Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Love It to Death

Alice Cooper, 1971; it’s almost enough to break your heart. Alice put out two LPs that year, Love It to Death and Killer, and both include a handful of incredibly great hard rockers combined with their fair share of duds, including a boring nine-minute workout on Love It to Death (“Black Juju”) and the equally coma-inducing eight-plus minute “Halo of Flies” on Killer. I know bands were often contractually obligated to produce two LPs per annum back then, and that may or may not have had something to do with the limited number of fabulous tracks on both LPs. But imagine, just for a moment, had Alice Cooper put out just one album in 1971, an album containing the best songs from both LPs. The finished product would have been brilliant, and one of the best hard rock LPs of all time.

Alas, you can’t turn back the clock—if you could, I’d move it back to the glory days, when I could smoke tons of pot and not get paranoid—and we’re stuck forever with two woulda-coulda been tremendous albums marred by too many weak tracks to be called great.

As for the band, they got their start in Los Angeles on Frank Zappa’s Straight label, but following the disappointing sales of their sophomore LP (1970’s Easy Action) they up and moved to Pontiac, Michigan, where they fit in perfectly with bands like the Stooges and the MC5. Cooper himself blamed the band’s failure to make a mark in LA to drugs; “L.A. just didn’t get it,” he stated. “They were all on the wrong drug for us. They were on acid and we were basically drinking beer. We fit much more in Detroit than we did anywhere else.”

It was LP #3, Love It to Death, that turned things around for the band, which consisted of Vince Furnier aka Alice Cooper on vocals, Glenn Buxton on lead guitar, Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar and keyboards, Dennis Dunaway on bass, and Neal Smith on drums. It didn’t hurt that the band was winning mucho notoriety for their elaborately macabre stage antics and androgynous attire. The kids in the concert halls ate it up, and turned the single “I’m Eighteen” into a teen anthem to boot, and Alice Cooper never looked back. The image of Cooper in garish face make-up, boa constrictor wrapped around his neck, has become part of our cultural heritage, and every bit as important as Abraham Lincoln signing the Declaration of Independence, or Lee Harvey Oswald shooting Jack Ruby.

But I’m not here to show off my encyclopedic knowledge of American history. I’m here to review Love It to Death, which opens on a miraculous note with three great songs only to stumble and fall face first into the rock gutter with “Black Juju,” which sounds like the retarded offspring of Deep Purple and The Doors. Tom-tom drumming, one sinister and very prog organ, and Cooper’s opening vocals segue into a poor Doors rip, and I mightn’t mind so much if the song wasn’t at least 6 minutes too long. Especially annoying is the quiet passage at around the 4:30 mark. All you hear is Cooper whispering and some tick-tocking like a bomb that never goes off, which is the real problem here. Jim Morrison and Company may have been pompous and prone to writing overly long threnodies, but they at least knew how to manufacture a catharsis, which Alice Cooper tries to do on “Black Juju” but fails miserably. Garage prog is not a genre for a reason, and this song is it.

But let us return to the LP’s promising beginnings. “Caught in a Dream” is early seventies punk, with Cooper riding the song’s great melody and sounding very, very frustrated. It’s a companion piece to “I’m Eighteen” with its lyrics about being caught between youth and adulthood, and Buxton and Bruce keep things moving with some stellar guitar work, including a great solo by the former that could (and I’m not kidding) pass for one by Lynyrd Skynyrd. As for “I’m Eighteen,” it’s the best song about the frustrations of the transition to adulthood ever written. Aside from Iggy Pop, no one has ever captured what it feels like to be a hormonal maniac looking for fun where there is none. Its portentous opening riffs are followed by some harmonica by Cooper, who really lays on the vocals, his voice growing more like sandpaper with every line. And if he’s “living in the middle of doubt” well no matter, because as he makes abundantly clear at the end of the song, he loves it. Finally, there’s the fantastic “Long Way to Go,” with its razor blade guitars and furious tempo, my personal fave of the three if only because that guitar riff is so inexorable, unstoppable in fact, with Bruce contributing on piano and Cooper delivering on some great lines, such as “What’s holding us together isn’t love.” He wants to find the road that will take him to the Crusades, Buxton wants to play the world’s greatest solo, and in the end Cooper just wants everybody to get out.

“Is It My Body” is a so-so number and a demented precursor to Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” Buxton plays some great guitar, and Cooper’s vocals are top-notch, but this one isn’t melodic or tough enough—despite Buxton’s ferocious solo—to get the job done. Nor does it fit into the persona Cooper was beginning to create for himself; the lyrics simply don’t sound right coming out of Cooper’s mouth. I have similar problems with “Hallowed Be My Name.” It’s neither catchy nor propulsive enough to win hearts and minds, and the keyboards simply don’t do it for me. Aside from some insane laughter and some heavy guitar wank nothing much happens, and I have (again!) the disquieting feeling that I could be listening to a Doors song. As for “Second Coming,” it opens with some pretty piano and Cooper singing about walking on the water, but once again it lacks that great adolescent garage rock feel of the first three tracks—a combination of sheer adrenaline and lyrics calculated to capture just how it feels to be young, dumb, and full of cum. Instead it marches along to Dunaway’s tattoo and ends with Bruce playing the 88s like he’s Glenn Gould or somebody.

“Ballad of Dwight Fry” has the distinction of being the first song on which Cooper adopts the themes of insanity and perversity that would mark the band’s future work. None of the band’s previous songs mine the vein of psychosis; they’d produced nothing like “Dead Babies.” But this one is all about going gaga. It’s a great song; some play-nice piano is followed by a child saying, “Mommy, where’s daddy? He’s been gone for so long. Do you think he’s ever coming home?” Then the guitars come in playing one really great melody while Cooper sings, “See my lonely mind explode/As I go insane.” At around the 3 minute mark Cooper commences repeating, faster and faster, lines about how he’s gotta get out of here, then the song slows and a long and eerie instrumental passage follows, after which Cooper returns to scream, “I didn’t wanna be!/I didn’t wanna be!/I didn’t wanna be!” As for album closer “Sun Arise,” it’s a melodic song that sounds like nothing you’d expect from Alice Cooper. To a slow thumping Cooper repeats the title about 3,000 times, while Buxton plays a great but short solo. After that the song is simply a reprise of the title, sung by the whole band, and while the song is pleasant enough, pleasant isn’t what you expect from Alice Cooper, and “Sun Arise” sounds more like a hippie welcoming of the dawn than a curse from rock’s most famous vampire.

Ultimately, Love It to Death is a disappointment, if only because its first three songs promise so much. That said, those three songs—and “Ballad of Dwight Fry”—make the LP a must-own for hard rock fans. But to return to my introductory remarks, just think how great an LP containing the aforementioned four tunes PLUS Killer’s “Under My Wheels,” “Be My Lover,” “You Drive Me Nervous,” “Dead Babies,” and “Killer” would be. You would have the best album of 1971, hard rock division, is what you’d have. Alas, as a great man, I think Winston Churchill, once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” But Love It to Death, warts and all, might be just what you need.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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