avengers, as stylistic influences for the costumes he wore onstage. He supposedly once told Liza Minelli that his entire stage act had been influenced by the film "Cabaret".
Main Creative Force
Without question, Alice Cooper was Furnier's creation and he was the primary influence on its style, musically as well as visually. Glen Buxton was a key part of the songwriting and was a strong part of the sound, but the overall conceptual creation that was Alice Cooper belonged to Furnier.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
Glen Buxton, as the lead guitarist, was seldom recognized for his artistry. When he was involved in the songwriting, it tended to be the more mainstream rock hits like "School's Out", "I'm Eighteen", and "Elected". Rolling Stone even listed him as #90 on their 100 Greatest Guitarists list. He actually found his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 'Performer' category, though it was posthumous. Buxton died due to complications from pneumonia at age 50 in 1997.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
The band's first album "Pretties For You" was somewhat psychedelic in nature and not a big seller. The same fate awaited the second album, "Easy Action". Following its failure, the band returned from LA to Detroit where they felt audiences would be more appreciative of their shock rock act. During this time, they performed at the Toronto Rock and Roll revival concert during which someone managed to throw a live chicken onto the stage. Furnier, unfamiliar with the capabilities of domesticated livestock, tossed the chicken back into the audience, thinking it would fly away. Instead it plummeted into the crowd that proceeded to tear it to pieces, hurling chuncks of the disintegrated bird around the arena. Rumors began to circulate that the lead singer of this bizarre band had bitten off the head of a live chicken onstage. Frank Zappa allegedly called Furner to confirm the story and Furnier laughingly explained what really happened. Supposedly, Zappa urged him to keep that a tightly held secret and to take advantage of the free publicity from the rumors. The next album was the Bob Ezrin produced "Love it to Death" which was much more successful and produced the commercial hit, "I'm Eighteen". Then in late 1971 came the album "Killer" which was the band's creative peak to that date. 'Killer' began to thematically define the character of Alice Cooper and as a concept album, flirted with both androgyny and macho sexual posturing along with macabre imagery that shocked many.
1975 brought the first Alice Cooper solo album which was a concept piece, a horror-themed exploration of arachniphobia, necrophilia, and revolution called "Welcome to my Nightmare". The entire album was a thematic exploration of a series of dreams in the head of an alter-ego character named Stephen. The song featured Vincent Price providing narration during a bridge between the songs, "Devil's Food" and "The Black Widow". So if you ever get a trivia question about which rock star first used Vincent Price to narrate a horror-themed song, the correct answer is not Michael Jackson. Just sayin'.
Influenced By Them
Alice Cooper has stamped a series of enduring images on the notion of a rock and roll show. The band's theatrics, costumes and themes, while not unique or wholly original, were certainly more visible in their hands than in those of shock rock predecessors. At the same time, their history is filled with approachable, well-written songs with great rock hooks and stunning imagery even without a stage show to sear it into the brain. Modern theatrical performers like Rob Zombie, Wasp, and Marilyn Manson owe an obvious debt to Alice for opening the doors to what can be done onstage.
Alice Cooper continues to perform, allegedly convinced that he has a burden to outlast Mick Jagger who is six years his senior. He is a commentator on music on radio but is generally very quiet when it comes to political issues. He is, however, increasingly open about his Christian faith which has been a surprisingly strong part of his life since childhood. Cooper, who dealt with alcoholism in the 70s and 80s, is also outspoken against the use of drugs and alcohol and makes efforts to counsel and educate other rock and roll stars, particularly the younger generation. A tribute album for Cooper's music featured one of the most incredible collections of metal and hard rockers ever seen, indicating his esteem within the musical world. Bob Dylan once referred to Alice Cooper as an overlooked songwriter. In 2011, recognizing this influence and legacy, Alice Cooper was inducted into the RRHOF along with the surviving members of the original band.
My Personal Take
My mom never once forbade me to buy a specific album but she was pretty quick to express her disapproval of some of the records I bought and listened to. She was horrified when I bought my first Alice Cooper record. I did my best to explain that the snakes and fake blood and the guillotine and all that stuff were just acts designed to shock and entertain the audience much like a horror film. She softened slightly but still made it clear she detested it. I loved 'Killer' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' but I played 'Welcome to my Nightmare' so many times I wore the groove off the record. In many ways, Alice Cooper is a perfect symbol of the rock fan. Most of us are pretty grounded, down to earth, boring individuals and apparently, that's true of the current Alice Cooper; a family man who loves golf, is relatively conservative in politics and lifestyle, and professes to be a born-again Christian. But onstage ... well, that's where dreams come true for rock fans, even those with twisted, bizarre dreams that release those little demons that nibble at the corners of sanity. That's what Alice shows us. I think it's also very revealing that in this century we use exposure to Marilyn Manson as an explanation for behavior that simply didn't occur in the 70s when exposure to Alice Cooper apparently was seen for what it was - a show and not a way of life. If rock and roll is supposed to entertain, then Alice Cooper is a stunning example of rock and roll doing what it's supposed to do.