June 1972. There’s still hope that The Beatles will reform, no matter what they say. Pink Floyd have not yet visited The Dark Side of the Moon. David Bowie has just released Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Alice Cooper releases School’s Out. While Alice and David may shared much both in terms of heritage style, it was always Alice who was most conflicted. While David was the outsider, deconstructing rock ‘n roll and giving it a future, Alice blurred the lines more, incorporating humour and more topical references. Simply put David was serious, Alice might be a clown. While David’s stage shows would be art, Alice’s would be entertainment. From the beginning of his career Cooper wanted to play the villain not the hero, while Ziggy became so successful the band broke up and he was ‘killed’ onstage, Alice was disinterested in circumstance making actions evil, he was evil to start with, he’d been killing and getting killed on stage for years. It was unjustified. He was uninvited. He was shocking. He was winking. He was joking. While David’s opening salvo may have been concerned with the death of our planet, Alice saw fit open his album with a chorus of children’s voices declaring that ‘school’s been blown to pieces’, Alice was the light to David’s shade. While David was paralyzed by the magnitude of what he must comprehend, Alice reminded us of the glorious days when comprehension only applied one way, the world had to understand us and bow to our whims. David’s concern was one of escape and its impossibility. Alice’s was of escape and its inevitability and with it an unknown freedom.
It’s perhaps odd then that one of Cooper’s most successful works contains few of the lyrical references to the world of horror with which he went on to become associated with. The themes for this record are all teenage, universal in the Western world; hatred of school, passion, gangs, rebellion, wide horizons, confining walls. In the verse of Public Animal #9 Alice tells of the limited vista, ‘Me and GB we ain’t never gonna confess, we carved some dirty words in our desk, we cheated at the math test, and now it’s time for recess’ while on My Stars is over wrought, hyper-sensitive, ‘All I need is a holocaust to make my day complete’, it’s an album willfully fuelled by hormonal imbalance lacking perspective, imbued with the feeling that these are the greatest days of your life and the feeling that others’ days are greater than yours. Perhaps the most shocking part of the lyrics is just how witty and considerate they are, it is truly an album of nostalgia but the fears of a teenager are not belittled, instead the bar room blues easiness of the band thrown together Bob Ezrin’s (both the album’s producer and keyboard player) lush orchestral arrangements mean that with the delivery of ‘I can’t find the exit, I quit looking for ghosts, I stole a razor from the commissary, I just couldn’t take it no more’ you’re there with him, overreacting, that teenage desolation crystallized, the immaturity of such a statement juxtaposed against your adult self now being immune to feelings of such extremity.
Unsurprisingly for vocal music it is Alice’s voice that is the centre point of this album. Much of the small scale comedy and the tragedy is a result of Cooper’s control and judgment. Not only does Cooper have sweetness to his voice that prevents Rod Stewart styled ‘rock’ typicality but he has a willingness to ‘act’ that sets him apart. While dictating a narrative from the perspective of a character is nothing new, Cooper’s change in delivery, often within a few lines, allows him a depth of emotion that seems missing from his classmate Bowie’s masterpiece. While Bowie has always been some kind of alien the conceit in this record is inclusion, Cooper details shared experiences; people thrown together with little in common but age and locality. An experience both individual and universal. Everyone has been to school. Everyone had a good time. Everyone wanted it to finish. That said, the final ‘joke’ of the album sees Alice directly speaking to his class mates on the last day of school, while the verses detail a litany of teenage high jinx it ends ‘I hope I see you again some time, don’t forget me or nothing, remember the Coop’, Cooper’s voice moving from a warm nostalgia to an unnerving fear, as if the ballsy punk of the previous seven tracks is now aware that far from being popular, was merely tolerated, the people he considered peers are happy to have a future without him, Cooper will be left, some kind of Fonz character, out of time, only good at goofing around. After school everyone wants to go back.
While Alice Cooper is no doubt central to any Alice Cooper record, its success cannot be attributed to one man alone, the musicianship and production are all exceptional, everyone sounds like they are having a good time. From the swinging rat pack bass of ‘Blue Turk’ to the half time groove with bar of a snare roll that is the opening to ‘My Stars’, playing is fresh and lively. Bowie comparisons continue as the backing vocals and guitars throughout pre-echo ‘Lust For Life’ by a cool five years while the ever building twisted groove of the album’s closer ‘Grand Finale’ and ‘Public Animal #9’ as call to mind both the instrumental work of Isaac Hayes or David Axelrod and the dark, stark funk that Bowie would inhabit from Station to Station and not leave until after Heroes. It is a school a young Sparks may have attended. Faith No More scratching their name on the same desk. Comedy and subversion is a strong theme in the music, aside from the still hilarious brass section fart noise that, try as it might to, manages not to derail the entire of ‘Blue Turk’ that precedes it, it is the interpolation of West Side Story’s ‘Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets’ that provides the biggest surprise centrepiece, not only in that they play it,but that they play it so well, it is vital and well judged. This isn’t yet the age of ubiquitous ironic cover versions, Alice and band going through an intense build up (so intense it is part bass solo) only to peak with ‘Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell, someone gets in our way some one don’t feel to well’. This one sly reference works to show that the rebellion Alice details is nothing new, preempting angry parent protest by getting their kids to sing the same songs they had about the same things they did, while at the same time having that sly smile that only comes on when a violent street gang sing and dance in unison.
While Cooper would follow this album with another two greats in the form of ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ he would never again release an album so focused and compact, of such musicality and variance, a place where he would play both ringmaster and victim to such extremity. As an album of genuine warmth and fondness it may never bettered, delivered in almost Vonnegut like fleeting detail and humour. Perhaps the only disappointment is never knowing the feeling of excitement in that June of 1972 as School’s out and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were released, that rock had such a range of innovation, but more than that, just sounding so good.