Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Billion Dollar Babies

Alice Cooper had the music world’s head in a guillotine in the year of our dark lord 1973; his cartoonishly ghoulish song matter and macabre on-stage shock rock shtick were thrilling to outrage-hungry teengenerates like my older brother, who went to a show on Alice’s Billion Dollar Babies tour in a suit covered with a billion dollars’ worth of stapled-on Monopoly money.

While your more sophisticated tastemakers were deriding poor Alice as so much P.T. Barnum hokum–a low-brow sensationalist who lacked the talent, subtlety and immediacy of such glam era creatures as David and Lou and Iggy–Alice was winning the big American youth vote (“Elected” indeed!) and laughing all the way to the bank.

Who cares if his oh so chic contemporaries dismissed him with a smug wave of the hand? Sneered an offended David Bowie: “I think he’s trying to be outrageous. You can see him, poor dear, with his red eyes sticking out and his temples straining… I find him very demeaning.” Which didn’t stop Lou Reed, for one, from stooping to his own brand of low-rent on-stage theatrics; if shaving Iron Crosses onto your skull and mimicking shooting up on stage isn’t “straining” to be outrageous, what is?

Fact is Billion Dollar Babies isn’t really that different from Diamond Dogs or Berlin (whose producer, Bob Ezrin, also produced this baby). It’s not a concept album, per se, but it has the feel of one–on it Alice grapples with having money tossed at him, threatens to parlay the success of “School’s Out” into an apocalyptic run for higher office which he’s sure to win in a “generation landslide” cuz he’s got the toxic kiddie vote wrapped up, and in general flexes his skinny biceps while singing “God, I feel so strong, I am so strong.”

Billion Dollar Babies is the original Alice Cooper band’s most coherent, sophisticated and (arguably) best LP, which isn’t to say it includes my favorite songs; by 1973 the wellspring of proto-punk sleaze rockers that helped propel Alice to prominence (Love It to Death’s opening trifecta of “Caught in a Dream,” “I’m Eighteen,” and “Long Way to Go” remains one of my favorite opening salvos in rock) had more or less run dry, and the lurid melodrama was beginning to take over.

Or perhaps I’m overstating my case. “Raped and Freezin’” is all muscle and menace and its reverse rape scenario is a hoot (one very mean woman leaves Alice naked and “stranded in Chihuahua”), and the primal riff that fuels the great “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (funniest tune ever written about the pitfalls of pretending to be evil–even his PETS hate him!) is for the ages.

And beneath the horn arrangements “Elected” is a pretty hard rocker too; on it Alice lays down his qualifications for higher office (“I never lied to you, I’ve always been cool/I gotta get the vote and I told you ‘bout school”), promises to form a new party (“A third party, the Wild Party!”) but only AFTER he’s elected (guy obviously never picked up a civics book in his life!) and concludes his stump speech by quipping “Everybody has problems/And personally, I don’t care.”

The title track is the anthemic American equivalent to Mott’s “All the Young Dudes” and features the very evil Donovan Leitch speak-repeating Alice’s lines (listening to Mr. Mellow Yellow intone the words “If I’m too rough tell me/I’m so scared your little head/Will come off in my hands” is a real crack-you-up!) and some ferocious gee-tar wank by Steve “I played on Lou Reed’s Rock ’n’ Roll Animal” Wagner, who plays most of the LP’s solos (Glen Buxton was down with a bad case of pancreatitis at the time).

“Generation Landslide”’s pretty damn slick too, what with its cool Who vibe (think “Baba O’Riley” for the TRUE Teenage Wasteland) and kiddy nihilism speed jive (well, not really, Alice was strictly a Budweiser man) along the lines of “Alcohol and razor blades and poison and needles/Kindergarten people, they use them, they need them” and “Molotov milk bottles heaved from pink high chairs.” Say what you will about Alice Cooper, he was writing some of the best (as in funniest) lyrics of the time; at bottom, Billion Dollar Babies is Diamond Dogs with a sense of humor.

As for dental nightmare “Unfinished Sweet” (“He says my teeth are O.K./But my gums gotta go”), its got this chewy great thunder riff (and a dental drill solo!) but unfortunately wanders into spaghetti western territory, which kinda befuddles me cuz there ain’t nothing sweet about spaghetti. “Sick Things” kinda leaves me cold (that’s a pun!) but I get it–Alice was more or less contractually obligated to throw a little frozen meat to his necrophiliac base. And he caters to said base in spades on “I Love the Dead,” which I’m lukewarm about (despite his wonderfully terrible scat singing) until the big Glam finish, which evokes images of Alice singing and tap-dancing happily across stage, top hat in hand. As LP closers go, it’s almost as freaky as D. Bowie’s “Big Brother/Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.”

When push comes to shove Billion Dollar Babies more than holds its own against Diamond Dogs and Berlin as concept, and it’s a helluva lot more fun. Unlike his glammed-out contemporaries Alice Cooper refused to take himself seriously, and I suspect this is one of the reasons people like me–who can appreciate Berlin but rarely listen to it–still get their kicks listening to Billion Dollar Babies. It’s a laugh riot.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • dan_oz

    A+

  • Robert Sharpe

    Alice hosts a syndicated nighttime radio program airing here in southern New Mexico (not far from Chihuahua, LOL) that plays my kind of music. It’s better than Nikki Sixx’s old radio show.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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