Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Killer

Ten bonus points and a dead baby if you can tell me which album John Lydon called his favorite of all time. All time! That means he likes it more than KC and the Sunshine Band’s The Sound of Sunshine or the Eagles’ Hotel California even! Unimaginable! Well, if the dead babies reference didn’t tip you off, which it certainly should have, the former Johnny Rotten’s favorite rock album in the whole wide world, including the Sammy Johns record with “Chevy Van” on it, is Alice Cooper’s Killer.

1971’s Killer followed hard on the heels of that same year’s breakthrough LP for the band, Love It to Death. Which I prefer to Killer, but who cares? I’m not John Lydon. Anyway, Killer cemented the band’s reputation for writing songs of macabre weirdness, which they milked for all they were worth with a live show that included decapitations, gallows, giant snakes, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, 7,000 showgirls wearing glitter-encrusted Nazi jackboots and porcupine-spike bras, a full-scale reenactment of the crash of the Hindenburg, and an elderly Dr. Josef Mengele playing cowbell. Okay, so I exaggerate. But the band’s gory and fantabulous live show delighted teens while deeply disturbing parents, who were convinced that Cooper’s magically morbid extravaganzas were going to instantaneously transform their kiddies into wild-eyed axe murderers. Which made the kids love it even more!

I’ve said before that the perfect LP would have combined the first three tracks of Love It to Death—in which guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce play like men possessed by the Devil—and the first two tracks and “Dead Babies” from Killer. But that’s not the way it went down, and I have to (resentfully) live with it. I suspect they had slave-like contractual obligations with their record label that obligated them to put out two albums in 1971, when they’d have been much better served by only releasing one. That was how things were often done back in the day, when record companies behaved much in the same way as antebellum southern plantation owners.

Anyway, back to John Lydon, who was obviously out of his gourd when he chose Killer over Love It to Death. The former LP only has one or two songs, to wit “Under My Wheels” and “Be My Lover,” that are as great as the brilliant 1-2-3 flurry of punches that open Love It to Death. “Dead Babies” is great in its way, with its hilarious lines, “Dead babies can’t take care of themselves/Dead babies can’t take things off the shelf” and its power pop backing vocals. And it points toward the band’s future as rock’s greatest purveyors of tongue-in-cheek horror schlock, kinda like “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” off Love It to Death only funnier.

“Under My Wheels” is a frantic rocker with lots of big riffs, gratis studio ace Rick Derringer, who inexplicably sat in on the tune despite the superb chops of Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce. The horns distract, in my opinion, and spell “showbiz” in a way that “Caught in a Dream” or “Long Way to Go” off Love It to Death never did. Still, it’s a great shot of pure rock adrenaline, as is the supercool “Be My Lover,” which opens with one magnificent guitar riff. The chorus is great in an almost power pop way, and Buxton’s great riffs support Cooper’s contention that he “Played guitar in a long-haired rock and roll band.” Then the song slows down and Cooper takes it out like he’s doing a vocal strip tease.

“Halo of Flies” is eight-plus minutes of what Cooper himself described as an attempt to prove that the band could produce a prog-rock suite, King Crimson style. Why he would want to do such a misguided thing is beyond me. It’s kinda like wanting to lose your hand in an industrial accident, as far as I’m concerned. But fortunately the tune is listenable, or at least parts of it are, because there’s just no keeping Buxton and Bruce down. Cooper sings about building a bomb in your submarine, and makes other sundry observations that I don’t have the inclination to decipher, before the strings come in, the song gets pretty, and I feel like slapping Alice and saying, “Good God, man, come to your senses!” Oh well. At least the drumming of Neil Smith is consistently solid, and Buxton lays down a nice solo, before the keyboards of Bob Ezrin, the album’s producer, come along to freak out in a very modest way. I know this one has been influential, I just don’t know why. If I want to end up in a mental institution with Glenn Fry I’ll listen to ELP. I go to Cooper to get as far away from prog-rock as I can while still remaining on planet Earth.

The slow and lugubrious “Desperado” was written, depending on which Cooper story you believe, either as a tribute to Jim Morrison or Robert Vaughn’s character from The Magnificent Seven. It comes complete with strings, Cooper brags about wearing leather and lace, and then closes it with the great lines, “I’m a killer/I’m a clown/I’m a priestess gone to town.” Not the best of songs, but not bad either. “You Drive Me Nervous” is more my style, a rave-up with Alice screaming and lots of wowsa guitar pyrotechnics. Cooper is stuttering frantic, and the guitars feeding back at the end lead straight into the reasonably cool “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” which ought to be great but isn’t. It lacks the unstoppable forward propulsion of the best songs on “Love It to Death,” and its most redeeming feature is the guitar frenzy in the middle. That and Cooper’s extended harmonica break, which proves that he’s the Bob Dylan of the Undead.

The title track opens with some screaming and shouting, then the guitars come zooming in before establishing a chug-a-lug beat. Cooper sings in a different voice, the guitars are great, and then Cooper returns to his usual vocal style while the guitars do their thing, which in this case is cool as shit. At one point they kinda remind me of The Doors, then they slow down to scrape the bottom of the sea, with Cooper screaming way in the back while he mutters up front. Then the song stops, the drummer commences beating out a tattoo, and Ezrin returns playing a pretty bummer of an organ riff, before the band returns to deliver up some pure noise, which reminds me of a seriously broken water faucet. It’s not my idea of a great way to end an album, but the boys in the band must have liked it, so that’s that.

I’ll say it one last time; Killer isn’t as good a record as Love It to Death, but it’s a better record than 1972’s School’s Out, despite that LP’s seminal and brilliant title cut. It’s surprising to discover that the band’s songs took so long to catch up to its histrionic horror movie of a live show, but “Dead Babies” (along with “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”) is a start, and a great one. Truth is the band’s songwriting didn’t truly match its gory stage show until 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies, with its tunes “Sick Things,” “I Love the Dead,” and “Raped and Freezin’.”

But what’s it matter? The solo Cooper would go on to become rock’s premiere parody of a ghoul, even topping Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne. Personally, I don’t think Cooper the solo artist ever matched the greatness of Cooper the band’s Love It to Death or Killer, but that’s just me. Truth is Cooper lost me at Welcome to My Nightmare and “Only Women Bleed.” Now there was a tune I’d call shock rock, for real.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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