Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Billion Dollar Babies - Alice Cooper

I realized that I have not yet reviewed this record and seeing as I just finished re-reading the Michael Bruce book, I thought it was about time.

While I think that the trio of Love it to Death, Killer and School’s Out are by far the band’s finest (with the two previous records – Pretties for You and Easy Action - being maniacally great in different ways), this release still has some excellent moments despite showing the band to be on the verge of collapse. The members were living completely over-indulgent lives as young r’n’r stars and as a result, cracks were starting within the band. The guys were no longer living together, Alice was drifting off into his own rock star fantasies (along with golfing and hob-knobbing with the stars), and lead guitarist Glen was drinking so heavily that he reportedly barely played on the record.

Regardless of this and of the fact that members weren’t always even in the studio at the same time to record their individual parts and that the record was done in several different studios in different countries with many hangers-on, many of the songs themselves still shine.

The design of the CD reissue is superb, combining many elements of the original vinyl’s wallet theme with a nice, full color booklet and even a 2nd CD of a live show and bonus studio tracks. I just wish that the record company would do this with all of the other studio albums – I would love to have bonus tracks and live shows from the earlier tours, since what I have seen and heard on bootlegs has been stellar!

The album opens with the appropriately-titled “Hello, Hooray”, which originally appeared on a 1968 Judy Collins record, of all places! Michael Bruce thought that this was a little too “Broadway” for the band, but it was a successful start to the record and live show and very apt lyrically. From here they move into the twisted tale of Alice being molested by a female trucker while hitch-hiking and being left alone, “Raped and Freezin’”, in Mexico. The band manages to turn this lurid story into a great rock’n’pop, sing-along tune!

“Elected” was a re-working of a number from their debut, “Reflected”. While the original was great, this was an improvement and a fantastic call to voters to ring in Alice in this election year. Catchy as all hell, rockin’, a clarion call to the kids (“you and me together, young and strong”) and including the wonderful lines “a new party, a 3rd party, a wild party!” and “everyone has problems – and personally, I don’t care!”. THAT was the kind of politician that teens could get behind, especially in the era of creeps like Nixon and Agnew.

Neil Smith starts off the title track with a fantastic drum riff, which is then built upon with layers of guitar licks, cool evil lyrics (“if I’m too rough tell me, I’m so afraid your little head will come off in my hands”) and a surprise addition of Donovan (!) sharing the lead vocals with Alice, which somehow manages to work, despite of or because of the bizarreness of it all!

My second-to-least favorite of the record is “Unfinished Sweet” – not terrible, but obviously written solely as an accompaniment to the goofy portion of the stage show where Alice was attacked by a dancing tooth, a toothbrush and an evil dentist who brought out a massive drill because “teeth are ok but the gums gotta go”. Some neat James Bond elements harken back to earlier works, but this is not as good as the previous stage show backings from the other records and it meanders a bit too long without the visuals.

I was a little surprised to learn that “No More Mr. Nice Guy” was the band’s biggest hit (I always thought that “18” was), but it is a helluva song – great guitar intro and truly funny lyrics about how Alice was turned from a nice guy to his “mean” persona due to he way that people and media reacted to him and his stage act. Somewhat of a change of pace is “Generation Landslide”, propelled by an acoustic 12 string guitar, but with many more instruments added throughout. Not wimpy at all and with wacky lyrics about babies rebelling and waging a war against their parents. Nice harmonica work by Alice (which we hadn’t heard much for a while) and a memorable double-entendre chorus of “I laughed to myself at the men and the ladies, who never conceived of us billion dollar babies”.

In a return to the creepy, spooky side, the band unleashes “Sick Things”, which fit very well into their demented stage act. This sounds evil and perfectly sick and it still a good song. This segued into “Mary Ann”, a goofy, throw-away vaudevillian number that hinges completely around the final line “I thought that you were my man”. Forgettable and actually beneath them - definitely the low point of the record. I guess they threw it in to lighten the mood between “Sick Things” and the closer, “I Love the Dead”. As the title suggests, this is a song about necrophilia and is appropriately twisted and eerily moody with fine melodic touches.

An uneven record, to be sure, and not up to par with their previous three, but still a great one which solidified their status as stars just before they completely disintegrated.

Disc 2 is a recording of the live show at this time and with the added session musicians, this sounds much more polished than the previous anarchic r’n’r band, but is a good documentation of their show at the time. Most of the songs are from the B$B album, with the exception of “I’m Eighteen” (which has an extended jam, the added line “mom and dad got me drinkin’ whiskey” and a terrific extended ending), “Dead Babies” and weirdly, “My Stars”, one of the more forgettable songs from School’s Out – so much so that I forgot which record is was from, despite loving that album. Why that instead of “Luney Tune” or “Public Animal #9, I’ll never know!

The studio bonus tracks and the real highlights here, just for their rareness, though I wish there were more. “Coal Black Model T” is a take-off on the 50’s rocker, “Big Black Cadillac” and retains a rockabilly feel with pumpin’ piano and poundin’ drums. Pretty unusual for these cats. An outtake of “Generation Landslide” is interesting though not radically different. The last track is another take of “Coal Black Model T”, this time named “Big Black Limousine” but without a lot of other changes – cool, but it would have been neat to have more album outtakes, if they still exist.

Anyway, not their best, but still a goodie and the packaging and the extras make it essential for any fan.