Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Alice Cooper’s
Greatest Hits

Could 1974’s Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits be the best album of the seventies? It’s a perverse and ludicrous notion, I know. But when I’m in the right mood, and I happen to be in the right mood right now, there isn’t an album I’d rather hear.

And is it such a perverse notion, when you come right down to it? I would direct the reader’s attention to Chuck Eddy, the perceptive and witty rock critic who wrote the brilliant, hilarious (and very much hated by metalheads) Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe. In said book Eddy puts Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits at No. 3 on his list. That’s right, No. 3, right below Led Zeppelin IV and Appetite for Destruction.

The fact is that Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits captures the highlights–albeit with some inexplicable omissions–of a band that melded razor-edged garage rock to grade B horror movie theatrics to create some of the most enthralling songs to emerge from your car radio in the early 1970s. I know plenty of purists who find greatest hits packages suspect. When it comes to making up “best-of” lists, greatest hits LPs don’t count. Me, I’m a populist and a utilitarian and I prefer Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits to Alice’s other product, although Love It To Death comes a close second. It’s time we let greatest hits LPs out of their ghetto!

Put simply, I like Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits more than any of the five albums whose tracks appear on it because Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits does not include any of the duds that made all five of those albums so uneven. 1971’s Love It to Death was as close as Alice Cooper came to producing a masterpiece, and is my AC studio LP of choice. Billion Dollar Babies finishes a not-so-close second. As for the other three, I don’t own them. Why don’t I own them? Because I have Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits. That’s what greatest hits albums are for.

That said, in my more reflective moments I recognize that Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits, as greatest as it is, has its flaws, and they all come down to 1971’s Love It to Death. With “Caught in a Dream,” “I’m Eighteen,” and “Long Way to Go,” Love It to Death opens with one of the greatest one-two-three punches in rock history. The greatest hits includes only “I’m Eighteen” and “Is It my Body,” which isn’t half as good as “Caught in a Dream” or “Long Way to Go.” Why is it on Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits when the other two songs aren’t? I can only agree with the very cynical conclusion of Robert Christgau: to wit, Cooper the man had songwriting credits on “Is It My Body,” while “Caught in a Dream” and “Long Way to Go” were written by Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton respectively. In short, Vincent Furnier put lining his pockets before his art, and I have no doubt he’ll burn in rock ’n’ roll Hell for it.

One could argue that Cooper wasn’t dead set on maximizing personal profit, and point to the fact that Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits includes three songs (“Under My Wheels,” “Be My Lover,” and “Hello Hurray”) without Cooper’s songwriting fingerprints on ‘em as proof. In response I can only say that the first two were clearly the stand-out tracks on 1971’s Killer, and omitting them would have been both nonsensical and commercially suicidal. And speaking of the less-than-brilliant Killer, why does Cooper see fit to include three of its songs but only two from the far superior Love It to Death? Or four songs from Billion Dollar Babies for that matter? Some questions have no answers. Mr. Cooper was drinking Olympian quantities of beer at the time. I for one blame it on the suds.

Caveats aside, Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits is still a great example of one-stop shopping. It opens, of course, with “I’m Eighteen,” the best song about being young and clueless (but defiant about it) to come along since “My Generation.” The collection wavers on its feet some with “Is It My Body” and “Desperado,” both of which I consider to be weak links. Nothing wrong with the former, mind you; I simply can’t hear it without wishing I was listening to the aforementioned “Caught in a Dream” or “Long Way to Go.” As for “Desperado,” it’s a low key to the extent that Alice can hardly be bothered to sing–he talks his way through most of the thing. Doesn’t really grab me until the strings come in, and when it takes strings to catch your attention you’re in trouble. As for the lyrics they’re generic to a fault, and as lacking in specifics as the Eagles song of the same name. In short, “Desperado” isn’t tailored to Alice’s unique skill set and doesn’t rock–it isn’t even particularly catchy for that matter. So I ask you–what the hell is it doing here?

“Under My Wheels” is an old school rave-up and comes complete with sleazy horn blurt and the guitar of ax-slinger Rick Derringer. “Be My Lover” is a slinky and seductive ode to a straight-talking bar pick up; Alice says he’s a rocker from Detroit city, she wants to know why his name is Alice, he says she wouldn’t understand. And it ends in a great bump and grind. “School’s Out” is the best song about the American educational system this side of Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” and the Dictator’s “Weekend,” and it beats ‘em both with its understanding that kids aren’t just looking for a temporary reprieve from school–they want to blow it sky high and be done with it forever. The guitar riff is immortal–it might as well be a fire alarm–and the chorus is as good as any chorus ever to inspire grade school kids to pull fire alarms. As for that “we can’t even think of a word that rhymes,” it’s the funniest testament to the failures of public education ever committed to vinyl.

The group described their cover of Judy Collins’ cover of Rolf Kempf’s “Hello Hooray” as “Alice Cooper meets cabaret,” and that’s exactly what it is. It’s pure melodrama and climbs to an ecstatic peak, with Alice singing “God I feel so strong, I feel so strong, so strong, etc. etc.” It blew me away during my impressionable formidable years and it still does. Cheesy? Sure. But cheese was Alice Cooper’s bread and butter. The furious (and delirious) “Elected” isn’t so much about being elected President as being elected God. And why shouldn’t Alice be God? As he points out in the song, he was the guy who gave us the real lowdown on school! The horns are great, the song only grows bigger and mightier as it goes along, and when Alice sings “You and me together young and strong!” even Helen “I Am Woman” Reddy stops singing because she knows when she’s beat.

The near-perfect hard rocker “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is both mean and hilarious, what with Alice playing up his role as parental pariah to the hilt. Just listen to that opening guitar riff, and the bass that follows. As for Alice, he got all twisted up somewhere and he’s grown lactose intolerant to the milk of human kindness. His dog and cat hate him, his long-suffering parents are persona non grata everywhere, and even the local minister can’t resist punching him in the nose. Alice is the Rodney Dangerfield of rock, only worse; the whole world thinks he’s sick and obscene, and if you think he’s going to play nice and smile along you’re wrong. “Billion Dollar Babies” is a pummeling hard rocker featuring–believe it or not–a wonderful contribution by one Donovan “Sunshine Superman” Leitch on vocals. It’s autobiographical braggadocio of course, but who could blame Alice and the boys for crowing about their sudden and unimaginable rise to fame and fortune?

In his contemporaneous review of Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits the always prickly Robert Christgau wrote off the LP’s final two cuts–both of them from 1973’s commercially and critically disappointing Muscle of Love–as “passable minus stuff.” He went on to imply they were only on the best-of for the reasons cited above–both boast songwriting credits that include Cooper. I disagree. It would have been sheer perversity to ignore Muscle of Love, its “hit or miss” (see Rolling Stones’ Lenny Kaye) content notwithstanding. Besides, I happen to love the title cut–it rocks balls, and Cooper is canny enough to leave us guessing as to whether the muscle he’s referring to is heart or cock. I love “Teenage Lament ‘74’” as well; Alice finds his gold lamé jeans a drag, his hair cut looks “like a rooster that was drowned and raised again,” and here he thought being 15 “was gonna be a breeze.” What to do? Alice doesn’t have a clue. Run away is his initial thought. On second thought, he’d “rather cry all day.” Bottom line? He’s trapped in teenage prison just like I was in 1974, and not up for parole until age 18.

By 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare Glen Buxton, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and Neal Smith were gone, replaced by Lou Reed’s back-up band, and Alice was reduced to singing the blues on the (admittedly great) “Only Women Bleed.” After that it was straight to hell (see 1976’s Alice Cooper Goes to Hell), and that was that. Cooper had to cancel the Goes to Hell tour due to anemia, and the irony is telling; it wasn’t only his blood that had grown thin. His was a precipitous decline from making music that was sui generis to making music that can only be described as generic; his metal songs sounded pretty much like everybody else’s metal songs, and while this helped him sell records it turned me off forever.

But hey, it was a great run while it lasted, and Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits, while far from perfect, lets you in on what all the excitement was about. When too many other rock bands were “going pro” or jamming their live audiences into a coma, Alice Cooper was providing rock solid rock ’n’ roll thrills and chills worth every penny of your entertainment dollar. I can only compare them to Iggy and the Stooges, and how many people actually saw Iggy and the Stooges? Alice Cooper served up ersatz madness to the masses, and everybody walked away happy. Was Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits the best album to come out of the seventies? Probably not. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best album Alice Cooper ever put out, and I have a hard time thinking of an album from 1970-79 that’s more fun.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Mr. Mac

    I was a huge AC fan during this period, owning all the albums from Easy Action right through Muscle of Love (passing on the first album – it’s beyond weird). So I didn’t need Greatest Hits. I agree that there would be better choices. Desperado sounds great on Killer, but here it’s out of place. Looks like you hung around until Goes To Hell, but when I heard Nightmare I could see that Alice was just recycling old themes and had nothing new to say. Musically, yes, it’s good, and that is where a lot of people I knew jumped in, so it was all new to them. But I knew Alice had run out of ideas. That was my last AC record. I just picked up Love It To Death on vinyl – the Rhino edition on swirled black and white vinyl. Playing it reminded how awesome the group was in the early years, even though today I know how much was done by studio musicians. I recommend the Mascara and Monsters compilation although it’s Greatest Hits extended and doesn’t fix the issues you bring up. It does add Hello Hooray and includes the choice cuts from AC’s early solo albums.

    • Michael Little

      Sounds like you and I are on the same page. I hate it when a guy like AC runs out of ideas. His albums and live shows were some of the coolest things happening in the early seventies. Especially if you were a teenager. He spoke to me in a way nobody else did, with a few exceptions. I keep saying I’m going to check out his later “product,” but I know damn well I’ll be disappointed. I’ve moved on and there’s no looking back. Thanks for writing my friend!

  • gje

    A big problem with GH is the remix; the vocals were pushed too up front in order to promote AC as a solo star. Ruins a bunch of good tracks for me. Agree with a lot of what you say but, in my opinion, “Killer” is one of the best hard rock albums ever recorded.

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