Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Muscle of Love

Sooner or later the guillotine falls on its inventor. Just ask Maximilien Robespierre, or better yet the Alice Cooper Band, whose outré subject matter (necrophilia, anyone?) convinced a generation of parents that everybody’s favorite shock rock prankster was out to decapitate their children’s morals. Alice’s string of four excellent (and boa constrictor friendly) LPs between 1971 and 1973 made the band’s namesake one of the era’s icons, and there was no end in sight.

Then came 1973’s flaccid Muscle of Love. Gone was the macabre subject matter that had the kids coming through the turnstiles, and most of its songs were neither funny nor particularly memorable. And the band sounded like it was going through its paces. Muscle of Love’s shortcomings were no mystery along the lines of the disappearance of that other great Cooper, D.B.

The band had released four albums in three years and spent large swathes of time on the road,, and a fall-off in song quality was almost inevitable. What’s more, the band had dismissed long-time producer Bob Ezrin and made a conscious decision to lower the dial on the theatrics in favor of a more straight-up hard rock sound. “More balls” was the way Cooper put it. It seems never to have occurred to him that theatrics were exactly what the kids wanted.

A rundown of the songs on Muscle of Love demonstrates two things. One, it’s desperately short on great hard rockers, the title track being the only exception. No others come even close to matching the mighty triumvirate (“Caught in a Dream,” “I’m Eighteen,” and “Long Way to Go”) that open 1971’s Love It to Death. And two, the band doesn’t abandon the camp theatrics altogether; the two novelty tunes on Muscle of Love simply pale in comparison to the best on their previous LPs.

Mid-tempo opener “Big Apple Dreamin’ (Hippo)” is a solid rocker but doesn’t exactly shoot sparks, and its subject matter is a cliché coming from a band that never, ever trucked in cliches. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” it ain’t. “Never Been Sold Before,” same deal. Balls it has, but a third rail it isn’t, and the horn section doesn’t exactly give it the garage appeal of “I’m Eighteen.” As for the lyrics, they lack the memorable lines and wit that were the hallmark of Cooper at his best.

On the multi-part “Hard-Hearted Alice” Cooper sings, “Hard hearted Alice/Is what we want to be/Hard hearted Alice/Is what you want to see.” But the song itself–which opens on a pretty organ note by Bob Dolin and sounds anything but hard-hearted—leads one to the conclusion that Alice may want to be a hard-hearted bastard but just doesn’t have it in him. Women aren’t the only ones who bleed.

“Crazy Little Child” is one of the worst songs in the Alice Cooper songbook. It’s camp gone horribly wrong, veering from Broadway to Dixieland (dig that clarinet!) with some lounge piano tossed in for good measure. If this is Alice’s idea of “more balls” we’re all eunuchs, and the theme song intended for the James Bond film “Man with the Golden Gun” is not-very-memorable kitsch of the sort done scores better by Paul McCartney in “Live and Let Die.”

“Working Up a Sweat” is a slightly above average hard rocker (the rave-up of a midsection is cool) with a very un-hard rock harmonica and lyrics that at least attempt to recapture the wit of the guy who wrote “School’s Out.” The lines “Aw, when you touch there, honey/Makes my blood perspire” merit a chuckle, as does the part where, having been burned (literally) by his pyromaniac of a lover, “Bandages came off today/Really feeling sick/The hardest part’s explainin’/All those blisters on my – nose!” Lord knows it’s no “Well, we got no class/And we got no principals/And we got no innocence/We can’t even think of a word that rhymes” but on Muscle of Love you take your jokes wherever you can find them. And you certainly won’t find them on “Woman Machine,” a generic rocker that’s every bit as sexist as the title leads you to expect it will be.

Which leaves us with the LP’s two undisputed winners, the title track and “Teenage Lament ‘74.” The former is heavy metal in all but name and boasts a badass riff, Alice sounds truly urgent for once, and its subject matter (kid discovers hard-ons and says they must be a gift from above). This is Alice kiddie rock at its very best. “I read Dad’s books like I did before,” sings Alice, “Now things are crystal clear/Lock the door in the bathroom now/I just can’t get caught in here.” What hormonal male—American, Samoan, Paraguayan, or otherwise—can’t relate?

And the same goes double for the melodic garage pop of “Teenage Lament ‘74,” Our hero’s in the dumps because Glam just ain’t doing it for him anymore (“What a drag it is/These gold lame’ jeans/Is this the coolest way/To get though your teens”) and every time he picks up his guitar somebody the room over yells “You gotta turn that damn thing down!” And he knows he’s gotta get away but he’d “rather cry all day.” It’s a compassionate and realistic commentary on the difficulty of making fantasy a reality, and it displays all of the confusion of the kid on The Who’s Quadrophenia. And it reflects the sentiment expressed in “Hard-Hearted Alice,” because Cooper sounds anything but hard-hearted. And speaking of gold lame, those are the Pointer Sisters singing backing vocals. And Liza Minnelli too!

Muscle of Love was, not surprisingly, both a commercial disappointment and no critic’s favorite, and it marked the demise of the Alice Cooper Band. By 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare Alice had gone solo, and while the band’s break-up marked the sad end of an era for me it wasn’t as if Welcome to My Nightmare signaled (with the possible exception of “Only Women Bleed”) a significant stylistic departure from Muscle of Love. It was simply a better album. Why, it even included a song about necrophilia. The end of the Alice Cooper Band may have broken my heart, but it warmed Cold Ethyl’s significantly.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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