Between 1950s showman Screamin’ Jay Hawkins emerging from a coffin and Kiss’ Gene Simmons spitting “blood” in the 1970s, no one defined shock rock like Alice Cooper.
Cooper used violent (and vile) theatrics — simulated executions, the chopping up of baby dolls, and draping himself with a live boa constrictor —and explicit lyrics to become a controversial yet hugely popular figure in the early-and-mid 1970s.
After a decade of fluctuating record sales, Cooper returned to platinum with the Number 20 1989 LP Trash. Though respected by a new generation of hard-rock fans, he never reached that kind of popularity again.
Vincent Furnier, son of a preacher, assembled his hard-rocking band in Phoenix. They were first known as the Earwigs, then the Spiders, and finally the Nazz (not to be confused with Todd Rundgren’s band). They moved en masse to L.A. in 1968. Billing themselves as Alice Cooper (who, according to a Ouija board, was a 17th-century witch reincarnated as Furnier), they established themselves on the Southern California bar circuit with a bizarre stage show and a reputation as the worst band in L.A. Frank Zappa’s Straight Records released their first two albums, which sold poorly and, with tour costs, left them $100,000 in debt.
The band members moved to Detroit, where they lived for several months in a single hotel room before the release of their major-label debut and breakthrough album, Love It to Death. Joining Cooper’s taboo-defying lyrics to powerful hard rock, the album became the first in a string of gold and platinum releases and included “Eighteen” (Number 21, 1971). Subsequent hit singles included “School’s Out” (Number Seven, 1972), “Elected” (Number 26, 1972), “Hello Hooray” (Number 35, 1973), and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (Number 25, 1973).
In 1973 Surrealist master Salvador Dalí filmed the singer, wearing diamond necklaces and tiara, as he bit the head off a small replica of the Venus de Milo for a holographic work. With such widespread success, even amid the gruesome stage sets and macabre makeup, Cooper seemed less threatening.
The band broke up in 1974 and Cooper began using such musicians as ex–Lou Reed guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter. (In 1977 former band members Bruce, Dunaway, and Smith formed Billion Dollar Babies and recorded one unsuccessful album.) “Alice Cooper —The Nightmare,” an April 1975 prime time TV special, seemed to indicate Cooper’s acceptance as a mainstream entertainer, as did a handful of appearances on The Hollywood Squares. His then-current hit, “Only Women Bleed” (Number 12, 1975), was a ballad, as were two subsequent hits: “I Never Cry” (Number 12, 1976) and “You and Me” (Number Nine, 1977).
In 1978 Cooper committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for treatment of alcoholism, an experience chronicled on From the Inside, which includes some lyrics by Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin and the hit “How You Gonna See Me Now” (Number 12, 1978). Neither the hard-rocking Flush the Fashion nor Special Forces was especially successful, and Cooper took a hiatus. He returned in 1986 with Constrictor, followed by Raise Your Fist and Yell, both deep in the heavy-metal vein. The Nightmare Returns Tour and MTV Halloween special brought Cooper’s violent, twisted onstage fantasies to a new generation, and he closed the 1980s with the platinum Trash and “Poison (Number Seven, 1989), his first Top 20 single in more than a decade.
Cooper, for whom Alice is such a character that he speaks of him in the third person in interviews, has also appeared in several films: Prince of Darkness (1988), Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), and most notably Wayne’s World (1992). For The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years, he rerecorded “Under My Wheels” with Guns n’ Roses’ Axl Rose, Slash, and Izzy Stradlin. Prominent among Cooper’s legion of second-generation fans are Steve Vai, Nikki Sixx, Joe Satriani, and Slash, all of whom guested on Hey Stoopid; Soundgarden’s singer, Chris Cornell, was on The Last Temptation, while Sammy Hagar and Rob Zombie appeared on the live recording A Fistful of Alice.
His career flagging in the late-1990s, Cooper moved away from the power ballads that had marked his 1980s records and reunited with producer Bob Ezrin (who had worked on Love It to Death, Killer, and School’s Out, among others) on the indie release Brutal Planet, a science-fiction concept album. But despite the return of a guillotine (a mainstay of his 1970s shows) as an accessory on the Live From the Brutal Planet Tour, Cooper seems mild compared to the likes of Slipknot or Marilyn Manson, who arguably were directly inspired by him.
In 2001, Cooper released Dragontown (Number 197) and former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer guest-starred on the follow-up, The Eyes of Alice Cooper (Number 184, 2003).
These days not only does Alice Cooper play family-friendly places such as state fairs but he also opened a restaurant, Alice Cooper’stown, in Phoenix. Cooper increasingly seems to take delight in subverting his long-running (and somewhat overstated) horror-rock reputation: He’s an avid golfer, as well as an occasional supporter of George H.W. Bush. That said, he still has some surprises left in him: His Dirty Diamonds (Number 169, 2005) album included a cameo from rapper Xzibit. In 2008, at the age of 60, Cooper released Along Came a Spider a concept album written from the perspective of a serial killer.