precursor to punk rock
A lot has been speculated about the beginnings of punk rock throughout the history of the genre. Theories vary as much as accrediting The Stooges and MC5 as the first "punk bands," to bestowing the same honor on the more recognized Ramones and Sex Pistols. Just like everyone else that has argued over the topic, I stand my ground on my own opinions, but my opinions differ so much from those of the general population of self-righteous punk rock kids that it takes a hell of a lot of explaining to get anyone to see my point. Yes, in my own mind I honor that crazy theatrical madman, Alice Cooper, as one of the fathers, however illegitimate, of punk music. Well, not really just the man himself, but the whole band. You see, before the Coop became the man we all know today, he sang in a band under the name of Alice Cooper. The original Alice Cooper Group's image been soiled greatly by Alice's long rap sheet of pitiable solo efforts and I'd like to set the facts straight once and for all. Alice Cooper was not a figurehead of modern heavy metal as Wayne's World and Circus Magazine have led us to believe, nor was he always the face-painted and commercially successful shock rock maniac he's recognized as today. For the first ten years of his musical career, being 1964-1974, he was simply the singer for a kick-ass Motor City rock 'n' roll band bearing his name.
by Axel Wheeler
Before the Detroit scene or the advent of glam in New York, there existed a group of four high school kids in Arizona called The Earwigs, formed around the November of 1964 for the sole reason of playing at a school talent show. The members of this little ensemble were: Vincent Furnier (later Alice Cooper), Glenn Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, and John Speer. They played shitty Beatles parody songs and paid girls to scream "EARWIGS!" at the top of their lungs during the performance. After the talent show, the guys decided that they really enjoyed playing horrible, unlistenable music to piss people off, except for Speer, who quit the band to focus more energy on the school track team shortly after the group recorded its first single. They brought in a different drummer, and later a guy named Michael Bruce from a Beatles cover band called the Trolls rounded up the lineup on second guitar. They changed their name to The Spiders. The band recorded a single called "Don't Blow Your Mind" in '66, that at the time would be considered a crappy attempt to sound like the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds. But today, after the birth of many different musical genres and bands, the first bands I've heard it compared to are the likes of early Stooges and a less bluesy New York Dolls. Despite the fact that the single wasn't that commercially appealing for its time, it still scored a local top 10 hit.
By '67, Vince had been expelled from school for having hair past his shoulders, and the band moved out to L.A. and changed their name yet again, this time to The Nazz. They brought in long time friend Neal Smith as their new drummer and began to build quite a reputation around town. They became known for their insane live shows which often involved the members dressing in drag and Vince crawling all around the stage and hassling the audience. They had the uncanny ability to clear out a room unlike any other L.A. band at the time. It could have possibly been due to the feather boas and heavy feminine makeup, or possibly the fact that they played louder and much more aggressively than the other bands that they shared the bills with. The music and stage show combined proved to be a much needed break from the pacifistic, drugged out hippie crap that had been polluting the ears of their audiences for much too long, however reluctant said audiences were to accept it.
In '68, the legendary Frank Zappa took notice of the band and signed them to his label, Straight Records. The band became aware that Todd Rundgren already owned the rights to the name The Nazz, so they changed it to Alice Cooper for unknown, but speculative reasons. Rumor has it that Vince chose the name because of his belief that he was the reincarnation of a 17th century witch with that name. They released their first LP, Pretties For You in 1969. By the time that Iggy's band were cranking out "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "1969" thousands of miles away, Alice were playing songs such as "Earwigs to Eternity" and "Changing Arranging," which were much harder by comparison, and much more comparable to Funhouse era Stooges. Pretties also featured a few songs that didn't quite seem to make sense to the general public, clocking in at about one minute apiece . These short tracks, such as "BB on Mars" and "No Longer Umpire," were played fast as hell for their day and contained sudden, rapid tempo changes; something quite uncommon for the era in which they were released, but these songwriting conventions became a staple in punk less than a decade later.You can read an interview from around this time here: http://www.mjq.net/interviews/alice.htm (interview conducted by Mike Quigley, 1969)
The band tore off on a statewide tour, opening for the MC5 at one particular show in Philadelphia. By the end of Alice Cooper's set, the room had been cleared to less than 100 people, most of whom returned to see the MC5 minutes later. Alice were also asked to play at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, site of the famous chicken incident. Everyone knows the story here. Someone throws a chicken at the band and Alice (still Vince at this point) throws it back, resulting in a fowl mutilation (heh, pun intended) and outraged humane societies nationwide. They replay video of the debacle a lot on VH1, and you can easily see that the A.C. in question is nothing like the image we have of the man today.
In 1970, the band recorded their second full length, Easy Action. By this time, Zappa moved the band off of Straight and onto his new label created soley for them, Bizarre, for bands "too weird" to be on Straight. This album hit even harder than Pretties with songs such as "Return of the Spiders," "Still No Air" and the 7 and a half minute psycho-chaotic epic "Lay Down and Die, Goodbye." The band moved back to Vince's hometown of Detroit, because at this point that's where all the kick ass, no bullshit, straight rock and roll was coming out of.
By their next album in '71, Love it to Death, the band had changed their sound a bit, giving the record a more basic rock sound. LITD also saw the bands first hit single, "I'm Eighteen." Their taboo live shows shocked and bewildered audiences nationwide, who had just come to see "that band who sings 'Eighteen' play live." The group signed onto Warner Brothers and released Killer later that year, an album that adopted a more bluesy rock approach comparable to the New York Dolls on songs like "You Drive Me Nervous" and "Under My Wheels."
The next year they released "School's Out," another classic rock and roll effort especially with the kiddie chanted title track, and after that Billion Dollar Babies which was the bands first and only descent into shock rock. The BDB image would become the blueprint for Alice's solo career. The release of Muscle of Love in late '73 showed a return to the motor city garage rock sounds of Love It To Death and Killer. It went gold, but was much less successful than the band had hoped it would be.
Then in 1974, they broke up. The band had grown tired of Alice's theatrics and stuff (by this time, the singer had taken the bands name as his own) and decided to take it back to what it originally should have stayed and formed Billion Dollar Babies, with Michael Bruce on vocals. Thus ended an era of intensely great music whose existence would be shadowed by Alice's later solo efforts. His solo career has been more of a let down that Iggy Pop's, bringing us only a handful of good tracks from almost 30 years worth of music, and is all the more tragic that the music of the original Alice Cooper Group has been overlooked by rock historians everywhere as just another point in Alice Cooper the solo artist's career. It was truly a group effort, most of the input coming from the other members of the band, and deserves way more recognition than it is given.
So that's it, take these thoughts for what you will, but I'll be damned that if after reading this you haven't mustered up enough curiosity to check out some of the aforementioned songs and information for yourself, if you weren't aware of it already. Go ahead, do it. You won't be disappointed.
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