Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Welcome To My Nightmare

So there I was, just some young punk who had recently discovered Alice Cooper. At this point most of my knowledge of the music was based on his appeareance on The Muppets so one of the first albums I purchased*, if not the first, was Welcome To My Nightmare. At this point I didn't even know there WAS an Alice Cooper band, silly schmuck that I was. I didn't know that a guy named Tony Levin played on this album (sans the yet-to-be invented Funky Fingers that he didn't know he was going to invent). I didn't know that a guy named Bob Ezrin was back in the producer seat. I didn't know that guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner were co-writing at a furious pace. I didn't know that some guy named Vince had recently legally changed his name to Alice. I didn't know that the only reason this album existed was because Vince, er, Alice wanted to go bigger and more theatrical while the rest of the band wanted to return to their raw rock roots**. I didn't know about the TV special or the subsequent record breaking tour***. I didn't even know that I didn't know these things. All I knew was the music and the creepy, campy, varied orchestral rock of this album hit home hard.

Let's talk about that music, eh? The opening title track is a mishmash of rock, disco, jazz and orchestral, held together by a superb bass line. This glam rock song is immediately offset by the creepy stoner rock of "Devil's Food". I tells ya, when the flange kicks in to underscore a musical punch... shivers! And even more bizarre, the flange doesn't let up but gets tossed around from drums to guitars to backup singers. Then Vincent Price starts his masterfully delivered monologue (a trick stolen by Michael Jackson for his Thriller album) and it's game over! But of course, it's only just beginning. Price's chilling words are but an introduction to "The Black Window", another heavy rocker. My magic headphones revealed one astounding bass line, perfect for business or pleasure. Horns enter near the end, softening the rock and giving a more campy feel, a perfect lead in for the "Some Folks" but even here, the bass is sliding up and down the neck, foreshadowing the slide trombone which eventually joins the party. To quote Mr. Price, "Delicious."

"Some Folks" is nastily played on a detuned piano, a kind of jazzy vaudeville rounded out with more horns as Cooper sings how some folks "just love to see red" and "love to feel pain", though never going much further than that, giving the listener an unsettled feeling as if everyone around him keeps a disturbing and dark secret. Try as it might this song can't keep it's cool and it too eventually erupts into a frenzy. Fear not, child, because the next song, "Only Women Bleed," is a pool of tranquility in this dark night. Without this mega-hit song Alice Cooper the soloist might have returned to the band with his tail between his legs but as such, this Wagner-penned ballad is against domestic abuse, despite the ambiguously icky title, and scored big with the ladies. The song is a small step away from being campy but the orchestral strings and the ramped up rock ending keep the lunatic from jumping off the bridge.

The gleeful "Department of Youth" follows and it's a bit too cheery, a bit too cleaned up though I do love the playful mention at the end of then teen heartthrob Donny Osmond. Fear not for all is redeemed by the chunky guitar riffs of "Cold Ethyl" that aim right at your gut. Plus the constant cowbell.

And then there's the song cycle. Harpsichord and uneasy accordion open "Years Ago" where Cooper sings as a small, lonely boy, soon to be identified as a fractured personality of a disturbed adult named Steven. Cascading piano and pizzicato strings introduce "Steven", an emotion-packed (for teens, that is... otherwise I have to admit that it's somewhat cheesy, but good cheese!) foray into this mind as it's returning to reality with lines like "I must be dreaming / Please stop screaming." The full orchestra returns with a punch in the chorus that segues into an extended instrumental passage, surely one of the cornerstones in the foundation of my love of "more serious" orchestral/classical music, showing me how music without words can convey as much, or even more, emotion than music with words. The dream ends with a splatter of reality in "The Awakening" as the protagonist wakes up in the basement with crimson on his hands. One is left to wonder exactly what he's done but the masterfully orchestrated music leaves little doubt that he was not finger painting.

The album ends with "Escape*****" which could possibly be part of the song cycle but is really more of a step out of the concept album with Cooper singing about being trapped in the music business. Overall it's a nice but generic rock song and once again they use cowbell and a fine sounding bass, possibly a MusicMan****. It's no wonder this album is considered a classic example of a concept album as even the missteps somehow seem to fit into bigger picture. It's also quintessential Cooper where he gets everything right. It's the kind of album where, if someone wonders what the hype is all about concerning this Alice Cooper fellow, you just have them listen to this album.

Rank: Essential for all music lovers

* The first I owned was the Greatest Hits album, a present from me mum on Valentines Day.

** See the breakup for Styx for yet another example.******

*** 120+ cities in eighteen months. This has since been broken many times over.

**** I wouldn't mind having me one of those.

***** Allow me, for a moment, to share a memory concerning this song, if I may. You are free to ignore, of course. In junior high (this was before the concept of middle school) kids were herded onto school buses before and after school that would take them to the high school where they would change to the buses that would take them home. The trip lasted about five minutes, just long enough for a song. Back in these days kids had large, portable music devices that went by many names nationally but were called Boom Boxes where I was raised. Often on these five minute trips one kid or another would unleash his boom box and play some loud rock song as we drove. Those were very patient bus drivers. So impressed was I by these future DJs that when it came time for me to get a new gym bag for the year (this was also before backpacks) I made sure that my boom box fit inside. Eventually I decided that I'd take my turn with the music. Was I not an eighth grader, king of the school? For my song I chose "Escape." Had the year been 1975 or even 1976, this might have evoked a positive response. However it was 1984. The kids who knew this song and album were no longer kids, they were college graduates. The kids on the bus with me, well, they wanted to hear something they knew. I learned a great lesson that day about people and their musical tastes as well as my own (ill-fitting) place in society.
****** I stand corrected thanks to this interview with Dennis Dunaway. The band was broken up by THE MAN who thought they could make more money with less people and cutting budgets.

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