By the time they hit the stage that night at Max’s Kansas City, Alice Cooper and the group that shared his name were in serious need of a hit.
It was September 1970, by which point they’d released two albums on Straight Records, a Frank Zappa imprint with major-label distribution through Warner Bros.
The first album, “Pretties for You,” had barely made the charts – No. 193. The second, “Easy Action,” missed the charts completely.
They’d developed quite the reputation as a live act, though. That reputation developed, in part, because of their increasingly theatrical performances and charismatic front man.
And, in part, because that charismatic front man tossed a chicken to the crowd at the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival on September 13, 1969. The crowd responded by ripping the chicken to shreds.
So here they were at Max’s Kansas City, the New York club, where Bob Ezrin walked in on a scene he recalls was “like stepping into a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”
An aspiring young producer who had yet to make a record, Ezrin had been sent to New York City by his boss, Jack Richardson, on a mission to let the men behind the chicken incident down easy.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He saw something in their act that hadn’t come across in either album.
“What he saw in us,” Cooper recalls, “was the future.”
As fate would have it, Ezrin had the wherewithal to hone the things he loved about their act into something that would sell – a breakthrough single, “I’m Eighteen,” that peaked at No. 21 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and their first Top 40 album, the platinum “Love It to Death.”
Released on March 9, 1971, that album was the culmination of a journey than began in 1964, when Cooper (then still known as Vincent Furnier) made his first onstage appearance in the Cortez High School “cafetorium” in Phoenix, singing Beatles parodies alongside future bassist Dennis Dunaway and guitarist Glen Buxton.
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By 1973, they had become so huge, their U.S. tour in support of the chart-topping “Billion Dollar Babies” broke box-office records then held by the Rolling Stones.
This is the story behind their breakthrough, told by Cooper and the other three surviving members of the classic lineup — Dunaway, guitarist Michael Bruce and drummer Neal Smith (Buxton died in 1997).
Ezrin and their manager, Shep Gordon, also share their memories of the album that changed everything for them and rock ‘n’ roll in general as Cooper honors the 50th anniversary of that landmark album with a new release called “Detroit Stories.”
“Pretties for You” was released in June of 1969. Three months later, they were in Toronto for a date with infamy at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival.
Gordon: The first record wasn’t a fair representation at all because they didn’t really know they were making a record. It all happened in an eight-hour period. They basically thought they were practicing. And Frank made that the album.
Dunaway: We would play these little clubs where Alice would toss the chickens out. Then, people would bring the chickens backstage, we’d give them a copy of the album or whatever and we’d get our chickens back, right? Well, that’s not what happened in Toronto.
Smith: The review the next day says, “Alice Cooper bites the head off a chicken and drinks the blood.” I’m going, “Hmm, I must’ve missed that.” Zappa said “That’s the greatest publicity. Never deny that that happened.” So that story really went around. But I know Alice very well. And first of all, he wouldn’t hurt a chicken.
Gordon: The chicken story is really what put Alice to the forefront. That was the spark where parents really got disgusted and took a position. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t meet someone who says “My parents wouldn’t let me go see Alice.”
Dunaway: All of a sudden, there would be a bunch of kids in the audience with rubber chickens and the Humane Society and everybody else would be there to stop us from performing. Now, we were a band that had a reputation. We stopped using chickens after that.
Gordon: We decided it was easier to scare the parents than to get the kids to want to come see Alice Cooper. We wanted parents to see that this monster was coming to town and tell their kids “Whatever you do, don’t go see Alice Cooper.” And the kid would say “I’m going to Alice Cooper” and then whisper, “Who is Alice Cooper?”
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Despite their growing reputation, “Easy Action” failed to chart when it arrived in March 1970.
Gordon: The second album was produced by David Briggs, who’d done the Neil Young record. Technically, it was a record. But the visions were so different that it didn’t make any statement at all.
Smith: Now we had two strikes. Very rarely does anybody get a third opportunity to do an album after they’ve had two that weren’t commercially successful. We were moving to Warner Bros. through Shep’s guidance, and they wanted a hit song.
Dunaway: Alice brought a fresher point of view to this recently, saying, “Nothing would’ve stopped us. We would’ve kept going regardless.” That’s probably true. But I did feel a bit concerned that this might be strike three.
Gordon: We realized that the expertise within our team was not making records. So we said, “Who makes the best records that aren’t necessarily by the best bands? Then we can see who’s adding real value.” At that point, the Guess Who were doing amazing records. But it wasn’t like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. Nobody had seen the Guess Who.
Dunaway: We would be driving around the Midwest touring with one little speaker on the dashboard cranked and whenever a Guess Who song came on — even “These Eyes,” the ballad — it would pop out of the speaker.
Jack Richardson at Nimbus 9 Productions in Toronto was the man behind those Guess Who hits. So Gordon and co-manager Joe Greenberg “camped out on their doorstep,” as Bruce says.
Gordon: We stayed in the office until we got someone to talk to us. Bob Ezrin had just started work that week. And they wanted to get us out of the office. Jack said “Go get rid of these guys.” We met with Bob and asked him to come to New York. He didn’t tell Jack he was going, but he figured it’s a free trip to New York. He was a young kid.
Dunaway: Jack was just hoping to stop all the phone calls. Joe and Shep would leave messages at the hotel or recording studio. Anywhere Jack went, there were messages from Alice Cooper.
Cooper: Jack Richardson said, “Just get rid of them. Go see them and tell them nah, we’re not interested.”
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Dunaway: Max’s Kansas City at that point wasn’t the hottest spot in town anymore. Andy Warhol had taken his paintings home and there were shadows where they used to be.
Ezrin: It was a den of black-haired, black-lipped, black-fingernailed wraiths that sort of floated above the floor with ghostly white skin, spandex and spider eyes. Then they all took their seats and out came the band, who did an incredibly theatrical performance that included props and lights and feathers. It was crazy. And everyone looked like Alice. They knew all the words to all the songs. I got caught up in the excitement.
Gordon: All those early shows were completely insane because it was so unexpected. And so cutting edge and scary. I remember Alice’s first agent, when we started to get successful, he said, “I have to resign. If Alice makes it, it’s the destruction of everything I believe in.” It was a kind of excitement and fear you can’t generate anymore.
Ezrin: What I was seeing there was way more than a rock show. And when it was over, instead of going upstairs and politely saying we weren’t interested, I committed my boss, Jack Richardson, to doing the record.
Cooper: Bob went back to Jack and said. “I know I’m fired. But I signed them.” Jack said, “Then, your punishment is you have to produce them.”
Dunaway: Now Bob Ezrin had to go with Joe and Shep to Warner Bros., who had passed on us in ’69, and tell them, “OK, we’ve got a producer and we’re gonna get a hit.” They’re like, “You don’t have a producer. You have a guy that’s never produced anything.” But he’s associated with Jack Richardson, so they said, “OK, if we sign you, we want Jack to be there overseeing sessions for your first two albums.”
Ezrin: Jack made it possible for me to do it by taking it on as a project and allowing me the freedom to work with the band. It was a transformative opportunity that gave me the keys to a lifelong career.
Dunaway: Toward the end of his life, I talked to Jack when he was in the hospital. He said, “Everybody always says I didn’t want to have anything to do with you. That’s not true. I was on your side all along. I just told Bob, ‘Hey, here’s your chance to have your own band to produce.’”
By the time they started preproduction, they were leasing a farmhouse in Pontiac, Michigan — outside of Detroit or, as Dunaway calls it, “the middle of nowhere.”
Bruce: Bob came to the farm and stayed three or four days. We had a big horse paddock in the back that had a workshop we set up as a 24/7 practice space. It was a four-bedroom farmhouse. There was a kitchen and one bathroom. And our water came from a pump, which if you got up in the morning and drank water, you’d start gagging because there was so much sulfur.
Dunaway: That farmhouse had a big a very big effect on the quality of “Love it to Death” and “Killer.” When we lived in Hollywood and did “Easy Action,” we didn’t have a rehearsal room. A lot of those songs were done in hotel rooms on acoustic guitars. Now we had a rehearsal room where we could play as loud as we wanted. And we could play into the night because the nearest place was a mental institution that could only hear us when we would open the doors. And if they liked the song, we’d hear them cheering.
Ezrin: That Detroit energy is all over “Love it to Death” and “Killer.” That’s the music that was swirling around us. We didn’t live a hermetic existence on the farm. We’d go see shows. The band was playing shows. So you’d be hearing all this Detroit high-energy, elemental, kind of funky, at the same time really heavy music.
Dunaway: When we were an Arizona band, we had that influence. When we moved to California, we got all glitzy like Hollywood. “Easy Action” wasn’t focused on any particular feeling because we were out on the road and didn’t have a hometown. In Detroit, we realized we had to do tight rockers. If you have to follow the MC5 or the Stooges, what are you gonna do? You can’t outpower them. So we decided, OK, well, we’re gonna execute our singer. But we couldn’t just keep doing our Hollywood ditties.
Smith: The first day with Bob was almost like your first day when you go to summer camp. We’re trying to feel him out, seeing how much we could tease him ‘cause, believe me, we were pretty harsh.
Dunaway: We put each other down all the time. People that didn’t know us would come in saying, “You guys hate each other.” “No we don’t. We’re best friends.” Bob Ezrin jumped right into the humor. He would put us down. All of a sudden, it was “OK, man, he’s cool. Let’s go.”
Smith: He fit in perfectly. Then we got down to business. Almost immediately, he became like the sixth member of the band.
Dunaway: He showed up and I had this big frog mask that covered my whole head. I had sworn I would only say “ribbit” until Cindy (Smith Dunaway, Neal’s sister) kissed me and then I’d turn into her prince. So, Bob comes in the darkened living room. He’d just gotten in from the airport. And the only thing I’m saying is “Ribbit.” He’s like, “Hello, frog. OK. Is anybody else here?”
Bruce: Transitioning Bob into the sixth member, we were able to start realizing the ideas we had for production that we couldn’t do with David Briggs. And certainly not Frank.
Dunaway: Even though we’d had a hit when we were kids in Phoenix with “Don’t Blow Your Mind,” we needed to learn how to make a song AM-friendly. And the reason we couldn’t do that is everybody was involved in the writing of every song. So we’d always have enough parts for three songs and force it into one.
Ezrin: The impression I took away from Max’s was slightly different from what I heard when we started to play in the barn. A lot of that was because you’re caught up in the club in the excitement of the crowd. And also you’re not hearing everything. You’re basically hearing a beat, a riff, a vocal, not the other stuff that’s going on. When I got to rehearsal, I could hear that everyone was playing all the time. And everyone was playing lead.
Dunaway: He said, “OK, you guys have something really cool going on. But that’s not what I’m hearing when I listen to your records. What we have to do is get what you do on stage in the grooves.”
Ezrin: I was chasing that sound. And I knew that the best way to get that would be to clear things out a little bit — to give space to the powerful rhythm bed, to a clear, distinct vocal, to glue it all together with those amazing riffs, and then, the lead guitar would be the counter melody. They were actually very much like the elements of good classical music, which was my training.
Dunaway: He said, “I want to start with that song ‘I’m Edgy.'” We’re like, “You mean ‘I’m Eighteen?'” And everything comes to a screeching halt while that sinks in (laughs).
Ezrin: At Max’s Kansas City, I thought he was singing “I’m Edgy.” And I still thought it was a hit. When I found out it was “I’m Eighteen,” I went, “Oh my God, that’s way better.” It was such a revelation. And don’t forget, we weren’t that far out of being 18.
Dunaway: As soon as we found out he got us a record deal, he went way up on the ladder of approval (laughs). But it was obvious that he was fun to work with. He was very knowledgeable about music. He could hear every note like a conductor in an orchestra. So by the time we got done with that first rehearsal, we were a team.
Smith: He took “I’m Eighteen” from an eight-minute song to a three-minute single.
Dunaway: “I’m Eighteen” was a sprawling song. That’s how we played it. But to get on AM radio, we had to whittle it down. So the first thing Bob Ezrin said is, “Get rid of that intro.” We’re all like, “We like the intro.” But it only took an afternoon, two or three hours, for Bob to whittle it down.
Cooper: He kept saying, “’Eighteen’ has got to be so powerful because it’s simple. Keep dumbing it down.” So that’s what we were doing. Dumbing it down until finally when you heard it on the radio, it sounded great. And it was very, very punk. But it sounded great on the radio. And as we learned right then, we’d better listen to this guy.
Cooper: Bob would say “I’m gonna put a cello under the bass.” We’re going “On no, don’t do that. We don’t want to be Moody Blues.” He says, “You’re not gonna hear it.” I said, “Why are you doing it then?” He said “To support the bass.” We went, “OK. As long as it doesn’t sound like we’re getting classical on anybody.”
Bruce: He was a piano prodigy. So he’d written some parts for I’d say about three or four songs. We rehearsed those parts. Then Bob left. And when he came back, I said, “You know, Bob, I play keyboards, but I can’t play keyboards enough to play what you’re proposing. It would change the group if we had a keyboard player full-time. And these parts are great, but we’re not Procul Harum. They’re too flowery.” I think he took offense to that.
Dunaway: “Second Coming” was Bob at the piano, which he usually let Michael play, coming up with this riff. That was probably the only clash we had with him. And it was mostly Michael Bruce, who thought now it’s too classical and that’s not what we do. We’re a rock band. But we voted and the majority said “We like it.”
Ezrin: I don’t remember any overt resistance. I think there was a little bit of passive aggression in some corners. Why wouldn’t there be? Who is this guy that just walked in? This is not Jack Richardson, who we believed we hired.
Dunaway: There was some concern about this new guy showing up in our sacred rehearsal room. Even our roadies and girlfriends would steer clear because we were all so passionate about our ideas, it always sounded like we were yelling. And we were, for the most part, but it wasn’t yelling at each other. It was everybody out to hype what they thought would be best for the song.
Cooper: It’s funny. We never listened to Zappa. Zappa gave us advice. A lot of guys gave us advice. And we never listened. We thought “We know what we’re doing.” For some reason, we listened to Bob Ezrin.
Ezrin: Alice says to this day they don’t know why they listened to me. I don’t either. I was just this kid. But they did, thank God. And it didn’t take us very long. On the first day, we put together… it was either “Is It My Body” or “I’m Eighteen.” Whichever one it was, we played it back and went, “Oh, my God, this is great.”
Smith: We let him take the reins because that’s what we were trying to find. It was the missing part we needed.
Cooper: He was our George Martin.
Dunaway: When we walked into Mid-America Recording Center in Chicago with Bob Ezrin, Jack Richardson was wearing his wife’s flowery dress and had a baseball bat. He just wanted to let us know these chicken killer guys weren’t gonna get the best of him. But he was such a cool guy. He let Bob do his thing.
Ezrin: Jack’s engineer, Brian Christian, was a union engineer. And the union would say that I was not allowed to touch the console. So the first few times I did — to turn it up — he smacked my hand. This burly, 220-pound, muscular, Southside Chicago tough guy with gray hair at 30 who looked like a mafia hitman. He would slap my hand and tell me, “Get your grubby fingers off my console.” The first few times, I went “Oh, sorry.” By the third time, I just turned to him and went, “I’m the producer on this gig and if I want to touch this console, I will touch it.” And we had it out. But it was great. He tested me and I was punky enough not to back down.
Smith: They were doing the final mixes and I was in the studio, lying on the floor with the headphones beside me. It was late at night, around two or three in the morning. I’d fallen asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and heard the trilogy of songs that ends the album. When it got to the part where the female singers came in as the album went out, I just went, “Holy (expletive), we have a hit album.” I still get chills thinking about it.
Gordon: Ezrin completely understood how to turn this Salvador Dali painting into music.
Dunaway: We knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to write songs that were more relatable. By the time we got to Detroit, we had already figured out how to do that. All we needed was a relatable song to get out there where people would hear it and like it. Then they’d buy the album and hear the more artistic stuff.
Released as a single in November 1970, “I’m Eighteen” started climbing the charts after CKLW-FM, a taste-making station in Windsor, Ontario, started spinning it.
Cooper: We had no idea that that song was gonna be a hit. At all. In fact, it sounded to me like nothing else on the radio, the Buckinghams and all those bands. I’m going “I don’t think the song is gonna fit in on the radio.” Next thing I know, it’s a pick hit on CKLW.
Dunaway: You could practically throw a rock across the river and hit the station from Detroit. Rosalie Trombley was known as the girl with the golden ear. And she started playing the heck out of it. At one point, it got to be so heavy in rotation it was every fifth song. It would be Hendrix, the Beatles, the Stones and everybody else, then us again.
Gordon: As soon as I took that record to people who music was their life, particularly Rosalie Trombley, the people who knew said “This is a record.” When they said it was a record, I knew that meant it was a record.
Bruce: We were driving down the road on our way to another gig and “I’m Eighteen” came on the radio. I pulled the car over and we all got out. We were like, “Pinch me. Is this really happening?”
Cooper: CKLW was the biggest station in the Midwest. If you had a hit on CKLW, you were gonna get picked up. And it became a huge hit. Because it was new, it was different and it was refreshing.
Bruce: Shep got a phone connected at the farmhouse. He goes, “I want everybody to be on that phone all the time. Take turns.” We called requesting, “Can you play that song ‘I’m Eighteen?’” Then Shep came in and said, “I got a phone bill here for $1,000.” We went, “Well, you told us to call.”
Dunaway: I talked to Rosalie many years later. She said she started playing it, and on the third day, all the other disc jockeys came in and said, “You can’t keep playing that. These are the guys that did the chicken thing up in Toronto.” Meanwhile, every phone is ringing off the hook requesting “I’m Eighteen.” She said, “Oh, you want me to stop playing our most requested song?” They’re like, “OK, never mind.”
Bruce: From there, it spread across the country. And we figured, OK, now we’re on our way.
Smith: We played I think it was the Auto Show, early 1971, in Detroit. It was a teen event. There were a couple thousand kids there. This is the first time we played “I’m Eighteen” after it got all the airplay. And the kids went nuts. That was a magical thing.
Dunaway: The most immediate thing that happened is we were getting better gigs closer together. We didn’t have to go from Seattle to Boston to Phoenix to Florida anymore. And we got tighter because we were playing more and could afford to take an electric chair on the road. We could afford to build a gallows and get an equipment truck. We always had all these big ideas but couldn’t afford to do them.
With “I’m Eighteen” rocking the airwaves, “Love it to Death” hit No. 35 on Billboard’s album chart. “Caught in a Dream,” the second single, failed to build on that momentum. But “Is It My Body” and “Ballad of Dwight Fry” remain live staples to this day with other tracks — “Black Juju” in particular — emerging as fan favorites.
Bruce: I remember going back to Phoenix and people having the album. Our friends went out and bought it because it was good. And it was on the radio. I started to think “Am I a rock star?” I couldn’t go there. Because we had one hit album. But it was a great time.
Gordon: It changed our lives completely. At least for a while. It got us work. It got us some respect. It got a lot of press. So that was really the beginning. By the time we got to 1972, we did the biggest tour in the world.
Ezrin: We were an art band in a certain way. But we wanted our stuff on the radio. We didn’t consider ourselves to be artistes with the ‘e’ on the end. It was a meat-and-potatoes performance art band.
Smith: We were all in our early 20s by that point. And everybody had the same drive. We were under the same roof essentially for seven years. And it was always good. It’s funny. People say, “Man, you guys must have been at each other’s throats.” But I call it the party that never ended. And I think that showed in the music.
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